Memories can be made from a northwoods Friday night fish fry and loon magic in the morning, but sometimes spending your weekend closer to home can pay off in a big way! (May 2007)
Photo by Pete Maina
The perspective on Wisconsin's state fish has changed considerably over the past 15 to 20 years.
A generation ago, going muskie fishing meant a journey to the northwoods. The vision quest for a 50-incher included a Friday night fish fry in a supper club where walls were adorned with lunkers, loon magic in the morning and the pungent aroma of wet tamaracks. It was all about immersing in the north country. Muskie trips and deer camp were two Wisconsin institutions placed on pedestals that no man -- or woman -- dared put asunder.
Nowadays, muskies now swim in dozens of waters across southern Wisconsin. Muskies rule their watery domains less than an hour away from most downstate folks' homes. Instead of hearing loons and smelling tamaracks, most of our fishing time is spent listening to jets overhead and vehicle traffic, and getting whiffs of diesel smoke. More often than not, there are lines at the ramp, and sometimes there are boats waiting their turn to fish a windblown point.
Muskies may still be the fish of 10,000 casts. But the taunting of Tallywackers and seduction of Suicks come in such a rapid progression that a 40-inch muskie living downstate has seen a dozen times more plugs and bucktails than her cousin Milly of similar dimensions living in northern Wisconsin's Lac Vieux Desert, Teal Lake or the Chippewa Flowage.
With Wisconsin's modern road system, we can be anywhere in the northwoods in five hours -- six hours tops -- even when road tripping from someplace "way down south" like Waukesha County. That's a 10- to 12-hour round trip without wetting a line. The same amount of time spent on Pewaukee or Okauchee twitching a Jake or burning a bucktail just under the surface has all the ingredients for producing a torpedo wake and open-jawed strike right by the boat that makes our knees go weak.
Having to jam on the brakes and head for the ditch because some guy in a minivan from Illinois missed the exit for the Wisconsin Dells can create a similar adrenaline rush. But the sensory input of a big downstate muskie shaking her head to some double-trebled chin music is much more pleasurable than what could occur on northbound I-90/94. The best part is, you can show other softball dads the release of this 42-incher on your camera/cell phone at junior's game that evening, and still make it to work come Monday morning without a red-eyed commute through deer country at night.
Our northwoods will always have the unrivaled ambience of pristine woods and waters. But your chances for getting that string stretched are as good or better close to where the lion's share of our population pays primary dwelling property taxes -- the joy from which makes you want to set the hook hard, soon and multiple times.
The following is a look at some of our best waters for finding catharsis close to home for those who live in southern Wisconsin. Next month, we'll tell you where you can catch a trophy muskie after your Friday night fish fry in the northwoods.
This 2,400-acre Waukesha County muskie hotspot has led every category -- except loon music and tamarack aroma -- for years.
Muskie growth rates here are nearly double of those in the northwoods. There are more adult muskies per surface acre here than anywhere else in Wisconsin. Fifty-inch-plus Esox are caught every year, by both anglers and in Department of Natural Resources surveys. But by the time any Pewaukee muskie reaches 30 inches, it has seen pretty much every variation of every lure in Rollie & Helen's catalog -- and tasted hooks on more than one occasion.
The only mystique in fishing these waters comes from the muskies themselves. Pewaukee is a very easy lake to figure out. The east end is essentially one big flat with a couple of offshore humps and an island. You won't be alone probing the transition zone along Rocky Point or back in Taylor Bay. Conventional wisdom says this end of Pewaukee is a great place to kick off the season because the water is shallower and warms quicker. By mid-June, there is good weed development on Pewaukee, with the deep weed edges on the lake's west end holding a large number of cruising fish. Most of the action comes at night on topwater baits.
I've never been a big believer of major and minor feeding times on inland waters, although offshore in Lake Michigan the influence is undeniable. Attempts will be made this year to be out on the water during these predicted peaks -- even if they come at noon on a sunny day. Something in that little fish brain defies logic. The moon's influence may not be a key during daylight hours, but as long as your line is in the water, you're a weapon.
Copious studies have shown there really isn't rhyme or reason to color choice here. But baits with primarily black and a touch of fluorescent orange work well. There is also much to be said for muskie fishing here with bassin' gear. You may not always want a steak, but there is always room for a cookie. Downsizing your presentation is an option to keep on the table.
Contact: Smokey's Bait, (262) 691-0360.
This Waukesha County fishery is half the size of Pewaukee at about 1,200 acres, and is generally considered second behind Pewaukee as a muskie producer. Although smaller, Okauchee has as much -- or more -- muskie habitat than the other popular downstate muskie lakes.
The logic of black/orange lures in smaller sizes also applies here. Muskies are at the top of the food chain, so they eat what and when they feel like it. Panfish will be relatively shallow and trying to spawn until about June 1. You can bet your last Lindy Tiger Tube that big "toothers" will be cruising in water just a little deeper than the panfish spawning areas.
Concentrate on water less than 12 feet deep with a bait capable of covering the entire water column. Lindy Tiger Tubes are a good choice, and so is a pulse bait called the Spit-Fire. This lure has a fat panfish profile and a big Colorado spinnerblade off the back end. There is one in my box in crappie pattern with several sets of tooth marks. If you believe in a particular lure, you tend to fish it a little harder. Looking at tooth marks every time you get ready to make another cast is great mental reinforcement.
Contact: Dick Smith's Live Bait & Tackle, (262) 646-2218.
BIRON FLOWAGE & LAKE DuBAY
Would you rather be in one of three boats casting for a dozen muskies, or in one of 50 boats throwing for 100 different muskies? T
hese flowages on the Wisconsin River provide both scenarios.
My favorite muskie water in our entire state has the common thread of our namesake river running through it. If you have never fished the Wisconsin River below the Grandfather Dam, the King Dam below Lake Alice, or between Merrill and Brokaw, put these trips on your "to-do" list in 2007.
Waters of Lake DuBay are a stump-strewn minefield. For those who take the time to negotiate between them and can accept the certainty of at least one butchered prop as collateral damage, this flowage near Stevens Point has tremendous muskie potential.
Phil Schweik knows these waters better than anybody. Although there is considerable comfort fishing out of his boat, I pondered whether my Type-V Stearns automatic inflatable PFD would work as Schweik "rabbited" his way across this stained water at bullet speed. Coming down off plane and deploying the electric is always welcome. But don't let your guard down for a single cast, because you won't see these fish coming in the stained water, so most strikes are without warning.
The Biron Flowage around Wisconsin Rapids is a little easier to negotiate. You may even be lulled into a sense of being able to run willy-nilly without consequences. But right in the middle of all this tranquility is a boulder jutting up from the depths called "Lower Unit Rock" by locals like guide Dave Lutz.
Biron is virtually an unknown flowage in the Wisconsin River system. Boat launches aren't very well marked. You can probe most of the promising water here in just a few hours. It all boils down to a question: How many 40-inch muskie strikes does it take to make your day?
Contact: Wisconsin Rapids Chamber of Commerce, 1-800-554-4484, or VisitWIRapids.com.
Great Lakes-strain spotted muskies are at the other end of the spectrum from Ol' Snaggletooth dwelling under the dock on Piney Point on some unknown northwoods lake. There is so much water for these Green Bay muskies to swim in that a 50-incher may not see 10,000 casts in several lifetimes -- at least at first glance.
Because of the vastness of Green Bay, there is an extremely low density per surface acre for these fish throughout most of the fishing year. But early in the spring and very late in the fall, the odds of hooking up are good for persistent anglers. The DNR reports "good numbers of 45- to 50-inch fish in the system."
For years now, the DNR has been dumping large fingerlings into Lake Michigan near the Menominee River to the north and Fox River to the south. Although these fish go prodigal and cruise the big water as they grow, DNR surveys indicate a definite return to tributaries at both ends of the open-water year. This is driven by the pursuit of food and comfortable habitat parameters.
Green Bay isn't like Canadian lakes where myriad islands all hold the potential for attracting fish. This makes waters around protected harbors, offshore reefs, tributaries and inlets like Sawyer Harbor and Little Sturgeon Bay places to prospect for muskies. We are just beginning to write the book on muskie fishing on these waters. Right now, trolling is the most efficient way to put lures in front of Green Bay fish.
If there is an epicenter of muskie activity on this system, it has to be the water out from the Fort Howard paper plant on the Fox River. This is where many anglers trolling for walleyes find themselves hooked up with a muskie.
One area I have always wanted to fish seriously for toothers but haven't yet because of both time and logistics are the waters up in Door County out from Peninsula State Park. An added bonus is that Chambers Island, the Strawberry Islands and several adjacent reefs hold huge walleyes in July and August. I only got up there once last summer. The biggest walleye to come into Pat Cavins' boat was only 10 pounds. Two things have nagged at me since that trip. We lost two walleyes that would have probably weighed in the mid-teens, and I got bit off twice. This latter infliction could have only been caused by a fish of the Esox persuasion.
Since I am more of a walleye guy by design and the timing of this bite offers the highest potential for landing a whopper, summer 'eye efforts here for the foreseeable future will be spent dragging Rapala Husky Jerks. But if you are a muskie fanatic, you could become the next Wisconsin fishing legend by trying this water.
Contact: Door County Chamber of Commerce, (920) 743-4456.
Maybe it's just old-timers disease setting in, but I can't ever remember the boat launches on this chain of natural lakes in the shadow of the Mad City ever being this crowded. After Memorial Day, it seems like every animal has escaped the Henry Vilas Zoo, mounted a personal watercraft and headed out to terrorize anglers.
A good place to see if this phenomenon will actually occur is from tiny Lake Wingra, which borders the zoo property. Wingra has more muskies per surface acre than any other Madison lake. It is also the easiest to fish because it is essentially just a big soup bowl. Lake Kegonsa doesn't have much more structure than Wingra. On both lakes, casting topwaters and bucktails along the weeds is good strategy.
Structure and offshore weeds are more common on Waubesa just up the chain from Kegonsa. Fish over 40 inches are in the lake but seldom seen. However, if you just want to see your youngster catch a muskie, this is the best Madison lake to tangle with a mid-30-inch fish. Weeds around Hog Island at the north end hold fish essentially year 'round, and ditto on the south end out from Goodland Park. The key is several springs that create open pockets in otherwise dense weed growth that appears about mid-June. These are muskie magnets!
On Lake Monona, the high-percentage spot -- at least around opening weekend -- is often close to the warmwater discharge off John Nolan Drive. This is especially true if water temperatures are still cold come opening day.
Lake Mendota has the best potential for giving up a 50-inch muskie, but there are plenty of bars, humps and structures to hide a fish of these dimensions in its 10,000 acres of water.
Where should you fish on the Madison Chain on opening weekend? The common thread that is the Yahara River is a key. And here's a cryptic hint: Fish beyond the chain.
Contact: Ron Barefield's Fishing Adventures Guide Service, (608) 838-8756.
BIG & LITTLE GREEN LAKES
These Green Lake County fisheries receive relatively low species-specific muskie pressure, but there is even more boat traffic here than on the Madison Chain once tourist season arrives.
Little Green is 466 acres, and it has both tiger and pure muskies. It warms much quicker and is easier to fish than Big Green, where most folks don't have enough line on their reels to
reach bottom in the lake's nether reaches. The key to hooking up in May on Little Green lies in targeting transition zones where the lake breaks from about 13 feet into much shallower water. By June, these fish will lurk much deeper.
At first glance, Big Green is vast and daunting. But if you just target water less than 15 feet deep, virtually the entire lake is fishable in a long day. Come summer, though, Big Green is a tough lake to pattern. Trophy muskies swim here, and they no doubt relate to the rich cisco forage base cruising the depths. If you can find a big cluster of ciscoes on your electronics, drop a huge white jig in the general vicinity. You may catch a muskie or a lake trout.
Contact: Green Lake Chamber of Commerce, 1-800-253-7354.
Those aren't the only muskie waters in southern Wisconsin.
Aesthetics in Yellowstone Lake State Park are found by looking at the hills surrounding this 400-acre muddy lake. There are many muskies swimming here, but you won't see 'em coming. Toss lures that will tickle these toothers along their lateral line.
Then there's Park and Swan lakes over by Pardeeville. Local anglers will tell you the muskie fishing is better in nearby Lake Puckaway. Don't believe them.
Delavan Lake in Walworth County may be the best place in southern Wisconsin to tangle with a muskie while trying real hard to catch other species. Rig up for bass or walleyes, but have a really big net in the boat.
Boating that first muskie is a rite of passage for Wisconsin anglers. Being with a young "hook" when he or she realizes this benchmark is priceless. Waubesa, Silver Lake in Kenosha County and Twin Valley Lake in Gov. Dodge State Park north of Dodgeville are three waters where you can move from hero to legend status in the eyes of a young muskie angler. Take a kid fishing this year!
Find more about Wisconsin fishing and hunting at: WisconsinSportsmanMag.com