No boat? No problem! When the run is on, you can catch walleyes from shore on these Wisconsin waterways. (March 2007)
This 11-pound walleye was caught near where the U.S. Highway 41 bridge crosses the Menominee River in downtown Marinette.
Photo By Ted Peck
My Lund sits poised in the barn waiting for the next walleye alarm like the Beloit Fire Department's ever-ready Engine 3 stands by for the next fire alarm.
In my boat's compartments are at least 15 rods, bottom-bouncers, planer boards, driftsocks, crankbaits, spinners, jigs, rigs and three Beckman nets. There is even a "quick disconnect" for the on-board battery charger. When the walleye run is on, you can't let little details stand in the way. But sometimes you are on the road when a fishing situation screams your name. That's why there are at least four two-piece rods, reels and a backpack full of gear -- including a short-handled net -- stashed in my truck next to a pair of waders, a Polarfleece vest and a rainsuit.
A long career as a Wisconsin professional firefighter has given me a Semper paratus mindset. Fishing success is often a situation where preparedness meets opportunity. Imagine driving down the road and seeing a happy angler battling a 24-inch walleye in the riffles below some country dam -- and you don't have the gear readily available to join in the fun. Trust me, this is a gut-wrenching vision you don't want to experience twice.
There are instances when the crazy action at the peak of a walleye run only lasts a couple of days, or maybe just a few hours. If you can't take advantage of the situation, it can be an entire year before the opportunity arises again.
Last year, I had an average spring up on the Menominee River at Marinette. The walleye run here usually comes on about four days after the bite starts to slow down on the lower Fox River at De Pere. The Menominee is only about an hour's drive north of the Fox. For me, the spring bite on the Fox wasn't that good last year, but it offers you the best chance to land a wallhanger walleye of any water in Wisconsin when the run is on and you hit it right. It's no secret here that the De Pere dam tailwaters are the bumper-boat capital of Wisconsin in March.
Up on the Menominee, things are a little different than on the Fox. When the run is on, it doesn't take fish long to move from the lighthouse at the mouth of Green Bay up to the Hattie Street dam. You need a boat to catch fish consistently when they are staging out at the edge of ice in the waters of Green Bay, but when they move inland, the best odds for ruining old Wanda's day are from shore or by wading knee-deep in the river.
Two years ago, I made the 250-mile trip up to Marinette three times and came away with essentially bupkis. If it weren't for a pile of suckers stretching the string on the Oconto River, a visit to rehab may have been part of the plan.
Spring 2002 on the Menominee was at the other end of the spectrum. The walleyes moved upstream in a marble-eyed green wave, sensing the river would rise to flood stage overnight. There were only three of us standing in the sleet storm by the U.S. Highway 41 bridge when the stampede began at 2 a.m. I caught and released 22 walleyes ranging from 5 to 11 pounds. Walleyes were literally banging into my waders as they tried to find their way upstream. Heaven must be something like that.
Here are seven sites where you can catch walleyes from shore this spring.
There are some inland fishing opportunities on this boundary river with Michigan, but the big show is in the short stretch of water between the Highway 41 bridge and the Hattie Street dam.
The eye of the walleye storm is on Stevenson Island at mid-river. There is some wadable water on the Michigan side here, making purchase of a non-resident license a good idea.
Your weapon of choice is simple: a fire-tiger Storm ThunderStick. No. 9 jointed Rapalas will work, too. The Rapala tracks just a little shallower in what is truly a game of inches. The ThunderStick has just the right profile to stay in the fish zone on this water. However, there are many rocks in the fish zone, too. Removing the leading hook of the front treble prolongs lure life. But you'll want to stuff at least a half-dozen extra baits in your waders.
Limit is one fish over 14 inches. When fish are moving, you can limit out in a single cast. Fish are so thick that foul-hooking is inevitable. A lot of the foul-hooked fish will be suckers, but all foul-hooked fish must be immediately released. Tangling with salmon, sturgeon and giant flathead catfish is not unheard of here, especially between the top of the island and the dam.
Contact: Michigan DNR's Web site, www.fishline.com; MBK Sports, (715) 735-5393.
There is limited shore-fishing opportunity around the seven bridges between the De Pere dam and mouth of Green Bay seven miles downstream. Voyageur Park in De Pere is the best access for both boat- and shore-anglers.
A small lock-and-dam system that bypasses the lowhead dam on the park side of the river prevents wading up to the prime fishing area below the fish refuge that lies essentially above the power lines that span the river. If you've been looking for a reason to buy a belly boat, this is it. Belly boats or float tubes can get you across the deep ditch to the promised land upstream. Stake your claim to a spot where your cast can work a back eddy where 'eyes tend to stage before continuing upstream.
Stick baits like the Rapala, Rogue and ThunderStick catch most of the fish. A pocketful of 4-inch K-Grubs and 1/4-ounce jigheads is much less expensive and still quite effective. Although the action is almost entirely at night, chartreuse plastic tails and fire-tiger stick baits seem to have an edge over other colors. My second choice would be something in a silver/blue pattern.
Keep your line in the water when fish are moving, and odds are extremely high you'll tangle with a walleye in excess of the 28-inch minimum length.
Located about halfway between the Menominee River and the Fox River in northeast Wisconsin, this small river is virtually overlooked. But timing is everything.
You can catch walleyes right in the downtown park just west of Highway 41 if you're on the water when the migration window opens and the fish push upstream. There is some fishing from shore in Copper Culture State Park due west of the town of Oconto. Probably the best place to ambush walleyes is when they start to mass between Pes
htigo Point and the Oconto River mouth, east of County Highway Y. Access isn't easy, but if you can get down to the water in waders and pitch a stick bait near dusk, you may find a new honeyhole.
Our namesake river has been called "the hardest working river in America" because of all the dams between the Grandfather Dam and Grandmother Dam in the north and the Prairie du Sac dam at the lower end of Lake Wisconsin. Almost every one of these barriers offers some kind of shore access, with countless more shore-fishing opportunities just a short hop off roadways along the river.
My favorite stretch is from Pine Island clear up to the dam at Wisconsin Dells. You can walk to prime ambush points off a levee road in the Pine Island State Wildlife Area southwest of Portage.
It's a little tougher to get to the river upstream off Hillside Drive, but one particular back eddy on the south side of the Wisconsin here gives up multiple whoppers every spring.
The Dells Creek entry point just above River's Edge Resort is another popular shore-fishing spot, especially at night, and there are always walleyes cruising the rocks within sight of all the tourist traps below The Dells dam.
Folks who live downstream like to target the Highway 33 bridge in downtown Portage, or park and fish along the road by the bridge at Whalen's Grade on Lake Wisconsin.
The river below both the Petenwell Flowage dam and Castle Rock Flowage dam get plenty of attention every spring, with mostly local anglers hitting the water around Nekoosa around the Highway 73 bridge.
Get upstream from here and the Wisconsin River splays across the landscape above the Biron Flowage. The tailwaters of the Biron dam are worth a look, as are similar fisheries below the Eau Pleine, Mosinee and DuBay dams, but especially the Lake DuBay dam.
Above Wausau, the character of this old river changes considerably, morphing into more rapid water with boulders instead of an ever-changing sea of sand guiding the upstream push of walleyes. When everything is right, you can take a limit of walleyes in an hour below the dam in Merrill -- if you can keep the muskies off your line.
Lake Alexander is just upstream from Merrill. Between Lake Alexander and Grandfather Dam is a narrows called Posey Rapids. The epicenter of Posey Rapids is a big, flat rock. If you see an old firefighter standing on the rock pitching a No. 4 Mepps Black Fury with a yellow Lab at his side, you had better stay away. The Lab has been known to turn into a raging ball of canine fury when anything approaches her "walleye rock."
Walleye activity is at a peak somewhere along the Wisconsin River for a good three weeks between mid-March and mid-April, with plenty of water to keep even the most serious fishin' bum grinning until turkey season opens.
The slot limit that protects breeding-sized walleyes -- which went into effect several years ago -- is the best thing the Department of Natural Resources has done in years, because the fishing is as good or better than it was in the "good old days."
Contacts: Ken's Marine (Petenwell), (608) 565-2426; Castle Rock Hideaway (Castle Rock), (608) 847-4475; Hooksetter's Guide Service (DuBay), (715) 693-5843, www. hooksetters.biz; Rivers Edge Resort (Dells), (608) 254-6494, www. riversedgeresort.com; Mi Place (Portage), (608) 635-4020; Rays Riverside Resort (Sauk City), (608) 643-3243.
The mighty Mississippi can be more than a mile wide between Wisconsin and our neighbors to the west, Iowa and Minnesota. That's a pretty long cast from shore when the channel runs along our bordering states' side of the river!
Maps are available at every dam and at other locations along the river that will show where the main channel runs. This is a major key to gaining access to spring walleyes as they migrate upstream toward the dams. A good example of this kind of shore-fishing opportunity is found just west of the railroad tracks at the little hamlet of Victory, about halfway between La Crosse and Prairie du Chien.
Riprap has been placed along the shoreline to stem the Mississippi's irrepressible current, with the main channel essentially bumping into these rocks. Walleyes like to stage along the slackwater/fastwater interface as they move upstream. A combination of tight-lining a river rig on the bottom baited with a fathead minnow and casting either hair- or plastic-tipped jigs is a good way to get hooked up.
But the best way to cash in on the Mississippi's shore-fishing bounty is from one of several fishing floats, or fishing barges, staged along the river directly below several of the lock-and-dam systems. A Wisconsin license is valid for fishing essentially anywhere between the railroad tracks that run along both sides of the river. This includes floats moored along shore in our neighboring states.
These floats typically charge a daily fee, while providing free ferry service to and from an adjacent parking lot. The fee ranges from $14 to $20. Tackle and food is usually available on the float, but in most cases the angler needs to bring his or her own bait. You'll also need to bring along a stringer or fish basket -- and extra clothes.
The floats are moored between wing dams, offering perhaps the best walleye action the river has to offer when fish are on the move. Some of them like the Clements Fishing Barge at Genoa and Great Alma Fishing Float at Alma have been in continuous operation for decades. The float below Lock & Dam No. 9 recently re-opened, offering a super walleye fishing opportunity for just a few dollars. It is now called Hubbard's Fishing Float & Café, which has special 5 to 7 p.m. evening hours when you can get a outstanding T-bone steak!
Fishing prospects on the Mississippi -- and on these barges -- can change virtually overnight. It is wise to call ahead for fishing conditions before heading out.
Contacts: Eagle Point Fishing Barge, (608) 748-4443; Clements Fishing Barge, (608) 689-2800, www.clementsfishing.com; Trempealeau Fish Float, (608) 783-2286; La Crescent Barge, (507) 437-8778; Great Alma Fishing Float, (608) 685-3474, www.almawisconsin.com/recreation; Hubbard's Fishing Float & Café, (608) 994-2595, www.hubbardsfishingfloat.com.
This south-central Wisconsin river keeps getting better every year, with shore-fishing opportunities available from downtown Fort Atkinson downstream to the old Beloit sewage treatment plant just 200 yards north of the Illinois border.
As is the case with most major state rivers, shore access is typically best below dams on the Rock. One of the most productive spots is the tailwaters of the Indianford dam just downstream from Lake Koshkonong. Another good site for shore 'eyes exists on Blackhawk Island above 10,400-acre Koshkonong. In Janesville, there is better access below the Monterey dam, but fish also congregate in the Centerway dam tailwaters.
Farther south, there is some limited access below the Beloit dam just west of Highway 51 across from Beloit College. Access is much better below the dam at Jefferson, but you certainly won't be fishing alone.
Contacts: Riverfront Resort, Blackhawk Island, (920) 563-2757; Dick's Tackle & Bait, Beloit, (608) 362-8712.
The Lake Winnebago System is Wisconsin's premier walleye factory. When the fish leave Winnie and move up into the marshes to spawn, it is a pure spectacle on both natural and human levels.
Variations of the venerable Wolf River rig are still popular here, from the Highway 41 bridge up past Fremont and beyond. The most popular bait is a Milwaukee shiner presented on a floating jighead or some bizarre combination of beads and spinners. Of course, the basic jig also works, too.
The run occurs each spring like clockwork sometime between April 10 and April 20. Millions of fish make the run inland from the big lake to the marshes over a few hours, and slide back downstream over a few days a little higher in the water column.
The Rainbow Park piers in Oshkosh and the Neenah lighthouse are popular walleye spots in the spring. Once fish are in the river, any sharp bend or necked-down area has potential. The Winneconne Bridge and Omro Park offer a couple of super options.
Contact: guide Greg Karch, (920) 303-9960; Critter's Wolf River Sports, (920) 582-0471, or at WolfRiverSports.com.
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Wisconsin has many, many more rivers with a spring gold rush you can cash in on from shore. The Kickapoo, Red Cedar, Yahara and Chippewa rivers top the list of "sleepers." Get out your waders!
Find more about Wisconsin fishing and hunting at: WisconsinSportsmanMag.com.