Some of the best walleye fishing in the world may be just a short drive from your home. (April 2008)
The author caught a fine stringer of walleyes on Lake Koshkonong.
Photo by Ted Peck.
A recent DNR survey shows walleyes are Wisconsin's most sought-after game fish. We chase them in rivers and flowages where there is no closed season, in lakes and boundary waters where the first Saturday in May holds a true festival attitude and in special places like the St. Louis River where the season doesn't begin until mid-May, not long after walleyes move up this Minnesota/Wisconsin boundary water from the chilly waters of Lake Superior to spawn.
Walleyes across the state are either spawning or coming out of spawn this month. On the Rock River in southern Wisconsin, the spawn always seems to happen around April Fool's Day at about the same time fish are carrying on the family name on the Wisconsin River from the Dells south. Later, walleyes move in an incredible migrational push into the Wolf River to spawning marshes above Lake Poygan.
About a week after the main spawning push at DePere, those marble-eyes are going gonzo on the Menominee River about an hour to the north.
By the time opening day rolls around, walleyes in the southern two-thirds of the state are already settling into summer pattern, with some fish in deep, clear north country lakes still working through their post-spawn funk.Sport-fishing is big business and a major recreational pastime in America's Dairyland. As we ease into another walleye fishing year, all appears well. But the specter of viral hemorrhagic septicemia (VHS) is on the minds of both fish managers and anglers.
Potential destruction from VHS could be monumental. The DNR has taken drastic measures to stem the spread of this disease. But the proactive stance taken against VHS will have some effect in years to come, as the DNR suspended walleye stocking in many lakes that depend on stocked fish for good fishing until the situation become sorted out.
It will be several years if we feel this ripple -- if we feel it at all. Walleye populations depend on natural reproduction, and there are good years and there are bad years. Things have a way of averaging out.
The following is a look at some of our top waters where your case of terminal walleye fever can at least experience a sense of remission until you take the boat out of the water.
This 10,400-acre shallow basin lake straddling the Rock/Jefferson county line is the epicenter of walleye fishing in the Rock River system. Waters of the Bark and Crawfish rivers join the main stem of the Rock just above the lake. Both of these smaller rivers see an influx of spawning walleyes in the spring.
The river system from Koshkonong's inlet upstream to Fort Atkinson generally offers the best walleye action per surface acre of the entire system. The Rock is slow-moving here, ideal for a controlled drift downstream while vertical jigging a 1/8-ounce leadhead tipped with half a night crawler throughout most of the summer and into autumn.
Many anglers have yet to figure out the post-spawn pattern for walleyes in the segment of the Rock River near Blackhawk Island. The same pattern that works so well for post-spawn walleyes in the Wolf River holds true on the Rock River, with a twist.
The key to success here from about April 7-20 is to cast Shad Rap-style crankbaits. Many fish are sliding back downstream a little higher in the water column. Cranks, which run down 4 to 7 feet, are right in their strike zone.
Koshkonong is notoriously tough to locate walleyes on throughout the warmer months because of its essentially featureless bottom contour. Other than a couple of shallow rock bars, mussel beds and several weedbeds, there isn't much for walleyes to key on.
Bear in mind, Koshkonong is part of a river system. Current flow or lack thereof passing through the system influences location of phytoplankton, which is eaten by zooplankton, which is eaten by baitfish, which are eaten by walleyes.
When current flows are up because of spring runoff or a rain event, walleyes tend to move to the inlet near Blackhawk Island. When levels are dropping, the fish slide down to the mussel bed near the lake outlet and structures like bridges above the Indianford dam.
DNR fisheries biologists said this walleye factory would continue to be a destination in '08 because of the "tremendous numbers of 4-year-old walleyes in the system." Trolling is the best way to access these fish. Throughout the summer, try a spinner rig with a crawler. Chartreuse or orange blades usually work best. When October rolls around, switch to crankbaits, most notably the CD-5 Wally Diver or FTJ-7 jointed Shad Rap.
Bush said the problem anglers have on Kosh is too many fish. "We have an overabundance of 1-year-old white bass in the system. There are also many white bass in the 10- to 14-inch size that often intercept your bait before a walleye can find it."
Old Man River is a popular spring and fall walleye destination for many Wisconsin anglers. But many 'eye chasers have trouble finding fish once fish scatter downstream from dams and wing dams with the arrival of serious summer.
This vast fishery is a glaring example of the importance of understanding the predator/prey relationship when it comes to consistent success on walleyes. When warm weather arrives, the marble-eyes simply follow the food downstream into back channels and running sloughs where pulling crankbaits and spinner rigs work well all summer long.
The key lies in finding a running slough with both current and depth. Seven feet is a good depth to look for. It takes time on the water to judge what areas are productive and which aren't. Once you experience the epiphany of how it all comes together, it's hard to travel elsewhere in pursuit of walleyes and saugers.
DNR fisheries manager Pat Short said, "Large populations of saugers and walleyes swim in pools No. 9 and No. 10 of the Mississippi."
Last October, Short and his crew cranked up an impressive adult 275 fish per hour below the Genoa dam and 108 fish per hour a week earlier below the dam downstream at Lynxville.
Pool No. 10 may not have quite as many walleyes as No. 9, but Short said the timing of surveys just a week apart illustrates how dense the concentration of fish can be after water temperatures drop below 50 and the fish move upstream.
Rumors were flying last summer that VHS had decimated the walleye population in Lake Winnebago. When I called fishing buddy, Greg Karch, fearing the worst, he just laughed.
"Walleyes dying? Yeah, they're dying to get in the livewell!" was his reply. A summer trip with Karch proved rumors of the demise of Wisconsin's premier walleye factory were downright silly. Karch, nephew Darrin Marcure and I boated limits of 15- to 20-inch fish in two hours pulling Berkley crankbaits out from the mudline of the wind-blown eastern shore.
This location and presentation was a Plan B attack. Before some significant weather pushed through, Karch was having even better luck on bigger fish on mid-lake humps and mud flats.
It should come as no surprise that the predator/prey relationship drives walleye location in Winnebago, too.
Wind is a good thing here. Baitfish stack up to avoid it and walleyes show up waiting for easy pickings, sometimes cruising in less than 3 feet of water.
Fishing success falls off considerably after young shad, grounders and white bass grow to munchable dimensions. There is simply so much food in the water that walleyes don't feel like chasing anything with hooks.
If you're one of thousands of Wisconsin anglers who see yellow perch as merely small walleyes with liberal harvest guidelines and a jailbird paint job, consider simply changing rods instead of lakes when the baitfish bonanza arrives.
Winnebago is home to good numbers of honest 12- to 13-inch perch that get little attention from anglers. From mid- to late summer, these culinary delights are munching snails on mid-lake mudflats. Once you find 'em, all it takes to get hooked up is hanging a white jighead tipped with a red worm over the side of the boat so it bounces off the bottom.
There is no doubt that Green Bay holds more trophy walleyes than any other body of water in Wisconsin. But the vast expanse of this complex fishery requires a watercraft of substantial dimensions to access these fish after they move out of tributaries and head offshore for the summer.
Conventional wisdom says that the greatest concentration of 10-pound walleyes per surface acre in the state is found within a half mile of the DePere dam on the Fox River in April.
With proper vending permits, you could make a fair living jumping from boat to boat, selling hotdogs and crankbaits here when the run is on.
As noted earlier, after the night bite action tapers off at DePere, it is just beginning on the Menominee River about an hour to the north. The Oconto River is located between these two tributaries. Hardly anyone drags firetiger or chrome/blue stick baits from the County Park II ramp to Peshtigo Point in late April along the 8-foot contour . . . but until the arrival of baitfish in great numbers you can catch a mixed bag of walleyes, splakes and huge northern pike that requires two men and a small boy to lift the stringer.
From early May through June, the best place to find big walleyes in both size and numbers is on the south end of Green Bay, trolling big fluorescent spinner blades and crawler harnesses in the often turbid waters at places like Geano's Reef.
A big key to success is slowing down the presentation to about 1.2 to 1.8 mph. Try trolling with the wind using a small kicker motor or even that MinnKota electric to simply keep your boat pointed straight in essentially a controlled drift with crawler harnesses back about 25 to 40 feet behind planer boards.
Eventually, Wisconsin's 18-pound state-record walleye mark is bound to fall. Many wags predict this event will happen in the spring below the DePere dam. I predict it will occur in late summer on a sultry, flat August day farther up Green Bay near the upper reaches of the Door Peninsula out from Fish Creek.
Waldo, Wanda and her biggest, fattest sisters cruise the waters near Strawberries, Chambers Island and Horseshoe reefs in late July and August, before moving in September toward those legendary Michigan waters known as the Bays de Noc.
Husky jerk Rapalas, Rattlin' Rogues and similar deep-diving magnum cranks are the best weapons for intercepting these fish, pulling them just above the bottom contour at 40, 50, 60 and 70 feet behind planer boards until a productive pattern is established.
When conditions are ideal for this midsummer bite, you could probably fish safely from a 12-foot boat. Unfortunately, wind is almost always a factor. Don't plan a trip here unless you have a serious deep V boat and respect for big water.
LAKE ST. CROIX
The lower St. Croix River and 4,668-acre Lake St. Croix in Pierce and St. Croix counties -- like the St. Louis River at Superior -- is a walleye angling destination that must be experienced to be fully appreciated.
Some stretches of this fishery are riverine, but there is a great deal of prime water that is more flowage-like. Walleye season opens here on the Saturday nearest the last day of April.
For the first couple of weeks after opening day, look for walleyes on shallow bars and flats. You'll also want to check necked-down areas and steep shoreline breaks. Saugers are a little easier to catch earlier in the season by targeting deeper troughs and the main channel in 20 to 34 feet of water.
The venerable jig-and-minnow is your primary weapon for both species early on. First, you need to find fish. The best search lure is a No. 9 orange/gold floating Rapala fished on a 30- to 40-inch dropper line behind a three-way swivel with a bell sinker on the other dropper of the swivel.
Another good search bait is No. 7 baits of the Shad Rap genre, especially when probing the Minnesota side of this fishery near the Kinnickkinnic River about five miles north of Prescott.
Five miles farther north is Catfish bar where anglers drift and vertical jig over 16 to 22 feet of water down from a big knob of rock on the Minnesota side.
The St. Croix is more of a flowage from the power plant down to the Hudson area. Trolling a spinner rig and crawler along the 8- to 10-foot contour is a great way to catch fish as we work through May.
Once young anglers are freed from the constraints of school for the summer, take them walleye fishing south of Hudson near the Girl Scout camp on the Wisconsin side of the lake.
Directly out from the dormitory are a couple of rocky bars extending from shore to the main channel. One tops out about 15 feet, the other 25. Walleyes are almost always around and are generally active well into June.
Although walleyes remain active all summer long, warmer weather brings out the boat traffic in spades. If you get on
the water at first light and fish hard, expect the reward of a nice mess of "eater" walleyes by the time the Girl Scouts troop off to breakfast.
A 30-inch walleye that came unbuttoned inches shy of the landing net 25 years ago on this 3,300-acre Washburn County lake still haunts my thoughts.
She hasn't returned for a rematch on the dozen times since my boat has seen this fishery. But her progeny swim there, joined by many others introduced over the years by Walleyes For Tomorrow.
Long is a classic walleye lake with humps, islands, weeds and rocks. For the first week or two after opening day, your chances of winning the big fish lottery are concentrated around traditional spawning areas like the rocky rubble bottom around Holy and Kunz islands.
Weeds are a major key to fish location throughout the fishing year, but as weed growth proliferates, the biomass scatters. From the opener until early June, targeting outside the weedlines of the largest submerged weedbeds can be very productive in this deep, narrow lake.
Long has a very rich cisco forage base that the walleye population follows closely throughout most of the summer.
If there is a prevailing wind of several days duration, especially before summer weather arrives, work the windblown shoreline from dusk until perhaps 10 p.m. with a chrome/blue stick bait.
Be sure to take a landing net with a handle at least 6 feet, 9 inches long!
Find more about Wisconsin fishing and hunting at: www.WisconsinSportsmanMag.com.