Where will you be on opening day weekend? Here are a few places to chase Wisconsin's most sought-after game fish.
Sleep never comes easy the night before opening day. It doesn't matter whether the quarry has feathers, fur or fins, anticipation always cuts into sack time.
Opening day of the general fishing season is a little different than chasing ducks or deer. Technically, the walleye opener starts at one minute past midnight. Come dawn on opening day, I should be home sleeping like a baby, waking up about 9 a.m. to fry some potatoes and fillet a few 'eyes for breakfast.
No matter where you live in Wisconsin, there is at least one lake within an hour's drive of your home with a good population of walleyes. Walleyes are so named because their opaque eyes give these predators an advantage when feeding in low light.
The first Friday night in May might be a good time for an on-the-water tailgate party, followed by a long cast into shallow water when the clock strikes midnight. Here's our annual look at some top lakes for chasing Wisconsin's most sought-after game fish on opening weekend.
In recent years, I've always kicked off the fishing season opener on the Madison Chain due to these natural lakes' close proximity to home. Classic walleye structure is limited on these waters when compared with other lakes across the state. Essentially, the Madison chain is panfish water with a healthy population of walleyes swimming there.
Walleye behavior is the same in Dane County as on North Country lakes. Post-spawn fish move into very shallow water to feed when the sun goes down, herding baitfish toward an easy place to ambush them.
There are several places on the Madison Chain where walleyes will be looking for a meal on opening night. One of these is on the big flat out from the Tenney Park locks on Lake Mendota. Two other good spots are the big dropoff at Rockford Heights on Lake Waubesa and the narrows by the railroad trestle at Waubesa's north end on the way to Mud Lake.
No need to get fancy when chasing night-bite walleyes here or on any other lake. Soak a minnow or a leech under a lighted slip-bobber on one line while making a slow, steady retrieve with a 3- to 4-inch fliptail on a 1/8-ounce jighead or stick bait like the No. 13 Rapala on another.
Wisconsin law allows an angler to use three lines. Another worthwhile option is setting two slip-bobber rigs, and then using your hands to hold a bratwurst and a cold beverage. Conventional wisdom says walleyes like to bite when it looks like you aren't paying attention.
Every lake on the Madison Chain has at least one boat launch. Several of these access points are illuminated. Don't forget to check the navigational lights before launching the boat. You won't be alone out there. (Continued)
For more information, call D&S Bait at (608) 241-4225.
WAUKESHA COUNTY OPTIONS
Like the Madison Chain, these southeastern Wisconsin lakes see an incredible amount of pressure during the open fishing season. Walleyes haven't seen an intentional hook here for a solid two months, so your chance of showing them an educational hook are as good as anybody's.
Most of the local competition prefers to target fish on Pine, Nagawicka or Lac La Belle lakes. All of these lakes have good walleye populations and reputations guaranteed to draw attention.
Golden, Keesus and the Nemahbin lakes were all hit hard last year, but they still hold good walleye populations. Access isn't the best on Keesus, perhaps one reason why the walleye population in this 237-acre lake continues to thrive.
Golden Lake has good access, is about the same size as Keesus and is easy to fish, making it a great destination for a quick trip. Most walleyes are kept once they reach the 15-inch legal size, but there is still plenty of action from 13- to 14-inch 'eyes.
Upper and Lower Nemahbin lakes hold quality walleyes, according to WDNR fisheries manager Sue Beyler. It is much easier to crank up a 10-pound walleye using an electroshocker in a DNR boat than fooling the same fish with a big shiner on a Lindy rig. The fish are here, but they are tough to catch. That's why they grow so big.
Key on water less than 12 feet deep. Use a long leader on the Lindy Rig -- at least 5 feet. Be patient. Moving up to folk hero status in the local angling fraternity is just one cast away.
For more information, call Dick Smith's Live Bait at (262) 646-2218.
BIG CEDAR LAKE
It's much easier to catch a nice mess of crappies on this Washington County lake than hook into one of the trophy walleyes that swim here. Big Cedar is 932 acres and very deep. When waters warm, the fish scatter throughout the water column.
There is a 10-day window of opportunity commencing with opening day when you might get your picture in the newspaper. The big fish are shallow now. Target windblown shorelines, especially main-lake points -- especially at night.
The wind blows the forage base to a point of easy ambush. Find the bait and the walleyes won't be far behind.
Northwest Wisconsin has a different feel than tourist meccas like Minoqua, Eagle River and Hayward. You don't see as many out-of-state license tags at boat ramps in Burnett and Washburn counties and the pace is a little slower.
Indianhead Country is splattered with small to medium-sized lakes. Walleyes are a bonus species in most of these waters where the family can have a ball chasing bass, pike and panfish. However, there are three lakes -- Big Yellow, Long and Middle McKenzie -- where walleyes often dominate the day's catch.
Middle McKenzie is tougher to access than the other two lakes and the smallest with about 525 surface acres. The shortest route to walleyes is from Big McKenzie Lake via McKenzie Creek. Head directly to the middle lake's south side and pitch jig-and-minnow combinations toward two prominent gravel bars.
The North Country is still undergoing seasonal change when opening day rolls around. Cold fronts blow through on a regular basis, driven by a north wind. Fishing can be fantastic on Middle McKenzie's south shore after it has been pounded by cold front winds.
By June, the fish slide into deeper water, moving up on a mid-lake hump west of the grassy island during periods of low light.
A day or s
o after a cold front, the wind switches around and comes out of the south-southwest. When this happens, you might want to target the northwest side of 2,287-acre Big Yellow Lake.
Post-spawn walleyes stage here until about June 1, after sliding back down the channel from Little Yellow Lake. If you can hold the boat along the 8- to 10-foot contour while drifting a basic hook, split shot and shiner rig, the kids may think you're the greatest walleye guide in the northwoods.
The 8-foot contour also puts you within casting range of walleyes on 3,300-acre Long Lake for the first couple of weeks after opening day. Water temperatures should still be below 50 degrees. If this is the case, walleyes can stack almost anywhere along the shoreline of this aptly named lake. Following the 8-foot contour usually keeps the boat just a long cast from shore.
Walleyes spawn when water temperatures warm to about the mid-40s. If we've had a rough winter, you may still find walleyes hanging around spawning areas near Kunz and Holy islands where they usually inhale jigs.
Long Lake holds some whopping big walleyes. If the family vacation fund has money factored in for taxidermy fees, consider throwing a clown-pattern Husky Jerk Rapala around the islands at night. A 30-incher on the wall holds memories long after thoughts of a daylong family horseback ride are gone for just a little more money.
For more information, contact Burnett County Tourism at www.burnettcounty. com or call (800) 788-3164 or Washburn County Tourism at (800) 367-3306.
NORTH TWIN LAKE
There are many lakes in the Eagle River area that hold good walleye populations. The most consistent producer of marble eyes until the arrival of serious summer is North Twin.
Harvest guidelines are based on tribal spearing quotas. Regardless of how liberal or limited the daily bag is, you should be able to catch the limit by pitching a jig-and-minnow around the rockpile on the south side of the lake.
Fishing is even better on the north side. Hospital bar is a favorite local spot, but the spot-on-the-spot is actually around the creek channel near the old factory.
Holiday bar is a great place to cast a Rapala for wading anglers, especially toward evening. Those who catch a chill only have to walk about 100 yards to a tavern of the same name for a beverage to warm the bones.
There is good access on the west side of the lake off of County K and on the northeast side in the town of Phelps.
For more information, call Eagle River Sports Shop at (715) 479-8804.
RED CEDAR LAKE
Walleyes for Tomorrow has had a profoundly positive impact on this 1,800-acre lake near the tourist meccas of Angus and Mikana, according to local guide Ron Wilder.
Haven't heard of Angus and Mikana? How about Chetek? Red Cedar Lake is about 30 miles north of this popular panfish destination. Although there has been some development along the shoreline in recent years, the lake itself remains pristine.
"You can catch walleyes off a dozen different humps using a slip-bobber and leech at high noon on the 4th of July," Wilder said. "From opening weekend until the middle of June, walleye fishing here is much, much easier than that."
The narrows where Red Cedar flows into 300-acre Balsam Lake is a good place to target 'eyes on opening weekend. The northern two-thirds of Red Cedar and most of Balsam Lake offer classic walleye structure -- steep shorelines dropping into clear water nearly 50 feet deep with plenty of rocks and boulders from the shore clear down to deep water contours.
Walleyes find the shallower water near the narrows and flats out from Pigeon and Sucker creeks comfortable from ice-out to about 50 degrees, spawning, then loafing near these areas for at least a couple of weeks into the season.
"You want to look for that 45- to 48-degree water," Wilder said. "Then just pitch a jig-and-minnow or stick bait toward the shore. The bite is pretty good in the daytime and nothing short of amazing at night."
The lake is served by three good public boat ramps, but the county park ramp on the lake's west side provides the easiest access to spring walleyes.
For more information, contact fishing guide Ron Wilder at (715) 236-7105 or (715) 205-8010.
You have almost a month of outstanding angling before Memorial Day vacationers begin arriving like swarms of locusts buzzing around the 6,032-acre lake on personal watercraft and gawking from pontoon boats until Labor Day.
The first place to try is around Schumacher Island, the lake's primary spawning area. Depending how quickly summer weather comes to northeastern Wisconsin, natural gravel bar habitat and rockpiles placed by sportsmen's groups over the years hold fish until the tourist flotilla arrives.
If waters warm quickly, try targeting one of several shallow gravel reefs on the lake's east end around dusk, anchoring upwind and casting leeches or night crawlers under bobbers set at 2 to 4 feet and allowed to float until they turn sideways indicating contact with the bottom.
Fishing is best when there has been a little chop on the water for a couple of days. Prevailing wind tends to push baitfish right up on the shallow offshore humps. You can cover more water and find fish faster by trolling shallow-running crankbaits behind planer boards along the windward side of the reefs.
For more information, call the Shawano Chamber of Commerce at (715) 524-2139.
Tribal harvest quotas drive walleye fishing pressure in the Hayward area, with bag and size limits unavailable at press time. Hayward has been an angling mecca since the days when Grandpa was a kid and should remain so until you're too old to fish. (Paramedics call this condition a pulseless non-breather.)
Hayward's Paul Thorson is a local icon. When Thorson isn't selling fatheads and jerkbaits at Pastika's Sport Shop, which has been open since 1921, you'll probably find him chasing fish on the Chippewa Flowage, one of the most amazing muskie, walleye and crappie fisheries in the entire state.
Thorson said the best place to start an opening weekend walleye safari on The Chip is at one of two landings located on County CC.
"Herman's Landing is right in the middle of The Chip," Thorson said. "This tavern has been a great place to begin and end a fishing trip for generations."
Thorson said woody structure holds the lion's share of active walleyes in the spring because it warms quicker than surrounding water and provides refuge for walleyes and other prey species.
hough Thorson said you can catch plenty of walleyes within a mile of Herman's Landing in either direction, the shortest route to a stretched string is probably launching at the north landing and using an electric trolling motor to start casting and drifting jigs in Barrizo's Bay.
A basic green, chartreuse or pink 1/8- to 1/4-ounce jighead tipped with a fathead minnow is very effective on this water; however, a jumbo leech or night crawler may be better bait if spring comes early and waters warm beyond 55 degrees.
Post-spawn walleyes slide into deeper water, holding below breaks in about 8 to 20 feet of water. Casting a jig with one rod while watching another line baited with a minnow under a slip-bobber is a very effective tactic.
Walleyes on The Chip tend to be less concentrated than on Grindstone, Round and Couderay lakes, which have also been producing game fish since steel rods, Pflueger Supreme reels and black Dacron line were the mark of a serious angler.
Several of these old outfits are hanging on the wall at Herman's Landing next to mounted muskies of monstrous proportions and other mementos of Wisconsin's rich angling history.
Where are you going on opening day? This old tavern is a great pilgrimage for those seeking angling insight. Legend holds the answer will be revealed in a vision to anyone sitting in Herman's Landing that can spell Leinenkugel's backward. (Hint: Looking at a beer bottle in the mirror doesn't help.)
For more information on fishing the Hayward area, contact Pastika's Sporting Goods at (715) 634-4466.