Shake off the winter cobwebs and hit the open water this spring in pursuit of Wisconsin's favorite game fish. Here are your best bets for wild walleye action. (April 2010)
From Green Bay to Lac La Belle and back to Turtle-Flambeau, Wisconsin offers anglers in all parts of the state a chance at a wallhanger walleye.
Photo by Tracy Breen.
Trying to pick the best walleye lakes, rivers, flowages, streams and creeks in a state that is jam-packed with walleyes is a tough job. Without a doubt, many of you who read this article are going to wonder, Why did he leave out my favorite lake? This guy probably doesn't know the difference between a walleye and a walnut.
Well, of course, I know the difference. A walleye is a fish, and a walnut is a person who likes to fish for walleyes -- a lot. So there.
But seriously, folks, I am sure you can sympathize with the challenge I face. So, my only option was to blame any omissions on someone else. That is called a disclaimer, and who better to blame than the government. Hey, it works for everyone else. Why not me? Since no one person could be knowledgeable about walleye fishing statewide, I decided to go to several Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologists and follow their recommendations. Here, then, is how the government helped me.
Before going into the details of the various fisheries the experts divulged, let me advise that it is most important to check out the season dates applicable to each body of water discussed. In general, the Wisconsin open-water season begins on the first Saturday in May, and if you apply that date to all waters, you cannot go wrong. However, there are many exceptions to this general rule, as some river systems and flowages allow year-round walleye fishing. In other cases, daily bag limits may change during the season. Slot limits are site-specific, and again, you must be aware of these regulations. A booklet containing the full gamut of regulations is available wherever fishing licenses are sold and at the WDNR Web site, www.dnr. state.wi.us.
My initial port of call was the WDNR office in the northwest corner of Wisconsin, where Mike Vogelsang wears the hat of fisheries team supervisor. His area of responsibility includes Oneida, Vilas, Lincoln and Iron counties. Route 8 essentially bisects this area.
When I asked Vogelsang for some recommendations for walleye fishermen in his area, the phone went dead for a few seconds. Not surprisingly, he could have rattled off dozens of lakes and rivers that held good walleye populations, and here I was asking for three or four. After due consideration, Vogelsang opined that any of the flowages strung out along the Wisconsin River should provide excellent spring walleye fishing. He especially liked the Spirit River Flowage in Lincoln County. This lake, formed by the damming of the Spirit River, has 1,667 acres of water, with a maximum depth of 25 feet and a mean depth of 12 feet. Public access is available at well-marked boat ramps. A lake map is available at www.dnr.state.wi.us.
If you want to load up on "eater-size" walleyes this spring, head for the Turtle Flambeau Flowage in Iron County. When the season opens there, you should find plenty of 14-inch to 16-inch males up on the rock bars and in the shallows over gravel bottoms. There will be some larger females there, too.
The Turtle Flambeau covers 13,545 acres, and has a maximum depth of 50 feet. Boat ramps are situated around the lake, and a map is available at the Web site.
Lake Mohawksin, in Lincoln County, is another walleye sleeper that Vogelsang recommends. This lake covers 1,910 acres, with a maximum depth reaching 25 feet. The mean depth of Mohawksin is 9 feet. Boat ramps are in place, and a lake map is available for download.
Famous for giant muskies is Big Arbor Vitae Lake in Vilas County. But the biologist notes there is a very strong walleye population present also. Covering 1,090 acres, it is a good-sized lake, with a maximum depth of 41 feet and a mean depth of 18 feet. Boat ramps serve all portions of the lake, and a lake map is available. Volgelsang suggests working rocky points off the islands for post-spawn walleyes.
If you are looking for a sleeper walleye lake that has been running under the radar, consider dropping a jig and minnow into Oneida County's Laurel Lake, also known as Medicine Lake. This 232-acre body of water has a maximum depth of 27 feet, and access is provided by several boat ramps. The DNR lists its walleye population as "abundant."
Moving south, fisheries biologist David Rowe enthusiastically recommends the Fox River and Green Bay in Oconto County. Rowe's research shows both sites have been slowly improving over the past 30 years and now have reached a point where they boast not only a sizeable population, but also a high percentage of trophy walleyes. How good is it? Rowe describes the fishing potential as "super hot!"
The 2008 year-class of walleyes was an exceptionally large one here, and this spring those fish should be reaching the minimum keeper size of 15 inches. Going back to 2003, we find another outsized hatch that is currently producing numerous 25- to 30-inch trophy fish. These are 6- to 10-pound walleyes, and that is nothing to sneeze at.
The limits in Green Bay are somewhat confusing in that before May 1, only one walleye over 15 inches may be kept. However, from May 1 on, the bag limit grows to five fish daily, with a 15-inch size limit.
In the Fox River, the limit before the statewide opener on the first Saturday of May is one walleye over 28 inches. Thereafter, the daily bag limit increases to three fish per day with no size limit. The obvious intent of these regulations is to protect the fish during their spawning period, when they are most vulnerable. These rules make sense, and remember you can do all the catch-and-release fishing you want. It surely would be fun to battle these early-spring walleyes, but at the same time heart-breaking to watch all those tasty filets swim away.
There are plenty of boat ramps along the Green Bay shore and in the Fox River. Your target areas should be rock and gravel bars in 10 to 15 feet of water or hard-bottom flats. The walleyes will use those structures as spawning grounds and remain on them post-spawn until the water warms in early summer.
The trick to fishing the Fox River is to keep moving until you locate a concentration of fish. You can drift over likely structure or use an electric motor to work specific areas. Vertical jigging with a minnow or twistertail is the preferred tactic on the Fox. The expansive waters of Green Bay almost demand trolling to cover enough water to find the walleyes. The fish have an enormous amount of good habita
t to choose from, stretching from the city of Green Bay along the eastern shore all the way up to and beyond Sturgeon Bay. While gravel and rocky bars and reefs will always have some fish on them, the fish don't always stay put in the same place from day to day. By moving from place to place, you will find which area has the most fish.
Weather, water clarity and the movements of baitfish schools usually dictate the walleye school movements. The fish won't go very far, but depending on the above conditions, they will move around. Trollers should employ standard walleye trolling techniques. Night crawler trolling harnesses are especially productive in spring. In summer months, various crankbaits, fished at different depths seem to work better. By adding weights to the crawler harness lines, or using cranks that dig to different depths, you will soon determine where the fish are holding and which presentation they prefer. After that, it is simply a matter of "staying on the meat."
Walleyes, like all fish, don't feed constantly throughout the day. So, if a hotspot suddenly goes cold, you have to determine if the fish have moved away or have they simply shut down for a while. To do this, widen your trolling pattern and attempt to relocate the school, if, indeed, it did wander away. Keep an eye on the fish locater to see if you are still "on the meat."
If, after moving off a productive area, the fish disappear, troll back to your original hotspot and determine whether the walleyes are still holding there. If that is the case, you will begin a waiting game, keeping your lures in productive water until the fish resume feeding.
Another tactic to be aware of is moving away from boat traffic. If you begin the morning catching fish on a certain piece of structure, chances are other fishermen will be attracted to that area. Too much pressure on a school of walleyes in clear, shallow water will either spook them off their feeding pattern, shoo them out of the area or both.
Here is how to handle that eventuality. Once the boat traffic has become intense, notice from which direction the other boats are arriving. Since they will all have launched at the same point, most will be coming at you from that direction. And it follows that the walleyes, seeking to get out from under all those boats, will elect to move away from, and not toward, the incoming fishermen.
To solve the traffic problem, simply troll in a zigzag pattern away from the approaching fleet until you re-connect with the fish.
If you are looking for a smaller inland body of water to try for walleyes, check out Bass (Wickser) Lake (12 acres, boat ramp) and Boot Lake, (235 acres, boat ramps), in Oconto County. Bass Lake, with only 12 acres, sounds more like a farm pond than a lake, but the WDNR says walleyes are "common" there, so keep it in mind for a day when the wind keeps you off larger waters.
In south-central Wisconsin, the main walleye waters of the Winnebago Chain lie in parts of seven different counties. The massive chain of lakes includes lakes Winnebago (137,708 acres), Lake Butte des Morts (8,857 acres), Winneconnie Lake (4,507 acres) and Lake Poygan (14,102 acres). Additionally, the Upper Fox River and the Wolf River are included in this waterway. Boat ramps and shore-fishing sites provide plentiful access to all the lakes and rivers.
Last year's cool summer hampered walleye fishing to a great extent, but biologist Kendal Kamke told us that their test netting and shocking revealed a very healthy walleye population in all the lakes. He was very enthusiastic about a very large 2008 year-class of fish that should be reaching the 9- to 11-inch size this season. Kamke predicted outstanding walleye fishing for 2011, when the fish reach 15-inch keeper size.
Look for the walleyes to be spawning in the rivers in May and then roaming out on the shallow flats throughout the summer months. Sue Beyler heads up the fisheries team in southeastern Wisconsin, and she had some lesser-known but productive walleye waters to share with us. Lac La Belle (Waukesha County) is a 1,164-acre body of water with a maximum depth of 45 feet. Boat ramps are in place. This is a lake that is loaded with walleyes, but that good news is tempered by the fact that most of them are undersized. Part of the reason for this is the minimum size limit is 20 inches, not the standard 15 inches. If you are looking for a big fish dinner, look elsewhere, because the daily bag limit on Lac La Belle is just one walleye. But if you want to catch a ton of fish, this is just the place for you, and it sounds perfect for introducing a youngster to sport fishing.
Pine Lake (700 acres), in Waukesha County, is a deep one, with one spot reaching 85 feet. The average depth of Pine Lake is 39 feet, so you will be working dropoffs with jigs and minnows or plastic tails. The usual 15-inch, five-fish limits are in force there.
Lake Nagawicka (900 acres), in Waukesha County, is another deep lake, dropping to 90 feet with an average depth of 36 feet. In addition to a good walleye population, this lake also boasts a fine smallmouth bass and crappie fishery.
In Walworth County, 2,072-acre Delavan Lake's walleye population is rated "abundant." That is as good as it gets on the DNR rating scale. On this lake the daily limit is three walleyes, with a minimum size limit of 18 inches. Delavan has a maximum depth of 56 feet and an average depth of 21 feet. It should be noted that the southern lake in particular receives heavy fishing and boating pressure, and the best results are usually realized by those who fish on weekdays or at night.
There are many more excellent walleye fisheries throughout Wisconsin, so go to the WDNR Web site and find a hotspot near you!