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'Eye Opener

'Eye Opener

Wisconsin's walleye opener is only weeks away. Try these lakes where you may do more catching than fishing.(May 2008)

Pro walleye angler Keith Kavajcez hoists a big northern Wisconsin walleye.
Photo by Greg Keefer.

Choosing a spring walleye destination for the opener can be a challenge. Wisconsin is loaded with waters from top to bottom where limiting out on big walleyes is a real possibility. However, not all lakes are created equal and a little "inside information" can mean the difference between a great day on the water or a bust.

Here's a look at lakes in your area that promise good fishing for 'eyes this spring.

"The walleye fishing is pretty good on Rice Reservoir," fisheries biologist Dave Seibel said. "There's both good numbers and sizes of walleyes from year to year, but it's always dependent on the current conditions."

Walleyes have usually finished spawning by now in Rice, but that's not always the case. According to Seibel, the fish may be spawning, post-spawn or very post-spawn and the key is to look for the fish based on the stage they're in. Another factor to consider is that reservoirs usually have walleyes that spawn in two different locations, one being in the lake on gravel or cobble shorelines or upstream in rivers on gravel bottom and riffles.

Bait selection isn't a problem, Seibel said. Anglers don't really have to match the hatch like they do with trout, though at times 'eyes can be finicky.

"We don't have a lot of leeches and night crawlers in our lakes, but the walleyes love them," Seibel said. "Why not give them what they want?"


There is often some confusion on Rice Reservoir. Many anglers think walleyes are in season year 'round, but that's not the case. The season opens the first Saturday in May.

The 4,000-acre lake resulted from impounding the Tomahawk and Rice rivers and flooding existing natural lakes and an extensive flat.

For additional information, contact the DNR's Northern Region office in Antigo at (715) 623-4190.

Once you see the Castle Rock and Petenwell flowages you can't help but wonder how much of Adams and Juneau counties are above water.

"When it comes to walleyes in central Wisconsin, the Castle Rock and Petenwell flowages are the best choice," fisheries biologist Scot Ironside said. "The majority of walleyes are in the 14-inch range, but anglers can expect to catch some 18- to 20-inch fish as well. Every spring, several 28- to 30-inch fish are registered in the Nekoosa Walleye Days annual tournament. I'd say the flowages would be a good numbers fishery, but there is always the potential for a trophy-class fish as well."

Ironside recommends concentrating on the river channel at the upper end of the flowages in the spring and move to the breaks in the main lake in the summer.

Assistant fisheries biologist Anthony Knipfer also gives Castle Rock and Petenwell a thumbs up.

"Aside from the spring and fall action upriver, May and June are probably the best months for anglers on the flowage," he said. "Trolling crankbaits in Castle Rock seems to work well along the old river channel of either the Yellow River on the west side of the lake or the Wisconsin River on the east side."

Knipfer said anglers drift live bait on a Lindy or bottom-bouncing rig, then switch from minnows to leeches and night crawlers later in the summer. Most anglers head toward Buckhorn Bridge, the sunken islands off the tip of Buckhorn or the trestle bridge on the east side.

The Buckhorn State Park and Wildlife Area has five ramps that are readily available along with the power company and county park ramps.

For more information, contact the DNR in Friendship at (608) 339-8087 or Sunrise Bait and Tackle in Nekoosa at (715) 886-5440.

"The best walleye lake in my area may be a tie between Big Cedar Lake and Pike Lake, but for the past few years I'd have to say Big Cedar has been the better choice," fisheries biologist John Nelson said. "The lake has a reasonable number of walleyes and there is always the potential for a true trophy-class fish. Big Cedar requires anglers spend some time discovering where the fish are hanging out, but once a pattern is found, the catches can be consistent."

Spring walleyes may be shallow and completely missed by those who assume the fish will always be deep.

"Anglers always think walleyes will be in deep water, but that's not always the way it is," professional walleye angler Tommy Skarlis said. "These fish can be up near the surface, along the shore or just about anywhere. You just have to look for them."

Drift-fishing is possible when the fish are 10 to 20 feet deep, but casting to structure works better when the fish are shallow. You may find a straggler or a school of fish wreaking havoc on shoreline minnows.

The lake is sometimes busy, so come prepared to share it with other boaters and anglers.

Big Cedar is located in Washington County off Highway 144.

For more information, contact the Southeast Region in Plymouth at (920) 892-8756.

According to fisheries biologist Kurt Welke, Lake Waubesa in Dane County is a quality fishery for all the state's top predators, walleyes included. Muskies and northern pike sometimes get top billing on the Yahara Chain of Lakes and that just leaves more good fishing for the walleye guys.

Anglers looking for eating-sized fish are in luck because there are plenty of them. The numbers of walleyes are down from 2000, but the population is still looking good.

Trophy-class anglers aren't going to be left out in the cold, either. Fish measuring up to 28 1/2 inches were found in the lake in 2006 and there's a chance they may be even larger by now.

The eastern side of the lake has plenty of rocky structure and that's where the 'eyes are likely to be, Welke said.

A jig-and-minnow combination or a small crankbait can put a few fish in the boat in this location. Electronics come in handy

if the fish are suspending.

Launch ramps are off Libby, Waubesa and Larson Beach roads and U.S. 51. Access is fairly good.

Anglers who aren't finding fish on 2,080-acre Lake Waubesa can give other lakes in the chain a try. Lake Mendota covers more than 9,800 acres, Lake Monona and Lake Kegonsa more than 3,000 acres each and Lake Wingra 345 acres. You can find walleyes in any of them.

For more information, contact the DNR in Fitchburg at (608) 273-5946 or D&S Bait, Tackle and Archery in Madison at (608) 241-4225.

"The flowage was literally on fire for walleyes in 2007 and I expect the trend to continue," fisheries biologist Frank Pratt said. "It's always a good early-season lake because the dark water warms up faster, so you can often find post-spawn aggressive feeding behavior and both sexes on opening weekend."

According to Pratt, the bite is often a shallow daytime one because of the dark water's screening effect. Walleyes prefer low-light conditions and they can be shallow here.

"You can never go wrong fishing the edges of floating bogs or sunken pieces of the bogs," Pratt said. "Early season is also when you should be looking for the weeds in Chippewa flowage. If the spawn is late enough, go after the males that are still hanging around these sites, sometimes up to two weeks or longer in the post-spawn period if the water is warming up gradually."

Skarlis recommends looking for walleyes as they return from their spawning areas.

"The walleyes are putting on the feed bag," Skarlis said. "I look for the locations where opener walleyes concentrate as they move between their resting spots and feeding areas."

These concentrations of fish usually have at least a few walleyes that are interested in eating. A diving crankbait or a small jig tipped with a soft-plastic trailer or a minnow will pick them out of the crowd.

Chippewa Flowage is the third largest inland lake in Wisconsin with varying conditions from one location to another. Plan to take a little time to pattern the walleyes from day to day.

For additional information, contact the DNR in Hayward at (715) 634-9658 or Hayward Bait and Tackle at (715) 634-2921.

"Big Arbor Vitae is a 'bread-and-butter' lake for most of the locals and it gets fished hard all season long, but that shouldn't steer folks away from it," fisheries supervisor Mike Vogelsang said. "The lake is highly fertile and usually takes on an algae bloom from midsummer through fall. It's this fertility that allows the walleye population to stay strong in spite of heavy fishing pressure. We conducted a survey on Big Arbor Vitae in 2005 and there were six fish per acre. That's substantially higher than the average of three or four adults per acre in other northern Wisconsin waters."

Currently there is no minimum size limit on walleyes, but only one fish over 14 inches may be kept. This keeps the smaller fish thinned out and allows for a more even size distribution. Many anglers are solidly behind this regulation since it allows eating-sized fish to be harvested while protecting some potential trophys.

Vogelsang recommends dropping a jig and minnow on rock points and bars during the first couple of weeks in May. Casting shallow-running crankbaits is another popular way of reeling in a few nice 'eyes.

More information is available from the Northern Region DNR's office in Woodruff at (715) 358-9239 or R&K's Great Outdoors in Woodruff at (715) 356-6818.

"Tomahawk has always been more of a big-fish lake and that's certainly true now," fisheries biologist John Kubisiak said. "The lake has the best spawning habitat on the Minocqua Chain, but it consistently has the lowest numbers of fish. In recent years, all of my cisco-dominated lakes have been having some reproduction problems."

Ciscoes are open-water plankton feeders and they'll eat the newly hatched walleye fry. They don't eradicate walleyes, but they can suppress the population for a few years.

"I don't have a good way to index cisco populations, but they seem to have pulled off a good region-wide year-class around 2000," Kubisiak said. "But even with that problem, the estimated adult walleye population in 2004 was more than two fish per acre on Tomahawk, and with low recruitment over the last four years, the current population is probably half that number."

Kubisiak is quick to point out that the upside of the struggling fishery is that there is a higher percentage of bigger walleyes. Tomahawk may not be the place to stock up on fish fillets, but it can provide some trophy-class fishing.

The lake is stocked to supplement the occasionally strong year-classes resulting from natural reproduction. The last time walleyes produced a strong year-class was in 2000 and those fish are averaging just over 20 inches today.

Tomahawk is big and cold. During many years, at least a few of the 'eyes are still spawning after the opening weekend. That makes for a tough bite, Kubisiak said, but there's the chance at a heavy egg-laden female.

Walleyes are somewhat lethargic right after the spawn, but the fishing usually picks up a week or two later as they switch back into the feeding mode. Fish tend to be relatively shallow and near the weed edges or rock structure.

Kubisiak usually does well in May with a slip-bobber and either a minnow or a jig-and-minnow combination.

The town of Lake Tomahawk's Choate Boulevard ramp charges a small fee to launch. The Indian Mounds State Park campground requires a state park sticker or a daily entrance fee. The Thoroughfare Road launch is free.

Tomahawk covers 3,392 acres in Oneida County.

For more information, contact the West Central Region's office in Rhinelander at (715) 365-8900.

Lake Arbutus is the top bet in fisheries biologist Dan Hatleli's management area. Other waters like Lake Wazee in Johnson County and Mead Lake in Clark County finish close seconds.

"Lake Arbutus is the largest lake in my area at 840 acres," Hatleli said. "I wouldn't consider it a walleye hotspot and the lake's been drawn down about 5 to 7 feet for dam repairs, but fall surveys are finding plenty of evidence of natural reproduction."

Historically, the lake hasn't been the best spot to wet a line for walleyes, but it is improving. The larger fish usually head up either the main or east forks of the Back River in search of better food sources, habitat and spawning areas, but according to Hatleli, the boom

in panfish reproduction over the last couple of years has made the lake a better all-around walleye fishery. More walleyes are remaining in Lake Arbutus or returning to the lake from the river to take advantage of the increased forage base.

The 15-inch minimum length limit and blossoming food supply means the fishing for big walleyes is going to be good.

"The best tip is to fish the Black River upstream and downstream of Arbutus after the opener," Hatleli said. "Anglers wanting to focus on Arbutus itself should fish where the river channels enter the impoundment early in the season and then on the typical dropoffs and deeper areas associated with some type of submerged structure. Motor trolling is allowed on Arbutus, so you can cover a lot of territory."

Lake Arbutus lies in Clark and Jackson counties northwest of Black River Falls.

Nearby Lake Wazee has some nice walleyes in it but is tough to fish. The lake is an old iron mine pit that is 350 feet deep. Mead Lake's walleye population is similar to Arbutus and is supplemented with approximately 11,000 walleye fingerlings bi-annually. Try the deeper outside edges of remaining weedbeds early in the season.

The boat ramp for Arbutus is on the southern end of the lake off K Road in Russell Memorial Park.

For more information, contact the West Central Region at (715) 839-3700.

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