A Moveable Feast

From the Shawano Dam to the Winneconne Bridge, May marks the spring run of Winnebago Chain walleyes up the Wolf River. Will you be ready? (May 2010)

When those two simple words ricochet down the tree-lined banks and across the outside bends of Wisconsin's venerable Wolf River, from the Shawano Dam, down through New London and Fremont, to those anglers with spots already reserved on the Highway 116 Winneconne bridge, the spring walleye run on the Winnebago Chain is officially on!

Wisconsin anglers await the departure of ice and the arrival of spring, which marks the certain return of walleyes to the Wolf River.
Photo by Tom Luba.

The earliest the ice has left the Wolf was Feb. 26, 1998. The latest, according to Don Cashmore, who owns and operates Cash's Bait Shop in New London, was way back in 1856, on April 21. Kendall Kamke, a fisheries biologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources in Oshkosh, suggests an average ice-out date of around March 20.

According to both Cashmore and Kamke, this unique spawning event gets an early start.

"If there is good late ice," said Cashmore, "we'll see walleyes moving upriver and) being caught through the ice. A lot of these early fish may go all the way to the Shawano Dam."

"It's a unique situation," said Kamke, "that the fish migrate that far upriver and spawn primarily on grassy marshes. Some use closer Fremont-area marshes. Others travel upriver to New London and Shiocton marshes -- 40 river miles or more. To comprehend the full magnitude of this event, if you stand on the Oshkosh Main Street bridge, Shawano is a one-way trip of 125 miles!"

"From what we see," Kamke said, "there are two distinct walleye movements. The early run is mostly under the ice. And the second one occurs a bit later. We've found some fish appear to go all the way to the Shawano Dam every year now."

Boaters, including those brave souls who haul johnboats out to the edges of the ice near open water and fish from the boat, get out early, but one of the more unusual methods for tackling the run is catching walleyes from tethered rafts. The rafts are tied to shore in areas where the fish pass. Some even move their floating walleye palaces from the slack side to the current side to catch fish coming up and down.

If you want to experience the full thrill of this annual migration, don't wait. Because, according to Kamke, the "good old days" might be right now. "I talk regularly with some very good local walleye fishermen, and they are extremely happy with the fish population," he said.

"We started measuring year-class sizes in 1986, (and) 2009 was average to low. But since 2000, we have been way ahead of the reproduction curve. In the 24 years since we started, seven classes have been excellent, and five of those happened since 2000! Males from 2001 should be 20 to 21 inches, with females from that year-class around 25 inches. And the 2008 class will dominate for the next decade. You'll start seeing the impact on (keeper) fish during 2011 and 2012."

The Wolf's unique run to the spawning marshes can be broken into upriver and downriver runs, and they are fished in different ways.

"Forty-degree water with good current means fish are biting," said Donald Kester, who is on the river when not working at Ma's Bait Shop in Fremont. "Once the fish get to the marshes, the females could be gone in as little as a day or two with the right temperatures, while the males hang around longer. It's not one huge group all spawning at once."

Cashmore sums up the difference: "They are on auto pilot on the way up and want to spawn rather than eat. It's a lot easier to catch fish on the way back, when the current pushes them down. Most anglers fish the slack side on the up run, as the fish are looking for the easiest way to get to the marshes. Here, they will use either jigs and minnows or the old favorite Wolf River Rig, a three-way swivel that connects hook/bait and drop sinker to the main line. After the spawn, a lot of people drift the outside bends as the fish head back and switch to jigs at whatever weight necessary to hit bottom on the edges of the current."

With the fish tuned into spawning, usually when the water hits 42-45 degrees, live bait works better on the up run. When the fish head back, they will feed heavily, as the Wolf has a good forage base of shiners, suckers, small white bass, bullhead and trout. Now is the time that artificial baits, like Rapalas, can work as well as a jig and minnow.

Key fishing areas on the down run are outside bends and stretches like the rolling sand flat that leads into deep water below the Northport Bridge, near New London. The Oxbow, Shirttail Bend, mouth of Markman's Bayou, Round Hole, Flease's Bend, Guth's Landing, Weiland's Landing, Gill's Landing at the Waupaca River, Red Banks and the big bend at Orihula are all proven spots. While the river bottom is mostly flat, a lot of riprap has been dropped along these bends. Some can hold 30 feet of water and deep riprap, along with trees, logs and deadheads that have washed in to create breaks that provide good resting and feeding areas for the walleyes. You'll also find eddies and numerous turns, points and indentations in the rock where the fish break off to feed. Check both shallow and deep for active fish.

There are plenty of concrete ramps on the Wolf that can handle larger boats and get you to good fishing. Try Riverside Park in New London, Cable Crossing, south of New London, Guth's Landing by Partridge Crop Lake, Weiland's Landing, Gill's Landing at the mouth of the Waupaca River and in Fremont and Orihula. There is also a great ramp in Winneconne and a beauty in Rainbow Park in the river at Oshkosh. There are others up and down the river, but check that they can handle your boat before launching.

One not so common tactic Cashmore uses is anchoring when the fish are heading back -- but not just anywhere.

"In low water, I've found little shore indents and rock points that are great high-water fish magnets. When the water is up, I anchor above these, as groups of fish will break off the main school and duck into these spots to feed, then move out."

Jerry Kuppernus, a 50-year river veteran, drifts the outside current bends as the fish come back and uses the lightest jig he can feel bottom with. "I like to work right on the current edges when drifting. When the fish are looking to feed, they will move on the edges so they can duck out and catch a meal," Kuppernus said. "Sometimes you can find fish in the shallow shore wood and also on the current edge so that all you need to do is move your rod from one end of the boat to the other to catch fish.

"Due to the potential spread of disease, no bait seining from the river means there is a lot more food there, and we've had to switch to fathead minnows. They are hardier than shiners and stay lively longer. I've also found the smaller 2 1/2-inch minnow works well. Orange, pale chartreuse and blue tri-color jigs have been effective. If you stay on the current edge, you can go light. Otherwise, I maintain bottom contact with a 3/8-ounce or a 5/8-ounce. Don't be afraid to use a stinger hook for light biters."

If you are going to take advantage of the complete run, both up and down, prepare for a slightly slower time on the up run. But on the down run, it heats up. Work any good looking outside bend, as the fish go with the current. And, since walleyes should be plentiful, it shouldn't take long to make contact with spring's favorite fish.

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