A handful of the Badger State's southern lakes offer some of the hottest walleye action found anywhere south of the Canadian border. (June 2009)
Mike Cropp of Elkhorn admires the walleye his wife, Pat, caught on Delavan Lake in Walworth County while fishing with guide John Reddy. By mid-June, Reddy says, walleyes are usually just outside the weedlines in 12 to 17 feet of water.
Photo courtesy of Reddy's Guide Service.
Walleyes and Wisconsin go together like -- well, cheese and Wisconsin. In fact, one of my favorite walleye recipes is a steamy, cheesy au-gratin casserole that is so tasty it has made some folks swear off pizza. But that's another story!
To get a walleye into a casserole or frying pan, you must first get him into your net. Some anglers make a season-opener trip up north or spend a day on the Wolf River in April and figure that's the best they can do for these white-tipped wonders.
Others of us know better. Southern Wisconsin lakes are better known for bass, but a handful of the Badger State's southern lakes offer some of the hottest walleye action found anywhere south of the Canadian border. Here's a look at the top five in my book.
If Lake Winnebago has somehow eluded your walleye radar screen in the past few years, you simply have not been paying attention. Lake Winnebago sprawls across 130,000 acres in east-central Wisconsin. It is the last lake in the chain on the Fox River, as it flows toward the bay of Green Bay. With a maximum depth of about 21 feet and an average depth closer to 7 feet, this is a shallow-water fishery.
Fisheries biologist Kendall Kamke of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources in Oshkosh monitors the spawning run each year and conducts fall fingerling surveys to assess the annual walleye production. Most walleyes in the Winnebago Pool lakes -- Winnebago, Poygan, Butte des Mort, Winneconne -- spawn in upriver marshes on the Fox and Wolf rivers. Once they finish spawning, these fish head back to the lakes and leave the rest to nature. In recent years, the weather gods have smiled upon Winnebago pool walleyes; Kamke reports the lakes are loaded with fish of all sizes.
Winnebago walleyes here can be found in one of three places: on shallow rock reefs, in or near weeds and suspended over deep mud flats. One of these habitat types will usually hold fish actively feeding on abundant forage: shad, troutperch (known locally as "grounders" because they hug the bottom), or young-of-the year perch, white bass, crappies, sheepshead or even walleyes.
When he wants big fish, tournament pro Steve Wiedmeyer of West Bend trolls deep water in the middle of the lake's north end, where he looks for schools of baitfish with walleyes suspended beneath them.
"I often start out with crankbaits," Wiedmeyer says. "And I'll vary the colors and depths until something clicks. If they don't produce, I'll switch to 'crawler harnesses and vary the blade colors until I start catching fish."
When he's looking for eating-size fish, Wiedmeyer likes to work the east shore breaks off Calumet Harbor. If he strikes out there, he often heads across the lake to troll off Oshkosh.
Jig-fishermen usually work the west-shore reefs south of Oshkosh. Most of these are marked on any good map. Some jut to within a few feet of the surface, so pay attention to your locator.
Weed growth has improved in Winnebago's many shallow bays, thanks in part to improved water clarity -- a welcomed byproduct of the otherwise destructive zebra mussel. Some anglers take good fish on weedless crankbaits, jigs and live bait right in the shallow weeds.
Lake Winnebago is anchored by Fond du Lac on the south and Neenah-Menasha on the north. Oshkosh sits at the mouth of the Fox River on the west shore. Public landings are found at every community around the lake, so decide where you want to start fishing, then pick a launch site.
Walleyes are fair game year 'round here. The daily bag limit is five, and there is no minimum-length size limit. You can try for a couple of trophies, or settle for a limit of "eaters."
Contacts: WDNR fisheries office in Oshkosh, phone: (920) 424-7880; Dutch's Trading Post in Fond du Lac, phone: (920) 922-0311; and Fox River Bait & Tackle in Oshkosh, phone: (920) 233-7409. Those shops can recommend local guides.
Lake Puckaway lies way upstream on the Fox River, in western Green Lake County. Puckaway covers 5,500 acres, but it is very shallow. The east basin is less than 5 feet deep, while the "deep" spot in the west basin is only 6 feet. Structure is minimal, but the weeds have come back in recent years to provide cover for forage and walleyes alike.
Walleye season at Lake Puckaway is open year 'round. The statewide five-fish bag and 15-inch minimum-length size limits apply.
Fishing guide Jeff Bennett fishes Puckaway and other area lakes year 'round. Bennett, who is chairman of the local Walleyes for Tomorrow (WFT) chapter, says walleye fishing has improved in recent years.
"We've been stocking the lake with walleyes now for 16 years, and it's really paying off," Bennett says.
WDNR fisheries biologist Dave Bartz says no walleyes were stocked in 2007 or 2008 because of concerns over viral hemorrhagic septicemia (VHS). Natural reproduction, which is good in years with high spring runoff, should provide some boost to walleye numbers until stocking can be resumed in another year or two, Bartz says.
Walleyes run up the Fox River to the dam in Montello each spring. Come June, many walleyes are still in the river, where Bennett trolls crankbaits and spoons behind inline planer boards. He also takes walleyes jigging vertically or dragging live minnows on a simple Lindy Rig with a split shot, red hooks and colored beads.
In the lake, action is good near the mouth of the river at the lake's west end and throughout the west basin, as fish are constantly coming into the lake in June. Once the weeds come up, Bennett likes to troll or cast gold/red or green/silver Little Cleos over the weedtops. He says there is consistent action for walleyes up 25 inches, with an occasional larger fish.
Four boat landings are located on the south shore -- three of them in the village of Marquette and one west of town on Oak Road. On the north shore, two landings are found off North Shore Drive.
Contacts: Lake Puckaway Protection and Rehabilitation District, online at www
.lakepuckaway.com; and fishing guide Jeff Bennett of JNB Guided Fishing Service in Markesan, phone: (920) 394-3114 or (920) 291-6799, or at www.jnbguidedfishing. com.
Lake Delavan covers about 2,000 acres in Walworth County. Over the span of a half-century, carp and nutrient runoff degraded the lake's water quality to such an extent that about 20 years ago, the WDNR undertook what was at that time the largest lake drawdown and restoration project of its kind. Once rough fish were removed, game fish and panfish were restocked and managed with careful regulation. Today, Delavan is one of southeast Wisconsin's best lakes for bass, panfish, northern pike, muskies and walleyes.
"We stock it every year with between a half-million and a million fry," says WDNR fisheries biologist Doug Welch. "In alternate years, we also stock about 70,000 fingerlings. The growth rate here is excellent, with about 25 percent of adult walleyes running 18 inches or longer."
Lake Delevan's walleye season opens the first Saturday in May. The daily bag limit is three walleyes, measuring 18 inches or more.
"In late spring, look for new weed growth along the north shore . . . in front of Lake Lawn Resort," says Delevan fishing guide John Reddy. "By mid-June, walleyes are usually just outside the weedline in 12 to 17 feet of water. They hide in the weeds to ambush prey and sometimes patrol the outside edges of the weeds."
If the water is cooler than 55 or 60 degrees, Reddy uses fathead minnows, leeches and night crawlers for bait. He fishes these baits within 3 feet of the bottom, sometimes using a slip-bobber or rigging out with a size 3/0 split shot set 18 inches above on a size 8 Tru-Turn hook. He fishes the latter setup with his spinning reel bail open and lets it free fall.
Later in summer, many walleyes suspend just off the weedlines in 20 to 30 feet of water, depending on the depth of the thermocline and how hot the weather has been. Reddy fishes lighted slip-bobbers at night with circle hooks and live minnows.
Reddy also has luck trolling open water with crankbaits in bluegill, perch or shad patterns. In spring, he likes stick baits with a tight wobble. In summer, he switches to wide-wobbling shad-style baits.
The best landing is located just off Highway 50 on South Shore Drive.
Contact: Fishing guide John Reddy, of Reddy Guide Service in Delevan, phone (262) 949-3470, or online at www.reddyguideservice.com.
Geneva Lake, also located in Wal-worth County, covers 10,000 acres. Doug Welch says Geneva's walleyes are doing well, thanks to alternate-year stockings of 35 fingerlings per acre. The lake holds walleyes well over 10 pounds, but you have to work for them. Geneva is deep and clear, with weedbeds as deep as 30 feet or more in spots.
Popular with pleasure boaters, Geneva rarely gives up its walleyes during the day. Night-fishing, however, can be very productive. John Reddy trolls stickbaits at night in spring and shad-style cranks in summer, switching from one to the other when the water temp hits that magic 60-degree mark.
"Walleyes here are third-shifters," Reddy says. "They suspend in 15 to 20 feet of water over deep weed flats due to all the boat traffic. Some guys use snap weights to get baits down. I use a 50/50 system: I run out 50 feet of line, then snap on a weight and then run another 50 feet. It works like a mini-downrigger."
Occasionally, walleyes move up higher in the water column. Then, Reddy runs long lines 100 to 150 feet back on in-line planer boards to keep baits away from the boat. Lights or reflective tape on the boards help him detect bites. Despite the water clarity, crankbaits in firetiger and other bright patterns are hot, perhaps because they imitate the abundant perch and bluegills. Gold/silver and black/silver also work well.
Reddy also trolls just over weedtops with spinner rigs in the same colors or with a blue blade, sweetened with natural or Berkley Gulp! 'crawlers. Gulp! 'crawlers help reduce hits from marauding rock bass, which often gobble up the naturals. In-line weights help get spinners down.
In late summer, walleyes may move as deep as 40 or 50 feet, where they feed on ciscoes, mirror shiners and mimic shiners. Look for bigger marks behind deep schools of baitfish and troll through them.
Reddy also does well vertical jigging breaklines with a Swedish Pimple or other spoon, letting it settle to the bottom, then ripping it aggressively to trigger reaction strikes.
Top spots include Cisco Bay on the north shore, from Cedar Point to the Narrows; Button's Bay from the Narrows east; Geneva Bay, which has stair-step dropoffs from 12 feet out to deep water; and Fontana Bay, from Rainbow Point to the military academy.
"There are probably a dozen spots on the lake where weeds run from 6 to 18 feet, with good dropoffs into 40 or 50 feet," Reddy says. "These are great walleye spots all year long."
Fishing guide Jim Tostrud has had some luck with Geneva walleyes during the day. He has taken them trolling stick baits over weeds and fishing live bait in deep water. His best was a 30-incher taken on a live perch in 50 feet of water.
Public landings are located in each community around the lake. Parking for rigs is limited, however, because of the lake's popularity.
Contacts: Geneva Lake Bait & Tackle in Delevan, phone: (262) 245-6150; fishing guide John Reddy of Reddy Guide Service in Delevan, phone: (262) 949-3470 or online at, www.reddyguideservice.com; and Jim Tostrud in Kenosha, phone (262) 496-5178, or at www.wildlifevisions. net.
Fed by the Rock River, Lake Koshkonong stretches across 10,000 acres in southwestern Jefferson County. Walleyes here have made a tremendous comeback, thanks to natural reproduction, stocking efforts and an aggressive carp-management program that removes tons of these rough fish each year.
"Right now, we are riding the crest of the tremendous 2004 year-class," reports WDNR fisheries biologist Don Bush. "Those fish range from 20 to 23 inches, and there are lots of them."
To supplement natural reproduction, walleyes are stocked from the Bark River Fry Hatchery, which sits at the confluence of the Bark and Rock rivers near Fort Atkinson. Last year, the hatchery was closed because of concerns over VHS; then, the heavy rains that wreaked havoc across southern Wisconsin flooded it. Bush says it was slated to be up and running again this year.
Walleyes are fair game year 'round here, and the statewide limits of five fish per day of 15 inches or longer apply.
Koshkonong is shallow and practically devoid of structure, but fishing guide Jim O'Brien says you can catch walleyes consistently if you target the lake's few small rockpiles
, many of which are not on lake maps.
"Look for any little change in bottom structure, like a dip or small rockpile, and you'll find walleyes," O'Brien says. "I rely on a GPS unit with a digital map system."
Many anglers troll the open lake, dragging bright-colored, shallow-running crankbaits behind planer boards. An old roadbed that runs from southwest to northeast, west of Haight's Bay in the center of the lake, provides structure.
There are still plenty of walleyes in the river in June. Trolling is not permitted in the river, but controlled drifting with jigs and live bait will take them, Reddy says. Try above the lake, upriver from Blackhawk Island or near the mouth of the river at Newville, where a big clam bed holds fish. If there is high water again this summer, the river should hold fish well into August, as it did last year.
Several public landings are found around Lake Koshkonong. Among the best is the site located off the Highway 26 bypass at the east end of the lake.
Contacts: fishing guide Jim O'Brien of Dancing With Walleyes Fishing Guide Service, phone: (262) 549-5292 or online at www.dancingwithwalleyes.com; and fishing guide John Reddy of Reddy's Guide Service in Delevan, phone: (262) 949-3470 or online at www.reddyguideservice.com.
These lakes are all large enough to challenge any angler new to Wisconsin walleye fishing. You'll have better luck if you pick one and get to know its structure and its moods rather than try to hit them all. Any one of them can give you all the walleye action you can handle.
: For more fishing tips, listen to the author's weekly radio show, Outdoors Radio with Dan Small, on broadcast stations throughout the state and also available as a podcast on http://lake-link.com/radio and iTunes.