It may still feel like winter, but serious walleye anglers are launching their boats on rivers all across our state. You should get in on the great fishing, too!
By Ted Peck
It may still look like winter here in Wisconsin, but a bunch of serious walleye chasers are already out there probing the open water on rivers. In a few short weeks the boat ramps will be choked with legions of anglers trying to shake off cabin fever. Rivers may be on the rise, and walleyes will definitely be on the move.
Now is the time for walleye gypsies to plot their travels to be there for the spring run on a mission that won't end until the marble eyes move out of frigid Lake Superior into the St. Louis River in mid-May.
There is a definite timetable for keeping a perpetual stretch in your string for walleye anglers in Wisconsin, with warming waters calling fish upstream in small to medium-sized rivers first. Some of these rivers feed massive lake systems. The Wolf and Fox rivers eventually reach Green Bay, as do the Peshtigo, Suamico, Pensaukee and Menominee, which is perhaps the best spring walleye river in Wisconsin. Other rivers like the Wisconsin, Kickapoo, Pecatonica and Rock feed into the mighty Mississippi River.
Lesser tributaries like the Pecatonica and Kickapoo offer limited fishing opportunities, resulting in reputations that are merely whispered around the coffee shops not far from where these waters run. Serious walleye chasers listen carefully between bites of pancakes. All I'm going tell you about the Kickapoo is that if you happen to see a red GMC pickup parked outside of Readstown with birdshot dings in the passenger side door and a retired professional firefighter decal on the back window, the owner is probably looking for wild asparagus.
The same truck might be parked near the Martintown bridge near the Pecatonica River in southwestern Wisconsin, too, or at Pine Island on the Lower Wisconsin River near Portage, not far from where the Baraboo River enters our namesake stream. Asparagus comes up a little later below the Grandfather Dam way above Wausau on our heartland river.
Little spots like these couldn't stand the fishing pressure like a community spot below De Pere Dam on the Fox River from ice-out to mid-April receives. If you're looking for a new boat, don't bother with the sport shows. Odds are every "walleye" boat you've ever considered will be anchored just below the power lines that mark the fish refuge on the Fox all this month and beyond.
Riverine walleyes in the spring are sort of like apples on a tree. You have the option of hanging around the trunk with everybody else waiting for the fruit to fall, or you can move up into the gnarly branches that feed into the trunk, contend with aggressive wasps and take home the sweetest apples of all.
Following is a look at some of our more popular walleye destinations that can handle heavy fishing pressure.
Brian Clairmont caught this walleye on the Menominee River in Marinette, not far from the railroad bridge. Photo by Ted Peck
The mighty Mississippi goes through quantum changes between its confluence with the St. Croix River and the state line at Dubuque, Iowa.
Every pool between these points holds walleyes, but some areas are definitely better than others. Probably the two top spots to target along our western border are the tailwaters at Red Wing, Minn., and several hours drive farther south in the tailwaters of Pool 8 at Genoa south of La Crosse.
The dam at Genoa that separates Pool 8 and Pool 9 isn't much different than others up and down the river-other than the fact that the federal hatchery facility just south of this sleepy little town dumps thousands of advanced fingerlings into the river system each fall. A steep but serviceable launch about a mile below the dam has its parking lot packed with cars from ice-out in early March to about April 20 when walleyes are close to the rocks in shallow water and serious about spawning.
Some people launching at Genoa who seek the shortest course to the dam are rudely awakened by a rocky wing dam just a couple hundred yards upstream. There is always a crowd of anglers on the Clement's fishing barge below the dam on the Minnesota side every weekend, and a flotilla of folks playing "bumper boats" in the tailwaters in a scenario played out below every dam up and down the river.
Local anglers on Pool 9 avoid the tailwaters on the weekend, targeting places like the wing dams farther downstream at the mouth of Minnesota Slough, and keeping a low profile by casting from shore as the spawn approaches.
Notations from my fishing calendar from the weekend of April 20 last spring indicate three boats whacking the wing dam, and four fat walleyes between 24 and 26 inches were taken on chartreuse twistertails and a jighead at Genoa while fishing from shore where massive concrete pylons used to moor barges break the Mississippi's powerful current.
None of the anglers in dozens of boats making the mad dash to the tailwaters saw me catch any fish. With all the boats foregathered below the dams, somebody is bound to stumble into a walleye often enough to keep the rest of the flotilla interested. If you want to consistently catch quality walleyes on most river pools, pick just one pool and learn the waters a mile below the dam.
Tailwaters at Red Wing stay open all winter thanks to a power plant in close proximity to a boat ramp. Walleyes tend to run larger here, and saugers of mind-boggling proportions inhabit these waters.
In the spring, most successful anglers at Red Wing pull variations of the Wolf River rig upstream, or vertical jig their way downstream with flat "river jigs" with hair tails. After a big cold front, adding a minnow to this jig sometimes helps, but truly wise river rats usually fish just the hair-tailed jig. As we get into April, crankbaits are another weapon to consider.
To be consistently successful on the Mississippi River, the most important factor is time on the water. A new Web site, www.indepthangling.com, is invaluable to anglers coming from any great distance, noting river levels and fluctuations - a major key - and other important information.
Contacts: Bob's Bait, La Crosse, (608) 782-5552; Mississippi Sports and Recreation, De Soto, (608) 648-3630; Captain Hook's Bait & Tackle, Genoa, (608) 689-2800.
There is a world of difference in our namesake river between the boulders and rocks on the river bottom above Wausau and the myriad of sandbars from the Wisconsin Dells Dam so
uth to this river's confluence with the Mississippi River near Prairie du Chien.
On the upper river you won't see crowds of bumper boats at the tailwaters, simply because the water is too "skinny" to allow safe passage. Slack water pools below riffles downstream are good places to find active fish from about April 10 through the end of the month above Wausau.
The upper ends of this river's large flowages like Petenwell, Castle Rock and Lake Wisconsin are worth probing shortly after ice-out as fish move upstream into the river. Tailwaters of all these flowages are also good places to look. But just like on the Mississippi, don't think you need to be within sight of the dam to catch fish.
The Dells tailwaters are a case in point. Sure, there are plenty of walleyes caught on the hump directly below the dam every spring. But more fish are caught fishing sandbar flats downstream in less than 10 feet of water. Most folks fishing the Dells area simply fish too deep. And many successful anglers here find their best results at night by casting shad-bodied grubs on the flats and at creek entry points.
I like to concentrate on the water between Pine Island and the cable that crosses the river about a mile below River's Edge Resort. Navigation can be tricky here, but there are few places where my jet-drive tunnel boat can't go. One of the best spots is about midway between Pine Island and the cable where there are a few rocks along the river just downstream from a tiny slough that is a major walleye spawning area on this neck of river. Walleyes prefer slack water near faster water in riverine ecosystems, especially when seeking out areas to lay their eggs.
Contacts: guide Todd Koehn, Wausau, 1-800-710-8020, www.rivercatch.com.; Ken's Marine, Castle Rock and Petenwell, (608) 565-2426; River's Edge Resort, Wisconsin Dells, (608) 254-6494, www.riversedgeresort.com; Ray's Riverside Resort, Sauk City, (608) 643-3243.
The epicenter of walleye activity on this medium-sized river in south-central Wisconsin is 10,400-acre Lake Koshkonong - essentially a shallow wide spot in the river.
Since it is part of the river system, there is no closed season here, with the best place to fish right now near Blackhawk Island at the lake's east end entry point.
Some walleyes spawn in Koshkonong, with many others venturing upstream into little tributaries like the Bark River. Extensive stocking over the past decade from a hatchery facility on Bark River has resulted in multiple year-classes of walleyes, with a number of fish from initial year-classes in the upper-20-inch range.
Tailwaters of the Jefferson Dam above the lake, the Indianford Dam just downstream, and at both the Monterey Dam in Janesville and Beloit Dam are popular places for 'eye chasers to congregate this time of year. Walleyes in Rock River spawn just before walleyes in the Lower Wisconsin River, usually within five days of April 1 each year.
Targeting that slack water/fast water interface is the key to success, with fish often holding in pools no larger than a living room. Drain tubes, creek entries and similar places are good places to probe, as are ambush points like the small pool downstream from the high school in Jefferson across the river from the big rapids.
A meat-and-potatoes approach of the basic jighead and minnow or Lindy Rig with a minnow typically works best here, with gold jigs no heavier than 1/8-ounce.
Contacts: Riverfront Resort, Blackhawk Island, (920) 563-2757; U-Catch Em Bait, Janesville, (608) 754-7976; Dick's Tackle & Bait, Beloit, (608) 362-8712
The walleye run on the Fox River from the De Pere Dam to this polluted stream's confluence with Green Bay seven miles and seven bridges downstream may be fishing's worst-kept secret.
On any given day it is possible to count over 100 boats from any given point above Voyageur Park, just below the dam, from ice-out until about April 20. A fish refuge is established between the dam and power lines just downstream, with wardens writing many tickets each spring to those who would get a couple inches too close.
Why would any angler subject himself to "bumper boats" in this extreme sense? Because walleyes inhabit that neck of river between the Highway 172 bridge and the dam by the gazillions at mid-April every year, with many fish over 10 pounds. Relatively few of these fish are legally hooked during daylight hours. Those who can orient their watercraft to cast a little slack-water channel and don't mind pulling an "all-nighter" will eventually be rewarded with a whopper.
This fish won't come cheap, however. Just about everybody throws fire-tiger ThunderSticks or jointed No. 13 Rapalas, removing the front treble hook after they've lost a dozen lures or so to the rocks. Last spring I went "crankbait fishing" with my extendable Stowmaster landing net after the sun came up and the bite slacked off. Thirty-three crankbaits worth $5 a pop isn't bad wages for a couple hours' probing near the dam.
Contacts: Bob's Bait, 1-800-447-2312, www.BobsBaitandTackle.net; guide Karl Plog, (920) 336-9860.
This Wisconsin-Michigan boundary river by Marinette - and the Peshtigo River halfway between Marinette and Oconto - is where you want to be when fishing starts to slow down on the Fox River.
Lure selection is the same - fire-tiger ThunderSticks and Rapalas - once fish begin to move inland from staging points at the mouth of Green Bay. This migration will be quick, lasting no more than a day or two. Hit it right like I did in the spring of 2002 and you'll experience a natural high. Imagine catching 22 walleyes in just a couple hours, all weighing from 5 to 11 pounds, while dozens of walleyes continue to bump into your waders on their way upstream!
Last year I was perhaps a day late, catching only one legal fish over 10 pounds, which was released along with at least a dozen more that were inadvertently snagged. Although the bag limit is only one fish daily, foul-hooking is definitely a problem here with no easy answer. Barbless hooks only? Certainly worth considering.
Contacts: Michigan DNR Web site, www.fishline.com; Marinette Inn, 1-800-468-1939; AmericInn, (906) 863-8699.
Walleyes staged in Lake Winnebago - our state's premier walleye factory - get the urge to move many miles upstream to Fremont and beyond just about the same time walleyes are going great guns on the Fox, which is sometime between April 10 and April 20.
Like other rivers, the major upstream push on the Wolf happens at night. But unlike the Fox and to a lesser extent the Menominee, the gauntlet these fish have to run is more linear than wide.
A 5-year-old can cast across this river up around New London. But the Wolf here is surprising deep. A good plan is to set up in an ambush point where the slack water meets the fast water - like an entry point to a marsh - and employ a Wolf River rig or similar presentation that allows the fish to come to you rather than actively casting to them.
The upstream run only lasts a couple days at best. But when fish are done, they take a more leisurely slide back downstream a little higher up in the water column. Those marks halfway to the bottom on your electronics are walleyes until proven otherwise.
Contacts: Critter's Sports, (920) 582-0471; Double B Guide Service, (920) 836-2377.
ST. LOUIS & ST. CROIX RIVERS
These two Minnesota-Wisconsin boundary rivers have opening days that correspond with the general fishing season in May. Walleyes are still headed inland from Lake Superior to spawn in the St. Louis when mid-May rolls around.
Target areas near the buoys just in from the main lake in a trolling presentation with crankbaits and spinner-rig crawler harnesses. Keep a jig rod rigged and ready to probe obvious breaks, and pitch either light jigs and plastic tails or small crankbaits when probing around the riffles upstream below the first dam.
May on the St. Croix typically means high and roily water as the Midwest tries to shake winter runoff down the Mississippi. A popular local spot is the Kinnikinnic Narrows between Prescott and Afton, Minn., with the swing bridge at Hudson also worth a look.
The Web site www.InDepthAngling.com is your smartest first stop before planning a trip to either of these rivers when May rolls around. This site keeps a close watch on river levels and other variables, with a river's mood the primary key to fish activity.
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Any river rat can tell you the most important "online" connection is a hook kept in the water wherever these dual-dorsaled denizens of the low light like to swim. And now is the time to get that hook in the water!
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