Top Opening-Day Walleye Lakes
September 30, 2010
Are you looking for a lake where you can catch a mess of walleyes on the first Saturday in May? Then hit one of these waters!
by Ted Peck
In a state with so many diverse walleye fisheries, selecting a lake to welcome the opening of the general fishing season is no easy task.
Spring walleyes are fairly predictable once you find the fish and correctly interpret their mood. But in a state with so many lakes, rivers, impoundments and flowages, choosing where to launch the boat on the first Saturday in May can be a source of profound discourse and self-examination. Or it can be a simple matter of going to the same lake you've fished every opening day for years.
Some anglers choose their opening-day venue looking for walleyes that haven't seen a hook in a while. Others head for a flowage or river to avoid potential crowds and perhaps continue to key in on walleyes they've had dialed in for some time.
With several distinct climatic zones, fish in the northern part of our state will probably have a different attitude than their double-dorsaled counterparts in southern Wisconsin. Weather can be nasty up north as the landscape is still trying to shake off seasonal change. But walleyes should be in the chowing-down mode that follows their post-spawn funk.
In southern Wisconsin the fish will still be shallow and should be feeding aggressively. But they may already be sliding into the lowlight feeding mode if the opener turns out to be bright and sunny.
So much water, so little time. Following are our top picks for waters subject to seasonal fishing regulations. Good luck choosing.
Tom Schwanke displays a nice northwoods walleye. Photo by Ted Peck
LAKE WAUBESA Walleyes should be in a night-bite mode on this fertile lake at the lower end of the Madison Chain on opening day. If you live in southern Wisconsin and plan on starting the season at 12:01 a.m. on Saturday morning, this shallow basin is as good as any to fill a five-fish limit with 15- to 18-inch walleyes.
Waubesa doesn't have much in the way of structure. There is a pretty fair rock bar out from the Green Lantern, and a big flat that often holds fish running from Hog Island up to the railroad trestle at the north end where Waubesa is fed by Mud Lake. Since this lake is so shallow and fertile, targeting water over submergent weedtops with a Rapala or similar shallow-running stick bait is a good way to find fish. There is always a little bit of current at the trestle that tends to draw 'eyes at night virtually all summer long; stick baits or Lindy Rigs are both effective ways to fish.
These spots are a fairly long run from the boat ramp at Babcock Park on U.S. 51 south of McFarland. Your shortest route to a limit on opening day on the Madison Chain lies in launching here, then easing around the small island to target the steep break off of Rockford Heights to the north, or off of the big slide at the Bible camp to the south. Don't use the new Yo-Zuri Suspending Crystal Minnow unless you have a net in the boat.
Contacts: Greater Madison Convention & Visitors Bureau, 1-800-373-6376; Web site: www.visitmadison.com; guide service: Ron Barefield, (608) 838-8756.
LAKE MOHAWKSIN This 1,800-acre flowage hiding in the town of Tomahawk at the gateway to Wisconsin's northwoods is subject to statewide seasonal regulations on a considerable portion of its waters, but other waters in the river are open year-round.
The riverine character of these waters means that they are somewhat stained. As a result, fish tend to hold shallower and bite more readily during the daylight hours.
Three railroad bridges that cross these waters are veritable opening-day walleye magnets; chartreuse or pink weedless jigs tipped with either minnows or leeches are more than these fish can resist. Since fish tend to hold shallow, a 1/16- to 1/8-ounce jighead is plenty of weight to get your bait into the "fish zone."
Walleyes also relate to emerging cabbage flats along the old river channel that courses through Mohawksin, to steeper rocky dropoffs on the southwest corner of the lake, and to rocky shoreline east of the dam. Fish that are fairly shallow and relating to the cabbage tend to be aggressive. Try snap-jigging with a 1/4-ounce purple jighead and Fuzz-E-Grub tipped with a minnow. Walleyes often hang down 3 to 4 feet in the cabbage. You'll rarely find them deeper than 12 feet until summer arrives.
According to the DNR, this water has a "great population" of 12- to 17-inch fish, with occasional 9- to 10-pounders also cruising in the system.
Mohawksin has three good boat launches. Use due care when negotiating stumpfields that tend to border deeper water in the old creek channel.
Contacts: Tomahawk Chamber of Commerce, (715) 453-5334; guide service: Steve Huber, (715) 362-3857; Web site: www.herefishyfishy.com/.
LAKE RIPLEY Most anglers on this 418-acre Jefferson County lake in southern Wisconsin on opening weekend will be in hot pursuit of the excellent largemouth bass population swimming therein. Although bass are probably the shortest route to a stretched string, a fair population of 24- to 26-inch walleyes is cruising along the deeper weed edge contours right now, willing to hit a minnow fished on a jig or beneath a slip-bobber.
According to DNR fisheries biologist Don Bush, surveys completed last fall reveal an exceptional population of "up and coming" walleyes that should provide action in years to come, with many of these fish just shy of the 15-inch minimum limit.
Because of these smaller walleyes and the existence of a premier bass fishery, most anglers overlook fishing for the lake's 4- to 7-pound walleyes that receive virtually no angling pressure.
Contact: Lake Ripley Marine Headquarters, (608) 423-3848.
LAKE WINNEBAGO Vast Lake Winnebago in east-central Wisconsin is one of the top walleye factories in the Midwest, with one of the largest and most diverse 'eye populations in the entire state, according to DNR biologist Kendall Kamke.
The best time to go after these fish is between opening day and mid-July when the lake practically spills over with young-of-year baitfish; easy food makes fishing tough.
According to Kamke, the troutperch (locally known as 'grounder') population in Winnie has set r
ecords for production the past three years running, and the gizzard shad population inhabiting these waters has been deemed "the biggest in a decade."
"Factor in young-of-year white bass and sheepshead and it's no wonder these fish shy away from hooks by midsummer," Kamke muses. "But before the baitfish grow to eating size for walleyes, the action in this fishery is as good as you'll find anywhere."
There are several perennially effective methods for cashing in on Winnie's walleye bonanza. The easiest way is a lazy troll in the main-lake basin with spinner rigs and crawlers or maybe crankbaits.
More exciting action comes when wind is a factor - which is almost always the case. Walleyes move extremely shallow under windy conditions, stacking up on shallow humps, reefs and bars on the windward side of the lake. If fish are holding on this structure you'll know it with less than a dozen casts. Major keys to success for these walleyes lie in very light black jigs tipped with minnows and hi-visibility line like Berkley Solar XT. Feeling a walleye slurp in your minnow on a 1/16-ounce jig is not often easy in a substantial wind, even with a sensitive IM-7 graphite rod. The hi-vis line doesn't seem to bother these aggressive walleyes. And the presence of a fish on the business end of your line is clearly indicated, even if the distance between the rod tip and jig is a perfect parabolic bow.
There are few things sweeter in walleye fishing than setting the hook with a jig and feeling the headshake of a solid fish at the other end. The banner year-class of 1992 is precisely that - solid 7- to 8-pound fish that are still present in good numbers.
Although biologists like Kamke refuse to quantify fish populations with words like "gazillion," few anglers would argue with a contention that there are approximately three gazillion cookie-cutter 18- to 22-inch walleyes in Winnie - this estimate seems especially modest when you find them stacked up on a reef.
My best walleye-catching day in recent memory happened on the south end of Winnie one balmy, breezy day last June. It took about 15 casts to boat four 18-inchers and one headshaking 7-pounder, and my two angling partners enjoyed similar results. We must have caught and released 30 to 40 walleyes in just over an hour.
There is every reason to believe this walleye factory's population will continue to prosper for at least the next decade. Although the 1999 and 2000 year-classes of little walleyes numbered almost as few as the drought years of the mid-1980s, the 2001 year-class of little 'eyes is nearly as large as the off-the-charts hatch of 1996 that created those 18-to 22-inchers which now number in the gazillions on this huge inland lake.
Boat launches, motels and other amenities can be found in the cities that ring the lake. The new Fishing HotSpots map has accurate GPS coordinates to help you home in on more popular reefs and other structure. The number for the Oshkosh Convention & Visitor's Center is (920) 424-0282. A good source of fishing information is Dutch's Trading Post in Fond du Lac, (920) 922-0311. Up by Oshkosh, try Fox River Bait & Tackle, (920) 233-7409.
RED CEDAR LAKE This 1,841-acre lake in Barron County and its inlet into Balsam Lake to the north can provide walleye action nothing short of incredible - if you hit everything just right.
DNR biologist Rick Cornelius says spring walleye activity is driven entirely by water temperature, with fish congregating in great numbers at the north end near the inlet, the entries of Sucker and Pigeon creeks, and around rocky points and shoreline when water temperatures rise to 45 to 48 degrees.
If this occurs before opening day, fish will spawn and slide a little deeper as they move into a summer pattern, taking up residence on deeper humps where slip-bobbers and leeches or minnows set at 12 to 15 feet will usually provoke some action.
Those windy days that signal seasonal change are also good, as walleyes move shallow on top of humps and rocky points on the windward side of the lake. Black is a good jig color early on, and purple is a good second choice.
Mid-May to mid-June is the best time to target Red Cedar; center your walleye efforts in the northern half of the lake.
Red Cedar has three public boat ramps. The best is located on the west side in the Waldo Carlson County Park. Bag limits are subject to tribal treaty rules, but the limit is generally three fish over 15 inches. Bait and good information is available at Barb's General Store in Mikana. You can get a great meal in Mikana at Robert Earl's. Owner Bob Quillen knows this lake better than anybody, and is by far the best guide. All other amenities are available about 15 miles north in Rice Lake. Contact Bob Quillen at (715) 234-7724.
NORTH TWIN LAKE This big lake north of Eagle River has always been a good place to try for a springtime trophy walleye. But until recently, numbers of catchable fish have been down. According to George Langley of Eagle Sports in Eagle River, this will be the year of the walleye on North Twin.
Last year Langley and other guides working out of his bait shop spent a lot of time on Twin, where catching and releasing a mess of fish just shy of the 15-inch limit was routinely part of a day on the water. "We probably averaged 40 to 60 walleyes every time out on this lake," Langley said. "This year the fish will be legal and the perfect size for shore lunch."
By opening day, a major portion of the walleye population will have taken up residence on numerous rocky bars found on this exceptionally clear 3,000-acre lake. Popular spots are Ozark, Bulrush, Hospital, Flag Pole and Long bars where fish will be holding in less than 10 feet of water this time of year.
Langley doesn't hesitate to share with anglers the general location of these bars or show folks in his bait shop the "killer" colors of 1/8- to 1/4-ounce jigs that work best when tipped with fathead minnows.
The real key to success on North Twin is finding the "spot on the spot." Fish tend to school in very tight clusters here, hanging in transition zones where bigger rocks taper into smaller aggregate, such as weed edges.
Catching the first fish is the tough part. Once you find what the fish are relating to, toss out a marker and get the landing net ready.
Both the Lakota and Phelps launches are excellent facilities. Eagle River is the heart of northland activity, so get your business done in town early before rush-hour traffic snarls the downtown area.
LAC VIEUX DESERT This sprawling Michigan-Wisconsin boundary water has probably the most diverse fishery of any northern lake, offering trophy muskies, bass and walleyes. Lac Vieux Desert is a shallow, fertile basin lake covering some 2,900 acres.
The term "nice walleye chop" may have been coin
ed here. Wind will almost always be a factor. And Vieux Desert is no place to be in a small boat.
Vieux Desert is full of beautiful cabbage weeds that hold plenty of walleyes (and those pesky muskies). It also has some great rockbars with emergent cabbage on the west end that are good places to target right now. There is also a boat launch on the west end that you'll want to avoid unless launching a small boat. Better launches for suitable big-water boats can be found in Thunder Bay and at Misery Bay on the Michigan side of the lake.
Probably the best early-season spots to target here are around the cabbage beds in Rice and Thunder bays, the area around Duck Point, and the series of ridges on the south end. The standard jig-and-minnow works best early on; pink, chartreuse and orange are generally hot colors.
Once you find a concentration of fish relating to the cabbage, try tossing a fire-tiger No. 7 shallow ShadRap. Take several. You'll likely encounter "toothers" once you've found active walleyes.
Contact: George Langley, Eagle Sports Shop, (715) 479-8804.
DELAVAN LAKE Walworth County's 2,800-acre Delavan Lake is a testament to the good science of fisheries management. DNR biologist Doug Welch was tasked with the chore of rehabilitating this heavily used lake about 13 years ago.
Every aspect of the reclamation proceeded at or above expectations - except for the walleyes, which were too numerous to attain any kind of growth. Removing 3,500 of these little fish for restocking in other waters three years ago has allowed this lake to become an exceptional fishery for bass, panfish, northern pike and walleyes.
By opening day these fish will be post-spawn and very active, especially in the shallows at night. Target the long bar out from Lake Lawn Lodge, the rocky bar that sweeps around the entry to Brown's Channel, and the south shore of the lake out from the DelMar subdivision. Use jigs and minnows, and shallow-running crankbaits. Target emergent weed edges, casting the shoreline - especially during lowlight periods. And don't overlook deeper water out from some of the docks on the south side.
Delavan has excellent launch facilities and offers a quality fishing experience between now and Memorial Day when there is a major hatch of personal watercraft and bona fide idiots, especially on the weekends.
Contact: Brian Gates, Geneva Lake Bait & Tackle, (262) 245-6150.
LONG LAKE Now is the time to chase trophy walleyes on this Washburn County lake, before they slide deep and become pensive amongst the considerable structure found in these 3,300 acres. Long Lake is a challenge, even now when fish are relating to the weedline and moving to shallow-water rocky flats in the evening.
This deep, narrow lake located south of Highway 70 and east of Highway 53 is rich in ciscoes, which the walleyes follow closely throughout much of the year. Big cisco-colored baits like the No. 18 blue/silver floating Rapala and Pete Maina's Jake lure in similar colors are your shortest route to a whopper - especially over the rocks out from Kunz and Holy islands on the lake's south and east sides when the sun goes down.
Due west of Kunz Island is a series of several shallow humps that also attract big walleyes at low light, as does the 10- to 12-foot breakline between Kunz and Holy islands that is best fished with a spinner rig/crawler harness from mid-May to mid-June.
Long Lake has plenty of access points and numerous resorts. It is one of Indianhead Country's most popular recreational fishing lakes.
Contact: Washburn County Tourism, 1-800-367-3306; www.washburncounty.org.
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