Wisconsin's Top Opening-Day Walleye Waters

Just because a lake opens up to fishing on the first Saturday in May doesn't mean that's the best place to go. The walleyes will be going like gangbusters on these waters.

By Ted Peck

Wisconsin has a wealth of walleye waters - from rivers and flowages to inland lakes and Great Lakes - where old marble-eyes hasn't seen an intentional hook for several months.

Here's a look at some of our top waters when the time comes to break out the long rods again for opening day of the regular inland fishing season in May.

Wisconsin's biggest walleyes always seem to come from Green Bay, either from tributary action right now or in the fall, or in the heat of summer when most anglers are busy chasing other species.

The south end of Green Bay is shallow and often turbid, making fluorescent lures a good option. Many successful anglers troll big-bladed spinner rigs and night crawlers, using a split shot or Rubbercor sinker up the line about three feet to keep the bait lower in the water column and deflect most weeds.

Those spinnerblades that give off erratic vibrations like the Lindy Hatchet Spinner seem to attract more fish, with these walleyes feeding as much by vibration as by sight. As a rule of thumb, the warmer water gets, the bigger blade you want to use. Typically this means No. 3 blades in June and No. 4 or No. 5 later in the summer. For this bait to track well, the night crawler must be hooked through the very tip of the head, with another hook from a No. 6 treble impaling the worm behind the breeding ring. Spinner rigs need to be trolled slowly to be effective. Most local anglers go about 1.3 to 1.8 mph with the wind, with the spinners about 25 to 40 feet behind planer boards.

Geano's Reef and similar structures attract fish all summer long, with wind direction and velocity a major factor in fish location, especially on the south end of the bay.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

Fishing is a little different an hour up the Door County coast out of Fish Creek. A small cadre of savvy anglers believe the state's long-standing 18-pound record will fall here, with a "fish story" to this effect causing quite a buzz here last summer.

A good base of operations is Peninsula State Park, concentrating on sharp structural changes around Chambers Island and the Strawberry Islands, and other subtle reefs that lie far offshore.

Locating offshore structure is tough to the point of being nearly impossible without a good Global Positioning System. The ideal tool is a GPS with the global mapping chip that makes it easier to find hidden structure and probe contours where these big basin fish are liable to be cruising.

With alewives, smelt and shiners as a primary summer forage base, it makes sense that chrome/blue, gold/black and clown-pattern deep-diving crankbaits are very effective. Using a trolling chart to figure how deep your lures are running is a key to success, trolling similar baits at staggered distances behind planer boards until you find exactly what these fish want on a given day. Time of day doesn't seem to be important. Put the bait in front of these walleyes and they're liable to eat any time. But the devil is in the details: that bait must be right in front of fish. Big walleyes don't have the inclination to go chasing down dinner.

A long, heavy-duty extendable net like the StowMaster may spell the difference between a trip to the taxidermist and tale about the one that got away. When a big walleye drags the planer board behind the boat, she will headshake and not be in a big hurry to come up out of the depths. A steady retrieve with rod held high is the best method to bring a whopper to the surface. Once a big fish is on the surface, physics give the advantage to the fish. A long-handled net can be a proactive cure for heartbreak.

Contacts: Bob's Bait & Tackle, 1-800-447-2312 or www.bobsbaitandtackle.net; Fish Creek Information Center, 1-800-577-1880 or www.fishcreek.info.

Right now a large segment of the huge lake's walleye biomass is hovering just out from the Pioneer Inn in Oshkosh, either getting ready to push upstream into Lake Poygan and the rivers, or back down in the big water after making the run.

Come May, these fish will be patrolling Winnebago's windblown reefs looking for gizzard shad and trout-perch, and settling for just about anything from jigs to crankbaits.

There are two perpetual truths about this premier walleye factory that 'eye chasers should keep in mind before heading out. One is that wind is good thing. The harder it blows, the more fish tend to stack up in exceptionally shallow water looking for food. Secondly, the best fishing comes before mid-July when there are so many baitfish in the water that all a walleye has to do to eat is open its mouth.

"Summer success on Winnebago is driven primarily by how large forage year-classes are," DNR biologist Ron Bruch said. "Once the shad, grounders and other species like young white bass and sheepshead show up, you're better off fishing elsewhere."

The size of walleye year-classes also affects angler success. A huge hatch from 1996 will be yielding 'eyes approaching trophy status this year, with the 2001 year-class providing a pile of eating-sized walleyes to the mix.

As is the case on Green Bay, Winnebago's walleyes are fools for a trolling presentation with 'crawlers or crankbaits out on the main-lake basin, especially if winds are generally calm. Hot-N-Tots and Wiggle Warts are popular baits, as are RipSticks and ThunderStick Juniors. Crankbaits are generally more effective when trolled at a faster clip than you would drag spinner rigs. About 2.2 mph is in the ballpark. A serpentine trolling pattern will slow cranks on one side of the boat while speeding lures up on the other side. Once you figure out how fast walleyes want the bait, filling a limit is just a matter of time.

If there is a good "walleye chop" on Winnebago you might want to tie on 1/16-ounce jigs tipped with minnows and head for the windward side of the lake. You know the "walleye chop" is just about right when guys on surfboards start racing you to the beach. Boat control is critical to success. Your boat will get bashed if you get too close. But you won't hook up if you stay out too far. A 7- to 8-foot spinning rod capable of long casts is the best weapon, with high-visibility low-stretch line like the green Berkley FireLine being the best way to go. In a 20 mph wind it's tough to feel a bite on a 1/16-ounce jig even with the most sensitive rod. An angler with low-stretch line who can see the fish hit will catch more fish.

Anglers coming from any distance to fish Winnebago would be wise to pack everything from crappie rods to catfish gear. Something is always biting on Winnebago - which is certainly in the running for sheepshead capital of the universe. If walleyes aren't active out on the big water, you could consider moving up into the rivers or feeder lakes like Winneconne, Butte des Morts or Poygan.

Don't forget the most recent Fishing HotSpots map (1-800-500-MAPS). GPS coordinates make it easy to find offshore reefs and other structure. No GPS? Just look for the boats.

Winnebago is ringed with boat ramps, lodging and other services, with "walleye" spoken just about everywhere you stop.

Contacts: Dutch's Trading Post in Fond du Lac, (920) 922-0311; Fox River Bait and Tackle in Oshkosh, (920) 233-7409; Oshkosh Convention and Visitor's Center, (920) 424-0282.

Washington County isn't known as an angling mecca, with local walleye anglers content to keep it that way. Department of Natural Resources biologist Jon Nelson says Pike Lake near Hartford and Big Cedar Lake outside of West Bend both have "virtually untapped" walleye possibilities.

The slightly stained waters of Pike Lake are where you want to go for a nice mess of "eaters," with more than five adult walleyes per surface acre swimming in this 522-acre lake. According to Nelson, the fish are "very fat" on a forage base primarily of perch. The dominant year-class of fish is about 16 to 17 inches, with a five-daily, 15-inch minimum bag limit in place.

Big Cedar Lake is exceptionally clear and much tougher to fish, according to Nelson. But trophy walleyes in excess of 15 pounds have been sampled here by the DNR that have grown to dreadnaught dimensions on a forage base of smelt and ciscoes. Big Cedar offers classic walleye structure, with a number of steep breaklines and rocky humps. These are good places to target at night during the heat of summer when the lake's thermocline may reach 30 to 35 feet.

"The big walleyes here are well educated," Nelson notes, "but there are many, many 12-pound walleyes in Big Cedar."

The statewide five-fish, 15-inch limit is in place on this 932-acre lake.

Contact: Jon Nelson, (920) 892-8756.

This southern bay of Lake Superior is big and often dangerous water, with many days where you can't safely venture out. But those times when this largest of the Great Lakes is in an amicable mood, Chequamegon gives up some whopping walleyes.

Chequamegon isn't a place to look for numbers. It's trophy water. Early in the season you'll find walleyes cruising the vast flat just north of Ashland, sliding up on subtle humps to feed actively when the mood suits them. Planer boards and big stickbaits are the most efficient way to go looking. If you have the new Fishing HotSpots map with GPS coordinates, it's worth trying to locate the subtle offshore structure.

The bite off of Washburn doesn't last as long, but it is consistent. Walleyes show up about dusk all summer long to feed actively along the shoreline that drops quickly away into deeper water. Throw out a lighted slip-bobber baited with a large shiner, and cast clown-pattern or blue/white ShadRaps with another rod. It is possible to get hooked up while fishing from shore, but a small boat and anchoring up within casting distance of shore is a better option.

Contacts: Ashland Chamber of Commerce, (715) 682-2500; Gitcheegummee Guide Service, (715) 373-0551.

Of all the places to make that first cast at 12:01 a.m. on opening day, the shallow humps west of Kunz Island on Washburn County's Long Lake may be the best place to tie into a real horse in Wisconsin's northcountry.

Long is a challenging lake anytime, with a wealth of structure and good weed bite once summer arrives. Right now the fish are still shallow, relating to transition zones with rocks and any patches of green weeds. Rocky rubble areas around Kunz and Holy islands are primary walleye spawning areas. Fish haven't moved too far since dropping their eggs.

This deep, narrow 3,300-acre lake has a very rich forage base of ciscoes that are a major key to big walleye location most of the time. For this reason, blue/silver baits are usually your best bet. At first glance 3,300 acres is overwhelming. A large portion of the walleye biomass in Long Lake is concentrated in a few hundred acres around the islands now, where they will remain until about mid-June. Try trolling a No. 4 hammered nickel Lindy Hatchet Blade crawler harness rig with blue and pearl beads along the 10- to 12-foot breakline between Kunz and Holy islands.

If the wind is blowing hard from one direction all day, stay a long cast out from shore and pitch No. 18 blue/white Rapalas on the windblown shoreline of the islands from sundown to maybe 10 p.m. Don't give up. Ten-pound walleyes seldom come easy. Pay your dues and you can anticipate taking a couple hundred bucks out of the kids' college fund to give to the taxidermist.

Contact: Washburn County Tourism, 1-800-367-3306.

If you just want to rip lips when opening day rolls around, head for this Minnesota-Wisconsin boundary water.

Riverine habitat exists in the upper end of Lake St. Croix, with flowage-type habitat on the downstream 20 miles of this scenic river before it meets the mighty Mississippi.

Those who can "read the water" can have a ball on St. Croix's upper reaches, pitching a hair jig where slack water meets fast water. You need to get up plenty early on the weekend if you want to beat other boats to the best spots, with the water around Osceola and the mouth of the Willow River being the epicenter of walleye fishing activity until mid-June.

Piles of walleyes run up into several tributaries at the other end of the pool around Hudson, where you'll likely see fewer boats.

When the season opens you can fill a limit in 30 minutes, provided you don't mind playing bumper boats with a flotilla of anglers ravaged by walleye fever. When summer arrives, the quieter lower pool is a great place to drag crawler harnesses or stickbaits behind planer boards for a mixed bag of walleyes and saugers.

Contact: guide Dick Gryzwinski, (651) 771-6231.

It has been a couple of months since walleyes in this heavily pressured Waukesha County lake have felt a hook, which is certainly something to consider when planning an opening-day trip.

A one-walleye, 20-inch size limit in place on these 1,100 acres makes this a great place to visit if you

simply want to play catch-and-release. According to DNR biologist Sue Beyler, every walleye swimming in Lac La Belle has been caught and set free "at least a couple of times" before reaching legal size. Although "legal" fish are quickly plucked from the system, a wealth of 12- to 19-inch walleyes are awaiting your minnow-tipped Lindy Rig, jig or suspending stickbait right now.

Target points, rocky shorelines and the developing weed edges in less than 8 feet of water between opening day and the arrival of summer weather. The number of walleyes you can catch and carefully release is limited only by the number of fatheads in your minnow bucket.

A fire-tiger Rat-L-Trap, Wiggle Wart or Rapala Husky Jerk is a good way to find cruising schools of walleyes, with action typically best around the weed edges as the sun goes down. Once you find them you can catch more fish with a slow-falling black jighead tipped with a fathead, but there is much to be said for pitchin' crankbaits at dusk on a warm May evening.

Waukesha County has several other lakes worth checking into for walleyes when the first Saturday in May rolls around. Pine Lake has in the northwest part of the county has the statewide five-fish, 15-inch limit in place, but the DNR says this is probably your best bet for a trophy of all the Waukesha County waters. Oconomowoc Lake has an 18-inch minimum, three-daily bag that makes it a good choice for those looking for a fish fry.

With all the pressure that walleyes in these southeast Wisconsin lakes experience, the bigger fish have learned to feed almost exclusively at night. If you really want to catch fish, you need to be on the water when walleyes are most active. A headlamp, a flashlight taped to the landing net, functional navigation lights and a little ambition are all that stand between you and the dual-dorsaled denizen of the low light.

Contact: Dick Smith's Bait, (262) 646-2218.

* * *
So while most of you will be heading up to "your lake" for the opener, serious walleye "hooks" will be heading elsewhere.

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