Wisconsin's 2011 Walleye Outlook
August 31, 2011
If you are eager for angling action, then don't pass up a chance to hit any of these Wisconsin walleye hotspots this spring.
The original logic behind opening Wisconsin's general fishing season on the first Saturday in May is lost in antiquity. Our fishing forefathers were probably trying to protect pre-spawn game fish populations. It's common observation that most game fish in this latitude spawn in the spring.
For years, many of us believed that pike fishing is tough in August because that is when the northerns lose their teeth. That sage observation was likely made by a Northwoods guide who couldn't find any toothers for his clients and offered that plausible reason.
Perhaps the same backwoods philosopher played a well-intentioned role in establishing the fishing season opener, too. Modern-day fisheries managers use tools like restricted bag limits and slot limits to protect our finned resources with more precision. We all plan around opening day, fishing rivers and waters with no closed walleye season in April, targeting inland lakes when tradition dictates we can.
Think of the timber we could save by enacting a flat tax and year-round 18-inch minimum, three walleye daily bag limit statewide! Tax forms and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources fishing regulations book could both be reduced to a couple of pages that everyone could understand.
There would be no need for the "check local regulations before you go" disclaimer and we could dive right into predictions on Wisconsin's hottest waters for whacking walleyes. Grab your St. Croix and GLoomis rods, the boat is leaving now.
Wisconsin DNR managers will be the first to tell you that they played an insignificant role in the walleye boom, which is right off the charts in this western wing of Lake Michigan.
"We simply can't explain it," said fisheries manager Scott Hansen. "With all the exotic species, diverse biomass and all of the other factors, Mother Nature deserves all the credit for turning Green Bay into a walleye factory with a national reputation on a par with Lake Erie or the Bay of Quinte."
Michigan's Bays De Noc on the west side of Green Bay has had a big walleye reputation for more than 20 years. Why did it take so long for Packer Country to share its limelight?
"I guess we're notorious for keeping secrets," grinned Capt. Greg Karch. "I guard my GPS waypoints for northern Green Bay as much as my passport or social security number."
April and the period from late July through mid-August represent your best chances at a wallhanger walleye from this water. Right now you'll find the mongo 'eyes in tributaries, with the Fox River at DePere the worst-kept walleye secret in the state.
Fewer anglers take advantage of the spring run in the Menominee River an hour north. Action there peaks about a week later than at DePere. The Peshtigo River is smaller and located between those two hotspots with little notoriety because the flow is somewhat swifter and more difficult to fish.
Don't expect me to spill the beans on all the walleyes cruising between Peshtigo Point and the mouth of the Oconto River this month. You'll need to figure out how fast to pull chrome/blue and fire-tiger stickbaits behind planer boards along the 9- to 13-foot contour there all by yourself.
When Karch and I chased walleyes out of his Triton somewhere between Chambers and the Strawberry Islands last August, I snuck a peak at GPS coordinates as two planer boards dug in behind the boat with 61 inches of walleye in tow.
Once home I compared these numbers to the ones in my GPS log, which is kept in a vault beneath the Rottweiler pen at the home compound. There was only 0.2 of a mile difference.
Although we boated three walleyes better than 10 pounds in less than an hour, we were disappointed. The DNR has sampled walleyes in excess of the long-standing 18-pound state record in surveys on that water. Some truly serious walleye anglers believe late summer is the time and northern Door County is the place where the record will fall.
If you're content with catching 22- to 24-inch walleyes all summer long, the coordinates of Volk's Reef in southern Green Bay can be found on the latest Fishing HotSpots map.
That too is a trolling bite, with stick baits like the Berkley Flicker Shad and spinner rigs with nightcrawlers pulled behind planer boards both productive presentations there and on similar structures in the more turbid south end of the bay.
It is possible to get after those walleyes from a small boat or even from shore at certain areas along the rivers mentioned and on a couple of points in the Sturgeon Bay ship canal in April. But safely navigating that water through most of the fishing year requires a watercraft with the dimensions of a young ship.
Venture there with a bass boat or the average 16-foot V-bottom fishing boat and you may be able to get out on calm water for a couple of hours about every other day. But conditions can change quickly, generating honest 3- to 4-foot waves in a very short time.
Fishing should be good to outstanding along most of our western border this year, simply because it wasn't worth a hoot in 2010. Old Man River has a substantial, self-propagating population of both walleyes and saugers. Those fish seldom saw a hook last year because river levels were outrageously high from early July until freeze-up.
Walleyes spawn within a few days of April 20 every year, with most fishing activity occurring within a mile of massive lock and dam systems that have separated the river into pools about 20 miles long since the 1930s.
Heavy snowpack in Minnesota and the northern part of Wisconsin can cause spring flooding, which usually subsides by early May. When the water goes down, walleyes are generally active along rocky protuberances along the channel edge called wing dams and linear riprap structures called closing dams. Those channel-management tools have been in place on the Mississippi for more than 100 years.
Casting crankbaits and Wolf River rigs with live bait are both effective ways to catch walleyes when they are relating to the rocks. Fish location is driven by forage base, which is in turn driven by current volume and velocity.
Every productive wing dam has a sweet spot or two where fish stack up for easy ambush of prey.
When the heat of summer arrives, many walleyes move back into running sloughs off of the main channel to feed on everything from frogs to crawfish. Drifting live bait in the deeper stretches of running sloughs and longline trolling either crankbaits or spinner rigs are both good ways to ensure a strong hookup.
Dying vegetation is a real problem from mid-September to mid-October. Fish are willing to bite, but you'll have weeds on 9 out of 10 casts if measures to intercept the greenery, such as adding a split shot 18 inches up the line or removing the front hook on a crankbait, are not taken.
The weed problem subsides about mid-October. Water temperatures cool down into the upper 40s at that time, providing walleye action that can be nothing short of incredible at times up until winter is knocking at the door. That's usually about the time the firearm deer season rolls around.
In the fall, vertical jigging blade baits and hair jigs is a popular tactic. Casting plastics is also effective.
How good is the fishing? I've been a Wisconsin licensed fishing guide for 38 years, working the Mississippi for the past decade. The best walleye fishing I've ever seen in my life was below a certain Mississippi River dam in late October four years ago.
In an eight-hour trip with three clients, 222 walleyes came over the gunwale of my Lund. Probably 60 percent were bigger than the 15-inch minimum keeper length. The biggest 'eye was only about 24 inches, but it was quite a day.
The Mississippi frowned hard through much of 2010. Consensus among River Rats who live along this water is that 2011 will be a year of perpetual smiles.
LAKE WINNEBAGO SYSTEM
Long revered as Wisconsin's premier walleye factory, waters of the Fox River valley are poised to produce a banner year for walleye chasers. Like Green Bay, the Winnebago system is big water where both discretion and a seaworthy boat are important considerations.
Lake Winnebago's 137,708 acres dwarf shallower Winneconne, Butte Des Morts and Poygan upstream in this system fed by the Fox and Wolf rivers. But shallow lakes are notorious for generating rough water.
DNR fisheries manager Kendal Kamke says the system holds an "incredible" year-class of walleyes from 2008, with those fish at or above 15 inches as we ease into 2011.
Two solid year-classes from earlier in the century will stretch the strings of folks pitching light jigs from atop windblown reefs or dragging spinner rigs and cranks behind planer boards this year.
Capt. Greg Karch said he saw several fish in the 30-inch range last summer, and a dozen more measuring 27 to 28 inches that will have definite wallhanger potential in 2011.
UPPER POST LAKE
This 758-acre Langlade County lake has a common thread with other perennial walleye producers in Wisconsin: A river runs through it.
Many miles above Poygan, Butte des Morts, Winneconne and the big lake they call Winnebago, the Wolf River snakes its way quietly through this overlooked Northcountry lake, leaving a fair amount of stain in the water as the only evidence of passage.
Because the water has some color to it, there is no reason to be on the water at oh-dark-thirty with a 4-pound-test fluorocarbon leader. Fishing is usually better at this time of year on a sunny afternoon.
Upper Post is a great template for walleye location on waters fed by rivers statewide. The Wolf enters the lake on the north side, with a high percentage of the walleyes gravitating toward the north end in early April, waiting for runoff and mid-40-degree water to push them up into the river to spawn on about April 20.
Once another generation of little walleyes is ensured, fish slide back down into the lake a little higher in the water column, spending at least a couple of weeks within a half-mile of the Wolf entry point before spreading out into the rest of the lake.
That predictable behavior cuts likely walleye location down by perhaps 90 percent for almost a month. All the walleyes you want to catch are within a long cast from shore in the northern reaches of Upper Post.
Northwest Wisconsin has been a personal favorite destination for more than 50 years because of diverse fishing opportunities and low numbers of obnoxious urban tourists.
Any trip to Trego includes the fishing kayak lashed in the Lund for probing small walleye-rich waters you'll never read about in this article.
Two lakes that can handle the attention with potential for walleye memories to last a lifetime are 2,287-acre Big Yellow Lake in Burnett County and Washburn County's 3,300-acre Long Lake.
I will be forever haunted by a Long Lake walleye that slurped in a fathead minnow on a plain hook below a split shot when daughter Emily and I were on our first father/daughter opening weekend getaway there.
Following the 8-foot contour in a controlled drift is always a good way to put early-season walleyes in the boat on this water -- especially over the rocky rubble spawning areas around Kunz and Holy islands.
The walleye encounter was brief. "I'm snagged, Daddy," Emily wailed.
"It's a big walleye! Don't horse her!" I barked, just before the line parted.
It's still impossible to talk about Long Lake without revisiting that fish. How big was she? Emily is still convinced that walleye was at least 30 pounds, although 8 or maybe 9 pounds is more accurate.
Following the right foot contour with a basic hook and split shot rig is also an effective way to hook up on Big Yellow Lake, especially on the northwest side near the channel that connects with Little Yellow Lake.
Both of those lakes are great places to catch supper, with a real possibility of tangling with a 30-incher.
This southeast Wisconsin county is rich with natural walleye lakes, which need to be supplemented with stocking because of close proximity to urban areas and heavy angling pressure.
Intensive management by the DNR in Lac la Belle, Lake Nagawicka and Pine Lakes continues to provide good walleye fisheries in these waters. But, like virtually all lakes with dependency on supplemental stocking, there are gaps in year-class production from a couple of years ago when the VHS scare caused virtual shutdown of state hatcheries.
There is no such thing as a "secret" walleye lake in the state of Wisconsin. Intense management is required to maintain quality fisheries on most lakes in the heavily populated southern part of the state, w
ith time on the water the best way to find fish in the cool, blue north.
Our biggest waters tend to have the best potential for producing both size and numbers of walleyes, especially when a river system can contribute to the marble-eye population.