Here are some places you should be looking for action on early walleyes this year.
In Wisconsin a game code violation will almost always result in a ticket from the warden. That is especially true if the violator is a licensed guide and U.S. Coast Guard certified merchant mariner.
March Madness is no excuse for failure to carry a throwable PFD in the boat. But when coupled with honesty and certain circumstances, this temporary insanity plea might get you off with a warning.
Several years ago the warden pulled up to the ramp as I was securing my boat for the drive home on the first warm day in March. He checked my fishing license and livewell, taking note that I was still wearing my PFD. He also took note of four other wearable PFDs, which were readily accessible in the boat -- ample flotation for somebody boating solo.
"Where is your throwable PFD?" he asked. My jaw dropped. "In my ice-fishing tent," I answered. "With the dilemma of choosing between sitting on the bucket or in the boat March Madness got the better of me."
He laughed when handing me the warning citation. "Looks like you have some gear issues, too. Most anglers use long rods instead of tip-ups when fishing from a boat."
Game fish season may be closed on most inland waters after March 1, but on most major rivers and select other waters you can chase walleyes and other game fish species year 'round. On the Mississippi River where I guide there is often a small window in March when you can catch fish from the boat and on the ice at the same time.
Pool 9 has several running sloughs where deep, open-water wintering areas for saugers and walleyes are adjacent to shallow backwater flats where pike and bass cruise beneath the ice.
Wisconsin law allows an angler to use three lines. Setting two "boards" baited with big shiners for pike while dragging a hair jig for saugers is like having your birthday fall on Christmas day.
That wasn't possible last spring, when the late ice period morphed into an entirely open-water bite in about three days. The year before that we still had winter weather in April, and some folks were actually mulling the prospects of setting tip-ups when opening of the general fishing season arrived on the first Saturday in May.
Most years March weather in Wisconsin falls somewhere between those two extremes. Savvy anglers walk softly and carry a big spud. They also carry a bag of sand in the truck to pull out of an icy boat ramp, and they purchase an extra throwable PFD that never leaves the boat unless needed to serve its purpose.
Here is our annual look at some of Wisconsin's best waters for catching fish that'll compliment the green and gold colors of your wool Packers hat.
The flotilla of boats fishing Pool 4 at Red Wing is second only to fleet operations on the Fox River at DePere in the spring. Tailwaters below the dam remain open all winter long, with both size and numbers of walleyes and saugers to tempt anglers launching out of Evert's Resort.
Open-water access can be as early as mid-February on river pools downstream, but it may be mid-March before anglers are assured they can get the boat in without first punching a hole for it.
Last year folks chased walleyes on the hard water below dams at Dresbach, Genoa and Lynxville until about the first of March. Some used long rods and 1/2- to 5/8-ounce hair jigs tipped with minnows -- the preferred weapon when fishing from boats. Other anglers tiptoed out on the ice with short rods, chrome/blue jigging Rapalas and Northland Mimic Minnows.
Once boat ramps open up, those same spots are fishermen magnets, with a fair population of overwintering fish present. However, most quality fish are cruising in similar deep-water haunts several miles downstream.
The easiest overwinter holes to locate are on outside bends of the main river channel where fish typically hold in 25 to 45 feet of water. Side channels and running sloughs also hold fish in similar habitats through March.
One of the best is Hurricane Chute across the river and slightly downstream from the Guttenberg boat launch on Pool 11. Most anglers slide through the Chute on a controlled drift with heavy hair jigs baited with a minnow and trailing a stinger hook.
I believe stingers catch more snags than fish. I also believe minnows are greatly overrated, unless a major cold front is in place. If you must use minnows, try threading the hook in through the mouth and out behind the dorsal fin. You'll catch just as many fish and lose fewer jigs.
There is a "herd mentality" among Wisconsin anglers chasing walleyes on the Mississippi and other rivers in the spring, with most of the fleet intent on playing "bumper boats" within a half-mile of the nearest dam.
The Mississippi's current is truly a force of nature. Walleyes know the futility of fighting such a force, wisely skulking away to slack water near faster water. Those who get away from the crowds and fish the fish instead of fishing with other fishermen typically find more consistent success.
The best spring walleye tool on the Mississippi River is a sensitive but stout graphite rod, 10-pound no-stretch superline and a quality hair jig like the Northland Buckshot Jig.
This medium-sized, south-central Wisconsin River has evolved into a tremendous walleye and sauger factory, thanks to decades of hard work by Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources fisheries manager Don Bush.
Ten-thousand-acre Lake Koshkonong is ground zero in this fishery, with walleyes cruising under the ice where there is at least 5 feet of water in this shallow, faceless basin until midmonth.
Anglers line the banks below the dam at Indianford directly downstream from the lake long before the ice goes out, with most of them casting 1/4-ounce jigheads tipped with a minnow.
The mile of river along Blackhawk Island where the Rock enters Koshkonong's east end is a popular spot as soon as boat access at the DNR ramp and several private ramps is possible.
Most anglers fishing this stretch in the spring either vertical jig or pitch jigs tipped with plastics from mid-channel towards the shore. Once Koshkonong opens up, trolling is a popular presentation on the lake. However, trolling is illegal on the river for wha
t the DNR calls "social reasons."
The shoreline in Fort Atkinson and tailwaters of the Jefferson dam above Lake Koshkonong offer good options for folks fishing from shore. Two tributaries of the Rock River -- the Bark and Crawfish Rivers -- have limited shoreline fishing opportunities, but both hold an amazing population of walleyes when fish are making their annual spawning migration the last week of March.
LOWER WISCONSIN RIVER
Botch Leonhardt's primary winter mission is opening up the boat ramp at River's Edge Resort below the Dells dam. He usually completes this task by Valentine's Day, with a steady parade of rigs heading down to the water here until fish spawn about April 1.
Right after ice-out, most anglers target deep holes with heavy jigs and three-way rigs with floating jigheads and minnows. By mid-March, water temperatures slowly begin to warm, moving quality fish into shallower shelves along channel edges.
The keys for bigger fish are targeting areas less than 12 feet deep and fishing at night. The biggest walleyes to come out of this river every year between Lake Wisconsin and the Dells dam are caught at night.
Many of those fish are caught by anglers wading the shoreline and casting either a stick bait or 4-inch chartreuse or pumpkinseed Twistertail on a 1/4-ounce jighead fished in a swimming retrieve.
The 1/4-ounce jighead is a key to fish location during daylight hours as well. If you can't make frequent contact with the bottom when pitching a 1/4-ounce jig on the sand flats, you are probably fishing in water too deep.
In most waters, walleyes spawn when water temperatures reach about 45 degrees. For some unknown reason, 43 degrees is the magic number on the lower Wisconsin River.
Once waters warm beyond 42, seek out water less than 6 feet deep with little current. Pitching a 1/8-ounce weedless jig into woody cover can be a deadly tactic.
It doesn't take long for fish to move to spawning areas below the Dells dam from the large, deep hole at the north end of Lake Wisconsin, about a half-mile below the point where that water starts to look like a river again.
The Prairie du Sac/Sauk City area below Lake Wisconsin is also productive. For the first couple of weeks after ice-out, depth is absolutely critical to fish location. Find them in 22 feet of water below the dam and you can bet they'll also be holding in 22 feet of water several miles downstream.
A modified three-way swivel rig works well below the Sac dam. Slide a 3/8-ounce bullet sinker on the line ahead of a three-way swivel. Tie a 1/16-ounce jighead with a 6-inch dropper line on one swivel eye and an 18-inch dropper with a big soft floating jighead on the other. There is no shorter route to a sauger sandwich.
The seven miles of Fox River between the south end of Green Bay and the DePere dam holds more trophy walleyes per surface-acre in early April than any other water in Wisconsin.
Reduce this equation down to the 200 yards directly below the dam and if you could walk on the bottom and those marble-eyes were really marbles you couldn't go 5 feet without falling on your backside.
Obviously when fish congregate in shallow water with that kind of density they are vulnerable to foul hooking.
There are no secrets here. Find a place to anchor up downstream from the fish refuge before dark and throw a 1/4-ounce jighead with a chartreuse Twistertail. If you don't have a net, just ask somebody in the boat next to you to hand you theirs.
When the spawning run is in high gear on the Wolf, some spots could challenge Fox River for walleye density per surface-acre -- especially in the narrow runs of river above Fremont.
This run always occurs some time between April 10 and 20, with DNR radio tracking studies indicating some fish travel 20 miles out of Lake Winnebago into Butte Des Morts, Winneconne, Poygan -- and spawning marshes even farther upstream -- returning to the big lake within 72 hours!
When this migration happens, the key to success is anchoring up at a point where slack water meets fast water in a necked-down area of river and deadsticking a Wolf River rig with a spinner ahead of a minnow.
The most obvious choke point is around the Highway 41 Bridge. Early in the spawning run, try dragging a jig/Twistertail combination in a steady retrieve just off the bottom. Once fish are done spawning and sliding back downstream, a good strategy is casting a stick bait a little higher up in the water column while soaking a minnow on another line.
By the time March arrives, chasing walleyes in open water is a much better option than even the very best ice-fishing action for many anglers. If your quest is tangling with the biggest walleye of your life within state borders, Green Bay is a good choice year 'round.
The epicenter of whopper walleye activity in this western wing of Lake Michigan during March is along a five-mile series of humps and flats near Sturgeon Bay known as Larsen's Reef.
Ice seldom goes out there until almost April 1, with hardwater action improving virtually every day we move closer to that day honoring April Fools.
During February, the active bite window for these big-water walleyes is a mere 30 to 40 minutes at dawn, dusk and ahead of approaching weather when whiteout conditions are a real possibility.
Fish feed both longer and more aggressively as we fish our way through March, with walleyes striking jigged baits like Swedish Pimples, Jigging Rapalas, Forage Minnows and flathead jigs tipped with a minnow at a 4-to-1 ratio over tip-ups.
Electronics are almost as important as a sharp hook in tempting these fish, which may follow a jigged lure 6 to 8 feet up off of the bottom over 22 to 28 feet of water before they decide to chow down.
Stealth is another key to success. Smart anglers poke at least a dozen holes in varying depths over a football-field-sized chunk of ice and then put the power auger away. Nothing shuts these fish down quicker than a snowmobile, ATV or power auger thumping on the ice.
Six-pound-test fluorocarbon line on a spinning reel with a 36- to 42-inch rod is the standard jigging stick on these waters. Pros like Brett Alexander and Jeff Weatherwax prefer rods with a fairly stiff butt and whippy tip, ideal for hooksets on fish that are moving up in the water column to inhale lures.
Safety is the most important consideration. Hiring a guide is a good idea. The last week or so that ice can still be traversed with some degree of safety on foot holds the best potential for catching a 32-inch-plus fish.
Ice will be gone by mid-April, with many of the fish relocating to the Sturgeon Bay ship canal where they will spawn. Because the water is so clear, the best action comes at night with lures like a clown pattern Husky Jerk Rapala extremely effective.