Our angling expert has put a lot of miles on his old truck while searching for our state's hottest bites of the year. Save yourself some gas money and head directly for these waters. (February 2006)
Wisconsin is truly an angler's paradise, with two Great Lakes, thousands of miles of rivers, and enough lakes and flowages to keep an itinerant fishhawk busy for several lifetimes. These diverse fisheries are home to species that thrive in warm, cool or cold water.
There is always a good bite going somewhere in our state. Trust me, because I've done a lot of "research" over the years. Just one glance at my truck will verify that claim. There are usually so many options that picking only three hotspots for each month is tough to do. Some fishing opportunities are truly iconic -- "must do" annual trips that are part of Wisconsin's rich angling heritage. Because sport-fishing is intrinsically tied to the natural world, there are certain times -- like January and August -- when fishing is tough all over. But fishing is always good somewhere in the Badger State.
Here's a look at the best places to get your string stretched in the next 12 months -- and save some gas money, instead of doing your own "research."
Chequamegon Bay Lakers
The big green lake trout that cruise this southern bay of Lake Superior relate to minor structural changes on the generally faceless lake bottom during winter months, making a run-and-gun approach on a snowmobile your best way to find success.
Technology is part of the matrix. Several radio-equipped anglers on different vectors can result in "gulls-on-shad" effectiveness once the Chequamegon heavyweight fleet is located. Communication is also important for safety, which is a real consideration on this vast and sometimes dangerous ice.
Contact Outdoor Allure at (715) 373-0551.
Lake Monona Perch
This Madison Chain lake freezes quicker than Mendota and has bigger perch than Waubesa. Thousands of perch converge on midlake humps during the early-ice period, when a couple of spikes fished on a "hanger rig" can result in a limit in less time than it takes to walk out there and back.
Lake Puckaway Pike
Progeny of the state record still swim in these weedy waters. Use a toy rake to clear an area around tip-ups baited with smelt or big roaches. Best action is typically between 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on a sunny day.
Oak Creek Brown Trout
Brown trout up to 20 pounds stack up all winter long around the warmwater discharge of this power plant located just south of Milwaukee. This is a trolling bite, with stickbaits approaching nearly sure-thing status.
The only bugaboo is weather. Any wind with an eastern vector is dangerous and potentially fatal. Be careful! Once you're sure all systems are go, get ready for the hottest cold-weather action this state can offer.
Contact Capt. Mike Richow at 1-800-593-6547.
Big Green Lake Lakers
This profoundly deep inland lake in Green Lake County offers a unique angling opportunity for lake trout during February. Guide Mike Norton, at (920) 295-3617, has the fish dialed in, with clients fishing in comfort no matter how hard the wind blows outside the shanty.
Delavan Lake Bluegills
This is undoubtedly the best multi-species lake in southeast Wisconsin, where bluegills are a major draw. Bring small jigs and light line. Follow the crowd out to the long bar off of Lake Lawn Lodge. After sunset, slab crappies are the featured attraction -- for those not chasing walleyes.
Lake Michigan Steelhead
Many tributaries that dump into this Great Lake see a March influx of steelhead. Spawn sacs are probably the most productive bait. As waters warm, tiny Panther Martin and Mepps spinners take their share of fish.
The runs start in southern rivers like the Root and Pike when triggered by spring runoff, and work northward to the Sheboygan, Pigeon and many more rivers both great and small. You can be a serious player with a pair of hip boots, a medium spinning rod and a trout stamp.
Contact Jalenski's Sporting Goods at (262) 554-1051.
Lake Koshkonong Walleyes
Tip-ups baited with shiners or rosy reds are the best ways to chase winter walleyes on this shallow basin lake straddling the Rock-Jefferson county line. A dominant year-class of 'eyes is approaching trophy size here. Kosh may be Wisconsin's top "sleeper" walleye water in 2006.
Mississippi River Saugers
This walleye kin with the desert camouflage paint job stacks by the bajillions below dams on Old Man River during March. Fishing barges below dams at Alma, Genoa, Lynxville and Dubuque accommodate hundreds of anglers and are a great way to fill your limit, for about $15 per day.
Menominee River Walleyes
About a week after the fleet leaves the tailwaters below the Fox River dam at De Pere, the bite is just getting started an hour north of Titletown on this boundary river with Michigan. Throw fire-tiger Storm ThunderSticks around Stephenson Island or near the Visitor's Center. When fish are moving, hooking up with a whopper is nearly a sure thing.
You'll likely have company at some of the more popular spots. A boat is not necessary to catch walleyes -- if you bring your waders, a PFD and a net.
Contact the Menominee Chamber of Commerce at www.fishline.com.
Fox River Walleyes
Wisconsin's densest concentration of both watercraft and walleyes occurs at the tailwaters of the Fox River dam in De Pere between April 6 and April 20 every spring. To be part of the fun, all you need is a 4-inch chartreuse twistertail on a 1/4-ounce jig, or a No. 13 jointed Rapala in fire-tiger pattern. Try to find a current break close to the fish refuge boundary, and anchor up with enough provisions to fish all night, which is when the best action occurs.
Lake Wisconsin Largemouths
This Wisconsin River flowage near Portage is home to some whopper bucketmouths. Probe shallow, dark-bottomed bays on the north side with a red Rat-L-Trap when water temperatures are 43 to 48 degrees. Results can be amazing.
Green Bay Smallmouths
Both sizes and numbers of smallmouth bass move into shallow bays and tributaries of Green Bay during May while looking for a place to spawn.
Door County is the epicenter of activity, with essentially every ha
rbor or bay holding fish. Tributaries like the Oconto, Peshtigo and Pensaukee also see considerable inshore movement of smallies.
Practice CPR -- catch, photograph and release -- because the future of this fishery is truly in your hands.
Racine-Kenosha Coho Salmon
Warming water temperatures in Lake Michigan bring droves of this scrappy, tasty salmon northward, following their forage base. Troll chrome/blue and chrome/green stickbaits or dodger/fly combinations in the top 10 feet of the water column within 1/4-mile of shore while using planer boards to keep from spooking fish.
Lake Alice Crappies
Wood is a well-documented crappie magnet. There's plenty of wood and plenty of crappies in this flowage that passes through Tomahawk. Use small tube jigs or minnows fished on a light wire hook around structure. Don't forget your muskie gear, because the tailwaters below the King Dam are some of the best Esox water in our state.
Eagle River Chain Muskies
Some of Wisconsin's top muskie waters lie just a few miles outside of the bustling city of Eagle River. This allows fish swimming in riverine portions of this long span of contiguous lakes to cruise waters between Scattering Rice and Eagle lakes with more concern for ski boats than Surf Rollers.
Target deep-water weed edges, especially around entry and exit points between lakes. It's not uncommon to "move" several muskies over a single weedbed. If they won't hit after a figure-8, try again an hour later.
Contact Eagle Sports Shop at (715) 479-8804.
Lac Vieux Desert Muskies
This Michigan-Wisconsin boundary water is one of our top multi-species fisheries. Florescent lures seem to work best. The 10-foot breakline from the Misery Creek inlet southwest toward the dam is a good place to start.
Coulee Country Brown Trout
Dozens of streams snake close to steep bluffs around La Crosse. Many offer outstanding trout fishing. The DNR's Wisconsin Trout Streams book and DeLorme's Wisconsin Atlas & Gazetteer will put you on track. Just watch out for mean bulls in one pasture on the way to my favorite trout stream. Honest!
Rock River Walleyes
Walleyes migrate into the Rock River on both ends of Lake Koshkonong when summer's heat arrives.
Pitching and vertical jigging a 1/8-ounce jig tipped with a half-crawler or jumbo leech is very effective on Koshkonong.
The river upstream around Blackhawk Island seems more productive when the river is rising. When it's on the way down, target the area around Newville at the west end of Koshkonong.
Contact Riverfront Resort at (920) 563-2757.
Mississippi River Largemouths
Old Man River hosts bass tournaments every weekend. To win, it takes about five fish weighing a total of 20 pounds. Target weeds that drop away into 7 feet of water with plastics. Don't overlook the "slop" bite, and have a buzzbait ready to go. Need a guide? Contact me through this magazine.
Racine is probably our best multi-species salmonid port, thanks to diverging currents off of Wind Point. Spending $350 on a charter boat and a chance to catch cohos, rainbows, chinooks, lake trout and Seeforellen brown trout could be the highlight of your entire summer.
Mississippi River White Bass
When the Mississippi is at low summer pool levels in August, shad congregate around wing dams -- with white bass dogging their every move. Watch for birds dive-bombing on the surface.
Sassy Shad plastics, No. 5 Mepps Black Fury spinners and chrome Rat-L-Traps result in literally "fish on every cast" action once you find the whites.
These fish are excellent table fare if tossed immediately on ice and you filet out the red "mud vein" when you clean them.
Contact Capt. Hook's Bait & Tackle at (608) 689-2800.
Door County Walleyes
Reefs offshore from Peninsula State Park are where the legendary trophy fall walleyes of Michigan's Bays de Noc spend their summer vacation. Troll Rapala Husky Jerks from 40 to 70 feet behind planer boards while working reefs within five miles of Chambers Island. Smallmouth bass are a good Plan B by casting twistertails along shorelines following the 8-foot contour.
Kentuck Lake Muskies
The weedbed edges in this clear northern lake near Eagle River are beyond belief. Just about the time you wonder where the "toothers" are in this picture-perfect greenery, one will come out of nowhere and rock your world. Try a black bucktail with an orange blade while your partner works a topwater with similar colors.
Larsen's Reef Walleyes
This five-mile-long reef in Green Bay west of Sturgeon Bay and the shoreline out from Potawatomi State Park has been producing big walleyes for decades. After several years of relatively slim pickin's, the fish have returned with a vengeance -- and most anglers haven't figured this out yet.
The best action comes with a good "walleye chop" on the water. You'll need a seaworthy boat set up for trolling, and a driftsock if fish are congregating around a hump on the reef.
The Dells' Sturgeon
Wisconsin's lake sturgeon season is brief. Deep holes in the Wisconsin River below the Wisconsin Dells dam are the best places in the state to get hooked up. This is a low-tech bite, primarily at night. Tightline a gob of crawlers dosed with anise scent at the upstream edge of a hole. Any critter older than you deserves to live -- even if she is legal to keep.
During late August and early September, 4-year-old chinook salmon move close to the Lake Michigan shore and into tributaries, where they will hit spoons and crankbaits cast from shore. All you need is a medium spinning rod and a handful of lures to be a player. Keep your line in the water and you're in for a fight.
Great Lakes-strain muskies are very active in the seven-mile run of Fox River between the De Pere dam and the confluence with Green Bay as waters cool in the fall.
Noisy, colorful fluorescent lures fished around discharge tubes and up near the dam produce jarring strikes that you won't see coming.
Trolling is legal and very effective when using big minnow-imitating lures behind planer boards. When it comes to Great Lakes-strain muskies, this is your best chance to achieve an angling benchmark.
Contact Pat Cavins at (920) 406-0970.
Shawano Lake Crappies
Use electronics to locate vast schools of slabs cruising the mouths of bays and main-lake points. Then
drift tube jigs, small minnows or a little ice-jig tipped with waxies 1 to 2 feet above the depth where crappies are holding. Once you find 'em, two little tubes of different colors about 18 inches apart can result in double hookups.
Mississippi River Walleyes
With the cooling waters of October, walleyes migrate by the thousands to tailwaters of lock-and-dams on the Mississippi River. Try casting and dragging a 4-inch purple ringworm with a white tail fished on a 1/4-ounce jighead. Blade baits also work.
Round Lake Muskies
This deep, clear Hayward-area lake usually freezes over sometime between the opening of the gun season for deer and Thanksgiving. Huge muskies know their feeding window is closing and tend to lose caution.
Fish have typically moved offshore and are hanging off of the second breakline. Throw big black jerkbaits to get their attention. If "wood" doesn't trigger a strike, a sucker dragged behind the boat on a quick-strike rig will often do the trick.
Contact Pastika's Sporting Goods at (715) 634-4466.
Madison Chain Muskies
Toothers -- both pike and muskies -- cruise what remains of green weeds over about 10 to 12 feet of water from mid-October to mid-November. Forget that stuff about a bucktail being a warmwater bait. Throw a Mepps Giant Killer with a rainbow blade and purple bucktail -- and a pink twistertail on one hook of the treble, just for grins. If you cast it, they will come.
Pewaukee Lake Muskies
Ditto the green-weed pattern found on the Madison Chain -- if you can find the weeds. Don't forget your Ernie baits. Fish are probably deep. And a couple suckers in your livebox can be the best $8 you ever spent. Statistically, this is our state's top muskie lake. Time and odds are both short now.
Lake Onalaska Panfish
This vast backwater of the Mississippi River near La Crosse is usually covered with enough ice by mid-December to support ATVs and snowmobiles, offering incredible panfish action with a mixed bag of perch, crappies and bluegills.
Ice north of the airport on French Island and weed edges around Brice Prairie are top first-ice locations. Plastics often outfish live bait. Try a red Lindy Munchie Teeny Tail on a gold Genz Fatboy jighead. The next sound you hear will be fins slapping on the ice.
Contact Bob's Bait at (608) 782-5552.
Pioneer Lake Panfish
Nighttime is the right time to ice jumbo crappies on this small lake near Eagle River. Deadstick two lines with small minnows while jigging a glow-in-the-dark Rat Finkee in the middle hole. This is a great place to land a quick limit of filets.
Cisco Chain Panfish
Anglers from both Michigan and Wisconsin overlook the great panfishing on this boundary water near Land-O-Lakes. If you're looking for a bluegill stringer mount, this may be the best water in Wisconsin to accomplish that feat.