From walleyes to muskies to salmon, autumn could be the best time of year to be on the water in the Badger State, especially at these locations.
Photo by Jim Barta
By Ted Peck
We are just a couple of cold fronts away from some of the best fishing of the entire year, with just a few people enjoying the bounty.
Establishing productive patterns through fall turnover and beyond can be challenging. To a certain extent, techniques and tactics that are effective in the fall are a mirror image of strategies that worked so well in the spring - the mirror is just cracked a little bit. The importance of water temperature sees a geometric rise as daylight periods grow shorter. Hunting seasons are just around the corner. And fish don't seem so eager to bounce back into an aggressive feeding pattern after passage of a howling cold front.
Herein lies one of the fissures in that "mirror image" stuff. In the spring, we can usually find success throwing the same stuff in the same places when a northwest blow comes through. With stable weather conditions in the fall, lures and baits with larger profiles work better, since young-of-year baitfish have matured and seen their populations thinned by predators along the way. Electronics say the fish haven't moved much deeper, but they simply don't want that magnum stick bait that tore 'em up ahead of the front. A mini model of the same lure might get them to bite, but you'll probably have to slow the presentation down.
There is often some refraction in the springtime conventional wisdom of fish going deeper after a cold front, too. Sometimes they move shallower, if the water temperature is considerably warmer there and food is present.
In the case of some salmonids, most notably 4-year-old chinook salmon, nature's forces are evoking an undeniable pull shoreward for the big adios. Panfish may move shallow after a cold front simply because it just isn't safe out there in deeper water with muskies, pike, walleyes and bass hovering around.
With cause and effect in fish behavior sometimes difficult to plot and the path to hooking up seldom the same from day to day, fall fishing can be frustrating to the point where even the most astute anglers run out of time and patience before they run out of bait. But there are very special days when angling dreams that last a lifetime can be realized. To be caught are 50-inch muskies, double-digit walleyes, bass real close to 2 feet long and panfish that are a toss-up between the fryin' pan and a trip to the taxidermist.
Here's a look at some hotspots where it can all come together in the cool days ahead.
Over 400 walleyes and saugers came into my boat from early October to mid-November last fall, with jigs and blade baits fished below lock-and-dam systems the most productive weapons. The biggest - a fat 29-incher that weighed 10 pounds, 4 ounces - hit a red/white/blue 5/8-ounce hair jig right up in the turbulent water of the "rollers" right below the dam, on literally the last cast of the day. Plastics also proved wildly successful, especially 4-inch ringworms and Berkley Power Worms in blue/ice fleck and chartreuse/pumpkinseed fished on lighter jigheads.
As waters cooled, the fish went from wanting an aggressive jigging presentation to preferring a simple drag of the jig back along the bottom. There were days when saugers and walleyes wanted a vertical approach that only a blade bait like the Sonar or Zip can provide. Live bait was seldom, if ever, a part of the presentation, except maybe after a cold front.
Jumbo perch are back in the picture from Lake Onalaska down through Pool 10, with one-half of a night crawler, a small hook and heavy split shot being powerful medicine along the wing walls and fishing floats at Alma, Genoa and Lynxville. How big are the perch? Some have more meat on them than a 15-inch walleye!
Crappies are exceptionally active from now until Thanksgiving, too. The affinity of crappies for wood is undeniable. Probably the best place to start looking is back in side channels and running sloughs where there is 8 to 10 feet of water on the wood. Crappies like to attack from below, so suspending a minnow at 2 to 5 feet is a solid plan. Use a light-wire hook and at least 10-pound-test line. If you're fishing where the fish are, getting hung up is part of the deal. Small minnows tend to work better as waters cool. Experiment with hooking the bait through the lips or under the dorsal fin. These fish seem to have a definite preference for one presentation over the other on any given day - another instance of the unpredictability of fall fishing.
Contact: The best Web site for river information is www.in-depthangling.com, where you can access pool levels, hot bites, techniques and tips from serious river rats.
GREAT LAKES OPTIONS
The old adage "big water equals big fish" may very well have found its genesis on Wisconsin's two Great Lakes, Superior and Michigan, and in the abundance of tributaries joined to these two major aquifers.
The brightest shining star on all of these waters has to be that southern wing of Lake Superior known as Chequamegon Bay. Lake Superior tends to generate its own weather systems, with the northern reaches of the bay and many of the offshore humps feeling the effects of a nasty blow before you can run to shore with a 150-horsepower outboard. Pay close attention to weather reports, and monitor the weather band on your marine radio once on the water. Chequamegon is no place to be when seasonal change is in progress, except for those few precious near-perfect days.
If you're on the water when this happens, odds are high for tangling with the biggest pike, smallmouth bass or walleye of your life. Mixed bags are the rule rather than the exception on Chequamegon. There always seems to be a bonus fish or two, usually salmonids mixed in with the aforementioned critters.
Streams along our northern border that enter this big water can be nothing short of phenomenal. The famous Brule River is often mentioned in quiet, reverent tones. Other waters like Cranberry Creek, Pike Creek and Fish Creek are discussed in whispers among those who have discovered their secrets.
Tributaries that enter Lake Michigan and Green Bay are harder to keep secret. The Root River at Racine is just as famous and more heavily pressured than the Brule for salmonids. The Pike River just south of there near Kenosha has a lot of water flowing through private lands. If there were more public access, the notoriety would equate the rivalry between these two southeastern cities.
Head north up the coast and you'll find fish migrating inland fro
m the Milwaukee River to Mishicot and beyond. Waters found north of the Sturgeon Bay ship canal at the base of Wisconsin's "thumb" are in a class of their own.
If the Great Lakes-strain muskies didn't have so much water to hide in, Door County would have bragging rights as the best all-around sportfishery in our state, even though this peninsula has little more than glorified farm ponds for inland waters. A major part of this claim would be based on fishing along the western shoreline that can be phenomenal for a number of species clear down to Green Bay where the Fox River dumps in.
Just get on the Fox River about dusk near the De Pere Dam and throw No. 9 Jointed Rapalas or 4-inch chartreuse twistertails on a 1/4-ounce jighead any night in October. On a good night you'll tangle with a dozen 3- to 10-pound walleyes. On a great night, hooking up with three times this number of fish is not out of the question. Get on the river during the day and pitch for smallmouths or longline troll for muskies out from the Fort Howard paper plant, and you may be too tuckered out to chase walleyes once the sun goes down.
Tributaries that enter the west side of Green Bay see considerably less pressure from autumn anglers. The Oconto, Peshtigo and Menominee rivers are all favorites for a variety of species. There's panfish, pike, smallmouth bass, walleyes and salmonids. What do you want to catch? Bring all your gear, from perch rods to downrigger sticks for chasing fish just offshore.
Contacts: Angler's All, Ashland, (715) 682-5754; Outdoor Allure, Washburn, (715) 373-0551; Riverfront Bait & Tackle, Sheboygan, (920) 458-4406; Jalensky's Sport and Marine, Racine, (262) 654-2260; Door County Chamber of Commerce, (920) 743-4456; Bob's Bait & Tackle, Green Bay, 1-800-447-2312 or www.bobsbaitandtackle.net; West side Green Bay and Menominee River, www.fishline.com.
WISCONSIN RIVER SYSTEM
Flowages of our namesake river - and the Wisconsin River proper - offer some of the best autumn action in the state for walleyes, smallmouths, panfish, pike, muskies and sturgeon.
Probably the best place in our state to hook up with a sturgeon during the brief season that runs from mid-September to mid-October is found at the tailwaters of the Wisconsin Dells Dam and the next 10 miles downstream. Fishing is simple - just a gob of crawlers spiced with anise scent with a Wolf River rig anchored by a pyramid sinker at the leading edge of river holes. The limit is one per year, but most anglers find it difficult to kill something that has possibly been on the planet longer than he or she has.
Castle Rock and Petenwell flowages have the best reputations for producing fall walleyes, but Lake Wisconsin farther downstream is gaining ground thanks to a change in walleye regulations several years ago.
The Big Eau Pleine Reservoir in Marathon County is probably the best place on the entire Wisconsin River system to chase crappies. Anglers stay away from nearby Lake DuBay because it is a minefield of stumps. Those who take their chances are often well rewarded with great crappie, walleye and muskie catches.
We're fast approaching the autumn peak on the Wisconsin River above Wausau. Smallmouths will continue to hammer No. 4 Mepps Black Fury spinners until water temperatures drop into the low 50s. Then the walleyes really turn on, with a chance to tangle with a lean river muskie always part of the mix. The upper river is best experienced from a cartopper or canoe.
Shallow-draft watercraft are also a better option at the other end of the system from Sauk City-Prairie du Sac down to this river's confluence with the Mississippi near Prairie du Chien. The river is mostly made up of sandbar flats here, just the opposite of boulder stream waters found above Wausau. The bite comes on several weeks later downstream, too. Mid-October to mid-November is a great time to hit the water here for bass, and later for walleyes.
Contacts: Upper Wisconsin River guide Todd Koehn, 1-800-710-8020 or www.rivercatch.net; guide Bryan Scheffer, (715) 367-0270; guide Dave Lutz, (715) 424-1663; Wisconsin Rapids Convention & Visitor's Bureau, 1-800-554-4484 or www.visitwisrapids.com; Petenwell Flowage guide Steve Elsen, (715) 886-4064; Castle Rock Hideaway Cottages, (608) 847-4475 or www.castlerockhideaway.com; River's Edge Resort at Wisconsin Dells, (608) 254-6494; Mi Place on Lake Wisconsin, (608) 635-4020; Lower Wisconsin River guide Ron Barefield, (608) 838-8756.
Esox fans anticipate the second major cold front of autumn with more enthusiasm than the rest of the angling fraternity.
These muskies that are so noted for being predictably unpredictable are of a similar mind when that second northwest blast comes clipping through the state - time to move up to that first deep-water breakline and chow down on shallow-dwelling prey species. This feeding window is brief, maybe just a week or 10 days. When the dinner bell rings at your favorite lake, you want to have those bucktail hooks sharp, and give the pet suckers you've been keeping in the bathtub a little pep talk.
Following is a quick look at some places to confront your muskie of dreams between now and freeze-up.
Just a snowball's throw away from Yooper Country is the Gile Flowage, 3,384 acres of gorgeous northwoods water that big dogs over 40 pounds call home in the wildest reaches of Iron County.
Gile is a visual fishery, with a lot of deadfalls, big boulders and island structures. Target the obvious spots by moving quickly along the shoreline. You'll have to pay attention here. The water is somewhat stained. You never know when you'll get a follow or a boiling splash at boatside.
Since the water is stained, noisy lures and topwaters are a good option. An efficient attack plan is for one angler to throw a big orange/black bucktail, while a partner pitches a Wacker or similar noisy topwater.
Contact: Hurley Chamber of Commerce, (715) 561-4334.
Lost & Found Lakes
Of all the country we've visited in northern Wisconsin, my wife has always had a special place in her heart for the area around St. Germain. She was completely content to watch fall's arrival and the eagles right outside our cabin window at Elbert's Resort while curled up with a good book.
I couldn't help but laugh out loud at how the muskies were that weekend on Found Lake and Lost Lake right across the road. At 326 and 544 acres, respectively, either lake can be worked efficiently this time of year in just a couple of hours. Both of these lakes are pretty shallow. It's primarily a weedline bite, with not as much coontail or cabbage near the surface as there was just a couple weeks ago.
If I had to choose just one bucktail to throw in the northwoods, it would be a black/orange-bladed Sneaky Pete. And on either of these lakes, "bulging" the bucktail just under the surface is
liable to generate a violent strike. Shallow jerkbaits work well, too. If you find a fire-tiger Burt that is pretty well chewed up floating over remaining cabbage at midlake on Lost Lake, it's mine.
Contacts: guide Brian Siekierzynski, (715) 542-4774 or www.st-germain.com; Elbert's Resort, 1-800-545-8293.
For most anglers, Tomahawk is just a pit stop while flying up U.S. Highway 51, with little more than a passing thought of muskies swimming in the Wisconsin River below the bridge and in Lake Mohawksin in town.
Spend two hours working cover from King's Dam down to the lake with fluorescent bucktails, jerkbaits and topwaters, and you'll certainly do more than take on gas and grub next time through town.
Contact: guide Bryan Schaeffer, (715) 453-6388
If you had just two hours to catch a muskie when the magic autumn strike window opens, this lake at the lower end of the Madison Chain is the place to be.
Just work the 10-foot weed contour around Hog Island near the lake's inlet and probe the same edge at the south end of the lake near Goodland Park with a purple No. 5 Mepps Giant Killer. On a good day, it's not a question of "when" or "if" - it's "how many." But you probably won't catch one over 40 inches.
Contact: guide Ron Barefield, (608) 838-8756.
From a purely statistical standpoint, this 2,400-acre lake is the best muskie fishery in Wisconsin.
Both size and numbers of fish are present, with growth rates far exceeding state averages. This is probably the only lake where you'll find a line at the boat ramp come October. But the fish are here, and they are about to get reckless.
Contact: Smokey's Bait Shop, (262) 691-9659.
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Autumn is probably the best time of year to catch a multitude of species in Wisconsin. Get out there and enjoy it!
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