Many Wisconsin anglers have the first Saturday in May circled on their calendars. That's because the date marks the Wisconsin walleye opener on most inland waters. Opening-day conditions can vary greatly from year to year and from one end of the state to the other. In the north, some lakes may just be losing their ice cover and spawning may just be starting. In the south, walleyes usually have finished spawning and have turned their attention to food.
Walleyes, more than most other species, move from one place to another both seasonally and on a daily basis. Understanding those movement patterns is the first step to successful walleye fishing. That's especially true during the first few weeks of the season. The second step is to use a presentation that will trigger strikes given the time of year, time of day, and the weather and water conditions. Regardless of where you fish, you can count on finding cold water in early May, which means you'll want to slow down and scale down your presentation.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
In the case of walleyes, "relocation, relocation, relocation" might be more accurate. In Wisconsin lakes and reservoirs, walleyes migrate from winter habitat to spawning areas and then to spring and summer habitat, all in a period of several weeks. Learn to identify each of those habitat types and when to expect walleyes to move from one to another and you should be able to catch them during the spawning period, when they move the farthest and their behavior changes the most.
By the time the Wisconsin walleye opener occurs, most walleyes have already moved to pre-spawn staging areas. These are usually areas of intermediate depth located very close to good spawning substrate. In deep lakes, walleyes often stage just off the main break between shallow flats and deep water. In shallow lakes and reservoirs, they may stage just outside weed flats, below subtle breaks of only a foot or so, in channels and off creek and river mouths.
In landlocked lakes, walleyes normally spawn on shallow rocks, rubble and gravel washed clean and aerated by wave action. That type of substrate is often found along shorelines, on mid-lake reefs and around islands. Walleyes also spawn on sand, submerged timber or even muck, if nothing better is available.
In reservoirs, lakes with tributaries or outlets, and lakes that are part of a chain of lakes, walleyes migrate as far as they have to in order to reach suitable spawning areas. They may go many miles upstream, downstream or through several lakes to find the gravel and rock structure they need.
TIMING THE SPAWNING RUN
Walleyes migrate to spawning areas several weeks before they actually spawn. On northern waters, this migration often takes place under the ice. Spawning begins when the water temperature reaches 42 degrees. Most spawning concludes by the time the water temperatures reach the low 50s.
Most walleye spawning takes place at night, but walleyes remain in staging areas during daylight hours throughout the spawning period and for several days thereafter before they disperse. Staging areas often hold great concentrations of walleyes, usually grouped by sex and size. The smaller males often remain close to spawning gravel, while larger females stay farther away in slightly deeper water.
An early spring can cause walleyes to begin their migration earlier than normal, while prolonged winter weather can push the entire process back a week or so. Year in and year out, however, the spawning run usually follows the same schedule within a few days, depending on the latitude of the lake in question. In southern Wisconsin, spawning normally is in full swing the first week of April. Farther north, spawning takes place in late April or early May.
Walleyes tend to be sluggish during the pre-spawn period, when water temperatures are in the 30s. Slow, deliberate presentations work best then. Action may be best during the afternoon, when the water has had a chance to warm up slightly. A leadhead jig tipped with a small minnow is a good bait choice.
Anchor or use a trolling motor to stay over a staging area where you have marked fish and work a jig-and-minnow vertically with a short lift/drop, lift/drop action, or drag it slowly across the bottom. Inactive walleyes usually take a bait as it drops. Rather than a decisive strike, you may simply feel a weight when you lift your rod. If so, hold it steady for a moment. If the weight begins to move, set the hook.
If there is a light breeze blowing in the right direction, you can drift over staging areas with a bottom-bouncer and a floating jighead or plain hook tipped with a minnow. Again, set the hook when you feel any resistance that moves.
When fishing staging areas from shore, cast a jig out to deep water and crawl it back to you. You may lose a few jigs, but that is a good way to cover an area thoroughly.
In reservoirs, start below a dam or inlet mouth and work deep water thoroughly with a jig-and-minnow. If that doesn't produce fish, gradually move downstream, probing shallow bars, eddies and backwaters. Shallow, submerged wood can be very productive now, as the dark wood absorbs the sun's heat and warms up the surrounding water. Shallow-running crankbaits often take good fish in timber.
Vary lure color and size until you find what the fish want. If they stop hitting or if the weather or water clarity change, try a different size or color. Generally, use smaller, brighter baits in colder water, fluorescent colors in dark water, and natural colors in clear water.
FISHING DURING THE SPAWN
Daytime action often drops off sharply once walleyes begin to spawn. Night-fishing in shallow spawning areas can be very productive, though. Try longline trolling over gravel bars, shoreline points, reefs and weed flats with floating minnow baits like a Rapala or ThunderStick. Use a zigzag trolling pattern to give baits an erratic action that often triggers strikes. On reservoirs, use side-planer boards to troll shallow-running baits along shoreline riprap.
If you fish during the day, work staging areas carefully with a lightweight jig tipped with a small minnow or plastic tail. If all you catch are small, aggressive males, move around and keep jigging until you locate a group of females. They'll usually be holding below the next break to deeper water.
After spawning, walleyes scatter and feed voraciously during a brief transition period before they move to summer habitat. During the transition, they may be just about anywhere there is food. They often move into very shallow water because it is warmer and because they find hatching insects and young perch and other baitfish there. Since they are rarely as concentrated now as during the spawning period or when they school up again in summer, you'll take one here, one there, so it's best to move around and cover a lot of water. Trolling or casting shallow-running crankbaits over shallow mud flats, gravel bars, rockpiles, points and emerging weeds will take fish both day and night during the transition.
Vary these techniques depending on where you are fishing and whether spring weather is early or late in coming. The best indicator of the progress of walleye spawning is water temperature, so check it daily to help plan your approach. Now let's look at a half-dozen of the state's best early-season walleye waters.
BIG CEDAR LAKE
Washington County's Big Cedar Lake harbors some big walleyes, but they are a challenge to catch in the clear water. Big Cedar covers 932 acres and has a maximum depth of 105 feet in the south basin. That basin holds most of the lake's walleyes. A honey of a gravel bar rises to within 8 feet or so of the surface in the basin, and another one comes up out of a 20-foot saddle at the mouth of the outlet bay to Cedar Creek along the east shore. Both of those humps and the entire east shore fall off so abruptly that a mountain goat would have trouble keeping its footing there if it were dry land.
Look for post-spawn females along the drops during the day and on top of the bars in the evening and at night. Jigging works well in the deeper water, while flatline trolling with shallow-running stickbaits will take some nice fish on top of the bars. Use planer boards to troll close to shore.
BIG GREEN LAKE
At 237 feet, Big Green is Wisconsin's deepest lake. Like Big Cedar, this is a two-tier fishery, with lake trout and ciscoes in the deeper water and bass, walleyes, northerns and muskies in the shallower portions. The lake's walleyes grow fat on ciscoes and other forage. Some of them migrate up Silver Creek at the east end or Spring Creek at the west end to spawn. Others spawn on the lake's gravel bars.
When the season first opens, try near those two inlets, but avoid the posted fish refuge at the Silver Creek inlet. Two large bars at the east end and two smaller bars just south of Malcolm Bay are also good spots in spring. With a west wind, the stretch along the north shore from Lone Tree Point to Malcolm Bay is a great walleye drift with live chubs or shiners.
Contacts: Schroeder's Sports Shop, (920) 294-6462; Green Lake Marina, (920) 294-3625 www.greenlakemarina.com; Norton's Guide Service, (920) 294-3617, www.nortonsfishingandhuntingadventures.com.
HIGH FALLS FLOWAGE
At 1,700 acres, High Falls is the largest of several reservoirs created by power dams that tame the brawling Peshtigo River. Like the river, the flowage is stained dark brown, limiting visibility to 3 or 4 feet. Countless rock bars make navigation hazardous but provide excellent spawning and feeding habitat for walleyes.
In May, look for walleyes in the northern half of the flowage, above the Highway X bridge. You'll find spawners right in the stumps and on the shallow bars at the north end. Larger females will hold in the old river channel. A slip-bobber rig or lightweight jig tipped with a fathead minnow will take walleyes in spring.
"To avoid snagging in rocks and to help you feel a pick-up, go with the lightest jig you can manage," says fishing guide Mike Mladenik.
Eight free public landings maintained by Wisconsin Public Service Corporation provide good access to all parts of the flowage.
Contacts: Popp's Resort, (715) 757-3511, www.poppsresort.com; Mladenik's Guide Service, (715) 854-2055, www.mikemladenik.com.
THREE LAKES CHAIN
The Three Lakes Chain is actually a string of 17 lakes on the Eagle River in Oneida County. Burnt Rollways Dam separates the Three Lakes Chain from the Eagle River Chain. Some folks just call them the upper and lower chain. Most of the lakes are stained a medium brown, which limits visibility and helps walleyes stay active during daylight hours.
An abundance of mid-lake structure on Planting Ground, Long and Big Stone lakes holds walleyes in spring. Deep water on Big Stone and Medicine lakes harbors ciscoes, which help produce some big walleyes. Most anglers use jigs and minnows for early-season walleyes there, as motor trolling is not permitted.
Contacts: Eagle Sports Center, (9715) 479-8804, www.eaglesportscenter.com; Guide's Choice, (715) 477-2248, www.guideschoiceproshop.com; Tadpole's Sports, (715) 479-6641, www.tadpolessports.com.
This trio of lakes located in Washburn County offers some of the best walleye fishing in the region. Upper (Big) McKenzie covers 1,185 acres, Middle McKenzie 530 and Lower McKenzie 180 acres. The two larger lakes have similar structure, with abundant gravel bars and adjacent deep water. Walleyes move freely between them via McKenzie Creek.
Walleye fishing is usually very good on the larger lakes when the season opens in May. Minnows work well now because baitfish populations are at their lowest at this time of year. Try the gravel bars at the north end of Upper McKenzie and the south end of Middle McKenzie.
Contact: Boone's A&H Outpost, (715) 635-8955.
Formed in 1923 by the Winter Dam at the confluence of the East and West forks of the Chippewa River, the Chippewa Flowage flooded 10 lake basins and sprawls over 15,000 acres in Sawyer County. Best known for its big muskies, the "Big Chip" is also one of the best walleye lakes in the state, with a high population density sustained by natural reproduction and boosted by stocking by both the state and the Lac Courte Oreilles tribe.
With 233 miles of shoreline, 140 islands and six major tributaries, the flowage is best bitten off in small chunks. Try to fish it all at once and you'll go crazy. When the season opens, fish the tributary mouths and the gravel shorelines of Chief and Tyner lakes. Jig with a minnow or cast diving crankbaits.
Contacts: The Landing Resort, (715) 462-3626, www.thelanding-lco.com; Treeland's Resorts, (715) 462-3874; www.treelandresorts.com.
Other top spring walleye waters include Lakes Waubesa and Mendota on the Madison Chain, Pike Lake in Washington County, Big Arbor Vitae Lake in Vilas County, Lake Arbutus in Jackson County, and Holcombe Flowage in Chippewa County. If you're planning an opening-weekend outing, check local conditions before you pick a lake to fish. You can also check the Wisconsin DNR's weekly Outdoor Report at http://dnr.wi.gov/News/or/. With a little effort, you should be able to find the perfect spot for opening-weekend walleyes.