February 23, 2018
Ice is gone or going now, but here's where you can catch open-water walleye before the "official" season opener.
Given Madison's well-deserved, traditional reputation as a hotbed of radical change, I am surprised the archaic concept of "Opening Day" of the general fishing season on the first Saturday in May remains in place.
There certainly is a sense of wonder in the hinterlands on why angling for game fish is still prohibited, given our prevailing attitude of walleye harvest and deeper understanding of the fish's habits in the 21st century.
When the concept of "Opening Day" was established almost a century ago, the concept of sportfishing wasn't even on the horizon. We caught fish to eat. Legislators of the day concluded the only way to protect game fish from overharvest during their most vulnerable period, spawning time, was to prohibit even attempting to catch them until May when it would all be over.
There is some merit in that thinking when it comes to bass, but with the exception of Lake Superior's walleye population making a spawning run up the St. Louis River about mid-May, Wisconsin's walleye population has procreated and slid back into haunts where they will spend the summer at least two weeks before Madison's youth hold their annual May Day parade.
The Wisconsin DNR does a wonderful job of managing our walleye resources on a lake-by-lake basis, with individually tailored harvest guidelines protecting the walleye population. One glaring exception is upper pools of the Mississippi River where I work as a full-time fishing guide. There is no closed walleye season on the Mississippi, and the daily bag limit is a shameful six fish, with a 15-inch minimum size limit in place.
Fortunately, the several captains that guide on my river pool have a self-imposed three walleye daily bag and maximum 20-inch harvest guideline in place. Most folks who fish this resource have followed the guides' lead, carefully releasing pre-spawn female walleyes at least before they drop their eggs within 10 days of April 15.
Open-Water Walleye Patterns
Like all open waters where a closed season is not in effect, there are four distinct walleye patterns between loosening of winter's grasp and the arrival of serious summer: ice-out, pre-spawn, spawn, and post-spawn.
These patterns are almost entirely weather-driven, with absolutely no deference to the Gregorian calendar. Last year the walleye pattern sequence began around Valentine's Day on Pool 9, with the main river open a full 10 miles below Lock & Dam 8 at Genoa. Two years before that, the closest boat launch at the power plant, about a mile downstream from the dam, didn't provide safe access to the dam's tailwaters until mid-March.
Regardless of when the ice goes out, you can expect a 10- to 14-day period before runoff from upstream causes a substantial rise and change in the river system, kicking off the sequence of pattern changes that dominate how and where we chase walleyes. That's until spring's high water recedes and walleyes move into predictable summer patterns.
Watercraft access is the primary driver in our spring walleye pursuit. If there is any open water on fisheries not subject to seasonal regulations, rest assured the intrepid fringe of walleye anglers will find and exploit it, transitioning from waders — which may be needed to plod through snowdrifts on the way to the river — to cartopper boats, and finally that wonderful reason for a $232 monthly loan payment.
As a 40-year member of this fringe, I can testify we hate to see word of boat ramp access leak out, but thanks to some facets of modern American life, like social media, the entire walleye fishing world knows it's show time just a couple of days after the first "idiot" busts through the floes to get after fish.
Sweet Coldwater Action
The 10- to 14-day ice-out window provides some of the sweetest coldwater walleye action of the entire year. It doesn't matter if you're on the lower Wisconsin, Rock, Mississippi or northern waters like the Fox, Menominee or Peshtigo a couple of weeks later, ice-out is a time for light jigs and blade baits in generally low, clear water.
Some anglers continue to choose a simple jighead and minnow during this special time, going with this traditionally productive presentation instead of some of the equally effective soft plastics that are now available.
It is difficult to switch to a Kalin grub or paddletail when a 1/16-ounce gold jighead or basic Lindy rig with a 3/8-ounce walking sinker and 18- to 24-inch leader on a size 6 hook tipped with a minnow below the Indianford dam on Rock River has found walleye lips since the last century. But once the leap of faith is made to plastics and blade baits, like my signature series Echotail, it is possible to realize even better success.
Walleyes and saugers still bite minnows on a modified river rig consisting of a bullet sinker above a three-way swivel with a 1/16-ounce jig and soft floating jighead on dropper lines of 8 and 16 to 20 inches below the Sac dam on the lower Wisconsin and 1/4-ounce orange jighead below the Dells dam upstream — even though the vanguard has quietly switched to plastics and blades.
On Mississippi River Pool 9 where I work, Taylor Tackle hair jigs are popular. Upstream at Red Wing on Pool 4, it's all about pulling ringworms slowly upstream, just above the bottom on a 3/16-ounce Precision jighead.
Access is possible all winter long at Red Wing if the power plant is generating electricity. The river is almost as accessible just downstream at Trempealeau. That's because flow from the tailwaters bounces downstream in such a way that the closest boat ramp stays open.
There is more to successfully pulling ringworms than simply washing plastic worms behind the boat. Choosing the most productive ringworm color is the final factor in catching lots of fish, just a few, or maybe even getting skunked!
'Matrix of Nuances'
A successful presentation on any river changes every day, even though it changes just a little bit during the 10- to 14-day ice-out window. If you make the pilgrimage to Pool 4 and Pool 5 this month, pulling a firecracker-patterned ringworm on a 3/16-ounce "pyrokeet" pattern Precision jighead over 11 to 13 feet of water upstream at 0.4 mph using 10-pound-test monofilament is a good place to start.
This matrix of nuances resulted in a very nice mess of fish last Feb. 19 at Trempealeau. Had I fished there on Feb. 20, that presentation would have been a good place to start. But if it didn't produce action within 10 minutes, catching fish would mean changing one or all those presentation variables.
The Guinness World Record folks should consider showing up on Fox River and DePere at ice-out to count boats. That is, if the ice hasn't already gone out from Highway 172 to that river's confluence seven miles downstream as you read these words.
This water is Wisconsin's walleye fishing mecca from the time of ice-out until spawning time, generally about a month later. A week after that, the walleye run is in full swing just up the coast on the Peshtigo River. A few days later the Menominee River seven miles north of Peshtigo is the place you want to be.
Cashing in on the ice-out bite at DePere is akin to being a member of Seal Team 6. There is a jump bag full of tackle and two spinning rods ready to go in my truck when the "ramp open" call comes from my very good friend up there.
If I can get on the road within two hours, there may be a day or two of incredible fishing before the fleet shows up. The situation is just a little less crazy at the Peshtigo and upstream on the Menominee at Marinette where fire-tiger pattern ThunderSticks and Husky Jerk Rapalas quickly replace green pumpkin pepper Kalin grubs (which resemble gobies) on a 1/4-ounce jighead at these rivers as the weapon of choice.
The ice-out period is more finite than the pre-spawn period, which begins with rising river levels and warming water temperatures a few days or weeks from then. Walleyes typically spawn at night when water temperatures warm to 45 to 48 degrees.
They spawn at 43 degrees on the lower Wisconsin River about April 1, and just south of there on the Rock River about the same time. The spawn doesn't happen on the St. Louis River until about May 15, providing at least six weeks to chase the peak of the spring walleye run across Wisconsin.
Although there are several distinct climatic zones as you travel latitudinally in Wisconsin, the first wink of spring usually arrives statewide over a period of 48 to 72 hours, starting the clock on the 10- to 14-day window of phenomenal ice-out action on waters not subject to closed season restrictions.
Cashing in on this walleye fishing bonanza means moving life components like family and work down the ladder on the hierarchy of importance. If you need a written excuse for a boss or spouse, look for my E-Tech-powered Lund Alaskan on an undisclosed Wisconsin river.
Wisconsin's walleye nuts fear only three phrases: You're fired, I want a divorce, and You should have been here last week. Those who serve a marble-eyed master may hear the first two, but they laugh when speaking the last one.