Patience pays off while trolling for walleye on Green Bay

Patience pays off while trolling for walleye on Green Bay
GREEN BAY, Wis. (MCT) - For the second week of May, the conditions could hardly be more comfortable for a boat ride on the Green Bay waters of Lake Michigan - bright rays of sun shine through a blue sky, warming the 55-degree air, and the boat glides over nearly calm water.

As we turn east, small following, quartering waves gently roll the boat.

"Nappy time for you, Rick?" Paul Mueller asks of our fishing partner, Rick Andritsch, who appears to be transitioning from relaxed to semi-comatose as he reclines in the bow seat.

"Thought I'd do something productive while you find the fish," says Andritsch, squinting from beneath a hooded sweatshirt and hat.

The banter is interrupted as a planer board begins to drift back and slightly under the water. Mueller picks up the rod and feels the weight of the board plus - to our mutual satisfaction - fish.

A minute later Andritsch plunges the net into the water and pulls up a 23-inch walleye, thick and golden brown across the back with a creamy underbelly. It's the first of the day after two hours of trolling.

"About time," says Andritsch, cracking a smile.

"It's tough to find good friends," says Mueller, marking the spot on his electronics.

I've joined Mueller and Andritsch, both 39 and both of Oconomowoc, Wis., for a day of fishing on Green Bay. The previous day featured winds and waves and Mueller landed lots of big walleye.

This morning has dawned clear and relatively windless, allowing the water to clear. And the fish are acting differently.

"Every day is a new day," says Mueller. "Let's see if we've got them figured out now."

We're trolling crawler harnesses - spinner blades, colored beads and hooks on a 5-foot leader - behind planer boards over 10 to 12 feet of water. The presentation is designed to run the bait from 7 to 10 feet below the surface, says Mueller, who adds small weights to help control depth.

We have no sooner reset lines and another planer board dips and drags. Andritsch picks up this rod. It, too, yields a walleye, this one 25 inches long, and the pattern for the day is taking shape.

"Slow," says Mueller, pointing to his speed indicator on the dash. "About 0.9 (mph)."

It appears the walleye today have assumed the posture of royalty - picture a reclining queen having food dropped in her mouth, or perhaps baby birds, wide-mouthed and waiting for the next morsel to be delivered.

Mueller keeps the speed very low and keeps covering a flat north of Green Bay and we keep catching walleye. There is one fly in the ointment. Andritsch has to be taken to the landing at 1 p.m. in order to meet a family obligation. It disrupts the bite.

Mueller and I brainstorm ways Andritsch might get back without interrupting our fishing. We reach a consensus: swimming.

"You should leave now," says Mueller. "A half-hour to swim to shore and another hour of walking, you can make it."

Although the action is improving, Mueller motors Andritsch to shore and we break for lunch. Mueller, who runs a part-time charter business called Walleye Fever and holds a master captain license from the U.S Coast Guard, says he has been seriously working the waters of Green Bay for the last dozen years.

The four main rivers - the Fox, Oconto, Peshtigo and Menominee - that run into the Wisconsin waters of Green Bay host moderate to large spawning runs of walleye each spring.

Mueller says those fish, and others that spawn on suitable habitat along shorelines and on reefs in the bay, congregate on flats in the bay for a post-spawn feeding binge.

"The fish will hang out here and recover from spawning," says Mueller, replacing a green-beaded spinner with purple. "The walleye are up here feeding on shiners, perch and whatever they can find."

Walleye reproduce naturally in the bay and its tributaries, but due to the loss of spawning habitat over the years, the Department of Natural Resources and Walleyes For Tomorrow have augmented the population with stocking. The combination of naturally spawned fish and stocked fish appears to be working.

A fall 2006 index survey found 20 fish species in the lower Fox River and Green Bay, part of the diverse fish community found in those waters, but walleye dominated the catch, according to the DNR. Emerald shiners, a valuable forage fish, were too numerous to be sampled in 2006, while gizzard shad were too numerous in 2005. Common carp, freshwater drum and quillback were relatively common, and muskellunge were the second most abundant predatory species followed closely by northern pike.

A DNR fisheries survey conducted in Green Bay in the spring of 2000 found walleye that ranged from 2 to 19 years of age. The balance across various age classes indicates a healthy walleye population, according to the survey.

Like all good anglers, Mueller picks his spots and chooses different waters at different times of the year. During May, though, it's tough to beat Green Bay.

"The combination of numbers of fish and the chance to catch some very large fish make this a great destination," said Mueller, looking out at the expanse of water north of Titletown.

After we drop off Andritsch, we resume trolling over a flat in 12 feet of water. Mueller locates a hump on the flat that rises about 18 inches. This seemingly subtle change in the bottom structure holds a concentration of fish.

We've trolled only 10 minutes when we have a hit. The planer board jerks back and down; Mueller reels in the line and I unclip the planer board.

"This may take a little while," says Mueller, feeling the weight of a big fish.

After another couple minutes, the fish rises near the surface behind the boat. The fish is long and thick across the back. It thrashes 10 feet away, opening its mouth wide, seemingly wide enough to swallow a 16-inch softball.

I ready the net and Mueller raises the rod tip, bringing the fish toward the surface. Mere seconds before the fish is in netting range, the leader snaps, likely cut by a sharp tooth, and a very big walleye waggles its tail goodbye.

We estimate the fish at 30 inches and 10 pounds.

When we later call Andritsch, we tell him we hooked the biggest fish of the day because he was no longer on board. Andritsch says we lost the fish for the same reason.

Some debates have no winner but plenty of entertainment value.

We fish for another half-hour, catching two more walleye in the 23-inch range, then call it a day.

In six hours of fishing we land eight walleye ranging from 20 to 26 inches and lose four fish, including the 30-incher.

"This action will continue through the middle of May and sometimes later, depending on water temperature and forage," said Mueller.

The summer patterns, often on mud flats, then begin to set up. Given time, and the understanding of friends, those walleye can provide great fishing, too.

© 2008, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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