Wisconsin anglers are blessed when it comes to fishing.
The state is loaded with great spots, ranging from big water on the Great Lakes to smaller inland lakes and numerous rivers teeming with game fish. In short, plenty of choices exist for anglers as far as fishing road trips this summer. However, here are seven spots that should be on all anglers’ must-hit lists.
I choose to live and guide on the Mississippi because after more than a half-century fishing all over Wisconsin, there is no more diverse, challenging, wild or beautiful outdoor experience than fishing this western border river. The only exception is when it’s running belly-full in its role of draining one-third of the continental United States. Then, it becomes relatively unfishable.
When it is fishable, though, search baits like Rat-L-Traps, other crankbaits that run well in under 12 feet of water and tandem spinnerbaits work well for probing potential hotspots. Fish — like people — don’t like to do more work than necessary. Why fight current when you can stage just beyond the flow and let food come to you?
Fish spend most time following the forage base, regardless of species. Under most conditions, when water temperatures are above 55 degrees, actively feeding fish will be holding in less than 12 feet — close to the most readily available food source.
Fallen trees and rocks are obvious fish magnets, especially when there is just one fallen tree or small rockpile on a long stretch of shoreline. Leading or trailing edges of sandbars and islands are always worth probing, as are other places where currents interface, like entry points of tributaries and running sloughs.
If You Go
Wunderground.com and the National Weather Service website, weather.gov, are two websites I check every day before making fishing decisions. That NWS website has both river level and projected conditions for the next 10 days.
This part of northwest Wisconsin gets little fishing-related tourist traffic when compared with other northern venues like Hayward, Minocqua or Eagle River.
An excellent muskie lake to try is Big McKenzie. This lake is deep and ultra-clear with habitat that will drive you to glassy-eyed babbling about Top Raiders and Double Cowgirls before you pull away from one of several boat ramps. Both these baits have sent noise best described as the call of a human loon echoing across the water on more than one occasion.
Weed edges — especially around islands and main lake points — and docks that end near deeper water, particularly along shorelines without many docks, are always worth a few casts.
The tourism office in downtown Spooner can provide a free area lake map. Check out smaller lakes with serviceable boat ramps and no resorts — little holes in the wall like Ellsworth, Rooney and Mystery.
Want giant pike? Try Dilley Lake. Tie a steel leader above that No. 5 Mepps bucktail for best results. Launch the boat and just work the shoreline a long cast away from it until you’re back at the ramp.
If You Go
The Green Acres motel is a clean, secure Mom & Pop place for a road trip base camp. Rick and Barb Anderson at the AAA Sports Shop are great for gear and solid, reliable information.
FOX RIVER VALLEY
Interstate 41 is Wisconsin’s primary pathway to adventure, leaving Milwaukee in the rearview mirror and heading north to the Fox River Valley — and beyond.
Omro is a great base of operations, just a hard-left turn and 20 minutes due west of Oshkosh on Highway 21. The Fox River runs right through the middle of town, just a short boat ride to Lake Butte Des Morts.
From here you can head out and pass through the Winneconne narrows into Lake Poygan, with Wolf River coming in on the north side of the canes and a world-famous white bass run in May — or you can head east through Butte Des Morts, and join the fleet on a multi-species quest around the Highway 41 bridge before boating through downtown Oshkosh to vast Lake Winnebago where you can pull Flicker Shads or spinner rigs behind planer boards until tomorrow.
Although the entire Valley is accessible by boat, there are dozens of boat ramps throughout the Fox River Valley that might provide quicker access.
If You Go
DeLorme’s “Wisconsin Atlas & Gazetteer” is invaluable for any road trip when you’re looking for back roads, bypasses and boat ramps not found on GPS or standard maps.
The Wausau area is a waypoint rather than a destination for road-tripping anglers traveling through the middle of the state on Highway 51. Several great, sometimes overlooked fishing spots are along the way.
Lake DuBay is one such place. This stump-strewn Wisconsin River flowage gives up panfish, walleyes and muskies all summer long. On a hot August day 35 years ago, I caught a 30-inch walleye on a 1/4-ounce jighead with a white fliptail grub while blindly trolling on Pat Pierce’s pontoon boat.
DuBay is a minefield of stumps and woody cover. The best way to fish is pulling lures you’re not afraid to lose, slowly, along the old Wisconsin River channel edge.
Following the perfect route is a game of inches. Stumps on either side of the channel will reveal when the boat has ventured “out of bounds.” White is a good color choice in these stained waters. Plastic fliptails on basic jigheads are usually as productive as crankbaits and cost less to lose.
You can get off on Highway 51 on County DB, stop by the DB bridge and catch whopping big bluegills from shore on a pinch of worm under a bobber right now. Continue north a few miles and launch in downtown Wausau. Motor downstream and throw a Hawg Wobbler toward the pilings of the highway 51 bridge for muskies.
The Merrill to Brokaw stretch of river just north of Wausau may be the best Esox canoe float in Wisconsin. Guide Kurt Schultz runs this water and the river upstream from Merrill in his jet boat. The best we ever did was five muskies in three hours.
If You Go
Load a canoe in the fishing boat to explore multiple “skinny water” options, which see even less fishing pressure.
Not all anglers have access to a “fancy” fishing boat. If a cartopper, canoe or kayak is your reality, this boundary water with Michigan in the far northeast corner of the state may be Wisconsin’s ultimate “back to nature” road trip.
The Menominee is a series of “cookie cutter” pools with shallow, swift water below power dams with slower, flowage-style water downstream above the next power dam. My favorite stretch has always been between the Chalk Hills and Grand Rapids dams.
All you need for multi-species success is a small tackle box containing No. 3 Mepps Black Fury spinners, clear Heddon Tiny Torpedo topwater lures, some No. 4 Octopus hooks, green pumpkin pepper- and PBJ-pattern Chompers Salty Sinkers…and a BIG net.
A medium-price, medium-action spinning outfit with 10-pound-test line is a wise choice for a kayak trip on this water where an unscheduled bath is always possible — either from contact with rocks in the rapid, riverine stretches or the upper end of pools or unnoticed boat wakes in the slower flowage areas downstream. Go with the flow along the shady side of the Menominee and throw a couple of casts at any structure which looks “fishy.”
If You Go
The local utility company offers basic campsites somewhere on every pool. For more information, visit the DNR’s Menominee River state recreation area website.
The base of “Wisconsin’s Thumb” at the southern end of Door County is a can’t-miss destination. A ship canal passes through the middle of town, severing this “thumb.” With Green Bay to the west and Lake Michigan to the east, a stiff breeze is always blowing somewhere. Wind usually drives where and how you fish. If wind conditions make boating untenable on the lake side of the peninsula, waters will be calmer on the Green Bay side and vice versa.
Many fishing opportunities also exist in the ship canal itself, ranging from smallmouth bass, walleyes and jumbo perch to Esox that feed on these species — plus the occasional brown trout or salmon both spring and fall. Water is usually calm enough to fish regardless of wind.
Trolling spinner rigs or crankbaits behind planer boards is a popular tactic. Good electronics are key. Fish often congregate over small areas on numerous humps and reefs.
Anchor up and snap-jig blade baits or Shiver Minnows with a goby color scheme for multi-species action.
Muskies are the best kept secret in the ship canal. May is the time to pursue them. Target weed edges just starting to develop along the edges of deeper water in the canal with black/orange bucktails and glide baits. A sonar with side-scan is useful for muskies, but slowly cruising when water is calm with a good pair of polarized glasses often reveals jaw-dropping fish.
World-class smallmouth fishing is available on the flats and in shallow bays here and in harbors to the north on the Green Bay side. Clear-pattern Pop-R’s, clown-pattern Husky Jerks and various goby-colored plastics — fliptails, tubes, senkos — can produce trophy fish.
The lake side is often productive for salmonids with calm winds and a seaworthy boat. Set dodger/fly combos or trolling spoons (flamethrower is a hot pattern) on downriggers and behind planer boards and just start trolling at 2 to 3 mph in a southeasterly direction right out of the ship canal.
If You Go
Beach Harbor Resort feels like coming home. Weather Channel pops up when turning on the room’s TV, there’s outrageous chili at Waterfront Mary’s a short shuffle away, and walleyes can be found off the pier right out the bar’s back door.
IRON RIVER TRIATHALON
Trophy muskies in the Pike Lake chain, stream fishing trout in the iconic Brule River and jigging up monster lake trout between the Apostle Islands in that southern wing of Lake Superior called Chequamegon Bay are all options within an hour’s drive of this quiet town on Highway 2.
Chequamegon is known for giant smallmouth bass. Most folks show up loaded for bronzeback and leave the trout gear at home. Electronics can reveal lake trout holding in 60 to 100 feet close to any of the myriad Apostle Islands. Stout gear that can handle a one-ounce white jig with a 5-inch white Kalin grub or heavy silver Kastmaster spoon is crucial.
When Lake Superior is too rough, the Pike Lake chain just inland is great for huge muskies and equally impressive crappies. Guide Josh Teigen goes after toothers with a combo of natural-color bucktails and topwater lures like the Top Raider. He probes brushy areas in deep water with small, clear tube jigs for crappies.
Although the Brule River has iconic status in the fly-fishing community, Teigen fishes these waters with medium spinning gear and an assortment of spoons and spinners, targeting water from Highway 2 north to Chequamegon Bay.
If You Go
The Big Top Chautauqua located three miles south of Bayfield bills itself as the world’s best show under a tent. Absolutely true. On any weekend, you can get great seats to see class acts across a variety of musical genres.