January 16, 2015
Clients who jump into my Lund Alaskan guide boat for the first time often ask me which fish is my favorite. With more than 100 fish species all swimming in the Mississippi River where I work, my replying "The one on the end of my line," is both true and accurate. Salmon and muskies are the two sportfish that are least likely to slurp in a hook on the Mississippi. With the habitat parameters salmon require, their absence from that fishery is understandable. But brown trout show up once in a while, and a buddy once caught a brook trout near the mouth of a tributary stream.
Muskies are more enigmatic. They swim in the St. Croix, which dumps into the Mississippi at the northwest corner of our state. They swim in the Wisconsin and Black rivers, too. Both of these tributaries enter the Mississippi near LaCrosse. But in the last 20 years the number of adult muskies caught along most of the big river's state-long run can be counted on both hands. Nobody seems to know why that is so. Pike swim there in both size and numbers.
Our western border is just one boundary of astounding fishing treasures in our state. With so much water and so little time, we need to get fishin'.
Lake Onalaska Pike
This sprawling, shallow flowage of the Mississippi just north of the LaCrosse airport has an incredible population of panfish that are active all winter long. Northern pike of double-digit dimensions are seldom far from that tremendous forage base, and eager to garwoofle bait struggling under a large treble hook.
Even with no size limit and a five fish daily bag on pike, the Esox population in Onalaska — and other Mississippi backwaters — continues to produce nearly sure-thing action throughout the hardwater period and beyond.
By mid-January many ice-fishers venture out for these fish in 4x4 vehicles, making Onalaska an ideal venue for tip-ups, tailgating and overall celebration of winter in the Land of Cheese.
Pool 8 Perch
Backwaters of the Mississippi just west of Stoddard have a well-deserved reputation for producing ringed gold through the ice, with perch in excess of 12 inches caught almost every day all winter long.
Water's Edge Marina is the Mecca for many. Owner Mike Tully has an ATV shuttle service for folks who don't want to carry a bucketful of perch the half-mile back to shore.
With fish swimming in generally less than 4 feet of water and plenty of hooks overhead — especially on the weekend — finesse tactics like light line, longer poles and finding a desirable lure, color and presentation can spell the difference between a fish fry and perch envy.
The fish are there. The question is, do you have what it takes to catch them?
Saugers On The Lower Wisconsin River
A slot limit that went into effect on the Wisconsin River a number of years ago has had profound positive effects on this fishery's walleye population. Under the slot rule, a lucky angler may keep one walleye over 28 inches.
Unfortunately, saugers also come under this rule. Saugers in the Wisconsin River don't grow to 28 inches. Wisconsin's state record sauger was caught in 2009. It weighed 6.6 pounds and was just over 23 inches long. It was caught in the Mississippi River. Wisconsin's state-record saugeye — a walleye/sauger hybrid — was caught the same year. It was 28 1/2 inches long and also was caught in the Wisconsin River!
Many anglers, including myself, have caught saugers eclipsing the state record in the lower Wisconsin River. These fish tend to hang in slightly deeper and faster water than their larger green kin.
Chances are you'll catch one more than 20 inches long while dragging a jig-and-minnow this month if you fish below the Dells or Sac dam or the upper end of Lake Wisconsin. You may also catch one just 3 inches longer.
Too bad, bucko! That potential state record will have to be released. This issue will certainly come up at the spring hearings in a few more months. Those who can differentiate between a sedan and pickup truck might push to see the rule modified.
Peshtigo River Walleyes
This small river and the slightly larger Menominee just another 20 minutes farther north on the east side of Green Bay don't attract the hordes of walleye anglers seen on Fox River at the south end of the Bay every April.
The run typically occurs about a week later on the Peshtigo than it does at DePere, peaking a week after that in the Menominee. Anglers stand elbow to elbow just below the fish refuge when the run is near its peak, with virtually all foregathered hooking up every few minutes. Of course, many of these fish are snagged and must be released.
A marginal boat ramp is located just downstream from the fish refuge. The parking lot looks like Lambeau Field during a playoff game when fishing begins to peak.
If you decide to go there at this time, bring boat, waders, camera and a patient attitude. Should you see somebody in a clown mask with orange hair and a red nose standing below the fish refuge, that would be me. The mask is warmer than a balaclava.
Door County Smallies
Giant smallmouth bass move close to shore from Sturgeon Bay to Gill's Rock this month in coves and bays all along the Door County shoreline. The fish are there to spawn. Once on the beds they are both visible and vulnerable.
Unfortunately, too many of these bronze battlers go home and get released into grease. This is another issue that could use some passionate debate at the spring hearings.
If the Man Cave wall is screaming for a smallmouth, put on your stealth face and Polarized glasses an sneak up there toward the end of the month. Your fish of dreams will be ready.
Don't forget that Smart Phone camera and a dressmaker's tape. Graphite mounts are only slightly more expensive than traditional taxidermy — and you might return to find the same fish even bigger the following spring.
St. Louis River Walleyes
Walleye season doesn't open on this Minnesota boundary river near Duluth until mid-May. The spawning run inland from Lake Superior comes late by Wisconsin standards, with these fish pulling like Chinooks on steroids when they move in from Superior's frigid waters.
By early June the run is over and fish are sliding leisurely back to the cold, deep blue Great Lake. The confluence of the turbid St. Louis and Lake Superior give new meaning to the word "mudline."
This is where you'll find those big 'eyes, cruising shallow flats and humps along the shoreline outside of the deepwater ship channel that serves the Port of Duluth.
Although the fish can be caught drifting jigs-and-crawlers if seas aren't too tall or choppy, the best way to hook up is by pulling a Berkley Flicker Shad. This is no water to attack in a canoe or johnboat. If you can't bring a young ship with a kicker motor to this fight, go chase muskies on the Pike Lake chain nearby.
Muskies On The Upper Wisconsin
If you haven't traded the kayak or similar watercraft for a deep-V boat yet, our namesake River from Wausau clear up to Tomahawk has big, toothy fish waiting for you.
This is skinny water, with a deep hole measuring maybe 6 feet. Throw anything besides a small bucktail or topwater lure and you might as well plan a trip to Rollie & Helen's with a big wad of Franklins in your wallet.
For my nickel, the best bait is that new Mepps double-blade Black Fury with orange dots. No need to figure-8 here. A "figure-J" will work. You'll see the bulge coming. Stick that rod tip in the water and you're liable to break it on the rocks.
When hooked, these fish have only one way to go: straight up! Remember to keep your rod tip down. Bring water to drink, and leave the energy drinks at home. This experience is an adrenaline overload.
Pool 9 Bluegills
Many anglers want to chase walleyes, bass or pike. When their quarry of choice is bluegills, I know it's going to be an easy day, even if the folks have limited fishing abilities.
Bluegills stack by the thousands in essentially two habitats on the Mississippi when August arrives: wood and rocks.
If the river is running low at normal summer pool levels, cautiously anchoring up atop a wing dam can yield a pile of fish using a pinch of crawler on a small jighead fished just off the bottom.
I prefer targeting panfish between limbs of deadfalls back in running sloughs away from the main channel, looking for snags with at least 6 feet of water around them.
With either pattern, if you aren't getting snagged up frequently you aren't fishing where the bigger bluegills are living. These fish aren't shy. You can use 10-pound FireLine. When coupled with a light wire hook getting back to business only requires a pair of pliers to bend the hook back to its intended angle.
The Dells Lake Sturgeon
Catching one of these prehistoric juggernauts should be on every serious Wisconsin fisherman's bucket list. There is a good chance a large female that finds your hook was swimming beneath these age-old rock formations along the Wisconsin River since you were in diapers, sonny — and she's not real eager to swim your way and look you in the eye.
Lake sturgeon can live more than a century and grow to more than 6 feet long. They don't reach sexual maturity until about age 15. That is why the fishing season is so short, a tag is required, and the bag limit is one per year. Personally, I have a problem killing something older than I am in the name of sport.
We don't have many Virginia-class nuclear submarines patrolling the depths in Wisconsin waters. You might hook one at the Dells this month. Then again, it might be a big sturgeon. I've heard the pull is about the same, but I've never fought a sub before.
The commotion at Lambeau Field can be heard on Fox River at DePere on a quiet October night. But those cheering for the green and gold aren't tussling with a marble-eyed fish sporting similar colors in these tailwaters, which are home to Wisconsin's biggest on-the-water boat show and circus every spring.
You'll likely see only a few other sets of navigation lights on the Fox this time of year — even on the weekend. Odds of hooking one of those 30-inchers, which are so common in April, are considerably longer now. But plenty of mid-20s fish are waiting to stretch your string.
The best weapon is the basic 3-inch white Kalin grub on a 1/4-ounce jighead, fished with a steady swimming retrieve. Simply anchor up where you can cast to a current break downstream from a big rock and keep your line in the water.
If you happen to get hooked up there on a Monday night and hear cheering in the distance, it's not about you. Really.
Lac Vieux Desert Muskies
Purchasing a Michigan non-resident license is a good idea before heading out on Lac Vieux Desert, a vast boundary water in Wisconsin's north country. Muskies that swim there tend to follow a forage base blown to some extent by the wind. Although there are plenty of fish on the Wisconsin side regardless of wind direction, there is some truly sweet water on the other side of the line that is begging for a cast.
Big chunks of wood in fluorescent colors and large rubber baits in similar hues work best in this stained water. Realistically, big jerkbaits mainly serve the purpose of keeping an angler warm and drawing Mama Esox out to investigate big suckers dragging behind the boat.
Of course, just about the time you think the only reason for heaving those heavy baits is attracting fish out to gernip a sucker, a wide-bodied toother may jerk you back to reality.
If winter hasn't arrived when you make the trip, it will most certainly be knocking at the door. Come prepared. Don't be surprised if you need a snow shovel to find the landing net.
Mad City Panfish
Marginally "safe" ice typically covers considerable acreage on the Madison Chain Of Lakes sometime between the end of the firearm deer season and Christmas. These natural lakes are perpetual panfish factories, with great numbers of respectable-sized bluegills, perch and crappies cruising the edges of remaining green weeds in shallow water.
Areas like Barber's Bay, University Bay and Cherokee Marsh are community spots for southern Wisconsin's hardwater fraternity. When the bite's on, you won't be alone.
Long poles with sensitive spring bobbers, 1-pound-test fluorocarbon line and finesse lures such as HT's Marmooska Tungsten Gem tipped with a B-Y plastic often spell the difference between catching a few fish and a nice mess.
Mobility is another key to success. Grind a dozen holes over a large area and hop around, leaving a fish or two beside productive holes until you're ready to leave the ice. Most anglers will respect the territory you've established — but there are always one or two folks who believe tapping another hole less than 2 feet away from your hotspot is acceptable.