Avid Wisconsin anglers can't help feeling like a blind dog in a meat market. With so many options, where should you follow your nose? Two Great Lakes. Thousands of miles of flowing water. More than 1,000 named lakes and flowages. And only 12 months to git'r-done before the Packers head for another Superbowl!
Fish activity in January is slow all over the state. Fish are cold-blooded creatures that are only interested in feeding for a few minutes in a 24-hour day. Yet we still head out, because we can't catch fish with our line out of the water.
All trip options in the coldwater period are pretty much interchangeable. Dawn, dusk and that brief window ahead of approaching weather offer the best odds of hooking up during those times when mortal man can walk on water across most of Wisconsin. Grab your jig sticks and tip-ups. We have fish to catch!
Mississippi River Backwater Pike
Our western border is home to "snot rockets" of dreadnaught proportions, with a population allowing a five-fish daily bag with no minimum size limit. Wisconsin law allows three lines per angler.
One of the most important concepts to grasp in being a consistently successful angler is the importance of the predator/prey relationship. Find panfish and you'll find pike. Where are the panfish now? In shallow, backwater areas with essentially no current flow.
Wisconsin law now has stringent guidelines regarding transporting live bait away from the place you're fishing. Leaving shiners on the ice is like dumping a bucket full of dollar bills.
The law permits using fish not subject to length restrictions for bait. Think predator/prey relationship. Panfish too small to fillet and used for bait are still considered part of your daily bag. Bag sharing is illegal with buddies, but a wonderfully legal option for treating a toother to lunch.
Big Green Lakers
This is the one caveat about all hardwater trips being interchangeable. Our deepest inland lake may not be "safe" for access in early January or late March. But when the Packers are putting on a clinic for the AFC champs at the Big Show there is no better place to be than on the hardwater of Big Green Lake!
An inland trout stamp and reel with considerable line capacity are required to dance with the big trout of Big Green. Electronics are also key, as fish may come up rapidly from 60 to 115 feet of water to bite.
Although most fish usually relate closely to the bottom, suspended lakers are more likely to be active — one more reason to bring the Vexilar along on the sled carrying brats and Leinie's.
Wisconsin River Saugers
Our namesake river downstream from the Dells dam has been one of the first open-water trips for me every year since "Botch" Leonhardt was in high school. In recent years Botch doesn't even need to ask for the "senior price" for coffee at Hardee's, but sauger fishing at the Dells is better now than when both of us were kids.
Leonhardt typically uses his tractor to push ice away from his boat launch at River's Edge Resort by mid-February, allowing access at least a couple of weeks earlier than is possible downstream at Lake Wisconsin, or the Sac dam, or upstream at Castle Rock, Petenwell or Nekoosa.
Until waters warm past the mid-30s you'll find most saugers hanging in 20 to 40 feet of water in deeper holes where they have spent the winter.
No-stretch superbraid line and a sensitive but sturdy graphite rod are critical tools in putting this walleye kin with the desert camo design scheme in the livewell.
Walleyes At DePere
Keep your line in the water four consecutive evenings in the tailwaters of this Fox River dam in April and you will hook into a walleye at least 28 inches long.
Few would argue the concentration of big walleyes in the fish refuge below this Brown County dam, and the marble-eyes trying to get there, is the closest to sure-thing fishing for a trophy walleye an angler will ever experience in Wisconsin.
The notoriety of this fish and fishing frenzy is common knowledge across the state and beyond. If you thrive on the concept of "combat fishing" DePere is the place and April is the time to fulfill your wildest dreams.
DePere is always crowded when the run is on. Showing up about 2 p.m. during the week provides the best opportunity of staking claim to a high percentage spot.
If you opt to take your "trophy catch" to the taxidermist, those who are serious about walleye fishing will tell you to display it next to your 8-year-old daughter's trophy for participation in tee ball.
Although there are more muskies per surface-acre and more big muskies caught in this southeast Wisconsin lake than in any other water in Wisconsin, hooking up with a broad-shouldered Esox here is as tough as DePere is easy, but from a muskie fishing perspective Pewaukee is a lake of 8,942 casts instead of the standard 10,000 tosses considered the standard in most Wisconsin tavern talk.
Guide Lynn Niklasch knows most of the big gals in Pewaukee by name. You'll likely find him working 4- to 8-foot contours over submergent weeds on the shallower, east side of the lake any day in May. Or casting to slightly deeper and less prevalent weed pockets on the west side.
Niklasch is there for one reason only: This is where the muskies are!
Lake Winnebago Walleyes
This huge, yet shallow lake surrounded by busy mid-sized cities is known by a number of clichés. Perhaps the most trite — and certainly most accurate — is "Wisconsin's walleye factory."
I only got out on Winnie twice last year. The second trip was in August. It took me almost six hours to boat five respectable walleyes. There are two reasons that benchmark took so long to achieve.
First, there were no waypoints saved on Winnebago in my new Humminbird fishfinder. The Lakemaster chip this unit contains is extremely accurate regarding lake contours but if you don't have established routes to pull Flicker Shads between, it takes considerably longer to get a pattern dialed in.
The second excuse is too much food in the water. The forage base in Winnebago is so large and diverse that by late summer the fish factory is chowing down beyond capacity and has little interest in something with hooks that merely looks like food.
Fishing in June is much more productive. Guide Justin Kohn, buddy Tom Clearman, and I boated a three-angler limit of 15 'eyes in less than two hours. On the final trolling pass, 5 out of 6 planer boards went back with walleyes pulling them at the same time.
It didn't hurt that Kohn knows this water better than anybody, with multiple tourney wins to prove it. With more than 200 Winnebago waypoints on Kohn's GPS, connecting the dots keeps the landing net perpetually wet.
There is no better water in June if you just want to catch walleyes.
Menominee River Smallmouths
The Menominee is second only to my beloved Mississippi when it comes to favorite waters to fish.
During the spring, the walleye run at Marinette is every bit as good as the action at DePere, with a much smaller crowd. Unlike at DePere, a boat is not necessary.
During the summer months you can have an absolute ball with those scrappy brown bass by fishing the upper reaches of cookie-cutter pools throwing Senkos and topwater baits. This is skinny water, best fished from a kayak or canoe.
The downstream end of every pool has a good boat launch with more flowage-like conditions. Weeds and deadfalls are the best places to target when fishing the upper Menominee's more serene water.
These root beer-colored waters in northeast Wisconsin have my vote as the state's best summer camping/fishing getaway when you want to see more fish than people.
Northern Door Walleyes
Wisconsin's 18-pound state-record walleye was caught in Vilas County way back in 1933. Smart money says when the record falls the new champ will be caught on a spinner rig or deep-running crankbait near an offshore reef or one of the islands in northern Door County in August.
The record was established almost 20 years before I was born. Odds that I will be the lucky angler who replaces Tony Brothers in the record book are infinitesimal. That doesn't prevent an annual August trip to the waters near Chambers Island.
This is almost exclusively a trolling bite, with speed control a major key to success. Spinner rigs should be pulled at approximately 1.7 mph, crankbaits slightly faster at about 2.3.
Dreams only come true for those who participate in the possibility.
Flatheads On The Mississippi
With 104 fish species swimming in the mighty Mississippi, this water is the most diverse and challenging fishery in Wisconsin. The dominant alpha predator of that piscatorial world is the flathead catfish.
When water starts to cool down in September, flatheads strap on the feedbag and chow down with considerably less discretion than is seen the rest of the year. The best fishing is typically at the upstream edge of deeper holes just off the main river channel.
This is combat in the truest sense. Mongo flatties are like Abrams tanks. Set the hook. They pull. You pull. If each combatant had a hook in the lip the cats would win every time.
Even with 90-pound superbraid and stout tackle the really big cats often win. Since these fish are the alpha predators the action isn't fast and furious. But when you finally hook up, it is furious.
Green Bay Muskies
The south end of Green Bay has produced at least one 60-inch muskie every year for the past three years. There is no doubt the next world record is swimming there.
Unlike classic muskie fishing, this is a trolling bite. The best time to fish is when waters cool down below 60 and seasonal change puts a little chop on the water. This is the epitome of October on that shallow, dark water just north of Titletown.
Word on Green Bay's magnum muskies has spread across the Esox world. You won't be alone out there. Because of this considerable pressure, little tricks and nuances in presentation often spell the difference between getting bit and merely washing lures.
This is big water, ill suited for the typical muskie boat. A seaworthy deep V with dimensions of a young ship is a safer way to pursue that fish of dreams on Green Bay.
Mad City Muskies
November is a month of significant transition, driven entirely by seasonal change. If autumn weather lingers into mid-November any remaining green weeds close to sharp breaks into deeper water are muskie magnets.
Sunny afternoons are rare this time of year. Sunny conditions bring fish into shallower water, especially on less fertile lakes Mendota and Monona. These fish get active according to weather, not the calendar.
Trolling is a more effective way to hook up on both Kegonsa and Waubesa farther down the chain. All those lakes are connected by the Yahara River. Fishing tiny Lake Wingra requires trailering the boat.
Since Wingra is smaller and more sheltered, it freezes first. The best action of the year comes the week before the lake locks up with ice. If you get there too late, winterize the boat, grab the tip-ups and head north!
If winter comes early, this month's other two options can produce amazing action on the hardwater.
This fertile southern Wisconsin lake is essentially one big weedbed by late summer. About 80 percent of the weeds have died off by the time Puckaway ices over in mid-December.
The best pike fishing occurs in that two- to three-week window when the ice is "safe" enough for foot travel, but before ATVs and eventually vehicles venture out there.
Tip-ups are the best tools for catching these fish, which are still adapting to a lid of ice overhead. Using round tip-ups which cover the entire hole or the hole covers that fit around the classic "beaver dam" style tip-ups enable a more natural presentation, thus producing more flags.
When fishing alone, set your boards in a triangle formation about 30 yards apart and then quietly take your tip-up bucket to a vantage point in the middle of the triangle to wait for a bite.
Screaming "tip-up!" at the top of your lungs when a flag pops won't impact the action. Stomping up to the hole to set the hook will. Just remember to be quiet on the ice.