Wisconsin's winter landscape is beginning to bleed running water, with rivers great and small shaking off their icy blankets to expose veins rich with walleyes and saugers. Word spreads like wildfire in cafes, taverns and across the internet — all about opportunities to head down to the water with boats.
Although walleye season never closes on fisheries like Green Bay, Lake Winnebago and Wisconsin River flowages, it will be a solid month before 'eye chasers can feel a dual dorsaled devil slurp in a jig at the other end of a long rod again.
Tailwaters below flowage dams begin to open up in mid-February, with limited and often difficult access. If there is enough open water to float a boat, you will almost certainly see at least a couple of camo-clad or blaze orange hulks wearing Packer headgear out there jigging, even if conditions are sleet, snowy or even in the dark of night.
Within days, angler numbers will be legion. The first place to host the Cheeseland Armada will be the upper end of Mississippi River Pool No. 4 at Red Wing, Minn., where boats have been gathered almost every day that temperatures have eased above freezing since before Christmas.
This Minnesota boundary water is essentially the only walleye fishery in the state where you can find open water the year 'round. The reason for this phenomenon is a clearcut case of manmade global warming: The nuclear power plant that operates just above the Red Wing dam.
The upper end of Pool 4 is a premier Wisconsin riverine fishery for trophy walleyes thanks to sprawling Lake Pepin at the lower end of this river pool, which ends downstream at lock and dam No. 4.
The Fluekiger family has been teaching big walleyes about hooks there for three generations, with Lee and his son Jarrad the driving force behind www.riverguiding.com, hands down the best fishing guides on Pepin and the more riverine habitat of Pool 4 upstream.
Three years ago, Jarrad Fluekiger put an impressive 40 fish over 28 inches into the boat for himself and clients on this water. Many of those fish fell to a technique perfected by the Fluekigers — dragging plastic baits behind light jigheads.
"This is truly a finesse presentation," Lee Fluekiger said. "We use the B-Fish-N Tackle Precision jigheads because they are available in odd sizes and designed explicitly for fishing plastics like the ringworm and moxie, a shad body with a paddle tail.
"Jig weight is absolutely critical in this presentation," he continued, "with color another important consideration. We never go heavier than 1/8 ounce. Sometimes the key is an oddball weight like 3/32-ounce Purple ringworms with a white tail, and the 'firecracker' color pattern in both ringworms and moxies are our favorite weapons.
"I'm forever amazed at how many anglers think you need to fish deep for river walleyes in cold water. Fish are cold-blooded. They will seek out the warmest water available this time of year. Most of our biggest fish come from less than 4 feet of water on bright, sunny days."
Mussel beds are a great place to find Mississippi River walleyes throughout much of the calendar year. The Fluekigers attack these subtle habitats by dragging lures upstream against the current.
"There are many little tricks involved in getting the presentation just right," Fluekiger said. "Little things like using monofilament instead of braided line make a world of difference."
The early spring presentation is slightly different 100 miles downstream where I work as a full time fishing guide on Pool 9, south of LaCrosse.
Last spring the River below Lock and Dam 8 opened up enough to provide boat access at the Genoa ramp a mile downstream from the dam on March 9. By March 12 at least 50 to 100 boats were probing the same water for walleyes every day.
There are several scour holes below Lock and Dam 8 that are over 60 feet deep. Those areas are over-winter spots for thousands of saugers, the walleye's smaller relatives with a Desert Storm camo color scheme.
It's hard not to smirk at somebody waving a landing net around with great flair before scooping up a 13-inch sauger — a maneuver guaranteed to bring in boats like gulls out of nowhere in a blue clear sky to a single fish carcass in a great big lake.
Ongoing studies by the Iowa DNR on river pools downstream indicate up to 60,000 saugers are caught below every upper Mississippi River dam on a typical early spring weekend. Many of those fish are released, but initial data indicates up to 80 percent mortality from being jerked out of deep water to the surface.
I never go heavier than 5/8 ounce when vertical jigging/drifting downstream near channel edges. That is plenty of weight to provide a productive presentation to quality fish that seldom hold any deeper than 24 feet of water.
Hair jigs are popular tools from LaCrosse south to the Illinois border when catching walleyes in cold water. Dark colors tend to be more productive. Purple and Kelly green hues catch a lot of fish. The patriotic red/white/blue color scheme is another killer.
Barometric pressure, light penetration, water temperature and several other factors determine how deep walleyes will be holding on any given day. Find them at 18 feet in one spot and you'll likely find them at 18 feet near similar habitat downstream.
There is usually a two- to three-week window between the first time you're able to launch a boat and the influx of high and dirty runoff from melting snow. Although fish will be more aggressive with warming water and the approach of peak spawning about April 20, the most productive time for catching big walleyes is in the late winter period that we're experiencing right now.
Cold, clearer water requires a slow, deliberate presentation. The most productive fishing is experienced when you can get away from the rest of the fleet. That is especially true when trying to tempt walleyes by dragging a ringworm in less than 6 feet of water.
Heading out with at least three fishing rods is a good idea. A heavy spinning or medium baitcasting outfit spooled with superline like Berkley FireLine or PowerPro is ideal for jigging blade baits or pulling three-way rigs. Braided line is an advantage when vertical jigging. Monofilament line tends to float higher in the water column, which is key in swimming a ringworm or moxie bait. Northland Tackle Company's species-specific walleye line is good for that presentation.
The Web site www.lake-link.com is a great source for walleye fishing information on the Mississippi River and elsewhere across the state.
Our namesake river, the mighty Wisconsin, has been called "the hardest working river in America" because of all the power generating barriers from Grandfather and Grandmother dams in the Northcountry to the Prairie du Sac Dam west of Madison.
The tailwaters of The Dells Dam offer the first boating opportunity besides Red Wing every year, thanks to Mother Nature's little helper, Botch Leonhardt. Last spring Leonhardt had the ramp at River's Edge Resort off of County "A" open on Feb. 12, several days ahead of his Feb. 15 average over the past 30 years.
The Wisconsin River — especially at The Dells and downstream below the Sac dam — is another spring walleye/sauger fishery where depth contours are critical to fish location on any given day.
Both of these tailwaters have holes over 40 feet deep where anglers drop heavy jigs to crank up small saugers and 'eyes. Leonhardt said he seldom fishes deeper than 18 feet, usually probing water 12 feet or less.
A 1/4-ounce jig is ample weight to keep you in the fish zone if you're fishing where the fish are. Orange and chartreuse are popular jighead colors. Most anglers use minnows for bait, but soft plastics and hair jigs have found favor in recent years.
Forty-five degrees is generally accepted as the temperature where walleyes get serious about the spawning process. The lower Wisconsin River is a caveat to that rule.
When water temperatures ease past 42 degrees, smaller male fish are cruising in water less than 4 feet deep. Females show up when temperatures hit 43 degrees, and they get down to business.
Rocky rubble bottom is ideal habitat for walleye spawning. That kind of substrata is in fairly short supply from The Dells to the Wisconsin River's confluence with the Mississippi at Prairie du Chien.
Any little run of riffles or pile of rocks is a walleye magnet in that section of river. Go with lighter jig weights and slow-falling jigs like the weedless Slo-Poke or Tom's Timber jig in weights 1/8 ounce or less.
A slot limit in place on the Wisconsin River allows just one fish over 28 inches. This management tool has greatly enhanced the river's reputation as a trophy walleye fishery.
The stretch of water between Sauk City and The Dells Dam holds a number of saugers that are capable of breaking the state record. But Wisconsin River saugers are genetically incapable of growing to 28 inches in length. If you're lucky enough to catch the new state record, all you'll have to show for it is a fish story and, we hope, a photo.
Your best Wisconsin River shot at a trophy walleye are probably downstream from The Dells Dam because of an unfettered migration route upstream from Lake Wisconsin and the Petenwell flowage tailwaters.
The incredible amount of boat traffic per surface acre at the Dells makes it difficult to position your watercraft for precise presentation with finesse techniques. Some local anglers fish exclusively at night from shore throwing stickbaits or a jig/twister combination.
More trophy walleyes are caught at night fishing from shore at The Dells than the fleet brings in during daylight hours.
River's Edge is an all-inclusive resort, offering everything needed for a successful fishing adventure. The web address is www.riversedgeresort.com. The bait shop phone number is (608) 254-6494.
Petenwell flowage has been yielding eye-opening numbers of trophy walleyes for several years now. It isn't in the same league with Fox River at DePere or the Mississippi at Red Wing, but is arguably the best trophy destination for the entire Wisconsin River system.
Guide Jesse Quale has a reputation as the big-fish guru on those waters. He can be reached at (608) 547-3022 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A generation ago, Rock River in south-central Wisconsin was little more than a carp and sucker fishery. It took an entire 30-year career for DNR fisheries biologist Don Bush to turn the Rock River system around, but he certainly did!
Ten thousand-acre Lake Koshkonong is ground zero for that fishery. Koshkonong won't be free of ice until midmonth, but tailwaters of dams both upstream and downstream from the vast, shallow-basin lake hold promise for both size and numbers of walleyes and saugers as we ease into 2012.
The mile of Rock River just above its confluence with Lake Koshkonong usually offers the most productive fishing, with just about everybody vertical jigging while drifting downstream.
Pitching and swimming ringworms and fliptails toward visible, woody structure and any point where runoff enters the river is a highly effective tactic, but is virtually overlooked.
Trolling is permitted in Lake Koshkonong. It is not permitted in the Rock River. DNR sources say the dichotomy exists for "social reasons," earning this rule second place on my list of truly stupid DNR regulations, right behind the Wisconsin River slot regulation on keeping saugers.
The Jefferson Dam is the first place you'll find open water above Lake Koshkonong on the Rock River system. The Bark and Crawfish rivers — tributaries of Rock — are smaller waters that are too often overlooked but worth checking out.
Indianford Dam below the lake attracts a considerable number of shore anglers, with limited access to prime spots. Watercraft access isn't much better, with only four or five optimum locations to anchor up with a prime orientation to really put the hurt on fish.
Monterey Dam on the south side of Janesville is essentially a shore-fishing venue, with access downstream at the Beloit Dam even more vexing. There is limited access to the Beloit Dam fishery from just across the Illinois state line, south of the Shirland Avenue bridge.
The southern latitude and hydrologic characteristics of Rock River make it one of the first waters where you can launch a boat and legally fish for walleyes in Wisconsin. This is a medium-sized river, with large numbers of walleyes congregating in relatively small areas.
Anchoring up is usually the most productive way to fish, with boat position key in optimum bait presentation. With a few notable exceptions-like the Beloit Dam tailwaters and area downstream from Jefferson Dam, the Rock is a shallow river with few walleye-holding holes deeper than 10 feet.
Lindy rigs and jigs are the most popular coldwater weapons on this water. An 18-inch leader is optimum when fishing the Lindy, with either a soft floating jighead or No. 6 red hook with a single red or orange bead an excellent weapon. If you're fishing where the fish are, a 3/8-ounce walking sinker is ideal.
Gold jigs no heavier than 3/16 ounce work well on Rock River 'eyes in cold water, with a 2- to 3-inch fathead minnow impaled on a short shank Northland Fireball jig very effective.
Thanks to DNR biologist Bush, the Rock River system has a tremendous population of bait-stealing saugers. The best way to thwart their thievery is by running the point of the hook in through the minnow's mouth and out just ahead of the dorsal fin.
Green Bay has been the closest thing Wisconsin has to the Emerald City since the Wizard of Oz debuted on the silver screen. For the next two months, walleyes will be the green-and-gold motivation for traveling to Titletown instead of our venerable Packers.
Tailwaters of the DePere dam seven miles from confluence with the south end of Green Bay hold the largest concentrations of both walleyes and boats in the state from April Fool's Day until about the 20th of May.
The best action comes at night when red, green and white navigation lights on boats extending from the fish refuge for a quarter-mile downstream make this water look like a Christmas festival gone horribly awry — more boisterous than a Packers-Bears playoff game at Lambeau Field. A tailgate party with fishing rods!
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There is much to be said for arriving at both DePere and Lambeau ahead of the madding crowd. Last year the kickoff to walleye fishing at DePere was March 20 when enough ice was gone from the Fox River to slide a canoe out from Voyageur Park to probe accessible tailwaters with a 1/4-ounce jig and 3-inch chartreuse fliptail.
By March 25 access was easier and the fleet was at DePere in full force. Those with an overpowering desire to avoid crowds and catch walleyes headed north for one hour to Marinette, only to find the Menominee River still iced over.