Wisconsin's Best Spring Walleye Rivers

Our expert's favorite hotspots and how to catch fish when you get there

by Ted Peck

River walleyes are leaner and meaner than their lake-living cousins. A 10-pound walleye is a trophy fish anywhere, but when it comes from a river, it's like tacking an Oak Leaf Cluster on a Silver Star.

A fish of these dimensions is one of the old dogs of the river. She knows all about living in flowing water and just where to skulk for an easy meal under any conditions. And what to do with a minnow that comes with just a little more resistance than the thousands of baitfish of similar size that she has ingested over a dozen or more years of surviving in a riverine ecosystem.

 

walleye
The great fishing for walleyes at the mouth of the Oconto River has been a best-kept secret, except for those in the know. Photo courtesy of Ted Peck
When she was 13 inches long, she left the river once. After a minute in the atmosphere above the river's surface, she returned to the water with a slightly aching jaw -- an experience which came racing back three years later when she felt herself being pulled unexplainably toward a big metal hoop with nylon mesh. If she had done a flop instead of a flip six springs ago, this fish would not have been around to feel the urge to move upstream when geese are flying north and cardinal music fills the air.

Of course, this old walleye has never heard the sound of birds. Her hearing has always been in the form of vibration bringing the news of food or danger through her watery world. She has felt the vibration of outboards through her lateral line countless times over the past dozen years, never equating this sound with the resistance in the 3-inch minnow in her mouth. Until she realized that the little baitfish held the same stinger hook that she had felt before.

Thousands of anglers in Wisconsin will be heading out to our rivers soon hoping to catch a 30-inch walleye. There are fish this big -- and bigger -- swimming within two hours' drive of any point in America's Dairyland, just waiting for you to present a jig, rig, blade, crank or simple hook and split shot with a minnow in precisely the way it takes to trigger reflexes which result in a deeply arched graphite wand.

All you have to do is be in the right place at the right time with the exact presentation -- and not choke when you realize you are joined to a real dandy. And have a partner who won't choke with the net when he finally sees that all the babbling you've been doing about a big fish is no exaggeration.

Anglers are already out there trying to be a big walleye's worst nightmare over on the power-plant-influenced waters of the Mississippi River at Red Wing, on the Wisconsin River below the Dells Dam and at other locations where winter has yielded just enough to spring to allow anglers to drag a boat to the river's edge.

As spring gains ground in the annual battle over the landscape, pilgrimage by anglers will increase geometrically, with walleye activity reaching its peak in smaller rivers in the south first, rippling toward smaller and finally bigger waters in northern Wisconsin until about the last week of April. By this time next month, the truly rabid amongst us will want to be at 10 places at once.

Following are our thoughts on the best locations and presentations for a photo opportunity with the fish of dreams with the sincere hope that you release any big-bellied momma that isn't destined for a spot of glory on the family room wall.

WISCONSIN RIVER
The Wisconsin River is producing big fish right now below dams at Prairie du Sac and The Dells, with tailwaters upstream at Castle Rock, Petenwell and Nekoosa coming on over the next several weeks as anglers gain access to the river.

Our namesake river covers a great deal of the central part of our state, creating a fishery where it is possible for an angler to chase fish at their pre-spawn peak from now until darn near May.

Boats find their way out on the river below the dam at Prairie du Sac -- anytime the wind chill is above zero and it quits snowing -- from the narrow, shallow ramp at the VFW club. The Sac dam tailwaters and downstream at Sauk City hold plenty of walleyes and saugers, with hundred-fish days not unusual. However, only two or three of those which come over the gunnel in the tailwaters on a typical day will surpass the 15-inch minimum.

You won't catch as many fish by the railroad trestle at Sauk City, primarily because it's difficult to fish here, but the fish will run larger. Up at the dam a "Sac rig" is very popular. The Sac rig consists of a 3/8-ounce bullet sinker above a three-way swivel. A 1/16-ounce jighead is tied on a 12-inch dropper on one eye of the swivel, with a chartreuse soft floating jighead on a 40-inch dropper on one of the other eyes. Both are tipped with minnows.

Small saugers are accomplished bait thieves, and adding a stinger hook simply discourages larger fish. One solution is a jighead with a long shank. The hook point is threaded through the minnow's mouth and out behind the dorsal fin, minimizing bait theft.

The Dells Dam is the next major barrier upstream. Fish stage at the upstream edge of Lake Wisconsin about 12 miles below the dam, moving up into the river shortly after ice-out. Most years, ice is gone out enough from the upper reaches of Lake Wisconsin by mid-March, providing boat anglers with a chance to target these fish before they move into the river.

Once fish move upstream, wading anglers intercept quite a few fish by casting plastic shad bodies and Shad Raps at night before the fish move up still farther to boat-accessible waters upstream from "the cable" just below River's Edge Resort.

Similar movement occurs upstream at Castle Rock and farther upstream at Petenwell and Nekoosa, with good walleye action as soon as the ice leaves these flowages, and the Big Eau Pleine and Lake DuBay.

If there is a downside to walleye fishing on the Wisconsin River, it is in fish taste, which gets progressively worse with each mile you travel north. The reason for the less-than-spectacular taste is several paper plants which have dumped effluent into these waters for years.

Contacts: Ray's Resort (south); Sauk City, (608) 643-3243; River's Edge Resort (Dells), (608) 254-6494; Ken's Marine (north), (608) 565-2426. For guide service: (south), Ron Barefield, (608) 838-8756; (north) Ed Pleus, (715) 241-6669.

ROCK RIVER
This medium-sized river in south-central Wisconsin offers better fishing every year, thanks in part to aggressive stocking from the Bark River hatchery above Lake Koshkonong.

The Bark and Crawfish rivers join the Rock above Koshkonong. Both of these tributaries see good spring runs of walleyes; however, access on the Bark is difficult at best. Access on the Crawfish is possible by launching on the Rock below the dam at Jefferson. My tunnel boat with jet-drive has no problem negotiating these waters even before run-off begins in earnest. But shallow water can be a problem for deep-V boats even when the water is up.

Rock River's size makes it fairly easy to "read" the water and figure likely fish locations, with dam tailwaters the obvious place to start. But even better fishing can be found downstream from several dams.

The rapids below the sewer treatment plant downstream from the Jefferson Dam is a case in point. A chute along the west side of the river funnels walleyes upstream, making the fish-holding area here essentially just a long cast wide.

The Indianford Dam, below 10,400-acre Koshkonong, is a popular spot for shore-anglers. Two deep holes directly below the dam hold fish all winter long, with a blade bait like the Heddon Sonar triggering as many fish as the old reliable jig-and-minnow.

Like other dams on the Rock, the big gals move upstream over about a two-day period around April 1, then they slide back downriver. This is why targeting downstream holes and eddies makes good sense.

One obvious area is about four miles downstream from the dam, on the east side of the river across from a mansard-roofed house, which is always flying a Packer flag. Fish tend to hold above a natural rocky wing dam extending out from the shore during stable weather conditions when the river is at normal pool, dropping into deeper water and the obvious back eddy when conditions are less than ideal.

Janesville has two dams, with access to the lowhead Centerway Dam difficult and not advisable. Recent improvements to the boat ramp below the Monterey Dam downstream makes this pool the place to watch this spring.

The only other Rock River tailwater is downstream at Beloit, where access is limited to car-topper boats. Most fish hold in the big pool on the west side of the river out from the Beloit Box Board plant. Caution should be used in avoiding a row of pilings which span the river just under the surface out from the Brown Swiss offices.

Contacts: Koshkonong and upstream, Riverfront Resort on Blackhawk Island, (414) 563-2757; from Indianford to Janesville: U-Catch-Em Bait, (608) 754-7976; south to the border, Dick's Bait and Tackle, (608) 362-8712.

FOX RIVER
If you're looking for the one river in Wisconsin with the best potential for producing the walleye of a lifetime, look no further than the seven miles of Fox River between the De Pere Dam and Green Bay especially that half-mile of river closest to De Pere.

A fish refuge has been established upstream from the power lines which span the river here. If you have walleye fever real bad, just stay away during the second and third weeks of April. The number of opaque 'eyes jockeying for position just below the Highway 172 bridge at this time some big enough to wear a saddle makes taking the Lambeau Leap a tempting proposition.

Most anglers are content to wade the shoreline at night out from Voyageur Park, just downstream, throwing 4-inch chartreuse twistertails on 1/4-ounce jigheads and No. 13-18 floating Rapalas in blue/white hues.

A special limit in place, one fish over 28 inches, a regulation Department of Natural Resources biologist Terry Lychwick calls necessary "because of the extreme density and vulnerability of Fox River's walleye population at spawning time." The Fox River isn't the place you want to go for a mess of "eaters" anytime. It remains one of the most polluted waterways in North America.

Contacts: Bob's Bait & Tackle, Green Bay, (800) 447-2312; guide service: Randy Blyczyk, (920) 336-9860.

GREEN BAY TRIBUTARIES
The shoreline of Green Bay has several tributaries which see a substantial influx of walleyes every spring. Some of these fish are river residents, especially in larger rivers like the Menominee. But the big gals are migrants, coming in from the baitfish-rich waters of Green Bay.

Even though the main impetus of this movement is driven by spawning, these fish are also heavily affected by the predator-prey relationship. Walleyes join pike and salmonids in dining heavily on alewives in the shallow reaches of the bay come April.

One of the most stunning accumulations of fish occurs every year from the mouth of the Oconto River all the way up to Peshtigo Point. This is a trolling bite, usually following the 8-foot contour and trolling with the wind. Minnow baits like the Rebel FasTrak and Storm Thundersticks seem to work the best in fire-tiger and blue/chrome color schemes. The key lies in finding a fish with the electronics before you set the baits out behind planer boards, back about 50 to 60 feet behind the boards.

Trolling speed is important. Two years ago, De Pere guide Karl Plog and I were struggling, picking up an occasional fish out of the massive numbers we knew to be present. Then we picked up the trolling speed to a blistering 3 mph and couldn't keep two rods in the water out of a possible six. Every other fish was either a pike, splake or walleye, with the 'eyes running up to 9 pounds.

This bite is best before the alewives arrive in substantial numbers. Once this happens and waters warm just a couple more degrees, the walleyes move up into the rivers.

Wind can be a factor in keeping you off the bay in April. When this happens, load the boat and head for our most northeastern river the mighty Menominee.

Most walleye anglers concentrate their efforts from Stephenson Island clear up to Hattie Street dam at this river's mouth, with the basic cast-and-retrieve of a Sassy Shad or Fuzz-E-Grub on a 1/4-ounce black jighead usually enough to get you hooked up.

This is essentially a catch-and-release fishery, with a limit of one 15-inch fish per day allowed, until the opening of the general fishing season bumps the limit to five.

River pools inland offer their own fish population, with the lower end of several pools like flowages and the upper end of each pool more riverine. The Menominee has good launch facilities at the lower end of each pool, but the best walleye action right now is generally found within a mile of the dam at the upper end of each pool.

Contacts: Marinette County Tourism, (800) 236-6681; guide Karl Plog, (920) 336-9860; Italian Inn Motel, (715) 759-5231.

WOLF RIVER
Anglers from here to Chemung have heard of the Wolf River rig, which got its name from this primary feeder river of the Winnebago System in east-central Wisconsin. When walleyes make their move from Winnebago up the Wolf and into the upper lakes of the chain like Butte des Morts and Poygan, the best tactic is to stake out a promising area along the channel edge and wait for them to come to you. Nothing works better than the Wolf River rig for this purpose.

My idea of a perfect spring outing on the Winnebago Chain is to wade through a pile of sheepshead with Dick Schiefelbein at the Highway 41 bridge, then move upstream when walleyes start outnumbering the misguided river perch. Sheepshead are the vanguard of the walleye run. And nobody can find 'em quicker than Dick.

Once the 'eyes start to make their move about mid-April, I take up permanent residence on the gas dock at Lang's Resort, setting out a couple of Wolf River rigs with red and green beads and a gold Colorado spinner blade ahead of the minnow on a 3-foot dropper. Then it's pretty much a simple matter of catching fish.

The whole key to this run lies in the sheepshead, which become active at a water temperature of about 40 degrees. A half-million adult walleyes won't be far behind.

Contacts: Lang's Resort, (920) 582-7501; Winneconne Chamber of Commerce, (920) 582-4775.

MISSISSIPPI RIVER
This river of the broad shoulders which is our western border holds more walleyes than perhaps all the other rivers combined. Most of the action now is within two miles downstream of the huge lock and dams which span the river from St. Paul to St. Louis. There is no doubt that the best pool early in the year is at Red Wing, Minn., just across the Highway 63 bridge from Pierce County.

Although the river grows substantially between Red Wing and Dubuque, each pool has similarities which allow standardization of fishing methods. The most obvious pattern is fishing the bullnose, that large concrete knob which separates the locks from the dam. Fish are always here in the spring, and the most consistent way to take them is vertical jigging either with a jig-and-minnow or blade bait like the Mr. Zip. Be advised that snagging is illegal, and the double trebles of the Mr. Zip sometimes result in foul hooking. Foul-hooked fish must be released.

As the river moves south, it grows as each tributary enters the main flow. These tributaries have a profound influence on fishing success as they change both the temperature and clarity of the water.

In recent years, the infestation of zebra mussels has cleaned up the river beyond any river rat's wildest dreams. This is not necessarily a good thing, because the fish which have acclimated themselves to feeding in turbid water for so many years can be considerably gunshy with lack of run-off and barge traffic. But too much run-off will also put the fish off their feed. The key lies in finding a happy medium. And when spring begins arriving in earnest, this means putting some miles on the truck.

The best indicator of how the bite is going in the tailwaters of any river pool this time of year is found in the parking lot at the boat ramp. If the lot is packed, the bite is going good. If it's pretty much empty, moving elsewhere is probably a good idea.

Weather impacts the bite on the Mississippi perhaps more than on any other Wisconsin river. A west wind is best, followed by a south wind, which can make for some pretty bumpy fishing. When it comes around to the east, you might as well load the boat and not come back 'til it quits blowing hard out of the north and starts to gentle down with a westerly vector.

The Mississippi epitomizes the frustration and fantasy of searching for that 30-inch fish of dreams. The Big Muddy has so many variables which come into play that analysis can drive you bonkers. So just go fishin' taking the bounty when she gives it up with thanks. And the humility when she shuts you down.

Contacts: Murray's Outdoor Store, Guttenberg, (319) 252-1838; guide Bob Kjos, La Crosse, (608) 783-5160.

 

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