Anglers wade in the Wisconsin River. / Submitted by Gary Engberg
Boats and waders below the Prairie Dam on the Wisconsin River. / Submitted by Gary Engberg
The spring time temperatures during the last decade have been slowly warming allowing anglers to get out fishing earlier than what had been normal for years. Iíve kept a diary for the last twenty years and fishermen are ďnormallyĒ wading the rivers of south-central Wisconsin beginning the last week of February or the beginning of March.
But, the spring of 2013 is turning out to be a little bit different than most years. As I write this article, the air temperature is in the 20ís with the expected high today to be in the 30ís. The water temperature is still in the mid 30ís and the last few days of March were the first days when there were anglers out fishing the Wisconsin River below the dams at both Wisconsin Dells and Prairie du Sac in boats and wading.
This is the first time in many years that fishermen are also still ice fishing the local waters on good ice in April. I ice fished the Madison Chain the other day and there was still 15 inches of good, solid ice right up to the shoreline.
The way that things look now is that ice fishing will continue to possibly the middle of April in much of Wisconsin and as one travels northward in the state there is more ice with many more anglers still ice fishing. Itís possible that there may be ice on lakes in the northern third of the state as we head toward the open water fishing opener on May 4th. Thereís still considerable ice, snow, and slush in the northern half of Wisconsin. Weather and ice conditions can change quickly, but this was a cold and snowy winter and March was below normal too! The extended weather forecast looks much like March was with temperature below normal and little sun to melt the snow and ice. I would say that the weather conditions are anywhere from 2 to 4 weeks behind schedule.
The nice thing about southern and central Wisconsin is that there are numerous mid-size rivers that allow anglers to get out and wade these rivers now. The last time that the Wisconsin River and many of the other rivers in this part of the state (Rock, Wolf, Crawfish, Pecatonica, Fox, Black, and Yellow Rivers) froze over was 1996. Otherwise, there waters have stayed open and the walleye river fishing on these waters is open year-round which is great for the fishermen with cabin fever.
Wading rivers for spring walleyes and saugers is popular due to the open water and the easy access on these waters. The Wisconsin River is my favorite water for spring fishing because it contains a good population of fish and youíll rarely be disappointed. Spring and fall are the best times of the year for anglers to wade and shore fish these rivers. It also is the best time to catch some of the biggest fish of the year. You donít have to worry about a boat this time of year and wading is one of the best ways to spring fish.
This spring, the walleye and sauger fishing near the dams on the Wisconsin River (Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin Dells, Castle Rock, Petenwell, and Nekoosa) will all provide good fishing in April and May for pre- and post-spawn walleyes and then white bass, smallmouth, and muskies as the year progresses.
The smaller male walleyes have arrived and are in the general dam areas waiting for the females to show up and find a suitable location for spawning. Spawning usually occurs when the water temperature is in the 42-45 degree range. River walleyes have been working their way up the many rivers since last fall and are stopped when they come to dams. Then, the walleyes and saugers will filter back downriver until they find areas with pea-size gravel with a little water running over the gravel to oxygenate their walleyeís eggs.
Once the fish come to the dams, they look for holding and staging locations near their spawning spots. Remember, that not every walleye or sauger stays right at the dam. Many fish find suitable spawning areas miles below the dams and all the boats and waders that are there. Waders should try to find areas where there is good access and close to any obstructions which walleyes may be hiding behind.
Ideally, a walleye likes to have something to break the current and help them conserve their energy from the flowing water. This is a nice thing about wading rivers because the fish have to constantly eat to maintain their body weight, so these fish are normally active and feeding. If you do some ďscoutingí and check out the areas below any of the dams on the Wisconsin River, youíll find good locations for wading.
Another nice thing about spring wading is that you can usually find walleyes in shallow water. Try to fish during low light periods of the day (before sunset) when fish are more apt to be in the shallow water. You donít have to be on the water at first light in the spring, wait till mid-morning when the sun is up and warming the water. Also, fish all your presentations very slowly because fish are still sluggish from winter.
The equipment you need is nothing special. I like to use a longer rod to be able to cast a good distance and not spook the fish. A good 7-foot rod will work in combination with a good open-face spinning reel spooled with 8-pound monofilament. I like using the green colored mono to match the riverís color and the mono is a little more forgiving than a braided line. I used to like 6-pound test mono, but Iíve found that I lose a lot less jigs with the higher test line.
Always, have a good supply of jigs in all colors and sizes. Change jig colors regularly and have a couple of rods rigged differently. Iíve found the many of the plastic tails and worms made now work extremely well in the spring. Try using Gulp products on your jigs instead of always using minnows and live bait. Have a varied selection of plastics because this is what the walleyes sometimes want. Hair jigs work well in rivers too because the riverís current will make the jigís hair pulsate and this presentation may be what the fish want that day. But, always have some minnows of varying size in case they are what the walleyes want. What the walleyes want on any given day can change, so have an assortment of offerings for them.
As far as techniques go, cast up-river and slowly work your jig or crankbait back to you, varying your retrieve from a stop and go retrieve to a very slow retrieve. Try to fish eddies, points, rocky shorelines, riprap, and slack water locations. Fan cast these areas with a slow retrieve and presentation. Casting floating Rapalaís also works well with the slow retrieve in the cold water.
Since you are going to be wading in cold water, you need good neoprene waders about 4 ML thick. Dress for cold weather because if you get cold you wonít be fishing for long. You can always take clothes off if you get too warm. If youíre wading at night be sure to have a head light like trappers use, so that you can see in the dark.
No matter where you are in southern Wisconsin there is a river for wading close by your home. Dress right, fish slow, and if fishing at night wear a life jacket. Wading is an excellent way to river fish till early summer and I know anglers who wade all year long. After the walleyes are done spawning, they will stay in the area for weeks and then youíll have white bass and smallmouth to wade for.
Gary Engberg is a professional tournament angler, fishing guide, and writer. He began fishing tournaments in the early 1990ís and has fished the In-Fisherman Professional Walleye Trail (PWT), North American Walleye Association (NAWA), Masters Walleye Circuit (MWC), World Walleye Association (WWA), FLW, and Mercury Nationals in the years since. Gary has hosted the Outdoor Horizons radio show weekly for 14 years in Madison on WTDY 1670 AM and WTDY 106.7 FM Saturdays at 8:05 am. and is also a correspondent for the Wisconsin State Journal for the last 12 years. Visit http://www.garyengbergoutdoors.com for more from Gary Engberg.