Walleyes, pike ready for Wisconsin opener

Woodruff, Wis. — The calendar might say May 5 when the inland game fish season rolls around on Saturday, but fishermen should be thinking more like Memorial Day, or even later, when it comes to looking for walleyes, northern pike, and bass in northern Wisconsin.

That’s because an unusual warm spell – one that might be considered downright hot in some respects – immediately followed a Leap Day blizzard. More than 30 inches of snow and a lot of lake ice disappeared when temperatures hit the high 70s and low 80s in early March. That extended warm spell opened even the biggest of lakes by mid-month, and that brought on the fish spawn earlier than normal.

DNR fish biologists across northern Wisconsin say that walleyes and northern pike already have finished spawning and will be on emerging weed edges looking for food when the fishing season opens Saturday.

That’s good news for fishermen. The fish will be hungry, they say.

“The walleyes are going to be on weed edges on all lakes,” said Steve Gilbert, DNR fish biologist for Vilas County. “Usually, on the bigger, deeper lakes, walleyes would still be on spawning areas for the opener, but even the fish on the biggest lakes are done spawning. We were still getting a few walleyes in muskie nets last week on the big lakes, but it’s well past the peak and we’re still two weeks (from the time of the interview) yet until the opener. Fish where you would fish for walleyes in mid- to late May.”

Gilbert said he’s curious to see what largemouth bass and smallmouth bass are going to do in regards to spawning – whether they hold off or head into the shallows, too. If the bass do head shallow, fishermen will have their hands full.
He said water temperatures in Vilas County will “be easily” into the 50s by the opener.

In Oneida County, DNR fish biologist John Kubisiak is seeing the same pattern.

“Fish have two cues that tell them when it is time to spawn. Day length is the primary cue, at least for walleyes, modified by temperature,” Kubisiak said. “The ice went out about a month early around here – around March 20 on many lakes. Water temperatures shot up quickly for the first few weeks, before we had a cool-down and got back to more seasonal air temperatures. In a normal spring, pike spawn within days after the ice goes out at water temperatures in low 40s; the walleyes spawn within about the first week after ice-out with water temperatures in upper 40s, while muskies wait for water temps in the 50s, usually two or more weeks after ice-out.

“This year, the walleyes came in to gravel shorelines right away, but egg development was behind … and spawning was more drawn out than normal. Some females spawned as soon as the eggs matured, while others waited and came in to spawn a little later,” he said. “The males always come in early and stay late. Muskies cued onto the warm temperatures and were spawning early – right behind the walleyes on many lakes, while pike seemed more affected by day-length and held onto their eggs for a week or two after ice-out. It made for a strange spring.”

Kubisiak said ice-out was about a month early and that walleyes and pike were mostly done spawning two weeks ago.

“Fish are starting to show up in feeding areas. I would expect that by the opener, we’ll find fish are well into early summer feeding mode,” he said.

Dave Neuswanger is the DNR fisheries supervisor in Hayward, and he sees similar conditions in northwestern counties.

“This was an unprecedented year, with ice-out occurring up to a month earlier than normal and at least a couple weeks earlier than ever recorded on most lakes in my area,” Neuswanger said.

“By the time of the fishing opener on May 5, I expect all walleye spawning to be long over. My personal angling approach is going to be to treat opening day as I would treat any early summer fishing trip for walleyes – not necessarily expecting to catch fish in shallow water on jigs and minnows during the day or floating crankbaits at night; and hoping they have recovered from the stress and exertion of spawning sufficiently to be hungry and feeding aggressively at intermediate depths,” he said.

Neuswanger said walleyes in the Hayward area generally did not spawn right at ice-out, regardless of suitable water temps in some lakes, because they hadn’t yet had time or sufficient day length to develop mature ovaries.

“But many walleyes spawned a couple weeks earlier than normal,” he said. “What’s interesting now (about two weeks ago) is that we are still seeing a few walleyes full of eggs that have not yet spawned. Perhaps these are first-time spawning females that simply were not ready to go as early as older, mature fish.”
In the northeastern counties, Tammie Paoli is the DNR fish biologist in Peshtigo, where she saw the walleye spawning run peak on Green Bay tributaries the third week of March, a good two weeks earlier than a normal spring.

“Anglers are still having some success trolling near the mouths of rivers – the Menominee, Peshtigo, and Oconto – by jigging, or in the bay using crawler harnesses,” Paoli said two weeks ago.

“I would expect that by the ‘opener,’ or when the bag limit goes from one to five walleyes on the bay and tributaries, that fewer walleyes will be hanging around the river mouths and they will be more dispersed in the bay,” she said. “Right now the bay, water temps haven’t warmed up much, and those fish are probably in more shallow. That will likely change in a week or so.”

Thomas Meronek, of Wausau, is the DNR’s Marathon County fish biologist. His crews worked on Lake Wausau and the Wisconsin River this spring, where the walleyes were done spawning by the end of March.

“As near as I could tell, the ones that did not spawn by the end of March may not have released their eggs. By the first week of April we were finding fish that were feeding heavily, indicating a post-spawn condition,” Meronek said. “Very few walleyes were caught after that initial push that were releasing eggs. So, my guess is that even the post-spawn scenarios may be different this year.

“The good thing is that the water temps now are pretty much in the normal range for this time of year on the Wisconsin River – about 57 to 58. I would try the tactics used for most post-spawn periods, but if the fish are not there, probably move to locations where fish would be in the summer,” he said.

Meronek posed another consideration for fishermen who troll the Wisconsin River and Lake Wausau.

“Normally you can troll until at least late May, but this year the shallow trolling areas, typically fished post-spawn, are greening up with vegetation, and that can create problems for shallow-water trolling,” he said.

Other fish biologists say anglers may have to change tactics and where in a water body they fish. Anglers may have to look in deeper water for walleyes and in shallower water for bass, said Bob Hujik, fisheries supervisor for west-central Wisconsin.

“We got so warm and then everything stabilized and spawning dragged on,” he said. “But my gut is telling me our fish are still two weeks earlier than normal. The walleyes are done spawning, so they’ll be feeding heavily, and the bass waters warmed up and the fish are moving around in the shallows.”

Largemouth bass fishing should be excellent because a dearth of sunny days have increased bass metabolism, said Randy Schumacher, district fisheries supervisor for northeastern and southeastern Wisconsin. Look for largemouth on the northern ends of lakes especially over dark-bottomed weedy areas, he said. Bluegills and crappies should be taking advantage of these early spring zones of warmer water temperatures and early food production, as well.

Trout anglers in northeastern Wisconsin will find a mixed bag of water levels, with the streams of Marinette and Oconto counties exhibiting flows below normal, while streams in the central sands of Waupaca, Waushara, and Marquette counties are closer to water levels expected for the spring opener, Schumacher said.

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