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Sunday, January 29th, 2023

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Big Lake, Vilas County

Vilas Co. Big Lake popular for walleyes, muskies, bass

By WON Staff

With all of the lakes available to fishermen in Wisconsin’s popular Vilas County, it can be difficult to pin down a “for sure” destination for opening weekend of the fishing season, which arrives Saturday, May 7, but anglers sure couldn’t go wrong if the arrow or dart lands on Big Lake.

There are several Big Lakes in the area, but this Big Lake is situated in northwestern Vilas County between the towns of Boulder Junction and Manitowish Waters. Just look for a Big Lake that boasts 827 acres and a state campground with 70 camping sites on the west end of the lake. That’s the lake being discussed here.

Big Lake is popular among fishermen of all interests, whether we’re talking muskies, walleyes, bass of both types, or panfish. Big Lake has plenty of structure and habitat to host all popular fish species.

About the only thing anglers might not be able to say for certain when deciding whether to hit Big Lake for the opener this year is whether ice will be off the lake by May 7. Ice should be gone by then, but things were still looking a little touch-and-go as of April 14 with more than 24 inches of ice sealing off the lake’s surface. The extended forecast for that area as of
April 14 showed no overnight lows above freezing until
April 22. Could Big Lake be a candidate for tip-up fishing on the opener? It’s happened in the not too distant past, but that’s probably not going to be the case this year.

The Woodruff-based Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) fisheries team surveyed Big Lake between April 10-13, 2021, and April 17-27, 2021, to assess the status of the walleye and muskellunge populations. Big Lake was also surveyed on June 8, 2021, to assess the bass and panfish communities once the water warmed up enough to bring those species closer to shore and survey gear.

Big Lake is a lightly stained, clear water drainage lake with predominately sand and gravel substrates and some muck. The lake has a surface area of 827 acres, 9.6 miles of shoreline and a maximum depth of 61 feet. Big Lake’s walleye population is sustained through natural reproduction, while the muskie population is maintained through a combination of natural reproduction and stocking.

During three days of walleye-targeted fyke (trap) netting, 557 adult walleyes were captured and marked with a fin clip. Crews then sampled the lake’s shoreline shallows with electro-fishing boats and caught 319 adult walleyes. During the electro-fishing run, 23% (72 of 319) of walleyes bore the fin clip from the fyke netting efforts. Based on those results, the DNR crew estimated Big Lake to contain 2,240 adult walleyes, or 2.7 per acre. An estimated 28% of adult walleye taped 15 inches or longer. The largest walleye was a 27.2-inch female.

The Big Lake walleye regulation allows three fish daily, with no lower size limit, but only one fish longer than 14 inches is allowed each day.

Survey sampling conducted through June 8, resulted in 184 smallmouth bass being caught. Of that number, 143 were considered adults at 8 inches or larger. Another 41% were 14 inches or longer, with the largest measuring a healthy 19.3 inches. During the June 8 electro-fishing survey, adult smallmouth bass were caught at a moderate rate of 11.9 per mile of shoreline (16.1 per mile for all smallmouth bass).

The crew also sampled 125 largemouth bass during the survey. All but two were considered adult fish at 8 inches or larger, and 66% were 14 inches or longer. The biggest largemouth measured 18.2 inches. During the June 8 electro-fishing survey, adult largemouths were caught at a low rate of 4.3 per mile of shoreline (4.5 per mile for all largemouths).

Sampling Big Lake between April 11 and April 27 resulted in the catch of just six adult northern pike. Three of those pike were longer than 26 inches, the largest measuring 33.4 inches. No pike were caught during the June 8 electro-fishing survey.

During fyke netting and electro-fishing sampling, 21 adult muskies were caught, including one hybrid tiger muskie. Of the adult muskies, 24% (five of the 21) were 40 inches or longer, with the largest being a 47.3-inch female. Also, 11 juvenile muskies (11.2 to 24.2 inches) were caught.

Big Lake’s muskie size limit is 40 inches. Despite the fact that motor trolling is now allowed in Vilas County, Big Lake is one lake where anglers will see diehards still row-trolling for muskies in tiny crafts.

The 2021 surveying efforts also resulted in the catch of 20 other species of fish, including bluegills, black crappies, yellow perch, and rock bass. Other species that might be of interest to anglers included white suckers, pumpkinseed, black and yellow bullheads, burbot, and greater and shorthead redhorse.

Big Lake

Nearest town: Man. Waters

Surface area: 827 acres

Max. depth: 61 feet

Water clarity: 13 feet

Fish species present:

Black crappies, bluegills, pumpkinseeds, rock bass, yellow perch, black and yellow bullheads, white suckers, shorthead redhorse, burbot, smallmouth  bass, largemouth bass, northern pike, walleyes, and muskies.

For information:

DNR regional fisheries office (715) 365-8900, the DNR web site http://www.dnr.state.wi.us/org/water/fhp/fish, or call Up North Sports, (715) 686-2636, in Presque Isle, Northern Highland Sports, (715) 385-2134, in Boulder Junction, or Townline Sports, (715) 543-2371, in Manitowish Waters.

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