Peck: Stinging Lake Winnebago walleyes
Labor Day weekend signals an unofficial end to summer. This is the time when folks who have worked their tails off to buy a boat, which has only been wet twice this year, feel compelled to launch it for the final cruise of the season.
The most entertaining place to spend this weekend is at a shady park bench close to a boat launch at just about any lake in Wisconsin. Truly enjoying the carnival atmosphere requires leaving your boat at home.
Joining the watercraft parade simply contributes to the nautical clown act spectacle.
But if “not fishing” this weekend is not an option, you might consider heading for sprawling Lake Winnebago. You might not be able to join the commotion at the boat ramp, but it is possible to avoid most of the crowd and catch a mess of fish.
Walleyes are the most sought after species in this gargantuan fishery. Most who find ‘Bago’s marble-eyes consistently are either precision trolling or finesse jigging.
With a very strong possibility some pleasure boater will stumble across your chosen trolling path at the most inconvenient time, casting small jigs might be a more productive and less aggravating option this weekend.
In years past, the September bite on Winnebago has been generally tough because there is so much walleye food in this complex ecosystem. This is still the case.
But for once there are more walleyes out there than easy food for them to eat.
Modern electronics like my Humminbird Helix 10 make finding subtle offshore humps, where Winnebago walleyes like to feed, child’s play. My Humminbird has a highly detailed Lakemaster chip that reveals precise bottom contours, coupled with amazing side-scan sonar once you have navigated to a promising hump or reef.
Serious fishers curse wind almost at much as lightning under most conditions. However, a little breeze is nice to the point of bordering on necessary when pitching jigs for walleyes on the shallow humps of Lake Winnebago.
The best spots top out less than four feet under the surface. If the lake is glassy calm, walleyes are less than eager to cooperate—even when there is a six-foot fluorocarbon leader between your rod tip and the jig.
Because active fish are feeding in less than four feet of water, a 1/16-ounce jig is your best weapon, even on windy days.
Veteran anglers like guide Tim Euting stack odds in their favor by adding a #10 single “stinger” hook on a very short dropper line, which is tied to the bend of the jig’s hook.
Euting likes to pitch chartreuse/white Northland Fireball jigs that have a shorter hook shank than the average jig.
He impales half of a nightcrawler, stretching this annelid between the jig and stinger hooks and makes a long cast out to walleyes lurking between the small stones and larger rocks.
A sensitive rod is an absolute necessity when finesse fishing with 1/16th-ounce jigs. Quality doesn’t come cheap. When fishing with Euting a couple of days ago, I had the epiphany that the St. Croix Legend Elite rod I was using had exactly the same price tag as my first car.
This thought passed quickly when another fish cautiously slurped in my jig. Without the ‘Croix, I simply would have been feeding fish. With this sensitive wand and Euting’s masterful boat control, I was setting the hook on about every third cast.
Not every fish was a walleye.
Lake Winnebago may have a reputation as Wisconsin’s premier “walleye factory”, but it is also world corporate headquarters for drum, aka “sheepshead”.
At least four out of every five fish that ate our jigs was a drum. It took almost two hours to catch a five-fish limit of 16- to 18-inch walleyes.
There are an infinite number of pursuits less desirable than catching fish on every third cast, even if most fish hooked are sheepshead.
Most of these pursuits are based on a four-letter word: Work.
Stay safe out there this Labor Day weekend. Don’t forget that the only thing you can control at the boat ramp is attitude—laughing and crying provide the same release.
Last updated: 11:58 pm Saturday, September 2, 2017