Ted Peck: Break out the boats
Winter is in the rearview mirror below the Dells dam on the Wisconsin River as anglers back their rigs between the ice floes to kick off another open-water fishing season in Wisconsin.
The official season opener doesn’t come until the first Saturday in May on most waters across the state. On major river systems and other places such as Lake Winnebago and Green Bay, ice—not the government—determines when you can chase gamefish from a boat.
Limited options result in a concentration of watercraft that would put any boat show in the Midwest to shame. Cheeseheads have had their fill of boat shows, the polar vortex and the cabin.
The drive to fish rates right up there with survival on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to a legion of hearty souls that love the green and gold of walleyes as much as our beloved Packers.
For more than 30 years Botch Leonhardt has helped fulfill the basic human need to fish by opening up the boat ramp at River’s Edge Resort about a mile below the Dells dam. Leonhardt performed this ritual last Sunday, but the river wasn’t ready yet.
Old Man Winter finally relented Wednesday, heralded by the song of cardinals from stony pillars such as Hawk’s Beak and other iconic rock formations here that gave the Dells its name.
By Thursday morning the parade of boat trailers past the bait shop at River’s Edge was almost nonstop, with bait shop owner Andy Polubinsky a study in perpetual motion with two scoops—one for minnows and the other to make another pot of hot coffee.
Walleyes and saugers that swim in the root beer-hued waters at the Dells display considerably less enthusiasm for being caught than those who would turn these fish into a sandwich.
Water temperature in the Wisconsin River is still in the mid-30s. Cold-blooded creatures are lethargic in an environment that is just above freezing. A basic vertical presentation of a minnow threaded on a plain jighead will be the most effective weapon for anglers here for at least the next two weeks.
Many fish are still hovering in deep water wintering holes where at least a 3/8-ounce jig is required to put a minnow in the fish zone with plumb bob precision.
In a week or maybe 10 days, walleyes will start sliding into shallower water here, relating to sandbar edges with rocky-rubble bottom in 12 feet of water or less. When this happens, a lighter jig—perhaps with a punkinseed or yellow Kalin grub—will catch more fish.
This presentation is best with a slow and steady swimming retrieve at night when most boats have been trailered away from the river.
Walleyes typically spawn when water temperatures reach between 45 and 48 degrees. On the lower Wisconsin River bigger female walleyes tend to drop their eggs in slightly cooler water. Spawning occurs at night.
Locally on the Rock River and on the lower Wisconsin River, the spawn usually occurs within three days of April 1. Spawning activity is driven by several factors, most notably water temperature and moon phase.
The new moon will rule the sky March 30. We could be looking at a typical walleye pattern this year on southern Wisconsin rivers, even after a winter so brutal that northern counties probably won’t allow harvest of antlerless deer next fall.
A lot of water will come down the river between now and month’s end. If the boat is still under wraps, forget the garden tools and hoes in the garage because you have work to do this afternoon.
It’s time to break out the long rods and head down to the river in boats.
Ted Peck, a certified Merchant Marine captain, is an outdoors columnist for The Gazette. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.