Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

photo of man holding walleye © Submitted by Jordan Marsh

Jordan Marsh likes big walleyes and catches them all summer long.
© Submitted by Jordan Marsh

June 2012

A walleye guy

Loving the chase and tips for landing big fish.

Jordan Marsh

I think humans are just programmed to want the next big thing. We strive to achieve a goal, and once we meet it, we are happy. For awhile, that is. But then we move on, looking for something bigger and better.

I think the same is true for fishing. Many of us start fishing as youngsters. All we want is to catch that first fish. Size doesn't matter. But when that first fish becomes just a memory caught on camera, that desire often changes and we start to yearn for a wall hanger, or something big to brag about above the fireplace.

I like big fish and I'm a diehard walleye fisherman. I love chasing walleyes starting when the rivers are open and you are able to get a boat in through all the summer months when the weather is nice and the days are extra long. In fall, my fishing gives way to hunting ducks and geese, but I enjoy every minute I can on the water chasing big walleyes.

Big fish can be found throughout the state. I live on a 200-acre lake and I've released many walleyes in the upper 20-inch range. It's true that there are small gem lakes that hold big fish, and some house them in good numbers. But your best odds for landing a big walleye are going to be on bigger lakes.

Consider the walleye's food source. If you have a lake or river with an abundance of food rich in fats (for walleyes this includes Cisco and shiners), you increase your chances of catching the fish of a lifetime.

In my opinion, big fish are a different species from your everyday 15-inch walleye. They are bigger, just as a big buck got bigger, for a reason. Big fish are smart, and usually inhabit a different area of the lake than smaller fish. Once you've discovered these areas, the chance of catching big walleyes is tipped in your favor.

Some walleyes are structure fish, meaning they are going to hold to a given rock pile, sand flat or sunken tree. These fish don't venture too far off their territory unless they need to hunt for food.

Then there are nomadic walleyes, which are always on the move and often found somewhere in the water column chasing suspended baitfish. When you catch a walleye, one great way to tell if that fish is a territorial fish, or more of a nomadic on-the-move fish, is its color.

Photo of walleye underwater. © Eric Engbretson
Excellent walleye angling opportunities exist in lakes and rivers across the state.
© Eric Engbretson

Generally, when walleye are darker they are territorial and don't swim and venture out too far. When a walleye is nomadic and moving from spot to spot, they are typically lighter in color. I use color classification day in and day out when I am fishing for fun or in tournaments. I know that if the fish is dark in color, it's usually sticking to that area and I will be able to come back and catch it again later.

A high end fish locator also comes in handy when looking for big walleyes. I chalk up much of my fishing success to electronics that allow me to motor around and find fish.

I think we get too caught up in going to the usual spots that Dad, Grandpa or our best fishing buddy showed us 10 years ago. Don't get me wrong. Many of those spots work year after year, but if you're looking for something different, and want to catch bigger fish, then you need to get off the beaten path or "community holes," as I like to call them.

There are times when I spend hours searching for fish rather than fishing. I remember two days before fishing a local tournament I spent two and a half hours covering the lake just looking for fish. When I finally found an area with the size of fish I wanted, I dropped a line and sure enough, boated a 22-inch walleye right off the bat. I quickly packed up my gear and left the fish alone. The fish was dark in color and had a brown belly, which told me it was not going to move and would hold very close to the soft mucky bottom.

Dad and I returned to that area the day of the event and boated nine walleyes ranging from 18 to 27 inches. This was a small northern Wisconsin lake and those fish were all caught within 30 yards of each other. The spot was on a "transition" area, where the lake bottom goes from a hard bottom at the shoreline out into the lake, and then along the drop-off, and changes to a soft bottom of mud or muck. I know this from watching my electronics and seeing the echo width on the bottom. High end electronics can help identify bottom compositions.

Transition zones are great areas to look for walleyes, and many times, that is where the big female walleyes will sit because they don't need to move much to find their next meal.

By now it's also no secret that trolling helps anglers catch hundreds and thousands of big walleyes each year. I spend days on end trolling for big walleyes because it works. But many people don't want to put the time into learning how to do it, or make the huge investment it takes to buy the necessary equipment to be an effective troller.

Free Fishing Weekend

Every year, the first consecutive Saturday and Sunday in June are designated as Free Fishing Weekend when you can fish without a license throughout Wisconsin. All the waters of the state are open, including state waters of the Great Lakes and rivers bordering Wisconsin.

Residents and nonresidents of all ages can fish without a fishing license (or trout or salmon stamps) over these two days. However, all other fishing regulations (length limits, bag limits, etc.) apply. This year, Free Fishing Weekend is June 2 and 3. Remember, kids 15 and under never need a license.

And that's okay, too. I have caught many big walleyes with the everyday low-tech walleye tactics that most of us know. In fact, in spring I use jigs or cast crank baits to the shorelines. If targeting bigger fish on the shorelines, then the cranks are the way to go as you will help weed out many of the smaller fish.

If I am going to use a jig to catch the big girls, I will often slide out to a little deeper water and vertical jig on the nearest deepwater flat adjacent to a spawning area. Big fish will congregate in these areas to recuperate from the spawn and they will put the feed bag on. I use bigger jigs with a good size minnow and do a slow and steady vertical presentation.

Once summer rolls around I have a hard time deciding which tactic to use. So, I usually let the fish decide!

I love to run spinner blades, but I also love to use live bait with Lindy® rigs. One tactic that I think is overlooked for big walleyes is a simple slip bobber. Slip bobbers can get into areas that spinners and rigs can't. You can drop bobbers right above trees, in the weeds, along cribs, or simply stay in the strike zone on deep drop-offs.

But spinners and Lindy® rigs help me cover more water. I use spinners to help locate active fish and cover a lot of water in a short time. I use Lindy® rigs to cover a small area that I know is holding fish. The rigs are very effective when fish are found on certain structures or at specific depths.

Remember, too, big walleyes are found all over the state from your small local lake of only 200 acres to big bodies of water like the Bay of Green Bay, Mississippi River and Lake Winnebago. Move around your favorite lake but also move around the state.

The key is to take time, get out of the box and search for areas that are not pressured all the time. Look for deep underwater structures and bottom transition areas. When you find these spots, make sure you know how to get back to them, as many fish will be there year after year.

I encourage catch and release for fish bigger than 20 inches as these are the spawning fish providing the fish of the future.

Introduce someone new to the outdoors. They will appreciate it for a lifetime. See you on the water!

Jordan Marsh is a University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point graduate who majored in fisheries and biology. He also produces an outdoor TV show, Marsh Outdoors, and can be contacted at marshoutdoors@gmail.com

Walleye 101

The walleye is the largest member of the perch family and is one of the most highly prized game fish in Wisconsin.

Common name:

Walleye

Scientific name:

Sander vitreus (Sander refers to the German common name of the European relative and vitreus means "glassy," referring to the large eyes).

Distribution:

It is believed that the walleye was originally confined to the larger lakes and waterways in Wisconsin. The extensive stocking of walleye fry and fingerlings that occurred early in many Wisconsin waters partly obscured the original distribution of the species. Today the walleye is present throughout Wisconsin.

Spawning:

The spawning migration of walleye begins soon after the ice goes out, at water temperatures of 38 – 44° F. Spawning in Wisconsin generally occurs between mid-April and early May, although it may extend from the beginning of April to the middle of May. Walleye spawning ordinarily reaches a peak when water temperatures are 42 – 50° F. The walleye is not a territorial fish at spawning time; they usually broadcast their eggs and exercise no parental care.

Angling:

Thousands of walleye are caught each year during their spring spawning runs. Walleyes are primarily minnow feeders, but leeches, small bullheads, nightcrawlers and various small plugs are favorite baits. In clear waters, walleyes usually stay in deeper areas during the day, moving into the shallows at night. In more turbid waters, they can be caught throughout the day. The large, unusual eyes of the walleye are designed to help them easily find their prey.

Size:

They can grow to lengths over 37 inches and weigh up to 25 pounds. Most catches are 14 to 17 inches and weigh about 2 pounds. Walleyes are easily distinguished from other fish by their golden color, and by the black triangle of membrane on the back portion of the dorsal fin. The lower half of the tail fin also has a white tip which helps in identification.

State record catch size:

18 pounds, High Lake, Vilas County.

Compiled from DNR fisheries factsheets.

Fishermen 50 and older are invited to take online survey

More male anglers 50 and older are needed for an online survey aimed at helping better understand how best to reach this group with information about fish consumption advice.

Wisconsin research has shown that older men have higher mercury and PCB levels than any other group, a concern because some studies have linked higher mercury levels to heart disease in older men and higher PCB levels are associated with higher risk of cancer and immune system problems.

"We've gotten a good response so far to our online survey, but we need more anglers to weigh in," says Dr. Henry Anderson, the top medical officer for the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS). "We want to know if older anglers are aware of and follow fish consumption recommendations, how they decide where to fish and what fish to eat, and where they get their information about eating fish."

Such information can help DHS and the Department of Natural Resources advise people on how to enjoy the health benefits of eating their catch while reducing their exposure to environmental contaminants in the fish.

Photo of two men fishing from boat © DNR File Photo
DNR needs more men over 50 to take an online survey to help improve information about fish consumption advice.
© DNR File Photo

So far, more than 500 anglers have completed the brief survey. The goal is to receive about 5,000 responses. Among the anglers who have already completed the survey, almost all have fished in Wisconsin waters for more than 10 years. The Great Lakes provide fish meals for over half of the respondents and the most commonly consumed sport-caught fish include bluegill and walleye.

Initial responses show that anglers rely on the fishing regulations booklet distributed with fishing licenses for information on fish consumption advice. Television, radio, and newspaper messages play a significant role as well, Anderson says.

However, officials are still researching the best ways to reach and inform older anglers and want to know about all the ways in which fishermen learn about fish consumption advice, Anderson says.

The survey, developed by DHS and funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, will be available through 2012 and possibly longer. To participate, male anglers age 50 or older who live in Wisconsin all or part of the year are encouraged to visit Wisconsin anglers study

For more information about Wisconsin's fish consumption advice, go to Department of Natural Resources and search "eating your catch."

By Lisa Gaumnitz, DNR Office of Communications