Oconto Trophy Trip

Taking part in Wisconsin’s spring walleye run

By Sara Trampe

Contributed: Tyler Trampe

Photo Credit: Jeff Klugiewicz

Wisconsin is well known for the Green Bay Packers, cheese, beer, and tourism. A big part of our tourism is the outdoor industry and anglers that come from all over to enjoy our different lakes and rivers. And it’s one annual event that brings out the anglers early, usually still dressed in ice fishing gear on the open water – the spring walleye run. 

Getting moving

Easter of 2019 is a cool crisp morning, but genuinely nice for mid-April in Wisconsin. All three of the Sportsman’s Journal crew have our caffeinated beverages of choice in hand and are eagerly awaiting the arrival of Lynn Niklasch (Your Fishin’ Pal) at the Oconto boat launch. Jeff Klugiewicz – our fantastic camera man – is busy mentally checking off what camera gear we need, Tyler (Trampe) is double checking our rods and going through the gear list with Jeff while I’m getting dressed, packing my bag with personal items and snacks, and trying to figure out which hat to wear.

Excitement starts to peak when we catch a glimpse of Lynn’s familiar rig pull in the parking lot and we all pile out of the truck, high on caffeine and early morning air to greet him. We gather what we have and throw our gear into the boat (well, if you know Tyler we didn’t “throw” anything; it was gently placed).

Lynn drives down to launch, Jeff grabs his camera for some scenery and launching shots whilst Tyler and I walk down to the dock. Usually we are the ones busy loading and launching the boat, directing filming shots, and planning our next step; so, we are enjoying this odd time out where we can relax for a moment.

Shortly after launching, but while still in the river, we spot a rare snowy owl perched on shore, just one of the amazing things fishing out of Oconto can provide.

Together we’re joking, reminiscing and comradery is high with anticipation of a great day. Lynn begins filling us in on the patterns he’s been seeing, water temperature, and a tentative plan. Another area guide and Lynn are communicating back and forth via cell phone about which areas to try for big fish and which areas are seeing more action – the networking between guides is nice to see amidst a typically more competitive industry standard; these two supporting one another also leads them to more success on the water. 

Warming waters

On this day, water temperatures are ideal and plenty of pre-spawn fish are still being caught. Water temperatures plays a key role in spawning with the optimal temperature to look for being 42 degrees (give or take a few). However, even before the ice breaks, male walleye start to make their run moving in as soon as the winter water begins to warm.

If you are addicted to fishing – or make your living off of it – you start watching webcams, reading reports, and tracking weather as soon the air temperatures reach the upper 30’s in anticipation of pulling your boat out of storage and getting out on open water. The optimal condition, for both walleye and anglers alike, is to have slow rising water temps allowing for a more predictable timeframe to hit pre-spawn females.

In contrast, if temperature rises and falls sporadically, the run is much harder to predict, will often be shorter and may not be as successful of a year altogether for not only the anglers but the walleye as well. 

Location and technique

There are numerous river systems in Wisconsin where you can partake in the annual walleye run; the Wolf, Fox, Wisconsin, Menomonee, Peshtigo and Mississippi just to name a few. Most inland lakes are closed to walleye fishing during the spawn, but the river systems fall under exceptions that allow anglers to start fishing early.

The various river systems provide an opportunity to fish all spring and even provide opportunities for shore fishing, but if you want a chance at your personal best, Green Bay is the place to go. Big water = big fish. 

Green Bay has several river systems and tributaries that are popular spots to hit up in spring and Tyler and I have fished De Pere and Oconto numerous times. Each location has its own unique draw, and techniques vary greatly between the two due to several factors. De Pere has a stronger current and numerous anglers are targeting the migrating fish in a much smaller area.

Fishing in De Pere is on the Fox River, which flows North out of the Winnebago system where large amounts of metro area fish are condensed – during the spawn – into the seven miles from the dam to the mouth of Green Bay during those few prime weeks every March and April. The perfect drift and a ¼-ounce jig tipped with live bait or soft plastic are important in De Pere.

Fishing out of Oconto tends to be more searching since you are fishing the actual lake itself. It’s much larger area with basically the same habitat for miles will require more seeking on your part, but, on the flip side, generally means seeing less boats congregated together.

Sand flats skirt the western shoreline of Green Bay from the mouth of the Fox all the way North beyond Marinette. These fish are typically migrating from inside the Bay or even all the way from Lake Michigan (as proven in different DNR studies) where staging or recovering walleyes are roaming the sand flats.

Search baits are used to target fish that are constantly roaming by fan casting the flats or even shallow rocky shorelines. Vertical jigging is used when fishing the river mouths where walleyes are migrating when ready to spawn before going back to the flats to recover before moving out deeper. Trolling planer boards, especially later into the spring is also a popular technique. 

The big bay

The Bay is a large body of water in itself, and the shoreline and structure can be similar for miles; therefore, it is a lot of area to cover to find fish – fish that are constantly roaming, moving into and out of the ideal habitat seeking perfect spawning grounds. Learning and knowing the structure and area is extremely important in being successful at targeting these fish unless you have an abundance of time to canvas the entire area.

The mouth of the rivers typically provides more action – oriented smaller males. The larger females go up shallow during the moonlight to drop their eggs and move back out to recover spending short amounts of time in the rivers themselves. Therefore, you can fish the mouth and catch smaller males, or you can target the flats searching for pre-spawn staging or post-spawn recovering females.

Due to the ideal weather conditions of the day, we opt for roaming females on the flats – a greater area with lower density of fish, but often where the trophies we seek are more frequently found.

Green Bay gold

Just north of the Oconto River mouth on the shallow sand flats we begin fan-casting Rippin Raps in early morning, low light conditions. Retrieval speed and rod tip stroke are determined by being able to feel the vibration from the lure, a crucial element in creating the concise presentation the fish are after. And doing so early on in your cast, combined with a successful hook set is what will land your fish. (For a more detailed description and visual showcase you can watch our episode Fishing for HUGE Green Bay Walleyes on our Sportsman’s Journal TV YouTube page.)

Tyler picks up the presentation faster than me, which means he gets first fish in the boat – a nice 25-inch post spawn female. While happy for my husband (sort of), it fires me up to get one in the boat as soon as possible! It feels like f.o.r.e.v.e.r., but not too much time passes before I feel my line go taut as a fish pins my bait on the bottom. The strike is quick and my hookset feels rusty and bobbled because this is my first open water fish of the year – another nice 25-inch post spawn female. Now my heart is pumping with adrenaline and desire for more heavy gold Green Bay walleyes.

Lynn gets the next hit and all three of us know it’s a bigger fish right at the strike. Since it hit way out on the cast I even have time to take a sip of Dr. Pepper before he gets it boat side. Once we get a glimpse of her, and she is large, we notice that swimming in close proximity is a smaller male. This tells us several things: the fish are still in the spawning mode, there are multiple fish utilizing the flats and because it’s our third fish caught on the pause, we know the fish are lethargic.

The walleye that are in close proximity are attracted to the vibration, but because they are hitting it on the pause they are not aggressively chasing the baits. Compare this to the pause on a jerk bait. A jerk bait is a horizontal presentation whereas the Rippin Rap or Northland’s Rippin Shad is a vertical presentation and the pause is when the lure strikes the bottom. After a few runs and an attempt by Tyler to net both fish Lynn finally lands a 30.25-inch post spawn beauty! 

We continue drifting and fan casting into mid-morning and as the sun rises on the horizon we move slightly deeper so as not to spook the fish. We catch a few more walleyes but nothing huge and the bite is definitely slowing. After seeing Lynn’s 30, both Tyler and I are itching to get one of that caliber in the boat and Lynn knows just the spot.

After checking current wind speed and determining it’s safe to cruise across the Bay, we head to the East shoreline with high hopes of some pre spawn ladies. On the first cast both Lynn and Tyler hook up. We see Lynn’s fish first, a respectable 22-incher and I’m able to net it quickly before Tyler has his up to the boat. With one fish in the net and my filming gear causing me some mobility issues, I’m nervously able to scoop and grab Tyler’s 30 incher! Seeing these two walleyes in the net is a thing of beauty and we take a moment to appreciate our good fortune and enjoy this memorable moment.

An epic day

Increasing wind speeds are predicted for later in the afternoon giving us a very limited time frame to get back. So when both Tyler and Lynn catch another fish, and I miss one, my anxiety grows to land one of the big girls.

Suddenly I feel the tug of my lure and weight on the end of my line. We are fishing in deeper water and I can tell the fish is heavy, but I have no idea how big yet. As I reel my nerves are tingling and my thoughts are racing and blank at the same time … “don’t blow it, please let my drag do what it’s supposed to, don’t lose this fish, rod tip up.”

Lynn spots the fish first, but the ‘eye bulldogs back down before Tyler or I get a glimpse. After a full minute of pulling and fighting I land a beautiful walleye. She isn’t my personal best, but right at 30 and a thick fish. We catch a handful more of all upper 20-inch, thick beautiful Green Bay gold before we have to head back. An overall epic day on the water!

While the walleye run may not top Google’s top ten reasons to visit Wisconsin, it certainly tops my list of things to do every year. A must for any angler, it provides action-oriented fishing and trophy walleyes on numerous river systems. Knowing the patterns and techniques to use on whichever river system you are on is crucial to your success. Fishing on Green Bay also requires experience due to big water, ever-changing weather patterns, and area guides like Lynn can make your trip the best one yet. Hopefully spring of 2020 is bringing us perfect weather patterns and we see you out on the water!

Chase