Wisconsin’s fishing opener is Saturday, May 7
By Greg Seubert
As manager of a sporting goods store and a professional angler, Tom Keenan knows a thing or two about catching walleye.
That’s what he and thousands of other people plan to do Saturday, May 7, as Wisconsin’s inland fishing season gets underway.
As far as Keenan is concerned, the state’s top to walleye fishing destinations are only a few miles apart: Green Bay and Lake Winnebago.
“These two bodies of water are the best to be on by far,” he said. “It should be a great opener. There are lots of fish to be caught. You just need to be fishing where they are.”
Although 137,000-acre Lake Winnebago has the reputation as a walleye factory, the three smaller lakes upstream – Poygan, Winneconne and Butte des Morts – will probably be a better bet for the opener, according to Keenan, who manages a Gander Mountain store in Rothschild.
“Right now, all the fish are coming out of the Wolf River,” he said. “They’ve completed their spawn and they’re making their way back to the Lake Winnebago system. If I was fishing there now, I’d probably concentrate on the upper lakes, any of the three. Those are very shallow lakes and the deepest spot is probably less than 10 feet. I’m not saying guys won’t catch them on Lake Winnebago, but if I was a betting man, I’d bet that the fish would be caught in the upper lakes.
“I would troll planer boards with No. 5 Rapala Shad Raps,” he said. “I would spread my lines out and troll anywhere from 1.3 to 1.5 miles an hour. Once I located them, I’d concentrate on that area. A little of that is trial and error, but what I would tell you to do is favor the wind-blown shoreline. IF the wind’s blowing from the south, go to the opposite shore or vice versa.”
As far as baits, Keenan suggested perch- or firetiger-colored Rapala Shad Rap.
“It’s hard to beat a No. 5 Shad Rap,” he said. “It’s probably one of the greatest lures ever made. I would start with that for sure.”
A live bait presentation can also be effective as well.
“If you’re going to fish with live bait in that system, I would concentrate around Winneconne and the (Wolf River).” Keenan said. “If not, I wouldn’t have a problem going to Lake Winnebago itself and jigging with a leech or crawler. I would think that would be very good for the opener, too.”
There’s a good reason why the Lake Winnebago system is a popular destination for walleye, Keenan said.
“The biggest thing is the fish are coming back by the millions from spawning,” he said. “When they go back into Poygan, which is the first lake they hit, or Winneconne, the water’s a little warmer and there’s more food for them to eat there. They stay there for a long period of time eating before they make that last journey down all the way to Winnebago itself. Until that water gets really warm, they have no reason to leave. There’s usually still a lot of fish up there in mid-June.”
Early-season anglers on the Wolf River have had their ups and downs this spring.
“It’s been a really weird spring run on the Wolf River,” Keenan said. “It was good early, then it got really bad for a while, but the fishing’s been outstanding the last 10 days or so.”
A typical Lake Winnebago walleye measures 16 to 18 inches, but anglers in search of bigger fish will want to target Green Bay’s fishery, Keenan said.
“Can you catch a bigger fish?” he asked. “Absolutely. The average fish caught is probably 1 1/2 to 2 pounds. In Green Bay, there have been a ton of 10-pounders caught already this year. The average fish on Green Bay is probably 21 to 24 inches long. Lots of fish get caught in that 28- to 30-inch class.
“I think there are two different groups of walleye fishermen,” he added. “There’s a group that fish the Lake Winnebago system and target that system because they’re looking for fish to catch and eat. That’s what Lake Winnebago is. It’s designed as a catch-and-take system. It has real fertile water, they grow fast and people harvest a lot out of there. The big serious fishermen that want to catch really big fish, most of those guys are going to be heading to Green Bay. The bay has a different forage base and the fish grow really, really big.”
Green Bay anglers often use different techniques than on Winnebago, according to Keenan.
“For the opener, they’ll be people casting Rippin’ Raps or trolling crankbaits, one of the two,” he said. “They’ve been fishing Green Bay for the last month. Right now, the size limit on the bay is one fish over 15 inches a day. That tells you how much people love walleye fishing. They enjoy catching big fish, not to just catch them and eat them.”
Among the most popular baits this year is a Rippin’ Rap, a lipless crankbait made by Rapala.
“Instead of trolling it, you cast,” Keenan said. “That’s a very hard bait to even keep on the shelves right now. Guys on Green Bay have learned about that bait, they know how to throw that bait and how to fish that bait. It’s amazing how many of those we’ve sold already this spring and how many we continue to sell.”
Bait selection is important, but not as key to a successful outing on the water as electronics, Keenan said.
“Personally, I don’t think there’s anything more important than a good set of electronics on a fishing boat,” he said. “They have great sonar, they’ve got GPS and they all have mapping features, which allows you to download lap maps right into your locator. Nothing can replace good electronics on your boat.”
Electronics have made fishing easier for anglers.
“It’s almost unfair at times,” Keenan said. “I’ve sold electronics for 24 years now and the technology has changed a ton. The mapping features came out in about 1998 and they’ve really fine-tuned that over the course of the last five years. The mapping is so accurate, it’s unreal. It’s easy to spend a lot of money on a combination, but realistically, you don’t have to spend a lot of money to have great electronics. There are a lot of options out there. You can buy a sonar/GPS/mapping combo for $350.”
Another key is knowing how to use the equipment.
“You’re only as good as your locator, so knowing how to use it is very important,” Keenan said. “They’re really easy. For example, you take a Humminbird Helix 5, they’re very simple to use. You turn them on and they pretty much do everything you want them to do.”
Besides managing his store, Keenan also finishes on the Cabela’s National Walleye Tour. He won the tour’s Lake Erie tournament April 22.
“I won $87,000,” he said. “I had 10 fish that weighed 91 1/2 pounds. It was incredible.”
Tournament anglers fished out of Sandusky, Ohio.
“I don’t know how to describe it,” Keenan said. “It’s the most incredible body of water ever. You go there and you expect to catch a lot of 27- to 30-inch fish.”
So where will Keenan be for the opener? Probably in his boat in search of walleye.
“It’s my 24th wedding anniversary,” he said. “I’m sure my wife and I are going to be fishing on Green Bay.”