Mar 10, 2016
Fishing Green Bay Tributaries For Giant Pre-Spawn Walleyes
By: Larry Smith
It’s the season of muddy snow piles left wallowing in flows of runoff on the side of the road. My boots sink into the yard when I’m out with the dogs. Ice remains on some main lake basins across the state, but it’s rotten, honeycombed and unsafe for fishing. Daytime temps are now a pleasant 47 degrees on good days, with nights flirting with the freezing point. Days are getting noticeably longer. A few green shoots of plant life appear here and there where the warming sun has had a chance to shine. Rivers are beginning to flow and robins have come back from their winter hideaways. However nice this sounds, you still know that tomorrow could send you right back into winter’s icy grip. It’s early spring in Wisconsin, and it is definitely walleye time!
Mid-March and April see good runs of pre-spawn walleyes starting in numerous places across the state, most notably the Wolf and Fox Rivers around the Winnebago system. These rivers hold plenty of good-sized fish, and I spend my fair share of time on them guiding. However, I live to fish BIG fish, so I look to the tributaries of Green Bay to give me a chance at catching truly giant walleyes in Wisconsin.
When I was much younger, I first experienced Green Bay tributary fishing on the Fox River at Depere with my dad. We would have good catches, and 50 fish days weren’t uncommon. We typically would catch decent numbers of fish in the 18 to 22 in. size range. Before the modern super braid era, we would use 7 ft. medium action rods spooled with 10# mono. We would tie on jigs ranging from 1/8 to ¼ oz. in size, depending on current, then anchor-up in about 10 ft. of water and pitch the jigs tipped with fathead minnows up on the 4 to 6 ft. flats. The key to working a jig in current is having it “slide” with the current. Not too light, not too heavy. Back then, there was a 15 in. minimum length, 3-fish limit harvest regulation in place. One thing that really sticks out in my mind about the table quality of the fish at that time is the horribly strong sulfurous smell the fish gave off while we would cook them. Needless to say, I am not a fan of eating Depere fish. Thankfully, many steps have been taken over the years to improve water quality on both the Bay of Green Bay and Fox River. Maybe someday they will be good to eat again, but I’m not looking for eaters when I fish the Green Bay tribs. I’m looking for trophy walleye.
Over the years, pressure built on the Fox at Depere and decent fish became harder to come by. The harvest regulation was eventually changed to 1 fish over 28 in. to help protect the big female walleye from exploitation during their vulnerable pre-spawn phase of life. Big fish rebounded, but increasing fishing pressure every year made me look to other Green Bay tribs for success: I found the Peshtigo River.
Now as many of you know, either through magazine articles, word-of-mouth, or by watching my TV adventures, the Peshtigo River is one of, if not THE best trib on the Green Bay system for big walleye. Since my exploration of this tributary many years ago, I have had the privilege of guiding hundreds of happy people to the biggest walleye of their lives on this meager river. I know there has been a lot of press about the Oconto River the past few years and, granted, it has been a good tributary as of late with a lot of big fish being caught. The Menominee has also been good the past few years as well. This will not always be the case, however. The reason the Peshtigo gets my blue ribbon for best overall Green Bay trib is simple; current.
I know you guys always hear me say this, but current is like a magnetic force. Wherever you have the greatest amount of current, you find the greatest amount of fish. With spring spawning runs for walleye, current is everything. The Peshtigo River has the greatest amount of current year in and year out compared with the other Green Bay tribs. During the past few years, we have had good flow out of many of the Green Bay tributaries, such as the Oconto, which has caused the spawning runs of walleyes to be more spread out throughout the system. However, due to its narrower nature, the Peshtigo River will have more flow in low water years, thus drawing the bulk of the fish when current in other tributaries is lacking. Also a plus for me is the fact that the Peshtigo is somewhat of a shallow, snaggy, rocky, woody, type of river, so it’s not always easily navigated (especially in low water years). Years of exploring the river during all water levels, along with having a flat-bottomed boat, rigged to navigate shallow water, has allowed me to get to pods of walleyes not easily reached by everyone. Although the word is out about the Peshtigo and angling pressure has no doubt increased substantially throughout the years, this river still allows me solitude for my clients and also a chance at big fish.
Location for big pre-spawn walleye on all of the Green Bay tribs is simple; deep holes on outside river bends. Fish stack up in these spots during their spawning migration up river. Remember, the term “deep” is relative to the overall average depth of the tributary itself. After I find potential spots that should hold walleye, I will anchor up river of the hole so I can present my baits properly. It is very important to always cast downstream, and bring your baits back to the boat against the current, or at the very least a 45-degree angle with the current or you will be unable to work the bait properly and feel the bite. Now, lets get to the specifics of the presentation.
Long gone are the days of using only monofilament line and jigs tipped with minnows. Granted, I still have minnows on hand for tough days (I like to be prepared for anything), but the majority of fish are now caught on plastics. Let me tell you, this is not a light bite, either. Fish slam these baits hard, which makes for an enjoyable fishing experience. I now spool 10# super braid on my 7 ft. medium-action rod, add a 3 ft., 10# fluorocarbon leader, and the business end will hold a ¼ to 3/8 oz. jig rigged with a Kalin’s Jerk Minnow in either white or chartreuse. The size of the jig will vary depending on current flow and whether I’m “pitching” or “pumping.” Let me explain.
"Pitching” refers to the technique of jigging the bait back to the boat while reeling up the slack line to maintain feel of the bait as it intermittently hits bottom. Remember, I said you want the baits to “slide” in the current, so proper jig weight is crucial with this technique. Typically, ¼ oz. jigs work the best for pitching. With “pumping,” the technique involves letting the bait rise and fall with the current without actually retrieving line during the presentation. I use this method when I know fish are holding in a particularly snaggy hole, and pitching would just result in a lot of lost baits. I will let the jig (3/8 oz. on average) rise and fall in the fish’s face, working with the current. They slam it right before it hits bottom or snags up in trees, rocks, etc.
Fishing Green Bay tributaries for big walleye is one of the most enjoyable fishing experiences you can have at this time of year. Big fish, biting aggressively on plastics is hard to beat. The river settings I fish on the Green Bay system (especially on the Peshtigo) are both scenic and comfortable. The wind can be howling, yet you can still fish effectively because of the sheltered river. It is a great chance for anglers to shake cabin fever, sharpen their jigging skills, and have an opportunity to catch monster walleye. Places like Peshtigo are also very hospitable to fisherman. The small-town environment, along with great restaurants like The Corral for breakfast and Brown’s Supper Club for dinner, add to a relaxing and fun experience that truly makes you feel like your getting away from it all close to home. Bring a camera for photos of the giants, and remember, when it comes to fishing Green Bay tribs, take a tip from the walleyes and go with the flow!
Larry Smith is a full-time fishing guide and outdoorsman in Wisconsin with 30 years experience. He specializes in walleye fishing on the tributaries of Green Bay, the Wolf and Fox Rivers, and many other major Wisconsin waterways. He is also host of Larry Smith Outdoors, a new weekly outdoor television show featuring adventures from across the Midwest. Like Larry Smith Outdoors on Facebook, follow him on Twitter, and subscribe to his YouTube channel for the latest videos. Visit LarrySmithOutdoors.com for network broadcast times in your area.