Aug 30, 2016

Hot Action Turtle Flambeau

By: Jeff Robl

I've read articles in Badger Sportsman from arguably two of the best walleye fisherman in the country… I'm sure you know who I'm talking about. The guys at the top of the tournament food chain are not only great fisherman but are innovators.  I don't have any new revelations, most of my fishing time is spent using very simple and basic tactics, but they consistently put fish in the boat for my customers. My boat is found most days, from opening day through early November on one body of water, the Turtle Flambeau Flowage. Last year, I spent 165 days on the water. My fishing methods could be used on many of Wisconsin's other flowages and lakes in general. 

In focusing on the Turtle Flambeau Flowage, one certainty is that the bottom is diverse. Prior to its creation in 1926, the approximate 13,000 acres, now encompassed with water, consisted of 11 lakes, two main rivers, several small unnamed lakes and a number of creeks.  Most of the acreage, however, was forest land. This all makes for a very interesting bottom, with fish holding intricacies that could not all be discovered in several lifetimes. 

(The Turtle Flambeau Flowage (TFF) has some fantastic smallmouth bass fishing, which I have previously written about, so this article is geared towards catching walleye and panfish.) 

Let’s start with structure; the structure that holds fish varies with the season. In early May, some populations of walleye still relate to the original river channels of the Turtle and Flambeau River; the Flambeau, coming from the east and the Turtle, coming in on the north end of the TFF. In the spring, depending on the timing of the spawn and how its timing relates to the early fishing season, holes and bends in the channels can hold numbers of walleye. Some of these holes are far from the actual river’s entrance into the flowage and are in the main body of the flowage. These fish stage in the holes and, at night when ready to spawn, come into shallow rocky shorelines. Other walleye will travel far up the Flambeau River. The fish relating to the Turtle River spawn below the falls (as far as they can travel) by the county park. This area is a closed refuge in the spring. The fish in these holes can be caught vertical jigging or casting and slowly retrieving a 1/8 ounce jig and minnow. When the fishing is good we've had 50-80 walleye days. Any fisherman knows, there is nothing worse than running out of bait. I bring a livewell full of minnows. 

In the fall, some of these same holes can be good for walleye as they make what I refer to as a “false spawning run.” The same fishing method that works in the spring, works in the fall. The TFF isn't known for its northern pike fishing, but in the fall we get some nice bonus pike in these holes; upper twenties to low thirties is a good-size pike on the TFF. Since I have fast forwarded to the fall, another area where walleye concentrate is on the perimeter of some of the original lake basins. These fish are usually in the 18 to 30 feet depth range and often times there are big crappies scattered in with the walleye. We usually locate fish with electronics then anchor and cast. Again, the weapon of choice is an 1/8 oz. jig and an extra-large fathead minnow. Sometimes we drift spinner rigs in these depths with bottom bouncers catching walleye, crappies and big perch. 

Ok, backing up to summer fishing, this is where the diversity really comes into play: wood, weeds, mid-lake humps, rocks, cribs, shorelines, downed trees, etc. There are a lot of options to fish and at times, many of them will hold both walleyes and panfish. Unfortunately, in the limited context of this writing it would be tough to go into detail on all of it. 

One area to look for in targeting walleye in the summer is weeds. Some of the submergent weeds that hold walleye on the TFF are brown broad leaf cabbage, coontail and elodea.  With darker stained water, the deepest emergent weeds I have seen are cabbage, (some call it tobacco cabbage) down to about 7 feet. There are also emergent weeds that hold walleye. Shallow bays with elodea can hold walleye early in the season. Drifting over these types of weeds with slip bobbers and live bait can catch fish. 

Sometimes, however, walleye are where you would least expect them. I remember a Memorial Day weekend six or seven years ago, on one of the days, myself, three sons and one of their friends caught our 15 fish limit of walleye in 2 1/2 feet of water. There was a howling 25 mph south east blowing over 2 miles of open water pounding into a 40 foot wide patch of cattails. We cast slip bobbers to the edge of the cattails and had a very memorable few hours of fishing. 

There are also times when targeting rocks that hold walleye is the best option. The shallow rock areas usually require wind. There are some classic rock humps, but walleye, relating to rock on the TFF, are often relating to wind driven boulders on shorelines. The exception are deep boulders in the 15 to 20 foot range… these are secretive spots. 

In 2010, we had a tornado come across the center of the flowage. That summer, the only structure I fished were downed trees, and I caught a lot of fish! Some of these trees still hold fish to this day. The majority of the fishing I do with my customers centers around wood cover. This comes in many forms; shallow, laid down logs in 3 to 5 foot big flats, laid down logs and stumps in 6 to 10 feet, big stumps on the edge of river channels in 12 to 18 feet, and what I call deep wood in 12 to 16 feet. This deep wood is found on small, slightly elevated bottom contours and spread out over bigger flats.  This is a productive area for late summer walleye. 

I will add that for much of the summer, the net goes into the water for walleye on mid-lake humps. These humps hold the entire range of fish living in the flowage and most are in the 6 to 12 foot range and surrounded by 12 to 16 feet of water. If you are planning to fish the TFF keep in mind, these humps are not created equal.  Many of them are sand and soft bottom; the winners have a combination of sand, stumps and rock. 

Also, there are hundreds of cribs in the TFF. I have most of them marked, but until last summer, didn't spend much time fishing them. The late July/August walleye fishing slowed to an unusual level. This was attributed to, a successful walleye hatch, along with a big hatch of perch, crappies and bluegills. The rich forage base proved a lot of competition for what you had on your jig. 

I know and agree that the scenery is beautiful on the TFF. But when there is a lot of talk about scenery, loons and eagles (not fish), I have a problem. That is when I turn to panfish and have had a lot of happy customers catching perch, crappies and bluegills many in the magnum size range. Cribs are one of the structures where I will find these delicious fish. The cribs are located in the 14 to 20 foot range in original lake basins and river channels. 

My methods, as mentioned early on are basic and relatively simple, but not too simple.  I have a tackle box full of various crankbaits and do enjoy catching fish on these baits. But, the majority of our fishing is done positioned over the structure mentioned and fishing with live bait. My tackle box stays in a storage compartment, comes out occasionally, but my day in day out tackle is simple and contained in a 5"x 9"x 1" thick 9 slot plastic Plano tackle box.  It consists of 1/8 round head Jigs, 1/6 and 1/8 oz. slow fall jigs, split shots, slip bobber knots, 6 mm colored beads, #2 tru-turn hooks and barrel swivels.  This tackle box, a spool of 6 lb. leader, three buoy bottles, clip-on depth finders, needle-nose pliers and scissors are all within easy reach of where I sit. 

These are all pretty simple fishing implements. 

I will say that after many years of fishing the way I do, I am pretty specific on these supplies. I use Stan's slip bobbers, they have a nickeled steel grommet that the line passes thru. I use 12 lb. mono on the reel, then the slip bobber knot, followed by the bobber, a barrel swivel, a 2 to 3 foot, 6 lb. leader, a split shot, a 6 mm red or chartreuse bead, and then a #2 tru-turn gold or red hook. By using the lighter leader and barrel swivel, when you get a snag that won't come off, the leader breaks but the barrel swivel keeps you from losing the bobber. 

I am also particular to the jigs I use. In some spring and fall locations, a typical round head jig is the jig of choice. But, most of the year, we are casting over wood covered bottom. There are a few brands that work. I prefer Innovative Sport Group (ISG) slow fall jigs. They are called “weedless” jigs but what we are looking for on a flowage are "woodless" jigs. In shallow water, 8 feet and under, I like 1/16 oz. and if fishing deeper, or if there is a strong wind, an 1/8 oz. As far as bait goes, a general rule of thumb; we use minnows, mainly extra-large fatheads until around Memorial Day weekend then switch to crawlers and leeches until around Labor Day weekend and back to minnows until ice up. 

I get the opportunity to fish with hundreds of people every year.  I give everyone the same drill when we get to the first spot. When the bobber goes down, point the rod tip where the bobber was, take up the slack line, get the rod low, then give a big hook set straight up. For jig fishing, I have these words of wisdom; when you feel a bite (classic walleye bite, a heavy thump or click, or snap) lower the rod tip so there is slack line, wait 5 to 8 seconds, turn the handle to take up any slack, then gently lift up the rod.  If you feel weight, give a sharp snap (hook set) straight up. Getting these basic techniques down is the difference in catching most of the bites you get or missing most of the bites you get. It is really amazing how a slight deviation in technique results in a complete miss or a fish that gets off halfway back to the boat.  Using good and proper technique helps get most of the fish into the net. Another observation; do not pump the rod up and down when a fish is on. When the rod is lowered the tension is taken off the hook, it often comes out of the fish. Keep the rod up at about a 60 degree angle and steadily wind, keeping tension on the fish. Watching customers fish has also helped me become a better teacher. 

The fishery in the TFF is rich and diverse.  I've never had a problem providing a shore lunch for customers, which I do upon request on a regular basis. On a slow bite day, I jokingly tell customers we'll have lunch but it might not be at noon. I get to fish every day, so I want them to catch the fish.  At 11:30, on a slower bite day, with a shore lunch planned and not a lot of lunch swimming in the livewell, sometimes technique really stands out to me. Some customers are new to fishing and some have way more fishing trips behind them then ahead. Some have even made many trips to Canada on lakes teaming with walleye.  Regardless of experience, one thing they all enjoy is the slowly disappearing bobber being pulled under by a walleye or the satisfaction of catching walleye finesse fishing with a light jig.