Aug 10, 2017

Forgotten Trophy Potential: Petenwell and Castle Rock

By: Larry Smith

When it comes to walleye fishing in Wisconsin, everyone knows about the Bay of Green Bay and the Winnebago system. Countless articles and television productions have highlighted these great fisheries; and I have to admit, I’ve provided my share of coverage for these waters while filming for Larry Smith Outdoors. Indeed, these are great walleye fisheries, but due to the publicity they’ve received over the past 4-5 years (not to mention their proximity to the Fox Valley cities and Green Bay), the fishing pressure has increased dramatically. As much as I love fishing these great walleye systems, there comes a time when you want to get away from the crowd and STILL have the chance to catch trophy-caliber fish: Enter the forgotten Wisconsin River impoundments of Petenwell and Castle Rock. 

Petenwell and Castle Rock were created in the 1950’s by impounding sections of the Wisconsin River for power production; creating the 2nd and 5th largest bodies of water in the state respectively. Before the dams were built, the areas to be flooded were not cleared of trees, so this left a multitude of cover and structure. Combine that with a fertile river system flowing through them, and you have the recipe for productive fisheries for sure.

These Wisconsin River impoundments are not a newly discovered secret. About 10-12 years ago the word was out on the trophy potential of these waters for walleye, crappie, musky, plus the incredible numbers of white bass and catfish. However, in the past these fish were not very good table fare. The Wisconsin River is probably one of the most industrialized rivers in the country and had many paper mills operating along its shores, which gave the fish a sulphurous taste. Many of these mills are now gone, and the ones that remain are operating under cleaner regulations, thus returning quality table fare status to the fishery. However, as I mentioned previously, the highly publicized fisheries in the eastern part of the state have overshadowed these forgotten jewels in the lesser-populated west; making them that much more intriguing to fish. 

This time of year is perfect for a visit to Petenwell and Castle Rock. There are many campgrounds along these waters located in Adams and Juneau counties, along with plenty of bait shops that can provide you with everything you need for successful fishing. The Petenwell Sport Shop (608-564-7707) is one such place to note and is owned and operated by Matt Johannes; a great fisherman and guide who actually worked with me for many years.   He knows these waters well, and his shop has all the tackle and bait you’ll need for a successful trip. Give him a call if you’re heading to the area.

So, what fishing techniques work on these Wisconsin River impoundments? If you’re thinking about trolling, you might want to reconsider. As many of you know, trolling is probably about the last thing I want to do to catch fish, which makes Castle Rock and Petenwell exactly the kind of lakes for my style of fishing. They are absolutely a hands-on fishermen’s paradise. Three-way rigs, Lindy rigs, weedless jigs, all tipped with fatheads (or a big sucker for trophies) will produce all year on these waters. This is something that is kind of unique in comparison with other walleye fisheries across the state. When other systems turn to a crawler or leech bite later in the season, minnows will produce all year on the Wisconsin River impoundments. I typically use 8-10 pound line (mono or superline) on spinning tackle, but will also use bait-casting gear for a large sucker rig, which provides a little more backbone when hauling a huge walleye up and out of the wood cover. Petenwell and Castle Rock are stained bodies of water, so I find that darker colors (or even glow varieties) of jigs work best. Because of its stained water, sun is crucial to the best bite. I’ve probably said this a million times: It’s a banker’s bite, meaning the hours of 8am-4pm are the most productive. It is also important to remember to use shorter leader lengths (16-18”) and light wire hooks on your jigs and bait rigs. Longer leaders will just have your bait swimming in and around all the wood, which will have you snagged most of the time instead of catching fish.   Light wire hooks will also bend out of the snags, allowing you to not lose your entire rig. Another handy tip is to use about a 6” leader of about 6lb test on the sinker drop line on three-way rigs. The lighter line will break off and leave the rest of the rig intact if it becomes snagged. Also, when using jigs, keep movement to a minimum, almost like a dead sticking presentation.   For some reason the fish just don’t like a lot of movement in the presentation. Perhaps they need to study the bait when they come up and out of the cover before they commit to biting… 

These impoundments are definitely a “spot on the spot” type of fishery, so boat control is crucial to staying on fish. I use my Lowrance electronics with a good mapping chip to locate bends in the river channel with ample wood cover.   Once spots are located, the trick is staying on top of them. Years ago, before the advent of spot-lock technology on trolling motors (which is the only way to go in this day and age, let me tell you), you had to anchor to stay on fish. With all the wood on the bottom of these waters, I bet I’ve lost over a dozen anchors to their snaggy depths over the years. Just be aware that if you don’t have spot-lock technology, you might not want to bring your best anchor when fishing Petenwell and Castle Rock. In fact, you might want to bring a spare…

The walleye of the Wisconsin River impoundments are protected by a 5 fish, 15-20” and 1 over 28” slot limit. I always say how much I love fishing bodies of water with protective slots; you catch lots of fish and always have a shot at trophy fish every time you’re out on the water. There are plenty of fish available for a nice meal, and there’s plenty of fish to get excited about as well. So, when the highly publicized fisheries of the big-city east are becoming cities of boats, head west my friends! Petenwell and Castle Rock are great destinations for a summer get-away-from-it-all fishing adventure! And when you’re out in the summer sun, hauling in that 30” walleye with plenty of elbow room, you’ll definitely say, “It’s a great day to be alive!”