Jul 10, 2018


Summer tactics targeting walleye in the Winnebago System hopefully will boat a musky as well

By Kyle Sorensen


What an interesting start to the year on the Lake Winnebago System. We came out of the hardwater season with a bang as the fish made their way up to the common spawning grounds, ultimately sneaking right back to their summer homes.

Some of us chased them all throughout their journey, while others waited for their return. As they returned, our attention was drawn to a large die-off attributed to an outbreak of VHS, a deadly infectious fish disease. Needless to say, it hit our waters with a vengeance.

Now we usually have some type of die-off each year, but the sheepshead, drum or “goats,” as I like to refer to them, certainly saw the brunt of it this year. Thousands of goats washed up on the shores of various areas of Lake Winnebago in early May, especially down by Wendt’s Marine. It made for a putrid smell, along with a lot of work for homeowners and business owners around the system.

The good news: a heat wave hit. VHS goes dormant and the virus can’t survive in temperatures above 55 degrees Fahrenheit, which is why VHS doesn’t affect humans. While I certainly could be having a major lapse in memory, I can’t recall a recent year that held so many days in May with temperatures stretching into the 80s and 90s. With this steady heat, I have been seeing a consistent 75- to 80-degree water temperature in the areas I have been fishing. With these temperatures, it has certainly sparked life into the system’s aquatic species, sending us full swing into our summer fishing patterns.


Summer game plan

If you fish the Lake Winnebago system, you know there are multiple tactics to put fish in the boat throughout the summer months. Some prefer to zero in on the wastelands trolling cranks or harnesses, some prefer reef jumping while casting cranks, dragging jigs, and/or slip bobbers, some hideout in the rivers … the list goes on. With all of those tactics, others put everything together on any given day. I’m one of those people – I have every rig and combo in the boat at the ready because somedays, it takes them all to even have a chance.

I have a unique mindset this year, which mainly comes down to two goals. First, I plan on catching walleyes all summer long, and secondly, I want to boat a Winnebago System musky, while actually targeting them. Two completely opposite sides of the spectrum, huh? Those are my summer goals, and I’m opening the book to my summer game plan right now.

As I’ve mentioned in past articles, I love casting and jigging up Winnebago System walleyes. Trolling is at the bottom of my totem pole of favorite tactics, but this year it will be one on the top tactics to accomplish my goal. Clipped on behind my boards will not be cranks, but rather crawler harnesses. I have two main areas of focus – cane beds and the humps and bumps of the upper lakes of Butte des Morts, Winneconne and Poygan.

My game plan on a normal outing consists of trolling crawler harnesses. In recent years, I have done a lot of harness pulling out on the various contours Lake Winnebago offers. I enjoy the peaks and valleys of the Garlic Island area, along with hills and gullies the southwestern part of the lake presents. It has certainly been a productive tactic, but my experience on the upper lakes – compared to that on Winnebago, has been somewhat uneven. To reacquaint myself to the harness game from last year, I clipped a few on during an early June outing on the upper lakes.

When we decide to run cranks, harnesses, rigs … anything that needs to have a depth set, I resort to water clarity and what depth variables I could face. If we aren’t facing chocolate milk conditions, I might not have a problem running two feet off the bottom, as long as fish aren’t being marked higher. The two feet of difference plays a big role in setup time as I won’t have to readjust if I decide to break off a given route to sample a contour change. If the water is looking dark, chances are I’m going to run about a foot or so off bottom, which will more than likely mean I will need a readjust when it comes to any structure targeting or depth of water changes.


Weights and math

Now here comes the fun part. How many feet back should I set my harnesses? Well, as like everything else, crawler harness fishing has so many variables. One constant is that crawler harnesses do not have a big bill on the front to make them dive. That’s why I use weights. With the vast options on the market for blade selection – along with bead selection – we have some variables to throw into the mix. Each style of blade will have a different drag. As a result, the harnesses will slightly vary in the weight it takes to drop them and/or the line lengths that need to be put out.

The common rule is 1-ounce weight at 1 mile per hour equals 0.5 feet down for every foot you let out on line counter. So, if we are going to target five feet of water, we would let out 10 feet of line. Now, 10 feet is not that much line out behind the board. It really isn’t. Whether right or wrong, I personally feel that movement of the board and all of that hardware might spook a fish from time to time, so I will be running more length of line than that.

I have always felt anything over 20 feet from a board is better. This means the weight needs to be cut down. The best way to find out what your unique harness setup runs is to get a very sensitive rod, with the same trolling line you will run on the harness combos. I like 10-pound Trilene XT.

Find a flat on a lake and keep running line out until you tick bottom. Make note on the speeds of the boat and depth of the water, and use these notes in the future. Do this in various depth ranges for the different style of harnesses you run, including different speeds and weights.

Now that the depth is situated, the game plan comes in. I troll contours around any type of cane bed or weed beds I can find. It’s no secret – our walleyes can certainly hide out in the cane beds, especially in the areas surrounding them. It is absolutely crucial to have the tension of the tattle flags on your boards set perfectly if you are using them.

On Off Shore boards, they have a spring to set tension. This should be set at the least amount of tension so that if your harness bumps some weeds, you’ll see the flag drop and you can clean it off right away. After working the water surrounding the given areas with the harnesses – before I leave – the harnesses will come out and be set aside when part two of my plan comes into play … casting the weeds!


Pursuing the big catch

I have cast for musky on the Winnebago System a handful of times, but my efforts have only resulted in northerns making their way boatside, and sometimes quite a few. My favorite lure here is the Hirsch's Ghosttail. It’s practically a big bucktail, but with a different name and slightly different movement. As the name suggests, it has an interesting design of the skirt which when running in the water, certainly looks like a cartoon depiction of a ghost’s tail. On the color pattern I run, the red/dark yellow hair with copper blades makes for a nice outline in the water and a dull shine in the sometimes stained waters these lakes hold.

While I have heard of musky being caught while fishing for walleye, not many actually cast for musky on this lake system and get them in the boat. I hope to be one of the few this year. I may fail but who knows, I might luck out and some pictures and video will follow! 

The walleye will continue to be plentiful this year, and with the number of smaller fish in the water, we have some amazing years on the way as well. The crawler harnesses will certainly be active in my boat this year. I just hope my musky net is as well.

I hope you all have an amazing summer. Until next time, “Tight Lines. Stay Dry.”