Mar 12, 2019

Spring Walleye Run

Tactics for making the most of the spawning dash on the Lake Winnebago system

By Kyle Sorensen

I know some of us sure have warm weather on the mind after we endured some bitter cold temperatures and a ton of snow this ice season. The hard water season is still going strong for some, while for others, the boat might have gotten wet a couple times!

I, for one, look forward to spring for one reason, and one reason only: the spring run on the Lake Winnebago system.

This year’s spring run will hold yet another fun adventure for those coming from various corners of the country to partake in some of the fast-paced action the spring run offers. Some bring their boats, their RVs, their gear – pretty much everything at their disposal – while some just bring their fishing gear and a blanket to use in their vehicle when a quick nap is needed.

Resorts around the area have annual returning guests that book out years in advance, creating an annual tradition for those family or friends within each group. Living on our lake and river system for as long as I have, I’ve certainly seen it all.

Many walleye had already started making their way from the shores of Lake Winnebago up through the Fox and Wolf rivers in February to begin staging around their spawning grounds in the northern marshes. Each year, several variables determine the success of their journey, such as stable conditions, sufficient water levels and minimal exploitation rates. If water levels are too low, the fish cannot enter the shallows of these marshes and sit and wait for the conditions to improve. Anglers are there waiting for them.

After attending a couple informative meetings and reviewing lots of data produced by the great biologists on our system, I learned tag return data has shown a higher exploitation rate on some of classifications of walleyes than previously thought. Due to this and other reasons, various ideas for changing regulations have been kicked around. Some included a slot-type regulation; reducing the number of lines an angler can use; minimizing the bag limit; and the list goes on.

It appears as though the bag limit on the Lake Winnebago system will be reduced from five walleye to three to help combat higher exploitation rates in the future. This change will still allow everyone to experience the fruits of the Lake Winnebago system, while preserving our awesome fishery, no matter how you fish it.

Dragging and vertical jigging

Growing up, each year I’d ask Grandpa when we could finally go out in the Tin Can – a 1969 aluminum Jon boat with an 8-horsepower engine – and start pounding away at the walleye. He’d always answer with the same response each year around this time: “Kid, as a rule, the ice is always off the lakes by April Fool’s Day.”

Fast forward many years and good ‘ol Gramps has been right many years, but with a few exceptions due to Mother Nature showing us who’s boss. While the ice might not be completely off the lakes by the end of March, the river systems hold some amazing fishing opportunities. Whether you plan on hitting the Fox or Wolf, there are three main tactics that pay off for me every year.

Last year I wrote about the Art of Draggin.’ This tactic still holds true. Dragging crawlers on lead heads through the basin of the river is a dynamite tactic. Since I went into full depth on that last year, I won’t say much more now – you can read that article in the archives of Badger Sportsman. Along the same lines of dragging jigs is vertical jigging. While it’s a very simple tactic, there are some important factors to note.

If you’ve fished the Wolf and Fox rivers near the Lake Winnebago system, you know how quick the current can grow and dissipate. The overall goal of vertical jigging, besides catching fish, is obviously keeping the jig vertical. For instance, if I’m presenting a minnow and jig combo, I’m constantly making sure the line is straight up and down. If it’s not, I’m going to either upsize or downsize the jig, along with possibly introducing bow-mount power to compensate for a fast current challenging a light jig. I don’t fish with 1-ounce jigs, so it’s a matter of give and take when it comes to finding that happy median. Whatever conditions I’m facing, I’m always looking to use the lightest jig possible.

With my electronics on the bow, I can see my jig and fish under it. To get a better of what I mean, picture ice fishing, but in a boat. On the other side, I’m also taking note of any structures underneath that can hold fish or ultimately hang up a jig. If my Humminbird shows a structure that holds fish behind it, you can bet I will quickly pause the screen and mark a waypoint so I can go back and hit it again with ease. Speaking of ease, the next two tactics go hand in hand as well – the thumper/floater and fly rig.

Thumper/floater and fly rigs

Both the thumper/floater and fly rig resemble one another due to their use of a weight and a three-way swivel. There are several variations of each rig, but for arguments sake, a fly rig can brandish up to three flies – tied in unison – along leads upwards of eight feet in length. A dropper weight holds the rig down in the current, and can be from a half ounce to a couple ounces in extreme conditions. The thumper/floater uses a dropper weight in upwards of three to four ounces to hold down a long six- to seven-foot lead that brandishes a large, floating Rapala. Each of these rigs have a time and place in my boat.

I look at the fly rig as the most versatile rig during the spring run period. It allows the angler to target and catch a variety of species while constantly moving around in search mode. Subtle pumps of this rig – as it’s worked through the current – can trick many fish into committing. The problem with this rig is if you get into a mess of white bass, they will more than likely take the place of hungry walleye in the area. This certainly isn’t horrible – I love catching walleye. So this is where the thumper/floater comes in.

The thumper/floater shines when trying to eliminate the white bass, crappie, smaller walleye, etc. Because of the use of such a large floating Rapala, it doesn’t look like an easy snack compared to a small fly for those fish with smaller mouths. This usually means the quality of the fish I catch will be more of the targeted size.

This rig is literally thumped off the bottom, hence the name. A strong thrust of the rod, followed by a dead pause, causes the Rapala to jolt through the water while diving, ultimately floating back up when a pause is thrown in. This action mimics two things. The first is that of a sizable meal attempting to swim up current. The second is that of a meal not doing well and is easy to eat. No matter what it looks like, this can certainly trigger some fish.

No more bridge fishing in Winneconne

While I’ve spoken about bridge fishing in the past, there’s a new development on the Wolf River in Winneconne – a new bridge. As history goes, the Winneconne Bridge has attracted people from across the Midwest. It’s been a staple in the community that’s produced many memories by those who have taken part in the unique fishing opportunities the bridge gives, specifically during the spring run.

Over the last year, residents of the community have battled through many detours and construction woes associated with building the new bridge. With the project in its final stages, these construction-related problems are mostly past. But in this bridge fishing community, one big issue that’s arisen is that fishing isn’t allowed from the new bridge.

Some amazing fishing piers will be installed later in 2019 that will be lower to the water and offer fishermen an even more enjoyable experience while not having to stand on the sidewalks close to vehicular traffic. Until these piers are completed, some great shore and dock fishing opportunities exist nearby. I should point out the Lake Winneconne Park launch just received a very nice facelift this past fall as well.

I have a feeling this year’s spring run will be another amazing experience and I hope you’re able to make some great memories for years to come. If you want to know more about the previously mentioned tactics we spoke about, be sure to check out the videos on the OB Outdoors YouTube channel, along with past issues of Badger Sportsman magazine in its online archives. Until next time, “Tight Lines. Stay Dry.”


Kyle Sorensen grew up all around the United States due to his father being in the military, but ultimately ended up back in his hometown of Oshkosh. Sorensen primarily fishes the Lake Winnebago System, but enjoys sneaking out to various bodies of water in the hunt for a variety of species throughout the year. He enjoys being able to pass on his knowledge and love for the outdoors in the form of online videos and articles. He can be reached through his website at