It's a fish-eat-fish world out there
Written by Appleton Post-Crescent   
Sunday, 22 January 2006 10:01

Lake Winnebago, the largest inland body of water in Wisconsin, continues to prosper as a fishery. Whether anglers will be able consistently to take advantage of those abundant resources is a matter of timing and conjecture.

"The 2005 hatch of walleye is the fourth largest on record for the lake," said Kendall Kamke, a Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist at Oshkosh.

"Three of the five largest hatches have occurred consecutively since 2003, putting us up to our rod tips in younger walleye, meaning fishing should be good to great for at least the next 10 years."

Before anglers begin aiming their augers, tip-ups, boats and trailers at the 137,708-acre lake, there is a caveat. Kamke based his report on DNR sampling of the fishery in summer and autumn.

"Index trawling in August 2005 again showed a good food base, perhaps too good as anglers complained about slowed action when mid-summer (and young-of-the-year forage fish) arrived," he said.

That has been Lake Winnebago's curse in recent years. The walleye base is as good as it has ever been. Daily bag limits — five walleyes, no minimum size — are as liberal as the state allows. There are times during the spring spawning period when taking a five-fish limit is relatively common. But there have been more times in recent years when enticing a walleye to bite has been much more difficult than their abundance would forecast.

Young-of-the-year drum (sheepshead), gizzard shad, trout perch, emerald shiners and white bass continue to flourish almost on the same schedule as walleye, providing a huge food base.

"There's no shortage of forage in Winnebago that we can tell," Kamke said. "The 2005 drum hatch was a little bit better than 2004. I'd call it an average year class. The only reason anyone cares about that hatch is because it produces great food for walleye, bass, northern pike and muskie."

Gizzard shad also turned up in good numbers in the 2005 DNR survey.

"What I'm afraid that will translate into is probably not the best ice fishing this winter," Kamke said. "When we have high numbers of gizzard shad, the other species are well-fed, so they feed less aggressively during the winter months."

As a direct result of a plentiful food supply and moderated angler harvest, walleyes are present in attractive numbers as well as size.

The DNR's 2005 spring survey taken during spawning season found about half the male walleyes were in the 13½- to 16-inch range. The average size of males was 16.3 inches and 1.6 pounds, with 25 percent topping 17.5 inches.

"Currently, the female spawning stock is made up of mostly medium sized females in the 21- to 25-inch (range)," Kamke stated. "These are seven- to 10-year-old fish from the mid to late 1990s year classes.

"About a quarter of the females up spawning in 2005 were less than 21 inches, while 15 percent were 25 inches or larger."

The 2005 hatch of white bass was strong but will not be accessible to anglers for several years. In the meantime, bass from the 1999 to 2003 year classes should provide plenty of fish in the 10- to 14-inch range this spring.

Muskie, northern pike, largemouth and smallmouth bass, bluegill, crappie and perch numbers remain on the upswing, with many species benefiting from an increase in aquatic vegetation, according to Kamke.

"There's no reason for pessimism in this fishery," he said. "It's just a great system, and it's doing well."

For walleye anglers, he advises fishing in May and June on upriver lakes — Butte des Morts, Winneconne and Poygan — as those fish move downstream from spring spawning sites in the Wolf and Fox rivers back toward Lake Winnebago.

"Those are the best months for walleye fishing," Kamke said.

Walleye typically begin a major upriver spawning run in late March or early April, with the peak of spawning occurring in mid-April. In 2005, spawning peaked April 5 to 10, "a week or more earlier than usual," Kamke said.

During July and August, anglers should "follow the hatches out into the big lake, find roving schools of walleyes and work them (often over mud flats)," he said. "The best anglers are those who don't get hung up fishing the same way. You really need to try new things, new areas and new looks.

"If you're willing to do that, you can usually return home with a meal of fish, because the fish certainly are there."

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