This year has sure had its ups and downs so far but overall it has been yet another great season to chalk up in the record books! As the temperatures climb and the ice begins to sink into the stained depths of Lake Winnebago, something magical is already happening under the ice. The seasonal clocks have begun to tick even louder and many of the species in our system begin to flood the rivers and channels on their way to the spawning grounds. Whether their travels will take them miles and miles to the northern marshes in our system or just a couple miles to shallow bays, one thing is for certain, the run has started and the fish are ready for a fight!
The run is the best time of the year to sometimes very easily put fish in the boat, onto the bridge, or even onto shore. People come from all around the Midwest come to fish the run on the Winnebago System… and for good reason. The fish are hungry and they have bottle-necked into the river channels, making it very easy to locate these fish. The main targeted species is walleye but white bass, perch, crappie and more, still make the list.
During this period, I find myself targeting all ends of the Winnebago System while these fish move throughout it. To me, it seems like a big circle I make throughout the run. Starting in Lake Winnebago at the mouth of the Fox River, moving throughout the Fox into Lake Butte des Morts, up into the Wolf River leading into Lake Winneconne, crossing into Lake Poygan, and finishing up in the Wolf River by Fremont, all before backtracking my routes to end right back into Lake Winnebago where I began. It is really quite an amazing voyage some of these fish take. If you want to stay on them, you must also make the voyage too.
Each area has many valuable points to key in upon. The river channels are the deepest parts of the system but that doesn’t mean all of the fish are at the bottom. Fish in both the Fox and Wolf Rivers can travel via the shorelines, all the way down to depths of over 28 FOW. While fishing the rivers, I usually find myself jigging minnows or casting various cranks along shorelines, pilings and other various structured areas, but three other setups can be deadly during this time… especially around bridges and underwater structures.
The first is a Wolf River Rig. This rig utilizes a three-way swivel to brandish a bell sinker on one end and either a floating jig head or small hook on the other which carries a minnow or leech. If I am running this rig, I am normally running a 12” leader of 10lb fluorocarbon to the sinker, with a 30”-36” 8lb (sometimes less) fluorocarbon leader to the jig or hook. I like a heavier line running to the sinker as it can sometimes hit bottom which often contains the infamous zebra mussels. This rig shows its brawn while fishing it 6”-12” off bottom in a fixed position, whether on a boat or affixed to a bridge. Current often dictates the amount of weight needed to keep the rig almost vertical and the current can increase or decrease drastically during any given outing. Be sure to have ample sizes and spares for any snags and/or current changes you encounter.
The second rig is a Fly Rig. This rig is a very simple rig that has two great benefits. The first is that no live bait is needed. Secondly, it can sure put fish in the boat or onto shore! This utilizes the same principle as the Wolf River Rig in that it calls for a three-way swivel. It holds about a 10” leader leading to a pencil weight and the other end leading to a 30”- 48” leader containing two or three flies. As flies can sometimes get expensive if you do not make your own, I would rather lose a weight on a snag, rather the other end holding the flies. Because of this, I run a 6lb monofilament leader to the pencil weight which is checked often for nicks in the line. This allows for an easy break off if backing up and rocking the rod doesn’t work. The flies are tied onto 6lb fluorocarbon line. The sizes, colors, and number of flies used, varies by each person’s tastes and ultimately the fish’s. I like color combinations of green/white and red/white flies, which are made out of deer hair that contain small shiny strips of reflective material. I run three flies on my rigs, usually around the 12”, 24”, and 36” marks. The first two can be tied on various ways but I use a Dropper Loop for the first two flies and a Palomar for the final one.
This rig is usually pulled behind the boat while incorporating a small pumping motion to the rod at various slow speeds. This rig can also be cast from a boat or shoreline while presenting the same pumping motion on retrieval. The small but subtle pumping motion of the rod gives the flies a darting/swimming effect that drives the fish nuts. The Dropper Loops allow for even more motion of the flies as it isn’t affixed in a stationary position on the leader line. If you get into the white bass, you can sometimes get doubles and triples on this rig! Talk about rod bending moments!
The final rig is the Thumper Floater. This rig yet again utilizes a three-way swivel. On one end of the swivel, a bell sinker, sometimes upwards of 3oz, is held on by a 2’ 8lb fluorocarbon leader. The other end holds a 5’ 8lb fluorocarbon leader, leading to a small snap swivel, ending with a large floating Rapala. When speaking of sizes of Rapalas, I always say that if it comes with three sets of trebles on the body, it’s the right size for this presentation. One area to note is that the bigger you go on the lure, the more weight it will need to keep it from trailing too far back behind the boat. The object of this rig is to slowly thump the bottom with the sinker, which gives the floating Rapala a jerk, pause and upwards float which can entice the most hesitant prospects. It also can produce a poof of silt which can add to its lethal presentation. Speed wise, I have caught fish while not even moving (waiting for a boat to pass, etc.), leading upwards to 3mph. It’s important to vary your presentation as sometimes even the smallest of changes can make a world of difference.
One main reason why I like this rig is that it can be fabulous when in a thick school of white bass that are just crushing fly rigs… but you are after walleyes. Due to its larger size, the Rapala seems to decrease the numbers of whities on the end of your rod but it doesn’t totally eliminate them. Sometimes the bite can be so ferocious that they will hit it before the walleyes even get a chance at it! During last year’s run, I took some very quality fish on this rig. This rig works and I highly suggest you give it a whirl!
On any given day, some of the best action to be had during the run comes from outside of the rivers. Honing in on rocky points and ledges on the “in between lakes” such as Butte des Morts, can be a blast. One-lining cranks can be one of the easiest, yet most efficient ways to boat fish. One day a while back, my buddy Vinny told me that he had never caught a walleye on Winnebago. I was very surprised to hear this so the next day we were out, one-lining #5 Flicker Shads on rock ledges. In little over an hour, we had our limits of perfect eating sized eyes. How simple does it get, each having one line hanging over the side of the boat, reeling up hungry eyes? Each time I do this, it takes me back to the old days with Grandpa in the “Tin Can” (a 1969 flat bottom boat with an 8 horse engine) which is still around to this day.
While it is simple to do, there is certainly an art to this tactic. You must pound bottom and clack those rocks. That pop that the lure exhibits each time it collides with the rocks is something that drives the fish bonkers. Usually the fish will hit the bait as the lure is dancing over the top of the rock. This, unfortunately, results in many snags and is certainly rough on the lures but the success is definitely worth it. When I’m running a one-line combo, I have 8lb monofilament strung, leading to a barrel swivel, ending with a 3’ fluorocarbon leader and an easy snap. I feel as though the mono provides a great shock absorbent feature which is needed to handle the sometimes totally aggressive strikes.
Trolling cranks with planner boards is sometimes a needed tactic when multiple people are in the boat. This can sure be some fun fishing but it can also be some work, especially if you run into a school of white bass. When I troll with boards during the run, it’s usually because I have at least three people in the boat and we need some space to fish when stationary methods aren’t on the menu. I will target Lakes Poygan, Winneconne, and Butte des Morts, along the mud flats adjacent to and sometimes within the river channels running through the lakes. I have always steered towards the Flicker Shad for the lure of choice but after last year’s launch of the Rattlin’ Wasp, this crank is definitely in the arsenal for this year! It can sometimes be chaos while utilizing planner boards during the run, but when you are on fish, its pure excitement and for good reason.
Have you noticed that I have covered a handful of different tactics and locations? The reason for this is
that if you have a certain area or method you like better than the others, the run on the Winnebago System offers such an awesome offering of fishing opportunities available to anglers. The run is
something I look forward to each year. This fishing is some of the most astonishing action one can hope for when hitting the open water. It’s important to remember that the fishing can sometimes be hit and miss as the rivers and bodies of water are not continuously stacked with fish. These fish move in schools and pods we sometimes call waves. Frequently, it can be lights out action for an hour and then die out until another wave makes it to your fishing grounds. As with fishing the hard water, it’s important to stay on the fish and to move with the fish while they travel throughout the system.
I hope you all have yet another great start to the open water season. I ask you one thing. As you are reeling in and netting that large female walleye who is thick with eggs, remember that she is a spawner and you hold the ability to secure an even better future for our system. Please practice CPR (Catch, Photo, and Release) as I do, and let’s all help to make this year’s hatch, even better than the last.