Anglers who head north for Saturday’s Wisconsin fishing opener may find their favorite lake still covered with ice, but they will find open water if they try their luck in flowages, according to tourism officials and fish managers.
Closer to Eau Claire, anglers should find open water on most lakes in Eau Claire and Chippewa counties, said Joseph Gerbyshak, state Department of Natural Resources fish manager for the two counties.
On Monday, the ice went off of most of Otter Lake in Chippewa County, except for some bays, Gerbyshak said, and Sand Lake, on the border of Rusk and Chippewa counties, opened Tuesday.
Gerbyshak, who was working with a DNR crew Tuesday on Otter Lake, said that while the main part of that lake was at 39 degrees, some shallow bays had already warmed to 50 degrees. Anglers looking for bass, pike, crappies and bluegills may want to target such bays on Saturday, he said.
“I think the trick this year is finding the warm water,” Gerbyshak said.
Walleyes will likely still be spawning when the season opens, he said, noting those fish may run up rivers, near dams on reservoirs or along rocky shorelines.
Gerbyshak said he has heard concerns about Lake Altoona losing a lot of fish a couple of winters ago when the lake level was lowered for dam repairs. However, a DNR survey last spring found a healthy perch population there, he said.
“Our perch catch rates were just as high as ever,” he said, noting many of those fish were large.
A 10-panfish bag limit exists on Lake Altoona to protect the large panfish there, Gerbyshak said, noting the lake also has a high rate of natural walleye reproduction.
New fish regulations in the area include 50-inch size limits on muskies in Lake Wissota and Lake Holcombe. Half Moon Lake in Eau Claire is going from a three-bass limit to a five-fish figure. Bass kept must be under 14 inches long, except one bass over 18 inches may be kept.
The five-fish limit is designed to encourage people to keep more small bass, which have become abundant in Half Moon Lake.
Ice conditions are changing rapidly with the recent warm-up, so DNR officials say anglers wanting to head to northern lakes should call ahead to a bait shop or a business in the area they plan to fish to see if lakes are open.
In the Hayward area, most lakes were still frozen as of Tuesday, said Trent Hoff of Hayward Bait & Bottle Shoppe. Hoff said he has heard reports of 8 to 15 inches of ice still covering many lakes in the area.
“A lot of lakes still do have a lot of ice, but it is going out very fast right now,” he said.
The Chippewa Flowage, one of the state’s more famous fishing waters, should be mostly open and fishable by Saturday, with the west side being the most open, Hoff said. Lake Hayward, an impoundment on the Namekagon River, and Tiger Cat Flowage should be open and fishable, he said.
Moose Lake, a flowage on the West Fork of the Chippewa River east of Hayward, should be mostly ice-free, but a 5-foot winter drawdown on the lake will still be in effect, said Joel Miller, who operates Mystic Moose Resort on the lake with his wife, Sara. Launching a large boat with the drawdown may be problematic, but anglers with small boats should be able to slide them in, he said.
Sara Miller said their clients who have booked cabins for the fishing opener are still heading north. She said the long winter was a mixed blessing for tourism.
“The snowmobilers loved it,” she said, but lingering ice is a problem for anglers.
On Chetek Lake, most of the ice went out Monday, said Mike Bilodeau, owner of Rod & Gun Sport Shop in Chetek. He expects lakes in the Chetek chain to be ice-free for the opener.
Walleyes could still be spawning or may have just completed spawning for the opener, he said. Walleyes generally spawn right after ice melts, when the water temperature hits 45 degrees, and those are the conditions right now, he said.
The change to open water was abrupt. Last week, the ice was still thick enough that ice anglers were out, Bilodeau said.
The 2018 Wisconsin Indian Head Country’s Governor’s Fishing Opener will happen this year at Chetek. Gov. Scott Walker is expected to attend and fish Saturday morning. Wisconsin Indian Head Country is a tourism promotion organization for western and northwestern Wisconsin. This event is held in a different location each year on the fishing opener.
The DNR has planned on stocking 740,000 “catchable” rainbow, brown, brook and lake trout in more than 400 water bodies this spring, but the late spring has affected those plans. Because of road weight limits on trucks in northern Wisconsin, some northern trout streams and lakes still have not received scheduled fish stockings, according to the DNR.
The muskie season north of U.S. 10 does not open until Saturday, May 26.
Knight is a freelance writer from rural Eau Claire.