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May 19, 2019

Dean Hall/lakeland times

This year’s late ice out had small areas of Lake Minocqua still ice covered on Wednesday, May 1, in Minocqua.
Dean Hall/lakeland times

This year’s late ice out had small areas of Lake Minocqua still ice covered on Wednesday, May 1, in Minocqua.
5/4/2019 7:30:00 AM
Fishing season arrives right on time
Opener could see prime walleye conditions
Jacob Friede
Of The Lakeland Times

Fishing is all about timing, and this year, on Northwoods lakes, the general inland fishing season opener tomorrow may be right on time.

The brutal, lingering winter should be lifting right as the season begins, and though ice out is late again this year, being able to hit the water in its immediate aftermath is a golden opportunity for area fishermen, especially those searching for walleye.

"Usually, for the hook and line angler, we only get to see that fishing the spawn and the pre-spawn maybe once every five or six years," said Kurt Justice, seasoned guide and owner of Kurt's Island Sports in Minocqua. "And this will be the second year in a row with this late ice out. We'll actually be hitting some water right when the fish are in the midst of their spawning habitat. We don't always get to see that."

Justice explained the walleye, especially the females, will be aggressive and in the shallows so they'll be easier for fisherman to find. These prime conditions and the business it could generate, he hopes, will be compensation for a tough winter on local bait shops.

"We had great ice conditions, but then when it snowed like it did, people just couldn't get out on the lake," Justice said. "For awhile it was too cold to go out and then the snow was too deep to get around."

Justice said there is a silver lining, though, to the lack of ice fishing action this winter.

"The plus side to it, without so much ice fishing there's probably a lot more fish in the lakes," he said.

Jeff Smith, also a long-time guide and owner of J and J Sports in Lake Tomahawk, agreed with Justice.

"For the most part it's pretty good for the lakes," Smith said. "It's not good for my business, but it's good for the lakes that they get a break from the fishing pressure."

Smith also had a tough winter at the shop after a near record December and January. Once the heavy snow dropped though, and mobility on the ice was brought to a lull, so were sales.

But he's optimistic this season is shaping up to make up for it, and he believes winter's long stay may be a blessing in disguise.

"These lakes are coming off late. Walleyes will be in pre-spawn, even spawn on some lakes, so for the fishermen it should be good," said Smith, who is quick to remind this isn't always the case, so it should be appreciated. "Sometimes, early springs, you've got a spawn that's been here and gone and then guys come up here and go, 'where the heck are the fish?'"

Smith hopes no one will be asking that question on opening weekend this year when the temperatures should be in the 50s, a climate that should call anglers to the lake, because another hidden benefit to the horrific conditions which kept fishermen off the ice is that by now they're chomping at the bit to simply get on the open water.

"I hear it all the time, oh my gosh they are so sick of this winter. Even the diehard fisherman, they're like 'we are done with it. I don't even want to look at my auger,'" Smith said.

Some "diehards" aren't even waiting for the game fish opener to hit the lakes.

Jeff Bolander, local guide and owner of Dewey, Catchem, and How bait shops in Minocqua and Arbor Vitae said some of his customers are already chasing panfish on the open water.

"There's actually guys out on the lakes right now," he said. "Panfish are doing pretty good right now, especially the crappies."

According to Dave Walz, conservation warden supervisor for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR), it's the hardcore fishermen, like the ones already out, that make up most of the fishing traffic on opening weekend. And that, he said, tends to make his job easier.

"It doesn't seem to be much for problems," Walz said of opening weekend. "I think you tend to see more of the diehard fishermen out there this time of year. So, they have their licenses, most of the time, pretty much everybody does. When the temperatures are warmer in the summertime, and more people are out you tend to see more of the issues. Size limits. Bag limits. No license. All that kind of stuff."

Seasoned or not, Walz reminds all boat operators to use precaution in the extremely cold water and wear life jackets and, he warned, if anybody is still out on the ice, they should be accompanied by someone and be wearing a flotation device, because the ice that remains is going fast, and that couldn't be better news for fisherman and fish alike. The lakes have been covered with heavy slush and snow for months now, and in those conditions, underneath the ice in the darkness, oxygen starts getting depleted because there is no light for plant growth. And as soon as it does the biologists of the DNR will also be busy.

Still, despite those long months of ice cover, Mike Vogelsang, North District fisheries supervisor for the DNR, said it could have been worse and for the most part, at least in Vilas County, there haven't been any reports of significant winterkill except in areas that experience it annually anyway.

"The one thing that helped is all the snow came late in the season," he said. "It wasn't sitting on the lakes long enough to cause widespread issues. Had we received all that snow in December and January, I'm sure things would have not turned out so well this year."

GLIFWIC/Walleys for Tomorrow survey

Vogelsang and other DNR biologists will soon be busy getting a close-up look at how fish handled the severe winter. He said 38 area waters will be surveyed this spring for walleye, and a number more will be surveyed for bass later in May. Included in those surveys are a couple projects of particular local interest.

"Among the many lakes being survey this spring, a couple highlights will be the early look at walleye population numbers on Minocqua and Kawaguesaga with the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC) and Walleyes for Tomorrow (WFT) survey, as well as the DNR fisheries survey on the Manitowish Chain."

The GLIFWIC/Walleys for Tomorrow survey will be a snapshot count of the walleye population after years of no walleye harvest on the Minocqua chain, as agreed upon by WFT, the Lac du Flambeau Band, GLIFWC, and the Wisconsin DNR.

WFT crews will do fyke netting on Lake Minocqua, and then fin clip, record the length, and take a spine sample of every walleye which can be identified as male or female or is greater than 15 inches in length, which is the standard for an adult walleye.

Then crews from GLIFWC will do an electrofish count to gauge the proportion of fish marked during the netting. Through that recapture run they can make a thorough overall walleye population estimate.

The cooperation between all groups involved has been a staple of the extensive rehabilitation on the Minocqua chain that has been going on since 2015. It has also included habitat restoration, including new rock bars, and substantial stocking of fingerling walleye. The goal of the rehab plan is to see two adult walleye per acre on Lake Tomahawk and three adult walleye per acre on Lake Minocqua and Kawaguesaga.

"We're all working together on this Minocqua chain effort and I think that's unprecedented," WFT's Minocqua representative and publisher of The Northwoods River News Gregg Walker said.

The groups plan to do the snapshot survey as soon as all the ice is off Lake Minocqua, and by doing so catch the walleye in peak or post-peak spawn.

The way it looks, that could be the case on a multitude of other area lakes, meaning the Northwoods, as the season opens, just might be the right place at the right time.

For information on fishing regulations, licenses, and stamps visit the Wisconsin DNR website at

Jacob Friede may be reached at or outdoors@

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