My Relationship with Door County Walleyes
It's Complicated

Harbor Angler Report, May 11th Photo

I love fishing in Door County and I enjoy catching all the species of fish found here. Well, with the possible exception of the Round Goby. Although gobies are willing and aggressive on the bite, battling even a feisty goby is less than thrilling and their table fare is, as of yet, unproven. (There's a challenge for the area chefs.) Of all of the various species I target over the course of a fishing year, my pursuit of the walleye (Sander vitreus) has a long and complicated chronology. I have fished walleyes for over fifty years, often with good success, but since taking up residence in Baileys Harbor my relationship with the old marble-eyes has become strained. Some background may help explain our current estrangement.

I did not have much knowledge or experience with walleyes as a boy. I spent those innocent times in pursuit of brook trout, bluegills and the coveted black bass. Sure, there was the occasional chance encounter. I recall fondly boating a nice walleye off Sister Shoals when I was in high school on an outing ostensibly targeting brown trout. I would also see enticing glossy pictures of walleyes in various fishing magazines that I would longingly fantasize about, but walleyes for the most part walleyes remained a mysterious species that other, more experienced and worldly, anglers caught.

It was not until my days as a young man in college that I was finally exposed to the exhilaration of the classic "walleye bump" (avid walleyes anglers know exactly to what I am referring) and the ensuing dogged struggle that would end with a fish flopping in the net. During the spring semesters at UW-Stevens Point, I would strap a set of waders to the back of my 350cc Honda motorcycle and race up to the Du Bay Dam on the Wisconsin River to exploit the spawning activity of the fish to my advantage. I would wade out into the fast moving spring torrents below the dam, tossing various crank baits and minnow-tipped jigs. I occasionally (in my memory, always) was rewarded with a stringer of fat walleyes that I would transport home on my bike to augment the usual college repast of mac and cheese. It was fishing with reckless abandon, not heeding the fast water or the consequences of targeting reproducing fish. I must admit that over the years I have often been party to many of the orgies of walleye anglers that occur during the famed "walleye runs" on the upper Wolf River and below the De Pere Dam. I even had occasional trysts with foreign-born walleyes as well. (Canada is a foreign country, right?) Annual forays north to Ontario led to days of catching walleyes in great numbers. Sometimes it just seemed too easy. 

Alas, my relationship with walleyes did not fully mature until I settled down to a teaching career in Appleton and started to experience the walleye factory that is available in nearby Lake Winnebago. It took several years and the help of my mentor and friend the legendary "Walleye Willie", but I eventually was able to regularly partake of the walleye harvest. And not just in the Spring, but all year round. An enticing trait of Lake Winnebago is that you can catch walleyes just about any time of the year and just about any time of the day. Due to the heavy algae blooms each summer, you could often catch your limit in the middle of a bright sunny day. No need to get up before dawn or fish until after dark. It was comfortable fishing. Now granted, you seldom would catch big fish. An 18" walleye in Lake Winnebago is considered a nice sized fish. This is a place to catch a batch of "eaters". I would have to go elsewhere if I wanted a trophy fish. But who needs size when you are getting numbers? I was happy with my regular success.

Then I moved to Door County. Lake Winnebago walleyes were no longer easily available to me. Sure, I did go back to fish my old haunts on occasion, but I had to move on. I had to adapt to my new environment. I had to learn how to catch Door County walleyes. It has been a struggle at times. The waters of Green Bay off the Door hold large numbers of walleyes as the success of the many guides and tournament anglers attests.  I have had my share of success catching trophy fish including several over 30 inches. However, realizing the aspiration of regularly catching a brace of "eater" walleyes has proved elusive.

This past week I did experience some success in this regard.  I had to stray a bit from my home waters of Door County going south to Bay Shore County Park in Brown County, about an hours drive from Baileys Harbor. I spent two very different days targeting marble-eyes. Monday was a clear, warm and sunny day. Since it was the day after the opening weekend, I was hoping the hoards of anglers would have left. I was wrong. When I arrived at the landing, there were almost no parking spaces remaining. Out on the bay, I could see long parades of trolling boats up and down the shoreline. The competition for any aggressive fish would be fierce. I did mange to boat one nice walleye, 26 inches and 6-pounds, but that was it. No "eaters".

Wednesday was totally different. Overcast, a southeast wind and the threat of rain. It did not take long for that threat to come to fruition. My buddy Ed and I made effective use of our rain suits throughout the morning. The good news is that the lousy conditions had apparently kept away the "fair-weather fishermen" and we had the entire bay virtually to ourselves. Apparently the change in conditions and dearth of competing anglers made a difference. Fishing exactly the same waters as Monday, we boated six of the glassy-eyed devils including two over six pounds. We released the large females and were still able to put four nice walleyes between 20 and 15 inches in the live well.  We caught the fish in 15-20FOW on fire-tiger Flicker Shads off trolling boards moving at about 1.7 MPH. It was a pretty good day by my current standards.

Sure, it did not rise to the success of some of my previous experiences on the Wolf River or Ontario or even Lake Winnebago. But it was better then I had done in the recent past. Conceivably I am getting the hang of this. Possibly my relationship with the walleyes in Green Bay and Door County is improving. But for now, it's still a work in progress. It's complicated.


Tight Lines, Bruce

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