A Tale of Two Lakes
Deep & Clear Versus Shallow & Opaque
It is difficult to fathom any two lakes more contrasting than Lake Winnebago, the largest lake within Wisconsin, and Lake Michigan, which with Lake Huron, constitutes the largest body of fresh water in the world. I spent much of my fishing life with Big ‘Bago as my home waters, making weekly, if not daily, excursions on the lake for more than thirty years. I would not say I ever mastered fishing on the lake, but Lake Winnebago and I came to an accommodation of sorts. We understood each other. I gave the lake respect, it allowed me to catch fish. I was comfortable with our relationship. Upon moving to Baileys Harbor and adopting Lake Michigan as my new home waters, I quickly discovered that almost all of my hard-won knowledge about catching fish on Lake Winnebago was essentially useless on The Big Lake.
And why wouldn’t it be? The two lakes are as different as two lakes can be particularly in regard to depth, water temperature and clarity. Lake Michigan has an average depth of 270 feet and maxes out at over 900 feet. Lake Winnebago has a fairly uniform depth with an average of 15 feet and a maximum depth of 21 feet. Seventeen feet is a “deep hole” on ‘Bago while sixty feet is considered a “shallow reef” on the big lake, such as Jacksonport Reef south of Baileys Harbor. While surface temperatures on Lake Michigan this summer have reached record highs over 75°F, the sub-surface temperatures still remain below 50°F all summer with the thermocline changing with winds and currents. Lake Winnebago waters routinely reach the high seventies each summer, often pushing into the eighties. Being so shallow, the water is well mixed with little temperature gradient in the water column. However, it is in water clarity that the dissimilarity of the lakes becomes stark. The water of Lake Michigan is the most transparent among all the Great Lakes, surpassing Lake Superior in water clarity several years ago. Seeing down thirty or forty feet is common in the open water and visibilities of seventy-five feet or more are not unusual. Lake Michigan is considered an oligotrophic body of water, meaning it is devoid of algae sustaining nutrients. Lake Winnebago is a eutrophic water body. The high nutrient content and warm temperatures enhance algae growth in the summer making the water, at least near the surface, almost opaque. Visibility on ‘Bago is more often measured in mere inches not feet. Even in the winter under the ice when algae growth is limited and sediments have settled, sturgeon spearers consider themselves fortunate if they can see a dozen feet down. Of course, this difference in water clarity and resulting light penetration has a big effect on fish behavior. Take walleyes, for example. Mostly due to their eye structure, walleyes are notoriously sensitive to light levels often being more active in low light conditions. This forces many anglers on Lake Michigan and upper Green Bay to pursue walleyes very early in the morning, late in the afternoon and even at night. On lake Winnebago in the summer, the mat of “green soup” algae at the surface essentially blocks sunlight penetration so it is always dark at the bottom where the walleyes feed. The fish are just as likely to be active in the middle of the day as late at night. No need to get up early or stay up late to get walleyes on Lake Winnebago.
I recently had a wonderful opportunity to experience again Lake Winnebago fishing with a group of long-time fishing buddies. I had not fished on the open waters of the lake for several years, so having the opportunity to apply my long dormant ‘Bago skills with Ed, Steve, and Greg was a real thrill. We were to all meet at the Jefferson Park boat launch in the city of Menasha on the southern end of the lake where the Fox River drains out the lake. I had brought the Maggie Leigh down from Door County making sure my hull, trailer and live wells were clean and devoid of any possible invasives. Ed and I arrived ahead of the other guys so we took the opportunity for some early action. We motored out to a concrete structure near the mouth of the river, a spot referred to as ‘The Chick Coop” for the large numbers of seagulls typically perched on it. The surrounding water is very shallow and weedy with lots of rocks and debris. Ed and I tossed some small jigs tipped with a piece of night crawler into the dark warm water. We were soon rewarded with a smallmouth bass, a rock bass and a couple of freshwater drum, or sheepshead. Nothing to brag about, but this early action reminded me what I loved about fishing in Lake Winnebago. I almost always caught “something” and you never knew what you would catch next.
When Greg arrived, father-in-law in tow, we started our fishing in earnest. Greg regularly fishes Big ‘Bago and was familiar with the recent bite. He suggested we start by trolling in the river off Jefferson Park. This is a technique I employed often in the years I fished the lake. We trolled various small, lipped crank baits. I was using a #5 light colored Flicker Shad. We trolled down the middle of the river channel, often having to avoid passing pleasure boaters and other anglers. Both groups quickly got action boating several smaller walleyes and some rather large and stubborn sheepshead. I hauled in one that weighed in at nine pounds that provided quite a struggle on little tackle and in the moving river current. After an hour or so trolling the river, we picked up Steve at the landing and we decided to head out into the main lake and see if we could locate some walleyes on the nearby limestone reefs. There are several well-known, even famous reefs on the northern end of the lake: The Outer Bar, Lighthouse Reef, Stevens Reef. There are also some lesser-known spots referred to by locals as The Pie Plate and the Gravel Bar. I was schooled on the location of these reefs and techniques by a ‘Bago fishing legend Walleye Willie. Sadly, Willie, is gone now, but his ghost still lives in the waters and seems to join me whenever I am on the lake.
We tried a variety of fishing techniques including trolling and tossing jigs. I threw out a drift sock to slow our movement and drifted over a rocky reef ranging from 5 to 12 feet in depth. I dragged a crawler tipped jig, slowly bouncing it along the limestone bottom. As a group we managed to put a few more smallish walleyes in the live well and snagged the usual number of sheepshead. Greg boated a nice yellow perch which we added to our bag. As I motored back to Jefferson Park for the drive back home, I was satisfied that I had not lost my “touch” for Lake Winnebago fishing. The time spent with some good friends fishing on familiar waters was gratifying, particularly in this time when personal interaction is so limited. It was a wonderful day. My buddies, knowing I had few opportunities for Winnebago walleyes, contributed some of their fish so I could provide my wife with her very favorite fish meal. Thanks, guys. I hope to join them again soon.
Upon returning home, I was immediately reminded of the huge difference in fishing walleyes in Lake Winnebago and fishing anything on the big water. Hunting buddy Jim and I made a trip off the Strawberry Islands on the Bay side, targeting big walleyes. A crawler and jig on the bottom here would only result in catching a million or so Round Gobys. The gobys have not gotten to Winnebago, yet. Jim and I instead trolled crank baits and crawler harnesses in about 30-40FOW water looking for suspended walleyes. We did manage a 15-pound channel catfish, but no walleyes. Maybe next time.
Sunday night, Paul and I headed out of the Baileys Harbor marina in pursuit of salmonids. Setting lines in the gin-clear water we started out in about 250FOW and ran our lures down sixty to eighty feet in about 50°F water using an array of downriggers, Dipsey Divers and copper wire trailing behind planer boards. Surrounded by the expanse of unbroken horizon, bobbing in the clear, cold water and trailing a web of long lines behind the boat, the contrast with my Winnebago experience could not have been more evident. Paul and I had a good night. We had eight hits successfully boating five fish: three Chinook and two steelhead. Nothing very big, one of the salmon was a “shaker” and was released. A full moon was rising off our stern as we headed back to the marina with some nice “eaters” in the box.
Two very different bodies of water offering two very different fishing experiences. However, they both provided me with the satisfaction and fulfillment of time on the water with good friends. As always, catching fish was the cherry on the top.
Questions or comments to email@example.com