Lake Winnebago and the surrounding area have finally seen some warm days amid the cold spring of 2020. Day time highs have been in the 50’s with several air temperature spikes over the last ten days. Precipitation has been near zero for May; however, several days of high winds have been observed. The first hatch of lake flies is underway in the Oshkosh area.
Generally, Lake Winnebago fared well from the wind. Initially, the water column was very muddy, but as of 5/6/20, water clarity has improved to about 5 feet north of the Fox River and about 3 feet south of the Fox River.
The Fox River has lesser visibility, roughly 18 inches in Oshkosh. Over the last 21 days, there has been a significant rise in water temps from 41 degrees to 54.5 degrees in Fond du Lac. Menasha and Oshkosh registered 51 degrees on Wednesday. I did find some back bays/harbors which recorded water temperatures up to 59 degrees on the Lowrance electronics. Lake Poygan reached just shy of the 60-degree water temperatures this week.
Water levels remain high system-wide. The no-wake mandates have been lifted in some parts of Winnebago County, but please check with authorities for daily updates (Please call 920-236-7488). In New London, the river has continued to rise for the previous five days and now is at 7.3 feet. Water current remains above average in the Wolf River and has been declining in the Fox River.
The high water, cold water temps, and sufficient water flow have many of the systems walleyes residing in the rivers. There have been minor migrations down the river(s) of post-spawn walleyes, including some decent sized females into Lake Winnebago. Generally, the movement out of the Wolf occurs when water levels drop, food becomes scarce, or water temperatures spike. To date, none of these things have happened. Walleyes are trickling back to Lake Winnebago every day, but there has not been a mass movement.
The outer reefs on Lake Winnebago are starting to produce some walleyes, especially in Oshkosh. Trolling has been mostly ineffective near the mouth of the Fox River. Slow or still presentations are producing fish. Slip bobbers and dragging jigs/rigs over the rocks are producing small to mid-sized walleyes. Over the last 48 hours, a preference toward leeches has started to emerge. This is very consistent with past years when mid 50’s water temperatures signal a change from minnows to leeches. While crawlers are a solid choice, I personally have not had a lot of luck with crawlers to date.
In the Fox River (Oshkosh), fishing catch rates are just OK. A school of white bass moved through the river about 7-10 days ago, heading upriver to spawn. The Spellman’s Marine area was loaded with both walleyes and white bass. This bite has declined this week, as the fish have moved up and down the river.
Pulling flies was the go-to presentation in the river. There are many presentation variations to fly pulling, especially the fly dropper. I have found two components to be critical to increase catch rates: One: using a heavier sinker has changed the fall rates of the flies when pulled. I have been upsizing to a 3 oz sinker (from 2 oz) to produce more bites. Two: The fish are sluggish, so a drag technique has been more effective than a pump technique. These fish are definitely Packer fans and are honing in on green and yellow baits.
At the Hwy 41 bridge, there are many boats and a nice mix of white bass, catfish, and walleyes. Flies and minnows are both working for white bass and walleyes in this general area. I did try crankbaits without any success. A key to fishing in this area is to find regions with changes in the water current. Some days the fish are staged in the slack water, and some days the fish are in the more substantial flow. Be sure to try both areas to determine where the fish are staged.
I made a couple of quick passes on critical locations in Lake Winneconne and Buttes des Mortes. While the conditions are ripe for prime walleye activity, the Lowrance and Garmin did not show any concentrations of fish. This is a waiting game, and when these fish move in, the areas could become red hot.
The much-awaited crappie run has not developed yet. Some back bays, channels and harbors have seen spurts of activity. Crappies prefer water temps in the upper 50’s to low 60’s as their optimal spawning temp on this system. Watch areas like Fond du Lac for the best opportunities to catch large crappie. The channels in Lakeside Park can offer some nice shore fishing opportunities. Bluegills are also increasing activity in some of these similar areas (Bays, channels, harbors). The perch spawning run is over, and these fish are tough to locate at the current time.
In the Wolf River, there are reports of substantial numbers of walleyes in the Fremont area. The white bass run is on a pause right now. There are good numbers of white bass in the river, but the bite has been very inconsistent. A few warm days should fire this bite up, but the long-term forecast is calling for freezing temperatures in the evenings, which will likely drop water temperatures.
This past weekend the Bago Walleye Club held a tournament on the Winnebago system. Winds were brutal during the event (40 MPH), so bag weights were slim. Eight pounds got into the money, with a winning weight of 19.02 pounds (which was massive for the conditions). Because of COVID social distancing, no award presentations were done in person, so the actual techniques are not known for the victors. About 20% of the field had five fish on the card, while about 20% of the field took a zero.
Most tournaments on the system have been canceled. There remain some App-based tournaments occurring, where no rules meetings and no award presentations are required in person. All these tournaments are a catch, photo, and release, and no fish are brought to a weigh-in. Social distancing is maintained, with a near zero human to human interaction related to the tournament functions.