When fighting 8-pound walleyes in the Fox River’s spring currents, you just don’t think to thank the federal Clean Water Act and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources for your fun. Maybe that comes later.
In the moment, you focus on back-reeling, keeping a tight line, and hoping your host’s golden retriever steps off the landing net before your fish tires alongside the boat.
That was the scene on a mid-April morning when I joined De Pere’s Tom Brodhagen and his dog, Shaymus, to sneak in some fishing near Voyageur Park in the city’s downtown before yet another winter storm crashed into spring.
We had originally planned to fish that day after work, but when Brodhagen saw the weather forecast he moved our start time to 5 a.m. After meeting at the Fox Point Launch before dawn, I climbed into Brodhagen’s boat and accepted Shaymus’ offer to warm my feet if I scratched his ears–Shaymus’ ears, not Brodhagen’s.
Brodhagen, meanwhile, steered his boat for the fish refuge’s border below the De Pere dam. Minutes later he anchored downstream of a power line’s huge cement pilings. He then handed me a spinning rod spooled with 14-pound Fireline, which he tied directly to a gold/orange Smithwick Rogue crankbait.
Daylight was still 45 minutes away, so all we could see of nearby boats and shoreline fishermen were shadows topped by red, white, or green navigation lights and headlamps. Unlike weekends, we saw plenty of space between the boats and shoreline anglers.
I was a bit surprised. When crossing the Highway 172 bridge over the Fox River the weekend before, I wondered if I could skip from the west shoreline to the east bank and back atop fishing boats without touching the same boat twice.
That thought wouldn’t occur most weekdays, Brodhagen said. Still, he conceded that fishing pressure on the Fox River often dictates where he fishes.
“To get away from other boats, I’ll look for schools of walleyes in the main channel downstream and cast quarter-ounce jigs with minnows,” he said. “Other times I’ll find them in less than eight feet of water and throw 1/8-ounce jigs with a purple or green Ringworm or Twister Tail. Other times I’ve found them in downtown Green Bay.”
We didn’t need to do such searching during my visit. Brodhagen caught our first fish, a 2-pound walleye, before I finished adjusting my camera settings, and stowing my gloves and raingear. Finally, I picked up the fishing rod.
“Dawn’s usually a great time here,” Brodhagen advised. “Just cast to either side and start reeling. See what happens.”
What happened the next four hours was the hottest walleye action I’ve seen in my 50-plus years of fishing. We didn’t catch a fish with every cast, but we seldom waited more than five to 10 minutes between walleyes. And when we weren’t fighting fish, we were watching walleyes rolling, tumbling or torpedoing through rapids and eddies, their gold-emerald backs and white-tipped tails slashing the surface.
Wisconsin DNR studies from the 1990s estimate anywhere from 100,000 to 250,000 walleyes spawn in the lower Fox River each spring. Although some spend their entire lives in the Fox, most live in lower Green Bay much of the year. The Fox’s spring spawners usually return to the river in autumn and winter there. They don’t return to the bay until completing their spring procreation rites.
Steve Hogler, a DNR fisheries biologist in Green Bay, said the current walleye population is “large enough,” thanks in part to four straight fantastic years of reproduction from 2008 through 2011. In fact, since 1999 and 2000, walleyes have not suffered back-to-back years of poor reproduction.
In addition, Green Bay walleyes seem to live long, despite growing nearly twice as fast as their counterparts in most of Wisconsin. Their fast growth and heavy weights come from a rich diet of alewives, gizzard shad, and emerald and spottail shiners.
“Fish that grow fast and live large usually die young,” Hogler said. “These walleyes don’t seem to die young, even though their offspring will be 10 inches long by their first autumn. Most Wisconsin walleyes grow only five inches by fall. Green Bay’s walleyes can reach 30 inches in eight to 10 years, and keep on living. We got a tag return from a walleye caught this spring that we tagged in 2002 when it was eight to 10 years old. Twenty-something walleyes aren’t uncommon here.”
That’s remarkable, considering that walleyes were rare to nonexistent in the lower Fox and Green Bay 40 years ago. From the 1920s through the late 1970s, low oxygen levels caused by industrial pollution frequently killed fish throughout the area.
Conditions began improving after Congress and President Nixon passed the federal Clean Water Act in 1972. This caused cities and industries in the Fox River Valley–from Neenah northward to Green Bay–to invest more than $300 million to reduce polluted discharges into the Fox. Between 1972 and 1985, oxygen levels and fish populations rebounded.
Those improvements encouraged the DNR and its fisheries biologists, such as Lee Kernen, to start stocking walleyes in 1977 from Sturgeon Bay to lower Green Bay. By 1984, with strong natural reproduction evident around the bay of Green Bay, the DNR stopped stocking. Walleyes have sustained themselves ever since.
The result is one of the nation’s most famous and productive walleye fisheries. On most weekends in March and April anglers from Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, and beyond pack the lower Fox’s three boat ramps with 200 to 400 vehicles and trailers.
And never mind that anglers can keep only one walleye daily in March and April, and it must be 28 inches or longer. All other walleyes must be released until the general fishing season opens the first Saturday in May.
“We regularly hear of people catching 50 to 100 walleyes a day here in spring,” Hogler said. “I’m not sure where else you can do that in North America.”
Brodhagen and I won’t swear we caught 50 walleyes that day before cold rain drove us ashore at 10 a.m., but we weren’t far from the mark.
Images by Patrick Durkin