Drop a Line, Get a Bite: Preparing for this year's fishing season

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, photos by Andrea Paulseth

Opening day of the 2018 regular inland fishing season followed the coldest and snowiest April on record, meaning it’s a pretty good bet many anglers’ favorite fish species will be hungry and ready to bite, state fisheries officials say.

“May 5 is approaching fast, although if you live in the north you might still think we are in the middle of winter with all of the ice,” says Wisconsin Fisheries Director Justine Hasz. “For those of you in southern Wisconsin the waters have been open for a few weeks and are starting to warm up nicely.

“No matter where you spend your opening day fishing, anglers should find the northern pike and walleye are hungry and if you prefer to set your tackle at panfish focus on shallow waters that warm early.”

The late winter weather means that as of late April, many lakes are still ice-covered in northern Wisconsin, but waters in the southern two-thirds of Wisconsin are open and northern rivers are open as well, Hasz says. Regardless of whether there is still ice in some parts of northern Wisconsin, the fishing season is open as of May 5, even if anglers need to use ice fishing gear where the ice is safe.

Walleye are anglers’ No. 1 target, according to surveys, and Wisconsin has hundreds of waters with naturally self-sustaining populations. In addition, more walleye fishing opportunities will be available this year as more than 1.275 million extended growth walleye stocked in 2013 and 2014 under the Wisconsin Walleye Initiative are now at catchable size.

The wintry conditions have delayed stocking of catchable trout in some of the 400 waters where stocking is planned. Heavy snow, road conditions, and road weight restrictions combined to push back delivery of fish last month in northern Wisconsin so crews are playing catch up and are still not able to reach some site.

Season dates and regulations

The 2018 hook-and-line game fish season opens May 5 on inland waters for walleye, sauger, and northern pike statewide.

The largemouth and smallmouth bass southern zone opens May 5, while the northern bass zone opens for catch and release only from May 5 through June 15, with the harvest season opening June 16. Statewide, the harvest seasons for bass have a minimum length limit of 14 inches with a daily bag limit of five fish in total.

Musky season opens May 5 in the southern zone and May 26 in the northern zone. The northern zone is the area north of highways 77, 64 and 29, with Highway 10 as the dividing line.

Trolling now allowed statewide, but different rules for different counties

The biggest change in regulations concerns trolling. Rules on motor trolling which were considered temporary over the last few years have been replaced by permanent trolling rules.

Trolling means fishing by trailing any lure, bait, or similar device that may be used to attract or catch fish from a boat propelled by a means other than drifting, pedaling, paddling, or rowing. Casting and immediate retrieval of a bait, lure, or similar device while the motor is running (or “position fishing”) is not considered trolling.

New this year, motor trolling is legal on all inland waters with either:

  • Three hooks, baits, or lures per person with no maximum number of lines trolled per boat; or
  • One hook, bait, or lure per person with a maximum of three hooks, baits. or lures trolled per boat.
  • Review a map and list of waters where each regulation applies online by visit dnr.wi.gov and searching for “motor trolling.”

Early fishing season safety tips

DNR conservation wardens officials warn anglers that while ice cover may look sturdy in parts of Wisconsin, it’s likely are weakening fast as spring fights to take hold. “No ice is safe ice, so anyone venturing out should use caution and know before you go,” says Chief Warden Todd Schaller.

The slow seasonal transition serves as another reason to wear a life jacket when enjoying fishing from a boat or shore. “The water is still cold, and hypothermia is a painful and dangerous possibility should you fall out of your boat or slip and fall into some water near the shoreline,” Schaller says. “You may have up to two minutes in the cold water before the cold water chills your muscles to the point of inability to save yourself.”

Anglers are reminded to dress in layers, not fish alone, take a cell phone, and make sure someone knows your outing plans – including where you are and your anticipated return. “And fish in an area that is familiar to you or that you have taken the time to learn about the characteristics of the area,” Schaller says. A good place to learn more is the local bait shop or local fishing club.

If your fishing plans involves a boat, please hold off enjoying alcoholic beverages or drugs before or during operating your boat. Wear your life jacket and encourage all passengers to wear one, too. At the least, make sure you have a life jacket aboard for each passenger – and do not overload the boat. Keep a radio on board to stay current about weather changes. Know the navigational rules of the water, and check your boat lights should you return after sunset. Check your First Aid kit and if your on-board flares will work, Schaller says.

Keep Wisconsin fish and waters healthy

A 2016 study by DNR showed the spread of aquatic invasive species is stable, indicating prevention efforts may be working. Anglers can help prevent the spread of VHS and other fish diseases and aquatic invasive species such as Eurasian water-milfoil and zebra mussels by taking a few simple steps.

  • Remove all plants, animals, and mud from boats and trailers and fishing gear.
  • Drain all water from boats, motors, and livewells.
  • Never move plants or live fish away from a body of water.