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Gary Engberg - River Currents - Early Walleyes and Saugers Below the Sauk Praire Dam
The Warmer Winter Allows Open Water Fishing Now!
This has been an unusual winter is most of the Upper Midwest to say the least. We've experienced winter weather that is above normal in temperature and the amount of snow thus far is way below normal.
Weather can change anytime, but the days of winter are winding down and anglers are thinking about and already fishing on rivers below dams in Wisconsin and most bordering states. Many fishermen are
now thinking about open water fishing instead of ice fishing as we get into February and towards March. Anglers are usually fishing the Wisconsin River by the end of this month, but it looks like it
may be much earlier this year. As a matter of fact, anglers are already fishing the waters below the Prairie Du Sac Dam on the Wisconsin River and other rivers that stay open from winter's ice like
the Mississippi River. If you're ready for some early open water fishing, now's the time. The boat landing at the VFW in Sauk Prairie is keep open and ice free, so get your boat ready or check your
waders for leaks and come to the Sauk Prairie area for some early walleye angling!
Before I start writing about the "hot spots", I'll suggest what you need in equipment, share a few techniques, and give you few tactics. Walleyes and saugers can be caught regularly in the waters
below the Prairie Dam. This dam is the last dam on the Lower Wisconsin River before it runs into the Mississippi River some 90 miles downriver.
What this means to the river angler is that migrating walleyes and saugers can move up the river from many miles away. Tagged walleyes have been caught that had traveled well over a hundred miles
before being caught in the Sauk area. Migrating fish start their river migration in the fall and continue till spring. Many fish (walleyes, saugers) will winter in the deep water below the dam to
feed on the abundant population of gizzard shad. The most common misconception is that on the first nice spring day all the walleyes decide to move up-river. Most fish have already migrated well
before that nice spring day. The Sauk-Prairie Dam stops the fish from going any farther upriver, so they look for suitable spawning areas within a few miles of the dam. Fish will find staging and
holding areas miles below the dam, but still close to suitable spawning spots. The area that I'm going to concentrate on is the first mile or so of river directly below the dam. This is the main
location where most anglers fish, even though there still are fish farther downriver.
The best boating landing to use is the private launch at the VFW Park about a ½ a mile below the dam. The cost is cheap and there's plenty of parking and even campsites, if you plan to spend a
few days. The landing is good and there is sand to spread in case the ramp is slippery. There are a few shallow spots to avoid when heading up to the dam. My advice, till you get to know the
area, is to motor very slowly upriver staying in the main river channel. Watch a couple of boats and then try to follow their course to the dam.
Once you get to the pool and tailrace area below the dam, you have a few options. One is to anchor your boat in different depths around the pool and cast and slowly retrieve jigs and minnows
or vertical jig. Wisconsin allows anglers to use 3 rods, so always make sure that you have a baited rod and jig or rig resting in a rod holder as a "dead" rod. Spots to try are anywhere below
the dams gates in water from 5 feet to over 25 feet. Either start shallow and work to deeper water or vice versa till you contact active fish. Early and late in the day, walleyes move shallower
to feed. Shallow water can be 10 feet to under 5 feet and sometimes even shallower! There's a deep scour hole caused by spring's high water that's located in the middle of the pool. Fishing
around the edges of the hole can be productive for saugers that seem to like water a little deeper than walleyes. The water directly below the dam is shallow and then drops off quickly, so
try areas close to the dam. The east shoreline is rocky with a back-eddy that actually has the water moving back upriver. This whole eastern shoreline from the dam to Lester's Point is good
with fish coming in water 10 to 20 feet deep during the day and shallower toward dark and after dark. The "hump" located between the dam's gates and the fast water is good to anchor on and
cast, making sure to slowly retrieve your jigs. Slipping the current (face your bow into the current and work your trolling motor (try Minn Kota) just enough to keep your jig as vertical as
possible. It's like you're chasing your jig downriver. Another good technique is to work off your bow or transom mount trolling motor and slowly move around the pool directly below the dam's
gates. There are areas where you can drag your jig or rig, but most spots are rock-strewn making anything but vertical jigging extremely difficult. You are going to lose jigs, so be sure to
have a good supply. For the wader, both the west and east sides of the river near the dam are productive.
Downriver from the dam pool, the rip-rap shoreline bordering the VFW Park is worth slipping and casting the rock shore. The culvert by the park is a fish magnet during high water and times of
winter run-off because this water is warmer and can raise the adjoining water a degree or two, which is all that is needed to attract fish. There's an old wing dam down from the dam on the east
shoreline behind the brushy shallow island that has some depth (20 feet plus) and can hold fish. There's another old wing dam just to the right of the VFW Launch which creates a slack water area
to the Highway 60 Bridge which holds many big fish in the spring. This area is good for wading or fishing from a boat. If boat fishing, be sure to cast and jig around the bridge abutments. The
slack water area from the landing to the bridge has a dark, mud bottom which warms quicker and has early hatches that attract early forage fish. The river channel edges, out and down from the landing,
also yields walleyes, saugers, and pike early in the year.
I've given you plenty of locations to catch fish now and later this spring, but the immediate dam area can get crowded on weekends. You don't have to fish around the pack of boats that will be near the
dam to catch fish. Fish this area till you get familiar with it and then start exploring locations downriver. Remember, not all fish go as far as the dam. You can find quality fish miles downriver now
and throughout the year.
The equipment you need for this fishing is a good jigging rod (try G. Loomis or Fenwick) 6 foot long or less with a medium or medium-light action and a fast tip. The Loomis SJR 720 and SJR 721 are great
rods for this early jig and rig fishing. The sensitivity is super and you have the strength to handle a big walleye. My reel of choice is an ultra-light reel (I suggest Daiwa or Shimano) spooled with
Berkley XT in green or Stren Magnathin in either 6 or 8 pound test. These are quality monofilaments that I've used for years and highly recommend. Some anglers like to use a colored line in the spring
and early seasons dingy water, so that they can watch their line for that walleye "tick". Berkley makes a solar line and Stren a gold line suited for line-watching anglers. My personal pick is a
Daiwa SS 700 reel with Berkley XT line in green and 8 pound test. This has been my pick for years and it hasn't changed!
Most of the early spring and late winter fishing is done using jigs and live bait rigs. There are so many jigs these days that an angler can be overwhelmed by their choices. Jigs come in all shapes,
sizes, and colors these days. Instead of the round head jig, try some of the flatter style jigs that cut the water better and allow you to use a lighter jig than if you used a round head jig. The Bait
Rigs Slo-Poke works well in rivers with its slow fall and wide hook gap. The Slo-Poke can be worked slowly in and around rocks and cover without getting snagged. You want to use as light a jig as possible
to maintain vertical contact with the bottom. The walleyes and saugers are going to be on the bottom or a foot above. Many early fish are also caught using various kinds of plastic like twister, shad, and
grub tails attached to your jig. Experiment using plastics with a minnow and without a minnow on one on your rods while trying to see what the fish happen to prefer that day. Remember that you will have
action from the river's current even when letting your rod just sit in a rod holder. Jig and plastic colors can vary from day to day, so be sure to have a wide assortment. The Wisconsin River is off
colored, so hot colors work well like orange, chartreuse, pink, glow, green, and gold being favorites. Black, electric blue, motor oil and white are all good plastic colors for the river, so have these
colors too! The profile that walleyes prefer changes regularly, so this is why you should have a wide and varies assortment.
The other rig that I use is as simple as it gets. I put a colored bead (chartreuse, glow, or red) on my line and then tie on a good VMC or Mustad hook. Colored hooks are also worth trying, though I'm not
sure if they make a difference. A foot or two above the hook attach a split shot and then bait the hook with a lively fathead minnow. Try to have at least two sizes of minnows because fish can want
different sizes on different days. This live bait rig is usually used as the dead rod and put in your boat's rod holder.
You how have everything that you need to NOW catch walleyes below the dam at Sauk Prairie. Try to remember that these are river fish who try to use any structure in the river as a current break to keep
them out of the river's flow and conserve their energy. Any obstruction can be used by fish to hide behind while waiting for food to float by them as they wait to ambush the forage. You'll catch many
small male walleyes, but the fish of a lifetime can be caught too especially when it's a female full of eggs. When releasing all fish, do it gently because it's easy to kill any fish this time of year.
Don't worry about when the season opens because the Wisconsin River is open year-round for walleyes and saugers. The minimum size is 18 inches for walleyes and 15 inches for saugers and saugeyes and the
daily bag limit is 3 fish either walleyes, saugers, or saugeyes or a combination of the three.
Information; Wilderness Fish and Game (608) 643-2433
Wally Banfi (608) 644-9823
Tony Puccio (608) 845-5410
For more fishing articles visit www.garyengbergoutdoors.com
Gary Engberg Outdoors
P.O. Box 92
Sauk City, WI 53583
Host of Outdoor Horizons on 1670-WTDY, Saturday's 8:00am-8:30am