Two anglers tried their luck on opening day of the Wisconsin game fishing season Saturday. While lakes were busy on a sunny and warm Saturday, fewer people ventured out on Sunday as rain developed in the afternoon. —STAFF PHOTO
Two anglers tried their luck on opening day of the Wisconsin game fishing season Saturday. While lakes were busy on a sunny and warm Saturday, fewer people ventured out on Sunday as rain developed in the afternoon. —STAFF PHOTO
Heartened by warm weather, a fading pandemic and a hunger for walleye and panfish, anglers took to area lakes over the weekend for the opening of the game fishing season in Wisconsin.

The opener also kicked off the vital spring-summer tourism season, bringing thousands of visitors to the North Woods in pursuit of rest, relaxation and recreation. 

Many in the hospitality industry reported bookings were near capacity while local restaurants and retail shops, now largely free of COVID-19 restrictions, are anticipating a busy season, especially compared to last year when the virus hit hard. 

Due to relaxed social distancing guidelines and many people vaccinated, casual observation showed more people were going maskless and expressing hope that a semblance of normalcy is returning.

For many folks, like Tom Hipp of Cedarburg, getting out on the water was just as important as hooking a fish.

“After being cooped up all winter, just being on the boat is what I’m looking forward to,” he said as he prepared to set out on Yellow Birch Lake. “I’m after walleye and crappie for the most part, but if I don’t catch anything it doesn’t matter. I’ll feel like I’ll have a great time.”

While the water is not quite warm enough yet for ideal fishing, near 80-degree temperatures on Sunday bode well for early season anglers.

“Most of the time good fishing depends on the weather or hitting the spawn just right,” said Jeff Van Oosten of Erie, Ill. “My family has a place on the (Eagle River) Chain and we’ve been coming to the opener for many years.” 

He didn’t let last fall’s poor catch dampen his outlook.

“It was a bad year, but I had decent luck with walleye,” Van Oosten said. “It didn’t stop me from coming back.”

His fishing companion, Jake Scott from Wheaton, Ill., said they’d be happy with whatever they might catch.

“Walleye, crappie or northern would be nice,” he said. 

Ken and Tammy Momsen of Sugar Camp, after spending a Saturday morning on the lakes, said they didn’t catch anything but both wore big smiles.

“We stopped for a nice lunch. It’s a beautiful day,” said Tammy. 

As the Momsens pulled their boat out of the water, Ryan Reynolds of Eagle River, and his nephew, Holt, waited nearby to launch. As they got into the boat, the younger Holt beamed with anticipation.

The perennial opener has sparked the area economy over decades. Although very early in the season, Todd Tyler of Eagle Sports Center in Eagle River labeled this year’s opener “average” as customers shopped the store Saturday morning for bait and other supplies.

“It varies. Post-spawn walleyes, pre-spawn crappies, the occasional northern or bass; it depends what you’re fishing for,” said Tyler. “We are noticing a trend over the past 10, 15 years where fishing is just one part of our economy. One of the main drivers for income are the second-home owners and their families and friends.”

Statewide, recreational fishing brings in an estimated $2 billion to Wisconsin’s economy and supports more than 13,000 jobs. License sales account for about $750 million of that total with the remainder earmarked for excise taxes and donations to help with conservation.

For many, if not most anglers, walleyes are the big prize although northerns, bass, panfish and trout also are highly sought. In Wisconsin, youths 15 and under fish free every day, as do anglers born before 1927 and active-duty military on furlough or leave who are Wisconsin residents.

A resident individual (annual) fishing license costs $20. A one-day license is $8. An annual nonresident fishing license is $50 and a one-day nonresident license is $10. These and other special fishing licenses are available at any one of more than 1,000 agents and can be found at the DNR website at dnr.wi.gov.