Anglers will pursue walleyes on area lakes Saturday.
Anglers will pursue walleyes on area lakes Saturday.
The opening day of the 2021 general fishing season will be this Saturday, May 1, bringing increased activity to North Woods lakes, roads and businesses following a year in which tourism was affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

There were a few question marks headed into the opener last year due to Gov. Tony Evers’ Safer At Home order as a statewide safety measure to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.

Nonetheless, many new and experienced anglers took part in the general fishing season opener last year amidst the pandemic. The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) warns that boat launches will likely be crowded again this year and encourages anglers to maintain social distancing and wear a face covering when within 6-feet of other anglers.

“I hope everyone is as excited as I am for the 2021 fishing season,” said Justine Hasz, DNR Fisheries Management Bureau director. “I have my rods ready and can’t wait to hit the water this coming Saturday. 2020 was a great year for anglers, and I expect 2021 to be even better.”

The fishing opener has always been billed as the start of the spring and summer tourism season as anglers come here to pursue walleyes, northerns and trout. Meanwhile, others use the excitement of opening weekend as an opportunity to return to the North Woods to open cabins and summer homes, put in docks and begin other spring chores.

Kim Emerson, the executive director of the Eagle River Area Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Center, said she expects to see an influx of visitors this weekend and knows the importance of the fishing opener.

“I believe this year’s fishing opener is going to be a busy one,” said Emerson.” We have been hearing from several of our lodging members that they are more booked than ever for this year’s fishing opener.  It is looking like it is gong to be a busy weekend.”

Collette Sorgel, director of the Three Lakes Chamber of Commerce, said the business community is expecting a good weekend.

“We are anticipating a great fishing opening season, ” said Sorgel. “Due to the great weather, it means seasonal residents have already opened their cabins and have docks in.” 

Penny Strom, executive director of the St. Germain Chamber of commerce, said there are high expectations for a busy opener.

“Due to the unusually warmer weather early in April, the lakes opened up earlier than anyone would have expected,” said Strom. “With people feeling more comfortable traveling, we are very optimistic about a solid opening for the fishing season.” 

Strom noted St. Germain will host the Fishing with the Stars event on the weekend of May 14-16 (see story in Outdoors).



Walleyes popular

The primary target for most anglers opening weekend is the walleye. Walleye fishing got a boost seven years ago when the DNR approved a three-fish daily bag limit on most lakes across the state with a minimum length limit of 15 inches and a 20- to 24-inch slot in which that size walleye must be returned to the water. Only one fish can be over 24 inches. 

Prior to the three-fish bag limit in the ceded territory in northern Wisconsin, each lake had a different bag limit based on tribal spearfishing each spring.

“The three-fish walleye bag limit has definitely been a positive for fishing and tourism,” said Emerson. “Anglers can come here and know that they can keep their three fish.”

Anglers are reminded many lakes have specific regulations for walleye and they should check the lake-by-lake rules in the DNR regulation pamphlet or visit dnr.wi.gov.

For example, on the Eagle River Chain of Lakes, the bag limit is three walleyes for the entire Chain with a slot size limit from 14 to 18 inches and only one fish can be over 18 inches. But on the Three Lakes Chain of Lakes, walleye of any length may be kept, but only one fish can be over 14 inches.

Peter Stoltman, owner of Ray’s Landing in St. Germain, said he expects walleyes will be hanging on the edge of shallows and should get more active as it warms up this week. “I would look to that first break-line. I think the fish will be a little deeper until we get some green weeds going,” said Stoltman. “The fish should be fairly active, but you will have to find them.

Stoltman said jig and fathead minnow combinations will be the key to enticing walleyes on opening day.

“It’s tough to beat that combination in the spring,” said Powell. “And if you are fishing structure, you can try a fathead under a slip bobber.” 

Stoltman said the early spring should translate into a good opener for business traffic. A good weather forecast this weekend could increase the activity. High temperatures are expected to be in the upper 50s Saturday and Sunday.

 “People have had time to get their boats out and their gear ready. I have been getting a lot of calls about lake conditions and water temperatures,” he said. “?So we should have a great weekend.”



Trolling legal

Four years ago, trolling became legal statewide in Wisconsin. While trolling is allowed statewide, in Vilas and Oneida counties only one hook, bait or lure is allowed per person, with three lines maximum per boat.

In addition to walleyes, anglers come here to fish northerns, bass, panfish and trout in the spring.

The Northern Zone for bass includes Vilas, Oneida, Forest and Iron counties in this region. From May 1 to June 18, it is catch-and-release for smallmouth bass only. Largemouth bass may be kept, but they must be at least 14 inches. From June 19 through the end of the season, five largemouth or smallmouth bass in combination may be kept and they must be at least 14 inches.

Meanwhile, trout anglers can also hit the streams starting Saturday for catch-and-keep fishing, though the early trout season (catch-and-release) started Jan. 2 and runs through this Friday. Anglers can visit dnr.wi.gov to learn more about trout fishing and stream-by stream regulations.

A resident individual (annual) fishing license is $20. A one-day license is available for $8. An annual nonresident fishing license is $50 and a one-day nonresident fishing license is $10. A variety of other licenses are available and can be reviewed at dnr.wi.gov. An inland trout stamp costs an additional $10. The Wisconsin free fishing weekend for residents and nonresidents of all ages is June 5-6.

Anglers can purchase their license online at go¬≠wild.wi.gov or at any one of more than 1,000 license agents. To find an agent, visit dnr.wi.gov and search “license agent.”



Three openers

The general game fishing opener is a kickoff to the spring and summer fishing and tourism season.

Following the walleye opener this Saturday, the Northern Zone (north of Highway 10) muskie fishing opener is the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, May 31, and the opening day for smallmouth bass (catch-and-keep) is June 19.

As anglers head out to their favorite fishing locations, the DNR says anglers should  remember:

• Always wear a life jacket.

• Practice safe and sober boat operations.

• Release fish responsibly.

• Minimize the spread of aquatic invasive species by removing plants and animals from your boat before and after launching, draining all water from compartments, and never move live fish away from any waterbody.