Green Bay Isn't Just Football
Rivers feeding the shallow Lake Michigan bay make it a top walleye destination
Article and photos by TJ Maglio
PESHTIGO, WI. – Many folks outside the Upper Midwest probably wouldn’t even know that Green Bay exists if it weren’t for the Packers, one of the NFL’s most storied franchises.
In fact, there are folks who probably don’t know the “Bay” in “Green Bay” actually refers to a 1,626-square mile basin off Lake Michigan’s western edge. Although “Titletown” is so named because of the football teams on-field accolades, the name could also work for the bay, which provides championship level walleye fishing.
Because Green Bay is relatively shallow (less than 50 feet deep) compared to the rest of Lake Michigan, it has ideal habitat for warm water species like walleye, musky, and smallmouth bass. The bay also has an abundance of offshore structure, which combined with a healthy baitfish population makes the walleyes grow not only quickly, but to some pretty staggering proportions.
A trip with Capt. Steve Paulsen, owner of Walleye Madness guide service and one of the best walleye fishermen on the water, serves to highlight the magnificent spring walleye fishing in Green Bay.
The Walleye Run
The Bounty of Green Bay – 27-, 29- and 30-inch walleyes caught trolling. It was the result of three boards triggering at once, something that happens on an incredible fishery.
Each spring, in response to nature’s urges, Green Bay’s walleyes head to the numerous rivers that dump into the bay for their annual spawn This creates not only one of the best times to get a feel for the unbelievable number of walleyes in the bay, but also one of the best times to hook the walleye of a lifetime.
There are a number of rivers that feature a phenomenal walleye run, most notably the Fox River in the city of Green Bay, the Suamico, the Oconto, the Peshtigo and the Menominee. Paulsen likes to focus on the Peshtigo, Oconto, and Menominee rivers in the spring because they don’t receive fishing pressure like the Fox does being in a populous area.
“I know there are a ton of huge walleyes being caught in the Fox, but I think the other rivers can be just as good,” Paulsen said. “And you’re not gonna be playing bumper boats the whole time you’re on the water.”
According to Paulsen, the walleyes actually stage for their spring run in the late fall, moving to reefs and structure near the mouths of rivers to feed and wait for the increasing water temps and flows of spring to trigger their spawn.
“We actually start seeing fish show up near the mouths of the rivers in November, and guys will catch them around the same areas through the ice all winter,” he said.
Once the water temps in the rivers start getting consistently into the 40s, you’ll see fish start moving into them to spawn. Not coincidently, you’ll also see anglers show up to target them.
Capt. Steve Paulsen shows off the second fish of the day, a 28-incher that demonstrates why you shouldn't lip a walleye.
“Guys usually fish them one of three ways; jigging, casting stickbaits, or trolling the mouths of the rivers, and any of them can be absolutely dynamite if you hit the bite correctly,” he said.
Since the bay is often still ice covered when the fish begin to move in, the first fish are usually caught casting stickbaits or jigging in the river. However, once fish get finished spawning, the trolling action heats up as fish move back out into the bay and feed to recover.
Paulsen cautions that although the fishing in the river can be unbelievable, it pays to be conservation minded when catching spawning fish.
“At times you have a tendency to foul-hook fish while in the river,” he said. “There are just so many fish and they are up so shallow, so that’s why I like to get them once they’re done.”
This 30-inch fish didn’t want to give up even at the boat after falling for an Echotail.
The CatchDue to a late spring, this year’s walleye run came on in a hurry, and we hit the run slightly after its peak. By the time we got there, the majority of the fish were post spawn, and aside from a couple hours spent jigging the Menominee, we had our best success trolling stickbaits for post spawn fish at the mouths of several tributaries.
Paulsen actually prefers to troll for fish coming back out of the river because you can get some of the best action that way.
“Once those fish come back out into the lake, they really need to feed to recover from the spawn,” he said. “If you get around the right areas you can really knock their lights out.”
And knock their lights out we did, as over two days we caught countless fish, with an unbelievable average size of more than 25 inches long. Paulsen trolled over rocky structures in 10-25 feet of water located within a mile or so of the river mouth.
One of the things Paulsen recommends anglers target at the mouth of the river is the plume of stained water that each river produces.
“The fish will typically be located somewhere in that stained water,” he said, “because it is usually a couple degrees warmer, attracts baitfish and their eyes make them more effective predators.”
The baits Paulsen trolls are often custom painted in gaudy pinks, purples, and yellows by Tommie Harris Blades. Shown here are three of the most successful baits Paulsen uses, the HJ-12, Thunderstick and Berkley Flicker Shad.
Paulsen’s trolling includes 7’10” Okuma Dead Eye telescoping trolling rods paired with new Okuma Cold Water CW-153 Linecounter reels spooled with 15-pound Seaguar Senshi monofilament tipped with a 20-foot leader of 15-pound Seaguar Abrazx fluorocarbon.
He generally runs six lines while trolling and employs Church tackle TX-22 planer boards to get his lures out to each side.
While trolling, Paulsen tried an assortment of stickbaits and crankbaits each day to dial the bite in. The majority bit Storm Thundersticks, Berkley Flicker Shads, Vibrations Tackle Echotails, and Reef Runner Ripsticks.
As far as color selection, most of the baits Paulsen trolls are custom painted by Tommie Harris Blades in unique and sometimes gaudy combinations, something Paulsen thinks is particularly important.
“For whatever reason, the fish seem to bite some particular colors better, and Tommie’s developed some colors that make a huge difference out here on the bay, especially with the bigger fish,” he said.
Paulsen’s boat is also an integral part of the trolling experience, as like any of the Great Lakes, Green Bay can get pretty nasty at times.
“As a full time guide, my clients need to know that they’re fishing out of the best and safest boat out there, which is why I run a Ranger 621 powered by a 250hp Mercury ProXS,” he said.
The walleye run in Green Bay typically begins in early April and is over by the end of the month, with the southern-most rivers picking up fish before the northern rivers. There are an abundance of great lodging options located in towns like Marinette, Peshtigo, Oconto, Suamico, and of course, Green Bay.
There is also great food and attractions in the Green Bay area, chief among them being Lambeau Field and the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame, a destination that even non-Packer NFL fans should make a point to visit. As great as the area is, it’s the walleye fishing that should be the star of your trip as the fishing is great all season long.
Capt. Steve Paulsen operates Walleye Madness guide service starting in early April, and can be reached at www.walleyemadnessfishing.com