The Lower Wisconsin River (LWR), which begins west of Sauk City, Wisconsin, is a quality smallmouth fishery. The wide and shallow river flows westward for almost ninety miles, till it empties into the Mississippi River. The LWR doesn’t have any barge or commercial traffic, so it doesn’t have to maintain a minimum navigatable channel. Most of the water below the dam at Prairie du Sac is less than 10 feet deep, so this is not a river made for big water walleye and bass boats. The river is made for johnboats, flat-bottom boats, and boats under 16 feet. There also are not any river maps worth looking at, so if you plan on fishing the Lower Wisconsin River, you must be extremely careful and always be looking for obstructions. Water levels can change daily. A good idea is to check the water flow from Alliant Energy which controls the dams up and down the river. Seeing what the current flow is upriver can help you plan your fishing a few days later. The Alliant Energy phone number is 1-800-242-1077 for daily current flow reports.
Most of the river has an excellent fishery with over 40 different fish species present in its waters. Sometimes, one never knows what kind of fish they’re going to catch on any given day. But, if you refrain from using live bait, you can and will catch more smallmouth and game fish. Since, I live on one of the rivers most beautiful stretches; I’ve been able to keep a book and record fishing information for almost 20 years. I’ll share some of my findings!
The smallmouth begin to get active near the end of April. Some fish are always caught in the warmer water areas during the spring walleye bite, but most walleyes are done spawning by the time Wisconsin River smallmouth get going. The statistics that I’ve kept show that smallmouth bass get active about April 21st. These are always pre-spawn fish. But, as the water warms from the 40′s to the 50′s, river smallmouth start moving from their deep water holding areas of winter to shallow water for food, comfort, and eventually to spawn. Smallmouth bass start to spawn in Wisconsin, when the water temperature is between 55 and 60 degrees.
First, the males move into the shallows and begin to make beds for the females. You can quietly cruise the shallows on a calm day and locate their beds in shallow water, usually only a foot or two deep. A good pair of polarized glasses can help you see better besides providing eye protection. You can even walk the shoreline of the river and find the scattered beds in the calm and slack water areas. I don’t like taking bass off their beds, so I try and wait till the fish are done spawning before fishing for them. If you find beds, it’s a good bet that the bass will be found near the closest deep-water structure. Deep water is a relative thing in the Wisconsin River. “Deep water” in this river could be 5, 6, or even 8 feet of water. Deep water in the Lower Wisconsin is 5 to 8 feet, since most of the rivers water is less than 6 feet in normal times.
As spring progresses and the water warms, I begin to look for smallmouth anywhere that there is any kind of structure. In all river systems, you can find more than one fish species inhabit ting the same area. Any kind of wood be it logs, timber, or sunken trees will hold smallmouth. If the amount of wood is limited in the area you’re in or hard to find, look for rock, rock piles, humps, bars, riprap, and the back side of islands. Often, I’ll find smallmouth in current, much more than walleyes, but they also will look for current breaks which allow them to rest and to get out of the rivers strong flow. All fish are cold-blooded and actively seek warmer water. Water only has to be a degree or two warmer to attract insects and bait fish and eventually, smallmouth bass. Most smallmouth bass prefer bottoms that are a combination of rock, gravel, and sand. Try to look for this bottom mixture. The bass prefer this type of bottom because their favorite food, the crayfish is always close by. Crayfish make up a large part of the smallmouth diet in the Lower Wisconsin River and they are always around rock and gravel.
Smallmouth get more active as the water warms later in the spring and you can often find them on any shallow flat chasing minnows (shiners and shad). Schools of smallmouth will herd baitfish into the rivers banks and shorelines, trapping them for an easy meal. This is one reason why they prefer high bank shorelines over low-lying areas. High banks usually mean deep water and a sharp break close to shore which helps the smallies trap their prey. A good technique for catching these shallow water spring bass to is to slowly drift with the current and use either a bow-mount or transom trolling motor (Minn Kota are the best by my standards) to slow you down and allow you to work good-looking spots very slowly and carefully. Try making long casts to the shallows for smallmouth which should help in not spooking the fish.
Though, live bait works great early in the year and into summer, it also allows the aggressive smallmouth to inhale your bait and often get deeply hooked. If you insist on using live bait, try seining your own river shiners. They’re great bait during the spring for smallmouth and always for river walleyes.
As the water warms, try switching to plastics and light jigs. Cast toward the shore and any available structure like; wood, rocks, boulders, points, islands, river bends, feeder creeks, and slack water areas. Jigs and twister or grub tails (Kalins) in all colors work well in the Wisconsin River. Pre-rigged plastic worms (like the Wally Worm) work wonders when casted shallow and slowly crawled back to your boat. Day in and day out, pre-rigged worms are some of the best baits for all river species and particular, smallmouth bass. My color choices for the Lower Wisconsin River are blue, black, purple, motor oil, and natural, if you want to catch fish.
As we move toward summer and water temperatures above 60 degrees, I switch to using more spinner baits (try Mann’s Hank Parker Model), buzz baits, and in-line spinners (Mepps) to catch smallmouth. As the water warms, they get more aggressive and even begin to chase baits. Often, all kinds and colors of spinner blades will work effectively. The stained water of the Wisconsin River allow gold and silver blades to show up a little better and these are my top blade colors for spinner blades. Casting crank baits will catch river smallmouth soon after they leave their beds and the water temperature exceeds 60 degrees. The Mann’s Minus One and the Rapala Shallow Shad Rap crank bait both work well, especially when fished in crayfish colors. The color orange in jigs, plastics, and cranks work wonders in the river because they all resemble the number 1 smallmouth food, the crayfish.
I’d recommend a 6 ½ foot or 7 foot high module graphite rod (I love G. Loomis), which allows me to make long casts to the shallow water. I’d choose a light-medium action rod with a fast tip. Add a high quality reel (like Daiwa and Garcia) to the rod and you’re all set except for spooling the reel with some Berkley XL or XT monofilament in 8 pound or 10 pound test and green color. Years ago, I used to use a lot of 6 # pound mono, but I found that using 8 # pound test didn’t hurt my fishing and saved numerous jigs and cranks.
The Lower Wisconsin River has numerous boat landings at Sauk City, Mazomanie, Arena, Spring Green, and Lone Rock. But, remember that big boats will be nothing but trouble in the rivers shallow water. During times of high water, larger boats can navigate and fish productively. But, that rarely happens except during early spring and this year it never happened. Navigate the river slowly and carefully and you should have no major problems, except beaching on a sand bar now and then. Seriously, be careful and always bring a spare shear pin for emergencies. State Highway 14 runs from Madison west toward the Mississippi River and most of the Wisconsin Rivers boat landings are off this highway. Anglers should have good fishing from the Highway 12 Bridge in Sauk City downriver to Lone Rock. This twenty some mile stretch of river has some of the LWR’s best fishing and structure. Rarely, do you find any other boats with the exception of canoes, on any given day. Weekends are about the only time that you’ll find anyone else fishing. The lack of anglers is not because of poor fishing, it’s just a difficult body of water to navigate which scares away some anglers.
The minimum size length is 14″ inches and a 5 fish daily bag. But, release all fish except if you catch the trophy of a lifetime! There are 20″ inch fish that will weigh in excess of 5 # pounds in the Lower Wisconsin River. You just have to find them in the many miles of river that’s loaded with fish-holding structure.
Contacts; Zick’s Bait in Sauk Prairie, Wi. (608) 643-6204. Wilderness Fish and Game also in Sauk Prairie, Wi. (608) 643-2433.
Guides; Wally Banfi (608) 644-9823, Ron Barefield (608) 838-8756, and Gary Engberg (608) 795-4208.