By OnMilwaukee Staff Writers   Published Oct 12, 2007 at 5:12 AM

If you thought you had to fly to Canada for big-time musky action, or head to the Pacific Northwest to catch Coho and Chinook, think again.

Both angling experiences can be had in Wisconsin – and fall is the optimal time to do it. From September through November, these marquee game fish become highly active, moving in closer to shore and feeding voraciously prior to winter or to spawning.  What’s more, the reduced angling pressure during fall means that almost all species become easier to catch, regardless of their seasonal patterns.

“Fall is really a premier time for fishing,” says Mike Staggs of the Wisconsin DNR’s Bureau of Fisheries Management.  “People tend to quit thinking about it – they put their boats away, kids are back in school and it’s almost hunting season.  But it is a great season for anglers -- the fish are hungrier and they aren’t as many people going after them.”

Musky Mania in the Northwoods

No doubt about it -- fishing for Wisconsin’s state fish, the muskellunge, reaches its peak in the autumn.  Though muskies are active all summer long, their appetites grow when the water temperature dips below 60 degrees, typically in mid-to late September.  As lake temperatures drop, these “freshwater barracudas” go on a feeding binge that lasts through November, fattening themselves up prior to winter on ciscoes, white suckers and yellow perch.

It is during this season that the biggest fish of the year are typically caught, such as the 53-inch, 51-pound monster Tom Gelb pulled in last November in Vilas County (one of the only 50+ pound muskies caught in the U.S. in recent years.)  Fall is also when most major musky tournaments are held, including the Greater Wisconsin Muskie Tournament in St. Germain and the Sawyer County Fall Musky Tournament in Hayward (both in October).

While live bait is fairly common, most musky insiders use artificial lures such as bucktails (in colors mimicking perch or cisco) or various jerk baits -- and the bigger the better.  While musky waters can be found across the Wisconsin, they are most plentiful in the Northwoods region, particularly Vilas and Oneida Counties; the greater Hayward area in Sawyer County; the Mercer area in Iron County; and the Spooner area in Washburn County.

Salmon Slammin’ on Lake Michigan

Lake Michigan salmon fishing also reaches its peak during the fall season, though for different reasons.  During fall, Chinook and Coho start to migrate in from miles offshore to spawn in tributary streams.  Chinook are the first to arrive, typically spawning from mid-September into early October, while Coho and brown trout begin spawning in early October and continue to end of that month.

Generally thought of as deep-water fish that only owners of large boats dare target, Lake Michigan salmon become accessible to virtually everyone during September and October and can easily be caught from shore, from piers or from shallower near-shore waters.  Not surprisingly, in the last several years state DNR officials have noticed a dramatic rise in out-of-state fishermen coming to Southeastern Wisconsin during this time.

“Fall salmon fishing here is just unbelievable,” said Brad Eggold of the Wisconsin DNR. “Though these fish aren’t quite as large as coastal salmon, they’re still big -- with many in the 20-pound range.  And, since their stream migration distance is limited by dams, they are concentrated into a smaller area than in other parts of the country, which translates into very high harvest rates.”

Eggold cited a number of river and river mouth areas as fall salmon hotspots, including the Menomonee and Milwaukee Rivers in Milwaukee County; the Pike River in Kenosha County and the Root River in Racine County.  Further to the north, the Sheboygan River in Sheboygan County Manitowoc River in Manitowoc County, the Kewaunee River in Kewaunee County, and the Menominee River in Marinette Co. also attract widespread attention from anglers.

While salmon anglers use a variety of lures and presentations, yarn flies seem to be most popular with wading or shore fishermen (in the steams) while dodger fly rigs and J-plugs are used by most fishermen on the lake.  Both resident and non-residents are free to try both techniques by virtue of the two-day trout/salmon stamp (sport license) offered by the Wisconsin DNR.  Prospective anglers are encouraged to visit for more information or to call the Wisconsin DNR fishing hotline at (414) 382-7920.

Other Fall Species to Target in Wisconsin

While musky, Chinook and Coho take most of the limelight during the fall fishing season, several other species are also worth putting on your “fish-for” list.  In Lake Michigan, steelhead and brown trout also have seasonal spawning patterns and offer similar opportunities similar to Coho and Chinook.  Lake trout are another popular species, as they continue to be very active during this period and make for a delicious feast (not to mention exciting angling!)

On the inland lakes, walleye are a popular fall target. According to Wisconsin DNR creel surveys, walleye catch rates are highest during the fall.  What’s more, they become much easier to find – as weeds die back and the water temperature cools, they tend to migrate to shallower waters, particularly at twilight.

Working crank baits in the cooler waters near edges and rocky shorelines is often productive during the fall season, as are larger minnows. While walleye can be found throughout Wisconsin, the Lake Winnebago system and northern lakes such as Lac du Flambeau and the Chippewa Flowage are particularly well-known for fall walleye fishing.

Off Water: What to Do

Visitors to Wisconsin’s top fishing destinations will find a wide variety of off-water activities and attractions, including entertainment options galore for families and spouses. 

Certainly, the most obvious off-water attraction for visiting fishermen would be the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame in Hayward.  Packed with antique lures, engines and fishing memorabilia, this unique facility is built in the shape of a four-story tall musky with a lookout platform inside the lower jaw.  Golfers will want to visit Hayward’s Big Fish Golf Club, the only Pete Dye course in Northern Wisconsin.  Other great golf courses (and great fishing) can be found at Teal Lake Lodge and the Lakewoods Resort.  Both resort complexes are located just north of Hayward, near Cable.

Also in the area are the LCO Casino and Resort – where visitors can try their hand at Vegas-style gaming tables – and Al Capone’s Hideout (in Cable). Remodeled to look as it did in the Roaring ‘20s, this 400-acre estate featured a main lodge, lake, bunk house and jail cell, as well as an airstrip where planes from Canada would land and drop off alcohol that Capone’s gangsters ran to Chicago. 

North-central Wisconsin was another hiding spot for Prohibition-era gangsters.  Their bloody legacy can be seen at the Little Bohemia Resort in Manitowish Waters, where bullet holes still remind diners of a famous 1933 shoot out between FBI G-men and the John Dillinger Gang. (Dillinger escaped, along with Baby Face Nelson.)  Gaming is also available in this area, at the Lake of the Torches Casino Resort in Lac du Flambeau.

Just east of Lac du Flambeau in Minocqua, families can come off the water and get into…the water at the Waters of Minoqua Resort’s indoor water park.  Families will also enjoy the Children’s Museum in Eagle River.

For anglers interested in the spawning salmon run, the Manitowoc/Sheboygan area offers a host of opportunities, both on and off water, including the renowned J.M. Kohler Art Center.

Just west in the village of Kohler, visitors will find the Kohler Design Center, as well as the luxurious American Club complex.  It is home to several of the top golf courses in the world, including Whistling Straits, site of the 2007 U.S. Senior Open.  In Manitowoc, visitors can tour a real World War II submarine at the Wisconsin Maritime Museum or sample an ice cream sundae at the place it was invented – the Washington House Inn.  History is also on display at the Rogers Street Fishing Village.

The Lake Michigan communities of Racine and Kenosha offer excellent fall fishing for spawning Coho and Chinook salmon, as well as brown trout and lake trout.   They also offer notable cultural attractions, such as the Racine Art Museum and the Kenosha Public Museum, along with beautifully restored downtown and marina areas.