Great Fishing on the Lower Wisconsin River

One of Wisconsin’s most under-fished rivers is the Lower Wisconsin River (LWR), which flows from the cities of Sauk City and Prairie du Sac and runs 90 miles to its convergence with the Mississippi River at Prairie du Chien. The river offers some outstanding fishing and scenery for anyone who takes the time and energy to give it a try.

This is water that isn’t made for big V hull walleye boats or even bass boats. The best boat for this river is a flat-bottomed Jon boat, smaller fishing boats, a canoe, or even a kayak. A 20-horsepower motor is more than sufficient for navigating this wide and relatively shallow river. Mercury Marine and other outboard manufactures also make jet engines that are ideal for “running” the river at a higher speed. The jets allow you to spend more time fishing than looking for obstructions to avoid. You’ll find little water that is deeper than 10 feet in the LWR. But, water depth is a relative thing in this river. The stained water and constant current allow fish to live comfortably in shallower water, with the oxygen content being the most important factor.

The Lower Wisconsin River is an angler’s dream, but getting at the fish can be a difficult. At times, a smaller boat that can handle the numerous obstructions and shallow water is necessary. Other necessities for fishing this river include; a bow or transom-mounted trolling motor with plenty of thrust for going against the current, an LCD fish locator for depth, and a 20-pound anchor or two for holding on structure and good fishing locations. The locator is more for seeing depth and underwater structure than seeing fish. Rarely will you mark or see fish on your locator in water this shallow. There is deeper water, more than 30-feet deep in the scour hole, below the dam formed when the river is at high spring levels, but I’m concentrating on the many miles of river beyond the Prairie du Sac Dam.

The angler must learn to use their eyes to “read” the river for its breaks, back eddies, rock bars, islands, brush and wood. This reading the river comes from time spent on the water and experience. Even fishermen who know the river well bang up props. Alliant Power controls the water depth at the river’s last dam at Prairie du Sac. But, don’t let me scare from fishing the Lower Wisconsin River because the fishing is well worth it!

The fish species that are present and in good numbers are; walleyes, saugers, saugeyes, northern pike, muskies, smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, channel catfish, flathead catfish, sturgeon and all species of panfish. Plus, there’s a good population of most species of roughfish, some which most people have never seen. On any given day, you could catch eight to 10 different fish species in a matter of just a few hours. This is what makes fishing the Lower Wisconsin River so much fun because you never know what is pulling on the end of your line. All fish are from natural reproduction with no stocking of any species.

Fishing techniques can be as simple as you choose. Live bait fished off a three-way rig always catches fish, as does most live bait rigging. Live bait also seems to catch more roughfish. Nightcrawlers, minnows, and leeches fished on a plain hook, a split shot and a bead for attraction will catch about anything when floated along the bottom or casted and slowly retrieved.

Trolling with the current and against it will often be successful in the Wisconsin River. Lately, I’ve been catching my walleyes and saugers trolling against the current in 50-degree water. Try trolling at 1 to 2 miles per hour and going in an S pattern, so that you’re crankbaits pick up speed and slow down as you troll and turn. This can often trigger fish into hitting your bait. The key to river trolling is to have your crankbait hit and bounce off the bottom, be it sand or rocks and any underwater structure, often causing reaction strikes from the fish. Try using a little heavier line so that you’re able to pull out of the numerous fish-holding snags. I’ve been using 10-pound Trilene in the green color that matches the stained color of the water. Be sure to use monofilament and not the “super lines” because you need some give in your line, which a braid doesn’t give you. Make sure that your lure is running true and bumping the bottom. Good cranks to use are Shad Raps, Mann’s Minus 1’s, Wally Divers and Hot-N-Tots. Good river colors include; black/chrome, blue/chrome, shad, firetiger, perch, shad and orange.

Casting crankbaits and plastic worms (blue, purple, and black) to shore and retrieved while floating or drifting down river can also be very effective. You’ll catch everything from smallmouth to walleyes to pike. Also, cast spinnerbaits and billed crankbaits to shore and around logs, timber and rocks. Muskies are making a big comeback, so always be ready for a big fish.

Walleyes must be 18 inches to keep, saugers 15 inches, northern pike 26 inches, small and largemouth bass 14 inches, and muskies 40 inches. The daily bag limit for walleyes, saugers and saugeyes is three fish of any combination.

The key for success is fishing near any kind of structure that can break the current, which allows fish to wait while conserving energy, and then dart out and grab the bait or lure. Mainly look for rocks, wood, sand bars, bridge abutments, humps and islands. Another good thing about river fishing is that cold fronts do not affect the fish, since river fish have to eat everyday to just maintain their body weight.

There are many quality boat landings in Sauk City, Arena, and Spring Green which are all along the Lower Wisconsin River. These towns also offer anything that you may need; motels, restaurants, and fishing bait and gear. You can also rent canoes for a combo float and fish trip at many canoe liveries. Most canoe rentals offer one-day and overnight trips. The one thing that I’ve failed to mention is the beautiful scenery and abundant wildlife including; eagles, osprey, herons, cranes, beavers and otters just to name a few of the things you’ll see on the Wisconsin. Weekends have more traffic, but rarely will you ever feel crowded. Have fun fishing and floating!

For more information…

• Wilderness Fish and Game, Sauk City, 608-643-2433. They have everything that you’ll need including bait

• Black Hawk River Runs, canoe rentals 608-643-6724


Wally Banfi  608-644-9823

Ron Barefield  608-838-8756

Gary Engberg  608-795-4208