The lower Wisconsin River is popular with anglers and, like most large rivers, a variety of fish may be caught. The portion of the river below the dam at Prairie du Sac is popular with many anglers. Bank fishing opportunities also are found throughout the Riverway, however, always be sure you are on state owned lands when bank fishing, DO NOT TRESPASS on private lands.
Because it is connected to the Mississippi River, southern and western species of fish are able to move through the Mississippi drainage basin to the lower Wisconsin River. Thus, the large number of fish species found in this part of the river is not surprising. The most extensive recent collecting was done in the early 1960’s by Professor George C. Becker of the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, and in the 1970’s by the Department of Natural Resources. These studies revealed 84 species representing 20 families of fish from the lower Wisconsin River.
The lower Wisconsin River is classified as supporting a balanced warm water fish and aquatic life community. The main channel supports significant numbers of game fish including walleye, sauger, channel catfish, flathead catfish, smallmouth bass and northern pike. There are also significant numbers of panfish including bluegills, crappie, white bass and rock bass. Other fish species frequently caught and harvested include redhorse, suckers, freshwater drum (sheepshead) and American eel. The river also houses large numbers of longnose gar, smallmouth buffalo, carpsuckers, carp, goldeye, mooneye and a wide variety of minnows. The river also contains limited numbers of muskellunge, shovelnose sturgeon, lake sturgeon and paddlefish. These fish are either totally protected from harvest or have very strict regulations on them. Be positive you are in compliance or do not keep them.
The 3.5 miles stretch of the river immediately downstream of the dam at Prairie du Sac is heavily influenced by the dam and is not typical of the rest of the river. The fish population in this stretch below the dam is typical of tailwater areas below dams on major rivers. Fish populations fluctuate greatly with season migrations which the dams interrupt. Fishing pressure in these areas is extremely heavy.
Of interest is that large fish in the area of the dam are often attached by chestnut lamprey. These lamprey are native to the area. Their activities are harmful to fish but generally not lethal. Many of the large fish in the area of the dam will contain lamprey scars.
The majority of the fish in the river can be readily caught on worms or nightcrawlers. Anglers who are just interested in catching whatever bites "soak worms." Anglers with particular expertise, skills and interest will use artificial lures or minnows for bass, walleye and northern. Stink baits are very effective on channel catfish.
During the day time, most of these fishes are found along the shorelines with 5’ to 9’ of water and some downed snags or riprap or off deeper sand breaks. At night, the fish are not restricted to the deeper water and freely roam the entire river, spending much of their feeding time in 1’ to 2’ of water.
There are a number of open water lakes in the lower Wisconsin River bottoms whose water levels are supported by the water table. These lakes historically had good fisheries for largemouth bass, northern pike, bluegill and crappie. Many of these backwater bodies are quite shallow and have a very limited flow through them during non-flood periods, but can be expected to contain bullhead, bluegill, largemouth bass, northern pike and crappie.
Backwater fisheries are very much like a small lake or large pond fishery. The better backwater areas contain fisheries made up of bluegill, bullhead, crappie, largemouth bass, northern pike and dogfish. Nightcrawlers are the favorite bait although artificial lures are used by many anglers.
At least 13 endangered, threatened or special concern species are also found. Shovelnose sturgeon, lake sturgeon, paddlefish, bluesucker, chestnut lamprey and silver lamprey head the list. Recent size limits on walleye and on smallmouth bass and largemouth bass along with widespread voluntary catch and release on legal sized fish have led to a significant improvement in the number of the fish in the river and the number of these fish the anglers are catching.
Rivers are significantly more difficult to fish than lakes, so if you are not skilled at fishing—have patience, keep your expectations modest and enjoy the river experience.