GILL'S LANDING, Wis. -- Just after nightfall, the air drew still and we heard it: the constant trickling, tumbling of water.
"She's filling up," said Casey Schalkowski, 25, of Weyauwega, Wis.
The vessel in this case was no bottle or even basement. The Wolf River was rising over its banks and flooding tens of thousands of acres of marsh.
The sound is music to the ears of many in central Wisconsin.
"I think it's setting up to be another good year," Schalkowski said.
It had already been a very good day. And the night promised to bring more riches.
A full moon pushed above the silver maples to the east. Sometime in the early morning hours a lunar eclipse would begin. The cold, clearing sky would likely provide an excellent view of the "blood moon."
No disrespect to the celestial fireworks, but our primary interest was in the Wolf. The annual walleye run was on and we'd have a front-row seat to the air and water show aboard "Da Fish Barn," Schalkowski's fishing raft.
Most youngsters dream about owning a car. Schalkowski grew up near the Wolf and always wanted to own a fishing raft.
The floating fish houses are part of the unique culture of towns along the river. Schalkowski is a third- generation raft owner, following his grandfather Ray Schalkowski (87 years old) and father Ray Jr. (52), both of Weyauwega. Schalkowski and friend Eric Peters built the raft in 2009 on a frame originally used by Ray Sr.
The river ice went out April 4 near Gill's Landing. On April 7, Schalkowski launched the raft and towed it to the outside edge of a bend of the river.
For a couple of weeks each spring, it serves as a home away from home. The structure includes four bunks, a stove and an outhouse.
Schalkowski often will work his second-shift job at Waupaca Foundry and make his way out to the raft before midnight, then fish through the night.
I joined him on the raft April 13 and 14. Our crew included Schalkowski's girlfriend, Becca Mitchell, 25, of Fremont, and his brother, Michael, 12, of Weyauwega, and Nala, his Labrador retriever puppy.
We fished crank baits on long cane poles, allowing the current to give action to the lures, and sat back and watched for a bite.
It's a Huck Finn adventure spiced with Wisconsin culture. At its core is the Lake Winnebago system walleye population and the expansive system of upriver marshes.
Unlike most areas where flood stage is synonymous with disaster, along the Wolf it's treated more like an old friend.
When the marshes get full in spring, it typically portends good things for walleyes, the king of Wisconsin game fish. Not only can adult walleye reach prime spawning areas, but if the river is high enough for long enough, the fry are able to drift into the river and continue their development.
The Winnebago system walleye population has benefited from projects, many funded by the conservation organizations Walleyes For Tomorrow and Shadows on the Wolf, that improve or restore access to spawning marshes.
The river's flood plain is mostly intact and covers approximately 100,000 acres of marshes.
Each spring, walleyes move upriver from the Winnebago system of lakes into the Wolf River to spawn. The fish swim 60, 80 even more than 100 miles, said Kendall Kamke, fisheries supervisor for the Department of Natural Resources.
It's 125 miles from the Main St. Bridge in Oshkosh at the mouth of the Wolf River to the Shawano Dam.
Kamke said most of the spawning marshes are concentrated in three areas: Weyauwega, New London and Shiocton.
Anglers often speak of the "up" and "down" runs. We were present on the leading edge of the down run. All the fish we caught were spent.
The males move upriver to the marshes prior to spawning activity. The females enter the marshes just before they ovulate, then drop back down after they lay eggs.
The males hang around until all spawning activity is completed.
Female walleyes spent an average of 24 days in the Wolf River on spawning migrations, while males spent 49 days in the river, according to DNR 2011 and 2012 studies of fish fitted with transmitters.
DNR fisheries managers estimate 30 to 35 percent annual mortality rate for the adult walleye population in the Winnebago system. That's due to harvest by anglers as well as natural causes. The estimate is derived from age and growth studies.
These are the good old days for walleye anglers in the Winnebago system. The DNR conducts trawling surveys on Lake Winnebago in late summer and early fall to assess fish reproduction.
The system holds fish from the three largest walleye year classes on record. The 2008 year class was second, with 17.5 walleyes caught per drag. These fish, now approaching their sixth birthday, are chunky eaters. The 2013 year class was second (11.9). These fish are about a foot long.
And some 26- to 30-inch walleyes are still in the system from the granddaddy of all, the 1996 year class (23.7).
"We're in the walleye," Kamke said. "This system, with its marshes and plentiful food, is a walleye factory."
A storm raced through the first night and brought cold wind, rain and then snow. The river rose 6 inches in 24 hours. Water flowed into all the area marshes.
The weather also brought some of the best action of the spring. Seven fish came aboard the raft one Sunday night into Monday morning. The walleyes ranged from 17 to 28 inches. All were spawned out.
The river at the raft pushes downstream into the outside corner, scouring a deep hole. The water is about 15 feet deep at the edge of the raft; the cane poles extend over water that's about 27 feet deep, Schalkowski said.
The spawned-out fish drift downstream, eating opportunistically on their voyage.
Schalkowski keeps meticulous records of fish caught, including types of lures, weights, rod lengths and weather conditions. If the fish is a female, he only keeps it if it is spawned out.
Bolstered by snow melt and recent rain, the current was a vigorous 7 mph.
On that Monday afternoon, the skies began clearing. The river was alive with fish and fish eaters. In the afternoon, we saw osprey, bald eagle, great blue heron and buffleheads work the water.
Sandhill cranes were near, too, offering up a chorus of "kadoodle" from the marsh.
The walleye bite picked up after dark. We caught a 24-incher at 8:30, then another 24-incher an hour later.
We fished three lines all night. The idea is to have at least one person awake at all times.
At 2 a.m. I walked outside to view the moon, now in full eclipse but visible as a deep red against the clear, black sky.
We caught a third walleye, a 17-inch male, at sunrise Tuesday. About 7, we boated back to the landing and drove into Weyauwega for breakfast. The walleye spawn peaked last week, and the return run of fish is on.
"That was a full night," Schalkowski said. "I can't wait to see what tonight brings."
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