FOND DU LAC, Wis. -- Lake Winnebago is near the top of any credible list of Wisconsin's best fishing destinations.
For many anglers, the big lake's reputation can be summed up in one word: walleye.
The walleye isn't just a fish in these parts -- it's an industry. Each June, Fond du Lac hosts about 100,000 people for its Walleye Weekend festival. More than a dozen walleye fishing tournaments also are held on the lake each year by national and local groups.
But the lake is becoming increasingly prized as a multi-species water. And we're not just talking about sheepshead.
"Toss the marker when the graph shows a peak," said Mike Arrowood of Fond du Lac, dispensing instructions as he piloted his boat into a brisk wind.
As we passed over an underwater mound, I dropped a foam marker into the water and its weighted line peeled off to the bottom 7 feet below.
Arrowood then motored upwind about 30 yards, cut his engine and dropped the anchor. He played out the anchor line as the boat drifted downwind and was within easy casting distance of the float.
"Any bets on the first species?" Arrowood asked.
It's impossible to resist a wager when the stakes are a root beer float.
Given our location -- a rock hump, a traditional walleye hangout -- you might think at least one of us would have put our sweet tooth on the sleek predator fish with the white spot on its tail.
But recent intelligence pushed our choices in other directions.
"Crappie," Arrowood said. "Bass," I countered.
Arrowood raised his eyebrows and smiled, knowing that my general reply could apply to at least four species.
We made our casts into the choppy water and waited for Winnebago to provide the answer.
Arrowood, 66, is chairman of the board of Walleyes For Tomorrow, a conservation group based in Fond du Lac and with nine chapters in Wisconsin.
The organization was formed in 1991, a time of concern for many walleye fishermen. Walleye reproduction had taken a downturn in the Winnebago system. Area anglers decided to form a group to raise money and work with the Department of Natural Resources and local agencies to tackle projects to improve the fishery.
Arrowood was at the organization's first meeting and nearly every one since. He has served as president, and is a longtime member of the board of directors. Now retired, he works closely each year with chapters on fund raising, habitat and fish rearing. Many chapters, including the newly formed one at Pewaukee Lake, operate "walleye wagon" fish hatcheries and stock local waters with fry.
Most of the work in the Winnebago system has been focused on habitat improvement, including removing dams, dredging, improving fish access to spawning marshes and installing rock structures in the lake.
Walleyes For Tomorrow has added 157 habitat reefs to Lake Winnebago, including the one 25 feet off our stern.
The work is all remarkable. It takes on even greater dimensions when you consider this: The habitat projects benefit far more than walleyes.
"The little critters like invertebrates and crayfish and minnows all need habitat, too," Arrowood said. "These rock piles are magnets for all of it."
Arrowood and I used the simplest of fishing gear. Spinning rods and reels spooled with light monofilament, slip bobbers, a split shot to slightly weight the line, and a No. 8 gold hook baited with a chunk of night crawler.
The only out-of-the-ordinary feature: A chartreuse plastic bead was added just above the hook. We adjusted the depth of the rig, so the bait would drift just over the top of the underwater hump.
As our first casts floated downwind, Arrowood's float was pulled beneath the waves.
Arrowood lifted up on the long rod and set the hook. After a short tug of war he lifted a 7-inch bluegill into the boat.
Arrowood shook his head but didn't dwell on missing the call on the first fish.
The bobber disappeared on my first cast, too. This fish took drag and made several deep runs before coming to the surface. It was a 13-inch largemouth bass.
Both fish were released.
"How about the second cast?" Arrowood asked.
As fine as the fishing is on Winnebago, the rock piles provide critical habitat and "hot spots" for anglers. At 131,939 acres, the state's largest lake has arguably both the best fishing and the most unproductive water.
The organization began putting rock humps in Winnebago in 1998. The rocks are often "recycled" from area farm fields and fence rows. They are placed in the lake in winter, through the ice, in 4 by 8 foot piles. Regulations require the top of the rocks to be at least 6 feet below the water's surface.
But how do you find a Volkswagen Beetle-sized pile of rocks on the bottom of a 30-mile long lake?
Walleyes For Tomorrow publishes a map of Lake Winnebago with GPS coordinates of the rock hump locations.
More than 90 percent of the lake's bottom is muck or hard pan, Arrowood said.
"If you're a little fish and you're swimming across hard pan, you're lunch," Arrowood said.
The rock humps are used by aquatic organisms of all sizes.
Fishing near them helps illustrate changes to the lakes fish community in recent decades. Sewer controls have been improved around the lake. And invasive zebra mussels have moved in.
The former helped reduce organic nutrients in the lake; the latter has resulted in clearer water.
The net effect has been increased growth of aquatic plants, Arrowood said, which has benefited bass and panfish species.
With weed beds or rock piles to hide in, adolescent fish have a much better chance of survival.
Waterfowl have benefited, too, from the increased growth of wild celery, a favorite duck food.
Kendall Kamke, Department of Natural Resources fisheries supervisor in Oshkosh, agreed that Winnebago has changed. And in a good way.
"It really hasn't come at the expense of something else," Kamke said. "These are value added things."
In one of the most comprehensive scientific assessments of fish populations in the state, the DNR conducts trawling surveys for young-of-the-year fish on Winnebago.
The DNR has done the Winnebago trawl annually since 1986. The data are expressed as catch per effort (CPE).
The data show the lake's fish population to be "robust."
The walleye, arguably the system's marquee fish, had its second highest CPE in 2008 and third highest in 2013.
White bass and yellow perch both set records in 2011. Black crappie had its highest year-class in 2010.
Bluegill set its record in 2010 and its second-highest mark in 2012.
And forage fish, key to any fishery, are also in excellent shape. Emerald shiner had its top three years in 2007, 2012 and 2013, respectively. Gizzard shad had its second highest in 2010 and fourth highest in 2012.
It appears the lake's good productivity and the system's high quality and diverse habitats are allowing a wide range of species to thrive simultaneously.
"Winnebago is hitting on all eight (cylinders) right now," Kamke said.
Arrowood and I fished through the morning, moving to a half dozen different rock piles in the lake's southern basin. We caught fish at each location, including more than 25 largemouth bass, 15 bluegills and 10 black crappies. The bass ranged from 13 to 15 inches, the bluegills 6 to 9 inches and the crappies 9 to 13 inches. All were chunky and appeared healthy.
With regard to our friendly wager, I'm buying.
Other boats worked the area, too. But most trolled or drifted and none ever came within a quarter mile of our anchorages.
The fishers that got closest were double-crested cormorants and white pelicans. Northern rough-winged swallows kept us company, too, swooping low over the water to snatch insects.
The ecosystem provides food for everything from sturgeon and catfish on the bottom of the lake to birds above the water.
We fished with night crawlers for six hours on Winnebago and didn't catch a sheepshead.
That alone is notable.
The real prize, however, was steady action on three species that typify Winnebago of 2014.
And the knowledge that a local conservation organization has helped improve habitat throughout the system to benefit all anglers and all species.
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