List of Common Lake Winnebago Fish Species [Updated]
With a surface area of nearly 132,000 acres, Lake Winnebago is the largest natural lake found in Wisconsin. This lake belongs to a group of lakes that are joined together, collectively known as the Winnebago Pool, where many local events occur, from shoreline concerts to fishing competitions. Visitors can enjoy various camping and hiking-related activities throughout the year at the High Cliff State Park, located on the northeastern side of the lake. In addition, the park boasts other fun activities, including, but not limited to, horseback riding, hunting, and skiing. Ice fishing for walleye, perch, and bass is also popular during winter.
Remarkably, when the lake freezes in the winter, a network of roads is constructed on top of the ice by local fishing clubs, allowing easy access between lakeside cities. The lake has a maximum depth of 21 feet. It freezes solid during the winter because it is so shallow and because Wisconsin’s winter temperatures can quickly drop below 20 °F (-7 °C). During the summer, blue-green algal blooms occasionally plague the lake, resulting in a foul odor. The lake is gorgeous during the summer too despite its reportedly strong scent.
Twice a year in the summer and winter months, the Oshkosh Southwest Rotary hosts the biannual Battle on the Bago, a sport fishing tournament designed to engage youth in conservation and fishing. The winter competition in February awards prizes for record-breaking walleye, panfish, and white bass. During the summer, the battle takes place in June when walleye, sauger, and their hybrids are most abundant and active. Lake Winnebago is known as one of the best places in the United States to fish for walleye.
List of Fish Species in Lake Winnebago
1) Black basses (Micropterus spp.)
Although less common in Lake Winnebago than catfish and walleye, black basses like the largemouth bass (M. salmoides) and smallmouth bass (M. dolomieu) are present. These species are prized sportfish stocked throughout the United States for recreational angling since the early 1800s. Largemouth and smallmouth basses are notorious for their aggressive natures and incredible fight on the line. As a result, they are always an exciting catch.
Large black basses, especially largemouth bass, inhabit the top of the food chain. Both species are piscivorous and eat a variety of smaller fish species, including smaller members of their own species. Younger individuals will predate upon a variety of small aquatic invertebrates or other young fish. Given their diet, you can safely assume that live bait has the potential to attract bass.
At Lake Winnebago, an angler may keep up to 5 black basses with a minimum length of 14 inches (36 cm).
2) True sunfish (Lepomis spp.)
Lake Winnebago is home to several species of true sunfish, including, but not limited to, bluegill (L. macrochirus), green sunfish (L. cyanellus), and pumpkinseed (L. gibbosus). True sunfish and black bass belong to the sunfish family Centrarchidae, and the two genera have a few key differences. Firstly, true sunfish possess more vibrant colors than black bass, which tend to be dark green or olive colored. In contrast, true sunfish can be an iridescent orange with blue flecking or blue-bodied with orange throats. There are true sunfish that are duller in color but this group tends to be flashier.
Another key difference lies in how they build their nests. During the mating season, which usually spans from spring to summer for true sunfish, males construct nests in large colonies. By comparison, black basses tend to build solitary nests. As a result, if an angler is looking for true sunfish during the breeding season, they may be able to find multiple males in a single area. Anglers should remember that the cumulative bag limit for sunfish, crappies, and yellow perch is 25 fish per day.
While black basses are influential piscivores or fish eaters, true sunfish usually focus on hunting small aquatic insects and crustaceans. Therefore, they play an essential role in managing aquatic invertebrate populations.
3) Crappies (Pomoxis spp.)
The common name “crappie” refers to fish in the genus Pomoxis. Species within this genus are distinguished from other sunfish species by spiny gill covers. Lake Winnebago falls within the “crappie belt” so, it is home to both species of crappie: the black crappie (P. nigromaculatus) and the white crappie (P. annularis).
Black crappies inhabit clear water and prefer areas with abundant submerged aquatic vegetation. White crappies are more versatile and do not have a preference. The two species also differ in coloration, with white crappies having a silver coloration with black bars and black crappies having an abundance of dark spots along the body. They are not difficult to catch and can be fished using a variety of rigs and strategies, like classic bobbers and spider rigging.
Both species are predators that hunt for small fish and invertebrates at dawn and dusk. White crappies lay their eggs on aquatic vegetation, while black crappies are nest spawners. Male black crappies construct a nest in the sediment of a water body for females to deposit their eggs. Males exhibit short periods of parental care, protecting eggs laid by females in the male’s nest for around five days.
4) Walleye (Sander vitreus)
Lake Winnebago is most well-known for its walleye fishing. So much so that the bi-annual tournament, the Battle on the Bago, provides rewards for the record-breaking angling of this species and other similar top predators. Walleyes are large, aggressive predators with an arsenal of sharp teeth, built for their carnivorous diet. They are primarily piscivorous but are also known to eat invertebrates as juveniles, amphibians, and even small mammals as adults.
Walleyes thrive in the deep, slow-moving waters of Winnebago Lake, where smaller fish species like crappies (Pomoxis spp.) and true sunfish (Lepomis spp.) serve as an abundant food source for them. They are best sought after in the deepest parts of the lake, so an angler looking for walleye may have better luck seeking them out by boat.
This delicious fish is highly sought after by anglers. Fishing for walleyes is like fishing for bass species; they can be caught with various lures and bait. Sources suggest using live bait such as minnows, earthworms, and leeches. The cumulative bag limit for walleye, sauger, and their hybrids is capped at three fish per day.
5) Northern pike (Esox lucius)
Northern pike are large ambush predators with an arrow-like or sagittiform body shape and an average length of around 16 inches (41 cm), although some individuals can grow to more than 40 inches (102 cm). This species has a white belly with grey to green sides and distinctive white blotching. Additionally, their fins sometimes bear a hint of orange. Interestingly, the northern pike hybridizes with a native Esox species known as the muskellunge.
Pike are notoriously aggressive, making them a delight on the line but dangerous to hold in your hands. Their mouths are filled with sharp teeth that can cause serious injury if allowed to bite an angler, so they should be handled with care and respect.
White or yellow lures work best for northern pike and anglers can use a variety of bait, including live fish like small sunfish, suckers, or locally available baitfish. The fishing season for northern pike at Lake Winnebago is limited and varies yearly. Anglers may take up to two fish per day, given that the fish meets the minimum length requirement of 26 inches (66 cm).
6) Muskellunge (Esox masquinongy)
As they are locally known, muskies are another predatory fish species that often co-occurs with the northern pike and can be distinguished from that species by the number of sensory pores on the bottom of their jaws. Muskellunge have 6 – 9 sensory pores, whereas the northern pike has five or fewer. Hybrids, known as tiger muskies, can have 5 – 6.
Like the walleye, this species benefits from Lake Winnebago’s cold, slow-moving waters. They can be found lurking near patches of vegetation and weedy beds where prey items might hide. Additionally, muskellunge eggs sink through the water column and stick to vegetation so these patches of vegetation may also serve as spawning grounds. Once hatched the young muskellunge prey on each other and small fish species or invertebrates. As adults, they are voracious predators, consuming fish, frogs, and even ducklings.
To catch a muskie, it is recommended that you use live bait or large, protein-based baits. There are also a variety of jigs and lures an angler can use. Anglers should be aware that the cumulative bag limit for muskellunge and their hybrids is capped at one fish per day and that fish must be over 50 inches (127 cm). The fishing season for this species runs from May to December.
7) Sauger (Sander canadensis)
As a close relative of the walleye, the sauger can hybridize with walleye, creating a saugeye. Saugers have a distinctive blotchy pattern and consistent patterning on their caudal fin. On the other hand, walleye have a clear patch on the bottom edge of their caudal fin and typically do not have blotches on their bodies. Hybrids appear as something in between the two descriptions. Saugers are popular sportfish introduced to reduce populations of smaller fish and invasives, like the pumpkinseed, which improves a water body’s sportfishing value.
Lake Winnebago’s cold, murky waters make the perfect habitat for saugers. They tend to sit towards the bottoms of deep waters, so sinking jigs might help an angler catch this species. Additionally, they are voracious predators, so live bait like minnows or small sunfish might help. They take some artificial lures and baits as well. Saugers are one of three species that can be caught for Lake Winnebago’s Battle on the Bago.
Anglers should be aware that the cumulative bag limit for walleye, sauger, and their hybrids is capped at three fish per day.
8) Channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatus)
Among the top contenders for the most popular sportfish is the channel catfish. This enormous catfish can regularly grow over 12 inches (30 cm) long and reach weights of over 50 lbs (23 kg). Flathead catfish and channel catfish are Lake Winnebago’s two primary sport catfish; however, channel catfish may be easier to find in connected streams than in Lake Winnebago.
The channel catfish thrive in clear streams but can tolerate turbid water and large lakes. Young channel catfish have the typical invertebrate diet seen in other catfish species. The adults consume various prey items from invertebrates to smaller fish. Channel catfish reproduction is temperature-dependent and begins when the water temperature reaches at least 75°F (23.9°C). When temperatures are favorable, male channel catfish construct a nesting area for females to lay their eggs. The eggs are protected by the males until they hatch.
The National Parks Service suggests using live fish and nightcrawlers to catch a tasty channel catfish. However, this species will accept a variety of meat-based bait, from squid and shrimp to hotdogs and processed bait. The daily bag limit for catfish at Lake Winnebago is 25 fish per day; this includes channel catfish and flathead catfish. Bullheads are not included.
9) Flathead catfish (Pylodictis olivaris)
The flathead catfish is sometimes considered “one of the best eating fish” at Lake Winnebago. Flathead catfishes are popular eating fish on the dinner plate and are renowned for their remarkable flavor. Live bait is best for this species, but they are attracted to various lures and baits. Some examples of excellent bait fish include smaller sunfish, mudcats, or minnows. This species is a sedentary, nocturnal hunter that spends most of its time in deep pools.
With a distinct protruding lower jaw, the flathead catfish has one of the most curious appearances of any catfish. This catfish is mottled, olive-colored, and immature individuals may appear black. Young fish may be confused with bullheads as they are both rather dark in color, but bullhead catfish do not possess a protruding lower jaw at any age. This species is also usually larger than channel catfish, with an average length of 30 inches (76 cm) and weights occasionally exceeding 100 pounds (45 kg).
Care should be taken when handling any catfish as this group of fishes possess venom glands that can deliver a painful sting via hollow dorsal and pectoral spines. Gloves are recommended when removing catfish from hooks and processing them for filets. The fishing season for flathead catfish at Lake Winnebago extends from May to September, and an angler may keep one fish per day. That fish must be between 30 and 36 inches (76 to 91 cm) or larger than 42 inches (107 cm).
10) Brown bullhead (Ameiurus nebulosus)
The brown bullhead is a small bullhead catfish, approximately 9.8 inches (25 cm) in length, with a mottled coloration. Some individuals are plainly colored. One feature to help distinguish brown bullheads from juveniles of other catfish is by looking for saw-like teeth on the rear edge of their pectoral spines.
This species does not tolerate fast-flowing water and is typically found in rivers, lakes, and ponds with soft substrates. They tolerate pollution, anoxic conditions, and elevated water temperatures. Interestingly, one strategy they employ to avoid terrible water conditions is to bury themselves in the mud until adverse conditions have passed.
During the mating season, both sexes participate in nest building and parental care, which involves protecting the eggs from predators and fanning the eggs to maintain optimal oxygen conditions. Once hatched, young brown bullheads eat insects and insect larvae, while adults focus on fish, large invertebrates, and fish eggs.
Anglers are allowed unlimited fishing of bullhead catfish year-round.
11) Lake sturgeon (Acipenser fulvescens)
The Great Lakes are home to many species of fish, but none grow as large or live quite as long at the lake sturgeon. This species can grow to an extraordinary length of six and a half feet and live longer than 150 years. These graceful giants will not intentionally harm humans, although some sturgeon are known to jump from the water, which can result in serious injury to boaters. There are many species of sturgeon, and this group possesses a variety of adaptations that make them unique, from their bony scutes that act as protective armor to their shark-like caudal fins. Sturgeon also have sensitive barbels on the bottom of their snouts that help them sense invertebrates hidden in murky substrates.
Lake sturgeon were once common throughout the Great Lakes region, although habitat degradation, alteration, climate change, and other factors have resulted in substantial declines over the last century. Sturgeons were hunted for their meat and roe or killed indiscriminately because their bony scutes damaged commercial fishing equipment. The demand for roe has also led to the endangerment of several sturgeon species because of its value.
Fishing for sturgeon is not generally permitted at Lake Winnebago, although the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources regulates an annual spearfishing season.
12) Shovelnose sturgeon (Scaphirhynchus platorynchus)
The shovelnose sturgeon is a close cousin of the lake sturgeon, and the two species can be easily distinguished from one another by looking at their caudal peduncle, the part of the tail before the caudal fin. Lake sturgeon possess a thick, short caudal peduncle, whereas the shovelnose sturgeon’s is long and thin. This species is much smaller than lake sturgeon, but they are by no means small fish. Shovelnose sturgeon routinely reach 28 inches (71 cm) in length. All species in the genus Scaphirhynchus are threatened by extinction due to similar threats affecting the lake sturgeon (genus: Acipenser).
A primary concern for the shovelnose sturgeon is climate change. The growth of young sturgeon is temperature sensitive, so rising water temperature inhibits their growth. Habitat loss and exploitation are also significant factors contributing to the shovelnose sturgeon’s decline.
According to the IUCN, shovelnose sturgeon are considered vulnerable to extinction. It is illegal to harm or kill them, so fishing for this sturgeon is not permitted at Lake Winnebago.
13) Paddlefish (Polyodon spathula)
Although a rare sight at Lake Winnebago, an angler may stumble across the endangered paddlefish. Be advised that fishing for paddlefish is not allowed, and any paddlefish you find should be left alone.
This intriguing-looking fish has a long, flattened snout that resembles a paddle, hence the “paddle” in the common name. They are planktivorous, long-lived, and can grow up to 7 feet (2.1 meters) long. The long nose, or rostrum, is dotted with electroreceptors that allow the paddlefish to sense prey. Paddlefish infrequently spawn, once every two to three years, and produce thousands of tiny offspring while investing little parental care. The infrequency at which they spawn is one factor that makes it difficult for their populations to recover once they become threatened.
14) Yellow perch (Perca flavescens)
This small yet popular sport fish is a great-tasting Great Lakes native. Yellow perch are usually golden with several dark horizontal bars running down their sides. Their pelvic fins are also a vibrant orange color. Luckily for eager anglers, yellow perch occur in large schools so they can be caught in abundance, although they are small fish, maxing out at around 4 pounds (1.8 kg).
The yellow perch consumes invertebrates and small fish. They occur in freshwater and brackish water but can tolerate a variety of habitats. They typically spawn from April to May when the waters are warm.
Live baits like worms, minnows, and leeches are preferred baits for this species. Yellow perch are considered panfish and are therefore included in the daily bag limit for this group of species. The cumulative total of bluegill, pumpkinseed, sunfish, crappie, and yellow perch is 25 fish per day.
15) Freshwater drum (Aplodinotus grunniens)
Freshwater drums are unassuming silvery fish with rounded caudal fins. This species’ complete lateral line that extends into its caudal fin is a defining characteristic. The most striking feature of the freshwater drum is its unusual teeth which look like a series of molars and are specially designed to crack open sturdy mollusk shells. These teeth are not uncommon in other species of fish, but they are particularly pronounced in freshwater drums. Another interesting trait of the freshwater drum is its ability to produce sound. Using particular muscles to vibrate their swim bladder, this species can produce a deep, throaty noise that they use to scare off predators and to communicate with other individuals of their species.
This species can be large, achieving a maximum weight of around 50 pounds (23 kg). Freshwater drums are bottom dwellers and eat similar prey as catfish. This diet includes insects, fish, crayfish, and mollusks. They enjoy slow currents in deep reservoirs and lakes. Spawning occurs in schools annually from late spring to early summer. Thousands of offspring are produced in one spawning event and left to fend for themselves in the open water.
16) Cisco (Coregonus artedi)
Cisco, also called lake herring or tullibee, are silver, salmon-like fish found throughout most of Canada and the northern United States. They were historically harvested in the Great Lakes as a commercial fishery, providing a critical source of food for locals. However, in the 1900s, they were exploited to near extinction. Other factors like pollution and habitat loss also played a role in the decline of cisco. While some regions have observed a resurgence in cisco populations as a result of conservation efforts, reductions are still observed in some areas.
As a predator defense, cisco will form large schools that help them evade larger fish. As water temperatures decrease, cisco spawning is triggered and cisco will form large congregations to scatter their eggs and milt over spawning sites, usually of rocks or large gravel beds. The spawning season for this species coincides with feeding periods for other large gamefish like trout, pikes, and perches. These species rely on the abundance of eggs and young cisco as a food source.
Fishing for cisco is relatively easy, and the best time to fish for them is during the winter when the lakes freeze over. As a result, they are popular fish to catch during the ice-fishing season. Anglers may take up to 10 ciscoes per day from Lake Winnebago.
17) European carp (Cyprinus carpio)
One of the most harmful introduced species in the United States is the European carp. This species was initially introduced as a sportfish, although it was less desirable to North American anglers than native basses and catfish species. Therefore, it has turned into a sportfishing pest.
This species is a voracious omnivore, consuming both plants and small invertebrates. In the pursuit of food, European carp root around in gravel beds, uprooting native plants and increasing turbidity in otherwise clean, clear streams. If left to reproduce and take over ponds, European carp can turn natural systems into murky messes unsuitable for many North American native species. In addition, this habitat conversion disrupts local ecosystems by destroying habitats and eliminating food sources for native species.
European carp are tough to eradicate once they become established, which is another reason they are such prolific invaders. There are no limits on European carp at Lake Winnebago, but it is illegal to return them to the water if caught.
18) Round goby (Neogobius melanostomus)
The round goby is a potential bottom-dwelling invader to Lake Winnebago. This species has spread far outside its native range in the last twenty years, colonizing waterways in Europe and the Great Lakes region of the United States, where it has proven to be a formidable competitor against native North American darters and suckers. They are such successful invaders because round gobies are tolerant to various habitat conditions with a high tolerance for variations in salinity, water temperature, dissolved oxygen content, and pollution. Only a few round gobies were detected in Lake Winnebago in 2016 but there is concern that more may be found in the future.
Round gobies have also evolved a more rapid reproduction rate than many of our North American native fish. During their mating season from April to September, females will lay eggs in the nests of multiple males several times throughout the season. Males are not selective about nesting sites and use many substrates, including garbage, to build nests. As a result, their populations increase rapidly.
The primary threat posed by round gobies in Lake Winnebago is competition with native species for resources, including food, habitat, and nesting sites. Therefore, if a round goby is fished out of Lake Winnebago, it must be killed and transported to a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources office.
19) Eurasian ruffe (Gymnocephalus cernua)
Eurasian ruffe are small, olive-brown fish with spotting on their dorsal fins. They resemble yellow perch. Adults typically reach lengths of between 5 and 6 inches (13 – 15 cm). This species is another potential Lake Winnebago invader from Eurasia; its primary threat to native species is competition for food. Eurasian ruffe rapidly reproduce during the spring to summer spawning season, with each mature female producing more than 130,000 eggs. As a result, they spread quickly along shorelines and are gradually colonizing the Great Lakes and connected waterways.
Additionally, few natural predators can control their population growth. Eurasian ruffe hide from predators during the day in deep-bodied lakes and rivers. At night, they travel to shallower waters to feed on invertebrates and crustaceans, which many native species on this list also need to survive.
The Eurasian ruffe has cost the United States millions of dollars each year in environmental damage and control costs. If a Eurasian ruffe is fished out of Lake Winnebago, it must be killed and transported to a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources office.