Each year, when the calendar opens to the month of March, the questions begin: Will we have an early spring? When will the ice go out? Will the water levels come back?
Once the water from melting snow begins to flow, the boat dealers begin to see prospective boat buyers come through the doors of their showrooms.
The question we hear each spring has to do with the spawning of our favorite game fish. Spawning is dependent upon water temperature and quality of the water. Usually, the first game fish to begin the spawning process is the northern.
It usually spawns when the water begins to warm. Normally, northerns will spawn from late March until early May. Speculation takes place each spring about whether the northerns spawn under the ice. This spawning under the ice does take place some years; however, northerns begin to move into small streams and flooded marshes. This movement usually takes place when water temperatures reach 39 to 50 degrees. Females may deposit as many as 100,000 eggs. They are very inefficient spawners, as the female deposits eggs while it swims in the marshy areas. The males flank the females, fertilizing the eggs as they are released.
After being spread in the shallows, the eggs will stick to flooded vegetation for as long as two weeks before hatching. The newly-hatched northerns feed on plankton and invertebrates. Soon after being hatched, their preference for food switches to fish.
While northerns are busy with the spawning process, the perch are busy laying their eggs. They also seem to prefer to deposit their eggs in marshy areas.
In northern Wisconsin, the fish that attracts the most interest at spawning time is the walleye. It spawns over rocks and rubble in shallow areas. The eggs are deposited along windswept areas. The motion created by the wind keeps the walleye eggs oxygenated. Normally, the walleye spawning takes place in one to six feet of water. Walleye spawning reaches a peak when water temperatures are between 42 and 50 degrees.
A five-pound female walleye may deposit as many as 100,000 eggs. I have read that walleyes do not feed during the spawning process. I do not believe that, since we have caught walleyes when they are spawning. Frequently in the spring, we catch walleyes that are dripping milt as they are brought into the boat. Male walleyes move into the spawning areas first, followed later by the larger females. The adult walleyes do not defend the eggs, which is why some years walleye spawning is more successful than others. The male walleyes will enter the spawning areas very soon after the ice melts.
In a normal year, the muskies move into the shallows to spawn after the northerns and walleyes have finished the process. They move into spawning areas once the water temperature reaches 50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit. It is not unusual to see a large female musky flanked on each side by smaller males. In a manner similar to the method of spawning for northerns, the muskies deposit their eggs over decaying vegetation. A large female musky may deposit 20,000 to 200,000 eggs. Since muskies spawn after the northerns have finished the process, in some waters the northerns, which are several weeks more mature than the muskies, will feed on the tiny muskies.
Both largemouth and smallmouth bass wait until the water warms to the 60 degree mark to spawn. The male will build a nest for the female to deposit her eggs in and the male will guard the nest by chasing other fish away.
Several years ago, the Wisconsin Muskie Clubs entered into an agreement with the University of Michigan to identify the habitat that is used by muskies for spawning. In some lakes, habitat has been improved to assist the muskies in order to improve the numbers of muskies that survive the process.
Although the weather in northern Wisconsin does not feel like spring, do not lose faith. Spring is on the way.
Longtime Northwoods outdoors personality Roger Sabota writes a bi-monthly column for the Star Journal.