No matter where you live in southern Wisconsin, there's a largemouth bass no more than a half-hour away just waiting to inhale your lure. Your time would be best spent on these waters.
By Ted Peck
No matter where you live in southern Wisconsin, you are no more than a half-hour away from a willing largemouth bass.
Largemouths occupy niches in the ecosystem from shallows in Lake Michigan's harbors to the Mississippi River along our western border - and just about every farm pond, impoundment, flowage, glacial kettle lake and slow-moving stretch of river in between.
Picking a handful of the very best waters among the thousands of places ol' mossback calls home downstate is no easy task. There are places where you can catch numbers of fish, places where you have a serious shot at a pig over 5 pounds and other waters where just about anything is liable to stretch your string. That said, let's go fishing!
MISSISSIPPI RIVER POOLS 9 & 10
On any given weekend, there is at least one bass tournament targeting these river pools along our western border. Tourney angler Jesse Simpkins asked me to share the boat with him at one of the Team Supreme events last summer here, where pre-fishing with a Timber Tiger crankbait produced a whopper.
Before the tourney Simpkins and I boated and released at least 25 fish in just a few hours on the water. He said it would take at least 18 pounds in five fish to win this event, and it did. Unfortunately, the pro made this prediction from a vantage point near the leader board after gremlins fried his trolling motor just an hour (and two keepers) into the contest.
Photo by Bryan Hendricks
At least we finished ahead of the team that donated a lower unit to a Mississippi River wing dam. Wise anglers have alternative propulsion, extra gas and a cell phone on board when they head out to Ol' Man River. It took nearly 20 pounds to capture first place in a field of 50 boats, with all but the no-motor team weighing in something.
Both of these river pools are nearly 30 miles long. And you'll probably need to travel miles between hotspots, which are typically backwaters, sloughs or running sloughs where there is some current and waters drop away from 2 to maybe 8 feet.
Once you're on fish, the bass location may be a single fallen tree or small weed patch. But if the fish like it, a dozen or more largemouths may be home. Rig four rods. A spinnerbait, topwater, crankbait and either a jig-and-pig, tube or plastic worm are all you need to find success. Locate bass with the crankbait or spinnerbait, then slow down and go with the plastic. And before you leave, throw a few more casts with the "search" bait.
Fishing can be tough in May if snowcover up north creates serious flood conditions. In June and July you want to target backwaters and running sloughs. With water typically running low by late summer, fish location may switch to main channel areas.
The Mississippi River is a very special place, with bass fishing better now than it's ever been. And there's every reason to expect this trend will continue. The water between Prairie du Chien and La Crosse is called "God's Country" with good reason. On the right day this is the best bass fishery in our state.
CONTACTS: Prairie du Chien Chamber of Commerce, (608) 326-8555; Mississippi Sports & Recreation (best bait shop on the river - cabins, too), (608) 648-3630.
It's been 63 years since Bob Miklowski set the still-standing 11-pound, 9-ounce state largemouth bass record on this relatively small Jefferson County lake. But genetics of this whopper are still present in the well-balanced largemouth population swimming in this gene pool east of Cambridge.
Five-pound bass are "common," according to Department of Natural Resources fisheries manager Don Bush, with good representation of several smaller year-classes present.
On opening day, fish should be active in shallow water in the pre-spawn mode around Vasby Island and in South Bay. Depending on the spring, they may also be holding in the shallow north end, where bass fishing heats up first each spring.
Later in the summer, target deep weed edges with Senkos, rigged wacky-worm style. The Chompers model in pumpkinseed pattern is particularly effective.
CONTACTS: Lake Ripley Marina, (608) 423-3848; Lake Ripley Management District, (608) 423-4537.
If the long-standing largemouth record set on Ripley is destined to fall in the next few years, there is a good chance northwestern Walworth County's Whitewater Lake will be the place where it happens.
These mostly shallow, weedy waters warm quickly in the spring, producing fish of 7 pounds and even larger every summer. Whitewater is the quintessential largemouth lake with a lot of shallow "slop" weeds in south-end bays that hold fish all summer long.
Once serious summer arrives, getting at fish buried in the slop is no easy task. A push pole is a good idea to get back through "salad" that will quickly bind your trolling motor. The key to hooking up with the really big gals lies in targeting small open pockets in these weeds. Big bass are waiting in ambush in the adjacent cover, where water can be 10 degrees cooler.
The ideal bait is something that can tantalize for several minutes in a bushel-basket-sized opening without being pulled back toward the boat and into the slop. If you just want to catch a whopping big bass and don't care about technique, soak the biggest minnow you can find about two feet under a large pencil float with a long cane pole and 25-pound-test line to move the fish before she can dart back into cover. Those anglers who believe live bait is beneath their dignity should stick to pitching to piers during periods of low light and fishing the edges of deepwater weeds, where medium-sized bass chase baitfish near midlake.
When you're fishing where the big ones are on Whitewater, medium muskie gear is just about right. Spinnerbaits and plastics are favored weapons. Big stick baits work, too, especially if you bend the tie-eye at a 45-degree angle so the lure will remain almost stationary rather than tracking dutifully back to the boat.
CONTACT: Parkside Marina, (262) 473-5029.
Also known as the Yahara Chain, these fertile D
ane County lakes are home to a pile of bass, with productive catching methods varying considerably from Mendota at the upper end of the chain to Kegonsa and Waubesa farther south.
On 9,800-acre Mendota, just about everybody heads for deep weed edges and points. And they catch fish. But a considerable portion of largemouths that have larger dimensions overall spend all summer in extremely shallow water. We're talking less than 3 feet, close to docks and any available woody cover.
Here's another kicker. The best lure is one of those raspberry-scented pre-rigged plastic worms that corkscrew through the water on a slow, steady retrieve. The corkscrew action lends itself to the occurrence of line twist, which can be minimized by using a small black snap swivel. Although generally seen as the bait of choice by novices, this bait is a genuine killer on Mendota's untargeted shallow-water bass population - especially purple worms with orange firetails.
Although these lures will also work on Monona, the next lake down the chain, most anglers with any degree of self-respect throw spinnerbaits over the weedtops, probing deeper weed edges with Texas-rigged plastic worms. Early in the season don't forget the rapidly warming shallows of the Yahara River, Squaw Bay and the warmwater discharge shoreline near the "triangle" off of John Nolan Drive.
Fertile 2,080-acre Waubesa farther down the chain offers the most classic bass water of all these lakes. Follow the weed edge out from the south side boat launch at Goodland Park with a spinnerbait or floating Rat-L-Trap, or launch on the east side off of Highway 51 at Babcock Park and work weeds near steep breaklines out from Rockford Heights on down past the Bible Camp slide. It's fun to cast a topwater along the east side at dawn and dusk, with both walleyes and muskies sometimes intercepting baits intended for bass.
Lake Kegonsa has very little in the way of structure, but according to the DNR it holds some of the biggest largemouths on this chain, including an 8-pounder sampled in a DNR survey a couple of years ago.
Check out the lake's lone rockpile and shoreline between Quam and Colladay points with spinnerbaits and shallow-running crankbaits.
The traveling angler is better off entering this chain from the lower end and motoring to lakes upstream via the Yahara River. Stoughton moves at a decidedly slower pace than the Mad City.
CONTACTS: Stoughton Chamber of Commerce, (608) 873-7912; guide service: Ron Barefield's Fishing Adventures, (608) 838-8756.
BEAVER DAM LAKE
Fishing gets better every year in this shallow 6,500-acre Dodge County lake as it moves into its second decade after reclamation from carp and silt.
Even with carp numbers reduced in this system, the water remains somewhat off-colored, making chartreuse and orange fluorescents the colors of choice. With water barely deeper than your rod tip and little in the way of offshore structure, you don't need to be a "deep thinker" to find fish here. Just cast to the shoreline, spending a little extra time on the points and obvious weed edges.
Spinnerbaits catch plenty of fish. But you'll tangle with bigger gals throwing plastics - most notably centipedes (a.k.a. "French fries") and big lizards with nothing more than a finishing nail to slow the lure's eventual surrender to gravity. Tube jigs also work well, using the lightest possible weight. Hi-visibility line like Berkley Solar XT is a decided advantage in indicating subtle strikes. Bubble gum is an incredible color here. A 7-inch bubble gum lizard may not look like anything living in this ecosystem, but bass up to 23 inches don't seem to mind.
CONTACTS: Beaver Dam Chamber of Commerce, (920) 887-8879; Bill's Tackle Box, (920) 885- 6766.
At first glance - from Highway 11 running right beside this 400-acre Racine County lake in Burlington - this weed-covered water practically screams bass. Listen to your inner voice: there are plenty of 'em here. And thanks to some careful management by the DNR's star biologist, Doug Welch, the bass are considerably larger than they were just a couple of years ago.
Stunted bluegills used to overrun this lake. And harvesting every bass the minute it reached 15 inches didn't help. Welch solved this problem by removing a portion of the little 'gills for introduction into other area lakes and raising the bass size limit to a considerably savvier 16 inches. Several respectable year-classes of bass are now swimming in Brown's, providing an opportunity to educate a bunch of smaller fish, with an excellent chance of hooking into a 3-pounder.
Early in the season, spinnerbaits and Rat-L-Traps work quite well here. Once weeds become a factor, soft-plastic jerk worms like the Fluke, Slug-Go and Jo-Jerk Minnow rigged weedless will keep your rod in a near-constant state of bendage.
Like most other southern Wisconsin waters, this one sees a lot of recreational boating traffic on the weekends. Fish early and late or during the week with fairly light tackle and you can have a ball with these bass.
There is an excellent launch facility at Fisher Park on Highway 11, with plenty of tackle at Bubba's Bait right across the street.
CONTACT: Bubba's Bait, (262) 767-0762.
Walworth County's Delavan Lake sees an incredible amount of boat traffic after Memorial Day. But that doesn't seem to affect bass eating habits. When the speedboats and personal watercraft come out, many largemouths that live here move into even shallower water, seeking refuge on the inside weedline - a fact that is lost to most bass anglers targeting this lake.
Delavan was the first southern Wisconsin lake to see considerable reclamation efforts by being drawn down, dredged and re-stocked nearly 15 years ago. When the lake was refilled, a number of big bass that were initially removed went back into the lake's greatly improved environment.
Biologist Welch has worked considerable wizardry keeping this fertile panfish-rich lake with extreme fishing pressure in balance. Part of the plan includes managing the bass population as a trophy fishery, with a one-daily 18-inch minimum limit in place.
If you just want to catch a bunch of bass for quick release, peg a small split shot about a foot above a red hook baited with a half-crawler and pitch to the inside weedline and any docks that are close to the water.
Bass and bass anglers here are just discovering a wacky-worm-rigged Senko fished on a No. 1 hook. The soft-plastic design of this bait leads to rapid degradation after just a couple of fish. One way to remedy this situation is by sliding a small piece of electrical shrink tubing on the Senko - almost like a cigar band - and running the hook through the tubing. Salt-and-pepper and b
lue metal flake Senkos seem to work best.
CONTACT: Delavan Chamber of Commerce, (262) 728-5095; Geneva Lake Bait & Tackle, (262) 245-6150.
A slot limit that protects 12- to 16-inch bass is having a profound effect on this 834-acre pseudo-chain of five little lakes in the northeast corner of Walworth County.
Years ago, placement of a dam flooded three small lakes, creating Beulah, a matrix of deep clearwater basins connected by shallow flats.
It should come as no surprise that northern exposures are the places to target early in the fishing season. Once weeds develop, target weed edges and the transition zone where shallow water drops away into the deep.
Weeds are everywhere on Beulah once summer arrives. And if you target the weeds you'll find bass. This is a great lake for exposing a young angler to the joys of topwater bass fishing, with a clear Heddon Tiny Torpedo or Chug Bug provoking a strike on darn near every cast when water is calm at periods of low light.
Clear salt-and-pepper or white worms work well when light penetration is a factor. You may need to use a 1/4-ounce weight when targeting bass in deeper weeds. But a simple split shot creating a poor man's Carolina rig just tears 'em up in water less than 12 feet deep.
A public launch is located along the lake's west shore off of Wilmer Landing Road.
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So if you live in southern Wisconsin, you're no more than a half-hour away from some fine fishing for largemouth bass. Just be sure to release your catch so you can do battle on another day.
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