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Catchin' Wisconsin's Pressured Bass

Catchin' Wisconsin's Pressured Bass

Much like the wily whitetail, largemouths and smallmouths smarten up when the pressure is on. You can teach the bass a new curriculum on these downstate waters.

Photo by Tom Evans

The typical largemouth bass or smallmouth bass in southern Wisconsin is caught and released several times before reaching legal size. Because they are a game fish and not generally held in high regard as table fare, getting a bottom-lip "noogie" from a human predator may happen more than a dozen times before the bucketmouth or bronzeback reaches proportions where the lucky angler thinks his or her catch would look better on the wall than it being put back in the water.

Too bad for bass that this large representative of the sunfish family is like the fat brother-in-law who is always looking for an easy meal. Not that they want to get caught. Genetic tendencies toward indiscretion make these piscators frequent and easy targets for anglers. Even those creatures that go through life hitting their heads against the wall because it feels so good when they stop will reach a point where survival dictates some temperance in behavior.

Pressured bass learn the adage "no pain, no gain" does not apply to fish. Those of us who thrive on educating these critters need to hone more than hooks to get the rod bent in the good ol' summertime. Simply put, bass smarten up like wily white-tailed deer when the pressure is on.

Here's a look at some tips and tricks that will minimize the time you feel like a jerk on one end of the line waiting for a bass to jerk on the other end here in America's Dairyland.


Ron Barefield guides on the Madison Chain. This veteran angler's favorite summer weapon is a small plastic fished in a finesse presentation.

"Drop-shotting is a great way to hook up on the Madison Chain, especially on Mendota and Monona, which are deeper and generally clearer than the other lakes," said Barefield.

This veteran guide believes patience and precision are major keys to success on these natural lakes.

"Many folks who bass fish simply move too fast," he said. "Bigger bass are already locating close to prime niches in their watery ecosystem, with little compulsion to go chase things down. Sure, you might get lucky and trigger a strike with a spinnerbait before moving on, but by anchoring up or using the trolling motor to orient the boat so you can cast into their 'ambush alley' and just shake it in her face, you'll get hooked up almost every time."

Barefield's favorite place to try drop-shotting is on a transition zone where a fair amount of the water column can be covered in a single cast, like a steeply breaking hump or rocky point. It can take this veteran angler almost five minutes to work a single cast back to the boat, with his offering in the potential bass strike zone almost the entire time.

"Getting hung up is part of the picture, if you're fishing where the fish are," he said. "Often this happens after the bass eats your plastic and is moving toward escape cover before you can sense its presence and set the hook."

Barefield uses sinkers that simply pinch on the leading edge of his fishing line. Most of the time a sinker that gets hung up will slide free with the fish still attached to the Palomar-knotted hook 16 to 22 inches farther up the line.

"Probably the best advice is to think small," said Barefield. "Small weight, small lure, small hook and small-diameter line, all presented on a long rod with a forgiving tip that enables a good sweeping hookset."

All of the Madison lakes receive a fair amount of recreational boat traffic during the week, with a genuine circus atmosphere part of trying to fish here on the weekend. Dane County now charges a $30 annual launch fee to access waters from any one of the public ramps now located on this chain.

Contact: guide Ron Barefield, (608) 838-8756.


The Madison lakes may have a circus atmosphere on the weekend, but Geneva and Delavan lakes to the southeast are a veritable Barnum & Bailey training academy all summer long.

But guide Dale Helgeson isn't afraid to join the crowd during peak-use times, believing all the boat activity concentrates fish.

"By 9 a.m. a combination of jet-skis, skiers and sunlight penetration tends to push bass tight to cover," said Helgeson. "I like to start a day on the water by pitching plastics at piers, especially those structures close to the water that provide more cover."

Helgeson's favorite weapons are variations of the Senko and 4-inch Berkley Power Worm in natural color with a small split shot either pinched to the nose or pegged a foot up the line.

"Angle of the sun is important when pitching docks," Helgeson said. "The north side of the lake is generally better in the morning, with southern exposures holding more fish in the late afternoon."

This guide likes to target thick weed patches on both lakes, concentrating on both inside and outside cuts, and points in the weeds where the bottom drops away into deeper water.

"Don't overlook areas with high boat traffic," he advised. "The long bar near Lake Lawn Lodge is a prime example. Boats have to go slow here and you can be very effective pitching tight against heavy weeds."

Although live bait is not held in high regard by many bassers, a half-crawler fished on either a drop-shot rig in deeper water or pegged a foot below a split shot and pitched toward weeds is Helgeson's "go to" presentation when he really wants to get hooked up.

"Don't overlook the inside weed edges," he continued. "If there is enough water to cover a largemouth's back, she may tuck in tight looking to ambush other critters that have been pushed tight into the weeds by boat traffic."

After perhaps 7 p.m. during the week the character of boat traffic on Delavan changes.

"You can have great success twitching Bomber A's in bluegill and perch patterns over submergent weeds just before dark," noted Helgeson. "I like to start after supper with No. 5 or No. 7 Shad Raps working slightly deeper weeds with a 'burning retrie

ve' and start twitching when light penetration is no longer a factor."

This veteran angler's approach is similar but somewhat different on neighboring Geneva Lake.

"I do a lot of live-baiting on Geneva," Helgeson said. "It's ultraclear, so you want at least a leader of fluorocarbon line. Try rigging the crawler wacky-style, hooked right through the middle. For some reason these fish really like a red hook, with No. 1 just about the right size."

Helgeson usually starts by launching at Williams Bay where the weeds hold an "incredible" number of bass. In the evening here he likes to twitch Rapala Husky Jerks in glass pattern, working the weed edge clear down to Cedar Point.

"By 10 a.m. you'll usually find the bass tucked in weeds at about 12 to 18 feet," he noted. "The half-crawler is profoundly effective on this water through midday."

Not all bass action on Geneva is related to greenery and bass of the bucketmouth persuasion.

"Smallmouths tend to go very, very deep here during the summer months," Helgeson said. "I've caught 'em in over 70 feet of water working deep humps around The Narrows."

Drop-shotting with either small, soft plastics or Helgeson's favored half-crawler produce on a regular basis. Sometimes ripping jigging spoons is more effective. This is particularly true when a pod of cruising 13- to 17-inch bronzebacks is located.

"Fishing Geneva or Delavan is sort of like driving in rush hour traffic," he mused. "Just join the crowd, shut up and fish. Both these lakes have super bass populations that are more than willing to bite. If you don't mind the human element, it's a great day on the water."

Contact: guide Dale Helgeson, (262) 903-5460.


Bass are the primary target for Wales-based guide Jamie Gilkay. One of Gilkay's favorite summer lakes is Oconomowoc, with plenty of action just around the corner from the public launch on Highway 16.

"Probably the biggest key to hooking up on this lake is thinking very shallow," Gilkay noted. "Bass in these waters will relate to just about any kind of structure early and late in the day. Target piers, trees, stumps and distinct bends in inside weed edges."

Both smallmouth and largemouth bass cruise this southeastern Wisconsin lake. Hundreds of these fish discover that an avocado-colored tube jig isn't an easy meal before Gilkay and his clients free these piscators to fight again.

"I don't know why that avocado is such a hot color here," he pondered, "but these fish simply tear up tubes made by Venom Lures in this color."

Gilkay usually rigs his tubes Texas-style on a baitkeeper-style hook, never using more than 1/16-ounce weight.

During midday he likes to slide out to deep weed edges, using the tube to target fish cruising adjacent flats.

Both smallmouth and largemouth bass cruise this southeastern Wisconsin lake. Hundreds of these fish discover that an avocado-colored tube jig isn't an easy meal before Gilkay and his clients free these piscators to fight again.

"The most important things to remember are making a long cast and never letting your tube hit the bottom," he advised. "These fish are spooky. A 7-foot medium-heavy rod will get the bait out there, and a steady, swimming retrieve is usually more than they can resist."

Nearby Pewaukee is a favorite lake when Gilkay is looking for trophy smallmouths. "You don't catch many smallies here, but they are beauties." His best smallmouth here last summer -- a 5-pound, 4-ounce beauty -- hit a 7-inch Producto straight-tail purple plastic worm on a sharp dropoff near a deep weed edge.

Gilkay said targeting deep-water transition zones is a major key for bigger bass on Pewaukee, citing patience and precision boat control as part of the successful bassin' matrix.

Contacts: Smokey's Bait Shop, (262) 691-0360; guide Jamie Gilkay, (262) 893-1144.


Guide Dale Smith likes to fish Waukesha County's Okauchee Lake during busy summer months, starting on the lake's north side around Breezy Point.

"I start by throwing lipless vibrating crankbaits here to see what kind of mood the fish are in," Smith said. "You want to look for weed edges in no more than 10 feet of water and burn that Rat-L-Trap in."

According to this guide, the best shorelines are those with the deepest water closest to shore. Another go-to spot in assessing bass activity levels is the island just out from the southeast shoreline, with rocky flats holding smallmouths, and areas east of here more favorable as largemouth bass habitat.

On a side note, on weekends Smith heads for the north end of Big Cedar Lake in the nether reaches of Gilbert's Bay where you can find hot topwater action -- even at midday -- by pitching plastic rats and Slug-Go-type baits around the massive water lotus beds, better known as lily pads. During periods of low light or ahead of an approaching weather system, Pine Island is one of Smith's favorite haunts.

"There is an area along the northeast shoreline where a rocky flat is close to water about 60 feet deep, He said. "There are times when you'll hook up on every cast here. My secret weapon is a No. 4 Mepps Black Fury in-line spinner."

Contacts: Dick Smith's Live Bait, (262) 646-2218; guide Dale Smith, (414) 718-7005.


There is a world of difference between lakes that guides will talk freely about and those waters that they save for very special clients and themselves. In many cases these secret hotspots are on private land or too small to continue thriving if word of their finned bounty got out to the masses.

One such spot for guide Ron Barefield is Crystal Lake located not far from the town of Lodi about a half-hour north of Madison. Before the Department of Natural Resources put a new boat launch on this shallow weedy lake a couple of years ago, it was easy to catch 50 bass daily on spinnerbaits and plastics here, even on the weekend. With the new launch, bass are more savvy but still present in good numbers, with the potential to offer a more serene bassing experience than you'll find on the Madison Chain.

Guide Dale Smith has several similar waters that he holds close to the fishing vest. Beaver Lake in Waukesha County is a super lake to target after the sun goes down. At 316 acres, there is plenty of water with bass potential and relatively light fishing pressure.

Upper and Lower Phantom lakes in the so

uth-central part of this county near Mukwonago also hold good bass populations. Lower Phantom is larger, with a "bassier" appearance. But once serious summer arrives, the deeper Upper Phantom Lake can produce more results. These two connected fisheries total about 540 acres combined.

Two other Waukesha County bass lakes that receive little bassing pressure are Silver and Golden. Silver is located in the northwest corner of the county. At 222 acres, it is slightly smaller than Golden Lake just to the south. Both of these lakes have a three-bass 14-inch minimum in place, plus adequate launch facilities.

Smith also has a couple of aces in Washington County in 52-acre Wallace Lake and Five Lake, which is about twice as big. According to this guide, both of these lakes produce best when the sun goes down. A black tandem spinnerbait or buzzbait is a weapon of choice, with a steady retrieve the best way to get hooked up.

Guide Jamie Gilkay doesn't mind telling folks about Lake Keesus in Waukesha County. At 237 acres, this lake is big enough to support a fair amount of fishing pressure.

Waterville Lake is another Waukesha County bass fishery that can produce surprising results. There is no public boat ramp on these 68 acres, which is one reason why Gilkay can catch-and-release 50 bass on an average trip here.

Jefferson County isn't known as a bass fishing mecca outside of lakes Ripley and Rock. Both of these lakes have a well-deserved reputation for producing bass, which is one good reason to target several smaller waters in this southern Wisconsin county that many people haven't even heard about, let alone fished. Gilkay spends a lot of time each summer chasing bass on both Blue Spring and Lower Spring lakes. Both of these lakes have limited public access -- the only reason anglers stay away in droves.

The same situation holds true on 350-acre Red Cedar Lake near Cambridge where you can sneak a canoe or cartopper in from a small canal off of Highway 12.

Getting to Hope Lake means crossing private lands owned by the Stockfish family. For a small donation and the versatility afforded by a belly boat/float tube, you can have a ball fishing these 142 acres, and hardly ever see another angler.

The DNR publication Wisconsin Lakes (PUB-FM-800) and DeLorme Map Company's Wisconsin Atlas & Gazetteer are two great sources for finding secluded waters where you may be the only person willing to educate bass. These tomes led me to five lakes where this summer you're liable to see a red GMC extended-cab pickup with a broken right outside mirror, stump-induced dent from a deer recovery fiasco on the left side, and a "Fish Control My Brain" bumper sticker on the back. These aces include Bohner and Rockland lakes in Racine County, Hooker and Center lakes in Kenosha County, and Lake Wandewega in Walworth County.

Southern Wisconsin has ample water for bassin'. A great deal of this habitat sees considerable fishing pressure during the summer months. After Labor Day is the time to fish these waters if you have an aversion to a lot of company. Another option is trying some of the less accessible waters in this article where most of the "pressure" comes from the series of sequences required to actually get out there on the water.

You have no control over how much fishing pressure other anglers apply to southern Wisconsin's bass population. But the two most important components of any fishing trip -- desire and attitude -- are right there waiting for you to pick up the tackle box and get out on the water.

Get Your Fish On.

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