Thanks to special regulations, some of our downstate lakes have become high-quality bass fisheries. Give these waters a try if you want to land a lunker! (July 2007)
Wisconsin DNR fisheries technician Dick Brandt examines a largemouth during a spring survey. One goal of the DNR's new Bass Management Plan is to provide a variety of quality fishing opportunities within a flexible management system.
Photo courtesy of the DNR.
A few years back, Wisconsin's Bass Management Team consisting of Department of Natural Resources fisheries staff and representatives from the state's angling community developed a management plan for Badger State bass waters. This first comprehensive look at this valuable resource came up with several goals and objectives designed to protect and enhance largemouth and smallmouth bass populations, improve their habitat and offer better fishing opportunities.
Anyone interested in our state's bass fishery would find this 22-page plan, labeled "Administrative Report No. 54," well worth reading. You can download a copy from the DNR's Web site. Here's an overview.
One of the plan's goals is to provide a variety of quality bass fishing opportunities within a flexible management system. Translate that to "create more opportunities to catch big bass." One of the management tools used to accomplish this objective is the implementation of special regulations on a limited number of waters that differ from the statewide 14-inch size limit and five-fish-per-day bag limit.
On a handful of southern Wisconsin lakes, these "special regs" now offer anglers a better chance of catching big bass. On most of these waters, the daily bag limit is one bass over 18 inches, also known as the 18/1 regulation. Some waters have a slot-size limit that protects bass of a certain length, yet allows for the harvest of larger or smaller fish. One lake -- Browns in Racine County -- has a 16-inch minimum-size limit. Two lakes -- Forest in Fond du Lac County and Twin Valley in Iowa County -- allow only catch-and-release fishing for bass.
These regulations can vary from year to year, so check the booklet before you fish. The regs booklet also designates some of these waters as offering "quality fishing opportunity," where you will have a better chance of catching a trophy bass.
Here is a look at quality fishing opportunities in the more popular special-regulations bass lakes in southern Wisconsin, and how to fish them when you get there.
The largest of southern Wisconsin's special-regulations bass lakes, Mendota is also the most studied because it lies within a short cast of both DNR headquarters and the University of Wisconsin.
On Mendota, the 18/1 rule applies. For "special-regs" purposes, Mendota includes Sixmile Creek and the Yahara River downstream from State Highway 19, Pheasant Branch downstream from County Highway M, Cherokee Lake and the Warner Park Lagoons. Nearby Mud and Fish lakes also have the 18/1 rule.
Mendota and its associated waters are considered a "quality fishery" in the regulations booklet. Kurt Welke, DNR fisheries manager for the Madison Chain, said he is currently evaluating the 18/1 rule on Mendota, but it appears to be working.
"We routinely see largemouths in excess of 20 inches and smallmouths pushing 6 pounds," Welke said. "When you have regulations that protect those fish and a public that buys into the concept that this is a renewable resource, you'll see a lot of 20-inch fish. These lakes have the potential to grow large fish. They persist in the environment a long time and longer under ethical treatment by fishermen, since they can be recycled over and over again. With less-restrictive regulations, once a fish hits the legal minimum, he's gone."
At over 9,800 acres, Mendota is the fourth-largest natural lake in our state. The Yahara River enters Mendota through a marsh at the north end and exits at Tenney Park on the east shore on its way to lakes Monona, Waubesa and Kegonsa. Sand and gravel dominate the bottom, and extensive rock reefs and humps break up the contour to provide excellent structure. Most of the lake is over 20 feet deep, but there are plenty of weedy shallows, and that's where you'll find largemouths.
Try spinnerbaits and shallow-running crankbaits over the weedtops early in the day, and jig-and-pig combos in weed pockets and along deep weed edges as the day unfolds. Look for inside turns and other tight corners of structure, and work these spots slowly to target big bass. A 10-year-old largemouth didn't get that old by hanging out in the open. They like cover and will seek out the places that offer the most protection and best chances of grabbing a meal without ranging too far.
Contact: D&S Bait, Tackle & Archery, (608) 241-4225, or www.dsbait.com.
Walworth County's 2,000-acre Delavan Lake is another gem in the 18/1 category, and another lake with the "quality fishing opportunity" designation.
Back in 1990, the DNR drained Delavan to remove the abundant carp. When the lake was refilled, it was stocked with a variety of panfish and game fish. Today, it offers great fishing for bass and other species.
Look for bucketmouths in shallow bays, along weed edges and under piers. They will slam topwaters all day long, but to target bigger fish, go deeper with soft plastics. Deep weed edges are the key to finding the big bass here.
Contacts: Geneva Lake Bait & Tackle, Williams Bay, (262) 245-6150; Delavan Chamber of Commerce, (262) 728-5095, or www.delavanwi.org.
Better known for its panfish, Dodge County's Fox Lake is another "quality fishery" with the 18/1 bass rule. About the same size as Delavan, Fox Lake was also drawn down in an attempt to improve the fishery. The drawdown was done in 1997, which had a very wet summer, so water clarity and the fishery did not improve as much as hoped. Still, Fox offers anglers a good chance to catch trophy largemouths.
Fox is part shallow impoundment, part deeper natural lake, with abundant weeds in the shallow east end. Even the "deep" holes run only to about 20 feet, so the entire lake is good largemouth habitat. Work the east basin with shallow-running and weedless lures, and try jigs and plastics in the west basin. Pay attention to the islands, points and other shoreline structure.
There are public landings off Hamilton Street at the southeast
end of the lake, at Clauser Park on the outlet to Mill Creek and in Town Park off Blackhawk Trail on the northwest shore. There is also a landing at Fish 'N' Fun Resort on Blackhawk Trail, where you can launch for a donation.
Contacts: Fish 'N' Fun Resort, (920) 928-2338; Fox Lake Chamber of Commerce, (920) 928-3777.
BIG MUSKEGO LAKE & BASS BAY
Waukesha County's Big Muskego Lake covers some 2,200 acres, but about half of those acres are covered with cattails. The rest of the lake has a maximum depth of 4 feet. Bass Bay, which is actually a lake connected to Big Muskego by a navigable channel, has a depth of 23 feet in its 100 acres. Big Muskego was drawn down and treated with rotenone to kill carp and other rough fish in the late 1990s. It was then restocked with game fish and panfish. Today, both lakes provide quality fishing for bass, along with northerns and panfish. An 18/1 rule for bass is complemented by an 8-inch 15-fish bag rule on panfish.
A series of navigation channels cut through Big Muskego's cattails, but it is easy to get lost here, so bring a compass or GPS unit. Milwaukee-area guide Jim Laganowski calls this place "Milwaukee's Everglades." The channels and cattail edges hold bass. Toss topwaters and shallow-running baits for early-morning action. Bass Bay has some structure and good weed edges, so you can fish here with a variety of lures and techniques.
There is a good public landing on the northeast end off Durham Drive, and two landings suitable for smaller boats are on the north and east shores.
Contact: Jim Laganowski's Early Bird Guide Service, (414) 791-8055.
Actually a 500-acre cooling reservoir for a coal-fired power plant, Lake Columbia is one of Wisconsin's most unusual manmade fisheries.
Except for a narrow dike that divides the lake down the middle and serves as a baffle for the power plant's warmwater discharge, there is very little structure on Lake Columbia. It has a uniform depth of about 7 feet, and the water is so warm that there is no aquatic vegetation growing here.
Largemouths dominate the fishery, but smallmouths are present, along with Wisconsin's only population of hybrid striped bass. There are also yellow/white bass hybrids, catfish and small panfish. But this lake is managed for trophy black bass. All bass species have a minimum-size limit of 18 inches. Only one smallie or bucketmouth can be kept per day, but the hybird limit is three per day.
Bass action is good in the cooler months -- including all winter long -- because the lake never freezes. This is a unique winter fishery where you can cast topwaters in below-freezing weather and catch largemouths in the ever-present fog that shrouds the lake in winter. In cool weather, look for water in the 70- to 75-degree range for largemouths. Most anglers in boats work the dike, where riprap provides cover. In hot weather, you are better off going somewhere else.
There isn't a boat launch, but carry-in access is provided off Highway J on Columbia's south end. It is suitable for canoes, cartoppers and float tubes. A number of anglers fish from kayaks and "belly boats," which adds to the strangeness of this place in the winter.
Contact: DNR Fisheries, Poynette, (608) 635-8122.
Located near Kansasville in Racine County, Eagle Lake covers 515 acres with a maximum depth of 12 feet. A decade ago, an aggressive plan to eradicate rough fish and restore game fish improved the fishery tremendously. Today, Eagle is one of the best bass lakes in southern Wisconsin, according to DNR fisheries biologist Doug Welch.
"If you like to fish for above-average-sized largemouth bass and get a lot of action, this is the place to go," Welch said.
Welch suggested working the lake's north shoreline for bass. There is not a lot of structure, so weedlines will hold fish.
There are public landings at Eagle Lake Park off Church Road on the north side and off Minnetonka Drive on the west shore.
Contact: DNR Fisheries, Sturtevant, (262) 884-2364.
OTHER 18/1 LAKES
A number of smaller lakes scattered throughout southern Wisconsin have the 18/1 bass rule.
Silver Lake in Kenosha County covers 464 acres, has a maximum depth of 44 feet and has a public landing. Another Silver Lake in Manitowoc County covers 69 acres, has a maximum depth of 43 feet and a public landing provides access.
Lake Twelve (53 acres, 19 feet) in Washington County and Hartford/Lyman's Lake (nine acres, 27 feet) in Waushara County round out the 18/1 lakes. Hartford, also known as Lyman's, is considered a quality-fishing opportunity. Don't overlook these little lakes, because they often hold big bass but see little pressure.
Brown's Lake, which covers 396 acres in western Racine County, is the only lake in southern Wisconsin with a 16-inch minimum-size limit on bass. The lake is mostly shallow, with extensive weed growth to about 12 feet. There is one deep hole dropping to 50 feet, and there are good weed edges and contour structure all around this hole.
"There are more bass over 14 inches in this lake than in most southern Wisconsin waters," said the DNR's Welch. "We set the size limit at 16 inches to protect the bass fishery from over-exploitation and to increase predation on a stunted bluegill population."
Local anglers tend to keep legal bass here, so you won't catch many over 16 inches, but you can have a blast hauling in 2-pounders all day if you time it right. Work the deep weed edges with jigs and plastics during daylight hours. There is a lot of recreational boat traffic in summer, so you'll probably have the best shallow-water fishing after dark when bass will come up for topwater lures.
There is a public landing near the beach in Fischer Park off State Highway 11.
Contacts: Burlington Area Chamber of Commerce, (262) 763-6044, or online at www.burlingtonchamber.org; Bubba's Bait & Tackle, (262) 767-0762.
Yellowstone is one of several manmade lakes in Wisconsin's Driftless Area, which is devoid of the natural lakes that the glaciers created throughout most of the state. Located in Yellowstone Lake State Park, its 450 acres harbor many panfish, along with bass, pike, catfish, walleyes and muskies. This lake is shallow, with the old river channel providing what little deep water there is. Fallen trees and other shoreline structure afford cover for fish. A dam on the Yellowstone River regulates the lake level. The river below the dam is a good smallmouth stream.
A catch-and-release rule on all game fish in Yellowstone was in place until recently,
therefore all game fish are big here now. The predators keep the carp population in check and also eat small panfish, so adult panfish reach good proportions, too. Current regulations allow anglers to keep bass between 12 and 15 inches, and walleyes, saugers and flathead catfish between 15 and 18 inches. However, there is a two-fish daily bag for these species combined.
You can camp right in Yellowstone Lake State Park or in one of two private campgrounds, both of which have bait shops. Nearby Darlington has other services.
Contacts: Darlington Main Street Program, 1-888-506-6553; Yellowstone State Park, (608) 523-4427, or at www.dnr.state.wi.us/org/land/parks/specific/yellowstone. For camping, call 1-888-WI-PARKS, or go to www.reserveamerica.com/usa/wi.
Lake Beulah in northeastern Walworth County has no size limit on bass, but fish between 12 and 16 inches must be released. Considered a "quality fishery," this 834-acre lake offers room to roam. It is deep and clear, but there are numerous shallow, weedy bays loaded with largemouths. It is not managed as a trophy lake, but there are plenty of fish over 16 inches, according to the DNR's Welch. Welch said the regulations were designed to protect spawning-aged females, improve the size structure of the bass population and increase predation on bluegills.
Try unweighted plastic worms along shorelines, under docks and anywhere you see downed trees or other cover. Weighted plastics will take bass along deep weed edges and in weed pockets. In low-light conditions, you'll have fun tossing topwaters in the shallows.
There are public landings off County Highway J at the north end and St. Peters Road at the south end.
Contacts: East Troy Chamber of Commerce, (262) 642-5264, or www.easttroywi.org; Dockside Grog & Galley, (262) 642-5264.
There are several other small lakes with slot-size restrictions: Rockland Lake in Racine County, Eagle Spring Lake in Waukesha County, Brekke Lake in Waupaca County and Round Lake in Waushara County. Two lakes have catch-and-release regulations: Forest Lake in Fond du Lac County and Twin Valley Lake in Iowa County. Details on these lakes, plus the special regulations that apply to urban waters, can be found in the DNR regulations booklet you get when you buy your license.
Find more about Wisconsin fishing and hunting at: WisconsinSportsmanMag.com.