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Colby Simms of Illinois with two good-sized largemouth bass. / Gary Engberg/For
A nice bluegill. / Gary Engberg/For
Guide Ron Barefield with a early spring largemouth bass. / Gary Engberg/For


Crystal Lake, located in Dane County, is just a few miles east of Sauk City and the Wisconsin River off Highway 60. This 500 acre lake is relatively shallow with a maximum depth of about 10 feet, but it continues to produce fish.

I’m amazed every year at the numbers of crappies and bluegills that this lake gives anglers because it is fished heavily in the spring and also in the winter. This lake is extremely fertile and in the middle of farmland, but allows anglers from shore to catch as many fish as those in boats early in the season.

The crappies you catch on Crystal Lake are not as big as those that you may catch on Lake Wisconsin, but it is possible to catch enough fish in a few hours for a few good meals. One should sort through the fish and try to keep the bigger ones and release the smaller fish. By bigger, I mean keep those fish over 9- to 10-inches and let the others go to grow. Shore fishing continues to be good till the summer weeds and algae sets in and makes shore fishing difficult as the spring progresses.

The DNR. has rip-rapped the south-west shoreline with big boulders that are good to fish from and provide good cover for both forage fish and the panfish. Early in the season, the weeds are just emerging and have a good green color to them. The crappies and bluegills will be in the weeds or just slightly above them. A good way for the shore angler to fish is to walk the shoreline making long casts till you find the aggressive fish. If you have stable and warm weather, there’s an excellent chance that the fish will be biting.

Another good location for early season action is the east-end of the lake where you’ll find numerous stumps and wood which give cover to the bluegills, crappies, and largemouth bass.

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The equipment and gear that you need doesn’t have to be expensive or complicated. First, you need an ultra-light rod about six- to seven-feet long which has an extra-fast tip and will allow you to make long casts to the shallows.

Second, have a decent ultra-light reel with at least three ball-bearings and have it filled with Berkley XL or Stren Original in green color and 4 lbs. test monofilament. The 4 lbs. line can really make a difference to finicky fish and the green color blends in well with the stained water.

Third, have a good assortment of ice fishing jigs in many colors, shapes, and sizes. Above the ice jig have a small split shot, and a slip float or as I recommend the “rocket bobber”. This float allows you to cast much farther than the standard float or bobber and get to the fish. Bait the jig with a wax worm or two and slowly work it back using a stop and go method. This rig works better for bluegills than crappies.

The crappies prefer minnows, so I use a small tube jig (baited with a minnow) and float or a #10 plain hook, split shot, and float. The stop and go retrieve seems to work best most days. Remember, to make a quiet or stealth approach with long casts to the bedding fish. The tried and proven 'Pinkie' jig under a float also works well.

Make sure that you have plenty of small ice jigs, tube jigs in assorted colors, and some small plastics to dress up your jigs for a day of fishing on Crystal Lake. Some days, the crappies will bite on wax worms, some days on minnows and other days on just the plastic on your jig. It’s a good idea to have a couple of rods rigged differently till you find the right combination that day.

Crystal Lake is one of the best area lakes for early season crappies and also a great spot for taking the children because they will catch fish. The DNR boat landing is flooded, so you’ll have to pay to launch at Schoepp’s Resort on the west end.

Fish Lake is located next to Crystal Lake and contains a good fish population of largemouth bass, bluegills, northern pike, muskies, and a few perch. This 250 acre seepage lake is much deeper than Crystal Lake and is managed by the DNR for bass, bluegills and pike.

This little lake is tucked away in the rolling hills of Dane County and the reason why early season anglers come here is the largemouth bass fishing. Outboard motors are not allowed on the lake and this prevents many anglers from wanting to fish it. If you do, I suggest that you have a fully charged Minn Kota trolling motor (about 50 lb. thrust) mounted on a 14- to 15-foot jon boat or a smaller v-hulled boat. There is a good landing on Fish Lake Road with parking.

The season opens May 3 and the minimum size for bass is 18 inches and one fish. You should release bass anyway because they are not the best eating fish and I hate to take fish when they are vulnerable during their spawning period and on their spawning beds. The month of May gives you, depending on the weather, a shot at both pre- and post-spawn fish. Usually, by the first of June, the bass spawn is complete. These largemouths spawn in deeper water, so you can’t always see the beds.

Being in farm country (farm run-off), there is an abundance of weeds (mainly milfoil), which takes over the lake from June through the fall. There is little structure (like points, islands, rock bars or humps) in this lake. The structure here is the vegetation and the flooded timber that surround the entire lake.

Largemouth’s reproduce in Fish Lake and do well. There are bass over seven pounds and four- to five-pounders are relatively common. They feed mainly on young of the year bluegills and perch in the lake. There also are various minnows (shiners) that are also forage for the big bass. There is no food shortage and this combined with the good cover means big bass.

Early in the season, spinner baits work well and also allow the angler to cover a lot of water. Good early colors are chartreuse and silver and white and silver. Pre-rigged worms and other plastics perform well when worked slowly through the emerging weeds. Casting a Berkley Power Worm or a Gulp Worm with no weight and letting the worm slowly fall to the bottom can trigger the big bass to inhale your bait before the heavy weeds emerge. Wacky rigging plastics, also is a good technique throughout the year.

As the weeds grow, Slop Frogs and Moss Boss in white and yellow are the hot baits! Casting big-lipped crankbaits outside the weed line will also catch fish all summer. The best colors are fire tiger, Tennessee shad, perch and bluegill all which match the forage base. There’s good oxygen in Fish Lake down to 28 feet where there is a thermocline. The lake also has a turn-over in the fall. The fall can produce fish, but the big girls usually come in the spring.

Gary Engberg is a professional tournament angler, fishing guide, and writer. He began fishing tournaments in the early 1990’s and has fished the In-Fisherman Professional Walleye Trail (PWT), North American Walleye Association (NAWA), Masters Walleye Circuit (MWC), World Walleye Association (WWA), FLW, and Mercury Nationals in the years since. Gary has hosted the Outdoor Horizons radio show weekly for 14 years in Madison on WTDY 1670 AM and WTDY 106.7 FM Saturdays at 8:05 am. and is also a correspondent for the Wisconsin State Journal for the last 12 years. Visit for more from Gary Engberg.

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