Now, is the best time to fish the Madison chain of lakes for some of the yearís best panfishing.
The Madison chain is centered around the Wisconsin state capital, which borders three of the lakes and is connected to the other two lakes by the Yahara River. The lakes that make up the chain include; Lakes Mendota, Monona, Wingra, Wabesa, and Kegonsa. All of these lakes, with the exception of Lake Wingra, contain very good to excellent crappie and bluegill fishing. Lake Wingra has bluegills, but they are very small in size and Iíd concentrate my fishing efforts on the other four lakes.
All of these lakes also have very good gamefish populations, but this article is about the productive and consistent panfishing (crappies and bluegills) that they have during the spring and summer. The tips and information I give can be applied to most bodies of water in the upper Midwest.
After a 'real' winter with record cold temperatures, the chain is finally starting to produce the quality panfish that has many panfish anglers flocking to southern Wisconsin. The spring weather has been up and down with snow and cold even well into April. Crappies and bluegills have been biting periodically in April and early May, but the constant variations in frontal systems moving through has prevented any consistent pattern and made catching fish regularly difficult.
But now, the weather looks warmer for an extended period of time and that is all that is needed for productive panfishing. Come spring, both crappies and bluegills actively seek out the warmest water that they can find. All species of panfish prefer stable weather and water warming into the mid 50s for crappies to spawn and the mid to upper 60s for bluegill spawning.
Ideally, crappies and bluegills will always look for warm and quiet water in an out-of-the-way location in spring. Back bays with dark bottoms of mud or muck warm quicker and get the food chain in motion earlier than any other areas of the lakes. This is why you should try to fish smaller lakes early in the fishing season because smaller waters warm faster than larger bodies of water and get the metabolism of the fish moving in the right direction.
Lake Wabesa and Kegonsa are the smaller lakes in the Madison chain and I suggest you start fishing these lakes before you switch to the larger and colder Lake Mendota and Lake Monona which warm up weeks later.
This time of year, most fish species will be in water that is less than 10 feet deep. On a warm and sunny spring day, it is not unusual to find crappies and bluegills in water that is only two or three feet deep. Crappies will spawn weeks before bluegills, but they both will often occupy the same areas of any lake and crappies will remain in their spawning locations for an extended period of time even after spawning.
One must remember that these fish are coming out of water that only a month ago was in the 30s, so warm water and stable weather will keep both crappies and bluegills in the shallow water areas.
Two other important factors to remember are that warm nights and warm rains can also help spring fishing and help keep the fish active in shallow water. Cold fronts will push fish back to deeper water and make any fishing more difficult. Rarely in the spring do you have to be on the water at sunrise for crappies and bluegills. Wait until the sun rises and warms the water before going fishing. Midday can often be the best time of the day to fish during the spring.
Now that we have the kind of weather that will bring crappies and bluegills to the shallows, it is time to look for the kind of structure that will hold and attract these fish. Crappies prefer and love wood of any kind be it fallen trees, brush, stumps, and wooden piers (they hold warmth longer and get the food chain in motion.) Find an area with wood of any kind with a dark, muddy and warming bottom and youíll find crappies on the Madison lakes and most lakes in general.
Other general locations for spring crappies and bluegills include; canals that lead to the main lake, backwater areas, fish cribs, shorelines that receive more sunlight, and any area that has new and emerging green weeds. All of these factors help warm the water quicker and bring in another key element, food. The warmer water gets the bugs, micro-organisms, and plankton hatching and they provide much of a panfishís early food.
So, to make things simple, warm water plus food and stable weather means good and productive fishing. While crappies prefer wood, bluegills prefer emerging green weeds and submerged brush in the spring, but both will be in over-lapping areas in the early shallow water.
Good early fishing locations for both crappies and bluegills on Lake Wabesa are the weedy south-end of the lake, the Hog Island area, the channels off Upper Mud Lake, near the Bible Camp, and the southern shoreline out from Jordan Drive.
Lake Kegonsaís best locations are the areas of new weed growth in Atkinson Bay, Colladay Bay, Lunds Point, and all along the north shoreline near the Fish Camp State Park.
Lake Kegonsa has little for structure except a few points and its huge weed beds. Be mobile and keep moving till you find active fish. A good pair of polarized glasses can help you find the fish which can be on their beds during these spawning periods.
The equipment needed to catch crappies and bluegills is nothing special. Use ultra-light gear in both your rod (G. Loomis, Fenwick) and reel (Shimano, Daiwa.) Four pound test monofilament (Berkley Trilene) is best for bluegills and six pound test mono seems to work better for crappies, especially if youíre fishing wood and brush. The keys are light line (use green colored line for the fertile water), small ice fishing jigs, small jigs (1/32nd ), plain hooks with a long shank, a small and sensitive float, and live bait. Sometimes, the plastics by Berkley like Gulp and Powerbaits work well, but always have wax worms, red worms, and small minnows because what the fish want can regularly change. If something isnít working then try something else till you find the bait of the day. Always have a good assortment of ice jigs and round head jigs in all colors and sizes.
Iíve found days when all the fish wanted was a plain hook, a red worm hooked in the collar, and a float fished around the weeds or brush. This time of year, you also want to fish very slowly because the fish arenít going to chase any bait in chilly water.
One last recommendation is to use a longer rod, about 7 to 7 Ĺ feet, so that you can make long casts to the shallow crappies and bluegills. Donít come roaring up to your spot and cut the main motor and expect to start catching fish. Stop your motor at least 50 yards away from your fishing area and approach the fish using your trolling motor (Minn Kota) be it a bow-mount or transom model. Make long casts to the fish and try to be as quiet and stealth as possible, so that you donít spook the fish. When crappies and bluegills are this shallow, itís easy to scare them away and into deeper water.
The limit or any combination of panfish in Wisconsin is 25 fish. But, you donít have to keep a limit every time that you go fishing. Thereís nothing wrong with keeping enough fish for a meal or two, but you donít have to feed the neighborhood. Panfish, just like any other species of fish can be over-fished. During the spring when spawning fish are vulnerable, try to release some of the larger females and the bull males.
The Madison Chain of Lakes has a great reproducing population of bluegills and crappies, but donít take their numbers and size for granted because any body of water can be fished-out! You now have the location, technique, and tactics for catching panfish in this spring. The best part of this fishing is that you will have some of the yearís best eating fish to enjoy with family and friends!
Check my website, http://www.garyengbergoutdoors.com, for more fishing articles on all species of panfish and game fish.
Gary Engberg is a professional tournament angler, fishing guide, and writer. He began fishing tournaments in the early 1990ís 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 http://www.garyengbergoutdoors.com for more from Gary Engberg.