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Friday, December 19, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 26.0° F  Overcast
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They're biting! A guide to fishing in Madison's bountiful lakes
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Credit:Nick Berard

Kurt Welke believes strongly in a certain kind of eating local.

"I have been catching bluegills for the table lately, and I will tell you it gets no better," he says. "These are a true gift of spring, like roadside asparagus or morels or wild blackberries."

Once upon a time, we didn't act like our lakes were freaking poison. We not only enjoyed their beauty from afar, we used them. We swam in the lakes, as did Welke, growing up in Madison's Crestwood neighborhood. He recalls that beaches at Lake Mendota were just a 1960s "Schwinn bike ride away."

And we ate from the lakes. Welke learned from his grandfather. Almost daily they fished off Tenney Park. Kurt grew up to become Dane County fisheries manager at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources south central region headquarters.

"In my odd lens, though, I see so many neighbors, acquaintances and colleagues who are clueless," he says. "They think that food comes from Whole Foods or Trader Joe's. The idea that you can catch and prepare your own dinner from your backyard is totally off the radar."

Well, perhaps not from your backyard, unless you're as lucky as outdoorsman and Wisconsin Public Radio host Larry Meiller.

"We lived on Lake Monona for many years, and in June I would take daughter Emily out on the pier to fish bluegills," he recalls. "She was totally spoiled. We happened to be on a bluegill bedding area. She would drop her line in the water and usually had a wait of roughly five seconds before a fish would bite. Great fun!"

Just how good are the Madison lakes? Daryl Skrupky, a retired biology teacher in Viroqua, in Vernon County, comes here for a week each year and stays in a hotel to fish for muskies. "I fish from dark to dark, and if they're biting I fish another week," he says.

Welke wishes that everyone would give it a try. "It's odd that fishing in some respects is the purview of the economically challenged and the folks who had a long-term tradition," he says. "Folks have no idea what they are missing."

But how to navigate the arcane language of the fisher-people? Where do we go, what we do? Heck, how do we even know what it is we've caught and get it ready for the table?

Fortunately, the city and state have many resources for fledgling fishers, starting with the local lakes themselves.

"We have wonderful fishing opportunities here," says Gene Dellinger, owner of D&S Bait, Tackle & Archery, 1411 Northport Dr. "As far as a pan fishery goes - bluegills, crappies, perch and that - they're among the best in the state." And we have game fish, too. "As far as musky goes, it's huge. And we have good populations of walleye and bass."

"The Madison lakes are unbelievable," agrees Meiller. "I went out on Mendota with a friend and caught 11 species of fish in an afternoon. Monona is known for its outstanding musky and bass fishing, but all the lakes are really excellent. I've had great luck on all of them."

Time way back

Fishing here goes back to prehistory. The Ho-Chunk depended on it for their diet. When white settlers arrived, the Native Americans created one of our first industries, commercial fishing, and provided catches on contract.

Today's lake names are dubious; they were all applied by whites. Mendota's original name, phonetically rendered as "Wonk-sheck-ho-mik-la," was translated from Ho-Chunk as "the lake where the Indian lies," after a man who was bewitched by a spirit maiden. He joined her in the water by becoming a gigantic fish. The name of the Yahara River is supposedly Ojibwa for "catfish," which are among the species available here.

Not long after white settlement in the late 1830s, pioneers speared fish near what now are the Tenney locks. A more unconventional method was also adopted.

"Shooting pickerel in the [Yahara] River soon came to be one of the grand sports," recalled Robert Ream in 1919, in the Madison Democrat newspaper. Buckshot didn't penetrate far into the water, "but the fish are stunned by the report and concussion, and in a twinkling are on their backs and easily captured."

Fishing on an even larger scale was tried a few times over the decades. Carp harvesting was attempted from the 1920s through '40s, according to David Mollenhoff, author of Madison: A History of the Formative Years.

In 1925 the Wisconsin State Journal reported that as late as the 1880s it wasn't "much of a trick for a man to catch a hundred pounds or more of pickerel, bass and pike in a day's fishing." It also said that "a catch of 150 large white bass was nothing uncommon," but that the lakes were playing out.

Nonsense, says Welke. "Around here a ballpark figure is that there's somewhere around 500 pounds of biomass per acre," he says. "The question is how you want to express that."

Walleye heaven

The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) periodically expresses it by manipulating fish stock, for example to address late summer algae blooms, but Welke suspects we have as many pounds of fish as ever.

The DNR manages Lake Mendota as a "Trophy Northern Pike Lake," a favorite for pros, with a 40-inch minimum to produce game fish. Most area angling hours are spent on panfish, however; as the name implies, for cooking. There are huge walleye spawning areas all along the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus and near Second Point (also known as Frautschi Point), just west of Picnic Point. Lake Wingra has one of the highest musky densities in the state - four times the northern Wisconsin per-acre average of muskies, or muskellunge, our official state fish.

One reason for our wealth is the same reason the water starts to smell in late summer. The lakes are eutrophic - a fancy word for being rich in nutrients. The lakes go crazy with algae, using up available oxygen, and as summer proceeds the plant life decays - and stinks. During winter the lakes churn, swapping warm and cold layers, readying for spring re-oxygenation.

A great deal of our eutrophication has to do with agricultural runoff. The problem isn't that our lakes are dying. It's that they're too alive - with nutrients.

"They're productive," Welke says. "These are the essential building blocks that then get magnified up the food chain. At some point, every fish goes through an evolution of dietary shifts, and they have to start with small stuff. This is leveraging the inherent productivity that is here, and guys like me who fish are the beneficiaries."

In our lakes, there's an environmental niche for almost any desirable fish. "We've got lots of deep water, lots of rock caves, exposed windswept shoreline, coarse woody debris," Welke says. "From a fish's standpoint, it's like an apartment building. There are places on the first floor all the way up to the 17th, if you're a fish."

And there are things in our lakes other than nutrients. In Madison we have contaminants such as mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). The DNR suggests limits on local consumption. For details, see the DNR's publication "Choose Wisely: A Healthy Guide For Eating Fish in Wisconsin" (PDF) for 2012.

For his own diet, Welke takes a broader view. "I hate to say this, but if you're so godawful worried about contaminants, then you would never set foot in a grocery store, because anything that comes in a box has enough salt and sugar in there to give you terminal diabetes and high blood pressure. I mean, if you want risk, go drive around on the Beltline and talk on a cell phone. That's risk. Eating some bluegills from a Madison lake is probably more of a benefit to your health than a detriment."

Casting call

So now we urban dwellers are ready. How do we start fishing?

First is the license. "Kids 15 and under fish free," says Lisa Gaumnitz, public affairs manager for DNR water and endangered resources programs. "There is a $7 license for people 65 and over, unless they were born before 1927, in which case they fish free. We have a new first-time buyer's license for $5, which is good the whole fishing year, and a one-day fishing license for $8 for residents, $10 for nonresidents." Licenses are available online at the DNR website.

"There are many other license options to keep fishing a bargain for everyone," she adds. "I always buy a husband-and-wife license for $31, for example, and our nine-year-old fishes for free."

Ah, but what about fishing gear? "We loan out fishing equipment at more than 50 locations across the state, including DNR offices in downtown Madison, at the Fitchburg office, and through Centro Hispano," says Gaumnitz. "So people can give fishing a try without much investment." (For information, see the "Angler and aquatic education guide" at the DNR website.)

Then there's the question of what to fish for.

"Let's say you're a shore-based angler, which means you're probably going to be fishing for a narrower suite of species in terms of percentage," says Welke. "You'll probably be harvesting panfish: bluegills, crappie, maybe a rock bass. Now you very well might catch a smallmouth bass, you very well might catch a largemouth bass, a northern pike."

There remains a potentially critical factor. We can go out with a can of worms and try our best, but ideally we should have someone "who can translate the words you can read online and show you the actual nuance, the actual subtext between the lines," says Welke. "It's kind of like sex. You can read about it, but until you do it.... That's a pretty coarse analogy, but that's what it amounts to."

If you're a child you're in luck. The DNR's Fishing in the Neighborhood program fosters outreach programs throughout the state, even among northern Wisconsin's Bad River tribe. Locally, it's worked with Centro Hispano and, this summer, will partner with Boys & Girls Clubs and the Urban League. (Many DNR publications are available both in Spanish and Hmong.) The program's purpose is to excite interest in fishing, especially among low-income and ethnic populations, and to give young people and families enjoyable outdoor activities during summer months. Included are exercises and teaching materials that translate to classroom experiences in science, language arts and math.

Beyond that, the program teaches team-building and social skills. "It's an overwhelming success," says Theresa Stabo, DNR aquatic resources education director. "There's often a waiting list for this program. That just shows you there's a lot of pent-up energy there." For information, search on "angler education" at the DNR's website.

Quality mental health

Bait shops are a good place to seek advice. Unfortunately, we don't have as many as we used to. Why?

"A smaller percentage of the public fishes on a regular basis," says Gene Dellinger, of D&S Bait. "And, you know, the onset of the big-box stores and all that make it a little bit more difficult."

Dellinger and his wife, Sandy, have owned and operated D&S for 23 years. The initials come from the store's founders, Debbie and Steve. D&S offers free seminars for novices and pros alike, at 7 p.m. Thursdays through July. The shop offers fishing reports (call 608-244-3474, or check Dellinger can also put you in touch with professional guides, who provide tackle and even boats.

He recommends fishing to all. "It's a nice outdoor activity. Relaxing. You can make it as simple or as difficult as you want."

Welke agrees. "There's both some quality mental health to come from it, as well as the tangible, excellent table-fare benefits," he says. "And there are all sorts of peripherals that come with it. In my case, what a great way for friends to bond and enjoy time together, you know?"

Speaking of friends, if you're at UW-Madison, forget football and basketball. You can join the UW Fishing Team. As one of the oldest college angling clubs, with more than 100 members, it's rated tops in the country by FLW Outdoors, a sanctioning organization for fishing tournaments. Membership is $15 a year for men and free for women to increase their enrollment. It's open to Edgewood and Madison College students as well.

"We try to get the community involved with us," says its vice president, Austin Noll. "It's a great social thing to meet people." For information visit

For the rest of us, Welke recommends the Yahara Fishing Club, The group, founded in 1946, has around 150 members who meet monthly. It also publishes monthly newsletters. Individual memberships are $25, $35 for a family, and regular meetings are open to members of the public who seek information. The club also does youth outreach, says Don Hammes, the nonprofit's vice president.

Finishing school

Once you've caught your fish, how do you know what kind it is? Consult a set of "Wisconsin Wildcards" for fish (PDF) from 2010, available as a download from the DNR. The cards display species and legal sizes. Place your fish in the bucket of cool, fresh water you've brought along. Empty a bag of ice into it on your way home.

"They just go to sleep, basically," says Welke. "And frankly, because I'm going to be doing the cleaning myself, fish that are cold are much more easy and agreeable to work with than fish that are floppy."

If you don't have a mentor, there are myriad YouTube videos showing how to clean a fish. Lay it out on newspaper and then, basically, make a rectangle of the fish, slitting it along the top and bottom. With a sharp, supple kitchen knife to ride over bones, gently shave the meat from the rib cage, starting behind the gills and traveling toward the tail. Flip the fillet over and do it again, releasing the flesh from the scaled skin. Rinse and store in water. Welke likes to bag and freeze the skin and viscera in newspaper and put it out on trash day.

"You have to touch what you've harvested," Welke warns. "It doesn't come from a white, plastic blister-pack with some nice little absorbent pad beneath it. I mean, heaven forbid you have an active role in your dinner. That means you're going to see nature in all its glory. You're going to see the viscera of the fish, and there's going to be some blood. That's just the way it is.

"I would also suggest if people are squeamish about this, then they ought to maybe look at what it means to process a chicken or pork or beef, because it's the same process. It's just scaled up to a much greater biomass."

And the taste?

It's far, far better than even the freshest farmed fish, he says. "There's nothing, frankly, that can compete with fresh, feral fish," says Welke. The only drawback is that really fresh fillets may curl up in the frying pan. But letting them rest a day will solve that.

"It's just a pleasure, and there's this good satisfaction from knowing that you can do it in a way that's kindly both to the fish and the environment," he says. "For me there is this kind of closure of the circle. Being able to show family and friends a gift of spring when it is available, it's just like - my gosh!"

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