Columbia Lake: Open-water bassin' all winter

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    PORTAGE, Wis. — Warm, open water is sure hard to come by in Wisconsin this time of the year.

    There's really only one place to find it, and that's at Columbia Lake, right outside of Portage.

    It's a 500-acre cooling reservoir associated with Alliant Energy.

    In winter, the water temperature ranges anywhere from 70 to 85 degrees, depending on what side of the dike you're on. The lake's average water depth is 7 to 8 feet.

    There are a couple of small 10 to 12-foot holes on the west side of the dike, but you would need a small carry-on boat with a fish locator to find them.

    The fishery consists of largemouth and smallmouth bass, hybrid striped bass, bluegill, channel and flathead catfish and the bullhead.

    Their main forage consists of gizzard shad and crayfish.

    This also is the only place in Wisconsin that has the hybrid striped bass present due to stocking efforts by the DNR.

    Aquatic vegetation does not exist in this lake due to the warm temperatures.

    This is a negative since weeds typically harbor many types of aquatic invertabrates, which in turn provide food for the smaller fish.

    As a result the bluegill run on the small side (6 inches or less).

    The bass and catfish do not achieve good body weight until they're about 15 to 16 inches; then they can feed on the gizzard shad.

    Since no weeds are present, the only structure is the rocks that go around the edge of the lake.

    The lake receives make-up water from the Wisconsin River, which replaces water lost during evaporation and seepage through its dikes.

    A fish refuge exists on both sides of the center dike near the plant.

    Fishing is not allowed in the refuge end because the bass will school up on the "cool" side in the summer and sometimes on the "warm" side in the winter.

    There are lots of yellow and black signs posted in the lake where the refuge begins.

    There is a dirt road that goes around the lake, used mainly by the DNR and Alliant Energy workers.

    The easiest way to get around, besides walking, would be to bring a bicycle.

    You would be able to fish those far spots by the refuge and be able to move around more quickly.

    Largemouth bass

    The most abundant of the three types of bass are the largemouth, they're primarily represented by 14 to 18-inch fish.

    Since the size limit was changed in 1992 from 14 to 18 inches with a daily bag limit of one fish, the quantity of smaller fish increased.

    This time of the year you'll find most of your largemouth on the west side of the lake.

    The water temperature is much cooler on this side than on the east.

    The smallmouth have the same regulations as the largemouth. A lot of the smallmouth are on the smaller side, 8 to 13 inches.

    On this lake the smallmouth and largemouth will hang out together. Working your lures as close to the rocks as possible will produce both species.

    Some of the lures that are hot out there for bass can be your natural-colored crankbaits or a single silver blade spinnerbait with a black or white skirt.

    As for a slower presentation, the Gambler "Hibdon" Tube Jig in the root beer color will produce both smallmouth and largemouth.

    I've caught largemouth up to 20 inches and smallmouth up to 20 inches, so you know the trophy potential is there.

    Striped bass

    The hybrid striped bass are a little harder to locate.

    This fishery is dependent on stocking. Since 1997 about 5,000 3-inch fish have been planted annually.

    You may keep three of these fish a day, with an 18-inch size limit.

    These fish have a short lifespan, usually less than 5 years, but they grow very quickly in size.

    The state record, which was caught here in March of 2002, weighed an impressive 13 pounds, 14 ounces.

    These fish can be found in schools anywhere you find gizzard shad.

    Sometimes they'll give themselves away by feeding on the surface. This is when you want to throw a crankbait right through them.

    If the crankbait doesn't get them to hit, try a surface bait. Even though the air temperature may be in the 30s, the water is still 70 to 85 degrees.

    Some of the topwater lures that work out there include a popper or something with a walk-the-dog action.

    I've caught stripers up to 7 pounds, and let me tell you something: You think a smallmouth bass will give you a good fight?

    Wait till you land a 5-pound striper. These fish are extremely strong. It's one of the hardest-fighting fish I've ever caught.

    Channel Catfish

    The last fish worth mentioning would be the channel catfish. There have always been a high rate of channel catfish present.

    You could go there in a day and catch anywhere from 30 to 50 catfish. The only problem was the size. The average size would be less than 12 inches.

    But this year is different. We're still catching lots of catfish, but now they are growing up and the average seems to be 14 to 16 inches.

    Hot bait seems to be a dead shiner on a slip bobber, 3 feet down. These fish can be located anywhere on the lake.

    They have no size limit and you can keep 25 a day.


    The season is open year-round for all species.

    To get to Columbia Lake, head north on US 51 from Madison to County VJ west, which runs along the south end of the lake.

    There's a parking lot there, which you can walk down to the lake. There is no boat ramp available, but carry-on access is available.

    It's about a 65-foot walk to get there. Fishing boats with outboard or electric motors are permitted, and motor trolling is allowed.

    There is no time limit on when you can fish here. You can fish both day and night.

    There really are no bait stores close to the lake. You'll have to drive about 45 minutes until you find a bait store.

    If you're driving up from Milwaukee or Illinois, try Dick Smith's Live Bait and Tackle (262-646-2218).

    It's right on I-94 and Highway 83. They have a big selection of live bait. Ask for Becky Smith; she will be glad to assist you.

    So if your favorite ice fishing spot is slow on the bite, you might want to try this lake for some open-water action in the winter.

    The hot time is here; December through early March seems to be the best time to fish it.

    So get the rod and reels dusted off and catch that first winter bass of the year.

    Material from Fishing & Hunting News
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