Walworth County, Wisconsin
By Ken Poor
On their initial trips to Lake Geneva, most anglers seek locations to fish that are similar to the spots they fish on the numerous small, warm water lakes that dot the Northeast Illinois and Southeast Wisconsin countryside. Additionally, the fishing techniques they bring with them are the same techniques they use on these small warm water lakes.
As a result, their first few trips to Lake Geneva are normally very disappointing. While their techniques and locations may be correct for most area lakes, if they want to enjoy the great fishing available on Lake Geneva, they need to dramatically change the techniques they use to fish this lake.
First it is important to accept that Lake Geneva is a deep, cold, clear water lake and the best fishing spots are bottom structure such as gravel bars, main lake points, rocky ledges, and big flats with some weeds present. Second, it is important to learn to fish these locations with a variety of techniques. Third, be patient while you experience the joy of learning about this amazing fishery and wondrously scenic lake.
Lake Geneva is located about 20 minutes north of the Illinois/Wisconsin border in Walworth County, Southeast Wisconsin. The City of Lake Geneva is on the east end of the lake, Fontana on the west, Williams Bay on the north west, and the Village of Linn on the south.
To reach the lake from Interstate 94, take Highway 50 west, about 20 minutes, to downtown Lake Geneva and the east end of the lake. Routes 12 and 47 are good alternate roads to Lake Geneva from Northern Illinois.
With a maximum depth over 135-feet, Lake Geneva is one of the deepest inland lakes in Wisconsin. The lake has a surface area of about 5,260 acres and a shoreline just over 20 miles in length.
From an angler’s perspective, Lake Geneva is a large, deep, cold water glacial lake, with well-defined main lake points, and a gravel rocky shoreline. Classic bottom structure such as gravel humps, sandbars, and hard bottom main lake points with some weed cover are the primary fish holding features of the lake. Bottom structure refers to the physical shape and composition of the bottom of the lake.
In comparison, hundreds of shallow, warm water prairie lakes, scattered across Southeast Wisconsin and Northeast Illinois, have flat, featureless, muck bottoms, and extensive weed beds. The primary fish holding cover in these typical prairie lakes is the weedbeds.
The most practical method for identifying fish holding structure on any lake is to use a high-quality lake map, specifically detailed for fishing, and a fish locator. Learning how to use a map or fish locator takes a little practice, but it is not difficult, and it is the most accurate way to quickly identify the right location to fish. Most local bait and tackle shops sell these maps or you can buy them on the internet.
The most important information a fish locator provides is a picture of the bottom structure, depth, and bottom composition. The least important information that a locator provides is normally the presence of fish and the reason for this is a fish locator cannot differentiate between game fish or rough fish. Until you learn when and what species of game fish will hold on the various types of structure, like most anglers, you will probably waste time chasing bait fish, carp or some other type of fish that is not actively feeding. With that said locating bait fish is definitely a good place to start fishing.
On those rare windless days, and wearing polarized sunglasses, it is not uncommon to be able see the lake bottom in 15-feet of water. Clear water and wind are both important elements to consider when choosing a location to fish on Lake Geneva.
Clear water makes it possible for weed beds to grow relatively deep throughout the lake.
Typically, the deep weed edge follows the 12 to 15-foot contour line, but for the fishermen, pay particular attention to the low growing weed beds that extend out from the main weed beds to depths in some areas up to 25-foot.
Launching and parking is available at several locations around the lake including Linn Pier, Williams Bay, Fontana, and downtown Lake Geneva. All launch ramps on Lake Geneva charge a fee for using them.
Williams Bay and Linn Pier launch facilities fill up early in the morning during warm weather, especially on weekends and holidays. If you plan to fish Lake Geneva on the weekend use the Lake Geneva ramp on the East End of the lake or Fontana on the west end. Fontana has the largest parking lot. Boat rentals are available on the east end of the lake in downtown Lake Geneva and on the west end of the lake in Fontana. Additionally, there are several bait and tackle shops around Lake Geneva.
Largemouth and smallmouth bass are the feature game fish on Lake Geneva. In terms of size, numbers, and variety, Lake Geneva is an impressive fishery. Walleye in the 10-pound class and northern pike over 15- pounds are taken from the lake just about every year. But don’t let me miss-lead you, pike or walleye of these weights are the exception, not the rule. Small northern pike (sticks) are plentiful in and around weed beds.
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources stocks Lake Geneva on a regular basis. Largemouth and smallmouth bass have self-sustaining populations.
Largemouth Bass – Excellent numbers – Very good size
Smallmouth Bass – Excellent numbers – Very good size
Northern Pike – Good numbers – Fair size
Walleye – Good numbers – Very good size
Rock Bass – Excellent numbers – Very good size
Crappie – Good numbers – Fair size
Bluegill – Abundant – Good size
Perch – Very good numbers – Good size
Catfish – Fair numbers – Fair size
Lake Trout – Present – no data available
Brown Trout – Present – no data available
Muskie – Present – no data available
On Lake Geneva the most productive area to fish during the open water season is from the deep weed edge out to about 25-feet of water. Use your map and locator to identify some feature or change in bottom structure that would attract or hold fish. These features include gravel bars, sides of main lake points, drop-offs, and troughs in the bays and flats. Areas receiving wind such as the backs of bays or main lake points will often hold actively feeding fish.
With few exceptions’ shorelines, which includes water shallower than 10-feet, normally hold small bass, pike or panfish. Exceptions to this would include early spring, late fall, at night, and around piers or cribs. Cribs, specific to Lake Geneva, are large wooden boxes filled with stones that support post for building piers.
On clear deep-water lakes, with a variety of bottom structure such as Lake Geneva, the lead head jig is an excellent choice because they are easy to use and very versatile. Jigs are also relatively inexpensive and come in a variety of weights, colors, sizes, and shapes.
Use enough jig weight to keep slack out of your line and to hold your line vertical. The reason this is important is so you can tell when a fish hits your jig and then make the proper hook-set. Work your jig on the bottom or close to the bottom and let the fish tell you how much action they want to see.
Dress your jig with a plastic curly tail grub or live bait. Small minnows, leeches, or night crawlers are good choices for live bait and will take most species of fish in Lake Geneva. Plastic jig dressings are a more practical choice than live bait if you want to cover large amounts of water to locate active fish.
If you constantly snag on heavy weeds you are probably too shallow and need to move to deeper water. The spots you should be working are structural changes on the bottom with low growing weed cover, typically in 15 to 25-feet of water.
Largemouth bass will hold close to the bottom between the deep weed edge and 20-feet of water. Cisco Bay, Trinkies Flats, and the West Side of Geneva Bay are good areas to look for largemouth bass. Make long wind drifts in these areas and when you locate fish work that spot until the action slows.
The split shot rig is simply tying your hook on the end of your line and then adding a split shot, typically, 12 to 18-inches or more above the hook. The split shot rig is best fished on a spinning rod and reel with light line. A good set-up would be a 6-foot light action spinning rod with a fast taper and the reel spooled with 6 to 8-pound test line. Dress your hook with plastic worms, grubs or creatures rigged weedless. Live bait such as minnows or worms are a good alternative to artificial baits.
Drop shotting is another excellent technique for Lake Geneva because it keeps your bait off the bottom. A good setup would be a spinning rod with a medium light to medium power and fast action and 8 to 12-pound test line. Initially drop shot anglers used light line and small baits which matched up best with spinning gear, but drop shotting doesn’t stop there.
Lately anglers are drop shotting larger lures such as plastic worms and creatures in the 5 to 7-inch range on 2/0 to 4/0 hooks. Typically, a bait casting rod or spinning gear, 6 ½ to 7 ½- foot, with a medium-heavy action is used with the larger baits, but it is important to match your rod, reel and line to the size of the lure you are using. Again, live bait such as minnows or worms are a good alternative to artificial baits.
Smallmouth bass are more likely to hold on slightly deeper structure, 20 to 25-feet, with sparse weed cover and the rockier the better. Conference Point, Blacks Point, and Maytag Point are all prime locations for smallmouth bass. Smallmouth bass also suspend over deep water and at times you can see them, early in the morning, as they feed on schools of baitfish they push to the surface of the lake.
Walleye are primarily taken, at night, using a slip-sinker rig and live bait. Drift the flats in 15 to 25-feet of water and tip your slip-sinker rig with a leech or night crawler. A medium action, 6-foot spinning rod spooled with 8 to 10-pound test line is a good choice for this type of set-up. Walleye are not overly abundant in Lake Geneva, but as a bonus you will get plenty of action from largemouth bass and rock bass while using this technique.
Late in the season use heavier equipment and the same slip-sinker rig, suitable leader, with a 4 to 6-inch minnow, for northern pike. Work the deep edges of the flats in 25 to 35-feet of water. In September, the lake water begins to cool and deep-water northern pike will move onto the flats to feed. When this condition occurs and if you’re lucky enough to be in the right spot, you could catch a Lake Geneva trophy.
Light spinning gear is a good choice for bluegill or crappie. Rig your spinning gear with 4 or 6-pound test line, a slip-float, but instead of a regular hook use a small ice-fishing jig.
Dress the jig with a couple of spikes or a small piece of night crawler for bluegill and minnows for crappie. Work areas close to pier cribs and open pockets in weed beds. Early spring crappie can be taken from inside the pier cribs and around the Abby channel.
Deep diving crankbaits are a good alternative to jig and live bait when you want to work a large area quickly. Select a crankbait that will reach a depth of 12-feet or more when retrieved slowly. Perch colored (yellow and black) crankbaits with rattles are a good choice. On Lake Geneva, deep diving crankbaits with a wide profile are normally a better choice than crankbaits with a long thin profile. A six or seven foot medium/heavy action bait casting rod with a soft tip and at least 14-pound test line is a good set-up for working crankbaits.
Contact the Lake Geneva Chamber of Commerce for information about hotels, restaurants and related facilities in the area (800)345-1020. Information about guides and charters is available from the Wisconsin Tourism & Development, (800)372-2737, ask for their booklet “Wisconsin Fishing Guides”.
First time visitors to Lake Geneva may want to consider hiring a guide, for at least a day, to acquaint themselves with the lake. Ask your guide about locations and techniques that he uses. Bring your lake map and write your notes on it. There are several guides that fish Lake Geneva. Two guides that I know personally and can recommend are Spence Petros (815)455-7770 and Billy Heims, (262)279-5743.
If you want to fish for a “wall hanger” a guide is the best way to go and the reasons are easy to understand. Most of the bigger walleye are caught on live bait rigs, at night, fished in a few very specific deep spots that are difficult to locate. Big northern pike are taken by drifting or trolling live bait rigs over deep-water humps, in late fall after lake turn-over.
Every trip to Lake Geneva should include a camera. Beautiful scenery, pictures of the fish you catch, and other photo opportunities are daily occurrences on the lake. Enjoy your trips to Lake Geneva. Practice catch, photograph, and release so we all can continue to enjoy the great fishing this amazing lake provides.