‘My escape’: Why fishermen frequent Lake Monona

There is something about Lake Monona that reels in Wilkerson and a whole line of fishers from all over Wisconsin.
Brandon Wilkerson, 32, stands before Lake Monona, where he holds fond memories of fishing with his grandmother close to his heart.
Photo by Gaby Vinick
Brandon Wilkerson at Lake Monona

Brandon Wilkerson remembers his first big catch, a 5-pound bass as a teenager. At 32, he can still picture the bass’ ferocious fight. The strength he had to harness to keep his balance. While Wilkerson ultimately won the battle, he released it back into the water.

It wasn’t so much the catch that took him by surprise, though (or his sore wrist and shoulder the following day). It was the experience of fishing itself — because just like the bass, he was hooked. 

“I can’t even explain why I love fishing. It’s just something I think about all day, every day,” says Wilkerson, standing at Lake Monona.

There is something about Lake Monona that reels in Wilkerson and a whole line of fishers from all over Wisconsin. All along the Lake Monona biking path, they gather to fish. Old and new fishers pay a visit, traveling and sometimes spending hours upon hours waiting for the perfect catch, each for a different reason.

Wilkerson, who was born and raised in Chicago, says he grew up in a rough neighborhood. With the intent of keeping him out of trouble, his grandmother introduced him to fishing. They would venture out on the road as early as 4 a.m. or 5 a.m. Even as a young boy, he found serenity. 

“I will always cherish those memories with my grandmother going fishing,” he says. “I love the sport. It’s something I do to get a peace of mind, relieve the pressure and stress and just to get outdoors. It’s therapeutic.”

His grandmother was right. There is a growing body of research that points to the psychological, social and cultural benefits of spending time outside. The presence of water adds to its positive effects, which include lowered blood pressure and an enhanced mood.

Tommie Conley, 21, holds a Black Crappie fish he caught from Lake Monona.

Tommie Conley, 21, holds a Black Crappie fish he caught from Lake Monona. (Photo by Gaby Vinick)

“Fishing is like my escape,” says Tommie Conley, a 21-year-old fisher from Milwaukee. “It’s the only time I can get away and really do me and breathe. It’s nice to be able to think and be on the water.”

Like Wilkerson, fishing evokes family memories for Conley. He frequents Lake Monona every week and says he learned everything from his father. 

While Conley goes out to fish everyday — sometimes at Fox River — he says, “Madison is the best place I’ve ever been.” He usually experiences “fish fever,” what he describes as an itch to be out by the water.

As relaxing as the sport may appear from the outset, it’s also the thrill of risk and adventure, a hint of danger that seems to lure fishermen. 

Conley describes his favorite fish, the striped bass, as feisty. Once they get into a frenzy, he says, the water looks like it is boiling, with bursts and flashes of light moving fast. An adrenaline rush fills him when he can feel the pull of a big fish.

“People think patience is key — you hear that a lot when it comes to fishing, and that’s true,” he says, but not all of the time. “It’s knowing what you’re doing.”

Conley began listing all of the different types of jigs used to attract the fish, emphasizing that there’s not enough time in the day to go through every technique. Strategy is key to finding success when fishing, and many fishermen employ different kinds.

William Laster, 62, is a caregiver who helps people with disabilities. He started fishing in Sullivan, Wisconsin, with a friend in his late 40s and has come out to Monona ever since.

“That’s when my love for fishing grew because me being a Milwaukee city boy knowing nothing about country upbringing, I probably wouldn’t have never fished, but I tried it,” he says.  

It was about 80 degrees outside when Laster went out on the boat for the first time, but it only took fifteen minutes for a fish to start biting the rod. 

“I have some memorable moments when the obsession of fishing gets so good to where it gets cloudy, you know it’s gonna rain, it starts raining … but you’re not willing to give up. There’s more fish to catch,” he explains. Lancaster says the challenge is not knowing where the fish are swimming. 

Laster laughs as he recalls another instance where his own zeal to fish gets the best of him. He and his friends have made it halfway across the lake, only to realize they forgot to put the plug in the boat, so they had to find a way to return to land after running out of gas. 

Not much can stop Lancaster from fishing. He drives up from Milwaukee and says that at Lake Monona, fishers are almost guaranteed a catch. Few waters exist where the fish are as plentiful, he adds. 

Conley also thinks that Lake Monona in particular is worth the trek. He recalls seeing the fish in a frenzy one time, only to return the following week and see them there again, jumping and splashing around. 

“I always fish because of my dad, but Madison is the place that really set it off for me,” Conley says.

Laster advises all new fishers to learn the basics and go with someone more experienced. He explains that it’s important to know which fish have teeth, the size of a fish in a lake versus a river and rules to adhere to the Department of Natural Resources standards.Magazine footer that says "Like this article, get so much more by subscribing"