OCONOMOWOC, Wis. -- The time was somewhere between first light and sunrise. The place was Oconomowoc Lake, halfway between the two main points on the lake's north shore. The conditions were a little summer and a little more fall.
But the identity of the very large, dark shape moving along the bottom in about 10 feet of water wasn't at all clear.
If it had call letters or a rudder, I would have easily believed it to be a submarine. The dim conditions and mist rising from the water made it tough to see details.
"See if it will bite and we'll know for sure," said Chris Terry, my fishing partner for the day.
There are times when a sight is so extraordinary that even four decades of fishing experience won't allow the brain to readily comprehend it.
I cast the lure at hand -- a 6-inch rubber worm -- toward the fleeting hulk.
The line stayed slightly taut as the lure sunk, then began to twitch.
Someone was home all right. But it was not a toothy predator fish nor a naval vessel.
Bluegills were playing with my bait and my nerves.
The mystery lived on.
But Terry and I would have wagered our fishing tackle if anyone had offered a bet. The swimming log was likely a musky. Few lakes allow one to reach such a reasonable conclusion with so little physical evidence.
Department of Natural Resources fisheries personnel in April caught and released a 52-inch, 46-pound musky in the Oconomowoc River at the lake's northwestern corner.
At 767 acres, with very good water quality, a good forage base, a maximum depth of 62 feet and good adult musky population, Oconomowoc has attracted musky anglers for the last couple decades.
But the lake has a well-balanced fishery that extends beyond the official state fish.
Terry and I visited the lake Wednesday to sample the variety of what DNR fisheries biologist Ben Heussner calls "one of our prized lakes in southeastern Wisconsin."
After a brief diversion shortly after launching at 5:15, we stuck with the game plan of targeting bass and panfish.
The wind was northeast and a cold front had descended on Wisconsin. At dawn, only a whisper of breeze pushed over the lake, leaving the surface like wavy glass.
We tossed top-water baits over bars and weed beds. After five minutes, a fish exploded on Terry's lure.
He reeled in a 16-inch largemouth and our trip was off to a good start.
Terry, 40, teaches at area universities most of the year and works as a part-time fishing guide in summer.
He grew up on nearby Okauchee Lake, also part of the Oconomowoc River system, and knows the area's lakes like the back of his hand.
In more than 30 years of fishing, he hadn't seen a July morning like this in Waukesha County.
At dawn, the water was 70 degrees at the surface, the air was 52.
A veil of mist rose from the lake.
"October in July," Terry said.
It's common in cold-front conditions for fish to get "neutral" or "negative." We found the fish to be less aggressive than normal in July but still drew strikes to top-water lures over the first hour.
We then switched exclusively to soft plastics, including wacky-rigged plastic worms, and crank baits.
The soft plastics proved to be top producers when fished slowly around the edges of weed clumps and tight to shoreline structure. We caught mostly largemouth bass, but also smallmouth and rock bass. A few bluegills came aboard, too.
Oconomowoc Lake has public access from a launch just downstream from the Okauchee dam. A short, scenic boat ride through a shallow and winding stretch of the Oconomowoc River leads you into the lake proper.
High water this year makes the trip easy for most inland craft. Still, the lake gets relatively little fishing pressure.
Terry and I saw only two other fishing boats Wednesday morning. It's normally worth the trip for anglers.
"You've got excellent water quality and a diverse aquatic plant community," Heussner said. "Add to that rocky shoals and a good population of game fish, and it's an outstanding lake."
Heussner said the DNR stocks Oconomowoc with about 1,000 large fingerling northern pike every year and about 40,000 small fingerling walleyes every other year.
Recent DNR fisheries assessments have found about 2 adult walleyes and 0.2 adult muskies per acre. In addition, there are very good numbers of largemouth and smallmouth bass, Heussner said. Bluegills, black crappie and rock bass are common and have above-average size structure.
Muskies are not stocked in Oconomowoc but "roll over" the dam from Okauchee, where they are stocked. The two lakes have about the same density and size structure of muskies, Heussner said.
Although Oconomowoc used to have a population of ciscoes, a native forage fish found in few southern Wisconsin waters, Heussner said a recent survey failed to turn up any of the fish.
Other forage fish, however, are abundant, Heussner said, helping sustain an excellent population of game fish. The catch-and-release ethic helps keep the musky and bass populations in good shape, and an 18-inch minimum size, three-fish daily bag limit helps protect walleyes.
The net result: Oconomowoc is a lake that fuels anglers' dreams. And every so often, makes them come true.
Since it's so close to more than 1 million of the state's residents, it is all the more valuable.
On Wednesday, Terry and I focused on bass and weren't disappointed. The fish were available in good numbers and size. Over seven hours, we caught and released more than 35 bass.
The catch was mostly largemouth but included about 10 smallies. The biggest bass was an 18-inch largemouth.
We also caught a handful of rock bass that stretched the tape to 12 inches. The panfish engulfed 6-inch wacky worms just as readily as their bigger bass cousins.
We were not able to land any "giants," but as with the early morning musky, likely had some close encounters. Each year, smallmouth and largemouth weighing about 7 pounds are caught and released in the lake.
"If someone wanted to target state record-class fish of several species, Oconomowoc is one of the best lakes around," Terry said.
By noon the sun had shined long enough to warm the lake water by 2 degrees. The bass activity grew better, even with the sun directly overhead.
The air lagged by 10 degrees, but no one was complaining.
"Great lake, lots of room, lots of fish," Terry said. "What's not to like?"
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