Midnight Madness: Lake Geneva Brings Trophy Walleyes
By Dick Ellis
Under the quiet hum of the kicker-motor, the 19 foot Ranger turtle-crawled down yet another shore of Lake Geneva and the nocturnal hunt for trophy walleye dragged on through the cold January night. Black lights mounted port and starboard near the rear of the boat illuminated four lines disappearing into the dark to lead perch and cisco-imitation crank baits wobbling on in search of just one precious strike.
The hunt had begun at 9:00 pm and midnight madness had come and gone almost three hours before. A more general insanity had since taken John Trossen, Kevin Seymour, and a cargo-full of skill and perseverance closer to another sunrise. But seemingly no closer to the glowing-eyed prize like the walleye better than 13 pounds they had taken here on a cold December night. Or the 30-some fish between nine and 11 pounds they expect to catch and release over a season here of playing in the dark.
“We’ll call it quits when we hit this point,” Trossen said. “If we don’t get a walleye by 2:00 am we usually head in. We’re way past that now.”
Temperatures hovered in the low teens, and new ice forming quickly on any protected water promised to soon make just a memory Geneva’s claim as Wisconsin’s sole inland lake still open. Already one-third of the 5,400 acres was frozen over. And the most recent round of snow had brought with it only a guess of where the moon just past the full phase had been hanging minutes before.
But a certain warmth was also beginning to fall over the Ranger, ignited by new activity on the electronic fish locator. The tension and excitement grew on board as below, swarms of baitfish began to lift from the bottom and then to break up as the black marks meaning walleye or northern lifted too. To seasoned Geneva veterans, the signs of another impending feeding cycle were clear.
“The most important thing is to listen to your locator,” said Seymour, of Milwaukee, who had hired Trossen as a guide to learn the secrets of Geneva night walleye fishing, initiating a friendship and bond as fishermen. “Read your electronics and believe your electronics. Let the fish dictate where you should be, shallow or deep.”
The rod bent and Trossen moved quickly to lift it from the holder. Soon, with disappointment in his voice, he announced, “I think that’s another northern.”
Despite the pike’s reputation as a daylight predator, six northerns had already been boated and released. This team will average six to eight pike while targeting walleyes on a slow night and about 20 northerns during fast action between 26 and 36 inches. Their big pike is 40 inches. And Trossen has seen two northerns in the 50-inch class, “with fins as big as crappies” before losing the fish.
At midnight on this trip, the same activity on the fish locator showing clouds of active forage fish and numerous active gamefish rising had initiated the same sense of anticipation on the Ranger. Within minutes, two pike at 36 inches were boated and released. But few northerns will appease the walleye hunters.
Since the mid-1990s, Trossen, already an extremely successful angler on other species of game and panfish here and owner of the Pier Bait and Tackle and Guide Service, had made the effort to learn how to successfully target the giant walleyes of Lake Geneva. The effort evolved exclusively to nocturnal assaults based on his knowledge of the fish and this awesome water with a maximum depth of 146 feet. Ninety percent of the lake is 70 feet or deeper.
“The walleye is a nocturnal feeder because they’re a lazy predator, and they take the advantage that their keen sense of eyesight gives them over the baitfish in this ultra-clear environment,” Trossen said. “The shiners are plentiful, and the walleyes don’t have to use energy to fill up. That’s why they’re so big and fat here.”
Targeting walleyes in late season from October through freeze-up, Trossen and Seymour will average one to three walleyes between six and ten pounds during trips that normally begin at 8:00 pm and conclude in the wee hours. Summer hunts mean more walleyes but slightly smaller fish averaging about six to seven pounds. Because of the tremendous growth potential, Trossen and Seymour advocate catch and release.
“We’re hoping to see a state record, Trossen said. “Geneva has that potential.”
The last fish of the night heads to the bottom. With its behavior, Trossen voices cautious optimism that it just may be a walleye. The fight reaches several minutes before the beam of Seymour’s spotlight slices snow and black to dance off the long-awaited glowing eyes beneath the surface. The big walleye is in no hurry to meet the crew, but Trossen eventually finesses the ten pound-plus fish to the net. The fish is released, and two Geneva walleye experts plod for home.
“This isn’t a numbers game,” Seymour said. “There are better walleye lakes around. Geneva’s draw is the size of the fish.”
“We cover miles of water looking for what we like on the locator,” Trossen said. ”Sometimes the fish are shallow and sometimes they’re deep. Last week in 40 to 50 feet of water we caught 13 northerns and a seven pound walleye. If I come out here one night and don’t get any walleyes, I’ll still be out here the next night doing the exact same thing. You have to be dedicated. And you have to believe.”
For more information, contact John Trossen at the Pier at 262-348-9400 or www.fishinglakegeneva.com.