City Fishing

Fishing along Monona Bay

Out-of-town anglers drawn to downtown Madison lakes

Spend time walking along Lake Monona between Law Park and Brittingham Park, and you’ll notice anglers tossing lines from plenty of places. Unfortunately, there is a lack of accessible shoreline fishing locations. Folks fishing have to contend with hazards like the wall at the Monona Terrace or the railroad tracks…which are actually illegal to use for fishing. Still, the challenges of fishing on Lake Monona do not seem to stop diehard anglers from spending time doing what they love.

Fifty years of fishing Lake Monona

(A conversation with Sandra Terrell)

Sandra Terrell of Rockford is 80 years old. She’s been making the drive north to fish Lake Monona since the mid 1970s when a friend told her about a great spot.

“The first time the fish were biting so fast, we didn’t know there was a limit,” exclaimed Terrell. “I had 50 bluegills!” (The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources daily limit is 25 panfish.)

Terrell, who started fishing when she was six because her mom enjoyed fishing, said the benefits to fishing near the Monona Terrace are plentiful. 

“I meet a lot of people here. The people when they come through here with gorgeous dogs – that’s great! I like the dogs! But I also like it because there are a lot of fish and it’s safe. There are so many people around, nobody is going to try anything. You can also park really close.”

For an out-of-towner like Terrell, who sometimes comes up once a week, the parking is a big perk. Routinely, she packs a lunch and spends up to eight-plus hours watching her three poles – the legal amount she can have. Being able to go back to the car helps make this spot one of her favorites. And while fishing over the seawall may have its challenges, she ultimately loves the spot.

“I’ve lost a lot of poles in the water over the years! I line them up on the wall, but the fish are tricky and sometimes pull them in! But I love it here – they built this place so people can fish. People can bring their children and they don’t have to worry about keeping them out of the water.”

Sandra Terrell fishing Lake Monona
Sandra Terrell fishes Lake Monona beside the Monona Terrace

What’s in the water sometimes has Terrell concerned. As someone who regularly consumes the fish she catches, she said the elevated PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) levels in the lake usually don’t bother her because she doesn’t eat more than a few fish a week. But when the fire in 2019 at the nearby power sub-station required foam to extinguish it, Terrell paused her favorite tradition.

“I didn’t fish here that whole year because of the stuff that went into the lake.”

Terrell usually fishes with her son or alone when she comes up to Madison. Her husband, who passed away in 2018, was also a fishing enthusiast. The husband and wife duo spent a lot of time fishing together, but only came up to this spot once – and that one time is one of Terrell’s favorite memories.

“When my husband was alive, I took him here once. All the ladies running by in short shorts. He couldn’t concentrate on fishing. The poor man could not fish. I wasn’t mad, it was funny! I think about that every time I come here, and I laugh!”

Mark Hawkins Sr. and family fish along Monona Bay
Mark Hawkins Sr. and family fish along railroad tracks on Monona Bay

Four generations of anglers

(A conversation with the Hawkins family)

Fishing is truly a family affair for Mark Hawkins Sr. The Milwaukee electrician, who works almost every day in the summer, was in town with his family on a special day at his request. 

“For my birthday today, I decided to take my grandfather, my son, and my uncle fishing. We have four generations right here, fishing.” 

The spot they usually choose on Monona Bay though…isn’t exactly legal. Fishing from the railroad bridge over the bay, Hawkins and his family aren’t alone. It’s unfortunately one of the most accessible spots for people looking to fish the bay. Although it’s private property, Hawkins, and his uncle, Aaron Coleman, say they’ve never been asked to leave by law enforcement. And if a train is coming, they say common sense keeps them safe.

“Trains aren’t scary – just move,” said Hawkins Sr.

“When a train comes, we get out of the way. They come slow, we can go down by the water or back over the bridge to land. We might see a few trains a day,” commented Coleman.

Mark Hawkins Sr. fishes with family on Monona Bay
Mark Hawkins Sr. fishes with four generations of family to celebrate his birthday

When it comes to the other dangers, like PFAS and cyanobacteria (blue-green algae), the anglers say that forces them to adjust their plans.

“Our fishing is more recreational than eating. We throw most of them back. However, if there is algae, you go somewhere else – Beaver Dam, Pewaukee, Princeton,” said Coleman.

When anglers like Hawkins, his uncle, son, and grandpa leave the Madison area, it means losing money for the local economy. If the group stays all day, it usually involves a lunch, or even a dinner run.

“We’ll be here all day, so I’ll run and grab something for lunch from somewhere for us,” commented Hawkins Sr. 

Fishing along Monona Bay
Booker T. Coleman fishes along Lake Monona’s Bay

The accessibility of the tracks to parking is one of the main reasons this group keeps coming back to this location.

“My dad has a hard time getting around, so this is nice and close to parking,” said Coleman.

And the ability to get everyone so close is the main draw.

“Part of the fun is spending time with family,” said Hawkins Senior’s son, 13-year-old Dreadon Thompson.

Fishing to celebrate a birthday
13-year-old Dreadon Thompson fishes with his dad to celebrate his dad’s birthday

Like Sandra Terrell, this group has been coming to this location for several years. For Booker T. Coleman, the oldest member of the group, it’s all about taking it easy and enjoying something he loves. “It’s real relaxing. I’m 90 years old. My fishing days are near the end…but it’s fun to fish with family.”

Both Terrell and the Coleman group primarily fish for bluegills, crappies, and bass. Every member of the group said the draw of Madison was the lakes and the many different spots they could go to fish. 

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