“Fishing shouldn’t be work, of course. It should be fun. If an angler would give a little thought to the place, method and time he fishes – though this involves a little work – it probably increases the pleasure he could derive by providing considerably more action – and perhaps even some more fish.” 

Mel Ellis, longtime Milwaukee Journal outdoors writer, penned the preceding advice in a 1958 Journal publication titled “Favorite Fishing Spots near Milwaukee,”

The 145-page book was a compilation of Ellis’ columns (as well as a few by Tom Guyant) on fishing holes in southeastern Wisconsin.

Upon reading the work, I was struck by how much has changed and what has stayed the same over the last 60 years.

A catch-and-release ethic – critical to sustaining today’s fisheries – was barely mentioned in Wisconsin fishing literature of the 1950s.

Ellis’ angling companion for the chapter on Pewaukee Lake caught “some strings of bass that have made a man grunt to get them off the ground.” Several fish in excess of 5 pounds were reported in the catches.

Most, if not all, of those bass would be released by today’s anglers.

Another difference is evident on the book’s cover: Ellis is shown holding lake trout, the native top predator on Lake Michigan that was in significant decline in the middle of the 20th century, largely due to effects of the invasive sea lamprey. The publication was released just before a new era of stocking brought chinook and coho salmon and rainbow and brown trout to the lake.

The yellow perch fishery in local waters of the big pond was dramatically different then, too. Ellis mentions 2,000 anglers on a given Sunday on the Racine lakefront in search of the delectable, native fish.

The Lake Michigan perch fishery has sadly fallen off the charts in the last two decades, with no state or federal agency to date willing to try active measures to rehabilitate the species. You’d find about two perch anglers on the same Racine pier these days.

On inland waters, there is much more in common “then and now.” As it was in the 1950s, contemporary Pewaukee is one of the area’s best bass fisheries.

And this Ellis passage will sound familiar to current anglers: “It is doubtful any other body of water in the state south of Lake Winnebago receives as much fishing pressure as does Pewaukee the year around.”

Despite the crush of anglers, Pewaukee continues to produce good fishing action, including on muskies. In fact, thanks to stocking by the Department of Natural Resources and local clubs, as well as catch-and-release practiced by anglers, the musky population is among the highest per acre of any water in the state.

These snapshots of one lake, separated by six decades, provide one of the key takeaways: Anglers don’t need to leave southeastern Wisconsin to find some of the best fishing in the state.

Saturday marks opening day of the 2017 Wisconsin inland fishing season.

The occasion is marked by celebration in many quarters.

Fishing is a time-honored outdoors tradition in Wisconsin that helps connects people to each other and to the natural resources. Participation brings recognition of the importance of clean water and wise stewardship.

The state expects to sell more than 1.3 million fishing licenses this year.

Angling brings in $2.3 billion annually to the Wisconsin economy, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Wisconsin hosts 330,000 non-resident anglers each year, third in the nation (Florida is first and Michigan is second), adding to the tourism economy.

The keys to maintaining quality fishing in the 21st century are catch-and-release and selective harvest.

By our sheer numbers and success, today’s anglers can and do deplete fisheries.

Keeping some fish for a meal is a fine and valued part of the outdoors experience. But carefully consider where, when and how many fish to bring home. And learn proper catch-and-release techniques so that the rest will live to spawn and fight another day.

It’s important to support the DNR through license purchases. And consider joining or donating to a local fishing or conservation club.

The Muskellunge Club of Wisconsin and the Milwaukee chapter of Muskies, Inc. have combined to stock more than 2,000 yearling muskies in Okauchee Lake over the last two years alone.

Club members are strong proponents of catch, photograph and release (CPR), said MCW member Barry Wichmann of Greenfield.

A musky called scarface proves the value of the practice. According to reports from MCW members, scarface has been caught and released at least seven times in the last 10 years in the Oconomowoc system.

The fish with the distinctive mark on its cheek was first recorded as a CPR at about 34 inches. It now is in the high 40 inch range, Wichmann said.

“We consider these fish a precious resource,” Wichmann said. “If they are handled right, they can be caught and released and give many anglers a thrill of a lifetime.”

And the Pewaukee chapter of Walleyes For Tomorrow is hard at work improving habitat and releasing millions of walleye fry each spring in an effort to restore a naturally-reproducing walleye population on the lake.

On the value of fishing close to Milwaukee, Ellis wrote in 1958:

“Even at the risk of being dubbed a trifler with the truth, this writer must acknowledge that the hard-fished waters within an hour’s drive of Milwaukee produced as many fish per lake this last season as we’ve taken while touring more select waters farther north.”

Indeed, fishing in our backyard has remained fun and productive through the decades.

As we know today, it’s made all the more enjoyable when our waters have strong populations of fish that allow high catch rates.

By applying the wise practices of catch-and-release and selective harvest, we and help assure future generations will also find good fishing in southeastern Wisconsin.