BOULDER JUNCTION, Wisconsin — Longtime fishing guide Todd Gessner enjoys dual citizenship these days — claiming both Southern Illinois and northern Wisconsin as home.

A member of the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame as a legendary guide, Gessner used to spend summers chasing crappie at Rend Lake, Lake of Egypt and Kinkaid Lake.

The last few years, he’s eschewed the heat and humidity of Southern Illinois to chase walleye and smallmouth bass in the nearly 1,300 lakes in Wisconsin’s Vilas County. Gessner didn’t migrate to Boulder Junction by accident. His family has been visiting the area for more than 50 years.

“I got started by writing a letter up here for information,” he said. “They sent me just a whole pile of resorts. There were far more resorts around then. I wanted to take my parents on a vacation before I went to college. They hadn’t been on vacation for a long time. I picked out a spot up here.

“We went and we fell in love with the people and the place. That was in the summertime. My folks came again in the fall. And, they came back for the next 10 years to that same place.”

Gessner and his family have returned to the area nearly every year since.

Several years ago he was asked by acquaintances to guide during the summer months. The arrangement allows Gessner to escape the heat of Southern Illinois and to chase fish for walleye and smallmouth, two species rare in Southern Illinois.

“The smallmouth, I’m not sure there is a freshwater fish that I’m acquainted with, other than a freshwater striper, that can pull like a smallmouth pulls,” Gessner said. “I’ve caught lots of muskie, and pound for pound, smallmouth are so much fun to catch. I’m a light tackle guy, and that’s all I ever fish up here. I have caught up to a 48-inch, 27-pound muskie on four-pound test line.”

Then, there is the walleye. The tactics Gessner uses for walleye are remarkably similar to his approach for crappie in Southern Illinois. He uses a quarter-ounce jig, tipped with half a night crawler, and either fishes vertically over rock cover or drags the bait across the bottom.

“It’s the hunt,” Gessner said. “I use my electronics because I fish relatively deep most of the time. It is the hunt, and learning how to feel. Walleye fishing is all about feel. If you can master walleye fishing with a jig, you can pretty well catch any fish.”

Of the 1,300 lakes in Vilas County, Gessner has fished about 50, spending most of his time on five of them — the largest and less developed.

“Principally, it’s the limits on those lakes,” he said. “Mostly, they are the larger lakes in the county. And, because they are larger they don’t get the same kind of pressure of some of the smaller lakes do. I think my opportunities for catching a big fish are better on those lakes than on the smaller ones. I love to fish for bigger fish.”

In addition to targeting different species in Wisconsin, the other primary difference is water clarity. The Wisconsin lakes are deep and crystal clear.

“In Southern Illinois we don’t have this kind of water,” Gessner said. “Rend Lake, most of the time, is mud-type water. Lake of Egypt, Kinkaid and some of the smaller lakes are a little bit clearer, but there is nothing like the clarity of this water. It changes a lot fishing-wise.

“I enjoy them both, I’m not sure I prefer one of them over the other.”

Although his guiding schedule isn’t as hectic as it once was, being on the water is still a treat.

“I love the people and I love the sport and in my lifetime I want to teach as many people as I can how to enjoy this sport,” he said.

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Les Winkeler is sports editor and outdoors writer for The Southern Illinoisan.

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