Lake Mendota is one of the most popular lakes in the Midwest. From ice hockey to ice fishing, you can enjoy a multitude of outdoor activities once the lake freezes over. Lake Mendota is the northernmost and largest of four lakes in Madison, Wisconsin. Lake Mendota and Lake Monona are separated by the Madison Isthmus. While separated by the Isthmus, the lakes are connected by the Yahara River. Near the river, there are popular protected parks like James Madison Park. From the University of Wisconsin Memorial Union, you can see breathtaking views of Lake Mendota. In the summertime, on their professional-sized stage, artists ranging from professionals to amateurs sing melodies as the sun sets. Folks can also fish, waterski, wakeboard, tube, canoe, wind-surf, kayak, and sail. If you are looking for rental equipment, UW Hoofers has an extensive inventory of water activity gear.
During the winter, residents can enjoy ice-boating, ice-skating, ice fishing, cross country skiing, ice hockey, and snowkiting. Lake Mendota has been acclaimed as one of the most studied lakes in the United States, with the UW-Madison Center for limnology located on its bank. When does the lake freeze over? The median freeze date is January 1st. It stays frozen for around 100 days. Every winter, the Mendota Freeze Contest features weather watchers and ice experts of all ages to predict the official ice-on date for Lake Mendota. Local hockey leagues, like the Frozen Assets, host tournaments on rinks built right on frozen Lake Mendota.
One of the most famous ice events on frozen Lake Mendota is Lily’s Classic. This is an annual event that hosts a hockey tournament to raise money and awareness for epilepsy research and epilepsy. Hosted by one of the fraternities on campus, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, Lily’s is a large event that students from across the state travel to see. According to their description, 1 in 26 people will develop epilepsy in their lives. They also inform us that, “more people suffer from epilepsy than multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, and Parkinson’s disease combined, yet epilepsy research receives less than half the funding of any of these diseases.” For reference, the Lily’s fund is a University of Wisconsin Research Foundation and 501(c)(3).
We asked an SAE member to give us his thoughts:
“I think it’s awesome how involved all the students here get for the event, and it means a lot to me that we can create that kind of excitement for a cause that’s local and really matters to the entire community here in Madison.”
~ Philanthropy Chair, Sean Nicgorski
UW-Madison students and fellow college students gather in a large crowd on frozen Lake Mendota behind the Sigma Alpha Epsilon Fraternity to watch the annual Lily’s Classic hockey game. Image retrieved from Aidan Monroe (2023).
If you’re not a hockey fan, there’s a ton of other activities you can do on the lake. For example, we have a large ice fishing community in Madison. And if you think fishing is idle and not a good source of exercise, talk to a fisherman who will tell you hauling the gear, drilling the hole, and setting up camp is a great workout. How exactly do you go about ice fishing? First, you can bring your gear out on the ice using a sled to ease the load. Then you can find your perfect spot and start drilling. After you get close to your desired circumference, you can use an ice chisel to widen the hole. Then, it’s optional, but you can use a skimmer to keep the hole free from ice and slush that forms during the day. Locate your lures, hugging rods, or tip-ups to catch your fish. After you set up your line, you’ll need to lock in and pay attention to if you caught a fish by looking at the flag on the tip-up. Bring hot chocolate and hand warmers to make this experience even better!
Surprisingly, winter fishing can take credit for nearly 1/4 the annual catch in Wisconsin. People enjoy the quiet mornings on the ice or making new friends with neighboring camps. Some families like to make it a family event and teach their younger children early on. It’s a challenging sport, but with the help of an adult, kids can enjoy ice fishing too. In order to fish in the summer or winter, you must carry your license with you. Get a copy of your current Wisconsin Fishing Regulations to find out about restrictions, regulations, policy changes, and statewide regulations.
Ice Fishing Information Retrieved from Environmental Education https://www.eekwi.org/engage/outdoor-safety/everything-you-need-know-about-ice-fishing
Looking for community or activities for students? Look no further than the annual Winter Carnival at UW-Madison’s Memorial Union. Ran by Hoofers, this event is multiple days and features super fun winter activities. In the past, there was a shoesnow hike from the Union to a bonfire at Picnic Point for a cozy fire and hot cocoa. They also hosted Turkey Bowling, which is throwing a turkey on the ice towards pins. Pairing with UW RecSports, they put on a broom-ball tournament where teams used broom-like staffs to bat a game ball into the opposing team’s goal box. Looking for action? Hoofers Ski and Snowboard club install rails and ramps in front of Memorial Union and show off their best tricks and flips.
Want a photo op? Take a picture with Lady Liberty on Lake Mendota. This 40 year tradition was debuted in 1979 by the Pail and Shovel Party to bring “wackiness to UW-Madison’s Wisconsin Student Association.” She is constructed in a way that makes it look like she is emerging from the lake.
Lady Liberty emerging from Lake Mendota, image from Bryce Richter
Lastly, let’s discuss safety on the lake, so you can head into the fun winter season with caution. Make sure to survey the lake before stepping on. Avoid inlets, outlets or narrows that may have a current that can thin the ice. Ideally step on clear ice, which is generally stronger than ice with snow on it. Consider bringing these safety items: ice claws, ice picks, waterproof bag for your cell phone, a lifejacket, length of rope. Try to wear non-slip shoes or boots to avoid falling on the lake. If you do end up falling in the lake, kick your feet and dig in your ice picks to work your way back onto solid ice. If your clothes are full of water and weighing you down, lift yourself partially out of the water, if you’ve reached solid ice, and let them drain.
We will see you on the ice this winter break! Send us photos of you enjoying yourself to
~ Nina Petrosino, Snow Scholars Writer