POYNETTE, Wis. — The drizzle flew sideways. Rick Beckwith's fingers were a numb pink. But he still cast his line into Lake Columbia.
"I'm out here all year round," said Beckwith, 30, who took a day off from work to go fishing.
Whether the calendar says January or July, anglers can be found at Lake Columbia. Jet-skiers and wind-surfers, too. That's because the water never freezes. In fact, the only time it isn't 70 degrees is summer. Then it's 90.
But Lake Columbia, tucked away in marshes about 20 miles north of Madison, isn't some secret hot spring.
The mystery begins and ends with the Alliant Energy electrical plant at the man-made lake's northern edge. Built in 1975, the plant pulls 10,000 gallons a minute from the Wisconsin River.
The water winds its way up two cooling towers, which produce enough electricity to light more than 60,000 homes across southeastern Wisconsin.
The plant then spews the water back into the lake at 115 degrees.
Power plants pumping superheated water into rivers and lakes are nothing new. In Wisconsin alone, plants discharge cooling water into the Mississippi River, Lake Superior and Lake Michigan, DNR officials say. That hot water dissipates.
But at 400-plus acres, Lake Columbia is the largest so-called cooling pond in Wisconsin, according to the DNR. The water circulates around the mile-and-a-half-long lake and cools 25 degrees. Then it returns to the plant for another cooling run.
A complete cycle takes about five days, said DNR fishery biologist Tim Larson. On winter days, the water is easily 30 degrees warmer than the air.
Result: A veil of steam more reminiscent of Loch Ness than a Wisconsin fishing hole.
The water poses no threat to the environment, Alliant spokesman David Jirox said.
The lake--7 feet at its deepest spot--doesn't have a boat landing. Jet-skiers and wind-surfers just carry their craft to the water's edge and take off.
Wisconsin Light and Power, the company that originally built the plant, worked out a plan with the DNR in the early 1970s to make the cooling pond a fishery reserve. Before WL&P flipped the switch for its new plant, sturgeon and northern pike flourished in the lake.
Then 100-degree water cooked them alive, Larson said.
The DNR has since stocked the lake with hybrid striper to control the shad population. Bluegill, largemouth bass and smallmouth bass have found their way in from the Wisconsin.
"I've pulled some catfish out of here too," said John Holland of Poynette. He said he heard about the lake a year or so ago.
"Guys talk about it," he said.
DNR officials said the lake is the only fishery pond in the Midwest that is home to the hybrid striper.
Lake Columbia gets fished three times as much as other similar-size lakes in Wisconsin, Larson said.
In February 1998, Kurtis Pankow pulled out a 13-pound, 8.3-ounce hybrid striper, good for a state record.
Bob Benzine, owner of Pardeeville Sport & Marine, said he nailed an 11-pound striper here three years ago, and his stepson got a 12-pounder the next year. "It's a good fishing hole," Benzine said.
But Larson called the lake a "pretty harsh aquatic environment."
No vegetation can endure. Few insects survive. The fish feed on each other. In fact, fishermen pulled out three pacus--South American fish similar to the piranha--in one week about a decade ago, Larson said.
DNR officials later determined someone had thrown in four pet pacus. The fourth thrived and hunted in the pond until someone finally caught it about a year ago, Larson said. It weighed 6 pounds.
"Who knows what's in there?" he said.