There are not many public lakes in Illinois where you find bass anglers searching for lures that won’t catch fish. And there aren’t many public lakes where an angler stands a decent chance of catching two bass on one crankbait. But The Nature Conservancy’s Emiquon Preserve is such a place.
Photo by Jeff Lampe.
Opened just last spring to fishing, the 6,892-acre wetland restoration in Fulton County, northwest of Havana, has provided a growing number of central Illinois anglers with incredible bass fishing. Catches of 50, 100 and even 200 largemouth bass per boat were common last summer in Emiquon’s fertile waters — even during July and August when bass had virtually shut down at many other lakes. And while most of those bass ranged between 12 to 16 inches, anglers who visited the lake marveled at the fishery. That included Peoria native Tim Cebulko, who now lives in Jacksonville, Florida.
“Living in Florida for 20 years has spoiled me. There are some lakes down here where the numbers and size have spoiled me. But I’ve never seen anything like Emiquon,” Cebulko said. “We had a couple of pretty windy days, but still caught 110 bass one day and 82 one afternoon. My dad (Dan) fishes there a lot — his best day is 175 by himself. He called one day and said he anchored in one spot for seven hours and caught 160 bass!”
The fast growth of bass is no shock. Fertile backwaters of the Illinois River have long been fish-producing machines. The Emiquon Preserve is located on the old lakebed of Thompson and Flag lakes. While those lakes were still connected to the Illinois River, they were among the most the productive commercial fisheries in the country.
That all changed in 1921 when a levee was built around the property and the lakes were pumped dry. For the next 86 years. the land was farmed and drained by 16 miles of drainage ditches. But in 2000, The Nature Conservancy purchased 7,775 acres for $18.45 million and announced its plans to restore wetlands on the fertile old lakebeds. After several delays, pumps were shut off in April of 2007, allowing water and aquatic vegetation to retake Emiquon. The lake filled faster than expected, and the response by plants and fish (since they were stocked in March of 2007) has been similarly speedy.
Bass were most evident last year. In fact, largemouths were often so aggressive it was difficult to catch much else. A list of lures that worked well at Emiquon is virtually limitless and even includes pink spinnerbaits, pink Senkos and Zoom Trick worms. That said, white or light-colored crankbaits, plastic worms, Senkos, spinnerbaits and Rat-L-Traps were best bets on most days.
Early last spring, the bass were schooled along weeds in the shallows along the lake’s west side. By summer, bass had moved into the deeper water of former drainage ditches, which can be identified by flooded trees and bushes that once lined their banks. Last fall, most bass were in 6 to 8 feet of water along ditches. And contrary to what the lake’s abundant vegetation might make you think, there is plenty of deep water. While much of the lake ranges from 6 to 8 feet deep, ditches run 10 to 20 feet deep and there’s even 30- to 40-foot depths in places.
One drawback for Emiquon anglers is access. Bank-fishing is not allowed. All anglers must obtain a free permit before fishing. Permits are available at the nearby Dickson Mounds Museum, which is open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Call (309) 547-2730 for more information. Permits are free and are valid for one calendar year.
The real limiting factor is a rule that allows trolling motors only at Emiquon. Gas motors are not even allowed on boats. For many bass anglers, that’s a deal breaker. Others correctly note that relying on a trolling motor in a 4,000-acre lake invites safety problems. Either way, that likely explains why crowds remained small throughout last summer. In fact, on most days, the gravel parking lot at Emiquon held no more than 12 vehicles, some days far fewer. Windy days generally saw lighter traffic, since it’s wise to avoid Emiquon on breezy days. The lake is fairly wide open and turns choppy in a hurry.
To combat access issues, many local anglers are rigging smaller boats with two trolling motors for added speed and safety. Some are even buying small boats in preparation for what they see as a seller’s market.
“As word gets out, more and more people are going to want boats to take down to Emiquon,” said bass angler Ed Glover of Elmwood.
Glover’s tournament fishing partner Fred Lantz of Elmwood is one of several Emiquon regulars who managed to catch two bass on one crankbait. While the 2-for-1 deal was unexpected, fisheries biologist Rob Hilsabeck predicted plenty of bass even before the lake opened. In bodies of public water, biologists are pleased to sample one bass per minute while electrofishing. Emiquon yielded three bass per minute in the fall of 2008.
“There’s a tremendous number of bass in there between 8 and 15 inches,” Hilsabeck said heading into last summer. “So you’re going to be able to catch bass. And dumb bass. But as far as catching many over 18 inches, not yet.”
The 18-inch size is significant since it marks the legal minimum for bass at Emiquon, where there’s also a one-fish-per-day limit. So if you catch a keeper, chances are good it will be a wallhanger. Troy Jackson of Galesburg caught and released a 23.5-incher on a Rapala crankbait, and local bait shops had numerous reports of 6-pounders being taken home. Those fish were likely part of a group of 700 brood bass stocked in 2007. Many of those big hawgs are still out there, and some will be pushing 9 pounds by now.
That’s because growth rates at Emiquon are accelerated by the site’s fertility. Remember, for years this was a well-fertilized crop field that produced bumper crops of corn and beans. Now the flooded acres do the same for fish and aquatic vegetation. A similar thing happened at Hennepin and Hopper lakes, another restored Illinois River backwater with excellent bass fishing. Emiquon is even better, though, because the lake is open to the public seven days per week and because fishing for other species took off late last summer as well.
Overall, the state has stocked 30 species at Emiquon as part of a cooperative agreement with The Nature Conservancy. That included game fish like bass, crappies, bluegills, pumpkinseeds, saugers, walleyes, bullheads and channel catfish, along with state endangered non-game species like orange-spotte
d sunfish and starhead top minnows.
“It’s a representation of the native fish species that previously occurred in some of our backwater lakes along the Illinois River when the water was clear and the rooted aquatic vegetation was doing well,” Hilsabeck said.
The privately owned Emiquon also has unique rules worth noting. An adult must accompany anyone 18 or younger. Fishing is allowed only on the western half of the lake. The following are not allowed at Emiquon: live bait (except worms), bank-fishing, bow-fishing, belly-boating, fish-cleaning and tournaments.
For more information, call The Nature Conservancy at (309) 547-2730.