Illinois' Best Bets For Bucketmouths

Illinois' Best Bets For Bucketmouths

It's tough to pick just the top 12 largemouth bass lakes in our state, mainly because there are so many good ones. But the author came up with a dandy dozen, plus three "sleeper" lakes.

Each year, we're asked to come up with the top largemouth bass fishing lakes in Illinois, and every year the assignment gets harder and harder. It's not that it's hard to find a dozen good lakes. It's hard because we have to narrow the list down to 12 waters.

Fisheries biologists have more tools to manage lakes than ever before, plus increased catch-and-release fishing ensures that fish in their prime continue to provide fishing action for other anglers.

"Our goal is to use the tools available to us to make every lake into good fishing waters," said Scott Stuewe, acting Fisheries Division chief for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. "We want to spread the wealth, so to speak, so every Illinois angler has a good fishing lake nearby."

Biologists use stockings from the hatcheries and on-site nursery ponds to supplement bass production at lakes. The DNR also uses restrictive harvest regulations to protect some populations of fish.

"We have large numbers of anglers in Illinois, so we're lucky that catch-and-release fishing is popular here," Stuewe said. "There is a strong drive among Illinois anglers to return their bass to the water. That's a good thing. But it's okay for anglers to take fish home and eat them, too."

We've picked a dozen lakes -- four from northern Illinois, four from central Illinois and four from southern Illinois -- that we believe will have the best bass fishing this year. We looked for lakes that provide a good cross between quantity and quality -- both good populations with some nice trophies there, too. We also have a "sleeper" lake for each region, a lake that might not get the accolades other lakes do but has the possibility of becoming one of the top bass fishing waters in the state. These are lakes that are definitely worth checking out, from north to south.

FOX CHAIN-O-LAKES

Located 30 miles northwest of Chicago, these Lake County and McHenry County lakes have a lot of boating, skiing and everything else that can ruin your fishing trip. But go midweek and you'll find relatively quiet lakes and big bass.

The bass population was almost nil in The Chain in the late 1980s. Then the DNR began supplemental stocking. The result is a good to excellent bass population, with a catch rate that gets better each year. Reproduction is taking place, too, so fishing should continue to be good. This trend is for all the lakes in The Chain. In addition, the number of trophy fish continues to grow. Catherine and Bluff lakes have the best bass fishing. Anglers should work the channels, weedbeds, brushy areas and docks. The average catch will be 1 to 2 pounds, but 4- and 5-pound fish are not uncommon. There is a 14-inch minimum and six-bass-per-day limit.

BRAIDWOOD LAKE

This popular Will County lake attracts more crappie anglers than bass fanatics. The 2,308-acre cooling lake can have water temperatures in the high 90s during the summer months, and while fishing is best in the spring and fall, the largemouth bass apparently have grown accustomed to the warm water, so don't hesitate to fish there during the hot months.

Despite these conditions, the lake has a great bass population that continues to improve each year. The lake shows good reproduction each year. The average catch will be 1 to 2 pounds, but 4-pounders are plentiful, and 6-pounders aren't uncommon. Best fishing is off the points and near current breaks.

The lake opens March 1. Bass have to be 15 inches minimum. There is a three-fish-per-day limit. There are boat launching facilities at each end of the lake. Boaters are required to have a gasoline-powered motor.

LAKE GEORGE

This Rock Island County lake is only 167 acres in size but has a long history of great bass fishing. When that fishery went bad in the early 1990s, the DNR developed nursery ponds and began doing supplemental stocking of fingerlings and larger-sized bass, and the lake rebounded. The stockings have continued and the lake is better than ever.

The lake also has an excellent forage base, too, so catching fish can be tough. But give this lake a try. Bass average about 2 pounds and you'll find them in the bays, off points and near fish attractors. You'll also find numerous 4-pound fish, and trophy bass come out of the lake regularly.

There is a 14-inch minimum size limit. It's a trolling-motor-only lake.

BANNER MARSH

Banner Marsh is a series of old strip-mine lakes along the Illinois River south of Peoria, and the best fishing comes from the three larger lakes -- Johnson (600 acres), Wheel (350 acres) and Shovel (100 acres). These lakes have been showing yearly increases of big, healthy bass.

There is a strong population of bass in the 1- to 4-pound range, and fairly good numbers of trophies 5 to 6 pounds. You'll also hear about 8-pounders coming from there each year, too. These lakes feature very clear water, so fishing can be tough, but concentrate along the weedlines and around other aquatic vegetation.

The lakes feature a slot length limit, so bass 12 to 18 inches are protected. There also is a three-per-day limit. There are ramps at each of the bigger lakes, but boats are limited to 25-horsepower motors.

EVERGREEN LAKE

This is our northern "sleeper" lake. This 886-acre Bloomington city-owned lake has little natural bass reproduction, but a cooperative bass stocking program with the DNR has increased bass numbers to where the fishing has gone from mediocre to excellent. How good? Biologists estimate the program has increased the catch rate by 600 percent from the mid-1990s.

Located 10 miles north of Bloomington, the size structure in the lake is dominated by fish over 12 inches. More than 60 percent are over 15 inches, and 5 percent are 20 inches long. Your average catch will be 2 pounds, but there are some giants to be found here. Best fishing is off points and along laydowns.

There is a 15-inch minimum and boaters are restricted to 10-horsepower motors. You also are required to display a user sticker on your boat.

LAKE SPRINGFIELD

The 2000 and 2001 year-classes of bass dominate the population in this 4,234-acre lake. These fish are between 1 3/4 and 2 1/2 pounds, and they are healthy. But this lake displays a high density of bass, and all year-classes are healthy. The lake has the unusual trait of producing a great population of fish up to 18 inches, then having few fish larger than that. But there are some trophy

bass there.

The lake has all kinds of structure, so look for them off the points, in weeds, off the riprap, along laydowns and on flats. Most anglers prefer the upper third of the lake west of the Interstate 55 bridge for bass, but there is good fishing on the east side, too.

This is a high-use lake, so weekend fishing can be difficult if you don't get out early. There is a 15-inch minimum on fish, and boats must display a user sticker.

SANGCHRIS LAKE

This lake has been one of the top fishing lakes in our state for the past 20 years, and this year is no different. The size and quality of the fish remains excellent in this 2,165-acre lake, despite the fact that it's a hotwater lake, with high water temperatures causing the bass to burn more calories than other lakes. The lake also gets a lot of fishing pressure, but it has a good forage base and anglers at this lake practice catch-and-release fishing more than at most other lakes.

Fish are about 1 to 2 pounds on average, but a lot of big fish swim here. Best fishing is along laydowns, near dropoffs, in the weedy areas and along riprap at this lake, located about 13 miles southeast of Springfield.

There is a 15-inch minimum and a three-fish-per-day limit. Boaters are limited to 25-horsepower motors.

JACKSONVILLE LAKE

This lake has a very high density of keeper-sized bass and also excellent numbers of big bass. This 475-acre Morgan County lake continues to grow in popularity with central Illinois anglers but seems to handle the fishing pressure with ease.

Located three miles south of Jacksonville, the average catch will be 1 to 2 pounds, but 4-pound fish are common, and 6- and 7-pound fish are taken with great regularity. Anglers find the fish around stickups, weedy areas, points, riprap and off fallen trees. Natural reproduction is supplemented by hatchery fish and a nursery pond. In addition, smallmouth bass were introduced in the lake two years ago, which should make the fishing even better in the future. There is a 15-inch minimum on bass, and boaters are required to have a user sticker.

COFFEEN LAKE

This hotwater Montgomery County cooling lake has never been thought of as being a top fishing lake, but it has slowly but surely gone from mediocre to excellent for bass. Because the water gets so warm during the summer months, the best fishing comes early in the year, and in late fall and early winter.

Biologists say this 1,100-acre lake, located one mile west of Coffeen, has excellent numbers of 15-inch fish, as well as numerous 18-inch bass. Anglers take good numbers of 2-pound fish, and plentiful numbers of 4- to 5-pounders, by fishing the points, weedy areas, back of coves and laydowns. There is a 15-inch minimum length limit, and boaters are limited to 25-horsepower motors.

TAYLORVILLE LAKE

This 1,286-acre lake is our central Illinois "sleeper," and it has made a tremendous turnaround since the late 1980s and early 1990s when its bass population was poor. That's when the city and DNR entered into a recovery program that included nursery ponds and stocking, and the bass population has improved every year since. The fishing was excellent last year, and 2005 should be no different.

The lake has all sizes of bass, and these fish are healthy due to a strong forage base. There are good numbers of high-quality fish, and the lake is showing good natural reproduction, too. The best fishing is around laydowns and near stumps, as well as around weeds, where anglers will find 1 1/2- to 2-pounders in plentiful numbers, as well as numerous fish in the 3-to 4-pound range.

The best bass fishing is on the lower half of the lake. The lake is quite shallow in some places, especially in the upper half. Don't run fast if you're not familiar with its terrain, because there are submerged islands. There is a 15-inch minimum size limit on bass, and a user fee is required for boaters.

MILL CREEK LAKE

This 811-acre Clark County lake has a history of good bass fishing, and 2005 will be no different. If anything, fishing will just be improved from last year. The lake has an abundance of habitat, and there is excellent natural reproduction, which keeps this a self-sustaining fishery.

Located five miles west of Marshall, the average catch will be in the 1- to 2-pound range, but this lake has a great population of 3- to 5-pound fish, and bass over 10 pounds are there now. Anglers can be numerous at times, but the lake sustains the pressure and continues to improve. The best fishing is along the shoreline and along laydowns, but the lake has a lot of habitat, so check all areas.

The lake has a 12- to 15-inch slot limit and anglers are limited to three fish per day. There is an access fee.

PINCKNEYVILLE CITY LAKE

Twenty years ago, this lake was ignored by most bass anglers, and for good reason. Fishing was poor. Today, this is one of the top lakes in the state. Located three miles northwest of Pinckneyville, this 165-acre lake has received more than 20,000 4-inch-plus bass during the last decade, and the bass population has increased every year.

This Perry County lake produces trophies, with only one bass of at least 18 inches being permitted each day. The limit protects the growing bass population, and anglers are pleased with the improvement. There are numerous bass larger than 18 inches now present, plus an excellent population of 1- to 2-pound fish. Best of all, the lake doesn't get a lot of fishing pressure. There is a 10-horsepower limit on motors.

CRAB ORCHARD LAKE

This 7,000-acre Williamson County lake has gone from a good bass fishery to an excellent one in the last five years. Located one mile south of Carterville, you can credit this turnaround to an increased stocking effort and more stringent harvest regulations. There is a 16-inch minimum and a three-fish-per-day limit on this U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lake.

The lake has a great population of 13- to 15-inch fish, excellent numbers of fish 15 inches and longer, and one-fifth of the population is made up of 16-inch and larger fish. Growth rates are good, which is a result of good habitat and abundant forage. Fish the flats, off points, along laydowns and the docks.

HARRISBURG NEWCITY RESERVOIR

This 210-acre Saline County lake has a balanced fishery with an abundance of bass over 4 pounds. There also is a good number of 5- to 7-pound fish there.

Located one mile east of Galatia, the bass fishing has been characterized as very good for the past three to four years, and we're bumping it up to excellent now. Fish the shoreline cover, points and in the coves. Boaters are restricted to 10 horsepower.

WASHINGTON COUNTY LAKE

This is our "sleeper" lake for southern Illinois. This 250-acre state-owned lake is located seven miles south of Nashville, has excellent habitat, good fertility and a surprisingly good forage base. The young-of-the-year and other year-classes

of fish are abundant, so good fishing should continue for years.

This lake has a reputation for producing trophy bass, and that tradition continues to this day. But the lake also has a strong population of 13- to 16-inch fish, and nice numbers of 17- to 19-inch fish. The average catch will be about 2 pounds, but expect larger fish, too. Fish around the woody debris like stumps, laydowns and brush, plus rocky areas. There is a 14-inch minimum and a three-fish-per-day limit. Boaters are restricted to 10 horsepower.

There you have it. The 12 lakes and three sleepers that fisheries biologists believe will have the best bass fishing in Illinois in 2005. All you have to do now is start planning your trips.

Magazine Cover

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Temporary Price Reduction

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get the top Game & Fish stories delivered right to your inbox every week.