The Prairie State's Lunker Largemouths

The Prairie State's Lunker Largemouths

Some Illinois anglers go on out-of-state fishing trips to catch bass. What the heck are they thinking? We have plenty of big bucketmouths just waiting for a lure right here! (March 2006)

Not long ago, it was believed Illinois anglers had to travel to the sprawling reservoirs in the South, endure the sweltering heat of Mexico or finesse their way through the gin-clear lakes of California to catch a largemouth bass of behemoth proportions.

Unfortunately, destinations such as these are not convenient for John Q. Fisherman of the flatlands. But as all fishing paradigms inevitably shift, bass anglers from the Prairie State are finding out you don't have to plan an elaborate vacation to some faraway place to find a heart-stopping largemouth. Illinois is coming into its own as a destination to hook into trophy largemouth bass.

To boat the largemouth of a lifetime this year, you need only look out your back door and consider some of our own trophy waters. These are some of the best.

MILL CREEK LAKE

Clark County's Mill Creek Lake has been well known as one of the better bass fisheries in Illinois for some time, and lately it's been known as a place with the potential to produce wallhanger largemouths.

Strong numbers of 4- to 6-pound bucketmouths are taken from this small 811-acre reservoir, and Department of Natural Resources biologist Mike Mounce said Mill Creek has good potential for much larger bass.

"This has long been a very popular spot for Illinois fishermen," said Mounce. "A fish kill in 1999 reduced the bass density, and although the population has not completely recovered, there's still the potential to catch bass in excess of 8 pounds."

Park employee Dan Liffick fishes numerous tournaments on Mill Creek, and concurs with Mounce.

"Guys come to weigh in, and we see lots of 5- and 6-pound fish. Bass over 7 pounds are common, and there are reports of bass over 10 pounds starting to show up." Liffick also said that Mill Creek has 39 miles of shoreline and a lot of submerged cover such as Christmas trees and PVC attractors. "There are plenty of places to fish here."

Liffick said to concentrate on the backs of the brushy coves in the spring and to use small plastic worms in a red-shad pattern or black-and-blue jig-and-trailer combinations.

Mill Creek County Park is about six miles west of Marshall. There is a $10 daily fee to launch a boat, but yearly rates are available. Camping, cabins for rent, boat rental and concessions are available on site. For more information, call (217) 889-3901. For travel and lodging information, call the Marshall Chamber of Commerce at (217) 826-2034.

DEVILS KITCHEN LAKE

Little, deep and clear, Devils Kitchen Lake in Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge boasts a good population of big bass.

"Devils Kitchen is annually stocked with rainbow trout," said biologist Chris Bickers, "and when a bass grows large enough to eat these trout, they have the potential to grow fast and become a trophy."

Bickers said largemouths in the 7- to 8-pound range are not uncommon on Devils Kitchen, and there are reports each year of bass over 10 pounds. During the 2005 spring survey, two monsters over 8 pounds were sampled.

Tom Hayden, manager of Devils Kitchen Marina and Campground, said this lake produces some real "monsters."

"Every year a number of 9- to 10-pound fish are caught," said Hayden. "It's nothing to find a 7- or 8-pound fish, and I know there's a 15-pounder swimming out there."

Hayden said many of the biggest bass come from the lower end on the north side of the lake, and suggested fishing plastic worms and shad-type baits in and around brush to coax the big gals. Another possibility here would be super-sized tubes or 4- to 6-inch trout-patterned swim baits.

"Just this year, I caught an 8 1/2-pounder," said Hayden, "and in its mouth was a full-grown 14-inch trout that it had swallowed headfirst."

Devils Kitchen is about 10 miles south of Carbondale in Williamson County. There is a $2 user fee for the refuge. Boat launching is available at Devils Kitchen Campground. For more information, call (618) 457-5004. For travel and lodging information, contact the Marion Area Chamber of Commerce at (618) 997-6211.

NEWTON LAKE

Mention big bass in Illinois, and Newton Lake will definitely emerge in the conversation. Fish for fish, this Jasper County cooling lake could have the best overall population of trophy largemouths in our state.

"Newton Lake has provided excellent bass fishing over the past year," said DNR biologist Mike Hooe. "Anglers have reported catches of over 50 bass per day, with up to 18 fish exceeding the minimum-length limit. Bass from 5 to 7 pounds have been common, with a few fish exceeding 8 pounds."

Harold Rauch from Rauch's Bait and Tackle (618/752-2151) agrees and said that Newton produces a lot of fish in the 6- to 7-pound range, with a few 8-pounders every year.

"The biggest we've seen in our bait shop was a 10 1/2-pounder," said Rauch. "March and April are usually the best times to fish."

Rauch said most guys target cover in the coves in the spring, and suggested anglers throw shad-colored crankbaits or spinnerbaits for Newton's big bass. Plastic worms, Carolina rigs and jig-and-trailer combinations are likewise effective.

Newton Lake is located about six miles southwest of the town of Newton. It maintains a 25-horsepower limit on all motors, and a three-fish per day, 18-inch minimum on all largemouths. For more information, contact Newton Lake SFWA at (618) 783-3478. For travel and lodging information, call (618) 783-3399.

EAST FORK LAKE

East Fork Lake in Richland County is an up-and-coming trophy fishery, with a high density of bass in the 3-pound class. Although these are not trophies by many measures, they represent strong year-classes. And according to biologist Hooe, good numbers of larger bass are showing up.

"Four- and 5-pound fish have been common in East Fork for a while, and the lake has produced a few fish over 7 pounds" said Hooe. "Local tournaments are reporting five-fish limits exceeding 20 pounds."

Bob Long of the East Fork Bassmasters club in Olney fishes many weekly tournaments each year and said the club sees plenty of 7-pound fish at its weigh-ins. His personal best is a 9-pounder.

"In the spring, we fish a lot of the shallow points in the lake," said Long. "Pearl-white crankbaits, plastic worms and Lucky Craft Live Pointers catch a lot of fish."

Early in the year, good action also comes from the backs of coves around wood cover when using slower moving fare such as big-bladed spinnerbaits and jig-and-trailer combinations.

East Fork Lake is 973 acres and owned by the city of Olney. One ramp is available, and a boat sticker is required. Daily and seasonal stickers are available from the city and through local bait shops. Camping is available at East Fork Campground at (618) 395-4787. For more fishing information, contact the Region 5 fisheries office at (618) 547-3610. Travel and lodging information is available at (618) 392-2241.

STAUNTON CITY RESERVIOR

According to DNR biologist Jeff Pontnack, 84-acre Staunton City Reservoir in Macoupin County has a decent population of quality bass, with a number of lunkers present.

During this past spring's electro-shocking effort, bass over 20 inches were surveyed. The largest of these was a 6 1/2-pounder. About 37 percent of the population was 3 pounds or better, which suggested a high density of large fish, or bass that will soon be approaching trophy status. Many anglers report largemouths exceeding 8 pounds.

The water in Staunton is generally clear, and getting to the big fish often requires finesse. Small crankbaits, 1/4-ounce spinnerbaits, tubes and small jigs are popular for lunkers. Early in the summer, sight-fishing the shallows with live bait can produce some really big bass.

Staunton City Reservoir has a concrete launch just off Reservoir Road. A city sticker must be purchased, and all watercraft is limited to no-wake speed. For more information, contact Region 4 fisheries at (217) 833-2811. For travel and lodging information, call (618) 635-8356.

GILLESPIE NEW CITY RESERVOIR

If you're planning a trip to the Staunton Reservoir, you may also want to check out Gillespie New City Reservoir. At 272 acres, Gillespie is slightly larger than Staunton and boasts a slightly higher density of bass. According to biologist Pontnack, about 9 percent of the total population is 3 pounds or larger, and good numbers of bass in the 6- to 8-pound range swim here.

Gene Cailey, bass guide and owner of Mad Dog Bait in Litchfield (217/324-3965), agreed there's good numbers of big bass in Gillespie.

"You catch a lot of fish over 5 pounds from Gillespie," said Cailey, "and quite a few 8-pound-plus fish come out each year."

Cailey said April and May are top months to pursue bucketmouths, and he suggested throwing spinnerbaits, shad-colored crankbaits or plastic worms around wood and weed cover.

"There's a lot of milfoil, sandbars and contours, plenty of areas for bass to hang out," he said. He added that the riprapped levee of the dam is a good area to concentrate on.

Gillespie New City Lake is located two miles northwest of Gillespie. A park with camping, bait, concession and the usual amenities is available. A user-fee is assessed by the size of your outboard -- $7.50 for 40 horsepower and under, and $9.50 for 40 horsepower and up. For more information, call (618) 362-6363. For travel and lodging information, call (217) 839-4888.

MILLIKEN LAKE

At 26 acres and with an average depth of about 3 feet, Milliken in Des Plaines SFWA takes the cake for the smallest lake of the trophy profile. But bass-for-bass in the northeastern quadrant, this shallow gem is a real pig farm.

Similar to the phenomenon on Devils Kitchen, Milliken is stocked with trout annually. Combine this with extremely fertile conditions and a thick summer weed canopy, and many largemouths are able to surpass 6 pounds. Seven-pounders are not unheard of, and every now and then, someone catches a fish 8 pounds or larger. When you're talking about northern Illinois, that's pretty good.

April and May are prime times to cash in on Milliken's trophies before the weeds thicken. No boats are allowed, and wading the best way to fish. Large shallow-diving crankbaits, big spinnerbaits and bulky topwaters like Jitterbugs are great for making the long casts necessary to reach offshore lunkers.

Milliken Lake is located in Will County about five miles west of Wilmington. A large park area with picnic amenities and parking is located on the south end. Camping is available in Des Plains SFWA. For more information, call (815) 423-5326. For travel and lodging information, call (815) 476-5477.

LAKE KAKUSHA

Back in the late 1990s, this small 60-acre retention lake for the city of Mendota experienced a bloom of about three superb year-classes of largemouth bass. The lake was full of 14- to 16-inch fish, and it wasn't unusual to catch and release 100 bass in a day. After that, Kakusha produced a few hogs pushing 7 pounds.

Now, six years later, that surge in population is reaching trophy status. Due to natural mortality and harvest, there aren't the same numbers of lunkers, but a considerable number of bass in the 5- to 7-pound class are roaming this shallow lake.

With a maximum depth of 12 feet and an average depth of about 3 feet, Kakusha is similar to Milliken. Fertile water, excellent forage and a summer fortress of protective vegetation allow bass to thrive. April through June is best. Shallow crankbaits like Manns 1-Minus in shad or chartreuse, spinnerbaits and large suspending minnows such as Rapala Husky Jerks are effective.

Look for the best action to come from the riprapped face of the levee on the eastern shore or in the south bay. Numerous Christmas trees have been placed in the depths off shore, and for anglers who pay close attention to their electronics, uncontested behemoths can be found relating to that submerged cover.

Lake Kakusha is managed by the city of Mendota. Limited facilities are present, and there is a gravel launch on site. The lake is restricted to trolling motors only. Other site-specific regulations are posted. For more information, call Fred's Bait Shop at (815) 539-5024. Travel and lodging information is available at (815) 539-6507.

OTHER AREAS

The preceding waters comprise some of the best waters the Prairie State has to offer for largemouth bass fishing. Opportunity, however, is not limited to just these. The following also hold promise for those in search of Old Brutus.

Mazonia SFWA has multitudes of hard-to-access reclaimed strip-pit lakes that thwart the usual hook-and-line onslaught observed in waters in proximity to Chicago. Each year, many largemouths in the 5- to 7-pound range are caught. Early March to April is the best time to flip jig-and-trailer combinations or run spinnerbaits in heavy shoreline cordgrass. For more information, call Mazonia/Braidwood SFWA at (815) 237-0065.

Lake Charleston doesn't ha

ve the highest density of largemouths, according to biologist Mike Mounce, but he said every year a number of 9-pounders come out of this small 346-acre water-supply lake. March and April are the best times to throw big spinnerbaits and crankbaits for trophies. For more information, call (217) 935-6860.

Dean Thompson of Bluff City Tackle in Alton said that if he had to pick just one trophy bass lake in Illinois, it would be Otter Lake in Macoupin County. According to Thompson, Otter produces more 5-pound-plus fish than any other lake around his area. His personal best here is just over 9 pounds, and he also said that on any trip it's unusual not to catch at least one 5- or 6-pounder. Otter Lake is managed by the city of Girard. It has a 115-horsepower limit on motors and a user fee of $10 per day. For more information, call (618) 462-1181.

Biologist Shawn Hirst said that he would suggest 1,750-acre Cedar Lake in the Shawnee National Forest as the best bet in his five-county jurisdiction. His sampling last May proved to be the best ever for fish over 18 inches. The largest fish in his survey weighed just under 6 pounds. Anglers report bass pushing 8 pounds. Two boat launches are available. For more information, call (618) 687-4546.

Do you think you must travel to a distant destination to catch the largemouth bass of a lifetime? Don't call your travel agent just yet. Give some of our own lunker largemouth waters a try this year, and you'll agree that the Prairie State can hold its own in trophy-bass circles.

(Editor's note: For more information on all of these and more Illinois waters, visit www.ifishillinois.org.)

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