Illinois' Best Bets For Bucketmouths

Illinois' Best Bets For Bucketmouths

Chances are good you have the hooks sharpened on your bass lures and the boat is ready to go for another season. Just be sure to put these destinations on your itinerary! (March 2007)

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

If you are like many Illinois anglers at the first hint of spring, your thoughts probably turn toward bass fishing.

For a few months now you have most likely been sharpening hooks, perusing catalogues and online tackle shops, oiling up reels, tinkering with your boat -- and maybe even biting your fingernails in anticipation of the upcoming season.

Chances are also good that over the course of the winter you did your homework on where to find the best fishing in the Prairie State. But just in case you forgot to do so, we have planned your itinerary to our best largemouth bass destinations for this year.

SHABBONA LAKE

Department of Natural Resources biologist Ken Clodfelter said Shabbona Lake in De Kalb County is perhaps the best largemouth hotspot in northern Illinois.

"When we did our fall survey, we had a tremendous sample," Clodfelter said. "There were outstanding numbers of fish in the 2- to 4-pound class. We saw many fish in the 12- to 14-inch class, too. All in all, we had well over 100 fish per hour. While we were doing our sample, one angler pulled in a 5 1/2-pounder not far from our boat."

In the spring, the electric-motor-only area of the lake warms the fastest, thus attracting hungry bass. Target the standing timber with jig-and-trailer combinations. As the water warms up, so does the action in the eastern bay. Crankbaits in a shad pattern and plastic jerk-worms are effective when fished over emergent vegetation. When the heat of the summer comes on and the weeds coat the shallows, topwaters work great, as do plastic worms fished along the bottom. Deep-water areas, numerous fish attractors strewn around points and deep-standing timber hold big largemouths that many anglers overlook.

Shabbona is the bucketmouth factory to watch this year, and at 319 acres, it is very fishable. Superb facilities are available, including camping, boat rental and concessions. For more information, call the park office at (815) 824-2106. For travel and lodging information, call the De Kalb Chamber of Commerce at (815) 756-6306.

HENNEPIN-HOOPER LAKE

This "new lake" recently opened, and it is attracting many anglers eager to take a crack at the bass in what could be one of the best largemouth waters in central Illinois this year. Site superintendent Rick Siebert said Hennepin-Hooper is teeming with good-sized bucketmouths.

"The bass population is in excellent shape," Siebert said. "We see a lot of fish up to about 6 pounds, and I'd say the average bass is around 17 inches. Reports of catching 30 bass in a day are not uncommon."

A shallow drainage region, the lake averages about 3 feet deep. The bottom tends to be soft, and according to Siebert, just about every kind of aquatic weed found in Illinois grows here.

When the lake opens in May, bass are aggressive and the weed cover is minimal. Bright-colored spinnerbaits, twitch worms and shallow-diving crankbaits are productive. As the weeds get thicker, topwater baits such as plastic Snagproof Frogs, Weed Demons and surface spoons cover large amounts of water in search of active fish. Texas-rigged plastic worms or lizards also work well.

Hennepin-Hooper is a privately owned facility. From Sunday through Thursday, the lake is only open to members. On Friday and Saturday, the lake is open to the public. Memberships cost $300 per year. The facility is open between May 1 and Oct. 1. Propulsion is restricted to trolling motors, and any craft cannot have a gas-powered motor on board while on the lake -- even if you are not using it.

Few facilities exist on site other than the boat launch, but bass for bass, Hennepin-Hooper Lake will be the one to watch in 2007.

For more information, call the site at (815) 481-0778. For travel and lodging information, call the Princeton Area Chamber of Commerce at (815) 875-2616.

LAKE JACKSONVILLE

Twenty years ago, this 500-acre lake was drained and rehabilitated in what was one of the largest lake reconstruction projects in the Prairie State. Ten years ago, few folks other than those within a 50-mile radius of Jacksonville could have told you that they had ever heard of this place. But right now, word is starting to creep out among bass anglers that this small municipal lake could be the best bass lake in all of Illinois.

"Jacksonville is incredibly hot right now," said DNR biologist Dan Stephenson. "Last year, we collected about 100 fish per hour of electrofishing. About half of those were over the 15-inch minimum length. About half of those were over 18 inches, and we collected 12 bass per hour that were 20 inches or better."

"Lake Jacksonville is the best bass fishery in the state and one of the best in the Midwest," said Bruce Surrat of Lake Jacksonville Campground. "We allow 32 tournaments each year on the lake. We start taking applications for tournaments on Jan. 3 each year, and on that day we usually book the season."

Surrat said it takes a minimum of 25 pounds for a five-fish limit to win most contests! (Continued)

Lake Jacksonville is composed of traditional reservoir-type structures such as stumps and fencerows, plus manmade cover like brushpiles, pallet beds and Christmas trees create ideal habitat. Surrat said early in the season, jig-and-pig combinations are productive when worked around shoreline cover. Later in the spring and early summer, spinnerbaits and shad-pattern crankbaits excel. During the hot months, plastic worms and topwaters work great.

Lake Jacksonville is located about 10 miles south of the town of Jacksonville. There is camping and concessions available. Although it's free to fish on the lake, the city collects a boat-launching fee based on residency and overall horsepower. For more information, call (217) 479-4646. For travel and lodging information, call (217) 245-2174.

COFFEEN LAKE

Travel to Montgomery County near the town of Hillsboro and you'll find a small power-plant lake called Coffeen. Despite being popular with anglers, this 1,000-acre lake could challenge any water in Illinois for the blue-ribbon bass factory title.

"The bass population is better than ever," said DNR biologist Jeff Pontnack. "Our last survey turned up 93 fish per hour and indicated that 62 percent were 15 inches or better, 15 percent were 18 inches and 2 perc

ent were over 20 inches long."

"Coffeen Lake is probably the best lake in the state for bass in the 2- to 4-pound range," said Scott Withers, owner of Indian Grove Fish Camp, (217) 537-3001. "There are very few days where you won't catch a limit."

Withers suggested that in early spring, anglers concentrate their efforts in the hot-water areas of the cooling loop. During the summer, bass migrate out of the loop and stage on stumpy points and weeds in the main lake and its fingers. As for presentation, Withers said anything works. "Topwaters, spinnerbaits, crankbaits and plastics all produce fish," he said.

With good facilities, concessions and camping, if you've never had the chance to fish Coffeen Lake, this is the year for a visit. For more information, call (217) 537-3351. For travel and lodging information, call the Hillsboro Chamber of Commerce at (217) 532-3711.

SANGCHRIS LAKE

Not far from our state capital, Sangchris Lake is poised to experience one of its best years of bass fishing in 2007.

"Our last survey was the best bass survey I've had in 25 years on the lake," said the DNR's Stephenson. "We collected 143 bass per hour, more than twice what is considered good for a CPUE. Of these, 32 percent were over 15 inches and 7 percent were over 18 inches."

Aside from surveys, Sangchris is putting up incredible numbers in tournaments.

"One bass tournament by the Sangchris Bass Club in

April weighed in 565 pounds of bass with a field of 80 anglers," Stephenson said. "That's an incredible weight when considering that there is a three-fish per day limit with a 15-inch minimum size."

As with most cooling lakes, fish migrations tend to move with water temperature. Early in the spring, the hot central arm of the lake tends to be the most productive for anglers throwing spinnerbaits and shad-pattern crankbaits to visible cover along the banks. Into summer, fishing tends to be productive in the cool west arm. Plastic worms and jigs find plenty of largemouths.

Picnicking, camping and good shore access is available. Boats are restricted to 25 horsepower. For more information, call (217) 498-9208. For travel and lodging information, call the Springfield Visitors Bureau at 1-800-545-7300.

MILL CREEK

Among the biggest raves this year will be Mill Creek Lake. With increasing populations of quality-sized bass -- maybe one of the best populations of trophy largemouths in all Illinois -- this county park lake in Clark County has to be on your itinerary this season.

"The size and structure of the population is good," said DNR biologist Mike Mounce "The catch rate of fish 1-year-old and older in our last survey was higher than any other since 1985."

Park employee Dan Liffick said it was one of the best years he has seen on Mill Creek Lake.

"We saw excellent numbers of fish in the 3- to 4-pound range this year," Liffick said. "The average tournament weight was about 18 or 19 pounds for a five-fish limit. We see numbers of big bass up to about 9 pounds, too."

Liffick said there are 811 acres of water, points, coves, laydowns, weedbeds and flooded timber, so Mill Creek is an angler's paradise.

"We had good luck on main-lake points and in the weeds," Liffick said. "In the early spring, cove ends tend to produce good results."

As for bait, Liffick noted, "Red plastic worms are especially effective, but chartreuse spinnerbaits, shad crankbaits, and black and blue jigs are consistent producers."

Mill Creek's reputation has gained much attention in recent years. Located six miles west of Marshall, there is camping, concessions and excellent facilities available. There is a $10 daily fee to launch a boat, but yearly rates are available. For more information, call (217) 889-3901. For travel and lodging information, call the Marshall Chamber of Commerce at (217) 826-2034.

KINCAID LAKE

It's difficult to name just one good lake within the Shawnee National Forest, but one standout this year will definitely be Kincaid Lake.

"We had one of our best samples ever for Kincaid Lake this past spring," said DNR biologist Shawn Hirst. "In terms of overall numbers, we sampled 91 bass per hour, and 26 percent were legal fish. Thirteen percent were over 18 inches."

"The bass fishing is the best I've seen it in a while," said Terry Graeff of Top of the Hill Bait in Murphysboro, (618) 684-2923. "We've been seeing a lot of fish in the 3- to 5-pound class. To win a tournament here, it takes a limit weight of 17 pounds or better, and the bass seem to be everywhere."

Graeff pointed to the main island area -- where the old beach used to be -- as a particularly good spot to fish.

"There's grass extending about 50 yards off the north end, and 25 yards to the south, east and west," he said. "And anytime you fish here, you should be able to find a few bass."

Additionally, Graeff said any point with rocks, wood or grass is a magnet for bucketmouths. Early in the spring, backs of coves tend to attract numbers of fish, and as the water warms, bass transit to main-lake areas. Hirst said some of their best samples come from the Johnson Creek arm of the lake.

"One of my favorite baits to throw for Kinkaid bass is a deep-diving suspending Shad Rap," Graeff said. "There are other guys who do really well on white spinnerbaits and plastic worms."

In the spring, jig-and-trailer combinations and tubes work well for coolwater fish in this 2,750-acre lake.

For more information, contact Kinkaid Lake SFWA at (618) 684-2867. For travel and lodging information, call the Murphysboro Chamber of Commerce at (618) 684-6421.

LAKE OF EGYPT

Anybody who fishes tournaments in Illinois probably has some knowledge of Lake of Egypt in Williamson and Johnson counties, and this is for good reason.

According to Tom Sample of Pyramid Acres Marina, the bass fishing is "tremendous."

"If you come down here to fish a tournament, it takes at least 20 pounds to win for a five-fish limit," Sample said. "Just (recently) a winning weight was 26 pounds, and if you caught 18 pounds, you finished around 10th place."

Sample added that the biggest largemouth weighed in at his facility was just over 8 pounds. Last year, there were a number of fish weighed in pushing 10 pounds, with the biggest being an 11-pound, 4-ounce brute.

Sample said there is an abundance of wood, rock and weed cover throughout the lake, but a few places are especially hot.

"Throughout the

year, the area around the island in the ski area has a lot of grass around it," he said. "Wagon Creek also has a lot of grass and wood, and Cliffy Creek is where the 11-pounder was caught."

In early spring, white or chartreuse spinnerbaits fished around the wood or grass is the most popular way to extract Egyptian bucketmouths. Jig-and-pig combinations and shad-colored crankbaits are likewise popular. During the summer months, buzzbaits burned over vegetation can be effective, but Sample also suggested anglers target largemouths in deeper water.

"The water is pretty clear, so grass grows down to about 15 feet," he said. "Right on the deep edge I like to rig a shaker-head jig with a small plastic worm."

Lake of Egypt is privately owned by the Southern Illinois Power Cooperative. Usage rules differ here, so before heading out, be sure to become familiar with the site-specific policies. Marinas are located around the lake, but most charge a fee to launch a boat. However, there is a public launch on the eastern end of the lake in the Shawnee National Forest. For more information, contact the Southern Illinois Power Cooperative at (618) 964-1448. For travel and lodging information, call the Marion Chamber of Commerce at (618) 997-6311. Pyramid Acres Marina can be reached at (618) 964-1184.

* * *

Because of the abundance of excellent largemouth bass fishing waters in Illinois, it can be difficult to select the very best waters. Basically, you can point your boat-towing vehicle in any direction and there's probably a good fishery within an hour's drive of your house. However, the destinations in this article are waters that every Prairie State largemouth angler should visit this year. You won't be disappointed!

(Editor's note: For more information on fishing in Illinois, go online to www.ifishillinois.org or www.dnr.state.il.us)

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