Prairie State Lunkers

Illinois is home to some double-digit largemouths, but the big 'uns don't come along easily or frequently. (April 2008)

Photo by Ron Sinfelt.

The Prairie State is home to some whopping big bass, especially in southern Illinois where anything less than 7 pounds simply gets a nod of approval and comment like "not a bad fish."

When I was growing up in northern Illinois in the 1960s, any largemouth heavier than 5 pounds was considered a lunker. Our neighbor, Ralph Rogers, achieved godlike status when he caught an 8-pounder out of Beezey Guenzler's farm pond on a red and white Bass-O-Reeno lure.

The next month, I spent my entire allowance on red and white Bass-O-Reenos. They're stored away now somewhere in the basement -- washed many times but never triumphant.

Before you grab your rod and Bass-O-Reenos and begin looking for a lunker, here are a few places you may want to try.

DEVILS KITCHEN
The Kitchen gives up at least one fish close to double-digit marks every year making it one of a half-dozen annual destinations in pursuit of something long and green to fill the void above the fireplace.

This old lake is so deep, cold and clear that a self-perpetuating population of rainbow trout call it home.

In fact, trout pattern suspending stick baits might not be a bad lure choice if you're looking for a lunker largemouth near the dam.

Keeper-sized rainbows are definitely part of the forage base for the Kitchen's bigger year-classes of largemouths, but the money bait has always been a black and purple PeeWee jig tipped with a chunk of pork.

Devils Kitchen is notoriously tough to fish because it is full of standing timber and a veritable minefield of stumps. Your huge, expensive Opti or E-Tech motor is safe however, because this is one of several top bass lakes that have a 10-horsepower motor restriction.

Spring is a good time to target the north side of the lake using the woody cover to tempt a big gal. The kicker is there is so much woody cover that your hooks will probably find wood before fish lips. Totally weedless rigging is a good idea. A magnum tube jig is a good choice-especially in firecracker or red, white and blue flecks in a clear tube pattern.

Some of the biggest bass in the lake are caught at night, especially the sultry nights of serious summer.

A black LunkerLure has been a favorite here for years.

Devils Kitchen is located in Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge and a $2 user fee is charged. The fee allows you to fish on the nearby 1,000-acre Little Grassy Lake. Grassy also has 10-horsepower motor restrictions. It is considerably easier to fish, although it is not as clear as the Kitchen. Try a Nashiki-pattern Lucky Craft Pointer if you fish this lake in the next couple of weeks.

For more information, call the Marion Chamber of Commerce at (618) 997-6211.

CEDAR LAKE
The city of Carbondale's water source is located south of town with the nether reaches tickling the Shawnee National Forest.

Cedar is one of the most aesthetic lakes in the state and home to double-digit bass. However, the big ones don't come easy -- or frequently.

There are a couple of ways to pad the odds of lunker luck in your favor. Both center on time spent on the water. Although you'll catch plenty of buck bass when probing visible structure along the shoreline, the really big bass spend most of their time relating to brushpiles and cedar trees away from shore.

For locating this structure, your electronics is only part of the success matrix. Knowing the exact orientation of a cedar tree on the lake's bottom is a definite edge, as you can retrieve that 7-inch pumpkinseed, purple or red shad Texas-rigged worm through the branches with less chance of hanging up.

Like Devils Kitchen, many of the bigger bass from this 1,750-acre lake are fooled at night. Locals say April and December are the best months to tangle with a trophy here, but Cedar is way too big to probe effectively in a day or two.

A good strategy for your first few outings is to take a boat ride, keeping one eye on the electronics and plugging in promising waypoints for future fishing as you tour the lake.

After several of these cruises, you will have enough waypoints to make a milk run from spot to spot, learning the most effective way to orient the boat in the process.

Local anglers who have paid their dues in this regard are extremely cautious when probing their honeyholes.

Northern Illinois anglers have no concept of a spot so good that you don't want to fish it if there is another boat within a half mile or at least give the impression that you're doing some serious fishing.

For more information, call the Carbondale Chamber of Commerce at (800) 526-1500.

NEWTON LAKE
If you're talking about the greatest number of trophy bass per surface acre, Jasper County's Newton Lake is definitely in the medal round. This cooling lake continues to produce great catches of largemouths, a third of them at or above the minimum 18-inch "keeper" length on any given outing.

Suspending stick baits and shad pattern Rat-L-Traps work well this time of year with late March and early April offering the best shot at landing a fish over 6 pounds.

The lake record is just over 10 1/2 pounds, but DNR surveys indicate there are larger specimens swimming in the lake.

Besides having true trophy potential, Newton is a great place to just get your string stretched. Once you find the bass -- they're usually congregated in the warmest water available -- 50-bass outings are common.

Anglers should key on the backs of coves for the next few weeks. If you hit a couple of fish with a Rat-L-Trap or a big white spinnerbait, change to a Texas-rigged plastic worm, salamander or brush hawg-type bait before prospecting other potential areas.

Like a handful of other Illinois lakes -- primarily cooling lakes -- Newton has a 25-horsepower outboard limit in place.

Times certainly have changed. Thirty years ago, a 25-horse was considered the quintessential fishing motor; a

ny larger motor was the kind of thing you put on a speedboat. Too bad horsepower limits on cooling lakes aren't tied to electric rates.

Does anybody make a 500-horse outboard?

For more information, call the Newton Lake FWA at (618) 783-3478.

LAKE OF EGYPT
This 2,300-acre cooling lake south of Marion is another perennial producer of hawg bass. Like many other power plant lakes, special boating regulations are in place.

The Southern Illinois Power Co-operative manages the lake and enforces a 35-mph speed limit, which makes more sense than the rules at Newton, Sangchris and other cooling lakes around the state.

Egypt sees heavy recreational use once warm weather arrives, with a nominal fee charged for launching a boat at any of the marinas. There is a free launch on the east end of the Shawnee National Forest, but the marinas are easier to get to with amenities like cold drinks, food and ice.

Bucketmouths in this fishery are well educated -- essentially every one has felt the sting of the hook many times on the way to double-digit weights. Tournaments are held almost weekly and a 4- or even 5-pound average for five fish is required to cash the first place check.

If you sincerely think you are the best basser north of Vandalia, consider entering a tournament. Smart money says you'll hear terms like "fishing lesson" and "who's your daddy" before heading north with taillights tucked behind the trailer.

Part of the clinic local anglers offer during these events is a study in finesse. They may show you a 4-inch pumpkinseed worm or a 1/16-ounce shaker head jig, but they won't reveal their techniques like shaking the worm along the deep outside weed edge near the ski area until the final tally is on the leader board.

Carterville's Fred Washburn has won more than 300 bass tournaments over the years, many of them at Lake of Egypt. He said the key to a heavy sack of fish is simple -- pay attention to the details of the details.

Sometimes good fish want a 3- inch deep blue Sweet Beaver dropped into small pockets between the weeds, fished on a No. 5 ultra-sharp straight shank hook, dropped with a toothpick-pegged 1/8-ounce rattling bullet jighead without touching weeds around the small open water pocket . . . after meticulously separating the twin "claws" of the Sweet Beaver, trimming it precisely and allowing it to soften and warm on the back of a boat seat in the sun.

Failure to follow this presentation exactly may mean a world of difference on Lake of Egypt. Put it all together and the bass may exceed 10 pounds.

For more information, call the Marion Chamber of Commerce at (618) 997-6311 or the Pyramid Acres Marina at (618) 964-1184.

EAST FORK LAKE
After a life-changing experience with furry live bait more than 30 years ago, it's hard not to speculate on the effectiveness of a white squirrel pattern lure on this lake near Olney that is renowned for its population of white squirrels.

Pearl white crankbaits, white plastic worms and suspending stick baits in shades of pale catch a number of big bass on the frequent sites of bass tourneys where it usually requires a 4-pound average to cash a hefty check. Last year, the lake produced several fish bigger than 7 pounds, with at least one bass approaching the double-digit mark.

DNR surveys regularly yield fish in the 5- to 6-pound class, according to regional fisheries supervisor Steve Jenkins, who said, "There are much, much bigger fish in the lake."

Since Olney's white squirrels are protected by law and squirrel season is closed, you may opt to pitch a magnum white spinnerbait toward wood in the backs of shallow coves this time of year.

Another spring tactic, "deadsticking" involves suspending stick baits, such as a Lucky Craft pointer, over several shallow points.

Cast the lure beyond the point, give the rod tip a couple of rips, then let the bait sit for a minimum of 30 seconds. If a bass is in the area, the next twitch of the rod tip may trigger a strike.

The city of Olney owns the lake and requires purchase of an access sticker before launching. Stickers are available at city hall and several bait shops near the lake.

For more information, call East Fork Campground & Bait at (618) 395-4787.

LAKE CENTRALIA
Local anglers who regularly fish this old city reservoir say it's home to a monster bass in excess of 12 pounds. Last fall's DNR surveys cranked up several bass weighing more than 6 pounds, with fisheries supervisor Jenkins saying, "There are certainly much larger fish swimming here."

A city sticker is required to fish this 450-acre lake, with sticker price based on boat horsepower. Stickers are available at several locations around Centralia.

Lake Centralia is fairly easy to fish, with not much in the way of offshore structure. The upper end of this lake has a fair amount of sediment and less than ideal habitat throughout much of the year.

However, the dark bottom warms quickly and becomes a true fish magnet when water temperatures rise to the 40s in early spring. Try fan-casting an orange Rat-L-Trap in these silty coves while water temperatures are 43 to 48 degrees.

The lower end of Lake Centralia also has siltation issues, but there is still more than 20 feet of water near the dam with one long hump here that can hold plenty of fish in April.

After the water begins to warm, water willows may be found all over the lake from the shoreline to a depth of 3 feet. Probe the outside weed edge with chrome and black or shad pattern crankbaits, especially lipless vibrating ones like the Rat-L-Trap.

Much of the shoreline is highly developed with little natural structure to fish. When serious summer arrives, try flipping green pumpkin pepper tube jigs or Senko-style baits under boat docks and along the inside weed edge using tackle with enough muscle to move larger fish quickly to open water. For more information, call (618) 547-3610.

OTHER WATERS
It's been a long winter for northern Illinois bassers. By month's end, upstate anglers may be successful probing lakes like Hennepin-Hopper, Kakushka and Milliken in the Des Plaines FWA and some very secluded lakes in the Mazonia FWA.

A shorter road trip south can put you in touch with whopping big bass on Lake Sangchris, another cooling lake not far from Springfield, or places like Pinkneyville, Staunton or the Gillespie New City reservoirs a little farther down the road.

But once you've hooked up the boat and traveled two or three hours, what are a couple more hours on the road? The lunker lai

rs profiled in this article have the potential to produce a Prairie State fish of dreams.

Don't forget to check your outboard and grease the trailer bearings before you start a new bassin' year.

Find more about Illinois fishing and hunting at: IllinoisGameandFish.com

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