Best Bets for Bass

Best Bets for Bass

Our DNR is working hard at building us a better bass fishery. You can already see the results on these honeyholes.

by Tom Chrismon

Has there ever been a better time to be a bass angler in Illinois? According to the Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologists I've talked with, the answer is "probably not."

In a state overrun with anglers, these biologists are keeping bass populations the best they've ever been. Twenty years ago it might have been hard to come up with a dozen waters with good bass fishing opportunities. With the current state of the fishery, picking out our state's dozen best waters is just as difficult.

After talking with a number of fisheries biologists, we were able to single out what we believe are the top 12 bass fishing waters in Illinois, plus some "runner-up" waters that are worth checking out, too.

We'll begin in the north.

We might have surprised you when we said Lake Michigan last year, but you shouldn't be surprised again. This fishery continues to improve.

Basically, you will find the smallmouth bass in the lake proper, while the largemouths usually are in the harbors. The best fishing for smallmouths is along the breakwater structures where you find cobble piles, plus in shallower flats near deeper water where you find aquatic vegetation.

The best fishing is late spring into August, according to DNR fisheries biologist Steve Robillard, and tube baits and crankbaits seem to be the preferred lures. The largemouth bass seem to prefer spinnerbaits, crankbaits and jigs with twistertails.

Lake Michigan is strictly a catch-and-release fishery, so don't plan to go there expecting to catch a meal. Keep in mind that some harbors are closed to fishing from boats.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

Carlton is a little lake that creates big expectations in anglers. Located in northwest Illinois near Morrison, this 78-acre lake has gained a reputation as being a premier muskie lake. But bass anglers know it also has a quality largemouth population.

The lake has good numbers of 4- to 6-pound largemouth bass, and a few 7-pounders are taken from the waters each year. The average catch is 1 1/2 to 2 pounds. The best fishing comes from weedbeds and brushpiles.

The lake gets a lot of fishing pressure (as much as 600 to 800 man-hours per acre), so there is a 14-inch minimum on length and a one-fish-per-day creel. Anglers are limited to using boat motors of 10 horsepower or smaller. The lake has excellent year-classes, so expect good things from this lake for years to come.

In the mid-1980s, La Salle Lake was a bass wasteland. Like most cooling lakes, this 2,058-acre La Salle County lake had good growth, but extremely poor reproduction.

That's when the DNR began a massive stocking program, with between 40,000 and 60,000 4-inch fingerlings being stocked annually. What a difference that has made. The average catch now will be 2 pounds and up, and there is an excellent population of 4- to 7-pounders.

The lake also receives a more limited stocking of smallmouth bass, and those fish are now reaching trophy status. Fishing is good throughout the lake. There is a one-fish-per-day limit and a minimum size length of 18 inches. Remember, also, that La Salle is a perched lake, so the water can become very rough on windy days.

Powerton Lake is a 1,426-acre cooling lake with a fast-growing smallmouth bass population.

Located in Tazewell County three miles south of Pekin, Powerton contains bass that usually reach 16 to 18 inches within three years. The bass population in the lake is excellent with regard to both size and numbers of fish. Fisheries biologist Wayne Herndon says it is not uncommon for an angler to catch 30 to 40 smallmouth bass in a day of fishing, with the average size being 2 to 3 pounds.

Because of this aggressive behavior, the DNR adopted restrictive regulations. Anglers are limited to one fish 18 inches or longer per day. The best fishing seems to be March through May, and then again in October. The lake shuts down during waterfowl season.

Though Jacksonville Lake is small by some standards, DNR fisheries biologist Dan Stephenson says the lake stands big when it comes to bass fishing.

Surveys show that anglers take 56 pounds of bass per acre from this 476-acre lake, and return 54 pounds, which is an incredible catch considering the relatively low fishing pressure. A one-day tournament in 2001 resulted in more than 200 pounds of fish, with the winning boat bringing in 30 pounds, a 5-pound average. Stephenson says it has the highest number of trophy fish per acre of any lakes in his district.

There is an abundance of weeds and the water is extremely clear. Fish along the weedbeds and near woody cover. The average size bass caught will be about 3 pounds. There is a 15-inch minimum length limit. The lake opens in mid-April and closes in mid-October for waterfowl season. A boat sticker is required.

Biologist Stephenson sums up Sangchris Lake this way: "This is a super lake." He says there are big numbers of trophy fish (5 pounds and larger) and high numbers of 15-inch fish (minimum length level).

The lake gets a lot of fishing pressure, but most bass anglers practice catch-and-release, so it doesn't affect the fishery. Surveys shows that anglers catch 48 pounds of bass per acre from Sangchris and return 46 pounds back into the lake. The average keeper in this 2,321-acre Sangamon/Christian County lake located 15 miles southeast of Springfield will be more than 3 pounds.

Sangchris' west arm is the best producer of bigger fish, but the entire lake can be good. It's a power-plant lake, so fishing can be excellent as early as April and will continue to be excellent through the summer months. The lake gets good spawns about every year, so each year-class of fish has abundant populations. The lake has good woody cover, vegetation and deep points. There is a three-fish-per-day creel limit and a 25-horsepower limit.

Right next door to Sangchris is Lake Springfield, a 3,707-acre body of water

with a high density of largemouth bass.

Biologist Stephenson says this lake doesn't have as many trophy fish as other lakes, but it has more bass and they are in excellent condition. The lake west of the Interstate 55 bridge produces more fish and larger fish, but the entire lake can be good. The average keeper will be more than 2 pounds. The best fishing is along woody cover and around boat docks. There is a 15-inch minimum length limit.

This lake has a lot of recreational boating, so be prepared. Overall, Stephenson says the lake gets only average fishing pressure, which works to your favor. Keep in mind the lake is a power-plant lake, so fishing can be good well into winter. Anglers are required to purchase a user permit.

A lake that has become a regular on our hotspots list is Gillespie New City Lake.

Fisheries biologist Jeff Pontnack says that acre-for-acre, this 207-acre lake, which is located in Macoupin County, probably has more trophy fish than any other in our state. Gillespie New City Lake is not an easy lake to catch fish on, but when you hook into one, you can expect it to be a good one. There is a large population of largemouth bass weighing from 4 to 8 pounds. The lake has an abundance of weeds and woody cover along its shoreline, and this is where you should look for the big fish.

There is a 12- to 15-inch slot length limit and anglers can take only three fish per day, but you should let 'em go anyway. This is a city water supply lake and anglers must pay a fee to launch.

Illinois' oldest and largest U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reservoir also can boast of the best fishing.

After years of having the worst fishing of Illinois' three reservoirs, Carlyle Lake went to the top about two years ago, and it's staying there. While the fishing might not be as good as last year's, reservoirs biologist Harry Wight says the 24,580-acre lake maintains an excellent population of 14- to 19-inch bass and that the average legal-size fish will go about 3 pounds.

Wight says he still considers the bass fishery to be excellent. Anglers should expect to catch a lot of fish in the 1 1/2- to 4-pound range, and Wight says that the fish will be plump. He also points out that 7 1/2-pounders are not uncommon.

The main factor in this lake's turn-around has been the use of nursery ponds to enhance the population. The DNR stocks anywhere from 40,000 to 60,000 4- to 6-inch fish into the lake from nursery ponds each year.

Wight says June produces the best bass fishing. Where to fish is dependent on the water level. There is a 14-inch minimum length limit.

When you talk about "sleeper" lakes, Washington County Lake has to be one of them.

According to fisheries biologist Barry Newman, this 300-acre lake has a large population of largemouth bass in the 15- to 20-inch range. The average keeper will be about 2 1/2 pounds, but surveys turn up 8-pounders, and several 10-pounders were caught last year.

Newman says the big ones usually are caught very early in the year, as early as March or April, but the best fishing tends to be in late April and throughout May. This is an older, established fishery. While the bass are found throughout the lake during the early part of the year, they seem to move into extremely shallow water in fall. You should fish near the bushes and logs and around points. The lake receives only moderate fishing pressure. There is a minimum length limit of 14 inches, and boaters are restricted to using motors of 10-horsepower or less.

We listed Pinckneyville City Lake as our sleeper pick last year, and the lake continues to produce excellent catches of largemouth bass, so we're listing it again.

Fisheries biologist Shawn Hirst says the lake has a tremendous number of quality bass in its 165 acres. He said the lake has numerous bass exceeding 18 inches (the minimum length limit). And the lake does not receive nearly as much fishing pressure as lakes with bass populations nowhere near as good.

The key to this Perry County lake's success is the 20,000 4-inch bass that are stocked into it each year. The lake has excellent habitat throughout, so anglers should just find the structure and fish it.

There is a one-fish-per-day limit. No permit is required, but anglers are limited to 10-horsepower motors.

Twenty-some years after it was formed, Smithland Pool of the Ohio River continues to turn out bass like the fish factory it was described as being when it first formed.

There usually is a tournament going on every weekend, but don't let that keep you from enjoying this majestic fishery. There are so many places to fish that you won't be crowded if there are five tournaments taking place while you're there. The pool is more than 70 miles long, with numerous feeder creeks and rivers. Largemouth bass are present throughout the pool in good numbers, and there are numerous quality fish. It's not uncommon to see 6- and 7-pounders coming in each week.

The best fishing is near the mouths of Lusk, Little Grand Pierre and Big creeks, and the Saline River. Anglers also make some nice catches near the dam area. Anglers can also catch spotted bass along rocky areas in the river.

* * *
OK, there you have Illinois' fisheries biologists' dozen top bass fishing waters for this year. However, as an added bonus, here's some information about a few other bodies of water that are either old reliables or up-and-coming and that shouldn't be passed up by anglers.

Shabbona Lake: This 319-acre De Kalb County lake gets heavy fishing pressure, but due to rearing-pond stockings, fishing improves yearly. Anglers continue to catch quality fish from the standing timber and stumpfields and along rockpiles. Surveys last year found eight year-classes of fish, with the largest going up to more than 20 inches in length.

Hennepin Canal: Where do you want to fish? You have 100 miles to choose from, and you can reach almost every part of this fishery while standing on shore. The canal averages 80 feet wide and you can fish from either side. Bass are stocked annually, and numerous 2- to 4-pound bass are caught regularly.

Illinois River: Surveys indicate that bass are increasing in numbers and size up and down the river, especially in Peoria Pool. The best areas include East River, Woodford County Conservation Area, near Peoria Lock and Dam, and the Bath Chute/Snicarte Slough and Panther Slough areas, where unusually good numbers of large fish are being caught.

Banner Marsh: New bass regulations protecting 1

2- to 18-inch fish have increased the size of the catch here. Anglers will find an abundance of 1- to 4-pound bass and some nice 5- to 8-pound trophy fish. There is a 25-horsepower limit on the lakes there.

Pittsfield Lake: This 240-acre Pike County lake features good fishing for 1- to 4-pound largemouth bass, but fish in the 7- to 8-pound range are not uncommon. Fisheries biologist Jeff Pontnack rates the fishing as good and getting better. There is a 10-horsepower motor limit.

Glen Shoals Lake: This Montgomery County lake would make the list if only for one fish - a 12-pound, 4-ounce largemouth bass taken there in 2000. Fisheries biologist Charlie Marbut says you can count on a few 7-pound bass being taken each year from this 1,100-acre Hillsboro lake. Fishing pressure is only moderate. There is a 15-inch minimum length limit and a three-fish-per-day creel; a yearly sticker is required.

Rend Lake: This 18,900-acre lake is filled with bass 2 1/2 pounds and larger, and it turns out numerous 7-pound fish each year. Because of its size, the lake gets only moderate fishing pressure.

Cedar Lake: Located about five miles southwest of Carbondale, Cedar Lake experiences only light fishing pressure and it has largemouths in abundance. Anglers are starting to realize that this is quickly becoming a good lake for bass fishing. The daily creel limit is two bass under 14 inches and two above 18 inches. There is a 10-horsepower limit on this 1,750-acre lake.

Crab Orchard Lake: Fishing continues to be good on this 7,000-acre Williamson County lake. Twenty-five percent of the fish surveyed last year were 15 inches and larger. Growth is good and you can count on the lake to continue turning out a steady supply of 6- and 7-pound trophies.

* * *
To make sure you know the regulations where you fish, be sure to pick up a copy of the Department of Natural Resources fishing regulations booklet. You can pick up the regulations booklet at most sporting goods stores and marinas; you can also obtain one by writing to the DNR Clearinghouse, 1 Natural Resources Way, Springfield, IL 62702-1271. The number to call to request one by phone is (217) 782-7454, or if you like you can ask for one via e-mail, addressing the request to

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