Small Lakes For Big Illinois Channel Cats

Small Lakes For Big Illinois Channel Cats

Catfish are a favorite target of hot-weather anglers, and you can always count on catchin' a mess of them on these waters.(August 2006)

It's blistering hot outside and almost everyone is seeking shelter from the heat. On the other hand, die-hard anglers are looking for ways to quench their angling fever. Trouble is, many species of fish are suffering from the heat as well and are not very cooperative. However, now is a great time of year to load up the gear and head to a nearby lake for some hot summertime catfish action!

Catfish, especially channel cats, are a favorite target of hot-weather anglers. Channel cats are the most widely distributed catfish and also the most receptive to anglers' attempts. They also have the least discriminating palate and will bite on a variety of baits -- even some that make anglers cringe to actually put them on the hook.

"We consider catfish to be our bread-and-butter fish," said Joe Ferencak of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. "When other fishing slows down, you can always count on catfish."

With the exception of the glacial lakes, a great majority of our lakes are manmade. The largest of these have self-sustaining catfish populations. Others are supplemented with stocking. The DNR has an excellent catfish stocking program to supplement our natural populations. Around 287,000 catfish are stocked annually into Illinois waters. Ferencak said this gives anglers a bonus fishery and one that is great for providing action during the summer months.

Illinois anglers have a wide array of lakes, rivers and other waters that are loaded with catfish. In the hot months, some of the smaller waters are actually the best to target because the fish are easier to locate and angling success is usually more consistent. Most everyone in this state has at least one lake close by that provides good catfishing. Here's a look at five lakes around Illinois with great channel catfishing opportunities. There's one lake for each region of the state, so you can still be home in time to make fried catfish for dinner!

REGION I

ARGYLE LAKE

Even at just 92.7 acres, Argyle Lake is home to an excellent catfish fishery and has been popular with anglers for over 50 years. Argyle is located near Macomb in McDonough County. DNR district fisheries biologist Ken Russell said the lake has been consistently good for catfishing, and the average angler can go there and expect good results.

The lake relies on stocking and does not have a self-sustaining population. The DNR stocks the lake annually with a goal of around 50 fish per acre. The fish are in the 8-inch range and are referred to as "non-vulnerable size."

Recent surveys have shown the lake to have a very good channel cat fishery. Fish have been recorded ranging from 11 inches to 26 1/2 inches and up to 9 1/2 pounds. The average size caught usually ranges from 1 to 1 1/2 pounds, but catches of 4 1/2-pound fish are not uncommon.

The lake has a lot of good cat habitat. There are about 5 1/2 miles of timbered irregular shoreline. Some of the shoreline is steeper than the rest and can be identified by observing the topography above the water. There are two arms on the lake, with the upper ends of these arms consisting of large, shallow flats. Numerous fallen trees provide good woody shoreline structure. There is very little channel left due to sedimentation, and the maximum depth is around 38 feet down by the earthen dam.

Fish will hold in deeper water during the daylight hours and then move shallower in the evening to feed through the night. Fishing slows considerably by around 8 a.m. Daytime angling should be concentrated in deeper water near structure or changes in bottom contour. However, in August, anglers shouldn't fish deeper than around 8 to 12 feet because of thermocline

There is one particular hotspot here for feeding cats in the summer. Around August, the weedbed line will usually extend out to about 8 feet of water. This weedline creates a travel corridor for catfish on the prowl. Anglers can have great success by fishing the outside edge of the weedline close to the bottom.

Some of the shallow bays and flats can be good at times depending on water temperature and time of day. Most of the best catfishing in shallow water will occur during late evening and night, with peaks at dusk and dawn.

Some of the most successful baits on Argyle Lake are night crawlers, leeches and dip baits.

For more information on Argyle Lake, call the Macomb Area Chamber of Commerce at (309) 837-4855 or the Argyle Lake State Park at (309) 776-3422.

REGION II

MCCULLOM LAKE

McCullom Lake was killed out and restocked in the mid-1990s, and channel catfish were restocked at that time. Catfish grow well in this 244-acre glacial lake located in McHenry County. At the time of the fish kill, one catfish was recovered that weighed nearly 25 pounds.

Most fish caught at the lake will weigh between 1 and 3 pounds, but fish over 5 pounds are taken quite frequently. The fishery is kept in good shape due to supplemental stocking. District fisheries biologist Vic Santucci said the DNR stocks approximately 2,400 non-vulnerable catfish there each year.

Pete Merkel of the McHenry Parks & Recreation Department said catfish don't receive a lot of fishing pressure on the lake. A good fishery with low fishing pressure usually translates to an excellent opportunity for anglers.

Shoreline anglers can access this lake from the newly renovated Peterson Park. This park has around 1,500 feet of shoreline, and a handicapped-accessible fishing pier. Two other parks also provide shoreline access, and a boat launch is located on Shore Drive at the southern end of the lake.

Fishing this lake is a little different than most waters. It is very shallow, with an average depth of only around 4 1/2 feet. The lake is supplied by a very small watershed of only 620 acres and is groundwater-fed. This causes the lake to be fairly clear.

The silt and sand bottom is mostly clean and has practically no structure. The west end usually has some weedy structure by July and August, but is quite shallow. The lake gets a little deeper in the central part, with the greatest depth being in the northeast center of the lake.

Bottom-fishing with traditional catfish baits, such as night crawlers, chicken livers and commercial stink baits or dip baits, can all work well at times. Because of the lake being so shallow, fishing with a slip-bobber is also very practical.

Anglers traveling to the area may want to call the McHe

nry Area Chamber of Commerce at (815) 385-4300 for local information. The best source for fishing and lake information is the McHenry Parks & Recreation Department at (815) 363-2160.

REGION III

DAWSON LAKE

About four miles north of Leroy in McLean County is the 158-acre Dawson Lake. This lake is very popular with area catfish anglers, and it also draws many anglers from other areas. This makes fishing pressure high, but there are plenty of catfish to go around.

DNR fisheries biologist Mike Garthaus said the population of catfish at Dawson Lake is very dense. The DNR stocks several thousand non-vulnerable size catfish there each year. This creates a fishery dominated mainly by catfish in the 12- to 24-inch range, with an average harvest size being nearly 2 1/2 pounds. Numerous larger fish are also caught there each year.

The lake is quite shallow in the northern section. In fact, north of the boat ramp, the lake probably averages less than 10 feet deep. The northernmost end averages around 3 feet deep and develops a lot of vegetation in the summer months, which makes angling there impractical.

Most of the catfish will concentrate toward the end of the lake near the dam. About halfway to the dam is a place known as Catfish Point, which is very good. Fish can be caught there in about 15 to 17 feet of water.

The maximum depth of Dawson Lake reaches around 25 feet near the dam, but the lake does stratify during the summer, so anglers shouldn't fish too deep. Boat anglers can use depthfinders to locate ledges and dropoffs from shallow water to deeper. Catfish will often congregate on the edges of these drops and along the old creek channel.

Leon Gibson has been running a concession on the lake for several years, and he highly recommends the lake for catfishing. He said last summer was excellent, with many channel cats caught in the 3- to 5-pound range. This year should be just as good.

Gibson said most people bottom-fish at the lake, but there is a lot of bobber-fishing done as well. Some of the most popular baits are stink bait and shrimp. Shrimp can be especially good at certain times. According to Gibson, one angler from the Champaign area does exceedingly well using shrimp. He comes to the lake quite frequently and fishes the middle near the channel. Gibson said he's never seen him leave without taking home a limit of catfish.

The McLean County Chamber of Commerce can be reached at (309) 829-6344. For more information about Dawson Lake, call the Moraine View State Park site office at (309) 724-8032.

REGION IV PITTSFIELD LAKE
District 12 fisheries biologist Mike Jones describes the catfish fishery at Pittsfield Lake as "excellent." In fact, he said the 240-acre lake in Pike County "may be the best in western Illinois." Recent netting surveys give much credence to his beliefs.

In 2004, spring netting resulted in 39 percent of the total fish caught being channel catfish. The water was still quite chilly when the netting was performed, so that is a very high number for that time of year. At that time, the average catfish collected measured about 23 inches and weighed nearly 5 pounds. When the survey was done a year later, the water was even colder and that reduced the number of catfish collected. However, the mean length and weight of the fish collected had increased substantially to nearly 26 inches and 8 pounds.

Catfish grow well here because of good forage. Good populations of both bluegills and gizzard shad provide an ample natural food source. Last year, there was a tremendous gizzard shad spawn, so catfish this year should be even heavier.

The lake has some natural reproduction, but it is supplemented with stocking to ensure a quality fishery. Around 10,000 channel cats ranging in size from 6 to 10 inches were stocked there in 2003. These fish should be in the 14- to 17-inch range or bigger this year.

Most people fish Pittsfield with a medium-heavy rod and at least 20-pound-test line because of the potential of catching some extremely large fish. Channel cats are frequently caught there in the 15- to 18-pound range. Additionally, there is a bonus population of flatheads, some of which exceed 50 pounds.

The eastern shoreline is a prime spot for bank-angling, especially at night. The grass is well manicured all the way down to the water. There are numerous points and flats along this shoreline that attract feeding channel cats.

The western shoreline yields some tremendous catfish each year, but it is virtually impossible to fish from the shore. It is very steep, and the bank rises some 25 feet above the water in places. Erosion along this shoreline has taken a lot of trees and fallen timber into the water. Boat anglers can find some very large catfish lurking around this ample woody structure.

The north end of the lake is home to a particular hotspot for catfish. There is a tube through which water flows into the lake. After a heavy rain, run-off pushes much of the water through this tube. Quality-sized catfish will stack up near this inflow to feed on the abundance of forage generated by the water flow.

More information on Pittsfield Lake can be obtained from the Pike County Chamber of Commerce at (217) 285-2971.

REGION V

HARRISBURG RESERVOIR

The city of Harrisburg gets its water from 209-acre Harrisburg New City Reservoir. Located about a mile east of Galatia in Marion County, the lake is just a little out of the way and subsequently does not receive an overabundance of fishing pressure. This can mean great things for savvy catfish anglers.

Some very nice-sized channel cats reside here. Surveys done by the DNR have documented channel cats up to 12 pounds. That's a very respectable-sized channel cat that can put up quite a battle for the lucky angler who hooks into one.

The reservoir has some rocky outcroppings that provide habitat for limited spawning and some natural reproduction, but not enough to sustain a quality fishery. Therefore, the DNR stocks the lake each year with several thousand non-vulnerable channel cats. The target number stocked per year amounts to about 25 fish per acre.

Late summer can be tricky to fish, according to DNR fisheries biologist Kurt Daine. "The catfish will often be lethargic and not actively feeding," he said. Daine suggested looking for cats in the deeper, cooler water until the water temperature begins to drop in the fall.

The deepest portion of the lake is down close to the dam where water depth can reach around 15 to 20 feet. Catfish can often be found in this deeper water near the dam during the daytime. They will often move up shallower into the riprap along the dam to feed on crayfish and other forage during the evening, nighttime or on overcast days.

The main forage is gizzard shad, so a lot of people find great success using cut shad as bait. Chicken liver is also very popular as well. Of course, many other old standbys, such as night crawlers, crayfish, crayfish tails, stink bait and homemade concoctions, work equally well at times.

True to their name, the channel cats will often be found in late summer relating close to the old channel in the lake. This affords them the opportunity to easily reach deeper water for cool temperatures or shallower water to feed. Points that lead out toward the channel are an added attraction.

The bank along the south side of the reservoir is a little steeper than the remainder of the shoreline. Cats will often cruise near there in search of an easy meal. When the cats come shallow, look for them along the shallow-water arms and up near vegetation, such as lotus and spatterdock. Woody structure is always an attractant to channel cats, so look for them around old brushpiles, downed trees and some of the old fishing docks.

The Marion Chamber of Commerce may be reached at 1-800-699-1760 or (618) 997-6311.

* * *

For more information on these and other great catfish lakes in Illinois, contact the DNR at (217) 782-6302.

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