Spring Bluegill Bonanza

Illinois bluegill addicts don't have to travel very far to lock horns with this little battler. We have pinpointed a few spots for you. (May 2008)

Small ponds and quarries are prime habitat for jumbo 'gills.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt.

A downrigger rod snaps to attention, and then violently bows over as an outsized Lake Michigan chinook salmon rips 100 yards of line from a screaming reel. The bill of a hungry sailfish whips the water behind the trolled bait, gobbles the lure and leaps 10 feet above the sea.

Your seductively bubbling surface lure suddenly disappears in an explosion of spray as a 4-foot muskie pounces on a seemingly easy meal.

These are the heart-stopping thrills of the angling world we all dream about. The anticipation of such events draws anglers to lakes, rivers and oceans all over the world hoping for the experience of a lifetime.

However, in the real world, few of us ever wet a line in places where such aquatic denizens lurk. While most fishermen will never see such sights except on television, many less exotic fishing pleasures await in numerous small waters close to their homes.

My lifelong obsession with sport-fishing began, as it has for just about all of us, as a boy fervently trying to outwit one of the smallest of game fish, the mighty bluegill.

I learned the basics from my dad, perfected my technique in park ponds and small local lakes and then all around the Midwest. I worked my way up from a cane pole to casting, spinning, and finally fly rods. I never tired of it.

There is something magic about watching a slip-bobber suddenly twitch and make a tight circle before plunging beneath the surface as a big bluegill inhales your tiny offering and makes off with it.

The power transmitted to your wrist by a 9-inch fish never ceases to amaze, and the blending of the 'gill's gaudy colors is one of nature's finest works of art.

Bluegills and kids were made for each other. What better way to ingrain a love of the sport in your youngster than to let him catch plenty of fish? To a young angler, size doesn't matter; action and success are what count most. After a kid learns how to put a worm, grub or maggot on a hook, toss it out a few feet and actually catch a fish, chances are he's on his way to a lifetime of good, clean fun.

The bluegill is, without doubt, one of the major reasons angler surveys reveal we go fishing to be one with nature, enjoy the company of friends and relatives and then to catch fish. What better way to enjoy a day than quietly probing a lake in search of bluegills? It's peaceful, it's easy and it's simple. It is just great.

Illinois bluegill addicts don't have to travel very far to find good fishing. From one end of the state to the other, this popular panfish has prospered, despite encroaching human development. All the little battler needs is a few feet of reasonably clean water, a healthy ecosystem and, strangely enough, sufficient angling pressure to keep the prolific critters from over-populating their habitat.

Bluegills often spawn three or four times between spring and fall. The first and most intense spawning effort comes in late spring. In most cases, I have found that bluegills begin spawning shortly after bass finish their duties. In northern Illinois, this usually occurs in mid-May and continues for three or four weeks. In southern Illinois, spawning activity commences about a month earlier.

The best time to catch big bluegills is when they congregate on their spawning beds. Search for hard, clean bottoms in 3 to 6 feet of water. As a rule, when you find one big 'gill, there will be many more.

Expensive fishing tackle is not needed for bluegills. Just about any cheap rod is good and a spool of 4-pound-test line doesn't cost much.

Red worms, pieces of night crawler, wax worms, maggots and spikes are all productive baits. In a pinch, put a tiny sliver of white pork rind on a small jig and nudge it along under a bobber. While you won't have much luck with a fly rod early in the season, small poppers are deadly throughout the summer and early fall.

Now, you have everything you need to catch bluegills except a place to fish. To solve that dilemma, let's travel the length of Illinois and pinpoint some of the better fisheries to be found in the Land of Lincoln.

Because bluegills will be bedding in the southern part of the state first, let's begin by mentioning some of the bluegill hotspots there.

There are large, well-known lakes -- Rand and Crab Orchard lakes -- in the southern third of Illinois with substantial bluegill populations. I thought it might be more helpful to focus on some smaller, less famous bodies of water that hold good fish populations, and are less pressured by anglers.

You can't get much farther south than historic Horseshoe Lake near the town of Olive Branch in Alexander County. The lake is unique because huge cypress and Tupelo gum trees sprout from its shallow, murky waters giving the impression of a Paleozoic forest, minus T-Rex. The 1,890-acre lake is really an old impoundment, and although it is slowly, but inexorably silting up, its 3- to 6-foot waters still produce bragging-sized bluegills.

The best fishing is found in deeper water above the dam in April and May. The fish concentrate on spawning beds and near the base of the trees. Best baits are crickets, red worms and, of course, the ever-productive wax worm.

Access to the lake is good, with numerous launching ramps and boat rental available. Motor size is restricted to trolling motors only from Oct. 15 to March 1.

Mermet Lake, a 452-acre lake near the town of the same name in Massac County, produces good catches of bluegills every year. Launching ramps and boat rentals make this a very fisherman-friendly lake. A campground and picnic area completes the scene and invites multiple day stays. There is a 10-horsepower outboard motor limit in place, but larger motors are allowed provided they are operated at no-wake speed. The lake is closed to fishing two weeks before the waterfowl-hunting season until the season ends.

The average weight of Mermet Lake bluegills varies between a quarter and a half-pound. Best fishing occurs in May and June when the fish are concentrated around brush and stumps.

Little Grassy Lake could be renamed Little-Known Lake.

This small, shallow lake is nestled within the boundaries of the Union County Waterfowl Refuge. There are no boat rentals, camping or picnic groves, and the lake is closed to fishing during the waterfowl season every fall.

On the plus side, you can launch a small boat and there are plenty of big bluegills around. As in all southern lakes, May and June, the spawning season, is the prime time to fish Grassy. All usual bluegill baits work just fine.

Lake Murphysboro, in Jackson County, is one mile west of Murphysboro. This small, 145-acre impoundment has numerous arms and coves that hold plenty of redear sunfish. Boat launching and rentals are available, and motor size is restricted. Camping and picnic facilities are available.

May is the best month to fish for bluegills in Mermet Lake, but the park is closed through the June spawning period and redears just bite about anything you get near them.

Concentrate your efforts on the riprap at the dam and in the deeper parts of the coves.

While central Illinois is not known as a fisherman's paradise, there are plenty of quality fishing spots to choose from.

Although the big impoundments of Shelbyville and Carlyle get most of the attention, don't overlook these sleeper bluegill hotspots.

The Hennepin Canal begins at the town of Hennepin and connects the Illinois and Rock rivers a few miles before it empties into the Mississippi. The 104.5-mile canal connects a long series of pools created by locks and dams and each segment hosts a good population of bluegills.

The pools may be fished from shore from well-groomed walking trails or by launching small boats or canoes into each pool. Since bluegill fishing is pretty basic, and the fish in the pools can't go very far, all one need do is walk the banks and probe the 15-foot depths until a concentration of fish is located.

For full information, maps and regulations on the Hennepin Canal, simply Google Hennepin Canal.

The 150-acre Fulton County Camping and Recreation Area, located between Lewistown and St. David, is made up of ponds, sloughs and small lakes. In addition to surprisingly good panfishing, the area offers boating, canoeing, camping and picnicking. There is a site access fee and other restrictions, so call (800) 747-0302 for full details.

Not well known, but certainly worth visiting, is Snakeden Hollow Fish and Wildlife Area located in Knox County, near the town of Victoria. This unique area is dotted with 125 strip pits and lakes, all holding fish, some more than others.

To begin, try Turkey Lake within easy walking distance of the parking area. Then, as you become familiar with the surroundings, you can explore some of the other ponds in this 2,470-acre site. In addition to bluegills, at least three dozen ponds and lakes hold walleyes, trout, muskies, bass, catfish and crappies, so when that bobber goes under, hang on; you never know what might be at the other end of your line.

For full details, maps and site regulations, call (309) 879-2707.

The northern tier of Illinois counties is dominated by the Chain O' Lakes in Lake and McHenry counties.

Bluegills proliferate in all these lakes and access is easy and plentiful. Boat and motor rentals are available on nearly every lake, and guide services may be secured by contacting area bait shops. Your best bet might be Channel Lake, but that is a close call, since they all hold good populations of the tasty fish.

In spring, from mid-May through the end of June, you will find bluegills spawning along the banks of the channels that connect the various lakes.

A good rig to prospect the channels is a fly rod with a slip-bobber and a large ice fly with two wax worms.

Simply work your way along the channels, dropping the bait next to the shore cover. When you catch one 'gill, there will most likely be more right there.

Wolf Lake is in the unlikely confines of Chicago. It lies on the far south side, adjacent to the Indiana state line. Steel mills, oil refineries and miles of cattail marsh, surround the lake.

Yet, it produces some astonishing catches of a great variety of fish, including walleyes. The shallow lake is a perfect habitat for bluegills.

Launching ramps and boat rentals are available; however, motor size is restricted.

While the bluegills here are not large, they are plentiful and can be found anywhere in the lake. Best fishing usually occurs from May through September.

For a quiet, no-hassle day of bluegill fishing, try 35-acre Powderhorn Lake, located at Brainerd and Burnham avenues, on Chicago's south side.

This Cook County Forest Preserve lake allows bank-fishing only, but in view of its small size, this is not a problem. You are not going to set any state records here, but your bobber will duck beneath the surface enough to keep you from dozing off on a sunny summer afternoon.

With the coming of zebra mussels to Lake Michigan, the water in the Chicago Park District Harbors has cleared amazingly and fostered luxuriant aquatic weed growth. The improved habitat has in turn contributed to a bass and northern pike population explosion and resulted in large schools of bluegills and rock bass in almost every harbor.

Although boat fishing is not allowed within the harbors, certain areas have been designated for shore-fishing. To learn which sites are open, visit www.ifishillnois.org/profiles/lakes/ lake_michigan/wheremich.html or www.chicagofishinglinks.com/chicago parkdistrict.html .

The Mazonia Fish and Wildlife Area is another intriguing bluegill hotspot. This 1,017-acre site is located in Grundy County, three miles southeast of Braidwood. The site is divided into the Braidwood Lake unit and the Mazonia South Unit. Braidwood Lake is large and windswept and possibly dangerous for boaters. The South Unit, however, consists of four large lakes and 10 smaller ponds. It is rugged terrain, formerly used for surface mining.

All of the lakes and ponds have good fish populations, but for our purposes, we shall focus on bluegills in the south unit's Ponderosa and Monster lakes. Both of these lakes are very deep and hold excellent populations of panfish, walleyes, bass, crappies and catfish.

As in other lakes, spring bluegill fishing is best when the fish are congregated on their spawning beds. Work the shorelines with live bait and a slip-bobber, paying close attention to submerged

vegetation and brush.

Launching ramps are in place at both lakes, and although there are no size restrictions on motors, there is a "no-wake" regulation. The lakes are closed during waterfowl season, but open in mid-January for ice-fishing if sufficient ice has formed.

Many small lakes and ponds are scattered throughout the Mazonia site, and as you become familiar with them, your angling horizons will expand. For more information on fishing Mazonia, call (815) 237-0063 on Tuesday, Wednesday or Friday between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m.

With all these bluegill hotspots in mind, your only problem will be finding enough freezer space to store all those tasty filets. And isn't that a nice problem to have?

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