Hunting Down Illinois' Hottest Ice-Fishing

Hunting Down Illinois' Hottest Ice-Fishing

From walleyes to pike to panfish, the action on these waters will take up all your spare time this winter -- if the weather cooperates! (January 2006)

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

We've only been on the ice for a couple of weeks so far, and the bucketeers are already mulling the chances that the months ahead will be like the winter of 1988-89 -- a lot of snow and not much ice.

Of course, we won't know until mid-March whether winter's brutality will match that of the summer of 2005. But consistently successful anglers know that figuring out nature's patterns are the biggest keys to finding fishing success.

It's been a few years since folks have ventured out on an ice-covered Crab Orchard Lake in southern Illinois. Hardwater action last winter was a pleasant surprise for those who walked on Evergreen Lake just north of Bloomington. Then you get south of Interstate 80 and just about every consideration regarding ice-fishing is viewed within parameters of the five-day weather forecast.

Walking on water is assured only in the Prairie State's northern two tiers of counties. And then the relative safety of venturing forth is ensured until only maybe March 1. We could see another couple weeks of ice after that. If we do, it will surely be the hottest action of the ice-fishing season.

Spring comes a lot easier to northern Illinois than winter does. In a matter of days, weather tends to rocket from "Guess we ought to put up the storm windows," to "That looks like a polar bear chasing a seal in our backyard." The period between first-ice action and the midwinter blues often blurs. No ice to safe ice capable of supporting an ATV can occur over the course of just a few days, often going right into a lowlight bite.

But there is good news. Panfish and predators often seem just as surprised as the folks who chase them, staying relatively shallow for a good couple of weeks into January -- at least on northern Illinois waters with public access. Smaller, sheltered waters freeze first. Farm ponds, strip pits and quarries typically offer safe ice and good fishing by Christmas. Most of these waters are on private lands.

Getting out on backwaters of the Mississippi River's Pool 13 north of Savanna on Christmas Day has been a personal family tradition for a dozen years. Sometimes I fall through. But this is usually a better alternative to contending with in-laws. Hopefully this year I won't have to test the new Stearns SOSuspenders. A PFD is always part of my ice-fishing gear. The new automatic inflatables are the smartest piece of equipment any ice-angler can own.

The pits and ponds at the Mazonia Fish & Wildlife Area, about 100 miles southeast, are even iffier before New Year's Day. But once there is ice, this may be the biggest "sleeper" in Illinois for fish that seldom see a hook.

Le-Aqua-Na in Stephenson County and Pierce Lake, an hour east at the edge of Rockford, will be relatively safe and offer good fishing any day now. Likewise, Petite and other sheltered waters on the Fox Chain-O-Lakes will be ready for ice-fishing action soon.

Ice-fishing isn't like fishing during the open-water period for most people who enjoy sitting on a bucket. The opportunity occurs only in northern Illinois, where every hardwater fishery is less than two hours' drive for virtually any Illinois resident who has invested in the trappings this sport requires.

With persistence, you can hit almost every public site with safe ice this winter, re-visiting favorites when the opportunity presents in a day-trip mode. That said, here's a look at the best places to get your string stretched close to home over the next couple of months.

MAZONIA FWA

There are over 20 lakes in this two-tiered complex straddling the Grundy-Kankakee County line near the Braidwood power plant. Most of them are reclaimed strip pits, with lakes in the southern part of this FWA formerly managed as private sportsman's clubs.

These lakes range in size from less than half an acre up to about 150 acres. Monster Lake has a little more color and diversity, since it isn't a strip-pit lake. Monster is generally regarded as the best ice-fishery in the entire project. Two tributaries allow water here to be somewhat stained, also pumping oxygen and other nutrients into the system all winter long. Hot orange, chartreuse and pink are typically the best colors on Monster, with slab crappies and near trophy-sized largemouth bass the most popular winter species.

Eagle Lake is considerably clearer and more difficult to fish. The primary draw is saucer-sized redear sunfish that require exceptional stealth and a natural approach to consistently ice big fish. Probably the best method for Eagle Lake redears is to deadstick a single redworm on a No. 12 red hook about six inches above blips on your Vexilar flasher. A major key to success is light line. One-pound-test is good, and 1/2-pound-test is better.

It has been several years since the Department of Natural Resources obtained and opened the South Unit lakes for ice-fishing, but the true potential of some of the more remote waters is yet to be realized. Lakes in the South Unit are generally considered the best places to target. But frequent visitors to this site hold secrets on their hotspot lakes -- and how to fish 'em -- very close to their vests.

Safe ice usually comes later and goes out earlier than in other northern Illinois waters, due to the deep, clear nature of most fisheries. Calling ahead for ice conditions is a good idea.

Contact: Mazonia FWS, (815) 237-0063.

FOX CHAIN-O-LAKES

The best "fish finders" on this natural chain of lakes in northeastern Illinois are fellow ice-anglers. This chain has a number of "community" spots on virtually every lake. A cluster of anglers is an excellent indicator that fish are nearby and active.

Because these piscators are no strangers to hooks, stealthy and creative tactics are often necessary to put nicer fish on the ice, especially when chasing crappies, bluegills and perch. Those who leave the ice with heavy sacks of fish use no more than 2-pound-test line, either an ultra-sensitive coiled spring bobber or neutrally buoyant Thill Float, and with plastics attached, not live bait.

Lindy's new Techni-Glo Tails are rewriting ice-fishing rules, both here and on other waters. Although purple is a popular color, I have better luck with red. Maybe because it approximates bloodworms that are a popular winter forage base here and elsewhere.

In general, the Fox Chain's panfish population can be found in fairly shallow water all

winter long, relating to green weed growth that can be quite heavy. Noise on top of the ice typically makes fish hunker down in the weeds. A major key to success lies in getting away from the crowds, opening up several holes in the weeds and then quietly moving from hole to hole with a little Genz Fat Boy -- blue-glow is hot -- tipped with plastics. If there is no snow cover on the ice, a four-foot jigging stick like the one marketed by HT Enterprises can provide even greater stealth.

Lakes at the upper end of the chain -- most notably Channel-Catherine, Marie and Petite -- offer the most consistent winter fishing for all species. Periods of low light are good times to target walleyes on these lakes. Look for distinct outside weed edges on the main body of the lakes and anywhere there's likely to be current, such as the cut between Channel and Catherine, narrows and around bridges.

Most 'eye chasers use tip-ups baited with rosy reds or fathead minnows. Clearly marking your tip-ups with a tall flag is a good idea. Some snowmobilers fueled by schnapps think tip-ups are racing pylons.

Bluff and Pistakee lakes at the chain's southern end are more fertile. Panfish tend to run smaller but are more abundant and found in weedy, shallow bays. Channel catfish hold over a little deeper water and can be caught in the winter -- seriously. Chances are, if you see a blip on the electronics suspended about halfway to the bottom on Bluff or Pistakee, the signature belongs to a channel cat. A couple of redworms is the best medicine for winter whiskerfish on these waters.

Contact: Chain-O-Lakes State Park, (815) 675-2385.

OTHER NORTHEAST LAKES

Greg Dickson's Triangle Bait Shop, located south of Antioch on Grass Lake Road, is just a stone's throw from three other northeast Illinois lakes certainly worth checking out this winter.

If you like pike fishing, it's hard to beat East Loon and West Loon lakes, which are 165 acres each and are connected. "Early in the season, the pike are more active in East Loon," Dickson said. "The last month of the season, anglers on West Loon do better."

Fishing is relatively simple. Just hang a roach or smelt under the ice along the outside weedline and wait. Best action is typically found at midday when the sun is shining.

Bluegills get the most attention on Deep Lake. Dickson said weed edges are the key to success here as well. "But for some reason, wigglers are a much better bait than wax worms in this deep, clear water."

Yellow bass -- once the scourge of the Fox Chain -- are still found in good numbers in 500-acre-plus Long Lake. "If the mud vein is fileted out, you can't tell 'em from crappies," Dickson said, "and you'll catch crappies as well as those yellow bass by jigging a little Cicada spoon."

Busse, Tampier and Milliken lakes are three other options close to home for anglers living in northeast Illinois.

SHABBONA LAKE

This 319-acre DeKalb County state park lake is by far the best lake in Illinois to put on a winter fishing clinic.

Shabbona has more structure, both natural and manmade, than any other lake in northern Illinois. Fish cribs, a roadbed, building foundations, deadfalls, rockpiles -- Shabbona has it all. And most of the fish are relating to some kind of structure all winter long.

If you're a technology junkie, this is where you want to spend your winter. Profoundly detailed topographic maps of the lake are available. Locate the structures with your GPS and Vexilar FL-18 flasher, drop down the underwater viewing camera and have your picture cell phone handy for some digital chop-busting when fins start flapping on the ice.

Most winter anglers chase bluegills on Shabbona, simply because almost all are worth keeping and are present in considerable numbers. Crappies are plentiful, and average about 8 inches. This heavily pressured lake also has a good bass population, with both largemouths and smallmouths present. Then there are the walleyes that are well in excess of the 14-pound state record.

If you're going after bass or walleyes, a No. 3 Jigging Rapala in blue/chrome or fire-tiger is hard to beat. Because they are pricey and getting snagged is part of the fish-catching equation, having a lure retriever handy is a good idea.

The very best days on Shabbona come with a rapidly falling barometer and snow. Fish tend to bite aggressively all day long.

Contacts: Big Jim's Bait, (815) 824-2415;

www.shabbonalake.com.

NORTH-CENTRAL OPTIONS

Two lakes located in Rock Cut State Park -- Olson and Pierce -- are both good ice-fisheries, with crappies being the major winter draw. Pierce is only 160 acres, with Olson considerably smaller.

These Winnebago County lakes receive surprisingly light winter fishing pressure in spite of their location on the north side of metro Rockford. Recent DNR surveys show good numbers of walleyes in Pierce, with a fair population of 24- to 28-inch fish. However, these marble-eyes are notoriously finicky.

About 40 minutes south of Rockford, off Interstate 39, is Lake Sule, a small borrow-pit lake teeming with multiple year-classes of crappies. Sule has little structure for fish to relate to, and little rhyme or reason to these fishes' behavior. Some days they bite like crazy. Other days, this water is like a frozen Dead Sea. Roll the dice. Don't forget small minnows. And be sure to drop a line over the blips on electronics that indicate fish.

A LITTLE FARTHER WEST

Two more state lakes worthy of mention are 43-acre Le-Aqua-Na in Stephenson County and 77-acre Lake Carlton outside of Morrison in Morrison-Rockwood State Park in Whiteside County.

Oxygen depletion is a winter concern on Le-Aqua-Na. By the end of this month, most of the lake's biomass will be foregathered a short distance from an aerator placed to maintain adequate oxygen levels. Be careful, because adjacent ice can be dangerous.

For years, Carlton's claim to fame was as a muskie fishery. Nowadays most anglers target saugeyes, a sauger/hybrid cross. Saugeyes grow bigger than saugers, but not as big as walleyes can. The appeal of chasing them on this lake lies in the fact that DNR fisheries surveys have cranked up saugeyes in excess of the state record for the past several years.

Evergreen Lake, just north of Bloomington, also has potential record-breaking saugeyes swimming in its 1,000 acres located in Comlara County Park. But if we have a mild winter, you may break through ice to break the record. Those Stearns SOSuspenders are more important than a pail full of fatheads if Evergreen is in your fishing future this winter!

THE MIGHTY MISSISSIPPI

Many backwaters of pools 12, 13 and 14 of the Mississippi River that ice-anglers have enjoyed for decades are in genuine peri

l due to siltation. There's obvious and direct conflict between the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on how to manage this greatest of natural resources.

The Corps is winning the battle. Their goal is to turn the Mississippi into a barge channel. Let the silt fall where it may -- and it has!

Details regarding a "refuge-use plan" scheduled to go in effect later this year have not been finalized by the deadline for this article. There will certainly be more restrictions on hunters and anglers using these upper river pools. Although ice-anglers could see less immediate impact -- beyond the specter of siltation -- you would be wise to check for any new regulations before heading out.

The fact that areas near the main river channel now hold the best potential for fish on the ice speaks volumes about this fishery.

On Pool 12, one of the best areas is around the wood in the second cut below the Julien Dubuque Bridge. At the south end of this pool, just north of Bellevue on the Iowa side near the cement plant, winter anglers have been having good success on crappies around the pilings between the main channel and a small island.

On Pool 13 to the south, the ice just out from Savanna's sewer plant has been a multi-species hotspot over the past couple of winters. South Sabula Lake just across the river has some deeper areas and has produced as well.

Several years ago, Illinois Game & Fish ran an article on the reclaiming of Potter's Marsh outside of Thomson near the midpoint of Pool 13. Profound siltation of this perennial fishery pushed the federal government into aggressive dredging action, which touted to keep Potter's Marsh a viable fishery for at least 20 years. Less than a decade after pouring a dragline of millions of dollars money into the Potter's Marsh rathole, the siltation is almost as bad as what took nearly a century to dump prior to the dredging. "If you can find one of the areas that isn't entirely silted in, you can still have a good day," said river activist Mike Cyze, "but you'll have bad days, too."

You can still ice a mess of fish at the "perch hole" on Pool 14 directly below the dam. Crappies will still hit a Li'l Cecil north of the Sabula boat ramp around the islands on Pool 13. And you can have memorable days on Pool 12 on Sunfish and Kehough sloughs west of Galena and south of town at the base of Chestnut Mountain, which is just off the main river channel. But the river just ain't what it used to be. And it's going downhill fast.

For more information on fishing prospects and ice conditions on the Mississippi, call Mike Cyze at (563) 872-3717 or e-mail him at lastcast13@yahoo.com.

Here's hoping Mother Nature cooperates this winter by giving us perfect ice-fishing conditions in Illinois. Ha! That would make it too easy! See you out on the ice. I'll be the guy wearing the PFD.

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