Illinois' Best Bets For Ice-Fishing

This expert has drawn an analogy between pregnancy and the pitter-patter of little fins slapping on the ice. You can tell he's pumped up and ready to take on the responsibility of another hardwater season! (January 2007)

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

Don't tell me that I don't understand the pain and emotional torment of pregnancy. Nine months of physical change, fear and trepidation, you say? Well, how long do you think it has been since I've been able to stumble out on Illinois' ice-covered lakes with a bucket and a couple of short rods? That's right! Nine long months!

Nine months of wondering about 10 fingers and 10 toes. Nine months of wondering if I will leave another power auger on Lake Marie. Wondering if Shabbona Lake will give up the state-record walleye we all know swims there? What about my access to private lakes? Have I supplied friends who own property on these secluded little hotspots with enough homemade black raspberry jam, venison sausage or spirits to ensure access to their lakes again this winter?

You whine about weight gain, but don't even go there. It's only been about two weeks since I tiptoed gingerly out on the Mississippi River backwaters west of Galena while wondering if I was carrying too much weight. Should I have left that Vexilar flasher in the truck? It's just 10 pounds, 10 little pounds.

Can't wait until your water breaks? Been there sister, and it ain't pretty. Floundering and sloshing back to safety, cursing some guy who talked me into this predicament who is now standing safely on the shore bent over in fits of laughter. The only consolation comes when you can shake off the chill on dry land and watch the laughter change to tears when you tell Mr. Goodtime Charlie that it's his. That's right! That little 10-pound bundle of joy he called a Vexilar FL-18 is somewhere on the bottom of the river between the parking lot at the end of West Street and the little island that you have to cross to get to Fishtrap Slough.

Is it worth all the heartache? Of course it is! There isn't much else to do in Illinois between now and March anyway, so you may as well do it three or four times a week!

Illinois is on the fringe when it comes to ice-fishing, with only the northern third of our state assured of having safe ice for more than a month, at best. Too soon it will all be gone, with nothing but pain and emotional torment for nine long months until we can get back on the ice again.

Until then, we want to experience every special moment. That first pike. The cute pitter-patter of bluegill fins slapping on the ice. The pride felt when you walk off the ice with a limit of big slab crappies. Yes, it's time to take on the responsibility of another ice-fishing season. Here's a look at Illinois' best bets for scoring on the hardwater over the next several months.

PRIVATE LAKES

In the 20 years I've been doing this ice-fishing forecast for Illinois Game & Fish, private waters have been pretty much ignored because of limited access. With real estate at such a premium in northern Illinois, there are precious few public waters. But our state sees more small lakes as centerpieces for suburban developments and farm ponds every year.

Truth be known, you are the main variable in the concept of "limited access." In many cases, getting out there on the ice simply requires written permission. Sometimes there's a small access fee, or a covenant that the property owner must accompany you. There is at least one of these waters within an hour's drive anywhere in Illinois' ice-fishing country. If you're a serious bucketeer, you will find a way to get out on this private ice that is usually as good as, or better than, other waters with public access described in the rest of this article.

MISSISSIPPI RIVER

Although our western border still offers the potential for buckets full of fish, piscatory habitats along the Mississippi River in pools 12, 13 and 14 are profoundly threatened by siltation caused by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' dredging to maintain a 9-foot channel for commercial barge traffic.

Winter fishing here used to be primarily a backwater bite. However, siltation has reduced once productive areas like Fishtrap on Pool 12 and Miller's Lake on Pool 13 north of Savanna from fisheries covering hundreds of acres to niches with less than 20 acres of fish-producing habitat.

The key to productive winter fishing on the Mississippi is targeting areas on or near the main channel. On Pool 12, woody cover in the second cut on the Iowa side below the Julien Dubuque Bridge has developed into quite a crappie hotspot over the past several years. Probably the most consistently productive area is near the cement plant around the pilings between the little island and the main channel.

Backwaters just west of Galena like Fishtrap and Kehough sloughs and Sunfish Lake still produce when the river levels are up a little bit. But it's tough to find water that is both high and clear, so keep poking holes. When you can see that L'il Cecil a foot below the surface over at least a couple feet of water -- preferably near wood -- you have an excellent chance to ice a nice mixed bag of panfish.

A combination of snow-making efforts and close proximity to the main channel has made ice south of Galena at the base of Chestnut Mountain ski area a hotspot for years. Take a little spinning outfit rigged with a No. 2 Jigging Rapala, because the standard "stick and string" used by ice-anglers for generations over on the Mississippi won't get you down to where the fish are hiding.

Pool 13 covers over 30,000 acres. There used to be dozens of spots worth fishing. Now there are just a couple. Try north of the Sabula boat ramp near the islands, on the ice near the sewer plant at Savanna and the deep hole at Spring Lake between Savanna and Thomson. They are all worth probing.

Just a few miles south of here in the tailwaters of the dam that separates pools 13 and 14 is a place called the "perch hole" where folks have been icing fish since I was a kid 50 years ago. It still yields fish today, but not too far away is a fat lady getting ready to sing.

Contact: R&R Sports, (563) 243-4696.

STATE PARK LAKES

Northern Illinois has a number of state parks that feature a small lake as a centerpiece. Most of these have been around for decades, with the lakes stocked on a regular basis by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

Just east of the Mississippi River in Whiteside County's Morrison-Rockwood State Park you will find tiny 77-acre Lake Carlton. DNR biologists say there are several year-classes of crappies swimming here, the largest of which is worth gr

easing the skillet for. But the real draw on Carlton is saugeyes, a cross between a sauger and a walleye. Multiple specimens in excess of the state record have turned up in DNR fisheries surveys the past several years. This provides you with your best shot at getting in the Illinois record books with a game fish.

Another fishery where the saugeye record could fall is 900-acre Evergreen Lake in Comlara County Park just north of Bloomington off Interstate 39. Although this lake freezes over every winter, the ice that is there today could be gone tomorrow. Evergreen has a solid crappie population, with some fish exceeding 12 inches.

Head north on I-39 about an hour and you'll pass Lake Sule, a borrow-pit lake with little structure but a lot of crappies. Electronics are a major key to success here. Fish that are actively biting tend to suspend from just below the ice to about 8 feet down. Remember to fish above those electronic blips. Crappie eyes are located near the tops of their heads, thus making attack from below a favorite crappie tactic.

Driving another 45 minutes north will put you by Rockford where Olson Lake and Pierce Lake lie next to I-90/39 within Rock Cut State Park.

Pierce Lake has been around for years, but it still gives up solid catches of bluegills, crappies and the occasional bass from its 160 acres. Walleyes approaching trophy dimensions are also present, according to DNR surveys, but just about the only time you can see one of these fish is when the DNR is out there pulling in survey nets.

Olson Lake holds similar fish species and is much smaller, with both less structure and less pressure than Pierce. As is the case at Lake Sule, electronics play a major role in a successful day on the ice here.

SHABBONA LAKE

For at least the last decade, DNR fisheries surveys have indicated walleyes in excess of Fred Goseline's 14-pound state record are swimming in this 319-acre De Kalb County lake.

For almost that long, anglers goaded by articles in Illinois Game & Fish have harped at DNR officials to extend fishing times in this state park lake beyond dawn to dusk, arguing that walleyes don't reach trophy proportions by being stupid, and the smart ones learned to feed almost exclusively at night. Last year, conservation officials yielded to public pressure, offering a one-time shot to fish these waters after dark on two different occasions. Both times, however, unsafe ice caused park officials to cancel the hunt for the Big Green Giant.

Is this a tantalizing government plot? Did the DNR consult global-warming pundits who knew 2005-06 would be a crummy year for ice-fishing? A similar night event is scheduled for this winter. With my luck, a meteor will strike De Kalb County on the very night this after-hours fish-a-thon is supposed to take place.

If there is safe ice on Shabbona between now and the big event, this could be the best place in Illinois to set up your ice tent. Shabbona has more structure than any other 10 northern Illinois lakes combined -- everything from fish cribs to roadbeds to flooded timber to an entire submerged farm complete with buildings. This structure enables Shabbona to carry several times the fish population per acre that you'll find in places like Lake Sule.

Fishing on Shabbona is like a treasure hunt. With a detailed topographic map and good electronics, you just may find gold. Without both of these tools to put you on fish, you're just sitting on a bucket on a frozen lake -- which is a great strategy if you're pondering a run for village idiot in the spring elections, but not a good move if you've promised the family a fish fry. With the topo map and electronics, you have an excellent chance for icing a mixed bag of panfish, bass, walleyes and even channel catfish.

Underwater viewing cameras have greatly increased odds for success at catching winter catfish. Contrary to conventional wisdom, catfish under the ice that feel like eating are usually swimming around suspended rather than tucked tight to the bottom. The best bait? Two redworms impaled on a small hook with a split shot a foot up the line and the bait at the same depth where the cats are cruising. In another gee-whiz twist, a large portion of Shabbona's catfish population under the ice relates to the old barn foundation. Finding cats around an old barn makes sense, but you would think that mice would be better bait than redworms.

Contact: Big Jim's Bait, (815) 624-2415, or ShabbonaLake.com

MAZONIA FWA

Even though the myriad of lakes in this complex straddling the Grundy-Kankakee County line are smaller and more protected than Shabbona, they often freeze over later than most lakes in northern Illinois because of their deep strip-pit nature. These lakes range in size from less than 1/2-acre up to about 150 acres, with water clarity ranging from clear to considerably stained.

Monster Lake falls on the stained side of the visibility spectrum and is generally considered the best fishery in the entire project because two tributaries infuse life into this system all winter long. It isn't like most of the lakes in Mazonia Fish & Wildlife Area because Monster wasn't initially a strip pit. Monster is also the first lake here to support winter anglers. Monster is a great place to ice some very nice crappies, with bass also getting considerable attention from the ice-fishing fraternity.

If you're looking for whopping big redear sunfish, target gin-clear Eagle Lake, a strip pit like most of the other lakes in the Mazonia complex. Redears are notoriously light biters. This tendency is especially true in Eagle Lake where ultra-stealthy tactics are required to consistently get your string stretched. Use 1-pound-test Berkley Ice Line and a single No. 12 hook baited with a lone redworm. Allow the bait to free fall until it is hovering at roughly the same level where electronics indicate fish are holding, and then peg a Thill Mini-Stealth float to the line and wait for it to move just a whisker.

Lakes in Mazonia's South Unit are generally smaller, with three of these little waters offering truly outstanding fishing. Conscience prohibits specific identification of these lakes because the fishery is so fragile. Do your own prospecting, and you'll want to keep the secret, too.

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

FOX CHAIN-O-LAKES

When looked at as a total fishery, this chain of natural lakes in northeast Illinois is our state's best ice-fishery. However, the Fox Chain also gets some of the heaviest angling pressure of any public fishery due to its close proximity to metro Chicago.

The old adage "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em" could have been coined with ice-fishing on the Fox Chain in mind. It's almost impossible to get away from a crowd when there is a hot bite going on. The upside is that all the humanity out there makes it easier to get over fish without a great deal of prospecting.

Most of the crowd will be chasing panfish holding in weeds over fairly shallow water all winter lon

g. A major key to success lies in fishing around the fringes of the crowd -- and having a child's toy garden rake tucked away somewhere in the ice tent. Stake out your territory by poking a half-dozen holes close to the ice shanty, then use the rake to clear weeds from the area directly below the hole. In the few minutes it takes the water to clear, tie a couple of black/green Marmooskas or little Genz Fat Boys in blue/glow, red/glow or gold on 1-pound-test monofilament line. Use either a Thill Mini-Stealth or sensitive ballpoint-pen-type spring bobber as a strike indicator.

Bluff and Pistakee lakes on the Fox Chain's south end offer the most productive panfish action. Using plastics will help you cull through the little bluegills without having to catch them. With plastics, at least one fish in three is worth releasing into hot grease.

The new soft plastics like the Lindy Techni-Glo Tails are far better than live bait, especially if you want to take home a mess of "eaters" rather than messing around with dinks. Purple and black are the most popular plastic colors, but don't rule out red.

With plastics, the idea is to trigger fish into biting. The key lies in keeping the plastic moving. Often, the most effective movement comes when holding the rod and doing your darnedest to keep it still horizontally while raising and lowering it a couple of inches vertically. Sometimes the bluegills, crappies and perch hit when the bait is stationary. Sometimes a falling bait is the answer. Other times you'll catch more fish by pulling the bait slowly upward. Experiment until you find what they want on any given day. Then put up the tent unless you're very fond of company.

Bluff and Pistakee lakes on the Fox Chain's south end offer the most productive panfish action. Using plastics will help you cull through the little bluegills without having to catch them. With plastics, at least one fish in three is worth releasing into hot grease.

Those lakes found at the northern end of the Fox Chain are the most consistent winter producers for walleyes. Bridges where the chain narrows down are always a good bet because a natural current is created. Use caution because narrows also mean weaker ice.

If I had one place to set boards for walleyes, it would be in the cut between Channel and Catherine lakes. If you get on the ice about 4 p.m., more often than not you'll be ready to get out the fillet knife before 8 p.m.

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

BEYOND THE CHAIN

The Des Plaines Conservation Area has perhaps the best hardwater action other than the Fox Chain. Lake Milliken is located off Interstate 55 at the Wilmington exit. During open-water periods, Milliken is bank-fishing only. When the iceman cometh, the bass, bluegills and crappies that swim in Milliken don't have a clue about hooks or the concept that they could end up battered and fried.

Busse and Tampier lakes see plenty of fishing pressure all winter long, with panfish, bass, pike and the occasional walleye cruising these small urban waters.

Eliot Lake in Wheaton is a great place to take the kids. This six-acre pond is catch-and-release only, providing a great classroom for teaching fishing ethics.

Pike are the major draw on East and West Loon lakes just a short hop from Greg Dickson's Triangle Bait Shop south of Antioch on Grass Lake Road.

Contact: Cook County Forest Preserve office, (708) 771-1335.

* * *

Time is short, so fish hard. One day you'll wake up and the ice will be gone, causing profound nausea. But you'll get over it. Try a strawberry milkshake with pickles in it!

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

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