Illinois' Best Bets For Fishing

Illinois' Best Bets For Fishing

Our state is so lengthy, you could be ice-fishing in northern Illinois and tossing spinnerbaits downstate -- all in the same day! Our angling expert tracks the hot bites for the next 12 months. (February 2006)

In a state that is over 400 miles from north to south, there are a variety of angling opportunities during those periods of seasonal change in spring and fall. Figuring a week's difference for every 100 longitudinal miles traveled, the itinerant Illinois angler can be on the on the cutting edge of a bite fully 20 percent of the calendar year -- with the other 40 weeks spent enjoying fishing that's somewhere between good and outstanding.

A cell phone conversation with my nephew Darrin last March drove home the point regarding the Prairie State's piscatory potpourri. Darrin was sitting on a bucket up on Mississippi River's Pool 12 in northwest Illinois with a question about ice-fishing for crappies. The temperature was 21 degrees, and the sky was spitting snow. I was sitting in a boat under sunny skies watching angling legend Fred Washburn catch another bass on Little Grassy Lake in southern Illinois. The temperature was 70 degrees.

In August, when Fred is sweltering in southern Illinois, he has the option of grabbing a jacket and heading six hours north for chinook salmon on Lake Michigan. In December, you can catch bluegills through the ice near Savanna in northwest Illinois or catch bluegills with a long rod on Baldwin Lake downstate.

So many options, so little time. Here is our annual look at 36 of Illinois' best fishing options in the 12 months ahead.

JANUARY

Smithland Pool Stripers

Hey, you don't have to put the boat away for the winter during the coldest month of the year! Striped bass and hybrid stripers are active in this neck of the Ohio River bordered by three states. These brutal combatants are always on the move chasing baitfish.

A solid tactic is to locate a big school of baitfish with your electronics, and then tightlining cut shad over the side of the boat while jigging a blade bait or Hopkins Spoon on your other rod.

Contact the Golconda Marina at (618) 683-5875.

Devils Kitchen Rainbows

Anchor up along the dam. Thread a miniature marshmallow over the eye of a No. 6 short-shanked hook and add a nose-hooked night crawler with a split shot 18 inches up the line. Fish will often rocket three feet out of the water before you realize that they're hooked.

Farm-Pond Bluegills

The landscape north of Interstate 80 is dotted with frozen farm ponds and strip pits full of hungry fish. The county's SCS office and a plat book can help you hook up with virtually unpressured fisheries.

FEBRUARY

Illinois River Saugers

Our namesake river has a national reputation for giving up huge versions of this walleye kin. Fish are stacked in incredible numbers right now in wintering holes within sight of the Abraham Lincoln Bridge.

Blade baits and vertical jigging with live bait or bucktail jigs are very effective during February, thus providing one of the few open-water options for northern Illinois anglers.

Contact Cajun Sporting Goods at (815) 667-4222.

Sangchris Lake Stripers

The warmwater discharge near the powerhouse congregates both shad and stripers between now and mid-March. Watch for surface feeding activity and throw either a Rat-L-Trap or cut bait toward the boil. Stealth is a key. These big fish are naturally spooky.

Pool 12 Crappies

A January thaw will trigger crappies on Kehough Slough and other Mississippi River backwaters west of Galena, and at the foot of Chestnut Mountain Resort off of Blackjack Road. A purple Li'l Cecil or No. 2 Rembrandt willow spoon is hard to beat.

MARCH

Kinkaid Lake Muskies

Fifty-inch muskies are present in this southern Illinois fishery, offering a great open-water kickoff for anglers tired of sitting astride buckets up north.

Target points and shallows with Jake baits and similar "downsized" lures. Trolling is legal here and an effective way to hook up. The shallow Shad Rap in carp pattern is a popular local choice. Don't forget to bring your crappie gear.

Contact guide Al Nutty at (618) 985-4105.

Illinois River White Bass

About mid-March, the white bass come on like gangbusters on the Illinois. Try throwing a 1/8-ounce white Roadrunner in the waters around Starved Rock State Park. Don't overlook inlets like the Vermilion River, or current breaks like sandbars off the main river channel.

Otter Lake Muskies

Weeds are a major problem here in chasing muskies most of the year, but not now. Head for this central Illinois trophy toother lake soon, before the fishing window is shut down by massive greenery.

APRIL

Grassy Lake Largemouths

This 1,000-acre southern Illinois lake has both sizes and numbers of largemouth bass.

Water temperature is a major key to fish location. Shallow northside bays and flats warm up first -- but there are exceptions!

If you find one quality fish, slow down and work the area hard. Bucketmouths congregate at this time of year, when there is something magic about 43 to 48 degree water the bass are swimming in.

Contact the area DNR office at (618) 993-7094.

Catchable Trout

Fishing opens for put-and-take trout at a number of sites around the state on April 1. This is a great opportunity to take a kid fishing. All you need is worms, canned corn and a little time.

Powerton Smallies

On this lake, water temperature is a major key. Seventy degrees is ideal. Pitch Senkos and tubes tight against the rocks, or throw shallow crankbaits. Once you find it, the action is hot and heavy -- and so are the smallmouths.

MAY

Apple River Smallmouths

This Jo Daviess County stream has been Illinois' premier riverine smallmouth habitat for decades. There are plenty of fish swimming within Apple River Canyon State Park, but better results are usually realized on private lands, both upstream and down. Be sure you get permission before fishing. Most landowners will grant access. Take care that you don't cross onto property where you aren't supposed to be. Catch-and-release ensures perpetuation of this great natural resource.

Lake Michigan Cohos

This tasty

salmon is following baitfish and the warming waters to the north. Try casting spoons in the many Lake Michigan harbors or trolling stickbaits just offshore. Planer boards are an advantage to avoid spooking fish in shallow, clear water. Dawn and dusk are best times to fish.

Rock River Channel Cats

Fish Sonny's Dip Bait or G&S Dip Bait on a plastic worm above a snag where there is moderate current. Remember to blot the worm dry once it has been in the water. Oil and water don't mix. Baits are oil-based. Bait won't stick to a worm if it is wet.

JUNE

Rock River Flatheads

The leading edges of deep-water holes and shallower feeding flats hold flathead catfish in excess of 40 pounds. A bluegill tightlined above a heavy egg-sinker with a No. 5/0 saltwater hook and heavy baitcasting gear with at least 50-pound-test line is part of the plan.

Most of the action is at night, except during the full-moon period. Tailwaters at Sterling-Rock Falls hold the most fish. Bigger ones haunt the waters around Dixon. Don't overlook woody cover around Grand Detour, either.

Contact Bunny's Bait at (815) 288-3812.

Pistakee Largemouths

Throw a green pumpkin Senko around deep-water weed edges on a No. 5/0 hook, or try a lizard in the same color, Texas-rigged behind a 1/16-ounce bullet-sinker. Patience is the key. Wait until the line starts moving away before you set the hook.

Shabbona Muskies

This 318-acre lake is our state's best on an acre-per-acre basis. Statistics indicate that lures with either black/orange colors or green fluorescents work best. Shabbona gets tremendous pressure, but if your line is in the water, you're always a threat. Don't overlook the "no wake" areas!

JULY

Kankakee River Smallmouths

This northeast Illinois stream offers plenty of public access for wading anglers between the Kankakee dam and Bourbonaisse. There's a boat launch at Bird Park, near the dam.

A canoe float trip using a crab-claw anchor to slow your downstream progress is probably the most efficient way to get hooked up. Fish hold tight to cover. If you're "free floating," you may get in only one cast at a fallen log that hides a whopper.

Contact Lanny's Bait at (815) 935-1661.

Mississippi River Largemouths

Target deep weed edges where there is at least seven feet of water nearby. A promising snag usually yields more than one fish. Watch for gulls dive-bombing baitfish -- especially on sand flats. Have a tandem willow-leaf spinnerbait ready to go.


The landscape north of Interstate 80 is dotted with frozen farm ponds and strip pits full of hungry fish. The county's SCS office and a plat book can help you hook up with virtually unpressured fisheries.
 

Illinois River Channel Catfish

Cut shad tightlined just off the main river channel at the first shallower breakline is a great tactic in this glorified canal. Try to fish directly down-current from the boat to minimize line drag that can alert wary fish.

AUGUST

Lake Michigan Chinooks

Cast Little Cleo spoons or crankbaits from shore, or try trolling mouths of Lake Michigan harbors and you'll see why these fish are called "kings."

Four-year-old chinook salmon are close to shore now, trying to find their way up into tributaries to spawn. Fish that aren't darkly colored offer excellent eating. Flesh of fish with big, hooked jaws in tributaries can be mushy. Regardless of your culinary desires, the kings of August can provide a whale of a tussle.

Rend Lake Flatheads

Start saving your old milk jugs! Huge flathead catfish roam the flats of this vast reservoir near Mt. Vernon at night. You can toss up to 50 jugs that must bear your name and address. Two feet of 70-pound-test, a heavy No. 2/0 hook and a chunk of shad complete the rig. Set 'em at dusk, run 'em at dawn. Average size of the flatheads is about 4 pounds, but fish 10 times larger than that are in the system.

Mississippi River White Bass

Bajillions of small shad are cloistered around rocks of wing dams and below lock-and-dam systems. Bass are right behind them. Throw a 2-inch Sassy Shad body on a 1/8-ounce white jighead. Dawn and dusk are the best fishing times.

SEPTEMBER

Evergreen Lake Muskies

This reservoir varies in size, but Evergreen is usually smaller in the fall due to lower water levels.

Throw big crappie-pattern jerkbaits on the sloping flat near the spillway. White bucktails with chrome blades work well around woody cover.

A 10-horsepower limit is in place on this lake just north of Bloomington. Speed-trolling shallow ShadRaps while following the 8- to 12-foot contour is another good way to hook up.

Contact the site office at (815) 667-4862.

Lake Shelbyville Muskies

Target your efforts on the southern 10 percent of the lake, especially on riprapped areas just above the dam and below the dam in the tailwaters. Main-lake points hold fish, but the best place is casting around docks at the Lithia Springs Marina with an orange/black fluorescent Jake lure.

Carlyle Lake White Bass

Summer's end spells an intense migration of white bass up the Kaskaskia River to the Carlyle tailwaters. A small chrome or shad-pattern blade bait is a real killer. Best times are dawn and dusk. When the fish are active, you'll hook up on every cast.

OCTOBER

Mississippi River Pool 14 Walleyes

Twenty years of intensive stocking has resulted in a fishery on Old Man River that is drawing national attention. In fact, a fish that would have eclipsed the Illinois state record was caught on the Iowa side of this pool in 2002.

Wing dams and other rocky barriers are major keys to fish location when October rolls around. Cast or troll crankbaits to find pods of active fish, then slow your presentation down and throw a jig. Don't overlook the blade-bait bite off the end of wing dams, if river levels are low.

Call (309) 227-2000, ext. 2867.

Fox Chain Walleyes

A slot limit enables catch-and-release, about 25 respectable fish a day being the norm here. Target bridges and necked-down channels between lakes by using three-inch twistertails. Most fish are in less than 7 feet of water. Ironically, the best areas are where boat wakes pound against riprapped shoreline. Pitch twistertails close to shore and employ a steady retrieve.

Newton Lake Largemouths

Use a temperature gauge to find the warmest water on this Jasper County cooling lake, and then twitch a suspending stickbait or p

lastics around cover. This is the time and place to tangle with a wallhanger.


Vast schools of slabs tend to spread out horizontally on Rend Lake. Count down a 1/16-ounce pink/white RoadRunner jig/fliptail to somewhere between 3 and 7 feet. When you find the "magic" depth, just leave the live well open, call Ma and tell her to heat up the grease in the skillet.
 

NOVEMBER

Rend Lake Crappies

You can fill a limit in less than an hour with some of our state's biggest crappies on Rend Lake -- even from shore.

Vast schools of slabs tend to spread out horizontally on Rend Lake. Count down a 1/16-ounce pink/white RoadRunner jig/fliptail to somewhere between 3 and 7 feet. When you find the "magic" depth, just leave the live well open, call Ma and tell her to heat up the grease in the skillet.

The best-kept secret weapon here is a little ice-fishing jig with a soft-plastic tail pegged under a neutrally buoyant float, once fish are located.

Call (618) 629-2507.

Pecatonica River Walleyes

When the usually muddy Pecatonica River in northern Winnebago County turns a deep emerald green and water temperatures drop into the mid-40s, it's time to vertical-jig down the main channel with a 3/8-ounce orange flatfoot jig and Fuzz-E-Grub body tipped with a 2- to 3-inch fathead minnow.

Sangchris Largemouths

Like Newton Lake, Sangchris near Springfield is just turning on when most bassers have hung up their gear for the year. The cooling lake's discharge arm holds the warmest water. Bass stack here like crappies. Speaking of crappies, Sangchris has some whoppers. Stripers, too.

DECEMBER

Crab Orchard Crappies

A Fuzzy-Tail plastic fished on a Hoop-I Head Jig on cover and riprap near the dam can produce 200 crappies in a day. Most folks go out there, fill a bucket and go home.

Long poles, like the Crappie Commander, and tying on your jig with a loop knot are major keys to success, but this isn't rocket science. Fish are stacked so tight that you can always stumble into enough dumb ones to fill the frying pan.

Contact the site office at (618) 985-3310.

Mazonia FWA Panfish

Travel light and check out some of the more remote lakes here. First-ice usually arrives around Christmas. Electronics are an important component of consistent success on a mixed bag of crappies, bluegills, perch and redear sunfish.

Baldwin Lake Bluegills

You may need to wear coveralls, but the bluegills coming out of the warmwater discharge of this Randolph County lake can actually be warm to the touch. Try ice-fishing tackle on a light, long ultralight rod. No boat required here!

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