Illinois' Best Bets for Muskies

Illinois' Best Bets for Muskies

Our state has come of age as a muskie fishery. You can find out for yourself on these lakes.

By Ted Peck

Illinois has come of age as a muskie fishery, boasting several major tournaments each year and a number of waters from one end of our state to the other that hold the fish of dreams.

Muskie fishing is a relatively new concept in Illinois, with a genesis in the mid-1970s. Raising muskies back then was truly a "hands-on" operation. I can remember working with Department of Natural Resources biologists Alec Pulley and the late Mike Sule on a rearing pond next to Lake Carlton in Whiteside County as a young man, carrying five-gallon buckets of little tiger muskies to a truck that had a horse-watering tank fed by a hose from a big oxygen tank for quick transport to Pierce Lake near Rockford.

Back then the accepted rate for stocking muskies was one per surface acre, as Illinois biologists used data from other states to get the program off the ground. Now muskies in initial stocking efforts are introduced at two to three per acre, with a mix of fingerlings and fry over several years to get the population established.

Although paperwork indicated Sule and Pulley were following established guidelines, fear that many fingerling muskies wouldn't survive the trip led Pulley and Sule to dump a few more tiger muskies in this 77-acre lake near Morrison on two occasions that I know of.

At day's end we speculated on the future of our state's muskie fishery over a cold beverage. Sule smiled and said someday we would see a 50-pounder coming out of Illinois waters. Those foregathered laughed out loud at the chances of something that could easily be hidden in a hot dog bun growing to a length of over 4 feet. Sule just kept smiling and said in a quiet, firm voice, "Wait and see."

Although we haven't seen a 50-pounder yet, muskies that are only a couple shad shy of reaching this mark are swimming in several Illinois lakes. Matt Carmean's muskie from the Lake Shelbyville tailwaters in 2002 was just a shad shy of topping 40 pounds. There was a 42-pounder netted and released by the DNR on tiny Johnson-Sauk Trail Lake just south of Carlton near Kewanee that same year. Kinkaid Lake in southern Illinois, Shabbona Lake in De Kalb County, Spring Lake, Otter Lake - wait and see. One of them will give up a 60-incher. And the smart money says a fish of these dimensions may only be a couple of years away.

Photo by Pete Maina

Muskie size limits vary from lake to lake, with a 48-inch mark in place on most that would produce a whopper in the near future. Illinois also has lakes where you have great odds of having a smaller muskie in the mid-30-inch range stretch your string before a quick release.

If you just want to catch a muskie, Lake Evergreen north of Bloomington is pretty hard to beat. From a pure numbers standpoint, Carlton has produced more muskies on a per-surface-acre basis than any other lake in the state. And with a 36-inch minimum in effect, DNR biologist Ken Clodfelter says the adult fish per surface acre ratio is "still right up there."

Although there is a world of difference between Wheel Lake in Banner Marsh, Kinkaid Lake and the borrow-pit lake named for Mike Sule near the intersection of Interstate 88 and Interstate 39, there are a couple of "go-to" lures that are good as anything you might want to throw from one end of our state to the other.

If there are two anglers in the boat, one should always have a topwater bait like the Crazy Crawler or Hawg Wobbler close at hand. The other should have a magnum black tandem spinnerbait with orange blades.

Conventional wisdom says there are more muskies caught by folks who aren't fishing for them than those who are species-specific in any given year. You might want to think about donning your lucky hat and tying on that black spinnerbait for "bass" - but don't forget a big net.

Here's a look at some top spots to wet the mesh in 2004.

LAKE CARLTON

A 10-horsepower limit is in effect on this little, sheltered lake. But you can probe all 77 acres effectively in just a couple of hours by easing along the shoreline with a good electric trolling motor.

DNR statistics indicate fishing pressure of roughly 600 man-hours per acre here, so these fish know what lures look like. A major key to success may lie in being on the water at dawn, dusk and before an approaching storm.

Water clarity is somewhat stained, making fluorescent colors always a good bet.

Carlton remains a top muskie lake, with both size and numbers of fish present. The most recent survey produced several fish in the mid-40-inch range.

Surrounded by Morrison-Rockwood State Park, this Whiteside County lake offers a great family getaway with camping and boat rental available. For more information, call (815) 795-1040.

PIERCE LAKE

This state park lake in the northern shadow of metro Rockford gets plenty of fishing pressure and is just 160 acres. A no-wake policy applies to boats with motors over 10 horsepower, allowing those with bigger rigs good access.

The fall fisheries survey here in 2003 was a real eye opener. Several very nice muskies turned up in the nets, with some of the large Leech Lake-strain muskies that were introduced as 20-inchers by the Flatlanders Chapter of Muskies Inc. showing good growth.

Unlike Carlton, where very few muskies are harvested, anglers on Pierce used to have a propensity for taking fish home - a practice that has stopped due to the 48-inch minimum size limit now in place. According to DNR statistics, there are fish swimming here that are very close to being wallhangers this summer.

Fluorescents work well here, as does basic black. By midsummer, Pierce is subject to extreme stratification, with little oxygen below 15 feet in the water column. There is a sunken island and good riprap near the dam, with the shoreline good clear back to the concession stand bay where boats are offered for rent. Key on panfish! Muskies here feed heavily on the crappie population. Find the crappies and odds are a muskie won't be far away.

Contact: Curve Bait Shop, (815) 877-0637.

LAKE SHABBONA

This 318-acre De Kalb County lake has produced several state records, with the new record holder swimming somewhere in these structure-filled waters.

On a good year, anglers here wi

ll catch and release over 400 muskies, with angler success directly tied to the health of the shad forage base. If there is a great deal of food in the water, these fish find no need to be aggressive. Because of this, a good strategy lies in offering a striking presentation rather than a feeding presentation.

Concessionaire Denny Sands has been keeping meticulous records on which lures produce best. According to this data the most consistent pattern is no pattern at all. If any color scheme has an edge, it may be a combination of black and orange.

This is one of those lakes where a legal muskie of 48 inches or more is truly a fish of 10,000 casts. But so long as your bait is in the water, you are a weapon.

Fishing hours are essentially dawn to dusk, with a 10-horsepower limit in place. Sands offers a highly detailed map of the lake that notes most of the more significant structure, including cribs, building foundations and an old roadbed. Other than persistence, a good fish locator is a definite advantage. Muskie behavior in Shabbona personifies the predator/prey relationship. Don't go looking for muskies. Look instead for structure that is holding forage.

Contacts: Denny Sands, (815) 824-2581 or www.shabbonalake.com; guide Ron Fulk, (847) 697-1951 or www.midwestmuskies.com.

LAKE MARIE

Although you might find muskies swimming just about anywhere in the Fox Chain-O-Lakes in northeastern Illinois, the serious muskie crowd spends most of its time on the algae-rich Lake Marie.

The DNR has been intensely managing the Fox Chain for muskies for almost a decade now, with efforts definitely paying off. At least two year-classes of fish swim in these waters that are larger than the 48-inch minimum in place, with another five solid year-classes of muskies growing larger every day.

Chain-O-Lakes receives probably more angling pressure than any other water body in our state, and a great deal of this pressure is directed at Esox masquinongy. Rather than beating the water to a froth with a well-placed cast every 44 seconds, you might consider simply trolling a medium-diving crankbait out from the weed edge and observing all the other boat traffic - except when there is a front moving in or you can get on the water during periods of low light during the week.

There are numerous access points on the chain, with plenty of places to eat and other amenities. Use due caution when boating here. And don't drink and drive.

Contacts: Triangle Bait Shop, (847) 395-0813; Guide Jim Saric, (847) 267-0034.

EVERGREEN LAKE

There is no doubt that this county park lake just north of Bloomington off Interstate 39 is my personal favorite. Hooking up on seven different muskies in a single afternoon might have something to do with fondness for this place.

On the downside, it costs a hefty $22 for non-county residents to launch their boats here. And a 10-horsepower limit is in effect. Both of these factors keep a lot of folks away.

DNR surveys indicate practically every fish swimming here is big enough to give you a tussle, or at least keep your interest. At about 1,000 acres, fishing the whole thing takes a solid two days on the water. Take your tent and make an outing of it. There are great camping facilities. Keep your line in the water and there is no doubt you will get hooked up.

Contacts: Comlara County Park, (309) 726-2022; Guides: Dave Ludington, (309) 663-2483; Thad Hinshaw, (309) 726-1860; Gary Brady Jr., (309) 823-9141.

OTTER LAKE

If fat females with very pointy teeth really turn you on, there is no better place to spend the day muskie fishing than Macoupin County's Otter Lake.

DNR fisheries surveys historically turn up adult muskies several pounds heavier than the mean average length on this 723-acre lake north of Carlinville, with multiple year-classes of fish present, with at least two year-classes holding female muskies in excess of 40 pounds.

A rich forage base of shad and panfish helps Otter's muskies grow, with a large feeding flat on the lake's north side by the dam known as Striper Point a great place to catch them in a hungry mood. This weedy area and similar spots - like the one just across the lake and slightly south of the boat ramp - are great places to probe with bucktails or Dragontail spinnerbaits. Bays with green weeds and laydowns are muskie magnets from now through the fall. But when temperatures cool and weeds start to die back, throwing "wood" is usually a better option.

A 48-inch size limit protects these fish, with a 115-horsepower outboard limit in place. A local lake sticker is also required.

Contact: Guide Duane Landmeier, (815) 286-7170 or www.mainlymusky.com.

LAKE SHELBYVILLE

This sprawling central Illinois reservoir is not your typical muskie lake, with "toothers" here relating to wood more than weeds and showing a definite affinity for harbors where there is riprap.

An intensive stocking program initiated in 1988 started to show promise in 1994, with fishing success continuing to spiral upward ever since, with this lake still being a top priority for stocking. There is no doubt that Shelbyville is groomed as Illinois' premier muskie water, hosting the annual DNR Director's tourney each year. It has also been the site for PMTT events.

Although fish from initial stockings are at and beyond the 48-inch minimum in place - as evidenced by Carmean's 50-incher - most who seriously probe this lake will target other waters until mid-September when the lake begins to cool and fishin' really starts heating up.

Bucktails are very popular here, especially in that orange/black color scheme. And don't launch the boat without having a chartreuse Jake with an orange belly close at hand.

Eagle Creek Resort is a great place to stay, located close to midlake with a plethora of amenities readily available.

Contacts: Guides Mary Satterfield, 1-888-761-8933, Walt Watts, (217) 423-0167 and Larry Kovac, (217) 774-4313, or www.shelbyvilleguideservice.com.

KINKAID LAKE

If you're looking for the whole enchilada, Kinkaid Lake has it all. Arguably the most scenic lake in the state, this southern Illinois fishery outside of Murphysboro rates right up there with Shelbyville, Shabbona and the Fox Chain for both size and numbers of fish.

Built in 1972, Kinkaid's first muskies were stocked in 1985. Growth rate of fish proved to be exceptional with a rich forage base of suckers and shad, moving the DNR to enact a 48-inch size limit in 1997. There are no boat or motor restrictions and a great launch facility at the lake's lower end, with several adequate l

aunches around the lake's 82 miles of shoreline.

Water clarity varies greatly from the upper end of the lake to the dam, with fish holding in both stained to muddy water at the far north end and in generally clear water in the main-lake basin.

The far southern orientation of this Jackson County lake makes it a great place to target when northern parts of the state are frozen. December and March through mid-April are good times to plan a trip here.

Target any green weeds, laydowns and steep breaklines into deeper water during these prime times in the main-lake basin. Trolling can be very productive, especially when dragging a baby carp-pattern shallow Shad Rap close to the boat.

Contacts: Guides Chad Cain (618) 549-3074; Al Nutty (618) 985-4105 or www.kinkaidlakeguides.com.

UNSUNG GEMS

Illinois has a number of lakes that are quietly building reputations. If you could get to muskies through the weeds, Spring Lake North in Tazewell County would be our No. 1 muskie lake. With water averaging less than 3 feet deep and 17 different weed types, success means getting on the water before May 15. The DNR uses these 578 acres as a brood-stock lake. Make no mistake, the Grand Mama of them all is swimming here. A 25-horsepower limit is in place.

West Loon Lake, located just a short hop off of Highway 83 in northeastern Illinois at Antioch, is full of muskies, and it is the best place in this part of the state to fish when a summer thunderstorm is brewing.

Lake McMaster in the Snake Den Hollow complex located about 15 miles northeast of Galesburg in western Illinois is a reclaimed strip mine and clear enough to see muskies in excess of 30 pounds cruising the depths. A 10-horsepower limit is in effect.

Mill Creek Lake in Clark County is 700 acres of profoundly scenic water with good numbers of mid-40-inch fish. Stick with black/orange during low-light times to be on the water. Mill Creek is clear and deep.

There is no doubt that 58-acre Johnson-Sauk Trail Lake in northwestern Illinois near Kewanee holds at least one fish of state-record proportions. Access is fair, with electric motor-only regulations in place.

Heidecke Lake in Grundy County is fishing ugly. But this 1,955-acre cooling lake holds some whoppers and is another contender for the next record - it is especially good if you like chasing tiger muskies.

Prairie Lake in the Jim Edgar Panther Creek complex south of Springfield is new, not even filling up until 2000. The DNR started stocking muskies here in 1999. Bet there are 40-inchers swimming in these 210 acres.

Lake George gets plenty of angling pressure due to its close proximity to the Quad Cities. DNR fisheries biologist Alec Pulley says the population is going strong, with few who fish the lake actually targeting muskies.

Lake Sule is like the quiet biologist who helped get the Illinois muskie program off the ground. This borrow-pit lake located near the intersection of I-88 and I-39 in north-central Illinois doesn't have much structure or pressure. A 36-inch size limit is in place on Sule, with several year-classes swimming here beyond legal size. Are there 50-inchers? Wait and see!



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