Our Winter Striper Hotspots

There are many Illinois anglers who will tell you that chasing striped bass can be very addicting. Right now, those anglers are getting their fix on these waters.

By Ted Peck

Dedicated Illinois striped bass chasers have the fanaticism of muskie anglers.

Like fishing muskies, you often have to put in a lot of time between hookups. But you don't need to buy a lot of lures at $10 a pop. A few Rat-L-Traps, deep-diving crankbaits and jigging spoons with heavy hooks and you're pretty much in business in regard to artificial lures. Live-baiting is a great way to go after stripers, too, provided there are saltwater hooks tied to a substantial line at the business end of your rig.

A "muskie" rod and reel is just about right for these powerful stripers. You can wear 'em down on lighter gear, but more often than not that favorite one-piece rod will turn into a two-piece model and the reel will sound like maracas when given a shake after a close encounter of the striper kind.

No fish swimming in Illinois waters can duplicate a striper's initial run. You simply can't stop them for the first 75 yards. During the second run - which lasts about 50 yards - you may have serious thoughts about cutting the line to save your gear. If still hooked up by the time a striper goes zipping off on a third run, you might be able to babble something to your buddy about grabbing a landing net.

Unlike muskies, which can be quite territorial, stripers are forever on the move, following their forage base that consists primarily of gizzard shad. There is none of the muskie angler's boastful, "yup, moved two fish today!" stuff. With the exception of when stripers are busting baitfish on the surface, you probably won't see 'em coming. And you certainly won't see 'em if they take your bait and are running away.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

It is difficult to predict when and where stripers will show up, and whether or not they will bite. And these fish are notoriously spooky. The sound of an outboard motor crossing the lake a half-mile away will usually shut down a topwater bite right away. But there are times when trolling is a very effective way to get hooked up. Just like muskies, striped bass and hybrid striped bass are predictably unpredictable.

If there is a key to striper behavior, it is found in the relationship these fish have with their forage base. Find a big cloud of bait on your electronics or dimpling the surface in striper waters and there is a real good chance that your quarry is ghosting around in the immediate area. Evolution has taught this predator the value of herding baitfish in loose schools, like malicious drivers casually pushing their finned "herd" to a point of easy ambush. It's probably pheromones released from nervous baitfish or maybe pheromones released from the predators that ramp stripers up into an attack mode. Maybe one fish just feels froggy and decides to jump, and is quickly joined by his brethren in a spontaneous slashing attack. Toss just about anything with hooks in shad, chrome or white hues into a mess of boiling stripers on a feeding rip and it's gonna get bit. But when the frenzy is over, it's truly over.

Those who fish these critters regularly with any degree of passion appreciate the unpredictable nature of the beast, understanding that stripers and hybrids can be more active in cold water than most other species. But these fish are cold-blooded creatures with metabolism that slows in cold water.

Don't think for a minute that striper fishing is a high-percentage operation in the best of conditions. It isn't. But paradoxically, you can tie into three stripers - which is the limit on many Illinois waters - on three consecutive casts.

Striper and hybrid fishing was unheard of in Illinois in the days before power-plant cooling lakes. The ability of these fish to thrive in the extreme conditions found in these waters is the main reason why our very best striper waters are affiliated with power generation. This fact opens an entirely new dimension to an already perplexing sport that extends beyond the fact that fishin' is usually better when the plant is cranking out electricity. Some parts of some lakes are closed to the public year-round, some lakes limit fishing access to certain times of the year, and after the world-changing events of 9-11 the entire prospects for fishing these lakes at any time can go away literally overnight.

All that said - here's a look at our top waters for chasing striped bass in Illinois.

CEDAR LAKE
This 1,750-acre Jackson County lake south of Carbondale is often overlooked by striper chasers. Pure stripers in excess of 20 pounds call these waters home, with over 40 miles of shoreline to cruise.

Although stripers will always be where you find 'em, the highest percentage spots are in deep water directly out from the riprap at the spillway and in a similar deep spot out from the pickup point of this city reservoir at the north end of the lake.

Consistently successful anglers on Cedar find the deepwater breaklines on electronics to where the lake can fall away to nearly 60 feet. They troll deep-running shad- and chrome-pattern crankbaits on flatlines 120 yards behind the boat. A 10-horsepower limit is in place on these waters.

Department of Natural Resources biologist Shawn Hirst says at least six solid year-classes of stripers swim here because of a stocking program that was initiated in 1986.

Contact: Bobber Stop Baits, (618) 351-7035.

BALDWIN LAKE
You won't find any stripers of tackle-busting dimensions in this 2,018-acre "perched" cooling lake in Randolph and St. Clair counties. But action on 3- to 5-pound fish swimming here offer one of the most consistent striper bites in our state.

The north levee near the hotwater discharge is a favorite spot of shore-anglers this time of year, with boaters trolling cut shad nearby.

Probably the best angling action happens in March, when access restrictions in place from Jan. 11 through Feb. 15 from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. become more liberalized.

A 50-horsepower limit is in place here. Because of the orientation of Baldwin and fact that it is an elevated lake with nothing to break the wind but a lone midlake levee, the wind can be a factor. Call ahead before you load the striper gear into the boat.

Contacts: Kaskaskia River FWA, (618) 785-2555; A-1 Bait & Tackle, (618) 539-5432.

LAKE JACKSONVILLE
These serpe

ntine 442 acres in Morgan County may be the best kept hybrid striper secret in the state.

Few anglers target the nomadic stripers here, which DNR biologist Charlie Marbut says are represented with "at least" six solid year-classes since initial stocking began 14 years ago. According to the DNR, most hybrids average 5 to 7 pounds in Jacksonville, with the largest specimen in a recent survey over 13 pounds.

Marbut expressed concern about considerable escapement of wayfaring stripers into Sandy Creek at the lake's west end. You may want to keep that in mind and then ask permission to fish the private lands that this creek courses through.

There are no boating restrictions on this impoundment, with the statewide three hybrids over 17 inches regulations governing harvest. Access is at a good double boat ramp on the north shore off of County Road 31.

Since this isn't a cooling lake and Jacksonville is located essentially at midstate, the prospect of icing over during extended periods of cold weather must be considered.

Contact: Dunham's Sports, (217) 243-0046.

CLINTON LAKE
This nearly 5,000-acre cooling lake in De Witt County just 25 minutes south of Bloomington was one of the first in Illinois to receive hybrid striped bass back in 1978.

Since this species tends to live fast and die young, only stocking data over the past 10 years is relevant. Several year-classes of both hybrids and pure stripers have been introduced in this time frame. Although the pure stripers are present in less density than hybrids according to DNR fisheries surveys, some of the fish in Clinton are whoppers in excess of 30 inches long. Surveys also indicate good numbers of hybrids from 20 to almost 30 inches - meaning this is no place to fish with 6-pound-test line unless you want both heart and tackle broken.

Shore-anglers are on an even par with boaters on this lake when you're talking stripers, especially now when they foregather on the west side of the De Witt bridge next to the restricted area. Stripers are drawn here now because of shad drawn by considerably warmer temperatures. Dawn and dusk the best times to get hooked up, using cut shad for bait on one pole and tossing a Rat-L-Trap in shad or chrome with another line.

As is the case with all cooling lakes, fishing tends to be much better when the power plant is making electricity. Power generation and not geographical location is why Clinton is a better place to get your string stretched right now than in Lake Bloomington just a few minutes north. Bloomington has a destratifier working during the winter months to keep oxygen levels up. Although this keeps waters generally open, Mother Nature still rules. Since both of these lakes are less than three hour's drive from any point in northern Illinois, a good plan for upstate anglers seeking striper action this time of year is to keep both lakes in mind, driven by weather conditions and whether the Clinton power plant is on-line.

Contact: Clinton Lake State Recreation Area office, (217) 935-8722.

LAKE BLOOMINGTON
The state of our winter will determine plans of fishing stripers on this city lake for the next couple of months.

Since Bloomington is a municipal lake, a city boat permit, proof of liability insurance and 40-horsepower outboard restriction can be additional stumbling blocks to major weather considerations imposed by Ma Winter. If you don't mind jumping through all the hoops, then there is an up-and-coming hybrid striper population worth going after here primarily by those anglers who have boats. Target areas near the destratifier with cut shad or chrome Hopkins Jigging Spoons. Painting the spoon white can produce better results.

Contact: Bloomington Police Department, (217) 747-2615.

LAKE CHARLESTON
A solid population of hybrid stripers in this Coles County lake is willing to bite all winter long - if weather cooperates. This 346-acre generally shallow city reservoir lake has "at least" six year-classes of hybrids up to 15 pounds, with current and deeper water both keys in potential bass location.

There are stumpfields at midlake where you would least expect to find them, which is one reason why a no-wake restriction is in place on the entire lake. Although it is highly likely that you can find submerged stumps with the lower unit of your outboard motor on the first couple outings here, good electronics and subsequent outings will reveal deeper water where these fish tend to congregate, according to DNR biologist Mike Mounce.

Fish also tend to locate around current when water is being pumped in at the discharge point, with chicken livers tightlined just off the bottom a popular local tactic for getting hooked up.

Fishing hours are restricted from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., with the best action right now typically at dawn and dusk.

Like Lake Mattoon just a few minutes farther west, Charleston is just a short hop off of Interstate 57 and a good option if we see a January thaw.

Contact: Charleston Tourism Office, (217) 348-0430.

LAKE MATTOON
Three counties join on the almost 1,000 acres of Lake Mattoon where an "unknown number" of hybrid stripers swim, according to DNR biologist Mounce.

"Since these fish are so mobile it's hard to set up so you can effectively study the population," he said. "We suspect these fish are swimming in Mattoon in good numbers. But creel surveys indicate anglers don't spend much time going after these fish."

Ironically, winter is the best time to find hybrids congregated if weather conditions allow you to go fishing here. The best place to target is around the destratifier located near the dam spillway at the southeast corner of this off-colored lake. Riprap along the dam and in the first cove north of the spillway on the lake's west side are also worth probing, as is the 24- to 30-foot deep trough that runs north from the dam and spillway just a little to the east of center in the lake up to the County Highway 17 bridge.

Come spring, targeting any current found around bridge pilings here can also produce results, as can probing waters downstream in the Little Wabash River.

Contact: Mattoon Welcome Center, 1-800-500-6286.

SANGCHRIS LAKE
One of central Illinois' most scenic power-generating lakes, this 2,321-acre fishery straddling the Sangamon-Christian County line is home to a variety of fish species, including record-breaking stripers.

Although frequent reports of whoppers from these waters don't happen like they did in the mid-1990s, DNR biologist Dan Stephenson suspects there are still a few trophies swimming here. The 1

999 year-class of striped bass currently dominates this fishery, with great numbers of 10- to 12-pound fish in the system, according to DNR survey data.

Sangchris may be the most consistent winter striper fishery in the state, with most anglers on the water between now and late March looking for these silver nomads. Location and activity levels of all finned critters that swim here are dictated right now by water temperature. All three arms of this lake have peculiar characteristics. But water temperature and a change in lake level - which is a part of this matrix - are the keys to finding consistent success on these waters.

Contact: Sangchris Corner Bait Shop, (217) 623-5252.

REND LAKE
The spillway of this giant reservoir in southern Illinois is a good place to target both hybrid stripers and white bass all winter long, with access to the lake pretty much dictated by prevailing weather conditions.

Both species tend to school a couple hundred yards below the dam where the river starts to widen out. Little white crappie jigs drifted with the current is a popular local tactic.

Up in the lake, anglers like to target deep-water channels on the old river bed with either trolling or vertical jigging presentations. They use shad-pattern ShadRaps when moving down the lake and Hopkins Spoons fished on a snap - and with a snap of the rod - when fish are stacked on humps off of the channels.

DNR biologist Mike Hooe says the easiest way for anglers to tell the difference between hybrids and white bass is size. "You simply don't see 7-to 10-pound white bass," he notes.

Contacts: Rend Lake Visitor Center, (618) 439-7430; Rend Lake Tourist Information, 1-800-661-9998.

SMITHLAND POOL
Finding hybrid and pure stripers on this neck of the Ohio River in far southeastern Illinois is easy: find the shad.

Right now there is a good chance baitfish will be congregated right below the Smithland Dam in Pope County. There's also good access and other amenities found not far away in Hardin County at Cave-In-Rock State Park.

According to DNR biologist Les Frankland, both Illinois and Kentucky stock pure stripers, with Ohio adding hybrids to the mix.

Some of the better waters of the Smithland Pool are found in the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Savvy anglers purchase a non-resident Kentucky license, because game wardens in the Bluegrass State have little tolerance for fishing across the line without being duly licensed. A lack of jovial reciprocity can be traced back 200 years to when borders between these states were first established. Two suggestions: buy the Kentucky license, and don't call the conservation officer from our neighboring state a "hillbilly."

Stripers know no boundaries. The Ohio River has seductively awesome power, especially near the dam. Don't enter the restricted zone or follow a fish making a run in that direction or else it will be your last fishing trip.

Contacts: Cave-In-Rock State Park, (618) 289-4325; Golconda Marina, (618) 683-5875.

* * *
So why don't you give fishing for Illinois' striped bass a try this winter? You could be hooked for life!



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