Illinois' Hottest Walleye Lakes

Thanks to the hatchery system, you can catch walleyes from one end of our state to the other. Here's where you should float your boat between now and fall. (May 2006)

Mention "Illinois walleyes" to most well-traveled anglers and you'll likely get a discourse about the fabulous fishing in the Prairie State's rivers. Although ol' marble-eyes is not native to many state lakes and impoundments besides the Fox Chain-O-Lakes in northeast Illinois, our hatchery system has enabled biologists to establish solid walleye fisheries in a number of lakes across the state.

According to fisheries surveys, there are walleyes in Shabbona and Kinkaid right now that can break Fred Goseline's 14-pound state-record mark established in 1961. Although Shelbyville is a mere shell of the walleye lake it used to be, smart money says some of the relic walleye population still swimming here could break Goseline's mark as well. The same logic says a new record could be swimming in the Fox Chain-O-Lakes. After all, walleyes have been swimming here since before we started fishing for them.

Saugers aren't an intentional resident of any Illinois lakes. But sauger-walleye hybrids in excess of the current state record of 8 pounds, 7 ounces are swimming in both Evergreen Lake near Bloomington and tiny Lake Carlton in Whiteside County. The saugeye record is in greater jeopardy than perhaps any other state game-fish benchmark. Surveys over the years on 1,100-acre Evergreen have cranked up several saugeyes weighing more than the state record.

Many anglers have a recurring pipe dream about eclipsing a state record. If a genie granted me three wishes, breaking the state walleye record would certainly be one of them. What if you had just one wish and the genie appeared when you were tethered to a fish with a white spot on the tail about 35 inches away from where a jig had tenuous contact with the upper lip of a big green head? If your answer to this rhetorical question is something like "world peace," put down this magazine. But if you have a major habit of rippin' walleye lips, read on for a look at some of the best lakes to make your dreams come true in the months ahead.

FOX CHAIN-O-LAKES

Walleyes swim in every one of the 15 lakes of this natural chain in northeast Illinois. Of course, your chances are better of hooking up on some lakes than they are on others.

Department of Natural Resources fisheries surveys provide a good indicator of which waters hold the greatest walleye populations in the chain. Habitat parameters have a great impact on probable fish location, but perhaps the most important factor to consider is the predator-prey relationship.

Mention "walleye bait" and most anglers will say crawlers, leeches or minnows. But if insects are pelting the water in close proximity to walleyes, they are gonna eat insects. And if a bunch of little frogs decide to venture away from the safety of shoreline weeds where walleyes are cruising, a frog-pattern popper will almost certainly outfish the juiciest jumbo leech.

Walleyes are opportunists. Areas of current flow between lakes are a source of easy food, so the walleyes are seldom far away. Their design by the Creator with those big opaque eyes gives these fish an advantage for feeding in low light. This is why the night-bite is so productive.

Boat traffic is a fact of life on the Fox Chain. Walleyes use all the commotion caused by boat wakes to their advantage, scarfing up disoriented baitfish and other food as candidates for village idiot roar away.

Visibility and dissolved oxygen are two other habitat parameters that drive both fish location and activity in the chain. Although a 20-foot hole adjacent to a steep breakline is an obvious choice when fishing a Canadian Shield lake, the Fox Chain ain't Canada. Concentrate your angling efforts in less than 10 feet of water, and sometimes much less because this is where the fish are.

Between now and fall turnover, Channel, Catherine, Pistakee and Marie will give up more walleyes than any other lakes on the Fox Chain. Classic walleye spots like waters around the islands and bridges are high-percentage areas. But if you happen to be on Petite some evening when a mayfly hatch is coming off and you toss a small white Mepps spinner at the commotion on the surface, don't be surprised if a walleye finds your hook!

Every lake on the Fox Chain has at least one access point. Some are free, while others are in private hands and require payment of a substantial fee.

Thanks to the slot limit in place, you can visit this water with high expectation of walleye success just about any time -- if you're fishing where the fish are. But the most consistent bite is at night, and the most aesthetic time to be on the water is a midweek morning from 4 to 8 a.m.

Contact: Greg Dickson's Triangle Bait Shop, Antioch, (847) 395-0813.

SHABBONA LAKE

An underwater viewing camera removes all doubts that you're fishing over the Dead Sea in this 318-acre De Kalb County lake. Fish location in this heavily pressured northern Illinois water is in direct relation to structure, and Shabbona has more structure than most lakes three times larger.

Structure is a double-edged sword for those who would break Illinois' 14-pound walleye record. Several specimens well in excess of this mark have turned up in DNR surveys. But because there is so much bait-holding structure, none of the big gals venture far away to inhale a hook.

How do you compete with a plentiful, readily accessible forage base? Give the predators a slightly different look at dinner. Injured or distressed baitfish give off different pheromones and vibrations than healthy ones do, proving Darwin's theory on survival of the fittest in a watery ecosystem. A large minnow impaled on a hook is not happy. Two large minnows impaled on the same hook are even more distressed. Hooking a minnow through the tail rather than the lips also gives off more erratic signals.

Live bait fished close to structure outfishes artificial lures many times over on Shabbona Lake, which is also home to a solid muskie population. Most of the five adult year-classes of walleyes will respond to typical "walleye" bait fished close to cover. But the big-fish/big-bait theory could eventually produce our new state-walleye record from these waters. Here's a prediction: If the walleye record comes from Shabbona, the lucky angler will stumble into this mother ship while fishing for muskies.

Why would walleye anglers from northern Illinois want to make the five-hour drive to Pittsfield to use their kicker motor? These waters have given up several fish in excess of 12 pounds, and 10-pounders are caught here every year.

Just remember that Shabbona has a 10-horsepower limit. Contact: Shabbona Lakeside Bait, (815) 824-2581, or online at www.shabbonalake.com.

KINKAID LAKE

The same prediction for a whopper walleye tumbling for a muskie lure holds true on 2,335-acre Kinkaid Lake in southern Illinois' Jackson County.

"Walleyes are a bonus species in Kinkaid," said DNR biologist Shawn Hirst. "A couple of big ones get caught every year, and we see them in surveys, but this fish gets pretty much zero fishing pressure."

Why? Two reasons. You don't go to a Chinese restaurant and order a T-bone steak. Kinkaid is a whale of a bass, crappie and muskie lake. Fishing for these species is so productive that walleyes aren't even on the "menu."

The second reason is historical. When Illinois was settled in the early 1800s, folks who settled in northern Illinois immigrated directly from Europe. Downstate residents found their way into the Prairie State from the American South. Bass fishing has always been part of the southern lifestyle. For some reason, upstate anglers prefer walleyes. This theory is proven in boat sales. According to the National Marine Manufacturers Association data regarding fishing boats, deep-V watercraft are the big sellers from Peoria north, while bass boat designs are more popular downstate.

Why don't more northern Illinois anglers teach those walleyes a lesson? Take another look at that Chinese restaurant analogy. After a few hours of fishing for walleyes, most anglers decide they would rather go "catching" bass or crappies or muskies.

Those who believe they can remain species-specific for walleyes would be wise to concentrate efforts in two areas: around the dam and at the far north end of the lake where tributaries enter. These are the only two places DNR surveys have consistently cranked up walleyes. But then again, the surveys are conducted in the early spring.

Contact: Top of the Hill Bait Shop, (618) 684-2923.

PITTSFIELD CITY LAKE

The largest concentration of walleyes over 5 pounds swimming in an Illinois lake call this 241-acre Pike County water home.

Western Illinois, like our southern counties, has never been known as a walleye mecca. A road trip to Pittsfield means traveling the last few miles on gravel to a pair of gravel boat launches at the water's edge. Basic camping facilities are available. A 10-horsepower limit is in place.

Why would walleye anglers from northern Illinois want to make the five-hour drive to Pittsfield to use their kicker motor? These waters have given up several fish in excess of 12 pounds, and 10-pounders are caught here every year. But the double-digit monster stretching your string could also turn out to be a largemouth, catfish or hybrid striper. What a bummer, eh?

Contact: Neff's Bait & Tackle, (217) 833-2178.

EVERGREEN LAKE

There is a 10/10 curse on this 1,100-acre county park lake north of Bloomington. The lake has a 10-horsepower limit and it costs you $10 to launch here.

Worth the effort? Evergreen is a super muskie and crappie lake. As noted in the beginning of this article, a number of walleye/sauger hybrids in excess of the state record also call this water home. There is plenty of saugeye-holding structure on Evergreen, such as promising main-lake points, feeding shelves and steep breaklines.

The DNR says the forage base here is primarily shad, but small crappies will also be part of the bait matrix over the next several weeks as predators dog the schools of young-of-year baitfish.

The county park that surrounds this lake offers excellent camping facilities. A 10-horsepower motor is plenty -- if you have several days to fish the lake. The location of Evergreen just off Interstate 39 makes this a destination within three hours of virtually any point in Illinois.

For more information, call (217) 286-7170.

LAKE BLOOMINGTON

Just a short hop away is Lake Bloomington, which DNR biologist Mike Garthaus says holds a "solid" population of walleyes.

A 40-horsepower limit is in place on this 635-acre lake with considerable shoreline development. Besides this somewhat bizarre motor restriction, political maneuvering has established an outrageous boat-launch fee to gain access to the lake by those trailering boats. Because of this fee, Bloomington is essentially a private lake that is stocked and maintained with public funds.

STATE PARK LAKES

A 10-horsepower motor is plenty of juice on 77-acre Lake Carlton in Whiteside County. DNR surveys indicate a solid population of saugeyes, with some holding the potential for breaking the state-record mark. Although Carlton gets plenty of fishing pressure, not much of this effort is focused on the Stizostedium population. For many years, a rearing pond just off this lake was a major production area for muskie stocking in northern Illinois waters. Muskies still swim here, with saugeyes occupying similar habitat.

Morrison-Rockwood State Park that envelops Carlton and tiny Lake Le-Aqua-Na outside of Lena in Stephenson County is a great home base for the walleye angler who likes to camp.

Le-Aqua-Na has maintained a solid put-and-take population of "eater-sized" walleyes for years, thanks to annual stocking. However, at just 43 acres, this lake is little more than a backdrop for the campground. The best spot to target is along the dam.

Forbes Lake near Salem in Marion County has a similar fishery, with walleyes of keeper-size present but not specifically targeted.

Few realized how big some walleyes swimming in Pierce were until a local muskie club did some netting below the dam spillway to return game fish to the lake. At least a dozen 4- to 6-pound walleyes that had washed over the dam were swimming in the spillway tailwaters, causing considerable local speculation on how many more fish of these

dimensions could be swimming in the lake.

Dawson Lake in Moraine View State Park southeast of Bloomington is not pressured to the extent that Evergreen gets fished -- even though the boat launch is free. In 2003, the DNR began stocking saugeye fingerlings in Dawson, with initial stockings of this hybrid now approaching 20 inches, according to DNR biologist Mike Garthaus.

"The saugeye growth rate is much greater than that of walleyes in Dawson," Garthaus said. "We may have to re-think stocking strategies on other lakes as well if this trend continues."

Pierce and Olson lakes in Rock Cut State Park north of Rockford both hold catchable populations of walleyes. Few realized how big some walleyes swimming in Pierce were until a local muskie club did some netting below the dam spillway to return game fish to the lake. At least a dozen 4- to 6-pound walleye

s that had washed over the dam were swimming in the spillway tailwaters, causing considerable local speculation on how many more fish of these dimensions could be swimming in the lake. A no-wake policy is enforced here.

CLINTON LAKE

Back in the late 1980s, this central Illinois cooling lake was on track as a trophy walleye factory. This heyday faded by the early '90s, but a change in stocking philosophy by switching from fry to more survivable fingerlings is showing great promise, according to the DNR.

"Catch rates aren't quite back to where they were a few years ago, but we definitely see a positive trend," biologist Garthaus said.

In the good old days, fishing was almost a sure thing near the power plant. Since 9-11, this popular spot has become a restricted area. As a result, most anglers who are consistently successful are trolling stick baits behind planer boards off main-lake points.

The cooling loop in Clinton is so large that water temperatures are almost ambient even when the power plant is online. As a result, locating baitfish schools on electronics is a better method of finding fish than using your surface temperature gauge.Contact: Clinton Lake Recreation Area, (217) 935-8722.

EAST FORK LAKE

DNR fisheries biologist Mike Hooe said this 935-acre lake outside of Olney in southeastern Illinois has at least six year-classes of adult walleyes swimming in it -- with the larger specimens worthy of a spot above the fireplace.

East Fork is a very clear lake, with visibility in excess of 4 feet. As a result, fishing is usually better at night and on overcast days.

With steeply breaking main-lake points and other characteristics, this is classic walleye water. Nights when there is a little chop on the water are best. Pitch crankbaits on the windward side of points. Don't be surprised if you hook up within 4 feet of shore.

East Fork is a city lake, and an access sticker is required. Stickers vary according to boat horsepower and are available at city hall. The state six-fish, 14-inch limit is in effect here.

* * *

So if you are an Illinois walleye angler, your season didn't end with the spring run on our rivers. The hatchery trucks unloading at our lakes and reservoirs have made sure of that!

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