Illinois' Eye-Popping Walleye Lakes

Illinois' Eye-Popping Walleye Lakes

Most walleye anglers in our state tow their boat northward to pursue their quarry. But did you know there are a handful of downstate lakes that are target-rich environments for 'eye chasers? Here's the statewide big picture. (May 2007)

Watercraft purchases by Illinois anglers indicate a clear pattern on the type of boat they bought, according to National Marine Manufacturer's Association data compiled in recent years.

NMMA demographics indicate a diagonal line across Illinois. Most fishing boats purchased north of Interstate 88 tend to be deep-V "walleye" boats, while south of Forest City in Mason County, the fishing boats tend to have lower gunnels associated with bass boats and johnboats. The landscape between these two areas has a mixture of boat types.

Although several of our state's premier walleye waters -- most notably Shabbona Lake and the Fox Chain-O-Lakes -- lie in the northern couple tiers of counties, marble-eyes and their bait-thieving cousins are found throughout the Prairie State. Saugers are a popular draw all the way down to the Smithland Pool on the Ohio River. Walleyes approaching state-record dimensions swim in Kinkaid Lake in the heart of southern Illinois' Shawnee National Forest. There are many other waters containing walleyes, but nobody fishes for them, thus nobody knows they're there!

Are all the walleye fanatics in this state launching their deep-Vs on the rivers and a few select northern Illinois lakes? Do they hook up the boat trailer and vector east toward Lake Erie? Or do they head for destinations in the Land of Cheese?

If you happen to be out on the Fox Chain on any summer weekend, you'll see quite a few "walleye" boats mixed in between the sailboats, yachts, personal watercraft, ski boats, pontoons, canoes, kayaks, bass boats and the occasional ark. But put a potential RCL contestant's dreamboat into Evergreen Lake north of Normal, Pittsfield Lake in western Illinois or East Fork Lake on the eastern side of the state, and you'll probably get more than one puzzled look.

You don't have to fish out of a "walleye boat" to catch 'eyes, of course -- just like you don't have to fish out of a "bass boat" to chase bass. But you don't see many folks wearing Harley-Davidson garb jumping on Suzuki motorcycles, now do you? The point is, a handful of downstate Illinois lakes with substantial walleye populations are target-rich environments for 'eye chasers because most fishing pressure on these waters focuses on other species.

Odds are good that if a walleye fanatic knows he has to sit behind the wheel of a truck for six hours after pulling out of a garage in northern Illinois, he would rather dunk the trailer tires in Upper Michigan's Bays de Noc than in Kinkaid Lake in southern Illinois. But while it is true these bays on northern Lake Michigan offer legendary walleye fishing, what do you suppose your status in the walleye world would be if you pulled the successor to Fred Goseline's 1961 Illinois state-record 'eye out of Kinkaid? According to Department of Natural Resources fisheries surveys, walleyes of these approximate dimensions swim in these southern Illinois waters.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

The future of Illinois walleye fishing -- and perhaps the next state record -- could be in your hands. The following is a look at some of the top walleye lakes in the Land of Lincoln.

KINKAID LAKE

Getting back to Kinkaid, precious little tactical information exists on chasing walleyes here. Do you want to be the tip of the walleye spear, or just another boat in the pack? Every time I head down to Kinkaid on a walleye fishin' mission, the allure of the legendary muskies tends to take my Lund on another tangent.

"We see essentially zero walleye fishing pressure on Kinkaid Lake," said DNR fisheries biologist Shawn Hirst. "A couple of whoppers get caught every year by bass or muskie anglers, but after a 'gee-whiz' moment, the anglers go back to chasing bass or muskies."

DNR survey data indicates concentrations of walleyes in the deep, clear water near the dam and near tributaries at the north end of Kinkaid. But before breaking out the jig box or planer boards and heading for either location, you should know the DNR surveys are conducted in the early spring. Since walleyes aren't tied up, they could be anywhere right now. But know this: Wanda didn't jump in a VW microbus with rainbow decals and move to Makanda to sell candles. She and her kin are still swimming in the lake.

Fishing HotSpots puts out a good topographic map of Kinkaid Lake. All you need to hook up here is a map, graph, walleye fishing passion and time on the water.

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

PITTSFIELD CITY LAKE

One drawback about an exploratory adventure on 2,335-acre Kinkaid is the daunting amount of water that big walleyes can hide in. Pittsfield City Lake -- also called Lake Pittsfield on some maps -- is almost 10 times smaller at just 241 acres, with DNR survey data indicating an incredible population of walleyes bigger than 25 inches swimming in this Pike County fishery.

If you purchased one of those gravel skirts to minimize rock-chip scars on your boat, leave them on if you're headed for Pittsfield. Check the 10-horsepower "kicker" motor before leaving home, too, because this is the maximum outboard horsepower permitted after your trek down a long gravel road to get to the lake. Things begin to look up after you put the boat in at one of the two adequate launches off County 3275E on the east side of the lake or County 1700N on the north side.

Pittsfield isn't tough to figure out. There are photos at Neff's Bait Shop in Griggsville of walleyes over 12 pounds that came from Pittsfield -- tucked amongst other Kodaks of whopping big bass, catfish and hybrid stripers coming from this same fishery. Ten-pound walleyes are caught here every year, and 5-pounders don't even get the recognition of being called a "nice fish."

Have you ever heard the old saying, "You can't get to there from here"? Word on the street is this phrase was in reference to reaching Pittsfield City Lake. And bring your tent, because there are basic camping amenities on site, and you may not want to leave.

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

EAST FORK LAKE

Because of exceptional clarity, this 935-acre lake near Olney in southeastern Illinois can be a challenge to fish. Timing can be everything, and the best time to be on the water here is during periods of low light.

There are photos at Neff's Bait Shop in Griggsville of walleyes over 12 pounds that came from Pittsfield -- tuck

ed amongst other Kodaks of whopping big bass, catfish and hybrid stripers coming from this same fishery. Ten-pound walleyes are caught here every year, and 5-pounders don't even get the recognition of being called a "nice fish."

DNR surveys indicate both size and numbers of walleyes present, with the larger fish weighing in the double digits. There are two dominant year-classes that are nearly the ideal size for the frying pan -- 14 to 18 inches -- with several other year-classes of adult fish in between "eater" and "trophy" dimensions.

East Fork is about as close as any Illinois lake comes to being called classic walleye water. The obvious place to start probing is close to steeply breaking main-lake points, especially windblown points after a couple of days of prevailing wind. One productive method is anchoring up a long cast offshore at night with a jumbo leech or half-crawler on a black 1/8- to 3/16-ounce jighead, or a Lindy Rig with a 3/8-ounce walking sinker and 40-inch leader and pitching it toward the steep banks and dragging it back toward deeper water. With daylight periods getting longer, it could be 10 p.m. before the fish get active. But when they do decide to bite, that telltale tap can come within a couple feet of shore.

Preparation for this night action begins hours earlier when city hall is open. This is a city lake, and Olney requires a decal before using the boat launches. Cost is based upon horsepower. For more information, call (618) 395-7302. For travel and lodging info, call (618) 392-2241.

EVERGREEN LAKE

Record-breaking saugeyes are the draw at this 1,000-acre county park lake just north of Bloomington -- at least for walleye chasers. Most anglers who visit here chase catfish, muskies or crappies. This has allowed several year-classes of walleye/sauger hybrids to continue growth with little hook-related education.

It will take you at least a couple of solid days on the water to get a handle on these fish because few folks have taken time to figure out patterns. In addition, the 10-horsepower limit in place slows your ability to move from spot to spot.

Saugeyes behave more like walleyes than saugers. Until serious summer arrives, you may want to target riprap near the spillways and structure located in a couple of places just offshore. Don't overlook stumps and downed wood around the mostly undeveloped shoreline.

Getting hung up on the wood is inevitable. Weedless timber jigs tipped with a small minnow tossed right in the sticks will get your string stretched. Don't be disappointed if most of the fish are crappies, but the saugeyes can occupy the same niche. And you can't go wrong with fresh crappies pan-fried over a campfire. Comlara County Park surrounding Evergreen is a neat facility, and it has camping. A county launch permit is required for boaters.

While you're in the neighborhood and if you're looking for walleyes, Lake Bloomington is just a short drive away from Evergreen. But the best way to fish this 635-acre lake is from a pontoon boat kept in the water by someone owning lakefront property. There is a 40-horsepower outboard limit and outrageous launch fee for trailered boats enacted here -- a classic case of the fat man dancing while the poor skinny man pays the band. You fishing folks should really contact your state senator or representative about this obstacle to public access on a public lake. That's why you pay taxes!

SHABBONA LAKE

This 318-acre De Kalb County fishery is one of the top multi-species lakes in Illinois, with both numbers of fish and the potential state-record walleye relating to the considerable structure found here.

Only two things stand between you and boating a nice mess of 'eyes or a wallhanger -- a booming forage base and habitat options galore. You could find walleyes suspended in the standing timber, or they may be ghosting along the old roadbed that runs along the bottom of the lake. Fish cribs, rockpiles and other structure placed on and near the roadbed over the years have increased the fish-carrying capacity on the roadbed many times over. Walleyes also relate to the old creek channel, while some are cruising around the old farm buildings that were left behind when the lake was filled. Other 'eyes are cruising near the dam.

The major key to success in hooking up with the marble-eye population on this water lies in a natural presentation of live bait close to cover. A major caveat in this fish-catching equation is that the difference between ideal bait presentation and getting tangled in a snag is less than an inch. Walleyes don't have to move far to eat in this lake, so anything less than an in-your-face presentation amounts to an exercise of simply trying to drown bait.

No point in lugging a suitcase full of tackle along, either. All the terminal gear you'll need -- hooks, split shot and a couple of slip-bobbers -- fits neatly in a paper bag, while leaving plenty of room for a sandwich and a banana. However, electronics and a good topographic map are a major part of the fish-catching equation here. Shabbona is one lake where one of those underwater cameras has serious value as a tool rather than a toy. Use these technologies to locate fish, and then camp on the spot. You're a weapon as long as your line is in the water.

Contact: Shabbona Lakeside Bait, (815) 824-2581, or online at ShabbonaLake.com

FOX CHAIN-O-LAKES

These 15 natural lakes in northeastern Illinois are in a class by themselves when you're talking walleyes. "The Chain" is the closest thing we have to a walleye factory in Illinois. This trend should continue indefinitely if the slot limit protecting breeding-sized fish remains in place. Every lake in the chain holds walleyes, but Marie, Pistakee and Channel-Catherine give up the most fish.

Bridges, narrows and necked-down areas between the lakes are generally the best spots to hook up, and docks and similar structures are fish magnets. But most of the time, forget classic walleye strategies when fishing here. A large portion of the walleye biomass is suspended in the top 10 feet of the water column all summer long, so this is one fishery where you don't want to be a deep-thinker. Doing something goofy like casting a Rat-L-Trap toward rocks where perpetual boat wakes crash against the shore will result in more fish than gingerly probing main-lake points with a 1/4-ounce jig.

When it comes to educating the next generation of walleye anglers, the Fox Chain-O-Lakes is enigmatic. Chances of catching walleyes are as good or better here than on any other lake system in our state. But the 'eyes don't exhibit classic walleye behavior. Use techniques that work on this chain as a template for walleye fishing on other Illinois waters, and you'll likely come up empty.

The biggest mistake you can make when chasing walleyes on the Fox Chain this summer is to take this pursuit too seriously. Go down and wing a few "practice casts" off a dock or around bridge pilings with a No. 7 fire-tiger Shad Rap, and you'll catch more fish than some guy in a fancy deep-V boat who is meticulously backtrolling the 14-foot contour with his eyes glued to the electronics.

Contact: Triangle Bait Shop, (847) 395-0813.

CLINTON LAKE

This central Illinois cooling lake has been a walleye fishing destination for decades.

In recent years, the DNR has been stocking advanced fingerlings in this 5,000-acre lake that have a better survival rate than smaller fry. Recent creel surveys by the DNR indicate fishing success has improved here over the past couple of years as anglers have fine-tuned techniques for trolling stick baits behind planer boards off main-lake points. Baitfish are a major key to fish location. Find clouds of baitfish on your electronics, and the walleyes won't be far away.

Because of Homeland Security concerns, Clinton Lake is one of a number of Illinois power-plant lakes with a built-in fish refuge in the form of a restricted area close to the plant. Folks who fished Clinton before the events of 9-11 will tell you those waters that are now off-limits are where most of the walleyes spend most of their time. The good news is, these critters aren't tied up, and we still have the freedom to fish for them on most of the lake.

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

OTHER LAKES

Northern Illinois has a number of private lakes with solid walleye populations, but fishing here is limited to property owners and guests of property owners -- sort of like the situation that exists on Lake Bloomington, except that Bloomington is supposedly a public fishery.

Public lakes in which walleyes swim are typically centerpieces for state, county or municipal parks. These waters receive frequent supplemental stocking to ensure continuation of the fishery.

The most exciting development in recent years is establishment of a saugeye fishery on state waters. Evergreen Lake has the best reputation and the potential to give up the next state saugeye record. Tiny 77-acre Lake Carlton in Morrison-Rockwood State Park in Whiteside County has offered opportunities for this walleye/sauger hybrid for years. But if there is a "sleeper" saugeye lake in the Prairie State, it has to be Dawson Lake in Moraine View State Park southeast of Bloomington. The initial year-class of saugeyes stocked here in 2003 is now 22 to 24 inches long, according to DNR fisheries biologist Mike Garthaus. DNR surveys indicate the saugeye hybrids stocked here, "demonstrate a consistently faster growth rate than the walleyes that are also stocked here."

Pierce and Olson lakes in the shadow of Rockford are two state lakes where catching a 4-pound or larger walleye is possible. These lakes are part of the Rock Cut State Park complex.

* * *

Now you face another dilemma besides trying to decide what kind of boat to buy. Which way do you tow it, north or south?

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

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