The Best March Fishing in Illinois

march fishing in Illinois

March fishing in Illinois: It's a good time to catch bass, catfish, crappies and more at these waters.

The month of March brings the hope and anticipation of spring. Thoughts turn to warmer days, spring flowers, early morning turkey gobbles and of course, awesome spring fishing.

We are right on the cusp of that spring fishing bonanza, but there is no reason to just stand at the precipice and view it from afar. Jump right off into some great fishing this month. There is plenty to enjoy.

Now, that is not to say March offers great fishing from start to end. The reality is this month is often one of fluctuating weather patterns and lots of up and down fishing success. Aside from the weather though, there are lots of different fishing options. Here is just a sampling of some of the better ones to consider this month and on into early spring.

CLINTON LAKE CRAPPIES

This is the perfect time of year to start filling the freezer with some tasty crappies, and one of the best locations in the state for producing big stringers in March is Clinton Lake.

Being a cooling lake, Clinton has the warm water discharge, which is a big draw for lots of fish in the spring, including lots of crappies. As the rest of the lake continues to warm throughout spring, the papermouths spread into other areas of the lake as they transition toward shallow water spawning locations.

Clinton Lake totals about 4,895 acres and is in DeWitt County. The crappie fishery there has been rated excellent by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and is comprised of black, white and blacknose crappies. The latter is stocked from on-site rearing ponds to help bolster the crappie fishery above just natural spawning and recruitment. The latest fish status report says, "Clinton Lake is producing a tremendous crappie fishery."

Watch the water temperature to locate crappies this month. The weather plays a big factor with its up and down swings, so look for more activity in warmer sections of the lake. The crappies are gradually transitioning toward the shallow areas of the lake with wood, brush, stick-ups or other cover where they can spawn.

Minnows are hard to beat at this time of year. For shallow fish, they may be presented a number of different ways, including simply beneath a float. Try tight-lining on down rods when sitting over fish on deeper brush.  Just remember, the black crappies spook a little easier than the whites.

A Southern Pro tube jig in baby bass color fished solo or tipped with a minnow or Berkley Crappie Nibble may be substituted for minnows with good success, too. When the bite is more aggressive a curly-tail grub or Blakemore Road Runner is great for casting and covering water faster.

SMITHLAND POOL MIXED CREEL

There are a lot of different species of fish swimming in the Smithland Pool of the Ohio River. Most all are in play this month, some to a greater degree than others. The tail waters immediately below the dam offer the best diversity for a mixed creel, but all along the river are opportunities for good March fishing. Tributaries and backwater areas offer even more options.

Hybrid striped bass are one of the most fun species to target this month at the tail waters. The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources stocks many thousands of hybrids into the Ohio River every year. These fish grow well in the river,  and although body quality does fluctuate some due to the ups and downs of available forage, most years the hybrids and fat, healthy and full of fight. Very good numbers of fish are available up to 6 pounds.

There are lots of options for forage in the tail waters, and all predator fish, hybrid striped bass included, take advantage of the smorgasbord available there. Plus, cousins of hybrids, white bass and true striped bass, are also numerous in the same locations and offer good potential for bonus catches while using the same baits and tactics. Other bonus catches in the tail waters include black bass, walleyes, saugers and even the occasional catfish.

Drifting is a very common practice. Anglers motor up to the tail waters and put out live baits such as shad, skipjack herring, suckers or minnows and then kill the gas motor.

They then allow the river current to drift the boat and baits downstream while using the trolling motor for maneuvering. Once reaching a certain point downstream, they pull in the baits, fire up the gas motor and go back up toward the dam. This is an excellent method for catching hybrids, stripers and other species, but anglers need to use extreme caution when fishing near the dams. Obey all regulations on boundaries for boats and just generally use good common sense and keep safety as the priority.

Casting baits is another excellent technique for hybrids. Live baits like the ones mentioned above are great for casting from a boat or the shore. Artificial baits such as a Sassy Shad or Big Hammer swimbait are also great. Other options include inline spinners, minnow-imitating baits and others. As odd as it may seem, lots of hybrids are caught on chicken liver by anglers fishing for catfish.

Saugers are still in play this month too. These cousins of the walleye are heavily targeted throughout the winter months when they congregate after moving upstream to spawn, but fishing is often still good on into March and beyond. The area just below the dam is the most heavily fished for saugers, but check the mouths of the many tributaries as saugers often stack up in these locations as much as 8 to 10 miles from the dam. Fish live minnows, jigs or both near the bottom to locate feeding saugers.

Backwater and other slack water areas offer good chances for catfish, bluegills, crappies and black bass. The mouths and lower ends of the tributaries are great for these species too. Some of the larger ones include Alcorn Creek, Barren Creek, Bay Creek, Big Creek, Big Grand Pierre Creek, Dog Creek, Lusk Creek and the Saline River.

NEWTON LAKE LARGEMOUTHS

This cooling lake in Jasper County totals 1,750 acres and is home to a phenomenal largemouth bass population. However, the DNR indicates the fishery may be on the verge of a change. The latest fish status report says, "The amount of hot water discharged into the lake has declined significantly, and this has resulted in a reduced growing season. In short, it is transitioning from a cooling lake to an ambient lake. In the near term, recruitment continues to be good and, with body condition and growth rates above average, the fishery should remain stable for the near future."

The latest sampling data indicate the bass size structure has declined. The percentage of bass greater than 18 inches fell by just over 60 percent and comprised only seven percent of the total population. At the same time, the catch per effort skyrocketed. Although the fishery seems to be undergoing some transition, there are still plenty of bass available in the 15- to 20-inch range. Anglers may see a drop-off in the number of quality size bass in the future, but as of now, this is still a tremendous bass lake. The DNR has the largemouth fishery rated as excellent.

The bulk of the bass caught from 1 to 6 pounds. There are some site-specific fishing and boating regulations, so anglers need to become familiar with the nuances of this lake before fishing.

Lots of baits and tactics are available to anglers this month at Newton. With the warm-water discharge, anglers find bass hitting very aggressive in the warmest section of the lake. Crankbaits, spinnerbaits, plastics and lipless cranks or rattle baits are just some of the possibilities. In areas where the water is still on the cool side, try slower presentations such as a jig and trailer, plastic bait or a Smithwick Suspending Rogue.

NORTHERN ICE-OUT LAKES

The ice is receding on lakes in the northernmost parts of the state, and that means more open water and lots of hungry fish. Obviously, fishing activity is still on the slow side, but that does not mean there is not some excellent fishing to be had this month in the central and northern portions of the state. And it only gets better in the coming weeks.

This is an excellent month to target northern pike and walleyes. Feeding activity for these species are picking up, and that means good things for anglers. Even though it is early and the water is still cold, the best walleye action still happens early morning, late in the evening and in other low light conditions. Live night crawlers on a bottom rig are a good choice, but minnows and artificial baits are options, too.

The musky bite is also turning on, and depending upon the water being fished, the big toothy giants are soon to be moving closer to shallow water in search of forage. A larger spinnerbait is a favorite musky offering, but it must be fished ultra slowly until the water warms more. Slower presentations are best at first. Then, in the coming weeks, faster baits may be employed.

Perch are a great choice this month, too. These nomadic fish bite fairly well all winter through the ice, but the upswing in water temperature helps put them in the mood for food. Suspend baits beneath a float and use some patience. Perch often bite in a particular location, disappear for a bit, and then circle back around.

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Other panfish offer terrific fishing this month as well. The crappie bite is often awesome in March, and papermouths are found scattered from deep brush locations to more shallow areas, depending upon water temperature. Bluegills are biting on crickets and worms suspended beneath a float. 

MISSISSIPPI RIVER CATFISH

It is not quite catfish fishing season for most folks. Typically thought of as predominantly a summer foray, many anglers do not actually think about wetting a line for whiskerfish until the weather gets hot and other species of fish have finished spawning and have moved to deeper water, thus becoming a little harder to catch. Nonetheless, catfish are catchable, even throughout the winter months. Granted, the bite is not as prolific as later when the water warms up more. But that does not mean it is impossible to secure the makings of a catfish fry.

The Mississippi River is one of the top spots in the whole country for jumbo and even trophy size catfish. It is treacherous at times, and March often presents some difficult fishing, but it also often is superb. Anglers braving the cold catch some of the largest blue catfish of the year during the winter months. Sure, the bite comes slower, but any true catfish enthusiast would wait out the bite for a chance at a monster.

The river is home to all three major species of catfish, and all are present in a range of sizes, from young of the year to trophy quality. Channel catfish are the most numerous and are well distributed throughout the river system. Look for them to concentrate in areas with log jams, chunk rock or under moored barges. Bottom fishing with live or smelly baits is the tactic used most often.

Big blue catfish are targeted with live or cut bait either fished stationary or with various drift methods. Bottom fishing with a slip rig is another great option. Huge flathead catfish are also present, but not caught as easily or frequently as channels and blues.

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