Top Illinois Fishing Spots for 2012

Top Illinois Fishing Spots for 2012
Bluegills remain active throughout the winter. A colorful ice jig and a box of waxworms are all it takes to collect a tasty dinner. Photo by Jerry Pabst.

Somewhere along the 402-mile length of Illinois there is some outstanding fishing in progress. It may be happening close to your home, or it may require a "road trip," but year-round there are fishing opportunities in the Land of Lincoln. The following "Fishing Calendar" details some — but surely not all — of the optimal times and places to pursue the various piscatorial species.

JANUARY

If you plan to fish now be prepared to deal with ice — from Lake Catherine, on the Wisconsin state line, all the way down to sprawling Rend Lake, in Franklin County. Despite climate change, the possibility of a freeze-up is a very real one. While the metabolism of all fish is slowed by cold water, the humble bluegill is probably the most dependable target in winter. Tackle is basic, consisting of a short rod, 2-pound test line on an ultralight spinning reel, a metal ice fly, and a container of wax worms. You will also need an auger or chisel to punch a hole in the ice, and at least 4 inches of ice for safety's sake. You will find the 'gills in 4 to 10 feet of water over old weedbeds.

FEBRUARY

This is another frigid month, but there are rewards for those hardy souls who brave the wintry gusts. After Chicago's many Lake Michigan harbors freeze solidly, schools of yellow perch move in and out on a regular basis. Patience is the key to success, and when the perch come in, 15-fish limits can be reached quickly. Roaming rainbow and brown trout are frequently bonus fish for perch anglers. Shiner minnows or wax worms fished a foot off the bottom on an ice jig are the best baits for perch or trout. Any lake containing walleyes is worth a try using live minnows on a tip-up, or vertically fished jig/minnow combination. Low and slow near a drop-off area is the secret to success.

MARCH

This is probably the most difficult month to forecast, since the weather can be balmy or sub-arctic on a day-to-day basis. Spring coho arrive all along the Lake Michigan shore, giving shore fishermen the opportunity to enjoy this world-class fishery. Beginning in the southern counties, and working north as spring arrives, crappies will begin moving into shallow bays along the northern shores of lakes. It won't take much of a cold front to send them back into the depths again, but they will return as soon as moderate weather returns and water clears. Bass will still be in their cold-water retreats, but a few can be caught on slowly worked plastic lures. Walleyes are becoming more active, especially in rivers and around lake current areas.

APRIL

Illinois DNR's "Catchable Trout Program" kicks off on the first Saturday of the month, two weeks after 60,000 rainbow trout have been released in 43 locations statewide. A special Inland Waters Trout Stamp is required along with a valid 2012 fishing license. Persons under the age of 16, the disabled and Illinois residents currently serving in the military are exempt from licensing. Salmon and trout will still be within range of shore fishermen through most of April. Crappie will become very active throughout the state. Look for good bluegill action late in the month.

For the top Illinois fishing spots for May, June, July and August, please visit page two

MAY

You can't go wrong this month. The crappies are finishing their spawning efforts, the bluegills are super-active, the bass are moving up on the beds, the walleyes are feeding heavily in post-spawn mode, and the musky are prowling weedbeds after the long winter's fast. Look for all species of catfish to be lurking just off current areas in rivers and streams. Use nightcrawlers or dipbait for channel casts, and large suckers or bluegills for flatheads or blues. Lake Michigan trollers will find large schools of coho salmon and brown trout gorging on swarms of alewives that have moved off-shore after spawning. Dodger/fly combinations are all you need. If you can't catch fish this month, consider taking up golf or tennis.

JUNE

By now most fish have completed their spawning chores and moved into their summer patterns. Crappies may be hard to pinpoint as they suspend over deeper water, moving into the weed edges to feed early and late in the day. Try slow-tolling a jig-and-minnow at different depths until you locate the fish. Bass and bluegills will remain active throughout the day along weedlines and around stumps, downed trees or brushpiles. Look for musky in mid-morning, and again at evening. Walleyes will spend their days on the deep side of drop-offs, and move up on flats to feed during low-light periods. Catfish should be open for business all day long around structure. Lake Michigan salmon/trout are now following the baitfish into deeper water, moving farther out as the inshore water warms. Don't abandon those dodger/fly set-ups; just run them deeper as the fish move out.

JULY

Without doubt this is the best time to fish Lake Michigan. It is more than a fishing trip; it is an adventure. Every major species is available at this time of year, and often all five are represented in a day's catch. Charter boats based in Chicago, Waukegan and Northpoint may be found by simply Googling "Lake Michigan fishing." Another exciting trip is to one of the many pools of the mighty Mississippi River, which form Illinois' western border. Explore the numerous backwater lakes for bass, bluegills, crappies and catfish, and don't be surprised if an outsized northern pike swallows your favorite spinnerbait. Be alert for passing barge traffic and floating debris when boating on this navigable river. Try the Illinois, Ohio and Wabash rivers for big smallmouth and crappies.

AUGUST

The "dog days" of summer are here, and it is just too darn hot to sit out in the scorching sun all day. But, rather than waste a perfectly good fishing day, why not seek out a shady farm pond and enjoy an afternoon catching big bluegills, hefty bass and succulent catfish? Some of the best fishing in Illinois is tucked away in these unpretentious little bodies of water. Sit back, enjoy a cool beverage of your choice and listen to the Cubs win again on their march towards the World Series. Yeah, right! There are some surprisingly large smallmouth bass in the deeper holes of a few little-fished rivers in Illinois. Wading a shallow limestone creek is a sure way to beat the heat and tie into a lot of feisty bass. All you need are sneakers, shorts, a light spinning rod and a few small-body baits and spinners. Remember to wade upstream to avoid spooking the fish ahead of you.

Find the top Illinois fishing spots for September, October, November and December on page three

SEPTEMBER

Although the days are getting shorter, and fall is in the air, the water temperatures going into September are the warmest of the year. The fish will mostly be feeding early and late in the day, and holding in deeper water off drop-offs and along the deep edges of weedbeds. Slow, finesse presentations will still take some bass. Bluegills should be fairly active under docks and lily pads and over brushpiles. Crappies are still stratified in mid-lake, and slow-trolling with jig/minnow lures is your best bet. Look for catfish feeding at dawn and dusk, and throughout the night on the flats next to deeper holes in rivers and streams. Walleyes will be following the same pattern as the catfish now.

OCTOBER

This is the month when most species of Illinois' game fish begin their pre-winter feeding spree. Expect the fish to return to late spring habitat, and most of the techniques you used then will produce again. This would be a good time to try for the hybrid striped bass that have been stocked in several lakes throughout the state. Some promising striper lakes are Lake George, Heideke Lake, Clinton Lake, Bloomington Lake, Decatur Lake, Lake Mattoon, Charleston Side Channel Lake and Pittsfield Lake. One interesting lake containing striped bass is Cedar Lake, in Jackson County. Due to the structure of this lake, DNR biologists have been unable to conduct proper surveys. However, anglers are regularly catching stripers here and a 28-pound specimen has been verified. Catfish action all over the state should pick up considerably as the water cools. Look for walleyes to become more active, as will northern pike.

NOVEMBER

Judging by numerous photographs it seems that big musky and snowmobile suits go together, which should give you a good idea what to fish for in November. Noisy surface lures and clattering spinnerbaits will stir up the big boys as they go on a major feeding binge prior to their virtual winter hibernation. Casting over the dying weedbeds or trolling the edges of rock or sand bars will produce some eye-popping catches. You don't have to be a "dawn to dusk" fanatic at this time of year, because the fish will be happy to see you all day long. Here are a few of Illinois' premier musky lakes: Shabbona, Pierce, Carlton, George (lots of musky, but too many shad), McMaster, Storey, Wheel (Banner Marsh), Mingo, Prairie (Jim Edgar Panther Creek FWA), plus the lakes listed in the accompanying calendar. It should be noted that the musky fishery in Lake Shelbyville has been steadily diminishing over the past four years, and remains poor. Walleye/sauger fishing on the Illinois River should be in full swing.

DECEMBER

Fishing at this time of the year is totally at the mercy of the weather. We may see pleasant 50-degree days with a bright sun, or blustery days with spitting snow flurries and temperatures in the 30-degree range. It wouldn't be unusual to be ice-fishing by Christmas. Fishermen in the southern half of Illinois will find decent crappie fishing, tough bass fishing and intermittent catfish action available. Anglers in northern Illinois should pick their days carefully with an eye on approaching cold fronts and violent storms. By now, water temperatures have cooled down enough to put the fish into winter mode, despite the fact that the lakes have not yet frozen over. Accordingly, when fishing open water it would be best to concentrate on the same areas, and employ similar techniques as do the ice-fishermen. Fishing "early ice" can be very productive, but be sure to put safety first. Don't venture out on thin ice and always fish with a partner, just in case.

HELPFUL ADVICE

When looking for a fishing destination within Illinois always consult the IDNR Web site, www.ifishillinois.org. Here you will find information compiled by DNR fishery biologists in all five DNR Districts. They analyze fishing prospects in all public waters managed by the department, detailing each site by species. You will learn how and when each lake was stocked, what the current population of each species is estimated to be, and what size fish are present. The result of creel surveys reveal whether the fishing success rate is stable, rising or declining. Importantly, site-specific regulations and the availability of services, launching ramps and camp grounds are listed.

There is a full year of quality fishing ahead of us in Illinois, so be sure to get out there and enjoy it all.

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