There is more to Illinois crappie fishing than putting meat on the table. It is the seeing of a float bobbing below the surface and then heading for the brush. It can also be the finesse needed to hoist that hefty fish toward you as it is shaking its head in an effort to spit out that lure.
Whatever the reason, millions of anglers each year explore Illinois waters in search of this delightful game fish.
Almost as much fun is taking someone new to the sport on an excursion in search of crappies. It is a great way to put a smile on their face.
Both white and black crappies will suspend in relation to the points, sunken islands, bars, creek beds, and debris found in rivers as well as the impoundments. Both species can and do inhabit the same waters.
Both species have roughly the same spawning habits, laying eggs in water 3 to 8 feet in depth, once temperatures near the mid-60-degree range near the cover. White crappies tend to like brush piles, bushes, or sunken logs. The black crappies like reeds or other weeds. There can be a great deal of pre-spawn angling in the channels and bays due to early ice-out and the water being too cold for spawning.
Statewide the average length of the crappie is about 9 inches. However a growing number are exceeding it.
March is a transitional month for crappie anglers. Often anglers in northern waters are still fishing on ice while those further to the south are seeking pre-spawn fish in open water.
The difference in temperatures in spring from northern Illinois to the southern lakes tends to vary the spawning time. Additionally, some areas such as power plant lakes will have spawning action before natural lakes. Pre-spawn fish show up in deeper water as they stage prior to mating.
Deep creek beds are the key to coldwater crappie locations. Begin by searching for likely summer holding areas and then back track to the nearest deep creek bed. Then follow the channel to the best available holding area. On a large lake, this can be a considerable distance. Some creek beds are more promising than others. Ones with wood in or near the creek bed are best.
Standing timber and sunken brush or trees are excellent locations for crappie. Even stumps will do the trick. The dense areas will have the best chance of holding crappie.
If the river or creeks do not seem to have any wood available then try bends and intersection areas. A good map is helpful. Sharp bends or intersections with roads and secondary channels often produce fish.
Dark bottoms on the northern side of coves are a good source of fish. They get the early sun and hold warmth longer.
Channels that dead-end minimize current flow that draws off warm water. Good bays generally have no channels, or at least not adequate ones, so they serve the same purpose. If all else fails, then try the deep water and concentrate on any structure that’s available.
Jigs are the bread and butter of crappie lures. A good assortment of small leadhead jigs in crappie colors of white, black and yellow are a good starting point. Couple them with tube bodies of the same colors. For natural baits, the basic is minnows or wax worms.
Vertical jig fishing with slip floats and minnows are effective for a lot of fish. It is important to remember crappies are very spooky this time of year. If scared, they will stop feeding. The best pattern is to locate the fish, then make long casts to the school. Make short pauses in the retrieve of about 30 seconds each.
Crappie strikes usually occur as the jig begins to settle toward the bottom of the length of line below the float. Small sensitive floats help the angler notice the very light bites that often happen. The float may not move, but if the line makes an unusual movement or the float turns over, set the hook.
Let’s discuss some crappie lakes recommended by the IDNR, local anglers, bait shops and press releases from across the Prairie State.
Fox Chain O’ Lakes
Perhaps one of the most popular fishing areas in Illinois is the lakes and interconnecting channels of the Fox Chain O’ Lakes about an hour northwest of the Chicago metropolitan area. The fact that glacier action thousands of years ago created these lakes makes them different from other Prairie State lakes.
Today the 7,110 acres of water maintain their depth by a lock and dam system south of McHenry, Ill. For over 60 years, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources has actively monitored the fishery. The crappie population maintains itself by natural reproduction.
Both black and white crappies are present. These fish measure between 2 inches and 15 inches in length. The weights top out at about 1.7 pounds. About 59 percent of the black crappies and 87 percent of the whites are over 9 inches in length. Approximately 11 percent of the blacks and 30 percent of the whites will be over 11 inches in length.
Due to the fickle nature of spring weather one can be fishing on ice over weed beds in the coves in the northern reaches of the chain while other anglers are fishing open water over green vegetation in the south. In all areas there is a decent chance of catching fish in the 14-inch lengths in 14- to 20-foot depths. Local anglers favor jigs tipped with plastics or wax worms.
All of the lakes seem to produce good action in the dawn and pre-dawn hours as well as at sunset and after.
The crappies of Clinton Lake have become a bread and butter fish during March. The average length of the fish, according to the IDNR, is 10 inches. In addition to the black and white crappies in the lake there are blacknose crappies, distinguished by their “racing stripe” black stripe from the nose along the back.
This 5,000-acre warmwater discharge lake in DeWitt County near Clinton, Ill., is one of Illinois’ largest managed lakes. The original builders of the lake cleared most of the basin during construction. There remains some rubble of the old roadways and bridges. The lake contains areas of steep banks and riprap. You can locate the bottom structure with the aid of electronics.
With an average depth of 15 feet and a maximum depth of 40 feet, the shoreline is erratic and almost 130 miles in length.
The warmwater discharge is a magnet for crappies early in the season. As the rest of the lake warms the fish will move into coves at a depth of 5 to 10 feet but return to deeper water at night. The old main creek channel contains some fish attractors worth exploring. Fishing seems best, according to local anglers, when water temperatures are in the 50-to 70-degree range. The cold fronts often occurring in spring cause fish to move to more shallow water after the passage of a front and then back to deep water.
Eventually the fish spawn in the very shallow water of the coves around stick-ups where they can avoid the hybrid striped bass in the main lake.
Another lake with white crappies as well as the blacknose sub-species is Sangchris. Located in Sangamon and Christian counties, near Springfield, Ill., this 2,325-acre fishery was created as a cooling lake.
The development of the fishery is highly dependent on power plant operations, which affect the water levels and temperatures. Natural spawning activity is limited for this reason. This has meant a need for a crappie-stocking program. White and blacknose crappies are raised in rearing ponds and released into the lake for stocking purposes. They are usually about 4 or 5 inches in length when released.
Hundreds of submerged Christmas trees and other structures scattered across the lake attract and hold fish. Anglers catch fish using spinners, jigs and jig/minnow combinations the entire year around.
According to Rob Maher, district fisheries manager, the crappie population of the lake is in excellent condition. About 31 percent of the white crappies are over the minimum keeper length of 10 inches. Only 10 percent of the black crappies are in that class. However two-thirds of the fish surveyed are black crappies, with the majority being just under the 10-inch limit. They should soon be over the legal catch limit and provide great fishing opportunities. IDNR stocks crappies annually.
Anglers usually find crappies around Eldon Hazlet State Park in 6 to 10 feet of water. They will take jigs, jig/minnow combinations and tubes this month.
Located in Jasper County near Newton, Ill., this lake was born a cooling lake. But it has become an ambient lake in the past several years. Dynegy has reduced the production during most of the year. Maximum production is during the peak energy demand of summer and winter.
With the cut back in generation operations the fish no longer get the 10-month growing season of the past. It affects reproduction. The black crappies present in the lake are about 10 inches in length.
Fishing can be spotty, but when it is good it is really good. With a shad forage base the usual bait is a jig/minnow combination.
A word of caution for anglers comes in the warning about hazardous wave action, particularly in spring. Dense fog can occur at dusk during the early part of the month.
The average depth is 16 feet, with a maximum depth of 40 feet. There are 52 miles of shoreline open to the public. There are only a few areas that are restricted due to power production.
Perhaps no discussion of crappie fishing in Illinois is complete without examination of Rend Lake. This 18,900-acre reservoir along Interstate 57 near Benton and Whittington, Ill., in Franklin and Jefferson counties has produced excellent crappie fishing for years.
Length and creel limits enacted in 2002 continue today and have had a significant impact on the size structure of the population, according to District 19 fisheries biologist, Mike Hooe.
“Populations improved dramatically and remain stable,” explained Hooe. The fish are in very good condition, and the fishing is outstanding despite heavy pressure. Mike describes the fish as having “shoulders.”
The crappies are 10 to 12 inches in length and weigh from 1/2 to 1 pound or a little more.
Wet spring weather produces good reproduction when it comes to the fish in this lake. High water levels during the month of March lead to good spawning.
Another lake with blacknose crappies is Kinkaid Lake, located in Jackson County near Murphysboro, Ill. In addition the blacknose crappie populations it also includes white crappies, natural hybrid black crappies and true black crappies.
Local guide Kyle Schoenherr reported that he has consulted with biologists about the hybrids and they are all in agreement that the larger “black crappie” in the lake is actually a hybrid that developed naturally. A number of 2-plus-pound hybrids caught each year are mistaken for black crappies.
The hybrids resemble white crappies, except they have seven or eight spines in the dorsal fin and a color pattern reminiscent of the black crappie. True white crappies have six spines in the dorsal fin. The hybrids have the speckled pattern on the sides but also have vertical bars missing on white crappies.