Illlinois offers plenty of great fishing waters, and most anglers have their favorite spots to cast for trophies. But with temperatures warming up and the school year winding down, this is the perfect time to focus on a different kind of destination: the best locations for a family fishing trip. The goal this month is to find waters where your kids can actually catch fish, and perhaps enjoy some fun diversions along the way. Here are a few places where you can make some memories.
While Illinois is at, or near, the bottom on the list of states having land available for public use, that statistic can be somewhat misleading. As our nation developed, useable land was the determining factor in population growth, since most of the early European migrants were farmers or cattle ranchers.
Many states were dominated by mountains, swamps, arid deserts or vast tracts of nearly impenetrable forests. In other words, this was useless land, as viewed by the farmers. Since the government couldn’t even give these acres away, they remained in the public domain, eventually becoming national or state parks, forests, or wildlife refuges. From a conservation standpoint, it was an important decision. From a purely practical standpoint, at the time, it was about all most of that property was good for anyway.
The plains states, including Illinois, were a different matter. Here, the newly arriving settlers found a landscape stretching beyond the horizon with flat, fertile land. Trees were so rare on that primordial prairie that they became landmarks. For just that reason, today we have towns named Buffalo Grove, River Grove, Elk Grove, Sugar Grove, Spring Grove, Franklin Grove and many more scattered throughout the state.
From one end of Illinois to the other the land was plowed, swamps were drained and the prairie disappeared. Row crops now have replaced the native prairie grasses. With so little useless land to be found, it is a wonder there is any public recreational land at all in Illinois. But, currently 140 state parks, managed by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, (IDNR), are located around the state. Of these, 67 public sites offer fishing opportunities in ponds, lakes, rivers or streams.
All of the public fishing sites are family friendly, and most feature both bank and boat angling opportunities for a wide variety of game fish. Additional amenities such as boat rental, launch ramps, motors allowed, bait shops, camping facilities, picnicking, swimming beaches, fishing piers, restaurants and even water skiing are available at various locations.
IDNR biologists continuously monitor the condition of the fishery in each of the public properties. Daily bag limits are set, size limits determined, and stocking of fingerlings is carried out where required. Site managers set rules specifically designed for each park, such as motor horsepower limits, bank fishing areas, opening and closing times, and any other regulations designed to enhance safe and enjoyable use by the public.
Your first step in choosing a state park for a family fishing outing would be to obtain a copy of the free IDNR booklet, “Illinois Fishing Guide.” This booklet is available at all IDNR offices and retail fishing license dealers. Information on fishing locations also is available on the IDNR website.
In both places you will find the name of the water, its depth, size, fishing regulations, and species of fish available. If you go online, you can find the parks listed by IDNR region, or alphabetically; you may reserve a campsite or shelter; learn of recreational activities and programs and even view park videos.
Importantly, listed will be the address and phone number of each parks’ office. Do not hesitate to call with questions, or to learn of any closings due to weather or other unforeseen conditions. A site map may be downloaded for your convenience, along with many other details about the park.
Perhaps one of the most popular and least complicated of Illinois’ family friendly fishing programs are the spring and fall trout seasons. In mid-April, and again in mid-October, angling for stocked rainbow trout will open at 53 locations statewide. (Check online, or with your regional IDNR office for exact locations and dates.) All the released trout are of quality size, and some 2- to 3-pound fish are regularly taken. A five-fish daily catch limit is in effect for the trout fishing.
The waters stocked are small ponds, readily accessible to shore anglers, and the spring and fall settings provide ideal weather and scenery. Minimal fishing tackle is required. To rig up, pass the end of the line through an egg sinker and tie on a small swivel. On the end of the swivel, tie on a 12-inch leader, then the hook, and squash a gob of cheese bait on to cover the entire hook.
Now, simply toss the bait out about 20 feet, tighten the line, and wait for the tip to jiggle. “Fish on!” It is that simple. The kids will love it, and they won’t have to sit quietly in a little boat all morning. Better yet, you can take home a mess of delicious trout for dinner without enduring a catch-and-release guilt trip.
A great bonus that comes when you pick a family fishing destination near home is the travel time saved. This can be significant, amounting to several days of extra fishing time.
With careful planning, you can spice up your family trip by taking in some of the special attractions in the area of your choice. Museums, local festivals, exhibitions, craft shows, winery tours and other seasonal attractions will add a special dimension to any vacation.
Each of the IDNR managed fishing sites has its own appeal, and this diversity creates your challenge; which one do I prefer? Let’s look at a few possibilities from around the state.
SHAB ONNA LAKE STATE PARK
In northern Illinois, DeKalb County’s Shabbona Lake State Park has just about everything for a fishing family vacation. Shabbona Lake was constructed in 1974 for recreational fishing. Shabbona Lake has 318 surface acres of water. The lake has an average depth of 17.5 feet deep and a max depth of 40 feet. The original river channel can still be found, along with old road beds and standing timber, creating an interesting fishing experience.
Shabbona Lake is located near the city of Shabbona. Follow blue tourism signs at the west edge of town.
The lake holds a variety of game fish species, including muskies, largemouth bass, crappies, walleyes, bluegills, channel cats, hybrid bass and some smallmouth bass. Good to excellent populations of all these species, except the smallmouths, are present. A boat ramp and boat/motor rental is available, as is camping and picnicking. A full, service restaurant and bait shop are on site.
Along The Way
Some of the local attractions are nearby Amboy’s Depot Days, featuring the state’s largest antique auto show. In August the Mendota Sweet Corn Festival features a carnival, food booths, craft show and flea market, and, of course, a beer garden. Take a ride about an hour west, to the Rock Island Arsenal, a working military installation that is open to the public for interpretive lectures, museums, a Civil War cemetery and many other attractions. Check it out their online calendar for upcoming events.
Kickapoo State Recreation Area is located near Oakwood in east central Illinois. With 22 lakes and access to the Middle Fork River, Kickapoo is known for the opportunities it provides for water-based outdoor activities. Anglers find excellent fishing for largemouth and smallmouth bass, channel catfish, bluegills, crappies and redear sunfish. Especially popular are the annual fall and spring stockings of rainbow trout, which provide an unusual opportunity for central Illinois anglers to fish for good numbers of catchable-size trout.
There are 12 launching ramps on nine of Kickapoo’s lakes. Boat and canoe rentals are available for Clear Pond. Only electric motors are allowed on the park’s lakes.
For canoeing on the scenic Middle Fork of the Vermilion River, a canoe rental and shuttle service is available.
Kickapoo also features two major campgrounds for tent or trailer camping, with online reservations at www.reserveamerica.com. Six day use areas provide facilities for picnics, with shelter reservations also available. Also, the park offers hiking and mountain bike trails, scuba diving, hunting and shelters.
Along The Way
After you have caught your limit of fish, the Danville area provides a steady stream of artistic, cultural and historic attractions. One of the most interesting is the Danville barbershop quartet chorus, which hosts a series of competitions throughout the year.
In Rossville, you can tour the Depot Railroad Museum. The depot, built by the Chicago and Eastern Illinois Railroad in 1903, has been restored to the 1950s era. The Museum features a wide collection of historical railroad memorabilia.
Civil War buffs will enjoy a tour of the Fithian House, once owned by Dr. William Fithian, Civil War surgeon and close friend of Abraham Lincoln. The Fithian House features the south balcony from which Lincoln gave a speech in 1858 and the bedroom he used on his many visits.
SILOAM SPRINGS STATE PARK
In west central Illinois is Siloam Springs State Park. It has a small lake, 58 acres with 3.9 miles of shoreline. This would be an excellent choice for a young family to introduce their children to the outdoors. While boat fishing is allowed, motors are not, so a quiet fishing experience is assured. You can launch your own boat, or rent one there.
While the fishing is less than sensational, it seems to just about right for a family, with plenty of hungry small bluegills to keep the kids’ bobbers ducking under. There is a very strong largemouth bass population, but the majority of them are less than one pound. However, recent electronic surveys turned up some in the 6-pound class, and one 25-inch old timer showed up weighing 9.7 pounds. (Those fish are still in there.) Catfish and white crappies are present, too.
Also, Siloam Springs is one of the IDNR’s released trout lakes, and that event would make for a great spring or fall camping trip.
Two pole and line fishing only is allowed for all species. There is a good concrete ramp on southeast shore. There are six fishing piers in addition to bank fishing. Boat and canoe rentals, a variety of bait and tackle, snack foods, soda and sandwiches are available on a seasonal basis from the concession stand by the lake.
Siloam Spring Lake is located within Siloam Springs State Park, about 11 miles south of Clayton off Route 24 or 6 miles north of Route 104 in Adams County.
Local attractions include a historic driving tour, a tour of several area wineries, and in Quincy, a historic architectural list with a whopping 3,664 buildings on the National Historic Register. Adams County’s tourism bureau has full details of these, and many more.
As you can see, we have barely scratched the surface of the list of 67 potential IDNR manged family fishing areas. There are a lot of really good ones for you to discover, so get to it. The fish are biting. Now it’s time for you to get out and explore one of the great destinations we’ve highlighted here or another family fishing hotspot near you.