Here in the Prairie State, we are very fortunate to have year-round fishing opportunities. Even through winter we have great open water fishing as well as angling through the ice in the northern half of the state. Obviously some times of the year are much better than others, but we still get to enjoy great opportunities every month.
Each year at this time, we talk with fishery biologists, guides and anglers and review creel and sampling data to find which fisheries are doing good and which are maybe down a little. The result is a 12-month look at some of the hottest bites in the state for the coming year. Here are 36 top choices to consider — three for each month of the year.
JANUARY – Ohio River Saugers
In some ways, no fish fits wintertime better than saugers. For one thing, they are concentrated more at this time of year rather than being scattered like most of the rest of the year. Not only are they more easily located, but they are ready and willing to bend a few fishing rods.
Spawning urges start the saugers moving upriver beginning in the fall, but their progress is halted by the dams across the river. There in the tailwaters they increase in number throughout the winter. Right now is a great time to catch them, and the bite should stay good until sometime in March.
Tempt saugers with minnows, jigs or jigs tipped with minnows. Saugers hug the bottom, so baits must be placed on or near the bottom to get bit. Look for holes, eddies and current breaks. Often the saugers stage right along a break line between current and slack water.
Other Options: Crappies are a good bet on the Fox Chain O’ Lakes, and a mixed creel is possible through the ice on many northern waters.
FEBRUARY – Cooling Lake Black Bass
There are lots of good spots to tangle with black bass this month, but one great option is to hit one of our power plant cooling lakes for some above average action for the time of year. Bass are biting at other lakes, but the warmer water in the cooling lakes helps keep the bass metabolism up so anglers have a lot more options for fishing tactics.
At a cooling lake, the warm water discharge pulls in shad and other prey fish and subsequently pulls in the bass. The bass have the opportunity to eat here all winter and extend their growing season, so bass at these lakes typically put on weight quicker than at some other lakes. Whereas cold lakes require slow deliberate tactics for bass, anglers have many more options at cooling lakes.
Other Options: Anglers in northern Illinois may want to try the early bite for perch and trout in any open water along the Lake Michigan shoreline. Saugers are a safe bet on the Illinois River this month.
MARCH – Rend Lake Crappies
Crappies are moving ever shallower and getting ready to spawn. We are at the cusp of the annual spring run, so hit Rend Lake and cash in on some early papermouths. The crappie fishery at Rend Lake took a dip for a couple years in a row, but anglers are reporting better fishing over the past two seasons.
Look for crappies to be transitioning from deeper water, and where they are on a given day is dependent upon weather conditions. There are often frontal conditions at this time of year, and the crappies move around a lot. Look for a pattern to develop if the weather stays consistent for a few days in a row.
Other Options: Yellow perch are very numerous in McCullom Lake and are a lot of fun to catch and excellent for a spring fish fry. Spring walleye action is ramping up on Lake Storey.
APRIL – Crab Orchard Lake Largemouths
A very good population of largemouth bass is present at Crab Orchard Lake, and right now is a great time to find them feeding heavily prior to spawning. Good numbers of fish are available through a wide size range. Plenty of fish are over 16 inches, and some 11 percent are also over 18 inches.
Crankbaits and spinnerbaits make great search baits and help cover water quickly. Plastic baits, swim baits and jigs all produce well at times too. As the water continues to warm, look for the bass to be moving shallower and oftentimes relating to shoreline structure. Points at the mouths of coves and secondary points are also good bets, especially when the weather is fluctuating.
Other Options: Powerton Lake is giving up some nice smallmouths to bass anglers this month, and the crappie bite is good all throughout the southern half of the state.
MAY – Statewide Bluegills
All across the state, water temperatures are rising. That means bluegills are biting aggressively in shallow water. In some parts of the state, the ‘gills may still be moving from deeper water, while in the more southern reaches of the state they are already making nests. Regardless of location, bluegills are a top option most anywhere in the state, from farm ponds to large reservoirs.
Live bait is hard to beat for bluegills, with crickets and red worms being two of the most popular choices. Mealworms, wax worms and others also are good at times. For a nice change of pace, try throwing an artificial bait like a small jig, inline spinner, popper or bluegill bug. Fly-fishing for chunky bluegills is also a lot of fun.
Other Options: Some of the best channel cat fishing of the year is straight ahead at Rend Lake. Randolph County Lake may only be 73 acres, but there is a super population of redears available, with some fish up to a pound in size.
JUNE – Stocked Rainbow Trout in Streams and Ponds
The Illinois Department of Natural Resources stocks some 80,000 rainbow trout into Illinois waters annually. Stocked trout are catchable size at the time of stocking, and at some locations there is some holdover. This results in larger fish being available. There are about 50 different waters that are stocked, including streams, ponds and lakes. This variety of waters creates a wealth of fishing opportunities.
Trout season opens in early April, with catch and release season open prior. A wide range of opportunity exists, from traditional fly-fishing, wading, tubing, boating or simply fishing from shore. All trout regulations are available on the Illinois DNR website at www.dnr.illinois.gov.
Other Options: Look to Shabbona Lake for some awesome action on hybrid striped bass with plenty of hefty fish up to 26 inches. Another option is loading the cooler with some slabs at Lake Vermilion, which has a white crappie fishery that is highly rated by the IDNR.
JULY – Mississippi River Catfish
The Mississippi River is one of the best spots in the country for jumbo catfish. All three main species are present in the river and grow to enormous sizes. Channel cats up in the 10- to 20-pound range are not uncommon, and there are numerous trophy flatheads and blues caught every year. Blue catfish grow so large in the river, a new state or world record pulled from the Mighty Mississippi would not be a surprise at all.
Channel catfish are very numerous and are found throughout the river. Traditional baits such as night crawlers, chicken livers and commercial stinkbaits and dip baits are all great choices when fished on the bottom near wood jams or under docked barges. For blue catfish, use whole or cut shad or skipjack herring. Flatheads are a little tougher to come by, but they bite best on live bait such as minnows or crawfish.
Other Options: The Des Plaines River is a good bet for quality northern pike. This is also a great time of year to hit the local farm pond for a mixed creel of bass, bluegills and catfish.
AUGUST – Statewide Night Bass
Many anglers are waiting until close to dark to hit their favorite lakes for bass action that is sometimes good throughout the night. Look for bass on humps, ledges or drops, channel edges and sometimes moving up shallower to feed. A slow-rolled spinnerbait is great for covering water and enticing a few bites.
Other Options: Although Lake Michigan is best known for other fish species, there is a good bite this month for stocked catfish in the lagoons. Hybrid striped bass are also in play this month at Braidwood Lake, where annual stocking keeps the fishery in great shape with fish available up to 34 inches.
SEPTEMBER – Ohio River Striped Bass
Stripers are hitting this month in the Smithland Pool portion of the Ohio River. There is a fair population of striped bass in the river, although they are sometimes a little tricky to locate. A lot of anglers head for the tail waters where there is a better than average possibility of locating stripers in the range of 6 to 10 pounds and sometimes larger.
One method is to cast out live baits such as shiners, shad or skipjack and then drift the baits with the current. Other anglers like to cast baits such as the Sassy Shad or a Big Hammer Swim Bait. There is some success at times casting from the shoreline, but boat anglers definitely have an advantage for finding these nomadic predators.
Other Options: Catfish are in good supply in the Wabash River, so target some of the deeper holes there this month for channel, flathead and even the occasional blue catfish. Use trolling or casting to locate schools of white bass on Newton Lake and then stay with the school to enjoy multiple catches.
OCTOBER – Fox Chain Muskies
The big muskies at the Fox Chain are shallower and foraging on prey fish that have moved shallow with the cooling water temperatures. Muskie fishing is always regarded as a lot of fishing and little actual catching, but this time of year is about the best for putting a trophy fish in the boat.
Cast big spinners, surface lures and other muskie baits along the edges of weed lines, up on flats and in any woody cover.
Other Options: Walleye action is good on the Rock River, and fall crappie fishing is a good bet on Lake Evergreen.
NOVEMBER – Cedar Lake Largemouths
There is an excellent population of largemouth bass in Cedar Lake and also good numbers of fish over 18 inches. In fact, surveys show the Cedar Lake bass fishery to be one of the best in the state. This is a great time to target bass in shallower water and putting on the feed bag prior to winter.
Look for shad and baitfish in the backs of creeks and in the coves. Bass follow these forage fish shallow in the fall and gorge themselves on the ample supply. Swimbaits and other baits that resemble the forage are excellent choices. Crankbaits and stickbaits also work well.
Other Options: A fish of a lifetime may be waiting at Lake Shelbyville as trophy muskies are feeding up for winter. Take advantage of the fall stocking of rainbow trout at Clear Lake.
DECEMBER – Lake of Egypt Crappies
Not many people target crappies during December, which makes it a perfect time to be out on the water. No crowds mean easy access to some of the best spots. For winter crappies, that usually means deep brushpiles.
Crappie fishing success is very sporadic throughout the fall as weather conditions change on a seemingly constant basis. However, after the weather stabilizes some by this time of year, the crappies settle into patterns lasting several days or at least until the weather changes again. This makes finding and staying on fish much easier.
Use electronics to find good brush and fish attractors in deep water. If these locations are along a creek or other area with easy access to different water depths, it is even more attractive to the papermouths. Present jigs or minnows on a tight line just above where the crappies are holding.
Other Options: Crappies are also biting at Taylorville Lake. There are plenty of nice-sized striped bass waiting at Sangchris Lake.