It’s true that the Prairie State has no shortage of catfish water, and likewise, no shortage of places to pursue the whiskered critters. But scattered throughout Illinois, many of our greatest catfish treasures go practically unnoticed. Almost every small river and stream in our state has a good population of catfish, and for anglers willing to do a little research and planning, our flowing waters offer excellent opportunities with little competition.
The following waterways comprise the best the Prairie State has to offer in the line of river catfishing. Some are well-known rivers, while others are underfished catfish waters. In either case, if you are the kind of angler who enjoys running rivers with a canoe or small boat and catching scores of catfish in a day, then the following destinations are for you.
For its proximity to Chicago and its ease in access, anglers will be hard-pressed to find a stream with a better catfish population than the Kankakee River.
“For its entire length in Illinois, the Kankakee supports a large population of channel catfish,” said Department of Natural Resources biologist Bob Rung. “From Wilmington to its confluence with the Illinois River, it also has some big flathead catfish.”
Perhaps the most striking thing is the average size of the catfish.
“Most fish average between 3 and 5 pounds, and 8- to 10-pounders are not uncommon,” said Lanny Chouinard, owner of Lanny’s Bait Shop. “Catfish in the Kankakee are caught with everything from stink bait, livers, crayfish, leeches and minnows. From my experience, the biggest catfish are caught on big minnows.”
When floating “the Kank,” Chouinard suggested targeting catfish around holes, current breaks and brushy shorelines.
The entire river through Illinois offers excellent fishing and unabated access. Canoes can be rented from Reeds Rent All in Kankakee at (815) 939-3117. For up-to-date river information, contact Lanny’s Bait Shop at (815) 935-1661. For travel and lodging information, contact the Kankakee Area Chamber of Commerce at (815) 933-7721.
LOWER FOX RIVER
From the town of Yorkville to Wedron, the lower Fox River is a float-fisherman’s dream. Easy access, excellent scenery and plenty of catfish make this a definite must-see this summer.
“For its entire length, the Fox supports a very large population of channel catfish,” biologist Rung said. “Flatheads are found throughout the river as well, but are considerably less numerous than channels. Many get up to 20 pounds though.”
Greg Freeman of Freeman’s Sports in Yorkville concurs.
“The river is full of channel catfish,” Freeman said. “Most average about 2 pounds, but we see a lot of fish up to 7 or 8 pounds. Night crawlers and minnows are the best baits.”
The lower Fox has also become a premier destination for the whiskered recluse.
“We’ve been seeing many flatheads lately,” Freeman said. “Many of these are taken from the dam and bridge area in Yorkville, or around the broken dam at Millhurst. Suckers and bluegills are the top baits.”
Access can be had in Yorkville, Silver Springs State Park, the town of Sheridan and Ayer’s Landing in Wedron, (815) 434-2233. Canoes can be rented from Freeman’s Sports in Yorkville, (630) 553-0515. For travel and lodging information, contact the Yorkville Area Chamber of Commerce at (630) 553-6853.
Head out to Grundy County and you’ll encounter the Mazon River. Although it averages less than 30 feet across in some areas, this waterway is home to an awesome population of channel catfish and some big flatheads.
“Channel catfish average about 2 pounds in the Mazon, although it’s not uncommon to find fish up to about 8,” said Jon Medder of Jon’s Bait & Tackle Shop in South Wilmington. “They relate well to holes and deep, slow runs of stream, especially when the water is low. Cheese baits, livers and leeches work well.”
Flatheads are abundant in some stretches, most notably from Pine Bluff Road to Morris.
“Flatheads average about 10 to 15 pounds,” Medder said. “Live bluegills or bullheads work well, but we also catch a lot of flatheads on night crawlers.” Target deep undercut banks, logjams or washed up trees for best results.
The best float trips to be had on the Mazon include the run from Route 113 west of Coal City to Pine Bluff Road, and from Pine Bluff to Stratton Park in Morris. Good floating is dependent upon adequate water levels, and some landowner permission may be necessary to access some sections of the stream.
For more information, contact Jon’s Bait Shop at (815) 237-2822. Travel and lodging information is available from the Morris Area Chamber of Commerce at (815) 942-0113.
The Pecatonica River drains a considerable portion of Stephenson and Winnebago counties. It winds in an easterly direction through mostly forest and sparse meadow, and is perhaps one of the best catfish streams in northwestern Illinois.
Channel catfish numbers are high here, bolstered by migrating cats from the Rock River. The stream also has a smattering of flatheads. Most catfish run up to about 4 pounds. Ten-pounders are not unheard of, especially in the lower reaches, and finding upward of 30 whiskered critters is possible in a day. Cut bait — either drifted with a float or fished on a sinker rig — catches cats, but chicken livers, crawlers and stink bait will also produce.
The stretch from Sumner Park in Pecatonica to Macktown Forest Preserve yields the best cat water, and there are numerous access points. Floating is generally good, with few obstructions.
For more information, contact the Winnebago County Forest Preserve District at (815) 877-6124. Travel and lodging information is available at (815) 233-1350.
One catfish stream in central Illinois that Abe Lincoln floated in pursuit of big catfish is the Sangamon River. Flowing through our state capital, big channel cats and flatheads are very abundant, and this river provides one of the best catfishing opportunities in the central third of our state.
“In our last basin survey, 56 channel catfish were collected from the upper
Sangamon River Basin,” said DNR biologist Trent Thomas. “Of these, 38 were taken from the stretch around Roby in Christian County. This indicates a thriving population of fish.”
The Sangamon is generally slow, winding through a mix of forest and meadow. Channel catfish relate well to brushy holes and washed-out banks.
“Anglers catch quite a few channels on cheese bait, Sonny’s Dip Bait, shad and livers,” said Jim Porter of Jim’s Live Bait & Tackle in Springfield. “Most of the fish we see coming from the river average between 2 to 4 pounds.”
If it’s flatheads you’re after, head downstream.
“Downstream of Lake Decatur holds many potential locations for finding large flatheads,” said the DNR’s Thomas. “Most notable from this sampling is the Lincoln Trail Homestead State Park area.”
The best population, however, occurs downstream from the town of Riverton.
“We conducted a survey of the river with hoop nets from Riverton to Oakford,” said DNR biologist Doug Carney. “One night we caught 44 fish, the next night we caught 52 fish. Numbers are obviously there.”
“We see a number of fish in the 12- to 15-pound range,” Jim Porter said. “Fish up to about 30 pounds are taken here and there. Most guys target flatheads with a live bluegill with the tail cut off on a slip-sinker rig.”
The river from Lincoln Trail Homestead State Memorial to Salt Creek is excellent catfish water. Below the dam in Petersburg, it’s possible to run a boat both upstream and downstream.
For more information, contact Region 3 Fisheries at (217) 784-4730. For travel and lodging information, contact the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce at (217) 525-1173.
This east-central Illinois river has some pretty good catfishing.
“Our last survey on the Embarras produced large numbers of catfish,” biologist Thomas said. “Most catfish were in the 1- to 3-pound range, but the occasional 5-pounder was also captured. Numbers tended to increase to the southern stretches of the river.”
The Embarras is a slow, shallow stream. Numerous holes and washed-out banks provide ample habitat for anglers. Access is generally good, but there are a few areas where it may be necessary to portage around some logjams.
As for presentation, catfish here can be taken with traditional fare: night crawlers and cut bait on a slip-float or sinker rig.
The best stretch of river is from the Lake Charleston Dam to Fox Ridge State Park and from Fox Ridge to Port Jackson. Access is limited and can be somewhat of a challenge. But anglers who take the time to plan a run will probably have the stream to themselves.
For more information on the Embarras River, contact Fox Ridge State Park at (217) 345-6416 or Region 3 fisheries at (217) 784-4730. For travel and lodging information, contact the Charleston Area Chamber of Commerce at (217) 345-7041.
UPPER KASKASKIA RIVER
As far as rivers are concerned, the upper Kaskaskia between Shelbyville and Vandalia could challenge any stream in Illinois for the best overall catfishing.
According to biologist Thomas, during the Upper Kaskaskia River Basin Survey, 89 channel catfish were collected. “These fish averaged less than 2 pounds, with a maximum of almost 8 pounds,” Thomas said. “Catch rates ranged from two per hour in Champaign County to 13 per hour in Shelby County near Cowden.”
“When the water is up, catfishing is excellent,” said Violet Tripp of Kaskaskia River Bait & Campground. “The best baits to use are chicken livers, frozen shad guts or big minnows. Some guys even catch their own shad and use them.”
In addition to channel catfish, big flatheads prowl the Kaskaskia. Fish from 10 to 20 pounds are common.
Before making a trip, anglers should call (217) 774-2020 for a recorded message about the amount of water released from the Shelbyville Dam and subsequent river levels.
The best run here is from Shelbyville to the town of Cowden. Canoe and boat launching is available at Kaskaskia River Bait & Campground, (217) 774-4721. Travel and lodging information can be had from the Shelbyville Chamber of Commerce at (217) 774-2221.
BIG MUDDY RIVER
If you’re looking for a trophy catfish, you may want to consider the Big Muddy River that runs through the Shawnee National Forest in Jackson County.
“The Big Muddy River has an excellent population of channel catfish,” said DNR biologist Jana Hirst. “There are a number of flatheads, too, and access is good.”
Terry Graeff of Top of the Hill Bait in Murphysboro agreed.
“Every year, there are a number of 40- to 50-pound blue and flathead catfish that come out of the Muddy,” Graeff said. “Plenty of big channel catfish, too.”
On this slow, winding stream, target catfish around shoreline brush and tree debris that is washed up. Channel catfish can be caught on everything from minnows to stink bait. Blues are commonly taken on either live or cut shad, and flatheads prefer large live shad, small 7-inch carp or drum on a heavy slip-sinker rig.
“The Des Plains River upstream from its confluence with the Chicago Ship & Sanitary Canal is loaded with quality channel catfish.”
Boat launching is available at Riverside Park in Murphysboro, Turkey Bayou and Rattlesnake Ferry. Passage for most any river craft on the Big Muddy is generally unhampered. For additional information, call Top of the Hill Bait at (618) 684-2923, or contact the Shawnee National Forest at (618) 253-7114. For travel and lodging information, call the Murphysboro Chamber of Commerce at (618) 684-6421.
One would need to write a book to comment on all the catfish opportunities to be found in the small streams of the Prairie State. Here are a few more productive waterways.
“The Des Plains River upstream from its confluence with the Chicago Ship & Sanitary Canal is loaded with quality channel catfish,” biologist Bob Rung said. Catfish here run between 1 and 2 pounds. For more information, contact the Lake County Forest Preserve District at (847) 367-6640, or the Cook County Forest Preserve District at 1-800-870-3666.
The North Vermilion River from Streator to the Illinois River through La Salle County is another unsung gem. Tons of channel catfish up to 6 pounds and a few flatheads can be expected. Access can be had in Streator, Sandy Ford Nature Preserve and Matthiessen State Park, (815) 667-4868.
The Spoon River in Knox and Fulton counties twists through a mixture of forest and mea
dow, and has a considerable number of big channel and flathead catfish. Channels exceeding 10 pounds and flatheads surpassing 30 pounds draw adventurous souls each year. Access is difficult though. There is a launch in London Mills, but most float trips are limited to bridge accesses. For more information, contact Region 1 Fisheries at (815) 625-2968.
Biologist Randy Sauer said Shoal Creek in Clinton and Bond counties is very good for channels throughout much of its length. “Habitat is plentiful in the form of deep pools with undercut banks, rootwads and brushpiles,” he said. “The area around Pocahontas has yielded high numbers of fish in recent surveys. Channel cats are common from 1 to 3 pounds.”
Access is limited to back-road bridges, and landowner permission may be necessary to conduct a float. But get into this creek and you’ll catch many channel catfish. Numbers of big flatheads swim here, too. For more information, contact Region 4 Fisheries at (618) 462-1181.
The Little Wabash River through White and Gallatin counties, according to Jana Hirst, has an excellent population of channel and flathead catfish, a few big blues, too. Good access is available, and the river is generally navigable by motorboat. Launches are located below the dam in Carmi and in New Haven before the stream meets the Big Wabash. For more information, contact Region 5 Fisheries at (618) 435-8138.
If you’re interested in getting in on some of our state’s best catfishing and you enjoy floating rivers in a small boat or canoe, then be sure to visit a few of these destinations this summer. The catfishing is incredible, and it’s likely that you won’t have to share the water with many other anglers.
Before attempting to float your boat, check ahead for current river conditions and water levels, and do your homework. Consult an Illinois Atlas & Gazetteer by DeLorme Mapping before floating an unfamiliar stream. This book has improved maps of every road and bridge in our state, and is a vital tool for measuring distance and gauging the duration of your float. You can purchase one at most sporting good stores, or order online at www.delorme.com, or call (207) 846-7000. Another excellent publication no river enthusiast should be without is Paddling Illinois, by Mike Svob. The 2004 edition has information about each river in this article, including contact information, maps, river descriptions and camping areas. This can be purchased through Trail Media Group Inc. at 1-800-236-8088, or online at www.trailsbooks.com.