Children are perfect judges of what is fun and what isn’t fun. So it wasn’t unexpected when in the mid-1980s, schoolchildren across Illinois elected the bluegill as our state fish.
Today, the Prairie State is the pinnacle of fun for bluegill enthusiasts. Exemplary management practices and programs have not only transformed Illinois into a panfisher’s paradise, but the state remains loyal to its elected fish. To ensure quality fishing for generations to come, the Illinois Natural History Survey has an ongoing research project for management and improvement of the bluegill population. Since its inception, it has instituted a number of innovations to help create the ideal fishery.
“In 1996, we started collecting samples from 32 lakes for the purpose of long-term manipulation management,” said program director Matt Diana. “Many of the initial waters were lakes that had stunted populations, others were lakes that already had an established population of sizeable fish.”
Currently, the prospectus is primarily focused on superintendence.
“The program is set up with different strategies for management,” Diana said. “One strategy was to establish an 8-inch size limit on 16 lakes in the survey to protect established quality populations of fish. Another was to stock largemouth bass in lakes with small fish, and a third conducted in some waters with an overabundance of small fish was to eliminate the population altogether and reintroduce a controlled population of bluegills.”
Along with current management research, the survey is also looking into types of biological manipulation to increase the size of bluegills.
“Research suggests that when bluegills reach sexual maturity, they tend to peak their growth,” Diana said. “After this, they expend energy in reproduction and tend not to grow, or even regress in size. We’ve found that on a number of lakes with an 8-inch size limit, bluegills were reaching sexual maturity around 7 inches. We’ve been looking into ways to prolong sexual maturity to give them a chance to grow larger.”
All things considered, it can be agreed that Illinois really takes its bluegill fishing seriously. The survey is set to conclude in 2007, and it’s exciting to think what bluegill fishing will be in the near future. If you’re among the thousands of Prairie State anglers who enjoy catching the mighty cane-pole marauder, take note of the following waters. Regardless of where you reside, you can find incredible bluegill fishing in any direction, and chances are good you live within a short cast of one of the best places for you to act like a kid again.
Just minutes from downtown Chicago, Cook County’s Busse Lake in Ned Brown Forest Preserve boasts a bluegill citizenry worthy of recognition.
“Busse Lake has some 8-inch fish,” said Department of Natural Resources biologist Frank Jakubicek, “and it has gazillions of fish from 7 inches to about 7 3/4 inches. Anglers catch a lot of these in-between legals.”
With many ‘gills approaching the minimum-size limit, Busse is a great place to play with some fish, and you can take home 10 fish per day over the size limit. Three retention pools combine for 590 acres of stained water. Shorelines are strewn with good cover. Bluegills can be caught on everything from worms to fly tackle. Boat launching, picnic sites and excellent facilities are on site. For more information, call (847) 437-8330.
Clear, weedy and deep, Ponderosa Lake in Kankakee County is a spectacle to see, and it has one of the best populations of big bluegills and redear sunfish in all of Illinois.
“Ponderosa has a good population of big bluegills, and fish up to 8 inches are common,” said biologist Rob Miller. “But with fishing pressure, this is a fragile fishery.”
Because of its proximity to Chicago, Ponderosa is not a well-guarded secret, but most anglers have no trouble finding their 10-fish limit.
As a strip-mine lake, look for most fish to be in the backs of the long, narrow fingers on the south end. Look for spawning fish building their circular nests atop gravel spoil heaps and in the backs of coves.
The best bait here is an unweighted half night crawler fished on a small hook. Four-pound-test line and an ultralight rod are necessary to make long casts to wary fish.
Ponderosa Lake is 150 acres and located in Mazonia/Braidwood SFWA. ‘Gill for ‘gill, this is one of the best in our state. A gravel ramp is on site, and there’s good parking. For more info, call (815) 237-0063.
De Kalb County’s Shabbona Lake supports a big bluegill population. Most fish here are between 6 and 8 inches, but larger fish are present.
Areas of particular interest are the weedy east, north and southwestern bays. Bobber rigs fished shallow with worms will find enough fish to make anyone happy, but the sheer numbers here also make this a popper angler’s dream come true.
Boat launching, excellent shoreline access, picnicking, concessions, a restaurant and superb camping facilities are available. For more information, call (815) 824-2106.
FULTON CAMPING & RECREATION AREA
Just west of the Illinois River near the town of St. David lies the little-known reclaimed strip-mine lakes, and according to biologist Rob Hilsabeck, this is a bluegill angler’s heaven.
“The site consists of 150 acres of water and has four main lakes and some smaller ponds,” Hilsabeck said. “Lake No. 3 and Lake No. 3.5 have quality bluegill and redear sunfish populations, and each year we sample many fish over 1 pound.”
Water tends to be clear, and during summer, look for bluegills and redears to be doing the propagation thing in the shallows. Worms on jigs or below a float will catch plenty of fish around shoreline cover. There is a 25-fish limit for the aggregate of bluegills and redear sunfish.
The site has gravel boat ramps on each lake. Only electric motors are allowed, and there is a $5 fee. For more information, call the park office at (309) 668-2931.
Bluegill enthusiasts in central Illinois will want to check out Tazewell County’s Powerton Lake near Pekin. This angular cooling lake has come into its own as a big-bluegill factory.
“Powerton has a great population of bluegills in the 7- to 8-inch class,” said DNR fisheries biologist Wayne Herndon. “Anglers fishing off the riprap usually have no trouble finding half a bucket of fish.”
With excellent access, most bluegills are taken by bank-anglers using slip-bobbers and chunks of night crawlers, redworms or wax worms. Power-plant operation influences fish location. When the plant is operating at full capacity, ‘gills tend to hug the rocks. When the plant decreases operation, the fish tend to suspend offshore. Windy shorelines will also attract numbers of hungry slabs.
Boat ramps, superb shore access and good facilities exist on 1,426-acre Powerton Lake. For more information, call (309) 968-7135.
LINCOLN TRAIL LAKE
Located in Clark County, Lincoln Trail Lake — 146 acres of clear but weedy water — is an excellent place to find a mess of bluegills in a day.
“Lincoln Trail has a good population of large bluegills and huge redear sunfish,” said biologist Mike Mounce. “Because of the abundant aquatic plants in the lake, the water can be very clear, and this will often require fishermen to fish deeper and with lighter line than they may be accustomed to using.”
Look for most action to come from weed edges and around wood cover, such as fallen trees and stumps. The back ends of the two main-lake fingers are good places to begin. In summer, keep your eyes open for spawning panfish in the shallows. Redworms, crawler pieces or wax worms fished below a float will find plenty of fish.
According to Mounce, there are currently no harvest limits, but as with all other species, moderation in the harvest of larger fish is recommended.
Lincoln Trail State Park is two miles south of Marshall. Boat launching, excellent bank access, a lakeside restaurant and a bait shop are on site. Outboards are restricted to 10 horsepower. For more information, call (217) 826-2222.
WALNUT POINT LAKE
Biologist Mounce said another gem is Walnut Point Lake about 10 miles east of Arcola in Douglas County.
“Walnut Point Lake has responded very well to the experimental 8-inch minimum-length limit,” he said. “There are good numbers of 8-inch bluegills; however, it appears that the bluegills are starting to crowd at the 7 1/2- to 7 3/4-inch size.”
With numbers of fish accumulating on the cusp of the size limit, this will be a fishery to watch. Target these shallow bluegills with a long cane pole and a redworm or half a crawler on a 1/16-ounce jig, or try casting the rig to them with a small plastic spring bobber.
Boat launching, picnicking, camping and excellent bank access are on the premises. Harvest is limited to 10 fish per day. For more information, contact Walnut Lake SFWA at (217) 346-3336.
JIM EDGAR PANTHER CREEK SFWA
Biologist Dan Stephenson names the score of lakes and ponds in this prairie landscape park as an excellent area to find some nice bluegills and redears.
“At Gridley Lake we picked up quite a few redears over 8 inches, and the average fish was around 9 inches,” he said. “We found a lot of nice bluegills up to about 7 inches there as well.
“Drake Lake is the newest lake, and is starting out ‘textbook,’ with bluegills and redears nearly 8 inches,” Stephenson continued. “In 2000-2002, I rehabilitated 10 small ponds on site, and those should have some good panfish populations by now.”
Gridley Lake and Drake Lake are restricted to trolling motors only. The largest lake — Prairie at 210 acres — allows outboard motors, however, there’s a no-wake restriction. But Stephenson commented that the best bluegill fishing comes from smaller water anyway. Ponds are reserved for bank-fishing only.
Jim Edgar Panther Creek is located in Cass County just south of Chandlerville. Excellent facilities including picnic and camping are available. For more information, call (217) 452-7741.
BEAVER DAM LAKE
Anglers looking for numbers of 6- to 8-inch bluegills will want to take note of Beaver Dam Lake in Macoupin County about six miles southwest of Carlinville.
Biologist Jeffery Pontnack said this lake is among the best in the region for keeper-sized fish, and that there are a number of bluegills surpassing the 8-inch mark as well. Traditional fare, such as worms and small jigs, catch fish from the lake’s weedy shorelines and riprap levees. Finding a limit of respectable fish here isn’t difficult.
Excellent facilities, including camping and picnicking, are available. There is a boat launch and good shore access. There is limit of 25 fish-per day on all bluegills and redears. For more information, call (217) 854-8020.
FERNE CLYFFE LAKE
Located south of Goreville in Johnson County, Ferne Clyffe Lake isn’t a big lake, but biologist Chris Bickers said this 16-acre beauty has some really nice fish.
“Powerton has a great population of bluegills in the 7- to 8-inch class,” said DNR fisheries biologist Wayne Herndon. “Anglers fishing off the riprap usually have no trouble finding half a bucket of fish like this.”
“Our spring surveys have found bluegills and redears in the 7- to 10-inch range in recent years, and we seem to collect most of these large fish when they are spawning near shore in May,” Bickers said.
In early summer, try sight-fishing along the banks. The lake is very clear, and most anglers walk along until they see telltale circular depressions of spawning bluegills on the bottom of the lake. Most fish are caught on worms fished on small hooks or jigs suspended below a float. Large spawning redears are often aggressive and will hit tiny tube jigs tossed atop their beds.
Ferne Clyffe State Park is a breathtaking cornucopia of woodland beauty. Excellent facilities including picnicking and camping are available. For more information, call (618) 995-2411.
DEVILS KITCHEN LAKE
Deep and crystal clear, 810-acre Devils Kitchen Lake in Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge is a good bet for bluegill fans interested in getting in on a population of giant fish.
Biologist Bickers said the lake consistently produces numbers of bluegills in the 7- to 9-inch class, and some really big redears, too. But the chase is a bit different.
In May, bluegills are found shallow against the banks and in emergent weeds spawning where they can be taken with worms on hooks or jigs. A little stealth is required to tempt fish that can see you from a distance. Ultralight tackle, light line and just a plain hook or tiny jig without a float can cause havoc on the ‘gills whe
n cast from a distance.
Later in the summer, big bluegills tend to go deep where they can be caught with jigs and pieces of worms or wax worms fished over the side of the boat. Fifteen to 20 feet is a good depth to target along weedlines or through timber areas to find suspended fish.
Devils Kitchen is about 10 miles south of Carbondale in Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge. There is a $2 user fee. Boat launching is available at Devils Kitchen Campground. For more information, call (618) 457-5004.
Anglers interested in getting in on a sleeper population of bluegills will want to consider little A-41 Lake in Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge. This small 52-acre dandy in Williamson County is a seasonal fishery from March 15 to Sept. 29, but according to biologist Bickers, it, too, has a considerable population of big bluegills.
“Adult bluegills in the 7- to 9-inch range are common in A-41,” Bickers said. “The lake, however, is accessible by walk-in only.”
Thus for anglers who take the appropriations to hike in and carry their gear, excellent fishing awaits. The best fishing occurs around the shorelines where the biggest bluegills spawn. Bobber rigs with worms or wax worms fished on a small hook or ice-fishing jig are effective.
A-41 is located just west of Devils Kitchen Lake. It’s shore-access only — no boats or flotation devices are allowed. A $2 user fee is required. For more information, call (618) 997-3344.
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In Illinois, there are hundreds of potential waters where anglers can expect to be kept busy while battling big bluegills and redear sunfish this season. With research and current management, we should have outstanding fishing for years to come.