By Ted Peck
South of Interstate 80, you don’t see many five-gallon buckets with short ice-fishing rods sticking out of them, at least during most years. Sure there are some quiet waters that freeze over every year down around Bloomington, Springfield and even farther south. I even went ice-fishing on southern Illinois’ Crab Orchard Lake once, but it was an outing with great caution that yielded no fish.
Four-hundred-mile-long Illinois is on the cusp of ice-fishing states, with only the top couple tiers of counties assured of hardwater action in an average winter. Last winter was a cold one. There may be woolly mammoth sightings around Bloomington and maybe as far south as Carbondale before spring gets here. But for now we’ll tell you about the best ice-fishing in northern Illinois, where the Ice Man always cometh – and usually stayeth for a couple months.
On the heavily populated, pricey terrain found upstate, there are relatively few public ice-fishing opportunities between the Mississippi River to the west and Fox Chain-O-Lakes to the east. Here’s a look at our top public ice-fishing opportunities where you can experience the sweet symphony of fins slapping the ice.
There are still crowds on the weekend, even with extreme weather conditions. But the Fox Chain fish factory is still producing piscators on a 24/7 basis for a number of species.
Pistakee Lake, at the south end of the chain, even has a well-deserved reputation for giving up catfish through the ice, with red worms being the bait of choice. New technology found in equipment like the Aqua-Vu underwater viewing camera reveals that catfish are not necessarily the bottom-feeding critters we’ve come to know and love during open-water times. Catfish often suspend in the water column under the ice, creating a situation that may be unique to Illinois – tip-ups for catfish!
Bluff Lake also has a local reputation for giving up forktails, which provide exceptional eating this time of year. If you don’t have an underwater camera but have use of electronics, take some red worms along when fishing these two lakes this winter. Those middepth blips in the water column are catfish until proven otherwise.
Of course, most folks using tip-ups this time of year are targeting walleyes, pike and bass.
Lakes at the upper end of the chain – most notably Channel, Catherine and Marie – are the most consistent producers, with Petite Lake a real walleye “sleeper,” especially out on the weedflats. Marie has a pretty consistent walleye bite out from the southeast shoreline, with the cut between Channel and Catherine also giving up fish.
There is always current in the Chain-O-Lakes, and current is a major key in walleye location. Some areas where lakes neck down and pass under bridges seldom freeze or at least freeze with a guarantee of safety. This is where walleyes spend most of the winter. But use extreme caution, because areas with current often don’t have ice with uniform thickness. The ice can be a foot thick under foot and only an inch the next step away.
Bluegills and crappies can be found in weedy, shallow bays all over the chain, holding in water just a few feet deep all winter long. Last winter, pink and orange lures were hot, but chartreuse had its days. And gold is a good color to try just about anytime.
The Genz Coped and Genz Worm are two popular bluegill lures, with the old Rat Finkee still a bread-and-butter bait for the panfish here. The tie-eye on the Genz lures makes it easy to keep the little jig in the horizontal orientation that panfish seem to prefer. Even though the tie-eye on the Rat Finkee is in line for this presentation initially, every fish will pull the knot around so the bait hangs vertically. Moving the knot back so the lure can be presented horizontally and tipping it with a couple of lively spikes will greatly increase your catch rate.
Greg Dickson’s Triangle Bait Shop is the best ice-fishing source on the chain. The phone number is (847) 395-0813.
Ice can come and go here literally overnight, primarily driven by wind conditions. This is one situation where you don’t want to be the first one out on the ice in the morning. And when you do venture out, go with a buddy and be prepared to effect self-rescue.
Use the “Star Docks” to get out where the fish are, poking test holes every few yards until you can determine how thick the ice is. Keep in mind that ice will be thin right next to the docks, so take a good step to get out on the ice.
If the baitfish are in the harbors, brown trout, rainbow trout and the occasional coho salmon won’t be far behind. Spawn sacs or an alewife fished just off the bottom under a tip-up or tip-down are a good way to go after these fish. Try jigging a Crippled Herring or Swedish Pimple spoon tipped with a piece of belly meat while waiting for a flag.
Last year Lake Michigan anglers had several solid weeks of good fishing in these three harbors after several years where the action here was pretty much a non-event. A good pair of binoculars will help you determine whether it’s worth venturing out.
Probably the best winter fishery is Lake Milliken, located in the Des Plaines Conservation Area off of Interstate 55 at the Wilmington exit. Milliken is open to bank-fishing only during the open-water months. Ice provides an opportunity to cash in on a fish population that is not fully exploited. Bass, bluegills and crappies are in this shallow 24-acre pit lake. There is no panfish size or bag limit in place on these waters.
If you just want to have fun with the kids, check out Eliot Lake in Whea
ton where catch-and-release rules are in effect. Panfish here are plentiful and easy to catch. Pinch down the barbs on your hooks to ensure careful release.
Don’t forget Joe’s Pond off of Willow Springs Road south of the Little Red School House when chasing panfish.
By far the best ice-fishing in northeast Illinois is found on several small private lakes that are part of subdivision projects. Homeowner’s associations have differing rules regarding access. If you know somebody with such a lake in his or her backyard, a phone call is certainly worth the effort.
Contact: Cook County Forest Preserve office, (708) 771-1335.
Shabbona is a structure angler’s dream, with an ongoing introduction of brushpiles, rockpiles and similar habitat to augment everything from flooded timber to an old roadbed and the buildings of an entire farm that were left behind when this state lake was filled with water. A lot of the rock was dumped on the old roadbed, creating both spawning habitat and overwinter cover for a number of fish species. This is one place where an underwater camera is worth its weight in gold, and good electronics like the Vexilar FL-18 are as critical as the jig on the end of your pole.
A fishing trip on Shabbona begins with purchase of a greatly detailed topographical map available at the park concession stand and other outlets in the area. Once you become familiar with some of the fish-holding structures it’s almost like being on a treasure hunt knowing that a certain rockpile or other structural feature is so many steps out from landmarks on the shoreline.
In the winter, panfish are the biggest draw on this lake. Biologist Alec Pulley says Shabbona has “always been known for its good bluegill population.” A dominant year-class of ‘gills here is in the 9- to 10-inch class, with many other year-classes of hand-sized and bigger fish also swimming in the lake.
Shabbona also has a healthy crappie population, and plenty of bass – both largemouths and smallmouths – swimming in the lake. The underwater camera has proven to be a valuable tool for hooking up with smallies here and elsewhere, providing an opportunity to actually see how a smallmouth hits a jigging spoon or similar bait. Typically, the smallie whacks the lure hard, carrying it away sideways in its mouth. Setting the hook on the initial strike usually just separates the fish from your hook. If you wait until the smallmouth strikes, runs off, stops and then starts slowly moving away before setting the hook, your jig stick will get bent almost every time.
Catfish are also present and willing through the ice in this lake, with red worms being the best bait.
Walleyes are the most sought after fish in Shabbona, with Department of Natural Resources fisheries surveys indicting many fish over the long-standing 14-pound state record swimming in the system. Chances are that one of these big gals will never be caught. They have reached dreadnaught proportions by feeding exclusively at night when the lake is closed to fishing.
I know a bunch of anglers who would kick in $5 apiece to pay park personnel to remain on-site after sunset to keep the lake open to fishing. The smart money says if anglers were allowed just two weeks to fish until 9 p.m. in the winter months, the state walleye record set in 1961 would fall. This is a public lake. Can public input change access policies now in place? It certainly doesn’t hurt to try.
Contact: Big Jim’s Bait Shop, (815) 824-2415.
Among the first waters to freeze and last to thaw each ice-angling season are Miller’s Lake, the area out from the boat landing at Palisades State Park north of Savanna, Potter’s Marsh south of Thomson a few miles farther south on Pool 13 and the backwaters at Blanding’s Landing a few miles north of Miller’s at Hanover. They usually get solid along about Christmas, offering those venturing out on first ice a nice bucket full of bluegills and sometimes slab crappies. By New Years Day, a crowd usually foregathers or serous brutal weather arrives and pushes fish to other locations.
Fishing success here is often a study in extremes. Either the fish are practically leaping through the ice or the bite is several notches beyond slow. Forty years of fishing here has taught that there seems to be an underlying theme just about every winter. The first week or so after ice-up, the fishing is hot. Then we usually get brutal weather and the bite shuts down until about the end of January. At this point a thaw often kicks in and the fishing is phenomenal – until the river comes up too fast, clouding the water and slowing the bite.
From the end of January until mid- to late March and ice-out, the river is pretty much in a state of flux. Some backwaters are good when levels are coming up. A few closer to the main channel are good when the river is falling. And a few more are at their best when river stage is pretty much stable. “River rats” have an uncanny knack of figuring when and where the bite is going to be. The word gets out in a couple days. If you’re in the vanguard, you’ll catch fish.
For the most part, ice-fishing on the river is a real low-tech bite with the most basic equipment. For crappies, most locals use a No. 2 Rembrandt willowspoon pegged about 2 feet under a small cork. Orange, candy corn, black, purple and chartreuse are most effective colors, with color choice being driven primarily by water clarity. Candy-stripe spoons with a little strip of plastic are gaining popularity here, with the orange or pink strip and corresponding plastic – or maybe black plastic – the best papermouth weapons.
Bluegills are usually found in such numbers that they are a nuisance – lots of dinks, with maybe one out of five worth greasing the skillet. Drop a Rat Finkee, Marmooska or Moon Glow jig tipped with a waxie down the hole and you’ll be with the program in short order.
You’ll need a little more line on your winder when fishing the Deep Hole at Spring Lake on Pool 13, the Perch Hole below the dam at the top of Pool 14 and out from the snow-making machine at the bottom of Chestnut Mountain on Pool 12 – with a fish locator a definite boon in the deeper water.
In a nutshell, catching fish on the Mississippi River is a matter of being in the right place at the right time. Phoning ahead is a good idea if you’re coming from any distance, unless you’re running from the in-laws.
Contacts: Tri-Lakes Sporting Goods, (815) 369-5520; Big River Bait and Taxidermy, (815) 244-3155; Garvin Standard, (815) 273-3000.
These waters are generally deep and exceptionally clear, making a finesse presentation often critical to success. An exception is Monster Lake, which offers the most diverse fishing in this FWA complex.
Larger lakes like Eagle, Ponderosa and Monster are a moonscape of holes drilled by folks who fished here before you arrived. Some of the smaller waters in the middle of the project get much less pressure, although access can be a challenge. Smaller lakes in the south unit of this project also offer generally better action due to structure that was introduced when these waters were managed by private sportsmen’s clubs.
Contact: Site Superintendent, Mazonia FWA at (815) 237-0063.
Lake Le-Aqua-Na holds some nice pike. At only 43 acres you’ll never be far from a “toother” if you use a smelt-baited tip-up in this Stephenson County lake. Contact Tri-Lakes Sporting Goods, (815) 369-5520, for more information.
Most folks target Mississippi River backwaters on Pool 14 rather than trying 77-acre Lake Carlton in Whiteside County. According to the DNR, state-record saugeyes are swimming here, making it worth checking with both tip-ups and jig rods. Evergreen Lake north of Bloomington also has saugeyes in excess of the record, but safe ice can be questionable in this downstate county park lake.
Other state lakes that are worth a look if we have an “old fashioned” winter are the Snake Den Hollow complex in Knox County, Lake George in the Quad Cities and Lake Sule, another borrow-pit lake near the intersection of I-80 and I-39.
Northern Illinois also has dozens of farm ponds on private lands and several major private lakes that limit access to property owners and their guests. These are worth checking into as well.
If this winter is anything like the winter of 2002, there will be ice-fishing opportunities much farther downstate. Just remember, 2 inches of clear ice is considered safe for one person on foot. Cloudy ice is about half as strong as the clear stuff.
Regardless of where you fish in Illinois, always wear a personal flotation device, or have a throwable PFD available. Also wrap 50 feet of 1/4-inch nylon rope around your bucket, just below the handle. You might just save a life.
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