By Ted Peck
With just a handful of public waters open to ice-anglers in Illinois, a serious bucketsitter can experience virtually every winter fishery in our state between now and ice-out sometime in March.
The Prairie State is on the cusp of hardwater angling, with only the top couple tiers of counties assured the opportunity to walk on water in its frozen state each winter – at least for an extended period of time.
With most of Illinois’ population also centered in the northern tiers of counties, real estate is at a premium, thus stifling public access to fishing even more. Over the past 30 years, suburban sprawl and greater disposable income have led to countless housing developments surrounded by small private lakes, and probably a dozen private lake developments in Illinois’ traditional ice-fishing zone that attract great numbers of serious anglers each winter.
From Rockford to both the Wisconsin and Indiana borders are a number of properties that are reclaimed quarries and similar waterbodies that have been purchased and maintained by fishing clubs that can offer exceptional winter angling – for a price. Because of the nature of these properties, trout are often part of the finned biomass. Because trout have an affinity for colder water temperatures, winter offers a great time to fish for salmonids, with more traditional Illinois species like bluegills, crappies, bass and walleyes part of the mix.
Last winter I had a chance to fish several of these fishing club waters near Aurora, Plano and Belvidere with almost too much success. Fifteen years ago I also bit the bullet and purchased property on one of those private recreational lake developments, where winter fishing is also often too easy, and open-water fishing is beyond belief.
Those living and fishing in northern Illinois have come to realize that hooking up on the hardwater here is going cost you – either by purchasing private fishing rights or investing in today’s ice-fishing technology, including electronics, power drills and portable shanties.
An ice-fishing tournament called the Trap Attack that has visited the Fox Chain-O-Lakes the past couple of winters has proven Illinois anglers can hold their own with winter sticks from all over the cool, blue north – provided they have the gear, of course. For about $1,000 you can have all the trappings of an ice-fishing professional, including a Fish Trap portable shanty. Or you can spend essentially the same money and fill a bucket on private waters with little more than a drill and a jigging stick.
Those who have ice-fishing fever real bad have both the gear and membership that provides access to private waters. If forced to make the choice, go for the gear. Illinois has one of the most advanced hatchery systems in the U.S., dumping tons of fish into public waters each year.
Here’s a look at where you can score consistently this winter on a hard and level playing field.
Illinois’ top three Mississippi River pools – 12, 13 and 14 – all have backwater areas that offer outstanding angling opportunities during the first-ice period and from the end of January to ice-out for crappies, bluegills and the occasional bass.
This is one place where you can find consistent success with minimum investment. Since the lion’s share of hardwater angling opportunities on Mississippi River backwaters is over water less than 10 feet deep, sophisticated electronics aren’t necessarily part of a successful day on the ice. You won’t need a shanty, either, since most backwaters are surrounded and sheltered by trees to break the wind.
Galena is the epicenter of winter fishing activity on Pool 12. Head due west of town several miles on West Street and you’ll get to the river. Sunfish Lake is to your left, Fish Trap Lake is straight ahead and Kehough Slough – also known as The Springs – is a hike up the railroad tracks to the north. All are outstanding when river levels are stable or on a slight rise.
Downstream a few miles is the popular Chestnut Mountain ski resort. Water from the resort’s snowmaking machine is hyper-aerated here, attracting fish all winter long. This spot and Spring Lake on Pool 13 to the south are two places where a small spinning reel taped to the rod is better than a jigging stick because the water is just a little deeper. A No. 3 Jigging Rapala in orange/gold is a good choice when fishing both of these areas.
Elsewhere on the river, $10 worth of tackle in the form of a couple of Moon Glows, Rat Finkees, Marmooska Jigs, No. 2 Rembrandt Willow Spoons and maybe a L’il Mick is all you need to catch fish all winter long.
Between Spring Lake and Chestnut Mountain are backwater angling opportunities out from Blanding’s Landing west of Hanover on Pool 12 and out from Palisades State Park on Pool 13 at Miller’s and Hickory lakes and several other backwaters.
South of Spring Lake, crappies are a major draw at Mickelson’s Landing south of Thompson. The perch hole is a little farther down Route 84 just below the dam at Fulton that separates Pool 13 from Pool 14.
Timing is everything when fishing the Mississippi. Call ahead to the contacts listed below, or log on to www.in-depthangling.com for a comprehensive, real-time report on fishing action on the Mississippi.
Contacts: Tri-Lakes Sporting Goods, (815) 369-5520; Big River Bait and Taxidermy, (815) 244-3155.
Consistent success on this 319-acre De Kalb County lake relies heavily on technology. Shabbona is a study in structure fishing, with cribs, rockpiles, timber, an old roadbed and even an entire set of underwater farm buildings all holding fish.
Almost all of the fish swimming in Shabbona relate to these structural features all winter long. Outstanding topographic maps are available at several locations. Combine the maps with a portable GPS, an underwater camera and a Vexilar FL-18 flasher unit and you’re miles ahead of finding places like the rockpile 131 paces out from the flag pole.
Panfish are the major winter draw here, according to the Department of Natural Resources, with a year-class of giant bluegills the main feature this winter. Shabbona also contains good populations of crappies, smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, walleyes in excess of our state record and catfish that cruise the middepths ar
ound the old farm buildings. The catfish love redworms. The underwater camera has provided a real epiphany regarding catfish behavior under the ice. Forget about that “bottom feeder” stuff. Catfish, at least in Shabbona, spend a great deal of time suspended at middepths.
On an acre-per-acre basis, Shabbona Lake is by far the best public fishery in northern Illinois, and one of the best in the state. Success means using light line, a subtle presentation and holes augered at precisely the exact spot to place your offering in the midst of the structural jungle beneath the ice.
Contacts: Big Jim’s Bait Shop (815) 824-2415; www.shabbonalake.com.
These natural lakes in far northeastern Illinois continue to produce outstanding ice-fishing action for multiple species in spite of profound fishing pressure.
The Fox Chain is another place where your chances are good for icing a catfish or two, especially on Bluff and Pistakee lakes at the lower end of this diverse fishery.
Anglers flock to weedy, shallow bays looking for panfish all winter long. The big draw is bluegills, simply because there are so many of them. But with a little frogging around, you can often find respectable crappies and the occasional perch cruising in the same weedbed.
A child’s toy rake with a span less than the width of your ice hole can be a handy tool for hooking up here. Poke your holes and then use the rake to clear vegetation away from directly under the hole. It will take a few minutes for the water to clear, but the commotion invariably draws fish.
Once you get down to fishing, stealth is a major consideration. Savvy anglers try to avoid using a portable shanty unless there is good snowcover on the ice. With limited snow conditions and catching fish over shallow, clear water, catching larger panfish usually means standing back away from the hole with a longer jigging stick. HT Enterprises makes a super four-foot panfish pole with a built-in reel and ultra-sensitive coiled spring bobber built in. Adding a two-foot leader of not more than 1-pound-test line – and frequently checking the knot to ensure a natural horizontal presentation of the lure and employing some of the new soft plastic tails instead of traditional wax worms or spikes – will enhance your chances for icing a mess of fish.
If I could choose just one lure for panfishing on the Fox Chain it would be the smallest Genz Fat Boy available in blue/glow colors tipped with one of those new bloodworm-colored Lindy Techni-Glo Tails. With this bait and the rod described above you might as well just get out the Fry Daddy and cornmeal before even heading to the lake.
Marie, Channel and Catherine lakes at the upper end of the Fox Chain offer the most consistent winter fishing, with Petite Lake the biggest sleeper of the whole shebang. These four lakes provide the most consistent walleye fishing opportunities of any hardwater in our state. Connecting channels, neck-down points and bridges are walleye magnets. But be careful because current areas found near these funnels can also mean hazardous ice.
Your best bet for walleyes is targeting the cut between Channel and Catherine lakes using tip-ups baited with fatheads or rosy reds. Another good spot is along the distinct weed edge of Marie along the southeast shoreline and the weedflat out on Petite. This weedflat has a distinct point on the main-lake side. You may see an old green Fish Trap tent there and hear laughter. Maybe a yellow Lab barking. Just stay away. The guy in the tent is nuts, especially from dusk until about 9 p.m.
Contacts: Chain O Lakes State Park office, (815) 675-2385; Triangle Bait Shop, (847) 395-0813.
& WILDLIFE AREA
These 20-odd primarily reclaimed strip-pit lakes in Grundy and Kankakee counties are the closest thing the public has to private fishing club waters in northeastern Illinois. In fact, lakes in the southern unit of this property were once managed as private sportsmen’s clubs.
The lakes range in size from 150 acres down to less than one-half acre in size. Because of their strip-pit genesis, almost all of these lakes are deep, steep and crystal clear.
An exception is Monster Lake, joining Eagle and Ponderosa lakes as the largest and most popular in this FWA. Monster also has the most diverse fishery, with the major attractions being crappies and whopping lagemouth bass. This is the only lake in Mazonia where fluorescent and glow colors have an edge in water somewhat stained because of two tributaries. Access varies from walking a few steps to a considerable hike, with smaller lakes in the middle of the Mazonia project both tougher to get to and seeing much less angling pressure than lakes with easier access.
Thirty-four acre Eagle Lake has developed a reputation for yielding giant redear sunfish to patient anglers. The best medicine for redears is the natural presentation of a single redworm impaled on a small hook about one foot under a tiny split shot, then left untouched until the bobber sinks a slow 1/4-inch below the surface.
The generally smaller lakes in the south unit hold the most potential. Since these waters were in private hands prior to state acquisition, there is a wealth of hidden fish-holding structure in some waters – with even a chance to tie into one of the relic trout in at least two of the lakes.
Since these lakes are deep and clear, they freeze later than other northern Illinois waters. Calling ahead for ice conditions is a good idea.
Mazonia FWA is located near the Braidwood power plant, just off of Interstate 55, with the access on County Line Road.
Contact: Mazonia FWA site superintendent, (815) 237-0063.
Two Illinois waters – Lake Carlton near Morrison in Whiteside County and Evergreen Lake just north of Bloomington – have yielded saugeyes in excess of the Illinois state record, according to DNR fisheries survey data.
The 1,000-acre Evergreen, located in a county park complex, is a phenomenal crappie lake with plenty of muskies in addition to a serious shot at catching a whopper saugeye. The downside of Evergreen is its almost central Illinois location. This water may not freeze enough to permit access, at least not for long. If we get a good, hard freeze, Evergreen is definitely worth a look.
At just 77 acres, Lake Carlton in Morrison-Rockwood State Park may be a better bet. Set tip-ups baited with fatheads along the dam. Probing some of the permanent access piers on the lake’s west side may also produce. Carlton also has a burgeoning crappie population, but the fish tend to run on the small side.
Pierce Lake, in the shadow of metro Rockford, sees plenty of winter activity on its 160 acres, with most ice-fishing action on the small n
eck of lake between the concession stand and dam. DNR fisheries surveys crank out a number of 6- to 8-pound walleyes every year, but Pierce is known more for producing eating-sized crappies rather than ‘eyes.
Lake Le-Aqua-Na north of Lena in Stephenson County receives frequent stocking of a number of fish species, including bass and walleyes. At just 43 acres, it’s an easy place to target in just a couple of hours. By midwinter, fish tend to congregate around an aerator found near the dam. Use caution when fishing anywhere close to this device.
Snake Den Hollow in Knox County is a matrix of small, deep lakes that are definitely worth a look if we are in the midst of a good freeze.
Lake Sule, a small borrow-pit lake south of Rockford off of I-39, has multiple year-classes of crappies as a major draw. They can’t hide from good electronics on this essentially faceless basin lake, but getting them to bite is another matter.
If you can get out on safe ice near the star docks, Burnham, Belmont and Montrose harbors all offer the potential of a real tug from brown trout, coho and the occasional rainbow trout in addition to perch and smallmouth bass. A west wind is best. Conditions can deteriorate rapidly here with winds from other directions coming across Lake Michigan, quickly eroding safe ice.
Busse, Tampier, Loon and Milliken lakes see an influx of ice-anglers each year, as does six-acre Eliot Lake in Wheaton.
After the exceptionally cool summer experienced in northern Illinois, we may be looking at a long, cold winter. If this is the case, downstate lakes offer the potential for ice-fishing over fish that haven’t seen this kind of presentation.
With an extended cold snap, I know there will be crappies on the brush off of Lake Shelbyville’s 9th Street boat ramp. If it gets really cold, there is a great brushpile on the north side of Highway 13 in Cambria Neck of Crab Orchard Lake that holds crappies all winter long.
Don’t count on hardwater action south of Interstate 80. North of this point, we’ll be looking at a chance to hear fins slapping on the ice for at least a good month, maybe two. Don’t forget to wear your PFD, carry a rescue rope and fish with a buddy. Ice-fishing certainly beats sitting at home, but you want to return home safely when you get done fishing.
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