Photo by Pete Maina
Once dubbed the fish of 10,000 casts, the elusive muskie was once reserved for tales of the northwoods and the Canadian Shield lakes. But over the last 20 years, Illinois has come into its own as a muskie fishing destination.
Today, toothy Esox enthusiasts are heading to our waters not only to do battle with a bunch of fish, but also to find that once-in-a-lifetime muskie of trophy proportions. If you think it takes 10,000 casts to catch a muskie, then think again. Give some of the following waters a try and you’ll agree that the elusive muskie of past lore is not so difficult to find in the Prairie State.
Perhaps the best muskie fishing in Illinois comes from our most popular lake. Lake and McHenry counties’ Fox Chain-O-Lakes is not more than a 50-mile drive from Chicago’s Loop, and with 7,500 acres of interconnected lakes, it’s not uncommon to have in excess of 50,000 people visit the lake in an average weekend. Regardless of the consensus of visitors, the muskie fishery has thrived in recent years. Dave Kanz of Dave’s Bait, Tackle and Taxidermy said The Chain is littered with muskies.
“I fish bass tournaments and don’t seriously fish for muskies,” said Kanz, “But since 1995 I have caught 58 muskies specifically during bass tournaments.”
Kanz only fishes four to six contests a year, so when you do the math, that translates to an incredible catch rate for someone not targeting muskies.
“These fish have ranged in size from 36 to 45 inches, and some days I’ve caught two or three fish in one outing. We’ll go out fishing and see muskies jumping and surfacing all over the place. It’s obvious that there are lots of muskies in The Chain.”
A 2003 sampling indicated population indices were at their highest since the inception of muskies in 1982. Two fish over 48 inches were collected, with the largest specimen topping 49.5 inches. The Chain will definitely be a contender for the next state record.
Kanz said lures ranging from buzzbaits and spinnerbaits to topwaters and crankbaits contribute to his serendipitous muskie record, but guys who specifically target muskies prefer to throw anything from bucktails to Suicks to large crankbaits. Shallow water with a murky tint dictates the use of a bright lure color to appeal to sight-disadvantaged fish.
Target areas such as deep channels that connect the various lakes, breaklines or even try running shallow lures over the extensive shallow flat areas signature of The Chain. Although Kanz said muskies are available throughout The Chain, some of the better waters include Bluff Lake, Spring Lake, Nippersink Lake and Pistakee Lake around Pistakee Bay.
Chain-O-Lakes State Park in Spring Grove offers a free public launch, bank-fishing, boat rental, picnicking facilities and camping. For more information, call Chain-O-Lakes State Park at (847) 587-5512. Traveling anglers should contact the Antioch Chamber of Commerce at (847) 395-2233.
Just north of Normal on the border between McLean and Woodford counties lies Evergreen Lake. Managed by the city of Bloomington, Evergreen has been marked as a lake with the potential to produce the next state-record muskie.
“Evergreen is a great place to catch a few fish in a day,” said guide Duane Landmeier of Mainly Muskie Fishing, (815) 286-7170. “In a day’s effort, it’s possible to catch three or more fish.”
In 2003, 95 muskies were captured during the spring survey. Of that total, 18 percent were over 30 inches, and 3 percent were over 42 inches. Numerous fish over 40 inches are present, and the lake has a number of specimens approaching 50 inches.
Landmeier suggested focusing your efforts on topographical excursions such as timbered points that protrude from coves, breaklines, gently sloping flats and comparable structures. He also noted that trolling Jake Baits and similar crankbaits can isolate potential hotspots and eliminate unproductive water quickly.
Evergreen Lake has excellent parking and launching facilities. Camping is available, as are restroom and picnic facilities. There is a user-fee for boating anglers. For more information, contact Comlara Park Visitior’s Center, (309) 726-2022. Traveling anglers should contact the McLean County Chamber of Commerce at (309) 829-6344.
Once dubbed the Muskie Capitol of Illinois for its history of producing blue-ribbon muskies, Shabbona Lake in De Kalb County has lost some of its spotlight to other fisheries that have caught up in the muskie race. But this aside, it still is one of the best places in our state to lock into a toothy critter, perhaps even produce its fifth state record. Landmeier said Shabbona still has some really good fishing.
“On a good day it’s not hard to find a fish or two,” he said. “For the larger fish, try trolling big shad imitators in the submerged creek channel from the no-motor area to the flooded trees.”
In this area, there are a few snags and enough structure to attract fish. In the rest of the lake, look for muskies to be relating to inundated timber and deep weedlines. The breakline extending along the shallow flat of the north shore area by the campground is especially productive in the late summer because it provides a sharp contrast between deep sanctuary and the food-rich shallows. The depths around the levee are another consideration, especially for anglers who like to troll. The numerous sunken brushpiles and cribs around the earthen piers and deep shorelines are other options.
Shabbona muskies will react to a number of offerings, including bucktails, glide baits such as Suicks and even topwaters. Landmeier said most Shabbona muskies fall somewhere within 32 to 40 inches, but many fish over 40 inches call this lake home.
For more information, contact Shabbona Lake State Park at (815) 824-2106. Traveling anglers should contact the De Kalb Area Chamber of Commerce at (815) 756-6306.
Located in Rock County about 20 miles west of Rock Island, 167-acre Lake George is a small impoundment, but for what it lacks in size it more than makes up for in muskie fishing potential.
“The locals don’t talk much about the muskie fishing here,” said Landmeier, “and as a result, Lake George tends to be somewhat of a sleeper for muskies.”
A superb shad population here has attributed to a population of fat fish, and as a result as year-classes come into maturity, Landmeier fingers this as an area that will soon have the potential to give up fish pushing 50 inches.
“Most muskies average in the mid-30-inch range, but fish in the 20-pound class are not unheard of,” said park superintendent Mike Murrin. “We had one 47-incher caught last year.”
According to the 2003 Status of Muskie Fishing in Illinois, several muskies were collected pushing the present state record.
As for presentation, Murrin said that most of the fish seem to come from big shad-imitating crankbaits.
Landmeier suggests anglers target the weedlines that encompass the shorelines. Watch for disparities in shoreline contour, inside and outside bends, and abrupt drops in depth. Lake George is 62 feet at its terminal depth, and muskies have a tendency to relate well to the deep/shallow threshold.
A boat launch is available. Camping with electricity and excellent picnic facilities are available, as well as concession and boat rental. For more information, contact Loud Thunder Forest Preserve at (309) 795-1040. Traveling anglers should call (309) 757-5416.
Back in the late 1980s and early ’90s, Carlton Lake in Morrison-Rockwood State Park was the talk of northern Illinois muskie anglers. Today, it is still spoken about in wide circles, and for good reason.
At 77 acres in size, little Carlton is not much more than a pond, but because of its size, it supports the highest density of muskies of any lake in Illinois. Muskies here range in size from small 30-inchers up to 45-inch behemoths. Carlton produced a 50-incher recently, and has a number of near-50-inch fish prowling its waters, according to the DNR. Breaklines from deep to shallow around the contour of the lake a good place to look for fish, as are weedlines, points and the deep riprapped face of the spillway.
As for presentation, bucktails, big spinnerbaits, glide baits and shad-imitating crankbaits will all find fish at Carlton.
Morrison Rockwood State Park has excellent launching, picnicking and camping facilities, and an on-premise concession and bait shop. For more information, call the park office at (815) 772-4708. Traveling anglers should call the Rock Falls Chamber of Commerce at (815) 625-4500.
Over the past decade, 11,000-acre Lake Shelbyville has transformed into quite possibly the state’s premier destination. Region 3 fish biologist Mike Mounce said there are some big fish in Shelbyville.
“Every year we’re seeing more 50-inchers coming out of the lake,” said Mounce. “Recently there was a 53-inch monster caught. And the overall population of muskies at Shelbyville is as good I could have ever dreamed.”
Even more indicative of the high density of fish are the scores of anglers who turned into muskie enthusiasts.
“I know of a lot of bass anglers who have been converted to muskie fishermen because of the fantastic muskie fishing available here,” Mounce commented.
Shelbyville has also gained the attention of professional organizations such as the Professional Muskie Tournament Trail that has broken affiliation records for the most fish caught in a tournament and the most anglers catching fish in a single tournament.
Much of the muskie population is between 32 and 40 inches, and the potential to land a lunker is very high. Most serious muskie hunters target points and breaking contours in search of larger specimens, but flooded timber, islands, weedlines and submerged structure such as creek channels, humps and saddles are good focus points.
Boat launches are available throughout the lake. Some private launches require a fee, but the ramps at both Wolf Creek and Eagle Creek state parks are for public use. For more information, contact Eagle Creek State Park at (217) 756-8260 or Wolf Creek State Park at (217) 459-2831. The Shelbyville Chamber of Commerce can be reached at (217) 774-2221.
Finding a lake with a substantial muskie population is, of course, the first step to catching a toothy critter, but finding an area where a substantial population of fish is constricted into a small area, well that’s another thing.
This is just what you’ll find at the base of the Shelbyville Dam in the Kaskaskia River. According to stream biologist Trent Thomas, Lake Shelbyville muskies that escape over the spillway have now made a home at the base of the spillway, and they tend to be tightly packed.
“Some guys fishing below the dam report days where they’ll catch 30 fish or more,” said Thomas. “And some of these fish are big, too.”
The current Illinois state record of 38 pounds, 8 ounces came from the waters just below the spillway in 2002, but Thomas said anglers report finding large fish as far downstream as 20 or more miles.
Much of the fishing around the immediate spillway area is accomplished from the bank. There is access and parking located right at the spillway. There’s also a boat launch, and brave anglers who don’t mind dinging their prop on a rock or two can get up close to the spillway to cash in on what could be the most concentrated population of fish in the Land of Lincoln. The 20-mile stretch below the dam is also a potential sleeper for anglers who like to float small rivers with canoes or flatbottomed boats.
For more information, contact Region 3 fisheries at (217) 784-4730.
MILL CREEK LAKE
An up-and-coming fishery worth a look is Mill Creek Lake. Sometimes called Newman’s Lake, this mid-sized impoundment near Marshall is beginning to see some quality fish. Biologist Mounce said there’s been a hefty stocking effort for the past seven years, and numerous fish in the 40-inch range are beginning to show up.
“Mill Creek is a lake that doesn’t receive much pressure from many serious muskie anglers,” said Mounce. “It’s pretty much untested from the fisherman’s perspective, but we’re seeing a lot of 30-inch-plus fish.”
Growth rates in Mill Creek’s fertile waters are superb, and with a high density of shad and white suckers, Mounce believes this is one body of water that has a bright future. If you’re looking for a destination away from the usual pursuants of the mighty muskie, then Mill Creek could be your destination to tangle with a number of fish. Target weedlines, woody shoreline cover and the numerous contours associated with the deep profile of the lake. Bucktails, large shad imitators and glide baits are the offerings of choice.
A fee boat launch is available at Mill Creek County Park. More information is available at (217) 889-3901 and (217) 826-2034.
Tucked in the western fringe of the Shawnee National Forest, 2,750-acre Kinkaid Lake has been the rage of muskie anglers in the southern third of Illinois for a number of years.
“As far as I can tell, the muskie population is better than it’s ever been,” said Shawn Hirst, Region 5 fisheries biologist. “This year our spring survey had the highest catch per effort we’ve ever had. We caught a total of 195 muskies in our nets this spring.”
Of his experience Hirst noted that most Kinkaid Lake muskies fall somewhere between 35 and 45 inches. Prospects for boating a lunker are excellent.
“The largest fish we’ve netted was a 50-incher a few years back, and currently there’s a radio-tracking study being done on a few 49- to 50-inch fish in the lake,” he said.
Because water temperature tends to get hot in the summer, Kinkaid has experienced enumerated levels of muskie mortality. As a result, conservation-minded anglers stop fishing for them when the water temperatures reach into the 80 degree range. Spring and fall are the best times to fish, and Hirst noted areas such as the Johnson Creek arm and the waters in the spillway area of the lake as being especially productive. Trolling large shad-imitating crankbaits along structural excursions can be very productive.
For more information, contact Kinkaid Lake State Fish & Wildlife Area at (618) 684-2867. Traveling anglers should contact the Murphysboro Chamber of Commerce at (618) 684-6421.
The muskie fishing in Illinois continues to improve every year, as the waters above give testament. Although these are among the best, they are not the only lakes with good potential. Lake Storey in Galesburg has produced fish upward of 50 inches, as has McMaster Lake in Knox County. Heidecke Lake in Grundy County has gained identity as a potential contender for the next state record, and the Fox River in the western suburbs supports a healthy population of muskies that have made it over the Chain-O-Lakes Dam.
Our muskie fishing is as bright as it has ever been. If you’ve been looking for a place to do battle with the beast, be sure to give some of Illinois’ best bets a try.