By Ted Peck
Lake-dwelling walleyes in Illinois beyond the Fox Chain were once regarded as little more than a “bonus” species before the Jake Wolf Hatchery facility came on-line. We are now enjoying fish-production capabilities of the Illinois hatchery system that were only dreamed about 15 years ago, with walleyes and hybrid saugeyes thriving in lakes that either didn’t exist or only held bass and panfish when our fathers were fishin.’
This is especially exciting for Illinois anglers fishing lakes south of Bloomington where walleyes were uncommon just a generation ago. There are now at least three lakes south of the Illinois State University campus that hold trophy ‘eyes over 10 pounds, with another lake just north of Bloomington that is just waiting for somebody to claim the new state saugeye record.
Meanwhile, walleye fishing in the traditional range in northern Illinois is better than most folks can ever remember, especially on the Fox Chain where an average angler can consistently catch-and-release 50 walleyes a day in the protected 14- to 18-inch slot size, with an honest shot at much larger fish.
Some of the world’s top walleye tournament anglers sport pricey Illinois registration tags on their boats, first catching walleye fever on the lakes and rivers of the Prairie State. In this article we’re going to look at Illinois’ top walleye lakes, beginning with one that regularly gives up 10-pounders that the pros haven’t heard of, let alone fished.
Two major factors have kept walleye anglers away in droves: the isolated location and a 10-horsepower limit that is strictly enforced. City officials won’t even allow boats with larger motors hanging on the transom on the lake.
Department of Natural Resources fisheries surveys rate angling pressure as “light,” with multiple year-classes of fish present and a dominant year-class hovering around 8 pounds.
Getting there isn’t all that tough. Pittsfield City Lake is located about three miles northeast of Pittsfield. The quickest access from elsewhere in the state is probably via Interstate 72, turning south on the Highway 54 exit about 35 minutes west of Jacksonville. There are boat launches at the north end off of County Road 1700N and on the east side after winding around off of County Road 3275E
Target the northside point of the big bay on the lake’s west side, the north end out from the campground and south end along the dam with long-line trolled No. 7 ShadRaps or similar crankbaits right now, continuing along the lake’s southwest corner up from the dam. With time on the water you’ll nail a wallhanger.
Since this is a city-managed lake, special regulations apply, most notably the need to purchase a $10 city access sticker before launching your boat.
Walleyes here don’t experience as much pressure as bass and crappies in May, with the crappie population in a rebuilding cycle now. East Fork is a great place for Lindy-Rigging jumbo leeches off of numerous deep main-lake points, with a large portion of the walleyes hanging near the 10- to 20-foot breakline right now. You might also want to try casting or trolling crankbaits along the riprapped dam and targeting the areas around the submerged culvert in the lake’s north arm.
Contact: Olney City Clerk, (618) 395-7302; Lakeside Bait Shop, (618) 393-4351.
Saugeyes have nearly identical habits of walleyes, relating to main-lake points and sometimes woody structure, with plenty of shad-driven forage base to feed on. Saugeye stocking has been intensive and ongoing for almost a decade now, with the lake’s dominant year-class checking in at 22 to 24 inches and a slightly smaller year-class in excess of the state record. DNR biologists electroshock at least one saugeye in excess of the state record in surveys here every year, with the boomshocker only able to target fish swimming in fairly shallow water.
Located just north of Bloomington off of Interstate 39, this lake is less than three hours’ drive from any point in Illinois. There is good camping access available, and two good ramps – although when the fluctuating level of this water is in a “down” cycle, access can be tricky.
A $10 launch fee keeps many boats away from these stained waters, with a real strong urge to fish for those bountiful muskies or crappies tugging on most folks who cough up the launch fee. This lake has a 10-horsepower limit in place.
Evergreen can be a tough lake to fish, especially for saugeyes. But the camping angler who stays on task and fishes saugeyes hard has an excellent chance to become a state saugeye record holder.
Contact: guide Duane Landmeier, (815) 286-7170.
Walleye stocking has been ongoing in this 2,335-acre lake for years, with unknown numbers of fish washed over the dam before placement of a barrier in 1998. Although the DNR keeps dumping walleye fingerlings into this southern Illinois lake, nobody has figured out how to consistently target this species.
“Most of the walleyes taken come while fishermen are looking for other species, usually with crankbaits,” said DNR biologist Shawn Hirst. “In all the survey work we’ve done here there are only two spots where we regularly crank up walleyes.”
These areas – in front of the spillway where the water is generally clear and at the far north end where it’s downright muddy – are diametrically opposed from a habitat standpoint. Although there is little if any natural recruitment in this lake, walleyes make pseudo spawning runs to three main feeder creeks at the north end every spring. Hirst say these fish also attempt to find rocky-rubble spawning areas at the clear lower end of the lake, where “they appear to spend most of the year.”
Local guide Al Nutty says the standard walleye tactics of jigging and rigging simply don’t work on Kinkaid’s walleyes.
“Trolling cranks at the lower end would probably be your best bet,” Nutty says, “but if you’re talking walleyes, Kinkaid is virtually uncharted territory.”
The lake has produced several 10-pound fish over the years, with Hirst opining that the forage base and habitat has “probably resulted in fish exceeding the 14-pound state record” swimming here.
Kinkaid has a good boat ramp and marina facilities with all other amenities just down the road in Murphysboro.
Contacts: Kinkaid Lake Guide Service, (618) 985-4105; Top of the Hill Bait Shop, (618) 684-2923.
Fisheries surveys have cranked up walleyes at or near the state record for a decade, with several year-classes of double-digit fish swimming in this 10-horsepower limit lake.
Why hasn’t anybody caught “The Big One?” Because these large walleyes have learned that survival is directly related to nocturnal feeding patterns, and the lake is essentially closed to fishing at night. Ongoing stocking efforts continue to produce a good crop of “eater” walleyes that haven’t learned the wisdom of dining by moonlight. The best way to hook into these youngsters is with a jumbo leech fished close to cover under a slip-bobber suspended about 12 feet down at dawn and dusk.
Shabbona Lake is a shining example of politics, not common sense-driving resource management. Surveys indicate a number of fish with record-breaking potential swimming here. Why does Illinois continue to have the lowest record walleye weight in the Midwest? Because we don’t have 24-hour access to state waters.
Contact: Shabbona Lakeside Bait, (815) 824-2581, www.shabbonalake.com.
Baitfish are driven by prevailing water temperatures, with walleyes seldom far away from clouds of minnows. Electronics are the second major key to consistent success on Clinton. Cruise until you see bait on the screen, then plug it in as a waypoint on your GPS, making careful note at how deep the prey is suspended in the water column.
Although there is plenty of structure in Clinton that some walleyes always seem to be relating to, most active fish are suspended close to bait somewhere in the main-lake basin. The most efficient way to get hooked up – once you find the fish – is running fire-tiger crankbaits behind planer boards at the same depths you see those clouds of baitfish. Once you’re on fish with baits in front of them, the only remaining variable is trolling speed. A lazy “S” pattern will slow lines on one side of the boat while speeding up lines on the other side. Note exactly what pattern produces and hone your presentation from there.
Contact: Clinton Lake Recreation Association, (217) 935-8722.
“With regular stocking, Pierce manages to maintain a decent walleye population,” Pulley says. “Placement of a barrier net at the spillway by the local muskie club was a real ‘eye’ opener. We netted several very nice muskies below the dam as part of a recovery effort before the barrier was in place and everybody who helped was impressed with the size and numbers of walleyes that had also escaped. They’re all back in the lake now, with several of the fish returned probably close to record dimensions.”
The key to catching walleyes on Pierce is targeting suspended fish in the main-lake basin with planer boards and crankbaits, or spinner rigs with crawlers. A distinct thermocline develops here every summer, with essentially no fish swimming deeper than 15 feet.
A “no-wake” rule is in effect for boats with a motor larger than 10-horsepower.
Contact: The Curve Bait Shop, (815) 877-0637.
There is a 10-horsepower limit in place here, with a concession stand, boat livery and good concrete ramp. The park itself is a great place to camp, offering an exceptionally rural atmosphere in heavily populated northern Illinois.
Don’t look for a limit of fish here. But if you catch one, it will be a beauty at or above 5 pounds.
Contact: Big River Bait & Taxidermy, (815) 244-3115.
DNR biologists have netted pre-spawn walleyes here for years, with enough eggs to stock many other waters besides the chain. The best thing fish managers ever did was put a slot limit on walleyes that protects 14- to 18-inch fish. Walleyes of these dimensions are notorious for lacking savvy found in larger specimens, making it possible for folks with average angling skills to find success on these fish almost every time out.
Walleyes are found in all 15 lakes and can be just about anywhere in the 7,500 total acres of surface water, but your odds are shortest when fishing current areas aro
und any of the bridges just about any time. This includes channels between the lakes and necked-down areas, especially where there is a rocky-rubble bottom.
Boat traffic is beyond extreme here, especially during the summer months. Serious walleye anglers get off the water by 9 a.m. after looking for walleyes larger than the protected slot limit. Chain veterans say you’ll catch at least 50 sub-legal fish for every one boated over 18 inches. That’s a tough fact if you’re in one of the many tournaments held here each year. If you just want to catch walleyes, however, this is the place to be.
If there is a common mistake made by folks looking for a stretched string it comes in fishing too deep. Target water less than 10 feet deep, looking for rocks and gravel. Fish are often hanging close to shore in less than 3 feet of water, with constant wave action from boats turning up both food and a sense of security in the murked-up water.
If there is an epicenter of walleye activity on the chain it has to be near the Highway 12 bridge, with boats usually moored to every available opening. Pistakee Lake has probably the most diverse walleye habitat on the chain, with islands and some great weed edges. Channel-Catherine and Marie are the most consistent walleye producers, with highly developed weed edges and steep breaklines attracting fish virtually year-round. Petite Lake is a personal favorite, simply because it’s easy to fish and most of the 60,000 folks who visit the chain on any summer weekend are somewhere else.
With multiple boat launches on every lake, plenty of restaurants, bait shops and other amenities – and close proximity to a large segment of the population – the Fox Chain is our very best walleye water.
Contact: Triangle Sports & Marine, (847) 395-0813.
Thanks to our state’s hatchery system, Illinois walleye fishing should just keep getting better.
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