Between the Catchable Catfish Programs of the IDNR and local government bodies, as well as natural reproduction, the catfish is the most often caught fish in the Prairie State. Collaborative programs have stocked catchable-size catfish in a variety of waters.
The catfish family is the largest family of freshwater fish endemic to North America. In Illinois, the most common members are the channel catfish, flathead catfish, blue catfish and several species of bullheads.
Virtually every body of water in Illinois contains at least one species of the catfish family. Some are stocked and others are reproduced naturally. Catfish, mainly channel catfish, are produced in the three state hatcheries: Jake Wolf, LaSalle and Little Grassy. These facilities are dedicated to the expansion and enhancement of fish populations to meet a statewide need.
Voracious eaters, catfish are regarded by many as an easy catch. Dedicated anglers find that to catch the big ones requires time, skill and innovation. The big fish do not get that way by being stupid.
Many of the better-known catfish waters are heavily pressured this time of year, but we have identified five often overlooked Illinois catfish spots.
FOX CHAIN O’ LAKES
The Fox Chain, as it is known locally, is actually a series of nine lakes through which the Fox River flows in northeastern Illinois. It is located about 50 miles northwest of Chicago along Illinois routes 173 and 12. Together, the nine lakes comprise 6,500 acres of slow-moving, interconnected water with a serpentine shoreline. Some adjacent swampy waters add an additional 500-acres to the waterway. The man-made waterway is a creation of the blocking of the river flow at the McHenry Dam.
The nine lakes are: Catherine Lake, Channel Lake, Lake Marie, Bluff Lake, Grass Lake, Fox Lake, Nippersink Lake, Petite Lake and Pistakee Lake. Heavily used in summer by recreational boaters, these lakes also contain an excellent catfish fishery.
The most popular fishing on the lake seems to be for game fish such as walleyes, pike, muskies and crappies. Some lakes also have good bluegill and yellow bass fishing available. The under-utilized fish in the chain is the channel catfish, even though they are abundant. There is no supplemental stocking required as the catfish reproduce naturally.
Catfish are available from the shore or by boat throughout the system. Numerous commercial and public access points make bank fishing possible. Local maps with launch ramp locations are available at local resorts and bait shops. Many areas have a swampy shoreline and are best fished from a boat. Channel cats up to 5 pounds are commonly caught. Flathead catfish, although not as common, are also caught. Most range in length from 5 to 33 inches and up to 25 pounds in weight. Both species are frequently caught in the tailwaters below the McHenry dam, at the south end of the Chain on the Fox River.
Local anglers recommend using medium-size fathead minnows, nightcrawlers, stinkbaits and cut bait. Nightcrawlers and stinkbaits seem to be the most productive in the warming water.
There are no site-specific regulations on catfishing these waters. Fishing piers, marina, bait and food service is available at numerous locations along the Chain O’ Lakes.
Although owned by the City of Bloomington, this McLean County lake is managed by the IDNR though a cooperative agreement. The 635-acre body of water is located 10 miles northeast of the city.
The population of this lake is naturally reproducing and thus the lake is not stocked on a regular basis. However, in 2010, 10,000 3.75-inch channels were stocked to increase the species number in the lake. The adult population includes fish in the 21- to 33-inch class with weights up to 17 pounds being recorded by IDNR surveys. Fish in the 4- to 16-pound class are reportedly caught by fishermen.
There are also good numbers of flathead catfish in the lake. Both species are most often located in the upper arms of the lake, near the dam. Fishermen are limited to two poles and line with no more than two hooks on each rig.
Recreational boating and water skiing is permitted, but fishermen can beat the crowd by fishing at dawn and again at dusk. Many of the areas popular with catfish are not good for boaters and skiers.
There is only one boat ramp on the lake and an access fee is charged. Boats are limited to 40-horsepower outboard engines. For information on fees and the lake, call (309) 747-2615.