Hit these spots for cabin-fever-busting midwinter action at some of the best Illinois fishing lakes.
February is an interesting month for Prairie State anglers. Ice-fishing is still going on in many of the state’s extreme northern reaches, while open water is often the case throughout the remainder of the state. However, if it is big fish you seek, now is the time to hit the water.
As water slowly warms, many fish begin to feed up in preparation for the rigors of the annual spawn. Most every veteran angler will readily admit now is the time to head out for trophy-sized fish.
Last year’s weather proved relatively mild throughout much of the winter. For anglers who like the hard water, ice-out occurred earlier than normal in many places. This meant those few that were already prepared were fishing open water by mid- to late-February.
For most, however, this early warming caught them off guard. Those few that were prepared enjoyed the bulk of the early action. Those needing to prepare their gear and boats are likely to hit the water long after the best fishing.
Anglers need to be ready to head out as soon as the last remnants of ice disappear. By preparing early, anglers might just enjoy their best fishing day of the entire year.
While Illinois anglers are blessed with countless great fishing locations, only a handful are known as our best early season waters. Some might be our larger Corps of Engineer reservoirs, while others are the various smaller waters found within a few miles of most everyone’s home.
And, keep in mind the power plant cooling reservoirs that can be found throughout the state. These artificially warmed cooling reservoirs can often provide their finest action very early.
Ice-fishing is a definite possibility, particularly throughout the state’s northern reaches. To be on the safe side, always confirm that safe conditions exist before setting foot on these waters. In fact, it’s wise to check with local bait shops to make certain the spot you wish to visit contains enough ice to safely support an angler.
As a general rule, ice should be at least 4 or more inches thick to support a fisherman’s weight. Clear lake ice is always the best choice, and keep in mind that river ice and cloudy ice support less weight.
Once it begins to turn slushy, it is wise to seek another alternative. Perhaps the best choice would be to try fishing some of the better-known ice-fishing locations found in northern Illinois. These waters are more closely monitored, and fishing is not permitted when safe ice does not exist.
Located in Stephenson County, north of Lena, Lake Le-Aqua-Na is relatively small when compared to many popular fishing areas. Still, the 43-acre lake shows a great deal of fishing promise this year.
Anglers may find it interesting that black crappies are the only species of crappie found in Le-Aqua-Na. The crappie population at Le-Aqua-Na has been poor due to overpopulation of small 4- to 7-inch fish.
In the summer of 2015, however, a crappie-only die-off occurred, killing mostly only fish in the 4- to 7-inch range. The die-off was caused by a bacterial infection.
Now due to this die-off, the lake should provide more food availability for the remaining crappies, providing a better fishery.
Also of interest is the fact that 24 percent of the largemouth bass sampled were 14 inches or larger. Largemouth bass 11 to 14 inches long accounted for another 14 percent of the sample. These fish will provide for good fishing.
The largest fish sampled during a recent population survey was a 30.5- inch male pike that weighed 5.15 pounds. The average size northern pike from that spring’s trap nets was 23 inches and weighed 2.4 pounds.
All of the gravel pits at this state site contain a variety of warm-water fish species. Big Lake (22 acres) is actively managed and will provide consistent action.
Big Lake contains a maximum depth of 20 feet and averages 11.8 feet. A gravel boat ramp is available at Big Lake, with boats restricted to trolling motors only.
The number of bluegills collected in the 2016 survey showed something of a decline. Hopefully these fish will continue to grow to sizes more appealing to the angler. The decline of bluegills may be a reflection of predation by largemouth bass. Still, length frequency distribution from the 2016 IDNR survey suggests that bass are somewhat stock-piled just below the legal-size limit of 15 inches.
Best of all, redear sunfish in excess of 10 inches have been collected in IDNR samplings while the average size caught in the 2016 survey measured 6.5 inches, with fish up to 8.3 inches collected.
This lake is a favorite among northern Illinois ice-fishing enthusiasts. Located in Cook County, the lake covers some 457 acres. The main pool occupies 325 acres, the south pool covers 115 acres, and its smaller north pool totals 17 acres. The lake has a maximum depth of 19 feet and an average depth of 5.5 feet.
Most hardwater anglers concentrate their activities on pursuing panfish in the main pool. Action here can be quite good, with special size and creel limits ensuring plenty of quality fish. Largemouth bass, northern pike and walleyes also regularly show up in the catch. Channel catfish also make up a large portion of the winter catch, as well.
Survey data indicates bluegill approach 7.5 inches but do not exceed that length. The increased predation by muskies and the abundant walleye and bass populations should help “contain” bluegills so that over time their maximum size improves.
Bluegill abundance is good, but their maximum size could use some improvement, and that takes time.
Evergreen Lake is owned by the City of Bloomington and is managed by the McLean County Department of Parks and Recreation. It is part of Comlara County Park.
Evergreen Lake is 925 acres and has an average depth of 19.7 feet and a maximum depth of 50 feet. There are two boat launches on the lake and one canoe launch.
The IDNR stocks saugeyes and muskies. A community-wide fish survey is completed approximately every two years, while muskies, saugeyes and largemouth bass surveys are currently conducted on an annual basis.
The crappie fishery was once dominated by white crappies, but since 2006 the black crappie population has been more prevalent in fish surveys and anglers’ creels.
During the most recent electrofishing survey, approximately 14 percent of the white crappies collected were larger than 10 inches. The catch rate for black crappies exceeded the management objective, and approximately 38 percent of the black crappies collected were larger than 10 inches.
Even better is the saugeye fishery. Saugeyes are a hybrid made by crossing female walleye with male sauger. The saugeyes appear to have adapted quite well to Evergreen Lake. Stocking of this hybrid started in the early 90s, and the lake has been stocked on an annual basis every year since.
Evergreen has an excellent saugeye fishery. During the most recent spring netting survey, of the saugeye collected over 10 inches, 91 percent were longer than 15 inches and 20 percent were over 20 inches.
Gillespie Old City Lake
Often overlooked as a fishing destination due to the location near the higher publicized New Lake, Gillespie Old City Lake regularly yields plenty of quality fish. In fact, some of its finest fishing occurs during the late-winter and early-spring months.
This relatively small lake covers 71 acres and has a shoreline length of five miles, watershed of 3,300 acres, maximum depth of 21 feet and average depth 8.8 feet. It is owned by the City of Gillespie and is cooperatively managed with IDNR Fisheries. This small water body is predominantly used for recreational fishing only.
Approximately 14 species occupy this fertile water body. At this time, only channel catfish are stocked periodically by IDNR Fisheries.
During a recent population survey, crappies were found measuring from 6.5 inches to 13 inches. Some 29 percent were at least 9 inches, 19 percent reached 10 inches and seven percent attained at least 12 inches in total length.
Anglers seeking redears will not be disappointed either. During sampling, “shellcrackers” from 6.5 inches to 9.75 inches wer boated. A total of 76 percent had reached 8 inches, and 27 percent attained at least 9 inches in total length
Gillespie Old City Lake is located northwest of Gillespie off Route 16 in Macoupin County.
Here, anglers typically find open water by mid-February. Open water at Lake Shelbyville almost always means it is time for crappie fishing to begin.
Crappie are always among the first species to greet Illinois anglers. This is certain to be the case once again for anglers headed to central Illinois Lake Shelbyville.
According to Lake Shelbyville fisheries biologists, even more quality crappie fishing lies ahead for anglers heading to this lake in 2018.
A very strong year class of black crappies has established in Lake Shelbyville, with the majority of fish measuring 7 or 8 inches long. The number of crappies greater than 10 inches should remain good and provide productive fishing. However, getting bait and lures to the larger fish could prove difficult unless larger lures are used.
In recent years, anglers have reported catching white crappies measuring up to 15 inches and black crappies measuring up to 12 inches. The fishing prospects for crappies are expected to be good for both the number of fish available and size structure.
Rend Lake offers superb year-round angling.
The lake was completed in 1971 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It was formed by constructing a 2-mile-long dam across the Big Muddy River floodplain. At normal pool, Rend Lake has a surface area of 18,900 acres, a maximum depth of 35 feet and a mean depth of 10 feet.
This sprawling lake is 13 miles long and three miles wide and has 162 miles of shoreline. It is the second largest impoundment in Illinois.
There are more than 30 species of fish in Rend Lake. In addition to traditional sportfish, Rend Lake also contains large populations of carp, buffalo, gar, drum and shad. The fish population is surveyed annually. And good late-winter fishing is something that occurs each year.
The size structure of the crappie population declined significantly in 2013 and 2014, but improved in 2015 and remained stable in 2016. The portion of the crappie population including fish more than 10 inches in length remained at 14 percent. This is still below the target of 20 percent of the population, but significantly higher than the low mark in 2014.