The long wait is finally about over. Winter is loosening its grasp on the state, ice is melting and water temperatures are climbing. Soon we will forget all about cabin fever, as our minds will be consumed with thoughts of battling huge spring bass.
Many anglers, at least those with access to open water, chase bass all winter long. But nothing beats the excitement of the pre-spawn. Some of the heaviest fish of the year are waiting to stretch our lines in the coming weeks. To further the anticipation, here is our annual look at some of the great bass fishing spots in the state and what to expect this year.
Anglers should find the bass fishery at Rend Lake to be much to their liking despite a decline in the size structure as indicated in the latest population survey conducted by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. The proportional stock density (PSD) fell 27 percent from the previous year, and the percentage of the total population exceeding the 14-inch minimum length limit fell 17 percent. But in spite of this decline, the percentage of fish exceeding 14 inches was the third highest in the last 8 years. Currently, 38 percent of the adult bass population exceeds the 14-inch minimum length limit.
“The excellent bass body condition is the direct result of one of the largest shad populations on record. With the abundant food supply, bass growth rates should be excellent, and this should help to quickly offset the decline in size structure of the population,” fishery biologist Mike Hooe said. “Bass catch rate declined for the third year in a row. Reasons for this decline are unclear, but may be related to several factors. Maintaining a steady flow of smaller fish into the population through supplemental stocking has helped to improve and stabilize the number of bass in the population in the past. However, mechanical problems with the nursery ponds combined with limited hatchery production have reduced supplemental stocking rates for the last two years.”
Hooe added, “Bass fishing in the coming year should be similar to 2014. The majority of fish above the minimum length limit will be 14 to 18 inches and weigh between 1.5 and 3.5 pounds. The number of larger bass over 20 inches in length remains stable but low.”
This bass fishery is in excellent shape, and 2015 is looking to be a very good year. The percentage of the bass population at or above the 16-inch minimum length limit has been 20 percent or higher since 2002. The fall survey in 2013 resulted in more than 33 percent of the catch greater than 16 inches. Of these, 14 percent were also larger than 18 inches. Biologists caught 109 bass per hour during the electrofishing sample, which approached double the management goal of 60 fish per hour. The body condition and quality of the bass are excellent.
“The Crab Orchard Lake largemouth bass fishery has responded well to management changes implemented in 2002, including more restrictive length and creel limits, increased bass and threadfin shad stocking, reduced angling pressure through limitations on club fish-off events, and establishment of a spawning refuge,” fishery biologist Chris Bickers said. “In 2006, 50 artificial spawning structures were installed in the spawning refuge to enhance the chance for bass reproductive success. The percentage of largemouth bass larger than the 16-inch minimum size limit increased 10 points from 2002 to 2005 and has remained near or above that level since then. Of all largemouth bass in the sample that were larger than eight inches in 2013, 33 percent were at least 16 inches long, a 12-year high.”
Crab Orchard Lake is within the Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge, and a user permit is required before entering the property or fishing. More information is available by calling the refuge visitor center at (618) 997-3344.
If anglers want to sample one of the best bass populations in the entire state, a trip to Cedar Lake is just the ticket. Year after year, the fishery continues to impress. In the 2013 spring bass sample conducted by the DNR, largemouth bass were collected at a rate of 163 fish per hour, which was the fourth-highest catch rate on record. During the 2014 sample, largemouth bass were collected at a whopping rate of 180 fish per hour. Of the 723 bass collected during the 2014 survey, 26 percent were over 16 inches and 19 percent were over 18 inches in length. That certainly does not sound too shabby.
DNR fishery biologist Shawn Hirst said, “Bass anglers are encouraged to harvest bass less than 14 inches to improve the overall condition of the bass population. Thinning out the smaller bass will increase bass growth rates and body condition, which should result in a faster growing bass population. Thinning out the smaller bass allows more bass to grow into the protected 14- to 18-inch slot limit.”
No fish may be harvested within the slot limit. The daily creel allows anglers to keep five bass under 14 inches and one bass over 18 inches. The lake also has a 10 hp motor limit. Cedar Lake has 643 porcupine fish attractors spread among 30 locations. Fish attractor maps can be sent via email by sending a request to Shawn.Hirst@illinois.gov.
Fox Chain O’ Lakes
The bass fishery at the Chain is in pretty good shape, according to fishery biologist Frank Jakubicek. He said tournament anglers weighed fish up to 5 pounds at each tournament last year and it typically took about 15 to 20 pounds to win a tournament. The biologist stated, “Anytime we see bass over 5 pounds in northern Illinois, things are A-OK.”
Jakubicek said, “Catch rate wise, the IDNR is still in the 30 to 40 fish per hour electrofishing range, but that is not indicative of the bass population. We sample in the main lake where there’s very little vegetation, and bass habitat and bass are generally in the channels and back waters where there’s more their type of habitat.”
In 2013, bass were collected at a rate of 28 fish per hour, compared to 36.4 fish per hour in 2011. Fish measured from 3 inches to 18.5 inches and weighed up to 3.8 pounds. Some 45 percent of the bass collected were over 12 inches long and sexually mature, 28 percent exceeded 14 inches (legal size), 18 percent were over 15 inches, 12 percent over 16 inches, 8 percent over 17 inches and 1 percent over 18 inches. The DNR status summary stated, “This is a well-balanced population that supports quality panfish development and supports bass angling opportunities.”
The DNR stocks some 65,000 largemouth bass every other year at the Chain. The bass fingerlings are between 4 and 6 inches at the time of stocking. This has helped supplement natural reproduction.
Along the Illinois River in Tazewell County are two lakes that were separated from the river by a levee in 1916. Originally one body of water, they were divided in 1978 by a stop log structure and spillway into Spring Lake North and Spring Lake South.
The latter was sampled recently, and results are encouraging for this year and next. Biologists found a strong year-class of yearling bass and also a strong year-class of young-of-the-year bass. Fishery biologist Wayne Herndon said, “A good strong reproduction year for gizzard shad has provided a good source of food for the yearling bass. They should do well and grow into catchable sized largemouth by this fall. We have not had a good year class of small gizzard shad on south lake in several years. I hope that this is able to upgrade the quality of bass fishing on South Spring Lake in 2015-2016.”
The latest sampling assessments for North Spring Lake were not yet available, but results from the previous assessment as well as angler success from last year indicate another good year of bass fishing is to be expected. Of the largemouth bass caught during the sample, biologists found 32.9 percent of the fish were 15 inches or longer. There is an excellent population of bass between 2 and 5 pounds.
North Spring Lake does present a problem once summer starts getting close. Most bass anglers target the lake in the spring before aquatic vegetation overtakes much of the lake. Many anglers fish at night. Early in the year, crankbaits, jigs, spinnerbaits and plastics are productive. After the weeds develop, many anglers switch to topwater baits and target the pockets and edges of the vegetation.
This is one of those lakes where anglers can go most every year and expect good catches of largemouths. This year should be no exception. The last available survey showed a good range in size structure, with some quality fish in the mix. Of the bass collected in the survey, biologists recorded 27 percent of the catch as measuring over 15 inches. Of those, 4 percent were over 18 inches and one percent was over 20 inches. It is not unrealistic to anticipate catches of 5- and 6-pound bass, and even larger fish may turn up occasionally.
The largemouth bass population has improved tremendously from a decade or two ago. The DNR began a stocking program at the lake in 1993 to supplement the population. Between 1993 and 2004, some 45,000 largemouth bass were stocked into the lake. Since then, natural reproduction and good recruitment has made this lake one of the better bass fisheries.
The survey conducted this past fall at Shabbona Lake indicated a thriving bass population, according to fishery biologist Ken Clodfelter. He said bass greater than 12 inches were collected at 87 per hour, bass greater than 16 inches were collected at 12 per hour and bass of all sizes were collected at 170 bass per hour. The largest bass was 21 inches. Clodfelter said, “We also collected 39 smallmouth bass per hour. The largest was just under 3 pounds. Both largemouth and smallmouth bass are raised in nursery ponds at Shabbona and stocked every fall.”
The stocking helps supplement natural reproduction and strengthen weaknesses in year classes. Clodfelter believes the immediate future looks bright for bass fishing at Shabbona. “So with the excellent fall sample, bass fishing should be excellent the next few years as there are two strong year classes produced the last two years,” he said.
Bass fishing at Newton Lake should be close to awesome this year, according to the population sampling done by the DNR and from reports from anglers and tournaments. Mike Hooe said the size structure of the bass population in Newton Lake is excellent, and almost identical to last year. Hooe said, “The percentage of bass greater than 18 inches remained stable, and comprised 18 percent of the total population. The catch per effort was also stable at an incredible 178 bass per hour.
“Over the last few years this lake has improved from a very good bass fishery to one of the premier bass lakes in the Midwest. Recruitment continues to be good and with their excellent body condition and growth rates well above average, the fishery should remain stable for the near future.”
For this year, anglers can expect to catch large numbers of fish from 15 to 20 inches in length, ranging from 2 to 6 pounds. The majority of bass exceeding the 18-inch minimum will weigh between 3.5 and 7 pounds. There are plenty of fish in the population, so angler catch rates should be high and there is a very good chance of boating some quality bigmouths.
Hooe did stress anglers should remember the site-specific regulations at the lake. He said, “Newton Lake has a 25 hp limit, and current regulations include an 18-inch minimum length limit and three-fish daily creel limit for largemouth bass. In addition, the cold arm of the lake is closed to fishing during the waterfowl season, and the entire lake is closed to fishing during the regular firearm deer season.”
Devils Kitchen Lake
This 810-acre lake within the Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge presents an interesting situation for bass anglers. If an angler wants to go somewhere to catch a lot of smaller bass in a day of fishing, this is definitely a good spot. There are also some trophy largemouths. Interestingly, there are very few fish in the intermediate size range between small fish and quality fish.
During the last available survey, largemouth bass were collected at a rate of 164 per hour. Only about 18 percent were larger than 12 inches. However, it is not unusual for bass in the 5- to 10-pound range to show up in spring electrofishing samples and tournament weigh-ins. Occasionally, some giants over 10 pounds turn up in angler creels.
Chris Bickers said Devils Kitchen is very clear and infertile, which means lighter line and subtle presentations. Plastics and swim baits are generally more productive. Devils Kitchen can even be a good lake to fish at night, when the fish are a little less spooky.