When it comes to catching catfish, Illinois anglers are blessed with countless locations for good fishing action. Ranging from the state's many rivers to the seemingly endless list of reservoirs and city lakes, Illinois anglers typically need not travel far to find good catfish action.
Best of all, the good fishing begins this month and continues until ice begins to form on our lakes. In fact, the best catfishing typically begins across the state as action for other species begins to slow.
LAKES OF THE ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS
When it comes to catfishing, few Illinois waters can match the fish-producing power of two of our three big reservoirs built and operated by the Army Corps of Engineers. These sprawling impoundments are virtually famous catfish waters and yield a wide variety of catfish including channel catfish, blue catfish, bullheads and huge flathead catfish.
As with many Illinois water, fish populations in these famous reservoirs have benefitted from several recent high-water events. While these conditions often pose serious problems for humans, they provide safe spawning and rearing habitat, and also offer ample food, for the many fish species found in these waters.
"Natural reproduction and recruitment continue to be very strong and are responsible for maintaining the large population of fish in the lake," says Rend Lake fisheries biologist Shawn Hirst. "The catch rate for channel catfish decreased for the first time in three years but remained above the 10-year average."
Rend Lake's channel catfish are in good condition and growth rates are good. Individual fish from 1 to 3 1/2 pounds should be abundant with larger fish up to 6 pounds common, Hirst reports. "This lake remains one of the premier channel catfish waters in southern Illinois and should remain on your list of places to fish for channels in 2018."
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. The lake is 13 miles long and 3 miles wide and has 162 miles of shoreline. It is the second largest impoundment in Illinois, located near Benton in Franklin and Jefferson counties.
According to Carlyle Lake fisheries biologist Fred Cronin, the channel catfish population remains quite good in Carlyle Lake, a sprawling 26,000-acre reservoir largely located in Clinton County, Illinois, with smaller portions of the lake within Bond and Fayette counties.
"Catches of channel catfish in the fall population survey were very good," Cronin says, pointing to an abundance of large fish in the population that should provide good angling for quality size fish. "These alone should provide good angling opportunities," he adds.
POWER PLANT COOLING RESERVOIRS
Across the state, Illinois anglers are blessed with literally dozens of reservoirs that are charged primarily for use as a source of cooling water for coal- and gas-fired electricity power plants. Water is taken in from the lakes, used to cool the turbine(s), and returned to the lake at a much higher temperature. Even in mid-winter, temperatures at the outflow can be well above those near the intake.
Click the video link above to get great catfishing tips for your future trip.
Because the water is warmer than a lake without a discharge from an adjacent power plant, these lakes are traditionally among the first each year to yield quality fishing for many species. It begins when baitfish are attracted to the warmer water. Catfish and other popular species are then attracted to both the warm water and the abundance of forage fish. The situation creates a much longer growing season, and, with the constant current, spawning conditions for certain species, like channel catfish, are nearly ideal.
At just 2,000 acres big, Baldwin Lake, in southern Illinois in Randolph and St. Clair counties, is one of the best when it comes to catfishing. It's easy to find — about 2 miles north of Baldwin off State Route 154 — and easy to see: The lake is "perched," or elevated, surrounded by levees above the surrounding ground level.
While the bass population is just now recovering from severe heat-related fish kills in 2011 and 2012, the catfish population continues to thrive. Local fishing regulations limit fishermen to two fishing rods. Bow-fishing is permitted. Boat motors are limited to no more than 50 horsepower, and the lake is open only certain hours, according to the season. For more information, call the park office at (618) 785-2555.
When it comes to catfish, another of the state's top cooling reservoirs is Coffeen Lake. Located about 7 miles southeast of Hillsboro in Montgomery County, this 1,100-acre reservoir regularly yields plenty of catfish action.
Catfish are plentiful here. During a recent state population sampling, channel catfish ranging from 8 to nearly 16 inches long were collected. Flathead catfish are also common, and blue catfish are now being stocked to create a trophy fishery.
Boaters on Coffeen Lake are restricted to motors no larger than 25 horsepower. Two boat ramps serve Coffen Lake — one at the far north end of the lake and the main ramp near the site office — and boats are restricted to motors no larger than 25 horsepower. More information about the lake or site-specific regulations is available by calling the site office at (217) 537-3351.
RIVERS AND STREAMS
Plenty of waters produce fishing for catfish every bit as good, but few waters are as famous for producing catfish as is the Mississippi River. Perhaps, most of this blame lies with the great writer Mark Twain and his famous crew of catfish anglers who enjoyed its fishing all along the western border of Illinois. Here, the river stretches 593 miles long, combining with its major tributaries to yield excellent fishing for catfish. When the Mississippi River reaches its confluence with the Ohio River near Cairo, it is draining 25 states either wholly or partially, as well as parts of Canada. With this much water to enjoy, it is no wonder so many anglers enjoy fishing this river.
The Illinois Department of Natural Resources classifies the fishing in this river in two sections. The upper portion — between East Dubuque and Alton near the Wisconsin border — consists of a series of reservoirs formed by 14 navigational dams. These pools range from 10 to 47 miles long and from 3,725 to 33,500 acres in size. In all, some 200,000 acres of water are available for sport-fishing in this stretch.
The southern portion of the river — between Alton and Cairo — holds just one long stretch of the river that measures some 61,000 surface acres. There are no locks and dams here; rather, the river is better characterized as "open river" with wing dams, side channels, a main channel and extensive riprap along the channel banks to check erosion, while also creating excellent areas to fill a stringer with catfish.
According to the IDNR, channel catfish can be found virtually anywhere along this river's length. Drop-offs — where flats and shallow water fall away into the main channel — are always great summer haunts for channel catfish. Wing dams that were built in attempts to control the Mississippi River's currents are also excellent areas to search for catfish.
JUST AROUND THE CORNER
Countless city-owned, state and other public waters offer excellent opportunities for catching catfish. You can be assured, a few of these waters are within driving distance of your home.
Among the best family fishing site in Illinois for catfish is found in the Fox Chain O'Lakes located about an hour's drive north-northwest of Chicago. As a river system, its many impoundments are ideal sites for both growing great channel cats — the fish are significant predators — and providing plenty of room for reproduction. Channel catfish in the "chain" range from 10 inches to 28 inches in length and weigh up to 7 pounds. In 2015, 59 percent of the channel catfish collected in state fisheries surveys were longer than 18 inches; 50 percent measured more than 22 inches long; and 11 percent stretched to more than 24 inches long.
Busse Lake, part of the Cook County Forest Preserve District in northern Illinois near Elk Grove Village, is stocked annually with channel cats from 8 to 10 inches long to supplement an otherwise strong fishery of larger channel cats. Fish up to 24 inches and 5 1/2 pounds were recently collected, suggesting anglers targeting them could be in for a fight!
A rather small lake makes for some great catfish fishing. At just 30 acres big, Arrowhead Lake is located on the east edge of Johnston City in Williamson County. The city-owned impoundment is partially surrounded by forest and features a lakefront campground, improved boat ramp, and perimeter walking trail.
During the 2016 state electrofishing survey, channel catfish in Arrowhead Lake ranged in size from 11 to 20 inches and were in excellent condition. Channel catfish are stocked every other year to sustain the population. Boaters are restricted to electric motors only.
State fisheries biologists who have sampled the channel catfish population at Wheel Lake in Banner Marsh State Fish and Wildlife Area say the cats in this lake are in good body condition, and 98 percent of the fish they netted measured more than 18 inches long. An annual stocking of up to 700 "non-vulnerable" channel catfish takes place each year. A site regulation limits anglers to just six channel cats a day.
At Weldon Spring Lake in DeWitt County, 8-inch channel catfish are stocked annually, appearing to support fine catfish fishing with anglers reporting many fish in the 16- to 25-inch range.
Often overlooked by anglers, the Mazonia Lakes North Unit in Grundy County, 3 miles southwest of Braidwood, offers excellent fishing potential for channel catfish. The area's Gar Lake is among the better locations for this species. In fact, channel cats are present in most all of the larger water areas of Mazonia Lakes, with densities greatest in lakes that are stocked annually. During spring 2015, an IDNR survey on Gar Lake yielded channel catfish that averaged 20.5 inches long. The largest fish approached 7 pounds.
Listed as one of the state's top catfish waters, Montgomery County's Lake Lou Yaeger offers plenty of fishing action. Samplings show channel catfish range from 8- to 26.2 inches long and top the scale at 8.6 pounds. Best of all, natural reproduction is occurring in this lake and should ensure decent fishing into the future.
The water supply for Illinois' capital city may actually be one of the state's finest community lakes for catfish. In fact, the channel catfish population in Lake Springfield is excellent both in quantity and quality. Anglers can catch channel catfish in the warmer months of the year using bottom-fishing techniques with cut bait, shrimp, chicken livers or night crawlers. The largest channel catfish ever collected during a fish survey measured 27.5 inches long and weighed more than 13.5 pounds.
Among the state-operated lakes, 149-acre Sam Parr Lake holds plenty of catfish for anglers in the area of Jasper County, approximately 3 miles northeast of Newton. Fisheries biologists say catfish remain abundant in Sam Parr and should provide good fishing opportunities in the coming year. Most fish will range from 1 to 6 1/2 pounds, with larger fish up to 10 pounds common. This lake provides excellent bank-fishing opportunities. The best places to fish include the riprap along the dam, the upper ends of the two main arms of the lake, and in the backs of coves.
With all these great fishing opportunities, it is no wonder that Illinois anglers have a certain love for catfish. And, don't forget to purchase the necessary ingredients for preparing a batch of delicious and hot hush puppies for the fish fry!