March 01, 2018
By Don Gasaway
Illinois crappie fishing heats up with the temps, and these waters are among the best in the state.
Perhaps the most popular panfish in Illinois is the crappie. Found in abundant numbers throughout the state, crappies come in both white and black subspecies as well as hybrid and black-nose varieties.
The latter is a stocked subspecies introduced for biological studying of crappie development. When they're stocked in a body of water in specific years the Illinois Department of Natural Resources can monitor their development.
During 2017, the overall size structure of many southern Illinois crappies increased. More and more lakes produced 2-pound plus fish. One lake produced a new state-record hybrid crappie. The 4-pound, 8.8-ounce fish was caught in Kinkaid Lake by Ryan Povolish.
For anglers, the crappie is a fun and tasty species whose habits, although predictable, can make them a challenge. Crappies may stage on one side of a stump, with some caught by an angler. Then the pod may move only a few inches away and will not be tempted to take the angler's offering.
As a general pattern in spring, crappies are inclined to stage in shallow water near deeper water. Crappies have favorite spots and will return to them year after year.
Following the spawn they move to deep open water where they again suspend near structure. The darker the water the more likely they are to favor the structure location. If shoreline cover such as docks and boathouses is present, often the water is deep there as well and the crappies like the protection afforded. Under such structure are areas protected from bright sunshine.
Post-spawn fish like water 20 to 25 feet deep. The water temperature is usually 55 to 58 degrees. They prefer at least 2 feet of stained water above them. During the summer, check for fish deep first and then try more shallow locations. In fall and into winter crappies will move into water as deep as 50 feet.
During late winter and early spring look for crappies in colored water with a windward shoreline and a dark soft bottom. Also check tributary streams, shallow water and heat absorbing cover such as wood. If flooding is present they move up into flooded vegetation. They will be in more shallow water on dark, warm days and deeper on clear cold days. It is better to dip bait and lures into these areas using long "crappie poles" as opposed to casting. Once the temperature reaches 60 degrees or above they begin their annual spawning action.
Now, let's highlight a few of the top crappie fishing destinations as recommended by anglers and biologists who pursue crappies annually.
Although the crappies from southern Illinois seem to be bigger there are also good crappies fishing locations in the northern part of the state. Stocking programs from state, county and city governmental organizations maintain good fishing opportunities in parks and forest preserves.
Just west of the Chicago metropolitan area in DeKalb County, this 318-acre lake contains habitat structures of rock or brush piles. The original river channel can still be located and standing timber is present.
Specifically built for recreational use, the lake is located near Shabbona. There are 318 acres of surface water available for fishing. Depths range up to 40 feet deep. The average depth is 17.5 feet. There are 6.5 miles of shoreline.
The lake has both white and black crappies. They are about even in population. The white crappies average about 8.5 inches in length, with the black crappies averaging about 8 inches. The largest white crappie recorded is 12 inches, and the largest black was 10 inches.
There is a two-lane boat ramp with trailer parking adjacent. Boat rentals are also available.
This 584-acre lake is located in suburban Cook County between Elk Grove Village and Schaumburg, Ill. The average depth of the main pool is 5.5 feet, with the deepest parts being 16 feet. The main pool and the south pool are the prime locations to find black crappies. Built as a flood control project it is located within the Ned Brown Forest Preserve.
The fish range from 6 to 10 inches in length with most being in the upper part of that range. There are reports of a few large black crappies. Key to catching fish is to work the structure areas.
In colder weather ice-fishing is popular. The ice must be at least 4 inches thick in order to be safe. For those not interested in ice-fishing the warm water discharge on Salt Creek below the main dam is good.
The rest of the year anglers tend to work the fishing walls located in various areas of the lake. Boaters can search submerged points, channels and flats throughout the lake. Concrete ramps are available to launch boats at the south and main pools.
For more information call the Forest Preserve District of Cook County- Fisheries (708) 403-6951.
When anglers get together to discuss honey holes for crappies the central part of the state seems neglected. Andy Lehman of ACC Crappie Stix is a former crappie guide and has fished many of the lakes of central Illinois. He recommends two in particular — Lake Shelbyville and Lake Decatur. Damming of river systems created both.
This 3,093-acre lake has a maximum depth of 22 feet and an average depth of 6 feet. The deeper water is from the south end of the lake close to the dam up to the U.S. Highway 36 Bridge. There are public boat launches available with the City of Decatur.
There are some fish-attracting structures in the lake. They contain materials such as plastic drain pipes, wooden pallets and discarded Christmas trees.
According to the district fisheries biologist Mike Mounce there are abundant black and white crappies present, as well as some hybrids. Fishing prospects are excellent. Crappies up to 14-plus inches in length and over a pound in weight are present.
To control flooding, Lake Shelbyville water levels bounce all over the place.
Surface water temperatures and passing cold fronts make finding fish sometimes difficult. As a rule once temperatures reach the 55- to 58-degree range the crappie will be in about 4 to 6 feet of water spawning. Later they move down near the thermocline in about 15 to 20 feet of water only to return to the shallows in the fall.
Located in Shelby and Moultrie counties, Lake Shelbyville is over 11,000 acres of water with a shoreline of approximately 172 miles. The damming of the Kaskaskia and Okaw rivers formed the lake. It is accessible by Interstate 57 and U.S. Route 16 near Mattoon, Ill.
In addition to the lake proper there is addition fishing available in the Kaskaskia River just below the spillway in both the West Okaw and Kaskaskia rivers upstream from the lake. The fish seek out debris such as logs and tree stumps. Crappies move back and forth between shallow and deep water depending upon their temperature comfort zone.
Both black and white crappie are present. IDNR surveys find the black crappie about 7 or 8 inches in length. The white crappies tend to be 9 to 11 inches. The body condition of both is good. Anglers report catches of white crappie up to 15 inches and black crappie up to 12 inches.
The IDNR encourages anglers to keep their limit of fish under 10 inches in an effort to help improve growth and recruitment to larger sizes.
Shawn Hirst, an IDNR fisheries biologist in the southwestern part of the state, recommends Kinkaid for size when fishing for crappies. For numbers he adds Cedar Lake. As a hidden gem he likes the Pyramid State Park near Pinckneyville, Ill.
Kinkaid Lake is located in Jackson County near Murphysboro, Ill. This rather interesting lake has very deep channels and shallow coves. The deeper water is in the southern end near the spillway dam. The lake is 2,335-surface acres with 84 miles of shoreline.
There are some no-wake zones, especially in the northwest portion. Commercial development is limited to the power plant on the east side and the marina between there and the dam at the south end of the lake.
Summer is a popular season with recreational boaters. Anglers seek refuge in the coves and shallow areas during those months. White, black and hybrid crappies are present. Anglers catch numerous fish over 2 pounds each year.
Many fish attractors are located in the coves and along stretches of the main channel. For a map of fish attractors, e-mail Shawn.Hirst@Illinois.gov.
The other southwestern Illinois water recommended by Hirst is Cedar Lake, a 1,750-acre reservoir. The lake is the property of the City of Carbondale and the U.S. Forest Service as part of the Shawnee National Forest.
Hirst reports that the lake contains an excellent crappie population of both white and black crappies. Anglers catch fish over 2 pounds each year. About a third of the fish surveyed are over 9 inches in length and 17 percent are over 10 inches. As with Kinkaid Lake, there are maps of the fish attractor locations available by email.
Lake of Egypt
Lake of Egypt is a 2,300-acre reservoir and power plant cooling lake in Williamson County. It is a well-known crappie producer. As the IDNR does not do fish surveys on this privately owned lake one has to rely upon local anglers for information as to size of fish. It is accessible via Interstate 57 south of Marion.
Milfoil and other weed vegetation are abundant along the shoreline to a depth of about 8 to 12 feet. Warm winters allow the food and vegetation to survive.
The lake has approximately 93 miles of shoreline, with an average depth of about 18 feet. The maximum depth is 52 feet.
Power plant generators keep water temperatures above 60 degrees all year. Winds push warmer surface waters into coves attracting baitfish. Undisturbed by wind, the warm water will follow the original creek channel south from the power plant.
Local fishing guide Kyle Schoenherr fishes the lake often. He finds the size of crappies to average around 12 or 13 inches in length. Both black and white crappies are present. Locals do report catching an occasional hybrid.
The crappies tend to hold in the 5- to 7-foot range of water, moving shallower to spawn. The fish follow creek channels. Any place where the creek channel crosses a point, conditions are good for finding fish. In deeper water, the fish tend to stage in a pre-spawn pattern.
Other good areas to explore include weed beds found on the flats in center of the lake. Again, the best action seems to come in 7 to 15 feet of water early and late in the day.
All three of the lake's marinas contain launch ramps, food and fuel.