June 17, 2019
By Tim Holschlag
This baby had power! Hip-deep in the flow, I’d hooked three nice fish already, but this one was truly impressive.
Fifty, then 60 feet downstream, it streaked away. Then a spectacular jump, and there was no mistake, one fine smallmouth was on the line.
Several long minutes and two more jumps later, 17 inches of beautiful bronze finally came to my hand.
Sure, this was a bigger-than-average smallie, but all the fish I caught that day were terrific fighters. And I wasn’t in some far-off water, and I didn’t even have a boat. The Kankakee River, just south of Chicago, is an outstanding resource and it proved itself that day, as it has many times for many happy anglers.
If you haven’t experienced the Kankakee’s fine fishing, maybe it’s time to do it this season. Although the Kankakee is a large river, it’s very fishing friendly. From the town of Bourbonnais to its junction with the Illinois River, it is good smallmouth water. Even better, it can be fished in a wide variety of ways. You can use a canoe, a kayak or a larger boat, plus you can wade this river when flows are down, and there are also numerous shore fishing spots.
BEST RIVER SECTIONS
On-foot access is especially good in the 11-mile section of the river that flows through Kankakee River State Park. There are parking spots on both sides of the river in the state park, and biking and walking paths along the river also offer walk-in access. This part of the river holds generous numbers of smallies, plus a variety of “bonus species” such as northern pike, catfish, walleyes and rock bass.
Downstream of the state park, all the way to the I-55 bridge, the Kankakee also offers good fishing. This section has limited shore access, so floating by some type of watercraft is the best way to go. Altogether, the Kankakee River has 25 miles of good smallmouth water, from the upstream end of the park near Bourbonnais to a little past Interstate 55, with ample opportunities for wading, shore and float anglers.
MORE FISHING SECTIONS
The Kankakee spreads out and changes character in its lower reaches as it nears the Illinois River. Rocky substrates decline and so does the number of smallies. But there are still various fish species to be had, including smallmouth, walleyes, catfish, carp and others.
A jig tipped with a minnow or piece of crawler and worked around cover, or in pools and deeper outside bends, can offer a smorgasbord of species. And this is the place to use a motor-powered watercraft to cover water. The secret is to keep moving, picking up a few fish per spot, and you’ll likely wind up with an impressive mixed bag.
Looking much farther upstream, you can also find some fishing near the Indiana border. From Momence upriver to Indiana, there are several canoe landings. While smallmouth densities are lower than downriver, there are fish in the rocky stretches. Hit a spot then move on to the next.
THE KANKAKEE THROUGH THE SEASONS
During May and early June, many smallmouths will still be spawning. This is also when the river often has strong currents and lower clarity from spring rains. This is the time to target slower-flowing bank eddies. Many fish spawn in these spots if they have a gravel bottom.
A mistake too many anglers make is fishing these bank lies too fast. A slow-sinking lure is best, like a lightly weighted 4-inch finesse worm or a 3-inch grub on just a 1/16-ounce jighead. This allows you to give fish a slow-sinking, fluttering-down offering. This presentation is often better than a faster-moving crankbait or spinner that leaves the strike zone too quickly.
Another early-season location with potential is a creek mouth. These often clear up more quickly than the river itself, and they often tend to be a little warmer.
This clearer and/or warmer water can attract smallmouth, especially during spring and early summer. Davis, Rock and Rayns Creek come into the Kankakee from the north side, but there are at least 7 or 8 total small tributaries that have potential and are marked on maps.
River smallies get cranked up during summer, a prime time for them. Many will move into mid-river locations behind boulders and in depressions a little deeper than the rest of the bottom. Some fish will also hunt craws and baitfish along rocky shorelines if the water there is at least 2 feet deep. As summer wears on, weed growth can also develop and fish can stage behind clumps of vegetation.
On days when bronzebacks are heavily feeding, covering lots of water, using thin-profile crankbaits or fat-bodied cranks in crayfish colors, will pay off. And during the lower light of evenings, topwaters are terrific on the Kankakee. Small buzzbaits can draw up fish, but the venerable Tiny Torpedo, with its single small propeller, worked slowly is often an even better producer.
After a summer rain, the Kankakee’s tributary mouths can be hotspots. During rains, various nutrients come down the creeks that attract minnows, which in turn draw the smallmouths. And sometimes even intermittent incoming trickles that are dry much of the time can attract fish when they are flowing. They might only hold fish for a day or two after a rain, but those fortunate to hit them at the right times can really score on concentrated feeding fish.
This is when smallmouths really turn to eating minnows and can be found feeding in deeper river runs. If water temperatures are still in the mid-50s or warmer, fish will chase hard baits retrieved at slow to moderate speeds. Working twitchbaits like a Rapala X-Rap or similar-type plugs against the current can produce bone-jarring strikes.
Once the river really cools, the cold-blooded bronzeback’s metabolism slows, too. Now the fish seek out slower current pools, extra-deep bank eddies and slack water below islands. A slowly worked jig dressed with marabou or bucktail can produce, and so can an in-line spinner fly like a Mepps. With a spinner, let it sink nearly to the bottom, then retrieve it very slowly and steadily, only fast enough to keep the blade spinning.
There are two secrets to late-season success. The first is keeping your presentation deep and slow enough to interest sluggish bass. The second essential is to accurately target where cold-water fish concentrate. Many of the riffles, runs and bank lies where smallies fed in the summer are devoid of fish in late fall. So, try different slow-current locations until you hit fish, then slowly and thoroughly work the spot.
As a river guide for nearly 30 years, I’ve observed a flock of river fishers. Some do a good job of effectively working the water, but plenty of them don’t. I commonly see two mistakes being made with their watercraft.
One mistake is to treat a river like a lake, trying to use a standard lake boat with its large outboard motor. While you might be able to use an open-prop outboard on the lower Kankakee during the high flows of spring, river levels are generally much lower as the season wears on. Then rocky riffles, gravel flats and sandbars are all lurking just below the surface to hang you up or damage your prop or boat.
The other mistake comes from the other end of the watercraft spectrum. Many guys have a bare-bones canoe or kayak with no anchor system, and no paddle holder on their kayak or very uncomfortable seats on their canoe. Anglers in these crafts are constantly uncomfortable, and river currents quickly push them out of position as soon they put down the paddle and get ready to cast.
I use a variety of watercraft depending on river size and depths, but my canoe, kayak and jon boat all have easy-to-operate anchor systems, good oars and comfortable seats. Unfortunately, most watercraft don’t come from the manufacturer well-rigged for river angling. But there are relatively easy ways for you to turn your craft into a river-fishing machine. There is good information on rigging and effective use of river craft in the book “River Smallmouth Fishing” available at smallmouthangler.com. This informative book also has a section about the Kankakee and other Illinois smallmouth rivers.
Another common mistake I see float-fishers make is trying to bite off more river than they can effectively fish in a day. The Kankakee is good sized and has lots of fish-holding spots per river mile. Using a slower-moving craft like a kayak, canoe or small jon boat, just 5 to 7 miles of water is plenty to cover in an 8-hour float.
If you try to do more, you will spend most of your time paddling or rowing, not fishing. If you get a late start to the day and have too many miles to float, you may find yourself still on the river that evening in gathering darkness — not a smart (or safe) scenario.
Even fellas with large, fast-moving jet-powered boats often try to cover too much water. They know a spot way downriver by Wilmington they like to fish, and another upriver by Rayns Creek and more near the mouth of Rock Creek. So, they race up and down the river trying to hit multiple far-flung hotspots.
They end up spending more time burning gas rather than fishing. And high-speed boating hither and yon on the river (especially when water levels are low) is dangerous even with shallow draft jet-drive boats. So reduce the distance you cover per trip, and use the anchor to stop and fish the better locations thoroughly.
Fly-fishing has become quite popular for river smallies the past 20 years, and the Kankakee is a good place to do it. Summer is the best time for a wading angler to fly-fish the river.
A 6-, 7- or 8-weight rod is good for the river, and a variety of minnow-imitating subsurface patterns will produce fish. And in the evening, fish will rise to Blockhead Poppers. Taking them on top is a very exciting and effective way to enjoy an evening on the river.
There is also a fly-fishing guide service on the Kankakee for those who want to do a float trip: Big River Fly Fishing (815-263-2776).
No matter when or how you catch Kankakee smallies, each fish is a valuable treasure that should be carefully released to grow larger, spawn and be caught again.