Abundant (and Willing to Bite) Illinois Catfish

Don't overlook these top spots for Illinois catfish action.

By Curt Hicken

With its tradition of world-class catfishing, you can just about bet that most Illinois anglers have spent at least a portion of their free time taking advantage of the opportunities available statewide.

With everything from rivers and streams to lakes and ponds, Illinois has plenty of top-notch catfishing destinations to choose from. When it comes to catching catfish, it is difficult to find more productive waters than our many rivers and streams.

And, this is not without reason. Catfish populations exists in abundance in virtually every river and stream. In fact, many species of catfish reside in these flowing waters. Though it's the Mississippi and Illinois rivers that produce the greatest numbers of catfish, other lesser known rivers and streams are famous for their catfishing potential.

Anglers fishing the Mississippi and Illinois rivers will find most any area with structure filled with hungry catfish.

Here, surveys have revealed good numbers of channel, blue and flathead cats. In recent years, nearly half the catfish collected by IDNR biologists measured better than 15 inches in length.

When it comes to catching catfish, it is difficult to find more productive waters than Illinois' many rivers and streams. (Photo By Ron Sinfelt)

The Ohio River, too, as it flows along the state's eastern border, is another major waterway that has always been a catfishing hotspot.

Annual population surveys conducted by the IDNR show this river contains plenty of blue, flathead and channel catfish. Most common are channel cats in the 1- to 5-pound class. Biologists regularly see flatheads weighing up to 30 pounds.

Interestingly, however, it is rare that anglers consider many of our state's smaller rivers and streams when looking for a catfishing hotspot.

Best of all, a fancy boat or expensive gear is not needed to pursue forktails from these smaller rivers and streams. All that's really required is a bit of patience, a supply of bait and a good recipe for hush puppies.

There is little doubt that most all Illinois rivers contain catfish, but the Sangamon River is worthy of special consideration.

Experts say there are good numbers of fish and good recruitment throughout most of its length. The area from Springfield to Taylorville is particularly productive due to an abundance of excellent spawning habitat. The many tributaries found along this portion of the river also contain quality spawning areas.

Boat access and shore fishing areas are available at many locations along the length of the river. Access areas can be found in Springfield, along the river up to Petersburg, as well as in the New Salem State Park.

According to veteran anglers, the average Sangamon River channel catfish tips the scales anywhere from 1 to 6 pounds. And, channel cats can be found in good numbers from Springfield to Decatur and from Springfield up to Salt Creek, a distance of about seven miles.

Though similar in some ways, the Big Muddy River also has a character of its own. A meandering stream that flows through Rend Lake in Franklin County, it winds southwest and meets the Mississippi just south of Grand Tower.

Catfishing is good in the upper end of Rend Lake where Big Muddy enters the lake.

Local anglers regularly use night crawlers and fish along the riprap and in the flooded brush of the sub-impoundments. In the waters below Rend, the river flows gently through the Shawnee National Forest, where anglers will find plenty of public access areas.

This river is a deep channel but does offer some flats. In the riprap areas, many anglers prefer to use live baits, particularly during the summer.

They offer a more natural presentation. Another good bet is various large minnows when available, as well as commercial baits and chicken or turkey livers.

Except perhaps for the ever-popular bluegill, few fish species are more abundant in our three big Corps of Engineer reservoirs than the catfish.

So, it should come as no surprise that Illinois anglers rate these whiskered fish quite high on the list of the most sought-after species.

When listing the state's top catfish waters, Illinois' three big Corps of Engineer reservoirs certainly rate right among the finest.

This year, in particular, finds these sprawling reservoirs teeming with channel catfish, as well as holding excellent populations of huge flatheads.

Best of all, catching catfish is not all that difficult. Anglers at Carlyle Lake can find good fishing for channel catfish at almost every shoreline access area, as well as most areas accessible by boat.

Info on Catfish Baits

Recent years have seen heavy spring rains temporarily slowing the action. A week or two of stable weather, however, usually brings back the good fishing.

Following one of these heavy rains, the quality fishing returns to Illinois' largest reservoir within a week or so. Typically during the month of June and throughout the early weeks of July, anglers prefer to fish the shorelines of the former South Shore State Park area. The riprap found along these shorelines offers some of the lake's best catfish spawning habitat.

Many anglers prefer to use any of a variety of commercial catfish baits and fish on the bottom. Most find their best success using little, if any, weight on the line.

As summer continues, the action moves to the west side of the lake. Here, anglers prefer to fish at one of several access areas along this shoreline.

Not to be overlooked are Illinois' two other Corps of Engineer reservoirs. Good fishing at these locations begins in late May and usually continues into October.

According to reservoir biologists, Rend Lake may rate even better among the Corps lakes for providing good action for channel catfish. Some of the best fishing is already under way and continues during the months of June and July.

This is when the catfish typically move into the riprapped shorelines to spawn. It is during this time that anglers will often find concentrations of catfish along these shorelines.

Lake Shelbyville is another good choice, offering quality fishing for channel catfish. However, there is also a very good population of large flathead catfish in this lake.

Most of the big flatheads come from the waters north of the Bruce-Findlay Bridge. Here, catches of 25 pounds and larger are common occurrences.

Keep in mind that the tailwaters below each of the three Corps of Engineer reservoir dams are also terrific locations to try for catfish.

Here, the good fishing often begins early in the spring and continues throughout the fall.

The tailwaters below the Carlyle Lake Dam may be the best of the three to try for big catfish. Channel catfish in the three to five-pound category are typical with occasional catches of huge flathead catfish. This location once produced a state record flathead that tipped the scales at 64 pounds.

Northern Illinois anglers will find excellent catfish action at the Fox Chain O' Lakes. This famous waterway is located 50 miles northwest of Chicago near the cities of Antioch, Fox Lake and McHenry.

The Chain, as regulars call it, is unique from other major bodies of water in the state in that they were formed by glaciers thousands of years ago. Composed of 9 major lakes, All of the lakes contain excellent populations of channel catfish and some flathead cats.

Channel catfish populations are maintained through natural reproduction and are common in river systems. Since the Chain is part of a river system, these fish are a significant predator, relatively abundant and caught by a lot of anglers. Recent population samplings reveal channel catfish ranging in size from 10 to 28 inches long and weighing up to 7 pounds. In 2015, 59 percent of the channel catfish collected exceeded 18 inches in length, 50 percent were over 22 inches long, and 11 percent were over 24 inches long.

Though not as common, flathead catfish are present in the Chain O Lakes above the McHenry Dam, but commonly targeted below the McHenry Dam south to Dayton.

North Spring Lake is a 578-acre body of water located north and west of Manito, Ill., adjacent to the Illinois River. This location is an elongated backwater lateral marsh of the Illinois River. It was separated by a high levee from the Illinois River in 1916. The North Lake was separated from the South Lake in 1978 by a stop log structure and a spillway for discharge water.

An excellent population of catchable-sized channel catfish is found at North Spring Lake. Best fishing for these fish is found along the Northwest levee and on the outside of the aquatic vegetation beds. And, the best fishing for channel catfish is at night from May through July. The preferred baits are cut bait and minnows.

Central Illinois' Lake Springfield yields excellent flathead and channel catfish angling. Located along Interstate 55 south of Springfield, the lake has bottom structure and other spawning conditions that are nearly ideal for cats.

Since recreational boat operators use this lake heavily during the summer months, local anglers prefer to drift-fish these waters in the evening once the power-boaters go home.

Shoreline anglers will find numerous public access areas to enjoy their fishing action. Most of these sites are located in the area near the dam.

Though commercial catfish baits do yield success, most Springfield Lake anglers prefer to use chicken livers, leeches and crayfish.

According to recent reports, the average Lake Springfield channel cat weighs up to 8 pounds. And fish in the 1- to 5-pound class are in excellent health and condition. Recent population samplings have found good numbers of flatheads along the riprap.

Sangchris Lake is another central Illinois catfish angling hotspot. Located only 14 miles to the southeast of the Capital City, Sangchris Lake is easily accessed by taking Interstate 55 north to Kincaid and then heading east to the lake.

With three major arms (each with its own angling personality), the lake is a cooling reservoir where water is rotated hot to cool in a counter-clockwise direction. The east arm of the lake is out of the loop and feels little effect from the warm water discharge.

Interestingly, catfish tend to reproduce too well in many of these cooling reservoirs. As a result there are lots of fish whose growth appears stunted.

However, the situation began to change several years ago. It was at that point that the fishery suddenly improved for no apparent reason.

The numbers declined, but the size of the average catfish increased. At present, the population is very good in both size and health. Individual catfish tend to be in the 3- to 5-pound class.

Most fish are taken by anglers drifting baits with the current created by the hot water discharge. At times when the power plant is closed down, anglers drift fish with the prevailing wind.

Crab Orchard Lake is a 6,965-acre impoundment located in the Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge between Marion and Carbondale in Williamson County. It might be called a catfisherman's dream location.

The Crab Orchard Lake fishery is cooperatively managed by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. A user permit is required to access the Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge.

Boat access is available at numerous locations, and shoreline fishing can be very productive. In fact, some of the best catfishing action is often enjoyed by shoreline anglers.

Get Your Fish On.

Plan your next fishing and boating adventure here.

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