The opportunity to tangle with a largemouth bass is no more than an hour's drive no matter where you live in the Prairie State.(March 2008).
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
The largemouth bass is Illinois' most prevalent game fish and the opportunity to tangle with a big bucketmouth is often less than an hour's drive no matter where you live in the Prairie State.
Most northern Illinois anglers must wait another month before pursuing bass on open water. The time spent chopping a hole in the ice could be used to travel to southern Illinois where bassing never really ends.
The bottom third of the state has more bass water and fewer people than the other two-thirds combined. Conventional wisdom dictates those demographics should make the successful pursuit of Boss Hawg easier, but that isn't necessarily the case.
North of Vandalia, bass fishing is a recreational pursuit for most anglers, but south of the old state capitol, bass fishing is a religion with serious cult overtones.
The epicenter may be Carterville, a town of 4,616, its location marked precisely by GPS coordinates painted on Fred Washburn's garage. Washburn, the creator of Cottonmouth Lures, has cashed more than 300 tournament checks over the years. His protégés and members of the Cottonmouth Lures fishing team will tell you that bassing on the best southern Illinois lakes is not much different from chasing muskies in the cool blue north -- you fish hard for maybe a half-dozen good bites a day.
Technique and subtle nuance are the keys to consistently hooking up with quality fish simply because downstate bass see so much intelligent fishing pressure. Continuing education for bass never ends here.
With weed growth becoming a factor in the next several weeks, the pursuit of bass will get truly serious again.
Dad always used to say you gain a week on spring for every 100 miles traveled south. Upstate anglers should take this pearl to heart. It's time to charge the trolling batteries and check the trailer bearings. This year is gonna be great!
LAKES OF THE SHAWNEE
Venture south of a line that runs from Murphysboro to Harrisburg and you are within a stone's throw of the Shawnee National Forest.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service based in the Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge manages the forest's fisheries. Stop at the visitor's center for information, and then follow a blacktopped path to the visitor pond. A 20-inch one-bass limit is in effect, so your chances of hooking a "legal" fish are outstanding.
Crab Orchard, Devil's Kitchen and Little Grassy lakes, situated on the cusp of the Shawnee, are outstanding bass fisheries. In the middle lies pond A-41, a 10-minute walk from the access parking lot. Don your waders, tie on a suspending stick bait, shove a few spinnerbaits and tubes in your fishing vest and take a walk. Don't forget the camera.
Access to Dutchman Lake requires a backcountry road trip through the bowels of the Shawnee. If there is any space left on your digital camera's memory card, it may get used here. There are some whopping big bass swimming in Dutchman.
Truth is, you could fish a different lake in the Shawnee National Forest every day and run out of summer before running out of water. Fisheries vary in size from 1/3-acre ponds to lakes over 100 acres with launch facilities. Because some effort is required, most southern Illinois bassers don't bother probing these lakes. If you're not ashamed to call a canoe your bass boat, these hidden treasures are bassing heaven.
For more information, call the Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge at (618) 997-3344 or the Williamson County Convention and Visitors Bureau at (800) GEESE-99.
This 1,750-acre reservoir near Carbondale is a favorite among Saluki anglers despite a 10-horsepower motor restriction. Realtors who are serious bassers do well on these deep, clear waters. After all, success is often a matter of location, location and location.
Dead cedar trees covertly placed by local anglers under cover of darkness are perpetual hotspots for the bass and crappies that hide among the branches. A key to success is knowing the whereabouts of trees on the lake's bottom. Casting with the grain of limbs results in few hang-ups, but casting from a different angle virtually ensures a snagged lure and no fish.
Best chances for a wallhanger come at night on surface baits, with April and November the best months to nail that fish of dreams.
For more information, call (618) 687-4546.
This scenic, sprawling lake near Murphysboro is a popular destination for muskie anglers and is a frequent site of bass tourneys throughout the year. Catching bass on these 2,750 acres is seldom a problem -- just target weed edges, rocky points or points with woody structure.
Early in the season, bass tuck into the backs of coves in the Johnson Creek arm of the lake. Water clarity changes remarkably from one end of the lake to the other and that affects water temperature. Try a white tandem spinnerbait or crawdad and orange Rat-L-Trap.
If you only have a few hours to fish, try Lake Murphysboro in Murphysboro State Park. It's full of bass but nearly forgotten by serious bass anglers.
For more information, call the Top of the Hill Bait Shop at (618) 684-2923.
LAKE OF EGYPT
Bass turn on quickly in this Southern Illinois Power Cooperative cooling lake that straddles the Williamson/Johnson county line. Although there is a public launch in the Shawnee Forest at the east end of the lake, most prefer to access the water from one of several marinas where a launch fee is charged.
One of the best big-bass days of my life happened on Egypt about 10 years ago with Carbondale restaurateur Frank Hiller. A monster spring cold front had passed and Frank figured we would be better off fishing for crappies. Crappie fishing was a little slow, so I started throwing a white PeeWee jig-and-pig.
On the sixth cast, a 6-pound bucketmouth ate the jig. Frank said this was a fluke, but a 5-pounder inhaled the jig a couple of casts later. Another fluke, he said, but when the third big mossback started flopping on the surface, Frank switched to a jig and proceeded to give me a fishing lesson.
For more information, cal
l Pyramid Acres Marina at (618) 964-1184.
This cooling lake, a short hop from the state capitol, isn't much more than a three-hour drive from any point in the state, making it an outstanding destination for an early-season bass trip. Because water temperature dictates fish location, you'll want to target visible cover in the warm center arm of the lake through the end of April.
A 25-horsepower limit is in place along with a 15-inch minimum, three-bass daily limit.
Sangchris is home to both huge stripers and the state's biggest crappies. Want bass? No problem -- shad-patterned hard baits and plastic worms, pitched close to cover. Get the net!
For more information, call (217) 498-9208.
EAST FORK LAKE
This eastern Illinois lake owned by the city of Olney is a great place to catch plenty of bass and get a shot at a 6-pound-plus trophy. There are several productive points on this 973-acre fishery that become fish magnets once water temperatures warm to 50 degrees.
Twitching stick baits in clown or Nashiki patterns and allowing the lures to hover for up to a minute in place may produce solid "deadstick" strikes. One pattern, an orange Rat-L-Trap, is effective on the East Fork from early April until the water temperature reaches 43 degrees in coves with northern exposures. After water temperatures reach 48, you must slow the retrieve considerably. But hit that 43- to 48-degree window and you may be on the way to a taxidermist.
For more information, call (618) 395-4787.
GILLESPIE NEW CITY
Bassers on the western side of the state find exceptional action on the 272-acre Gillespie New City Reservoir. This is primarily a numbers lake, but you always have a shot at a much bigger fish.
Fishing picks up in mid-April and remains good until summer arrives. Riprap along the dam is always worth a few casts. The most productive pattern is a spinnerbait worked over submergent milfoil, especially along inside and outside turn contours.
As is the case with many reservoirs, you must purchase an access sticker. While you have your wallet out, head over to the 84-acre Staunton City Reservoir in Macoupin County.
Water clarity is exceptional and requires a finesse approach with smaller lures to entice larger fish. Recent DNR fisheries surveys indicated that nearly 40 percent of bass biomass exceeds 3 pounds, so an honest shot at an 8-pounder is possible.
For more information about Gillespie reservoir, call (618) 362-6363 or (618) 635-8356 for information about Staunton.
MILL CREEK LAKE
Ten bucks is a lot to pay for a lottery ticket. But it will get you on the water at Clark County's Mill Creek Lake, one of the best big-bass fisheries in the state.
This 811-acre water body is located in Mill Creek County Park and offers camping, boat rental and other amenities.
Fishing picks up in late April. Target the backs of coves first. A real killer lure is a 4-inch ringworm in red shad pattern or black and blue.
There are plenty of nooks and crannies in this lake's 37 miles of shoreline. Electronics is a major key to success here for most of the fishing year. Numerous fish cribs and bundled Christmas trees have been placed around the lake in deeper water to hold fish now and after the spawn.
For more information, call (217) 826-2034.
If there's a spot in your den just achin' for a trophy bass mount, this Jasper County cooling lake may be the shortest distance to a heavily stretched string in the Land of Lincoln.
March and April are the best times to fish these waters with shad patterns very effective. If I only had one bait to throw, I would throw a green pumpkin pepper, Chompers-skirted hula grub on a 1/8-ounce stand-up jighead near some wood -- especially the two stumps paralleling the shore.
There is a popular saying among anglers -- "I've never lost a little fish. The bass that broke my line and my heart three years ago was no little fish."
A three-fish daily, 18-inch minimum is in place as is a 25-horsepower limit on motors. Catching 50 fish in an average day is not out of the question and several may be in excess of 4 pounds. If you catch one heavier than 10 pounds, subtract an eighth-ounce for the weight of that rusty stand-up jighead.
For further information about Newton Lake, call (618) 783-3478.
Like many of our top spring bass waters, this 1,000-acre Montgomery County gem near Hillsboro is a cooling lake. Like other cooling lakes, you'll find the best fishing is in the warmest water this time of year.
IDNR fisheries biologist Jeff Pontnack rated this water as "one of the best in the state for producing good catches of 2- to 4-pound bass."
Coffeen is brimming with cookie cutter 15- and 16-inch fish that aggressively chase different presentations.
Coffeen is an early-season lake, so you may be better off fishing elsewhere after May 1, but those Coffeen bass will keep you busy between now and Mother's Day. For more information, call (217) 537-3351.
Outstanding public bass waters north of Peoria are rare, but a new fishery near Princeton is semi-public and anyone is welcome to fish every Friday and Saturday.
The rest of the week requires an annual membership costing $300.
If you come to Hennepin-Hooper, a reclaimed drainage lake under private management, leave your deep-running crankbaits at home -- the average depth is 3 feet with a very soft bottom.
Because the water is so shallow, weed growth becomes a factor by the time the lake opens May 1, boats are restricted to electric trolling motors only.
Three hundred dollars may seem a pretty steep price to chase bass, but in northern Illinois, premium bass fishing has a price. This semi-private water is still less expensive than buying property at either Apple Canyon or Galena Territories in Jo Daviess County where only property owners and their guests may access two lakes that are as good or better than any other bass fisheries in the state.
For more information about Hennepin-Hooper Lake, call the Princeton Chamber of Commerce at (815) 875-2616.
This 318-acre DeKalb County fishery is the best public bass lake north of Peoria.
Shabbona should be the template for future lakes in Illinois. The landscape was left essential
ly intact when the lake was flooded, including the buildings and silo of an entire farm.
That structure and an old roadbed and timber piles were augmented with cribs, rockpiles and other structure.
Beginning in mid-April, you may want to throw an orange Rat-L-Trap when the water temperature in the electric trolling motor area is between 43 and 48 degrees. That area and the nearby shoreline offer outstanding topwater action at dawn and dusk.
DNR fisheries surveys indicate an outstanding largemouth population, according to biologist Kenny Clodfelter. Catching these fish consistently requires a precise in-your-face presentation in close proximity to structure.
For more information, call (815) 824-2106.
MISSISSIPPI RIVER --
Pool No. 13
This 30,000-acre Mississippi River pool has countless places for bass -- primarily largemouths -- to hide. Fishing is good throughout the summer and into the fall with fish relating heavily to weeds, wood and rocks at certain times of the year.
Because river levels and the forage base influence bass location to a great extent, there are several things to look for when fishing this potentially hazardous water.
Weedy points of backwater islands where two channels converge are always good places to break out a search lure like a tandem spinnerbait. Any point that an isolated slough dumps into a side channel is also worth a couple of casts.
Pool No. 13 is a veritable sea of aquatic vegetation after summer arrives. When you see any type of wood in the weeds, fish it. Otherwise, look for water at least 4 feet deep adjacent to the weeds.
On the main river, rocky wing dams can be productive in late summer if the river is low. Keep one eye on the sky, however, watching for dive-bombing gulls chasing baitfish.
For further information about Pool No. 13, call Milo & Beaver's Gas at (815) 273-3000.
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