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Small Waters For Lunker Largemouths

Small Waters For Lunker Largemouths

Some of the heftiest Illinois largemouths come from our smallest public waters! Here are some of our state's best small public largemouth lakes. (March 2009)

Largemouth bass are undoubtedly the Prairie State's most sought-after game fish and some of the heftiest species come from the smallest public waters. Here's an assessment -- from north to south -- of our state's best small public lakes for largemouths.

There are few things more thrilling than dropping artificial bait near underwater structure and reeling it boatward with sporadic jerks of the wrist. Each cast offers the anticipation of a world-class largemouth snatching the bait with the force of a runaway jet ski. Ten, 50 or 100 no-count casts only heighten the expectations for die-hard bass anglers.

But what about the hordes that aren't die-hard bass fishermen? What about the average Joe who loves catching big bass, but prefers avoiding big-tournament waters covered with 150-horsepower boats buzzing from cove to cove? What about a parent who wants his child to experience the excitement of hooking a 16-inch-or-better largemouth? Is there life after Illinois' large impoundments?

It's true, Illinois is home to some of the best big-water bass lakes in the Midwest -- Rend, Carlyle, Shelbyville, Clinton, Coffeen, Heidecke lakes and Fox Chain O'Lakes -- just to name a few. Though we can fault our Illinois Department of Natural Resources in many areas of administration of late, it has for decades done a superior job of managing and maintaining the state's fisheries.

Why are large impoundments tough fishing?

Fishing clubs and tournaments have done wonders for Illinois fisheries. They have spawned awareness of catch-and-release, they have boosted the economy of many rural areas in Illinois, and most important, they have generated excitement for Prairie State anglers who would otherwise be couch potatoes complaining about honey-dos, gas prices and economic hard times. I've participated in many fishing tournaments myself, so don't take this wrong, but when it comes to a relaxing day of bass fishing with family or friends, I avoid big water. (Continued)


Though 95 percent of all tournament fishermen are courteous sportsmen, it only takes one inconsiderate wake-thrower or bank-hog to aggravate my outing. And this happens more often on 1,000-acre-plus lakes with large, sanctioned tournaments. Yes, even a few of Illinois' small impoundments have occasional bass-fishing competitions, but these angler rivalries are usually unsanctioned, friendly contests on waters with motor restrictions.

Bass-fishing success for average anglers is more low-odds on big lakes due to several factors. First, many of Illinois' large impoundments were built for flood control of inland tributaries. The Corps of Engineers dammed several creeks and small rivers that annually posed problems for bottomland farmers. Though these federal undertakings have greatly enhanced Illinois' fishery, bass-catching consistency in these impoundments suffers more poor than good days during spring months. The variance of springtime water levels in Corps lakes has also hurt bass spawning.

The second issue with success on large, regulated impoundments is water clarity and the over-abundance of diverse structure and water depth. The constant rise and regulated fall of Corps lakes saturate water with silt. And since bass are primarily visual stalkers, water clarity inhibits the effectiveness of many artificial baits. Riprap, flooded timber and multiple feeder streams spread throughout a 1,000-acre-plus Corps impoundment makes for needle-in-the-haystack fishing. This is especially true when fluctuating spring water temperatures drive largemouths to varying depths, some of which are tough to effectively fish.

A lesson about bass-catching consistency can be learned from two of the best fishermen I've ever known, Terry Mayhall from Eureka and Dick Trumbull of Rockford. Either of these guys could walk into an outhouse with a rod and tackle box and soon emerge with a stringer of big bass. Their secret for finding and catching lunker largemouths, or any fish species, is twofold.

Foremost, both men wholeheartedly believe there is always some nook or cranny on any lake where bass may be taunted into feeding regardless of water conditions or time of day. This attitude drives them to continually move or spot fish until strike-prone bass are located. Though both anglers own top-end fish-finders, they use them more for detecting structure changes than fish finding (this is in regard to largemouth and smallmouth bass only). Moving too close over the top of shallower structure can inhibit actively feeding bass causing them to move into deeper water.

Since 4-pound-plus largemouths rarely gather in sizeable numbers, it is crucial to keep on the move until you uncover a honeyhole or two.

Both Mayhall and Trumbull work numerous baits before hitting on something that works. After an hour or two of unsuccessful fishing, Mayhall, for example, may have 20 or more baits hanging in a corner of the boat. However, he's always the first to catch bass on slow days. And I can't remember ever outnumbering him on any outing. Trumbull is a bit more organized, but will also deplete his tackle box in an attempt to hit the right note with bass.

The bass-locating mentality of these two elite anglers is, of course, more productive on small lakes and ponds than on large reservoirs where it may require multiple days to plug away at various depths, structures and feeder streams. And, yes, both Mayhall and Trumbull have favorite baits but refuse to be stuck on them, especially on sluggish days. They also vary their retrieval rate and wrist action depending on water temperature and clarity. Bottom line: Keep moving and changing baits when bass are lethargic.

Intelligent, unfailing bass anglers are not egotistic. By that I mean they aren't too proud to ask local anglers and bait shop owners what largemouths are hitting on during any particular season or condition. I've seen them spew out 10-question quizzes that eventually made the circle. It's a rare bass fisherman who would refuse to help a fellow angler. The exception, of course, is pre-tournament time.

In regard to bait selection, remember -- the only effective bait is the one that bass are hitting on any given day. Don't pick a favorite bait and ride that dead horse into the ground.

Lake Carlton
Though this 77-acre Whiteside County lake near Morrison is renowned for muskies, it also has an excellent largemouth fishery with good numbers of 4- to 6-pound bass and a few 6- to 8-pounders.

The black bass fishing regulations for Lake Carlton are a 14-

inch minimum length limit and a one-per-day creel. These stringent regulations were enacted for this Morrison-Rockwood State Park lake because of its small size and popularity for big bucketmouths. The 2008 fisheries study of Carlton suggests that its bass fishing will be "excellent" for years to come. The study also noted that six strong year-classes of bass were present in the lake. Prime fishing areas include the edges of weedbeds, brushpiles and fish cribs.

A boat ramp, boat rentals and camping are available at Carlton. A 10-horsepower maximum applies to this lake. Carlton is the No. 1 northern pick of IDNR fisheries chief Steve Pallo.

Johnson Sauk Trail Lake
This relatively shallow, fertile 58-acre state park lake in Henry County near Kewanee was plagued with dense vegetation until the introduction of triploid grass carp in 1990. The results were excellent until Eurasian milfoil started to establish itself. The lake has a strong bass population with good numbers of 4- to 6-pound fish. The lake currently has a 14-inch minimum length restriction and six-fish creel limit. It was restocked with more than 4,000 4.7-inch largemouths in 2001.

Sauk Trail's 2008 fishery study showed five to six solid year-classes present. Prime bass-fishing areas include the edges of weedbeds, brushpiles and sunken trees. Most trophy bass are caught in the spring and late fall. Weedless baits and topwater-running baits are best. Boat rentals and camping are available, but outboard motors aren't allowed, not even electric.

Banner Marsh
A 2007 fall survey of this Peoria-Fulton County multiplex of small- and medium-sized lakes indicated the slot length limit was having a positive effect on the bass population. Creel possession outside the slot limit is three fish. The 350-acre Wheel Lake at normal pool is composed of a large series of deep-cut, strip-mined areas, some 60 feet deep and containing a maze of rocky points, islands, flooded brush and diverse aquatic vegetation. The lake's water clarity averages one foot and has the least rooted aquatic plants of any lake at the site.

Bells Landing access at Shovel Lake was enlarged to more than 200 acres in 2000. It has a maximum depth of 65 feet and offers about 100 acres of aquatic plant zone surrounding deep-water pockets. Shovel Lake has better water clarity than Wheel Lake, so fishing can be tougher on sunny days. The fall 2007 survey showed a strong bass population from 7 inches to 19 inches.

Johnson Lake is a 600-acre network of deep strip mine water connected to shallow flats of flooded trees. It has a water clarity average of 4 feet and good rooted aquatic plant growth. The fall 2007 survey revealed a strong bass population from 8 to 18 inches.

This complex of lakes is Pallo's favorite in central Illinois. It's also the pick of Pekin bass angler Terry Norman who fishes with spinnerbaits parallel to heavy vegetation and weedless lures over weedbeds.

"Scum Frogs or any hollow-rubber, weedless rat or frog bait works great, especially near sundown," Norman said.

For more information, call Presley's Worm Ranch in Bartonville at (309) 637-3030 to learn which lakes are hot and which are not.

Siloam Spring Lake
This deep, clear 58-acre lake in Adams County near Quincy has always maintained a strong largemouth bass population. Though it is comprised mainly of smaller bass 1.5 to 2 pounds, it annually produces many hawgs for anglers who know how to fish Siloam. Visibility ranges from 12 to 15 feet, which causes larger bass to suspend. In spring under turbid conditions during pre-spawn, many adults in the 6- to 8-pound range are caught. There is a 12- to 15-inch slot limit with a three-fish-per-day creel limit.

I can walk to this lake from my house. It's probably one of the most underrated bass lakes in the state. The annual trout stockings in Siloam are one reason bass reach such super size. Adult bass lap up the hatchery trout like candy when they're first dumped in the lake. More than one bass pushing the 10-pound mark has been hooked and landed after the April trout dump. Best springtime baits are trout-colored spinners and lighter-colored pig-and-jig rigs. There is a bait shop on-site, (217) 894-6205. (Boat ramp, boat rentals, campground and electric motors only.)

Pinckneyville City Lake
This 165-acre lake is located three miles northwest of Pinckneyville off of Route 127 West. It has an 18-inch minimum, one-fish-per-day creel limit, which has resulted in excellent bass fishing over the past few years. Of the 117 bass collected during the 2007 fall survey, 24 percent were longer than 15 inches and 9 percent exceeded 18 inches. The number of bass collected was the fourth highest number on record in the lake. Pinckneyville has always been considered one of the best downstate bass lakes.

It has an 18-inch minimum length on black bass and one-fish creel limit. (Ramp, no boat rental, no camping and a 10-horsepower limit.)

East Fork Lake
Over the past five years, 935-acre East Fork in Richland County near Olney has produced one of the better bass populations in all of Illinois. This year will be no exception. The size structure of the East Fork population remains excellent with 42 percent larger than 15 inches. The study catch-effort of 121 bass per hour exceeded a projected goal for the lake. More than 11 percent of the larger bass in this population exceed 18 inches in length. Seven-pound bass are common for experienced anglers.

If growth rates and recruitment remain good as expected, the lake should continue to provide excellent bass fishing throughout this decade. East Fork posts a 15-inch length restriction and six-fish creel limit. Boat permits are required on the city-owned impoundment and may be purchased at Lakeside RV and Bait Shop, (618) 393-4352.

This lake pick is the only one that does not restrict motor size; however, you'll find East Fork anglers some of the most considerate anywhere.

For permit information, contact the Olney city clerk's office at (618) 395-7302. (Boat ramps, no boat rentals, camping and no outboard limits.)

In an interview with chief of fisheries Steve Pallo, it was noted that Illinois breeds and stocks two strains of black bass, southern and northern. The southern strain adapts better to downstate's warmer water temperatures and the northern strain do better in upstate's longer winters.

"Shelbyville is about the north-south stocking division for these two bass types," Pallo said. "This makes more work for our hatchery staff, but we do this with the expectation of getting better results for our anglers."

Any public lake or Corps impoundment may be restocked with bass if an annual survey shows a significant downturn in bass numbers.

"We call this supplemental stocking," Pallo said. "This helps bolster a population that has trouble keeping up to our expectations. We stocked 400,000 advanced fingerlings last year alone

in state public waters. About 8.6 million have been stocked in the last 20 years."

The life expectancy of black bass is relatively short, five to seven years.

"It's rare when we stock largemouth and smallmouth bass in the same lake," Pallo said. "Each of these subspecies of bass requires slightly different habitat. Smallmouths, for example, do better in lakes with rocky riprap."

Two large cooling lakes, Clinton and Baldwin, have been targeted lately for smallmouth introduction. When Clinton Lake was first built, it supported several smallmouth populations that slowly dwindled. With any luck, Baldwin will soon be another Powerton Lake for incredible smallmouth fishing. Like Powerton, it is entirely lined with rock riprap.

Pick up a 2009 Illinois Fishing Information Digest at any bait shop or discount outlet that sells fishing licenses. This digest lists most public bass waters and their individual restrictions. Anglers can also go online to and obtain the phone numbers of all state fisheries biologists for specific questions on any of Illinois' public waters.

If your goal is a most relaxing and successful day of bass fishing, choose one of Illinois' smaller public lakes. Smaller can be better!

Find more about Illinois fishing and hunting at:

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