It has been a long winter for bass anglers living in the northern half of our state, but right about now is the magic time to get out there on these upstate waters.
Daryl Dispensire knows the Mississippi River is northern Illinois' best bass fishery.
Photo by Ted Peck
By mid-April, largemouth bass action on upstate Illinois waters will really be heating up. Those who fish bucketmouths in the northern third of our state are on the cusp when this game fish is touted by most outdoors writers. Regional articles must consider closed seasons in states just north of us. General state articles tend to be heavily slanted toward downstate waters where there isn't much opportunity to explore a pattern that happens just after ice-out.
We're going to look at some of northern Illinois' top bass waters in this article. But first, a quick look at an effective bass-catching pattern that only applies to upstate Illinois lakes over the next several weeks.
If you're itching to tangle with Ol' Mossback when she is still tinged with a touch of frost, sharpen the hooks on lipless vibrating crankbaits, spinnerbaits and suspending stickbaits. Then check your surface temperature gauge for accuracy. Within a few days either side of April 20, it will be time to bust a move on bucketmouths. Exactly why largemouths go on a feeding rip when water temperatures warm to 43 degrees is something I haven't figured out yet. But believe me, they do. This magic number occurs in the far north end of most lakes first, especially if there is a dark bottom that accelerates the warming trend.
When waters warm to 48 degrees, it's time to put away the Rat-L-Traps and spinnerbaits, and to try an almost deadstick-like approach with suspending stickbaits -- or move to another part of the lake where water is in that magic 43- to 48-degree window. Bass in early spring tend to congregate around the warmest water. You may find this hot pattern effective on only a couple hundred yards of shoreline on a 500-acre lake.
In perfecting the nuances of this pattern over the past 20 years or so I have discovered the largemouths show a real affinity for orange/red crawdad-patterned lures. Slow-rolling seems to work best with spinnerbaits. When you're tossing the Rat-L-Trap, bring it back with a steady medium to almost fast retrieve. This is a striking rather than a feeding presentation in waters less than 6 feet deep. When ice leaves the lake, bass seek the warmest water. Predatory instincts seem to take precedence over caution in that brief window between 43 to 48 degrees. At 48 degrees, it's almost like their brains thaw out, sending the fish skulking toward deeper water and heavy cover where they'll grudgingly take a jig-and-pig or similar presentation until waters warm beyond 55 degrees. That's when most bass anglers start getting serious about chasing Illinois' most popular game fish.
Here are some upstate hotspots to try these theories right now during the magic time of spring.
The northernmost pools of Old Man River -- pools 12, 13 and 14 -- offer over 60,000 acres of potential bass-holding water that is arguably the best public bassin' in northern Illinois.
Largemouths in the Mississippi River behave differently than their lake-dwelling brethren. The 43- to 48-degree pattern mentioned earlier applies to riverine bass, too, but it doesn't last as long. Plastics like the Chompers Skirted Hula Grub or a tube jig are good weapons to have close at hand.
Right after the river level recedes after ice-out -- and before the cool, blue north sends its winter runoff flushing downstream -- look for bass in shallow sloughs off the main river channel and backwaters where you found them at late ice.
In the Mississippi the general spring pattern of fish congregating over a reasonably tight area persists throughout the year. After waters warm, this tendency is related to forage base movement more than water temperature. A forage base movement is driven primarily by river level and current velocity.
Although largemouth bass continue to be territorial critters in a riverine environment, the territory changes a little or a lot, depending on river stage. There is one area I fish frequently on Pool 13 that will always result in a stretched string regardless of river level. Like many dependable hotspots on the river, there is plenty of cover with transition areas of weeds, riprap, and wood with deeper water and a degree of current nearby. If the river is low, this and similar locations are good places to target largemouth bass. With more current, the bucketmouths retreat into sloughs, and smallmouth tend to dominate the catch. When the river is at flood stage, sheephead will save the day.
A quick glance at river stage on www.in-depthangling.com provides a pretty good indicator of what species is liable to be dominant here during warmer months. But if the river is at normal pool levels, this honeyhole is a great touchstone for probable fish location and attitude for the next few hours on the river.
Whether you fish the Mississippi River or a particular lake on a regular basis, it's a good idea to have one or two consistent producing spots to target first to enable quicker tweaking of the pattern to produce optimum results. Even if bass are very active on your "honeyholes," you won't learn anything by staying there. If the fish are active on developing weeds next to deeper water, go look for other areas with similar habitat parameters. You can always return to the "sure thing."
Wood and weeds next to deeper water of perhaps 8 feet is a great place to look for bass after flood waters recede.
When young-of-year baitfish start to appear in June and into the summer, look for bass busting this bait on the surface. Then move quickly to cash in on the pattern. Bird activity is a good way to find such a frenzy beyond the range of the naked eye.
The pattern of cover near deeper water and/or current is always worth checking on the Mississippi. This is especially true of woody structure that can be a bass magnet all summer long. A single stump on a point or inside bend of a river slough during higher current flow -- or main channel edge during the low water typical in late summer -- can hold 20 bass while water for a hundred yards on either side are not producing a single bite. With time on the water, such spots practically jump out at you.
The Web site www.in-depthangling.comis the shortest route to prevailing patterns, lodging opportunities and similar needs for all aspects of fishing the Mississippi River.
Chompers Tackle Company is coming out with a "super salty sinker" that I can hardly wait to throw at bass on Lake Marie, arguably the best largemouth lake on the heavily targeted Fox Chain in northeastern Illinois.
This bait looks like a ginseng root, or maybe a plastic stickman without a head. Bass swimming in The Chain haven't seen this lure yet, and that is one way to trigger a response. DNR biologists say any largemouth swimming here has been hooked "at least several times" before attaining legal dimensions. Research says that bass forget the sting of a plastic worm-type bait quicker than other presentations.
For the next month or so the population here will have cumulative amnesia until anglers get serious about educating them again -- one good excuse to try the lipless vibrating crankbait attack when the water is between 43 to 48 degrees.
Even though Marie has a reputation as the best bass water in The Chain, you may want to focus attention for the short haul on Channel and Catherine at the north end of these natural lakes, targeting dark-bottomed bays.
Savvy anglers know that anytime you find woody cover -- from stumps to docks and piers -- there is great potential for holding bass, especially for the next month or two until weed growth becomes a factor.
Once the weeds start to grow, a number of bass locate here on lakes throughout The Chain. Boat traffic is a fact of life on this water. Get out there before 10 a.m. during the week and you'll find bass relating to outside weed edges. When the regatta wakes up, these fish are pushed to the inside weed edge where a slow presentation with a Senko, Fluke, Slug-Go or similar bait will catch fish. But if you just want to catch bass without operating under the illusion that you're a champion touring bass pro, deftly toss a nightcrawler hooked through the breeding ring on a plain hook with a split shot pegged about 18 inches up 6-pound-test fluorocarbon line. Sometimes a jumbo leech works even better.
During summer full-moon periods you can work the weeds successfully with a topwater bait, with a steady predictable retrieve generally the most productive. Take care to ensure compliance with all boating regulations, especially navigational lights. And don't forget your PFD.
If there is a single major key to consistent success on Chain-O-Lakes largemouths, it is being on the water when most people aren't. The Chain is a tremendous fishery. Those who get out there from first light to 8 a.m. during the week know this is true.
You can also fish smaller lakes in The Chain effectively in just a couple of hours, making Bluff and Petite great places to target.
Triangle Bait Shop, located essentially across the street from Loon Lake, is the most definitive source of information on The Chain. Owner Greg Dickson is the man when it comes to bass knowledge. He's always at the shop and willing to talk. The phone number is (847) 395-0813.
This 318-acre De Kalb County lake is only about an hour's drive from just about any point in northern Illinois.
A 10-horsepower motor restriction keeps a lot of serious bass anglers off the water here. And you can be a serious bass angler by renting one of the concessionaire's boats and bringing your own portable sonar, clamp-on trolling motor and a good topographic map. The map and sonar will help you locate the tremendous amount of structure found here, from cribs to roadbeds to an old farm left behind when the lake filled.
Bigger bass relate closely to the most desirable structure, making an "in your face" presentation the key to hooking up on a regular basis. What kind of lure remains in the strike zone longest? Live bait. Either tightlined or fished under a slip-bobber, you just can't beat a jumbo leech or crawler for Shabbona bass.
If this doesn't have enough "sporting component" for you try working a topwater lure in the flooded timber or simply working weedy shoreline in the last hour of light. The best place to start is near the lake's inlet. There are several hundred yards of prime shoreline here that always hold active fish between just about sunset and serious dark.
Contact: Shabbona Lake, (815) 824-2581;
OTHER STATE PARK LAKES
Other than the Fox Chain, there is precious little in regard to natural lakes in northern Illinois. However, there are several waters surrounded by state parks, a borrow pit called Lake Sule near the intersection of Interstate 80 and Interstate 39 that is a real sleeper, and Evergreen Lake just a little farther south down I-39 north of Bloomington that gets more attention from crappie and muskie anglers than bass fishermen. All are worth a serious look.
Pierce Lake, in the shadow of Rockford in Rock Cut State Park, has "no wake" rules in place for boats with motors over 10 horsepower. This 160-acre lake gets plenty of fishing pressure. The key to hooking up consistently lies in using natural bait or small plastics.
Olson Lake, just east of Interstate 90, is also in the Rock Cut State Park complex. Olson is a much newer lake, with anglers just beginning to figure out that bass worth catching are swimming here.
A pre-rigged Chuck's Worm -- especially purple with a red or orange firetail -- is a consistent producer on both these lakes and on Lake Le-Aqua-Na near the town of Lena about an hour's drive west in Stephenson County. At only 43 acres, the electric-motor-only policy is good for these sheltered waters, with wood on the south-side points always holding a few fish. Probably the best-kept secret here is the "duckweed bite" that develops in mid-July. This floating plankton drifts around with the wind. Calm winds for several days allow formation of a green carpet that is an absolute hoot to probe with a hollow plastic rat.
Lake George, located near the Quad Cities west of Rock Island, is just a little larger than Pierce. DNR surveys indicate there is a fair population of bass in excess of 6 pounds. This is a great time to try the lipless vibrating crankbait attack on George, especially on the Big Branch feeder creek arm on the lake's east side.
The best way to get more information on fishing northern Illinois state park lakes is to log on to the DNR's Web site at
NORTHEAST METRO LAKES
There are a number of natural and manmade lakes in northeastern Illinois that hold populations of largemouth bass. By far the best fishing is found in waters where small lakes serve as the centerpiece for subdivisions. Unfortunately, access to these waters is profoundly limited.
Of all public waters beyond the Fox Chain, Bangs Lake in the village of Wauconda in Lake County is probably the best species-specific largemouth fishery. A special-use sticker and no-wake rules are in effect. Tube jigs and Senkos work gre
You need to walk through the jungle to access bigger bass on the south end of 26-acre Milliken Lake in Will County, where fishing is from shore only. DNR surveys indicate more bucketmouths on the south side. There is no well-beaten path.
Monee Reservoir, also in Will County, will be weedy in a few weeks. Weedless presentations like hollow plastic rats are a good way to go. Papoose Lake, located at 123rd Street west of LaGrange Road is another metro lake where the rat bite rules.
The triad of lakes in the Busse Lake complex in Cook County is limited to electric motors only, with the 146-acre south lake your best bet for hooking up. Most fish are small, but you can have a ball with ultralight tackle.
There are seven ponds in the Skokie Lagoons complex located east of the Eden Expressway off Tower Road. Over 100 fish cribs in this complex are bass magnets, with a good largemouth population present, according to the DNR. This project is also electric-motor-only and closed until mid-May when waterfowl refuge restrictions are lifted.
There are several power-plant lakes in northern Illinois that may also have waterfowl refuge restrictions. When access is allowed, fishing success is directly related to power-plant operation: when the plant is up and running, the fish are generally biting.
A major key to success is water temperature, with fish looking for 68 to 75 degree thermoclines in pursuit of a forage base that is primarily shad. Find the ideal temperature and you'll find the baitfish, and the bass won't be far away.
Three of the best lakes are Powerton in Tazewell County, La Salle in La Salle County and Braidwood in Will County, which the DNR ranks as the top largemouth bass fishery in the cooling-lake category.
Land value has been at a premium for over a century in northern Illinois, with areas not used for burgeoning population growth generally used for agricultural purposes. About 30 years ago the concept of building a lake and offering the surrounding area as recreational property caught on in northern Illinois. There are now over a dozen lakes where property owners and their guests can find superb bass angling.
There are also a number of reclaimed strip pits, primarily east of Belvidere to the Indiana line, where fishing privileges have been leased and stocking maintained by fishing clubs. These can also offer good bass fishing -- at a price.
Of course, most of us would rather spend the money on tackle than access. Herein lies the dilemma: if you don't pay for access to the better bassin' spots, you're not going to need the tackle. Once these ground rules are accepted, a close encounter with a largemouth bass is possible less than an hour from home no matter where you live in northern Illinois.
I don't know about you, but I think it was a long winter. I also think the only cure right about now is to hit these northern Illinois hotspots during the magic time of spring. See you out on the water.