There are some things in life that you never forget. Battling a big striped bass is one of them. Find out for yourself on these waters. (April 2007)
Photo by Michael Skinner
There are many experiences that leave an indelible mark on the soul, but few can equal the thrill of hooking up with a big striped bass. For many people, the first time a big striper slams their rod and tests the limits of their strength, they're hopelessly addicted.
Whether you are a seasoned striper fanatic or you're looking to do battle with your first one, these Illinois striped bass waters are the places to go this year.
The best hybrid striper hotspot in the Prairie State could be little 1,300-acre Heidecke Lake in Grundy County. This former cooling lake has what it takes to produce numbers of fish, and some real lunkers, too.
"This past year, striper fishing was up for both numbers and overall size," said Greg Heath, owner of Fish Finder Guide Service, (815) 258-9136. "Most every time we went out we caught a few fish over 8 pounds. Our largest hybrid this year was about 13 pounds, and we had days where we caught 10 to 15 fish that were over 10 pounds."
Impressive numbers are common reports from Heidecke. According to the Department of Natural Resources' 2006 Status of the Striped Bass/Hybrid Striped Bass Fishery in Illinois, the spring trap-net survey revealed numerous year-classes. Fish ranging from 19 inches to 30 inches were prominent. The average size was an impressive 8 1/2 pounds.
DNR biologist Rob Miller concurs with Heath's observation.
"Our 2006 collection surpassed the previous survey by 300 percent, far exceeding the 10-year fall survey average. Hybrids collected in the fall ranged up to 28 inches."
Heath said the wind is the main factor for striper location.
"Throughout the spring and summer we find most of our big hybrids on windward banks," Heath said. "The bigger the waves, the better the fishing is."
On days when the wind isn't blowing, Heath likes to troll the abyss for hybrids.
"Later in the summer, we'll watch for schools of shad on the surface and troll around them, or we'll troll over mid-lake humps, or the old inundated roadbeds."
Heath said a shad- or chrome-pattern No. 4 Shad Rap is best, but this past year he found himself using larger 4- to 6-inch shad swim baits. Other tactics include slow-trolling live shiners or roaches, casting Zara Spooks into where stripers are boiling the surface, and casting flashy tail spinners or blade baits.
Heidecke Lake opens annually on April 1. There is a boat rental and concession on site. For more information, call (815) 942-6352. For lodging information, call the Morris Area Chamber of Commerce at (815) 942-0113.
Once known as the best lake to land a 20-pound striper, Sangchris Lake has had some woe in the recent past, but DNR biologist Dan Stephenson said this 3,022-acre cooling impoundment is still one of the best fisheries around.
"In the spring of 2006, we collected fish from three strong year-classes," Stephenson said. "One group ranged from 3 to 6 pounds, an older group ranged from 10 to 12 pounds, and a third peaked at about 13 to 16 pounds. We didn't sample any fish over 20 pounds, but it wouldn't surprise me if a few start to show up this year."
As with any cooling lake, early-spring fishing tends to be best in areas within the cooling loop. On Sangchris, this constitutes the center arm of the lake. The main point of this center arm adjacent from the dam has been nicknamed "Striper Point" by local anglers, and it can be productive during the cold weather. Large roaches or shiners fished on split-shot rigs in 20 to 30 feet of water account for numbers of fish. Bucktail jigs, spoons and shad-pattern crankbaits are also effective.
During the warm months, focus shifts from the cooling loop to the east and west arms of the lake. Windswept main-lake points concentrate fish, but also keep watch in the open water for stripers to boil schools of shad on the surface. When this occurs, a favorite weapon of local anglers is a red and white bucktail jig ripped through the boil or a large surface walker twitched through the feeding frenzy. Trolling will also put a few fish in the boat.
Sangchris is just a short drive from Springfield. For more information on the lake, call (217) 498-9208. For area lodging information, call the Springfield Visitors Bureau at (217) 789-2362.
DNR biologist Mike Mounce said his surveys usually don't turn up mass numbers of hybrid stripers on this 330-acre municipal water-supply reservoir, but some big fish are swimming here.
Lake Charleston pumps in water from the nearby Embarrass River, and this influx of water is vital to the overall health of Charleston stripers. According to the 2006 status report, anglers routinely report catches of hybrids ranging from 2 to 12 pounds, and stripers up to 15 pounds are recorded annually. The overall prospects here are rated as being good to excellent.
As for location, the pump station in the southeast corner draws in stripers, primarily when water is being brought in. The riprapped face of the levee tends to concentrate fish as well.
Shad-imitating crankbaits catch fish here, and silver, shad and fire-tiger are top colors. Mounce said chicken livers and crawfish tails also catch fish, and live shiners or roaches are good options.
Lake Charleston is managed by the City of Charleston. Boat launching is available, but the entire lake is no-wake. For more information, call Region 3 fisheries at (217) 935-6860. For lodging information, call the Charleston Area Chamber of Commerce at (217) 345-7041.
One lake you can add to the "sleeper" striper category is Lake Pittsfield in Pike County. This small water-supply reservoir has really come on strong with numbers of big hybrids.
"Pittsfield has a tremendous population of healthy stripers," said DNR biologist Mike Jones. "In our last gill-net survey we caught 76 fish. A lot of these fish are in the 12- to 13-pound range, and the average fish of our survey was 10 pounds. There was a big striper in literally every 8 feet of our nets."
Jones alluded that most anglers pursue the bass and crappie populations on Pittsfie
ld, and that few anglers actively pursued the big stripers. Word is spreading now, though.
"Last year, we had a couple of guys from Indiana trolling planer boards around the dam," Jones said. "They had three big stripers. This fall during our survey, an angler caught a 16-pounder from the shore. I know a lot of guys catch fish on jigs and minnows, spoons, crankbaits and spinners. And some of the best action comes from the open water near the dam."
At 240 acres, Lake Pittsfield is easy to fish. Boat launching is available, but motors are limited to 25 horsepower. For more information, call the City of Pittsfield at (217) 285-4484. For lodging information, call the Pike County Chamber of Commerce at (217) 285-2971.
Just west of the town of Girard in Macoupin County is Otter Lake. This 765-acre water-supply reservoir has really been coming on strong in recent years with a noteworthy population of hybrids.
"We conducted our gill-netting sample on this impoundment in April 2006, and we captured 50 striped bass hybrids ranging from 16 inches to 29 inches, and weighing up to 14 pounds," DNR biologist Jeffery Pontnack said. "Otter Lake has always been good to excellent, data has been very impressive and anglers have been delighted with this population."
Peggy Roberts of Otter Lake Park said this year they are seeing some bigger fish.
"We're not seeing the numbers we have in years past, but we have been seeing lots of sizeable stripers," Roberts said.
Roberts noted that spring and fall are the best times to fish Otter.
"Silver Rat-L-Traps are very popular, and I also sell a lot of CrÃ¨me Cast Masters," Roberts said. "Silver and green or silver and blue tend to be productive, and long minnow baits like Husky Jerks or Rattlin Rogues catch fish."
During the summer months, Roberts said the bite shifts to early and late in the day.
"We get a lot of guys fishing dawn or dusk," she said. "Stripers boil shad, and when they do, you can see it from a long way."
When boils occur, anglers can have a blast by running surface walkers or zipping bucktail jigs through the school.
"The first point north of the spillway is called 'Striper Point,' " Roberts said. "This is a good all-around place to fish."
Numerous points throughout the lake also attract hybrids, and the area around the spillway tends to be productive for anglers fishing live shad or trolling crankbaits.
Otter Lake has a $10 daily-usage fee, but annual rates are available. For more information on the lake, call (217) 627-2416. For lodging information, call the Carlinville Area Chamber of Commerce at (217) 854-2141.
Coffeen Lake, a 1,100-acre cooling reservoir, is the pride of Montgomery County, and as many anglers are finding out, this deep impoundment is turning up big stripers.
Scott Withers of Indian Grove Fish Camp, (217) 537-3001, said people who fish Coffeen for stripers usually have no trouble catching a limit.
"We see a lot of stripers in the 8- to 10-pound class," Withers said. "They catch them all year, but it seems like the hottest part of the summer is the best."
During the summer, productive fishing generally focuses on structures outside the cooling loop. Most anglers targeting stripers troll a tandem crankbait rig on a three-way swivel. Shad and silver patterns tend to work best. Other anglers opt to troll 1/4-ounce Roadrunners. Withers added that the bigger stripers are caught when trolling. During early morning and late evening, schools of stripers chase shad on the surface. Surface lures and crankbaits ripped through the frenzy work great.
Withers said that early and late in the season, stripers concentrate off points in the warm water of the cooling loop and are caught by anglers using deep-diving crankbaits, bucktail jigs and jigging spoons.
Coffeen Lake offers anglers excellent facilities. Concession, camping and bait are all available on site. For more information, call (217) 537-3351. For lodging information, call the Hillsboro Area Chamber of Commerce at (217) 532-3711.
Big rivers have a tendency to be a feast or famine when it comes to striped bass fishing, but lately the Ohio River wanes toward gluttony. DNR biologist Les Franklin said his most recent survey is the best he has seen the river in a long time.
"In our last survey, we were shocking the Smithland tailwaters and there were so many hybrids and pure stripers coming up, we couldn't net them all," Franklin said. "We had more pure stripers than hybrids. Most were between 10 and 12 pounds. Hybrids averaged about 6 to 8 pounds."
In addition to the Smithland tailrace, Franklin said they have had impressive surveys around Wabash Island and near Shawneetown. Farther upstream into Indiana and Kentucky, reports from other state biologists confirm extraordinary numbers of both hybrids and pure stripers.
Just about any tailrace can be productive at certain times of the year. Generally during the spring and fall, fishing is best around the dams, especially when the water level is up. During the summer, productive angling varies inversely with the amount of water in the river -- generally the faster the flow, the better the fishing. Look for stripers to be relating to current edges near turbulent water.
Franklin said one of the best baits to use is shad, either fished live or as cut bait on a slip-sinker rig. During the summer, some people catch fish by trolling the river channel with crankbaits and big Roadrunners, while other anglers like to fish around the dams with large spoons or blade baits.
Public launches are located up and down the Ohio River. For more information, call (618) 214-1100. For lodging information, call the Metropolis Area Chamber of Commerce at (618) 524-2714.
One unsung gem that no serious striper fanatic should miss out on is Cedar Lake in Jackson County. Of any lake in Illinois, this water-supply reservoir may offer you your best shot at a striper over 20 pounds.
"We stock pure stripers in Cedar," said DNR biologist Shawn Hirst. "And although not many come up in my surveys, angler reports indicate that there are good numbers of big stripers. I'm often called to verify a catch for an angler who thinks he has just caught the new state-record hybrid."
Local expert Steve Powers has known for a long time about the phenomenal striper fishing on Cedar Lake.
"We caught a lot of stripers (last year)," Powers said. "My best was 25 pounds. There was also a big crop of 5- to 6-pounders. A couple
of times we got into them and it was nonstop for an hour and a half."
Powers said stripers can be taken year 'round on Cedar, but the heat of the summer triggers the best angling. Early in the spring, target your efforts to the points in the upper half of the lake. Powers said his favorite bait is a deep-diving crankbait in silver, chartreuse or blue. Jigging spoons and bucktail jigs are likewise effective. In the summer, Powers targets stripers on clay flats throughout the lake and near the spillway.
"In the summer, the best fishing occurs at night, often on a full moon," Powers said. "We watch for fish pushing shad on the surface. June to August are prime months. Surface walkers and crankbaits tend to be most productive."
Later in the fall, fishing again focuses on points, breaklines and mid-lake humps. Spoons, jigs and live bait tend to work best then.
Cedar Lake is six miles southwest of Carbondale. Public boat launches are available. For more information, call (618) 549-8441. For lodging info, call the Carbondale Area Chamber of Commerce at (618) 549-2146.
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Although these aren't the only waters on which to catch a striper in Illinois, they're among the best. Each location offers a great shot at either boating a lunker or wearing out your arms by catching numbers of fish. Find out for yourself this year.