Where will Illinois' best largemouth and smallmouth action take place this spring and summer? Read on! (April 2010)
Because of their statewide distribution and aggressive nature, bass are a popular quarry for Prairie State fishermen. Both the largemouth and smallmouth species are found throughout Illinois. Anglers pursue them for both competitive and fun reasons.
One sunny, hot day in late August, Mary Satterfield of Finley was fishing with a friend on Lake Shelbyville. A long-time guide on the lake and tournament competitor, she has caught some nice fish over the years.
While slowly retrieving a white Bandit crankbait at a depth of about 10 feet, Satterfield had a strike. Not a particularly violent hit, she expected a large drum like the ones she had caught there earlier in the week. The surprise came when she got it to the boat. It was a 6-pound largemouth bass.
Many weekends throughout the year hundreds of bass tournaments are held across Illinois. Many anglers attempt to entice bass by using a mind-boggling variety of baits and lures. And hard-fighting bass provide a thrilling challenge for hundreds of Illinois anglers all year long.
Bass are found in most rivers, creeks, ponds, lakes and reservoirs. There can be a difference in site-specific regulations from one area to another. But those regulations can be found in the 2010 Illinois Fishing Information booklet, which is published by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Regulations are also posted at most boat ramps.
The basic regulations require the use of only two rods and lines. Other site-specific regulations relate to the number of fish that can be taken and their size on a particular body of water or at a certain time of year.
Rend Lake is an elongated V-shaped water stretching through both Franklin and Jefferson counties near Benton. With a total water surface of 18,800 acres, Rend is the second largest inland impoundment in the Prairie State.
About eight years ago, this fishery suffered from poor production of new bass. It was at that point that DNR biologist Mike Hooe began to introduce a steady flow of smaller fish into the population through supplemental stocking. Over 350,000 fingerlings have been stocked during this program.
As a result, bass numbers continue to be strong. They are also experiencing good growth rates throughout the entire bass population. Population surveys continue to show an increase in number of fish found with each year being better than the previous one.
Some of the preferable locations to seek bass on Rend Lake include its bays, wooded shorelines and along the riprap areas.
Ralph Hamilton, local angler and site superintendent at Wayne Fitzgerald State Park, recommends anglers move up in the creeks during periods of muddy water in the lake. He prefers to go as far up the creeks as it takes to find clear water. It is there he finds bass.
Larger bass, those over the 14-inch minimum length limit comprise about 32 percent of the lake's population. The number of bass over 20 inches in length is stable, which leads to good fishing opportunities.
The damming of the Kaskaskia River formed Lake Shelbyville. The 11,000-acre central Illinois lake is located in Shelby and Moultrie counties near Shelbyville.
With nearly 200 miles of shoreline, Lake Shelbyville contains a lot of structure. Guide Mary Satterfield recommends that fishermen pay close attention to that structure to find bass. She describes the structure as anything from a stump in a foot of water to a downed tree extending down to 20 feet of water or a dropoff from 25 to 30 feet of water.
Whether one is fishing shallow or deep, there is plenty of structure in this lake, according to Satterfield. Bass are often found in the bays, flooded timber, stickups, as well as the primary and secondary points.
Recent high-water years have been good for the recruitment of bass in this lake. A conclusion that can be drawn from DNR surveys completed during the year and reported tournament figures, is that this lake is experiencing good bass fishing and it will continue to do so for at least several more years.
Mary Satterfield reports that because of the high water, she has been catching numerous bass in the 3- to 6-pound range. She found most of the fish would hit spinnerbaits and buzzbaits. Satterfield admits to losing one fish in the 9- or 10-pound class on a spinnerbait right at the boat.
Satterfield maintains that the high water and stocking programs are really working to replenish a diminished fish population of prior years.
The high water has hurt the total number of bass caught, but the quality of the fish taken has been good to excellent. The largest bass reported from tournament figures tends to be 6-plus pounds. Survey fish caught by the DNR range up to 4-plus pounds. The later found more fish in the middle to lower lake areas.
In 2008, some 1,435 smallmouth bass were stocked into the Kaskaskia River just above Lake Shelbyville. These fish averaged 4.4 inches in length. It is probably a matter of time until they find their way downstream into the lake and hopefully establish a smallmouth fishery.
CRAB ORCHARD LAKE
Located about five miles southwest of Marion, this 6,900-acre lake is owned by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Crab Orchard Lake and two other waters fall within the boundary of the Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge. The fishery is managed by the Illinois Department of Conservation through a mutual agency program of understanding.
Once referred to as the bass factory of southern Illinois, the lake's bass population declined in the late 1990s due in part to heavy fishing pressure.
In response to studies of the lake by biologist Chris Bickers in 2001, more strict harvest regulations were instituted on Crab Orchard in the spring of 2002. Additionally, a program of shad stocking, habitat enhancement and designation of a spawning refuge have influenced the quality of the fishery. At least one local bass club has imposed a tax on its entrance fee for the purpose of giving financial support to the shad stocking.
The abundance of gizzard and threadfin shad contributes strongly to the health of largemouth bass. Additionally, advanced bass fingerlings and fry are stocked annually into the lake. Advanced fingerlings are those raised in rearing ponds for a year or so before being released into the lake. Their larger size allows them t
o better survive their first year in the lake.
Most popular areas for anglers in search of bass include the brush- piles, points and riprap. There are many submerged brushpiles on submerged islands, as well as those established by the DNR and local anglers.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service strictly enforces site-specific regulations on this lake, which owns not only the body of water but also the shoreline property surrounding it. That portion of the lake east of Wolf Creek Road is closed to all boat traffic from Oct. 1 though March 15 of each year. The purpose is to reduce disturbance of resting waterfowl, a main purpose of the refuge. Also from April though June of each year, the extreme south end of Grassy Bay is closed for the above-mentioned spawning sanctuary.
There is no boat motor restriction, but a user fee is required. Information on the fee and stickers are available at the refuge Visitors Center located on state Route 148, two miles south of the Williamson County Airport.
Because of its close proximity to the Chicago metropolitan area, this 1,955-acre artificial lake in Grundy County received quite a bit of attention from local anglers. The lake is near Morris and about two hours from Chicago.
Originally built as a cooling lake for a power-generating station, the station has been destroyed and any flow from it is gone. Water quality is still the same, but production of aquatic plant growth has been less than expected.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, largemouth bass dominated the fishery. Stocking efforts did not produce the desired increase in population. However, the smallmouth population flourished through natural reproduction without any stocking efforts.
Supplemental stockings of largemouth bass were terminated in 1997, but bass are still present due to natural reproduction. More recently an effort to improve the largemouth bass spawning effort is being supplemented by the placing of artificial spawning logs at a number of locations around the lake. It is hoped that this, coupled with the increased vegetation because of the improved water clarity, will aid in the recovery of the largemouth bass fishery. It is possible to catch largemouth bass, but just not as many or as large as they were in the heydays of the 1970s.
Production of smallmouth bass has been very strong for several years. It is estimated that smallies outnumber largemouth by about 2 to 1. The average length of smallmouth bass taken in surveys tends toward the small size at about 10 inches. Anglers have reported taking fish of 1.47 pounds and 14 inches long.
Fish location is dictated by water temperature and structure. Pockets of water in the 60- to 75-degree range are preferred. Pockets of water in this range can be found surrounded by water cooler or warmer, depending upon the time of the year.
Largemouth bass will relate to the shoreline riprap as well as the somewhat limited vegetation in the lake as they search for shad. The smallmouth bass tend to stay in the riprap where they will find their favorite food source, crayfish.
The riprap along the center dike is a popular place for catching smallmouth bass. It seems to consistently produce bass all year. A sound-producing lure such as the Rat-L-Trap can be cast along the riprap to trigger a reaction strike. Local anglers recommend a fast retrieve with an occasional stop.
Tube jigs cast into the rocky areas can produce both largemouth and smallmouth bass. Largemouth bass also will take a Texas-rigged plastic worm as well. Good colors include smoke, black, watermelon seed or pumpkinseed. Live-bait anglers tend to prefer shad rigged on a slip-bobber, so that it can be suspended at the same depth as the bass are holding.
Other locations along the riprap where anglers find bass are the points at the harbor entrance. Both areas are producers of fish.
Creel surveys show that smallmouth bass rank fourth behind striped bass, hybrids, walleyes and channel catfish in terms of total number of fish caught. Largemouth bass were eighth. The surveys showed that the anglers kept only about 2.5 percent of the smallmouth bass caught.
Site-specific regulations here include a closed season from 10 days prior to the opening of the North Zone waterfowl season until April 1 of the following year. The lake is open from 6 a.m. until sunset. There are no boat motor horsepower restrictions, but all boats must have gas-powered motors. Boats with high windshields and larger boats may have trouble passing under the railroad trestle to access the north side of the lake. Caution is recommended.
Heidecke is a partially perched lake and can be hazardous in windy condition. Anglers should be aware of any approaching weather systems that might contain high winds.
Cedar Lake is just south of Carbondale in Jackson County. It serves as a reservoir to the city as well as providing recreational waters in the Shawnee National Forest. The 1,750 acres of surface water is completely enclosed by an undeveloped shoreline.
An impoundment, it contains a number of elongated bays and coves. Anglers often find frustration navigating the lake, as the coves and main channels look so much alike. It is advised that a map be an essential part of the fisherman's gear on this lake.
Bass tend to be found in the coves and suspended off points. Some of these points reach far out into the main channel.
Largemouth bass are abundant in this lake, according to Shawn Hirst, biologist for the DNR. There is a 14- to 18-inch slot limit. That is any bass that falls within those lengths must be returned to the water immediately.
Hirst encourages anglers to keep five bass less than 14 inches in an attempt to thin out the smaller fish. By way of explanation, he says that by taking smaller fish out the, fishery will increase bass growth rates and body condition, which should result in a faster-growing bass population.
The slot limit, imposed in 2002, has produced some of the best survey samples on record since 1993 when records began to be kept. In 2008, the number of bass over 18 inches caught in the spring survey was second highest on record.
Lake Shabbona is a 318-acre impoundment just south of the town of the same name in DeKalb County. Anglers find largemouth bass cruising the creek bed in search of surface-feeding forage fish. By casting into the shad with crankbaits, anglers will often catch feeding bass.
The edges of weedbed areas near roadbeds, ditches and the cribs are high-percentage areas. Trolling crankbaits in the deeper water at the dam often catches feeding bass.
Three rearing ponds are used to raise advanced aged fingerlings before their being introduced into the lake. The two ponds over the years have produced largemouth bass up
to 8 inches and smallmouths up to 6 inches in length before they are placed in the lake.
Biologists from the DNR report that the largemouth bass population is continually improving. There are eight to nine year-classes with some fish up to 20 inches being caught. The smallmouths do not have the size, but in electro-shocking studies, they were found in good numbers only a little less than the largemouths.
The habitat of the lake contains standing timber, stumpfields, fish cribs, anchored trees, rockpiles and earthen fishing piers placed there when the lake opened in 1977. The brush, stumps and weedbeds are the most likely areas to find bass.
Sound management practices and the support of Illinois anglers have produced a bass fishery that is enjoyed by young and old anglers across Illinois. Regardless of where one lives, there is good bass fishing within a few miles of home. Whether one is fishing a small farm pond or a large impoundment, it is possible to catch lunker bass anywhere in the Prairie State.