This once renowned bass lake is making its way back as a place to catch lunker largemouths once again. Here's the latest on this fine fishery. (May 2010)
Crab Orchard Lake was once known as a "bass factory." But there came a time in the late 1990s when the bottom dropped out in terms of size and quality of the bass being caught and the fishery as a whole.
Subsequently, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) entered into a cooperative management agreement. The FWS continues to own the lake, while the DNR will continue to manage the fishery.
Crab Orchard Lake is a roughly 7,000-acre impoundment within the boundaries of the Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge in the southwest corner of Williamson County near Marion. Two other lakes are found nearby in the refuge: Devils Kitchen (810 acres) and Little Grassy Lake (1,000 acres).
Crab Orchard Lake is known for being shallow and relatively without structure, except near the shoreline. The bottom is mostly clay and silt from Crab Orchard Creek, which feeds into it from the east.
The lake was probably in its poorest condition in 1999 to 2000. Around that time there may have been an outbreak of bass virus. This suspected virus could have contributed to larger bass dying in the summer. The virus was documented as being in the lake. But no dying fish were diagnosed as having died from the virus.
Biologists saw symptoms of the virus in 1999 and 2000. Over that time, it ran its course. When a virus runs its course, some of the fish that are left are immune to the disease. You have carriers, but you don't have anything that actually succumbs to the disease.
"In 2001, we had a public meeting at John A. Logan College in Carterville," explains Chris Bickers, a DNR District 22 fisheries manager. The meeting was well attended. "I think the attendance was good because the fish quality was poor."
There was a genuine interest among anglers in improving the fishing. Back then, the DNR proposed changing the bass limit from six per day, 15 inches long to three per day, 16 inches long. That would give the bass one more of year in the lake, one more year to spawn. Also, fishermen would take only half as many fish as they could before the limit. The change in regulations went into effect April 1, 2002.
DNR officials also met with refuge officials regarding fishing pressure. With numerous fish offs and tournaments, the FWS decided to limit bass tournaments and fish offs to one fish off per club per year. That is one on each of the three lakes within the refuge.
"I don't know if that was actually having an impact or not, but they decided to do it," explains Bickers. The dates on the three major tournaments also were moved back to earlier in the spring.
When bass are handled and placed in livewells, the warmer water causes higher mortality. Even if the bass are released alive after being stressed out in a livewell, they experience delayed mortality. They might die three or four days later.
The three major tournaments on the lake were moved to the middle of April, the middle of May and the first of June. They use to be about three weeks later. Bickers has found cooler temperatures make a big difference in the number of fish that survive.
The stocking of bass in the lake was stepped up. The DNR began stocking 7,000 to 10,000 fish from the Illinois fish hatchery each year. The stocking was increased to somewhere around 30,000 bass stocked per year, dependent upon the year. These are advanced fingerlings from 4 inches long up to 7 or 8 inches.
The hatchery provides the largemouth bass. Occasionally, the DNR is able to obtain bass out of the federal hatchery in Genoa, Wisconsin. The DNR also will accept any additional leftover fish from the hatchery. These are usually advanced fry stage fish of about 1 inch to 1.5 inches. They are excess fish. In 2009, some 150,000 of these bass were added to the lake.
The next step to bring Crab Orchard Lake back was to increase stockings of threadfin shad. For a while the Take Pride In America people were buying shad for stocking the lake. The DNR supplemented those stockings with shad that they caught in Baldwin Lake, and then brought down to release in Crab Orchard Lake. Continued stocking is necessary as threadfin die when the water temperature gets below 45 degrees.
In 2008 and 2009, Take Pride in America money was going to other projects. But the DNR continued to stock shad from Baldwin at a rate of around 10,000 threadfin each year.
Beginning in about 1999, the DNR started enhancing the habitat at Crab Orchard Lake with brushpiles. Biologists and volunteers go out every February or March. They pick one section of the lake and place a bunch of brushpiles in the water. Their location is marked on a map with GPS coordinates for the public to locate them.
The brushpiles do two things: They concentrate fish so anglers can catch them a little more easily and they provide habitat for small fish to hide in to get away from big fish.
Crab Orchard Lake does not have a lot of habitat other than what's along its edges. Biologist Bickers believes that the brush has helped the bass population.
Another step in the lake's recovery has been the establishment of a "spawning sanctuary" in the back end of Grassy Bay on the south side of the lake. There is a 40-acre area of water in the back end of Grassy Bay that is closed to boats and fishing from the first of April to the end of June.
The sanctuary allows bass a place to spawn unmolested. They can go through the spawning ritual and guard their fry after they're hatched. It allows the fry to be protected until they disperse.
Bickers also has installed 50 artificial structures in that spawning sanctuary. They are 55-gallon drums with concrete and gravel in the bottom. It gives the bass a good, firm place to spawn instead of trying to spawn on a mucky bottom. Bass need a good, firm place to spawn. The only place on Crab Orchard that meets that description is windswept claypan. It is not suitable for bass to spawn here, though. Two or 3-foot waves hitting it just hinder the bass in their attempts to spawn.
Bickers and his crew have been planting lotus seeds in Grassy Bay trying to bring the lotus plant back. Twenty or so years ago, Grassy Bay was just full of lotus plants even in the deeper water. The anglers and the bass liked it. Chris's theory is that through years of higher water the lotus pads were flooded out.
It got down to where plants were found in just in a few little spots in the backs of shallow little coves. With a lot of high water the pads become submerged. When they do, they cannot get enough sunlight to survive.
For the last several years, workers have been trying to replant them. Seeds are collected in the fall, and in the spring, they split each individual seed coat. It allows the plant to sprout that year. Otherwise, it takes five or six years to sprout. They are then hand planted out of a boat in areas of Grassy Bay. So far, the lake's lotus plants are coming along very well.
Another feature of the recovery is the involvement of local tournament anglers. The tournament organizers have decided that they would assess a "resource enhancement fee." That fee was set at $5 per person or $10 per two-man boat. It is paid when tournament entrance fees are collected. The money goes into a fund that each year is used to enhance the habitat or sometimes to increase the fish population on Crab Orchard Lake.
The money has been used to stock bass. It also was used to purchase a pontoon boat for fishery biologists' use. The extra money has been used to put brush in the lake. The money also purchased a hauling tank that biologists can put threadfin in to transport them to Crab Orchard Lake. Fisheries employees use it to haul bass from the rearing ponds to the lake for stocking. If there is not another project, the money is used to buy more bass for stocking.
Rearing ponds were built near the lake using Take Pride in America funds. The rearing ponds are set up so that you can release bass into the lake if desired. But the route to the lake is not direct and some fish may not make it. When draining the rearing ponds directly into the lake, it is impossible to know how many bass are actually being stocked.
What the biologists did is put a screen in the back of the catch basin and drain the ponds into the catch basin. Bass are removed from the catch basin and an average weight and length of each fish is determined. Workers can determine by total weight an estimated total number of bass being stocked.
The number of bass that are stocked determines how well that year-class does in the lake. It is important to know how many bass are stocked.
These efforts are producing results. In 2002, 13 percent of the fish the DNR collected in the fall survey were 16 inches. In 2009, they found 28 percent of the bass were 16 inches. So over 25 percent of the fish collected are now legal fish. They also found 13 percent that were 18 inches or larger.
DNR surveys are not geared toward finding out what are the biggest fish. The equipment is a little more biased toward medium-sized bass and smaller specimens. Big fish tend to be a little bit smarter. One swish of their tail and they are out of the electrical field.
Fishing tournament records provide a little better record of the size of bass in Crab Orchard. In 1999 and 2000, bass in the 5- to 6-pound range tended to be the big fish in the tournaments. By 2009, bass of 7 to 8 pounds were showing up at weigh-ins.
Fishermen looking for big bass will do well in this lake. Flipping or pitching a dark-colored jig is the basic pattern for this time of the year.
During May and June, some bass may still be spawning, while some will be guarding the young bass. There is a lot of area in Grassy Bay, outside the sanctuary, that will have lotus pads and other types of vegetation. The bass will be hanging around that vegetation. The backs of major coves are good locations to seek largemouth bass. There might be a few fish that are actually working their way back to the major points.
By June, most bass will be back out on the points and starting their summer pattern. Fishermen will find bass on the points. There will still be some male bass back in the coves and bays with the young.
In the far eastern end of the lake, fishermen can go back up Crab Orchard Creek a little bit. It is not a place where most people go because it is kind of a hard area to get into. There is the risk of damage to a boat and lower unit from hitting a stump or other submerged object. There is a lot of shallow water up there and a lot of obstructions.
Back at Grassy Bay, there is Grassy Creek and Little Grassy Creek. You just can't cross that sanctuary line. That is super shallow water up in there, too.
Cambria Neck and Long Neck north of state Route 13 are pretty good places to look for bass in May and June. There are a lot of potential spawning areas up in those creeks.
The riprap along the dam and the emergency spillway area to the north of the dam will contain bass that have completed the spawning activity. There is a large shelf in front of that emergency spillway for about 100 feet out from the shore. Then it drops off. That dropoff is a good location. Anglers will throw crankbaits on the shelf and let them drop off into the deeper water. There are also some nice points on either end of the emergency spillway. They contain nice habitat.
A May 2009 storm blew a lot of trees into the lake. The lake's shoreline has considerably more wood in it now. Anything that was on a western shoreline has more trees that were blown east into the water. The eastern shoreline has root balls sticking up as the trees fell on the bank and not into the water.
As a side trip for the angler, Devils Kitchen has remained pretty constant over the years. It has lots of 9- to 12-inch bass. Occasional 6- to 12-pound bass are taken. That is just the way it has stayed. Because the lake is so infertile, the food chain is not real strong. Therefore, it cannot support many big bass.
The 9- to 12-inch bass can survive by eating bugs and frogs. When they get to the point where they need to be eating just fish to get to a larger size, they stop growing. A few of them keep growing and get to be big, but most stop growing well before they have a chance to become lunkers.
Bickers encourages anyone who fishes Devils Kitchen Lake to take the small bass home. It will help to thin the population out so that the ones that are left can grow.
Over at Little Grassy Lake the length of the average bass is a little better than that at Crab Orchard Lake. But since it is also a fairly infertile water, the bass tend to be thinner. For a clear, relatively infertile lake the bass population is very good. There are good numbers of 3- to 5-pound bass.
There's plenty of good bassing to be enjoyed at Crab Orchard Lake and the smaller waters nearby. Now's a prime time to go, so don't miss out!