Largemouth Bass Fishing in Illinois

Most of you already have your favorite largemouth bass honeyhole near where you live, but do yourself a favor and give one of these waters a try this year.

By Ted Peck

Largemouth bass are the most common game fish swimming in Illinois waters. There is at least one bass lake, pond or impoundment within 20 miles of any point in the Prairie State.

Selecting just a few of the top largemouth lakes with literally thousands of places to choose from is no easy task. What constitutes an exceptional largemouth bass lake? A place where you have an honest shot at a trophy? Water where 50- or even 100-bass days are the norm?

Maybe a little of both. In this article, we won't look at rivers, ruling out places like the upper Mississippi where you can find both size and numbers when conditions are right. We won't look at private lakes either, although some private lakes in northern Illinois offer bassin' that is several steps above what you can find on the best of public waters.

Last summer I had the privilege of guiding Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White on one such lake in Jo Daviess County. The secretary arrived late, troubled by the business of politics. Seventy-eight bass later he was laughing like a little kid without a trouble in the world.

A day on a good bass lake will do that to you. But the very best are either private or jammed with boats. In all honesty, the opportunity for a quality bassing experience is much greater south of Springfield because there are fewer anglers and more water downstate. Folks on Shabbona Lake and the Fox Chain-O-Lakes in northeastern Illinois can have a great day bass fishin' once they subtract the humanity factor, which has a great deal to do with angling fulfillment. That said, let's go bassin'!

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

If you just want to get your string stretched by a big bucketmouth, this walk-in, 20-something-acre lake behind the Visitor Center off of Highway 148 is the place to go.

With a one-fish, 21-inch limit in place the trophy fishery here is pretty well protected. If you can stay out of overhanging trees and brush for 50 consecutive casts here with a slow-rolled 1/4-ounce chartreuse spinnerbait or clown-pattern Suspending Rogue, you'll be hard pressed not to tangle with at least one legal fish during reasonable weather conditions right now.

Contact: Greg Conover, federal fish biologist, (618) 997-6869.

An 18-inch, one-bass daily size limit does an adequate job of protecting largemouths in this 150-acre Perry County reservoir, according to Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist Shawn Hirst.

Hirst calls this 10-horsepower limit lake the "best in the district," with nearly half of the bass population swimming here in excess of legal size.

"Last summer we had a report of a fish kill here impacting only large bass," Hirst reports. "Just 10 minutes with the electroshocker eased all fears. We cranked up over 60 bass in excess of 3 pounds during this brief survey. And a couple were real whoppers."

Pinckneyville City Lake has limited visibility, a great deal of bottom structure, stickups and flooded timber to hold fish. Most anglers seldom need to experiment beyond a chartreuse tandem-blade spinnerbait or Rat-L-Trap to get their fishing itch thoroughly scratched.

Contact: Shawn Hirst, (618) 687-4546.

The associate pastor at my church just smiles when asked about this 200-acre Macoupin County reservoir located about 10 miles south of Carlinville near where he grew up.

Pastor Eric Hoehn says even the toned-down truth about bass action here would smell an awful lot like a fish story. DNR biologist Jeff Pontnack says legal bass here average 3 pounds, calling Gillespie "one of the top three bass lakes in the state."

Fisheries surveys indicate "good numbers of 4- to 8-pound bass," according to Pontnack, who notes, "There is no doubt the bass population is tremendous here. But sometimes angler success doesn't measure up to documented potential."

A city permit is required prior to launching a boat on these 200 acres. A slot limit protecting all bass between 12 and 15 inches is in effect.

Structure appears to be the biggest protector of bass and most formidable roadblock to getting your string stretched on Gillespie. Riprap, weeds and plenty of wood provide ambush and escape cover, with fish only feeling the need to respond to a perfectly placed cast.

Contact: Jeff Pontnack, (217) 833-2811.

A lot of local folks have forgotten all about this 1,200-acre Christian County lake because of excessive siltation at the lake's north end. Unlike most lakes, Taylorville's deeper water is on the south end - the opposite end from the dam. As you might expect with all the silt, visibility in this wood-filled water is less than a foot, and that's on a good day.

Although Taylorville has a maximum depth of 17 feet, turbidity makes it possible for fish to hang much higher in the water column, effectively whittling fish-holding areas down even more. Taylorville practically screams fire-tiger or orange-patterned Rat-L-Traps.

DNR biologist Dan Stephenson says a tremendous shad population in these waters has led to a real "sleeper" situation for bass, with at least six year-classes of largemouths present. Stephenson said three 8-pound bass turned up in his survey here last spring, along with "lots of 5- and 6-pounders."

Access is good, with a nice marina at the lake's north end and four-bay concrete ramp. The only thing missing is anglers.

Contact: DNR biologist Dan Stephenson, (217) 632-3841.

Another Dan Stephenson-managed lake is popular Sangchris, a cooling lake that straddles the Sangamon-Christian county line.

Although Sangchris is home to nearly weekly bass tourneys all summer long, it is better known for trophy striped bass, and less known for a crappie population that is right off the size charts.

To a certain extent, early spring bass location is driven by water temperature, wit

h fish seeking out considerable cover found here with water temperatures closest to 65 to 70 degrees. Fishing is good here until about mid-May. Start by probing the warmwater arm of the lake, targeting the cooler water when serious spring arrives.

The best way to locate bass is with a twin-bladed shad-pattern spinnerbait, slowing the presentation down and going with a worm or the venerable jig-and-pig once concentrations of largemouths have been located.

Sangchris has a 15-inch, three-daily bass limit in place, with the local utility imposing a 25-horsepower outboard on boaters.

According to the DNR, there are good numbers of legal fish present, with an occasional 6-pounder taken.

Contact: Sangchris Corner Bait, (217) 623-5252.

Like Sangchris, this 1,650-acre Jasper County cooling lake has a 25-horsepower motor limit in place, with an 18-inch minimum, three-daily bag that's been in place since the lake opened, thus ensuring a real good shot at a real big largemouth bass.

An excellent forage base and length limit protection allows Newton to crank out many 6- to 7-pound bass every year, with at least one 9-pounder being the talk around local coffee shops each season.

DNR biologist Mike Hooe says this Fish & Wildlife Area lake is a great place to toss plastics like lizards and Senkos. But always keep one rod rigged with a spinnerbait. Target any developing weedlines and shallow brushy areas this time of year, working a little deeper water as spring progresses, tossing Carolina-rigged red shad worms and lizards, and crawdad-pattern living rubber jigs with a No. 11 Uncle Josh Pork Frog.

Contact: Mike Hooe, (618) 393-6732.

Another Jasper County lake worth checking into is 160-acre Sam Parr where aggressive stocking in recent years and plenty of structure has created a bass fishery far beyond its diminutive size.

Much of the structure in this FWA lake is courtesy of a tornado several years ago, plus there were plenty of stumps and deadfalls in the water before the twister hit.

A 10-horsepower limit is in effect, with a six-bass, 14-inch daily bag. According to recent DNR studies, over 75 percent of bass sampled were at or beyond minimum lengths.

Parr always seems to have some kind of algae bloom going on, with bass often holding just under duckweed. Early in the year the bloom isn't so bad, and a white spinnerbait or buzzbait slow-rolled tight to shoreline cover will often produce. Later in the year use your electronics to locate offshore cover and go with Texas-rigged worms, particularly red, black and green.

Contact: Long's Tackle Box, (618) 544-2709.

If you like road trips and adventure, tiny Dutchman Lake in Johnson County is a great destination. This 110-acre lake in the heart of the Shawnee National Forest has a 10-horsepower limit and gravel access ramp.

But getting there is half the fun. Vector essentially southeast from Ferne Clyffe State Park near Goreville via Tunnel Hill Road to Dutchman Road, then to Fishing Hole Road. DeLorme's Illinois Atlas & Gazetteer will get you pretty close.

White spinnerbaits are a great way to locate bass on Dutchman. You can have a ball with topwater baits early and late in the day, especially along the rock wall at the creek entry point of this drainage lake.

Although tangling with a 6-pounder is possible, most fish are at or just beyond the 15-inch limit in place. This is a numbers lake, with DNR electroshocking efforts cranking up an average of 140 bass per hour, with at least six year-classes of bass present.

Contact: Cooksey's Bait, (618) 993-3366.

Cooksey's Bait is also a good contact for information about 450-acre Mermet Lake in Massac County. DNR fisheries biologist Chris Bickers says riprap and brushpiles are great places to target right now, with emergent vegetation like lily pads an ideal bass location once weather starts to warm up.

Weedless baits are the only way to go when summer arrives. But the water opens up a little with vegetative die-off beginning in early August. Mermet closes to fishing once fall arrives, serving as a waterfowl refuge.

Use fairly heavy line when fishing this shallow, turbid lake. Most of the fish you'll tangle with will be in the 2-pound range, but some real pigs cruise the weeds on this lake just west of Highway 45.

There is no wake for any boat powered with a 10-horsepower or larger motor.

Crab Orchard has been a big-bass factory almost forever, giving up my first 7-pound bass over 30 years ago on a new contraption called the "spinnerbait."

Although these 7,000 acres have a maximum depth of 30 feet, most of the surface acreage is considerably shallower, with water temperatures warming into the 90s during a typical southern Illinois summer.

Once summer arrives in Williamson County's waters, there is essentially no oxygen below perhaps 12 feet, with some serious "hooks" saying that fishing deeper than this is a waste of time, anytime.

Nobody knows Crab Orchard bass better than veteran tournament professional and lure manufacturer Fred Washburn, who created his little white PeeWee Jig with Crab Orchard in mind. All you need to find consistent success here is a couple of the slow-falling PeeWee Jigs, some topwater lures, and a selection of small spinnerbaits and small crankbaits.

"Throwing a crankbait larger than a Wee-R is a waste of time," Washburn says, "and little spinnerbaits will almost always outfish the larger cranks."

Over the years, Washburn has cashed nearly 300 tournament checks, with many coming on Crab Orchard, the site of dozens of tourneys each season. Even with all this serious fishing pressure the bassery in this long lake running parallel to Highway 13 remains one of the top spots in the Prairie State.

Contact: Fred Washburn, (618) 985-3310.

For the casual angler, the 1,750-acre Carbondale reservoir in Jackson County at the gateway to the Shawnee National Forest is a great place to catch numbers of bass. Serious anglers know that Cedar holds some whoppers, too, many of which come at night near shore, or around deep structure during daylight hours.

DNR fisheries biologist Shawn Hirst is trying to open the trophy fishery here to more anglers with

a 14- to 18-inch protected slot limit. Anglers are allowed to keep five fish shorter than 14 inches and one bass larger than 18 under this plan.

"Bass in Cedar are slow-growing until they get to be about 12 inches," Hirst notes, "then a whole new world of prey becomes available to them and the growth rate skyrockets."

Unlike nearby Crab Orchard, Cedar Lake has plenty of dissolved oxygen at its depths, with clear water pushing fish habitat past 20 feet deep during warmer months.

Because of Cedar's size and the 10-horsepower limit in place, this beautiful, serpentine lake sees less angling pressure than places like Crab with its unlimited horsepower. Although there are boat ramps at both the north and south ends of this lake, it takes awhile to reach the southeast leg of this lake where water drops sharply away from steep bluffs on the east side, with bass tucked into every nook and cranny against a backdrop of incredible beauty.

Contact: Top of the Hill Bait Shop, (618) 684-2923.

This 145-acre Knox County lake in the Snake Den Hollow complex is the only water of the 25 to 30 smaller lakes found on this project that is not a strip-pit lake. McMaster is also the only lake in the Snake Den Hollow complex with a boat ramp and a 10-horsepower limit in place. Access to other waters is with carry-in boats only.

"McMaster has some interesting topography and a virtually untouched bass population," site manager Rick Knisely says. "There are a lot of hazards just under the surface in this deep, clear lake."

Islands and flooded timber hold plenty of bass during open-water periods, with a prominent hump that tops out at about 15 feet just south of the boat ramp a staging area for bass before waters warm up, and then again later in the summer.

Drop-shotting is a popular summer tactic here, with those who have not taken the time to learn this technique continuing to catch fish on a black plastic worm.

"Because this lake is so deep and clear you really need to finesse these bass," Knisely notes. "McMaster can be a challenging place to fish, with rewards consummate to the effort folks put into it."

Contact: Victoria General Store, (309) 879-2444.

* * *
The Fox Chain-O-Lakes and Shabbona Lake in northern Illinois, Lake Sara near Effingham and a host of other waters across our state have reputations as good largemouth fisheries. But the dozen lakes you've just read about set the standard for bass lakes in the Prairie State. Fish 'em all this summer and your point of reference on largemouth bass may see considerable adjustment.

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