Fishing for largemouth bass starts heating up this month in the northern half of our state. You can get your string stretched on these waters.
By Ted Peck
Serious bassin' for largemouths heats up with warming waters this month in northern reaches of the Prairie State. A number of public waters upstate offer good to outstanding angling for our most populous game fish, with private lakes a popular option for rabid bass chasers north of Bloomington.
Bass will always be bass, no matter where they swim. But fish location and presentation changes drastically between now and when these waters are covered with ice again.
Here's a look at some hotspots with terrific potential for getting your string stretched as spring slides into summer.
MISSISSIPPI RIVER A steady parade of bass boats can be seen heading west on Highway 64 just about any weekend between now and October, headed for Savanna on Pool 13 - the epicenter of tournament activity on the Mississippi River.
Bass tourneys may originate below the Fulton Dam on Pool 14 or above the dam at Bellevue up on Pool 12. But most of the very expensive rigs that seem out of place on the easy-living river spend a great deal of time flying up and down the channel of Pool 13.
The waters west of Savanna are nearly ideal for bass - a lot of shallow water with wood and deep channels nearby, rocky wing dams, closing dams and riprapped shoreline, islands with deep side channels running close against the shore and a potpourri of food for bass to chase.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
At first glance the 30,000 acres of Pool 13 are intimidating. But when you return to the natural truth that bass will always be bass, the fishing focus narrows considerably. The most important consideration in getting hooked up - beyond always thinking safety - lies in understanding the predator-prey relationship.
Right now bass are generally hanging in backwater areas away from the main channel of the Mississippi, which is likely high and turbid. These backwaters warm quickly, with largemouths in less than 2 feet of water close to wood but near deeper water escape cover right now.
In a month or so when spring flooding recedes, look for fish to locate next to developing weeds. An ideal ambush area is new greenery in shallow water with a good 6 to 8 feet of depth just outside the weed edge. Find a weedy point with a little current and deeper water breaking both ways and you had better get the net ready before casting.
Once shad and other minnows start to appear, watch for largemouths crowding the forage base and busting baitfish on the surface. This is a major key to bass location and noting hotspots for future reference. Always have a spinnerbait or topwater lure close at hand to take advantage of bass that are aggressively feeding.
Woody structure next to moving water is always a good bet. Throw a spinnerbait and follow up with a plastic presentation. Isolated deadfalls are fish magnets. Not all of them hold fish, but find one that does and you'll want to beat the water to a froth before moving on, and then return a couple hours later for more serious flailing.
By late summer, river pools are typically low, with largemouths moving out to main-channel structures like wing dams that were better suited for smallies in July. At low summer pool don't overlook the channel ends of wing dams and the steep riprapped shoreline along the railroad bed that follows both sides of the river.
Bluegills tend to relate to this kind of structure later in the summer, with bass dogging their every move. One of the best days on the river last summer came while guiding two clients who were throwing Timber Tiger DC-8 crankbaits in bluegill pattern. The duo averaged a bass every three minutes for three hours, with one guy's excitement meter pegging off the charts when he tangled with a fat 15-incher and had an even fatter 19-incher grab the back treble of his crankbait at boatside.
Autumn presentation is driven by river level. Sometimes you are still out on the main channel, but with high water it's time to retreat to the sloughs. Cooling waters mean its time to probe with spinnerbaits and follow up with dead-sticking tubes and similar plastics.
Contact: Big River Bait & Taxidermy, (815) 244-3155.
NORTHWEST STATE PARK LAKES With land at a premium, northern Illinois only has a handful of manmade state park recreational waters. All of them see considerable angling pressure, but intensive management assures good on-going bass angling opportunities.
George, Carlton, Le-Aqua-Na and Pierce lakes in north-central Illinois near Rockford all contain good populations of largemouth bass - along with motor restrictions and other baggage that comes with fishing in a state park.
Lake George and Carlton have 10-horsepower limits, 43-acre Le-Aqua-Na is electric-motor-only and Pierce is no-wake for motors larger than 10-horsepower. Several years ago an article in Illinois Game & Fish prompted the Department of Natural Resources to open up Pierce to boats with larger motors - a definite step in the right direction. This spring I plan on giving park personnel a little demonstration with my big deep-V walleye boat, using the big motor to idle down the lake in one direction, then dropping the 8-horse "kicker" and plowing a nice, legal furrow in the water on the way back. It seems that "no wake" rules for everybody make more sense, with the potential to open more waters up to more people.
At only 160 acres and in the shadow of Rockford, scenic Pierce Lake gets plenty of fishing pressure. The key for consistently getting hooked up here lies in a finesse presentation, using primarily soft plastics and light tackle. Although probing isolated structure around the lake is certainly worthwhile, a major component of the bass population here spends a great deal of time near the dam and island at the lake's deeper west end.
By midsummer there is little oxygen below 12 feet in Pierce, which concentrates the bass population even more. Try pitching a Chompers Skirted Grub, Salty Sinker or using a drop-shot presentation along the dam and steep break off of the lake's lone island. Also try twitching a clear Heddon Tiny Torpedo when the sun goes down.
Lake George is a metro lake nestled near the Quad Cities at Rock Island that is slightly bigger than Pierce and shaped like a T-bone steak. Right now is the best time to tangle with a wallhanger bass here, especially out from the Big Branch Creek feeder stream in the lake's eas
t arm when water temperatures are between 43 and 47 degrees.
Try a crawdad-patterned floating Rat-L-Trap or slow-rolling a spinnerbait here, repeating the presentation elsewhere in the lake as waters warm to that magic 43 to 47 degrees. Once waters warm and weeds appear, soft plastics are the way to go. Slug-Gos, Jo-Jerk Minnows and similar baits rigged weedless with a fluorescent line to help indicate subtle strikes may yield a fish big enough to get your picture in the local paper.
Lake Carlton in Whiteside County is better known for producing muskies than bass. At just 77 acres you can fish it effectively in just a couple of hours, with the cove by the dam and shoreline wood the obvious places to target.
This rural lake and Le-Aqua-Na to the north are essentially family camping getaways that offer fishing as something to do while waiting for the hotdogs to cook. But there are bass in both these lakes, and the best way to catch 'em is with a raspberry-scented purple plastic worm with an orange firetail.
Rockford's Chuck Mercaitis designed Chuck's Worm over 30 years ago. It still catches fish - although most who consider themselves serious bassers don't like to be seen using this bait because a 10-year-old can catch as many bass as a pro angler. Fishing pre-rigged worms with a snap swivel minimizes line twist. Don't forget to target offshore floating duckweed when summer arrives. Water temperatures are cooler under this cover, and the bass are there!
Concession stands at all four of these state park lakes offer advice, bait and boat rental. The Illinois DNR Web site, www.dnr.state.il.us, is a great planning aid for the traveling angler.
SHABBONA LAKE This 318-acre De Kalb County state park lake is the best manmade public water in northern Illinois - in spite of restrictions like maintaining a 10-horsepower outboard limit and limiting fishing hours to essentially just during daylight.
Shabbona holds state-record-class muskies and walleyes, and both size and numbers of bass - with larger specimens learning the wisdom of being primarily nocturnal feeders. I'm convinced the 14-pound state-record walleye on the books since 1961 would fall on Shabbona next winter if DNR personnel collected a small user fee to pay for night supervision and allow fishing.
Bass action starts heating up right at dusk on Shabbona all summer long, especially on the shoreline by the lake's feeder stream when using topwater baits. If "catching" is more important than "fishing" on these waters, use live bait to target bass on Shabbona's considerable offshore structure.
There is plenty of flooded timber, roadbeds, fish cribs and the foundations of an entire farm on the bottom of Shabbona Lake, with larger predators hanging close to optimum habitat most of the time. The difference between hooking up and not hooking up can be less than a foot.
Fishing Shabbona is like having a frontline goose pit at Grassy Lake Hunt Club in southern Illinois, just outside the refuge boundary: even with 10,000 decoys your quarry knows when and where its safe to feed. Location and presentation are the keys. Don't give up, and fish hard at prime times of dawn, dusk and with inclement weather approaching. Even big fish make an occasional mistake.
Check the DNR Web site or www.shabbonalake.com to put you in touch with Denny Sands, the concessionaire and most knowledgeable angler on these waters. Sands' phone number is (815) 824-2581.
FOX CHAIN-O-LAKES This string of natural lakes in northeastern Illinois is some of the most intensely fished bass water in our state. But action here continues to be consistently good year after year for anglers who understand ol' linesides.
Right now bass are looking for the warmest water available, which is likely on northside dark-bottomed bays in Channel and Catherine lakes - not what most folks would call prime bass water. Woody cover, particularly docks and piers, also absorb the sun's warmth besides offering refuge. Isolated wood cover like a fallen tree or just a couple of old pilings will also attract and hold fish early in the year.
Smaller lakes in the Fox Chain are much easier to target active bass on than larger bodies of water. For this reason, Petite and Bluff are probably tops for bucketmouths. But you can't overlook Lake Marie, which DNR statistics indicate is the top water in the chain.
Weed edges hold fish all summer long, especially the inside weed edge after about 10 a.m. when watercraft traffic surges past unbelievable. Some savvy anglers say boat traffic is actually beneficial, with turbulence making fish more aggressive.
Although you can cover a lot of water with a white tandem spinnerbait and get hooked up, pitching a weedless, weightless sinking-type worm like the Senko with precision on that inside weed edge will result in more and bigger fish by day's end. Don't be afraid to experiment with bizarre presentations. Bass will eat the traditional nose-hooked Senko, but there are times when they will simply annihilate this bait if rigged "wacky-worm" style.
Probably the biggest key to success on these waters is getting out there when most other folks can't or won't, like just before dawn to maybe 8:30 a.m. on a weekday during peak summer periods. Right now and when October rolls around, the bite is always better on a sunny afternoon, using both smaller baits and a slower presentation. Don't forget the topwater night bite after fish spawn in mid-May. More important, be sure all navigational lights are functioning before leaving the boat launch.
General information is available on the DNR Web site. Greg Dickson and folks at Dickson's Triangle Bait Shop are the most knowledgeable for specific information regarding the Fox Chain and on other northeastern Illinois waters. Triangle Bait's phone number is (847) 395-0813.
OTHER NORTHEAST WATERS Its fair to say just about every largemouth bass in northeast Illinois has felt at least one hook by the time it reaches 12 inches. Extensive studies have shown plastic worms - especially smaller ones - and similar soft plastics don't remain in a bucketmouth's memory banks as long as an encounter with a stick bait or spinnerbait, which is something to consider before targeting small and heavily pressured waters here.
The quickest place to get your string stretched in the greater Chicago area may be Papoose Lake located on 123rd Street west of LaGrange Road. A weedless presentation like a Scum Frog is probably your best bet.
Three fishing areas in Cook County's Busse Lake that are connected by dams hold a pile of fish just short of the 14-inch limit. The main lake and much smaller 146-acre south lake hold the most fish. There's a good boat ramp but only electric trolling motors can be used. Now is a good time to take a stroll along the dams while pitching a white tandem or chartreuse spinnerbait and making a steady retrieve.
The village of Wauconda in Lake County is home to Bangs Lake where a special-use sticker and wake restrictions are part of the fishing picture. Tube jigs fished close to cover work well here just about anytime.
On Milliken Lake in Will County, anglers are limited to shore-fishing only, but these 26 acres hold some whopper bass in excess of 20 inches. Most of the bigger critters live at the south end where access is a little tougher.
Monee Reservoir, another Will County bassery, has a one-fish, 15-inch minimum limit in place. Most anglers give up on these 44 acres once weeds become a factor. Don't forget your Slug-Gos and Scum Frogs. No-stretch line like Berkley FireLine is a great help.
You won't be able to fish the Skokie Lagoons until mid-May when waterfowl refuge restrictions are lifted. An electric trolling motor restriction is in place, with a good boat ramp providing access. DNR surveys indicate a super bass population in these 190 acres, due primarily to placement of over 115 fish cribs. Rig a Senko weedless and pitch it right in the wood. With an exceptional forage base to thrive on, bass up to 6 pounds cruise the seven lagoons that make up this complex located between Willow Road and Dundee, just east of the Edens Expressway off of Tower Road.
POWER-PLANT LAKES If you don't mind "fishing ugly," several upstate power-plant lakes provide a serious bassin' option.
Braidwood Lake in Will County, Powerton Lake in Tazewell County and La Salle Lake in La Salle County all have good populations of largemouths, with fish activity and location determined by water temperature, which is driven by power-plant operation.
As a general rule, fishing is tough when the utilities that operate these power plants aren't on-line. When electricity is being generated, use your surface temperature gauge to find 68 to 72 degree water. Once fish are located, just about anything in shad pattern will work, with a shad-patterned Rat-L-Trap probably your shortest route to getting hooked up.
Braidwood is the best bigmouth producer of these three lakes, with fish averaging 1 to 4 pounds, and a whopper is always possible.
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No matter where you live in northern Illinois, a close encounter of the bucketmouth kind is never more than an hour's drive away!
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