Most Illinois anglers are aware of which lakes have the best fishing for largemouths. But these 10 lakes see little fishing pressure. The bass are waiting for you!
By Ted Peck
Ford "Hoop-I" Harris knows how to hide in plain sight when it's time to go bass fishing. Hiding from bass isn't Hoop-I's concern - it's those anglers out there bassin' who bring out this old rascal's best attempts at subterfuge.
Folks around Carterville still talk about the johnboat Hoop-I used to run back in the days when the Illinois Department of Natural Resources was called the Illinois Department of Conservation. This watercraft was the same make and model as boats used by state game wardens, identical right down to the 25-horsepower Johnson outboard on the transom and official 3-inch-high lettering just under the gunnel on both sides. The only difference was that the lettering on Hoop-I's boat read "Illinois Dept. of Conversation."
"Everybody thought I was a carp cop and stayed away," he chuckles. "Since nobody wanted to visit I could get real serious about fishin' without having to worry about competition."
Another favorite trick is keeping a couple of crappie poles highly visible and the bassin' gear out of sight - a brilliant deception even to those who know him well, because Harris' reputation for chasing crappies is well known around his southern Illinois stompin' grounds.
Of course, the best deception is holding information about favorite bass haunts close to the vest. Following is a look at some Prairie State bucketmouth waters you might be tempted to lie about - even when the truth is better.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
VISITOR POND If I had just one hour to catch a 5-pound largemouth, this 10-acre lake behind the Visitor Center at Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge off of Highway 148 would be the first public water to see a cast from me.
Visitor Pond is essentially catch-and-release, with a bag limit of one fish over 21 inches in place. Whoppers of biblical proportion swim in these fertile waters, and using a Slug-Go or similar soft-plastic finesse bait is the best way to provoke a strike right now. Buzzbaits are a good choice earlier and later in the year when weed growth isn't such a great factor.
Travel light and don't forget the bug juice and camera. Access is walk-in only. And there is no beaten path on the shoreline, where you'll typically find the best fishing.
FERNE CLYFFE This 16-acre state park lake located south of Goreville in Johnson County is another shore-fishing-only bassery with whopping big fish.
DNR biologist Chris Bickers says mature largemouths here grow big fast on a high-protein diet of little rainbow trout, which would make that trout-patterned Rapala in your tackle box an excellent bet.
As you might imagine with a trout-holding lake, these waters are cold and exceptionally clear.
A well-maintained path around Ferne Clyffe State Park provides excellent access for shore-anglers. A 15-inch minimum is enforced on bass.
DUTCHMAN LAKE Dutchman Lake, located north of Vienna, has several good year-classes of bass swimming in its 116 acres. Since Dutchman is a water-retention lake, water clarity depends greatly on any run-off entering the system.
There is a good matrix of weeds here, including milfoil and some coontail. Another good place to target is along the rocky wall on the southwest side of the lake. There is a marginal boat ramp at the other end, with a 10-horsepower limit in effect.
According to biologist Bickers, over one-third of the bass here are bigger than 15 inches, with bass approaching double digits swimming in the system. The one I lost in April 2002 along the rock wall probably isn't a 10-pounder yet, but if she is still wearing the frog-pattern Devil's Horse I was using, please return it to me in care of this magazine.
BAY CREEK NO. 5 Like many treasures in the Shawnee National Forest, Bay Creek No. 5 can be tough to find. It's not far from downtown Eddyville in Pope County, vectoring generally north off of Highway 147 to the crummy boat launch.
A 10-horsepower limit is in effect on these 110 acres. Like Dutchman and several other worthwhile waters in the Shawnee, Bay Creek No. 5 is a water-retention lake that is a drainage of Bay Creek.
Much of this lake is shallow, with the exception of the old creek channel and waters near the dam on the lake's west side. There are some good weeds, some woody cover and a pretty much untapped bass population swimming in these sometimes murky waters.
Most folks living in the northern two-thirds of Illinois have no idea about the number and diversity of lakes found in the Shawnee National Forest. You just need a few things: a cartopper or canoe; some quadrangle maps, available at a nominal charge from national forest offices; a DeLorme Illinois Atlas & Gazetteer (207-865-4171); and a Southern Illinois Fishing Map Guide, published by Sportsman's Connection and available by calling 1-800-777-7461 or by going online to their Web site: www.sportsmansconnection.com.
There are over 200 lakes in the Shawnee. Several of these are better than Dutchman and Bay Creek No. 5. Many aren't as good. You find 'em, you fish 'em, and then you decide what to do with the information!
PINCKNEYVILLE CITY LAKE The bass population in 115-acre Pinckneyville City Lake is "right off the charts," according to DNR biologist Shawn Hirst. An 18-inch, one-bass-daily limit imposed here several years ago has produced impressive results. Fisheries surveys have cranked up over 100 bass per hour, with over 25 percent of bass sampled at or above legal size requirements.
Most of the shoreline here is undeveloped. The water is somewhat turbid. Little weed growth forces fish to take up residence in standing timber, deadfalls and Christmas tree lunker structures that have been placed here over the past several years.
Rat-L-Traps, topwaters and spinnerbaits are hot lures here throughout much of the fishing season, with action improving considerably when cooler weather arrives. Given Pinckneyville City Lake's maximum depth of only about 8 feet and average visibility of less than 2 feet, bright colors are most effective here, especially when using a steady r
etrieve to allow the bass to home in on your lure.
Don't overlook the riprapped areas along the lake's south shoreline, especially near the dam. There is a good boat launch on the southeast side of the lake, but a 10-horsepower limit is in effect.
According to the DNR, these 115 Perry County acres, located just north of town and west of Highway 127, may be the best no-name public bass water in our state.
Contact: Mann & Sons Sporting Goods, (618) 357-2911.
HARRISBURG RESERVOIR Another water supply lake worthy of note to bassers is this 209-acre reservoir in Saline County east of Galatia. Harrisburg's new city reservoir is fairly deep, with a maximum depth of about 30 feet.
Like Pinckneyville, water clarity is usually somewhat murky. As a result you can find good results just working the shoreline, even now in the dog days of August, especially around some of the boat docks out from the extensively developed shoreline.
This lake practically screams for a pitchin' presentation, with both size and numbers of largemouths waiting to garwoofle a 1/16-ounce white PeeWee Jig with a No. 23 Uncle Josh Pork Frog trailer.
Check your drag before heading out on these waters. Tackle-busting hybrid stripers that have been stocked here over the past several years are starting to develop considerable shoulders.
SNAKE DEN HOLLOW Lake McMaster is the only impoundment with a boat ramp out of about 135 little lakes in this Knox County Fish & Wildlife Area located near Victoria, with improvements here increasing acreage on McMaster to about 160 acres.
A three-bass, 15-inch minimum on both smallmouths and largemouths is in place on the entire FWA, with a 10-horsepower limit in effect.
With a little effort you can usually catch a limit of fish on McMaster, or the smaller Lake Victoria. Getting to other strip-mine lakes in this complex takes effort, too - either by walking or riding a mountain bike back to some of the more remote waters. This approximately 400-acre FWA has mowed trails throughout the project, with every one of the little lakes from 1/10 of an acre to several acres accessible just a short walk away from the trails.
Herein lies the beauty of Snake Den Hollow: so many waters, so little time. Even if you fished a different lake every day it would take all summer to fish them all. And bass in some of the more remote areas seldom see a hook. A belly boat provides the ultimate access to Snake Den Hollow, with plenty of action to keep even the most ardent angler busy for years.
DNR fisheries biologist Ken Russell has sampled bass in excess of 6 pounds in McMaster and "several of the other little lakes in the project." Local anglers are understandably tight-lipped about their favorite "honeyholes."
All of these lakes are clear, but some are subject to algae bloom this time of year.
Maps are available at the site office. For more information, call the site superintendent at (309) 879-2607.
MAUTINO FISH & WILDLIFE AREA There are seven lakes in this FWA complex - located in Bureau County located on the Buda blacktop about three miles west of Buda - that contain good populations of largemouth bass.
At 15.5 acres, Boss Lake is the biggest of the bunch, with both smallmouths and largemouths swimming in these reclaimed strip-pit waters. Boss and 14-acre Osprey Lake have boat ramps in place, with construction nearly completed on the ramp for access at 6-acre High Wall Lake. An easy slope permits launching of a canoe or cartopper at 5-acre Mirror Lake, with three other lakes ranging in size from about 1/2 acre to a 14-acre lake called Goose Pond on this state property.
As is the case with most strip-pit lakes, all of these waters have amazing clarity. DNR biologist Ken Clodfelter says visibility can be over 15 feet in early spring.
A finesse presentation with small-diameter line and downsized baits is the best way to get hooked up here, with drop-shotting a particularly effective method of fooling these bass.
The Mautino FWA is part of the Hennepin Canal Parkway complex. For more information on fishing Mautino, contact the site office at (815) 454-2328.
LAKE MATTHIESSEN Most folks who visit Starved Rock State Park by the confluence of Interstate 39 and I-80 near LaSalle/Peru come for the hiking or fishing the Illinois River. A smaller state park complex nearby showcases 11-acre Lake Matthiessen, which was killed off and restocked seven years ago by DNR fisheries biologist Ken Clodfelter.
A concession at the lake rents canoes, which are great to use to access the bass population here. Matthiessen is a scenic little lake, and well protected from weather and wind from its location in a tree-filled valley. Since it is a drainage lake, visibility is less than 3 feet, with some algae bloom seen this time of year.
Although it is just down the road from Starved Rock State Park - one of the busiest state parks in Illinois - it is possible to fish Matthiessen and get away from the crowds, effectively probing all potential bass haunts with just a couple hours on the water.
BANNER MARSH STATE FWA The Banner Marsh Complex in Fulton and Peoria counties is best known for supplying refuge for waterfowl in their travels along the Illinois River. But this shallow complex of backwaters and sloughs is also full of fish - most notably channel catfish, crappies and bass.
Connecting channels between designated lakes receive virtually no fishing pressure, with bass pressure on the larger designated lakes being light, especially this time of year during the week.
Three major lakes - Johnson, Wheel and Shovel - are the heart of fishing in this complex. Six-hundred-acre Johnson and 150-acre Wheel are located in Peoria County, with Shovel just across the county line to the west in Fulton County checking in at about 100 acres.
There are a number of special regulations in effect at the Banner Marsh FWA, the most unusual of which is a 25-horsepower-motor restriction. Johnson is the easiest to access, with a good concrete ramp in place. Getting to the other lakes requires passage through channels after launching at Bell's Landing on the west shore or East Point Access at the other end of the complex.
A three-fish daily bass limit is in effect, but the action is mostly catch-and-release, with all fish from 12 to 18 inches being protected by a slot limit.
The key to finding bass in these waters lies in targeting weeds, like the cattails up in Wheel Lake or reeds in Shovel La
ke. Don't forget to work the long peninsula in Johnson Lake. Bass well in excess of the 18-inch protected slot length reside here.
Bassin' Banner Marsh now is mostly a topwater operation, especially along the peninsula of Johnson Lake, which is the epicenter of bass activity on these waters. Plastics also work well. A favorite local tactic is rigging a Senko wacky-worm-style and casting it toward the weed edges.
The "marsh" designation of this property is somewhat misleading. All three of these lakes have water in excess of 50 feet deep.
Although the Banner Marsh project itself is no secret, little tricks like targeting the peninsula in Johnson Lake make this a great location in which to hide in plain sight like ol' Hoop-I Harris on a fishin' mission.
Doc's Service in nearby Canton is the best source of information for fishing Banner Marsh. The phone number of Doc's is (309) 647-5195.
PRIVATE LAKES Illinois - particularly northern Illinois - is home to a number of private lake developments where you need to own property to fish. Bass fishing on lakes like Holiday, Galena Territories and Apple Canyon can be exceptional.
I've been fishing and guiding on Apple Canyon Lake in Jo Daviess County for over 20 years. Last summer here, 3,042 bass came into my boat before a quick release.
Northern Illinois sportsmen who are contemplating purchase of property to access this hot "private" action should check with the local fisheries biologist prior to buying a membership lot, because not all private lakes are good bass lakes.
With no point in Illinois more than about 6 1/2 hours' drive from any other point, the public waters you have just read about are certainly worth a look. And the bass are waiting for you!
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