The Illinois suburbs of St. Louis have some mighty fine fishing for bass and other species. Here's how you can get in on the action.
By Bryan Dent
Asphalt and water don't mix - except when it comes to big-city bassin.' You might be surprised how many urban areas have good, and often underutilized, bass fishing close to home.
The St. Louis area is a case in point. Anglers who live in the Illinois suburbs of St. Louis - the Metro-East, as it is called locally - are within a short commute of some excellent fishing for bass and other species.
A recent national survey of anglers found that 60 percent of all anglers live in built-up, urbanized areas. Many of these city folks don't fish close to home, perhaps in the belief that good fishing is only found in wild areas of the countryside. But for Metro-East anglers, the bassin' locally is better than it has been in years.
Don't feel like driving far to fish? Horseshoe Lake in Madison County and the two lakes at Frank Holten State Park in East St. Louis are both within sight of the Gateway Arch in downtown St. Louis.
A bit farther away, the strip-mine lakes at Peabody River-King State Fish & Wildlife Area near New Athens are only about a 30-mile drive from the metro area. Overlooked Highland Silver Lake is also within easy driving distance, about 30 minutes east on Interstate 70.
Though it is the largest urban area in Illinois outside of Chicago, Metro-East still offers great fishing opportunities for those in the know. Here's how you can get in on the action at Horseshoe Lake, Frank Holten State Park, the Peabody strip mines and Highland Silver Lake.
Photo by Keith Benoist
Not to be confused with Horseshoe Lake in Alexander County, Horseshoe Lake State Park in Madison County is located minutes away from downtown St. Louis, just off Highway 111. Locally, the park is known for its waterfowl and dove hunting, but it's hardly ever mentioned when it comes to bass fishing.
Horseshoe Lake itself is an ancient oxbow lake, formed when the Mississippi River changed its course and cut a new channel through the bottomlands. When the river receded, the oxbow lake was left behind. Apparently the lake is centuries old. Archaeological evidence found on-site indicates that Native Americans used the area as a food source in 800 A.D.
Over the centuries, the bottom of the lake has filled in with tons of accumulated silt. Amazingly, the average depth of Horseshoe Lake today is only 2 1/2 feet deep. Fish survive the winter by retreating to one tiny corner of the lake that was once dredged to extract sand. In this hole the water is 40 to 50 feet deep.
At first glance, Horseshoe Lake may not look like much of a bassin' hotspot. But in fact, the bass fishing here is excellent.
"I am always surprised by the number of bass we find during fall sampling," said Fred Cronin, a Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist who is based at Horseshoe Lake, and who keeps track of this and other Metro-East lakes. "The bass always look better than expected. There are a lot of 3- and 4-pounders here.
"I would call Horseshoe Lake an under-appreciated bass fishery," he continued. "A lot of people fish from the bank for catfish, but not many get out on the lakes in boats. The few who do, who know about the bass fishing, really clean up."
Because the lake is so shallow, there is not much underwater structure to fish. Cronin suggested that bass anglers target the abundant brushy shorelines with spinnerbaits or jig-and-pig combos.
Cronin does not stock Horseshoe Lake because frequent flooding from the river makes it tough to manage. Nevertheless, the bass population - as well as the number of crappies - remains strong. Flooding from the Mississippi River occasionally "stocks" the lake with all kinds of fish, including some undesirable species. Buffalo and carp are more prevalent than anyone would like to see. But Cronin reports that catfishing is good here, perhaps as a result of the river stockings.
Horseshoe Lake has plenty of room for bank-fishing, and three public ramps accommodate boaters. A 25-horsepower limit is enforced. For more information about Horseshoe Lake State Park, call the site office at (618) 931-0270.
FRANK HOLTEN STATE PARK
In the shadow of the Gateway Arch, and surrounded by the city of East St. Louis, the two Frank Holten lakes are true urban fisheries. The bridge that connects the two halves of the park passes over a freeway that speeds commuters downtown. Far more visitors come to the park to roller blade or play the golf course than to fish.
But for those that make the effort, Frank Holten is a worthwhile fishing destination. North of the freeway is 97-acre Whispering Willow Lake, an old gravel quarry that has surprisingly deep water in certain holes. Near the south entrance is 80-acre Grand Marais Lake, a shallower pond that has a lot of shoreline cover and not much room for bank-fishing.
"Both lakes have solid bass fishing," Cronin reports. "We supplement both lakes by stocking, so they have fairly high numbers. I would rate them as good for keeper-sized bass over 14 inches. Every now and then we observe one in the 5-pound range."
Like at Horseshoe Lake, most people who fish the Frank Holten lakes do so from the bank for catfish.
"You really need a boat to take advantage of the fishing here," said Cronin. "Hardly anybody does. These lakes have evolved into a pretty decent bass fishery for anyone who wants to try it."
Crappies and catfish are the other important species in the Frank Holten lakes.
"Crappie fishing in Grand Marais is very good, both in terms of size and numbers," said Cronin. "The crappies have really improved over the years. You can get some 13-inchers out of both lakes. Catfish are stocked heavily, because that's what most anglers are after. The typical stocker size is 8 to 12 inches. The catfish seem to do well here."
Both Frank Holten lakes have paved boat ramps, but there is a 10-horsepower limit. For more information about Frank Holten State Park, call the site office at (618) 847-7920.
PEABODY RIVER-KING STATE FISH & WILDLIFE AREA
The Peabody strip mines, located off of Old Highway 13 near New Athens, are only a short drive from downtown - but a world away in terms of setting and atmosphe
re. The secluded and rugged landscape, typical of most strip-pit sites, is the ideal place to leave the urban bustle behind.
There are over 20 pits at the Peabody site. Some are big and some are tiny. Some have great bass fishing, some are mediocre, and some offer good chances for fish other than bass.
On the north end of the park - the North Sub Unit - are several large pits adjacent to the Kaskaskia River that have become interconnected due to flooding from the river. Flooding caused the clear water to become stained and allowed a lot of rough fish to enter the system. Right now, the bass fishing in the North Sub Unit lakes is not much to speak of.
That is a shame, because these pits are served by a big boat ramp and used to provide some fine angling. But the fishing in the North Sub Unit may be on the comeback, according to Cronin.
"Last year we started stocking saugers and hybrid striped bass here," he said. "These fish, and especially the stripers, ought to really cut into the numbers of shad that are overrunning these pits. In a few years, the fishing ought to be a lot better."
Other pits, farther removed from the edge of the river, have excellent bass fishing. Generally speaking, the more remote pits offer the best chances for really big bass.
"Some of these pits might only be a few acres in surface area, but all strip pits have deep water," Cronin said. "Whenever I hear about somebody catching a 6- or 7-pound bass, it is usually from one of the back lakes."
Only a few of the Peabody pits have boat ramps. The others have to be fished from the bank or from whatever watercraft can be carried to the water's edge. For a team of two anglers, a canoe is a great way to explore the strip mines. A lightweight canoe can be slithered down the bank, reaching bass water that few bank-anglers and no boaters have ever touched.
"These pits are difficult to sample because of the steep banks," said Cronin. "Most of the information I get on them is from angler reports. But it is not hard to figure that they have a lot of bass."
One such is 13-acre Cottonwood Lake, a long, narrow pit at the end of the access road in the West Sub Unit. Cottonwood is practically walled-in by the steep banks like a canyon and is hardly ever fished. From the road, a steep, muddy trail leads down to the water's edge, over which a couple guys can, with some difficulty, haul a johnboat or canoe. There is no other way to access it.
Cottonwood is a typically clear lake that has hordes of bass - perhaps too many. A lot of them are sublegal 10- to 12-inchers. This pit is also one of the better crappie lakes.
One pit that Cronin is able to monitor closely is Eagle Lake, a 101-acre pit in the East Sub Unit. Eagle is adjacent to the road and has a small, primitive boat ramp. It has solid bass fishing and some crappie action, but what really excites Cronin about this pit is the northern pike.
Not too many lakes in southern Illinois have northern pike. Cronin began stocking them a few years ago as an experiment. They seemed to be a natural fit for Eagle, with its exceptionally deep, clear water and thick weeds. The experiment appears to be working. Last fall, Cronin observed some pike that were in the 26- to 28-inch range.
The limits on pike at Peabody are one fish of at least 28 inches. For bass, three fish measuring 15 inches or larger may be kept. For crappies, the limits are 25 fish of at least 9 inches.
For more information on Peabody River-King State Fish & Wildlife Area, call the site office at (618) 785-2555.
HIGHLAND SILVER LAKE
Highland Silver Lake is often overlooked by Metro-East anglers, even though many drive over it heading east on Interstate 70. But this 550-acre lake has a lot of deep water and undeveloped, brushy shorelines that harbor bass, crappies and an exceptionally strong sauger population.
"The bass fishing is pretty good, though not as good as I would like to see it," Cronin said. "The lake water is murky, and that hinders reproduction. But the bass fishing is improving, and we plan on stocking more."
Right now, the typical Highland Silver Lake bass weighs 1 to 2 pounds. There are a few big ones that go over 5 pounds.
Crappies in the lake are about like the bass - decent and getting better. There is a solid population of fish in the 9- to 10-inch range. Highland Silver Lake has no size or creel limits on crappies.
But the best fishing at Highland Silver Lake is for saugers. Cronin began stocking them here about seven years ago, and they just took off. Apparently not many people around here pursue saugers, but the fishing for them at Highland is as good as it is anywhere in the region.
"There is a big sauger population, and it is largely untapped," Cronin said. "Some of these fish are real specimens, running up to 5 pounds. There are plenty in the 2- to 4-pound range. We measured some fish of 24 inches during sampling last fall."
Highland Silver Lake has a little room for bank-fishing, but the best way to approach it is by boat. There are two concrete boat ramps on the south end of the lake near the dam, but a launch fee is charged. Highland is owned by the city of Highland, and, as at most city lakes, the launch fee is levied to help defray maintenance costs. The yearly fee is $25 for city residents or $50 for non-residents. Permits can be bought at the city police department on Mulberry Street. Call the Highland Parks & Recreation Department at (618) 651-1386 for more information.
TWO MORE TO KEEP IN MIND
East and south of the St. Louis metro area are two more fine bass lakes - Washington County Lake and Randolph County Lake. Both are about 1 1/2 hours from the city, so they can't really be considered "suburban" lakes, but they are close enough and have good enough fishing to be worth mentioning.
The 301-acre lake at Washington County Conservation Area has long been known for its excellent bass fishing. It appears that there are not as many trophy bass as there used to be, but the overall bass population is still strong.
"Bass in the 15- to 20-inch range are common," said Barry Newman, the DNR biologist who monitors this lake. "During the last sampling, the biggest one we captured was about 4 pounds, which was a change. In 2002 we saw a 7-pounder. But for numbers and quality, this is still a very good bass lake."
Randolph County Lake at Randolph County State Fish & Wildlife Area is another first-rate bass fishery.
"The numbers of bass here are always high," Newman said. "The last angler creel survey we conducted found 41 pounds of bass per acre, which is an excellent number. The bass aren't huge, but there are ple
nty of them."
The average-sized Randolph bass runs about 1 1/2 pounds. Newman has captured largemouths up to 6 pounds in the past.
One problem Randolph Lake has had in recent years is excessive weed growth, which makes the lake tough to fish. Last fall, however, Newman found that the weeds were not nearly so bad.
"We will have to wait and see if the weeds continue to diminish, but that was a good sign," said Newman. "We stocked 250 grass carp not long ago to cut into the weeds, and that may be paying off."
One nice thing about Randolph County Lake is the diversity of its fishery. If the bass don't grab your lure, something else will. Walleyes and saugeyes continue to have a strong presence here.
"We stocked walleyes until 1997, then switched over to saugeyes. Saugeyes are hybrids, and like most hybrids they grow faster and tend to be hardier. Some years ago we captured a huge walleye that weighed 10 pounds. You can still get some up to 6 pounds. The saugeyes run up to 2 pounds right now."
Black crappies, redear sunfish and channel catfish round out this diverse lake. More than half of the crappies are over 9 inches, Newman reports. About 20 percent of the redears are over 8 inches. Channel cats from 1 to 5 pounds are abundant.
For more information, contact the Washington County Conservation Area site office at (618) 327-3137, and the Randolph County State Fish & Wildlife Area site office at (618) 826-2706.
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So who says you have to travel far for good fishing? It's all here right near the Metro-East!
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