Years ago, schoolchildren decided the cute little bluegill would be our state fish. Hey, kids: the author thinks that if you want a real lesson in life, try taking on channel catfish!
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
Years ago, Illinois schoolchildren selected the bluegill as our state fish. It's a designation that has stuck in my craw ever since. My vote was -- and always will be -- for the channel catfish.
Ol' forktail does a much better job of representing the spirit of the Prairie State. A tireless fighter. A tasty treat. Prospering just about anywhere there is water. Ugly as political corruption and inner-city decay. But willing to gobble up anything in its path to make things better.
Hey kids, bluegills are cute little fish that are willing to bite and are easy to catch. But life ain't that way. Pull the tail on a cat and you could just get the claws. Sometimes you have to do things to survive in life that stink. Sounds like catfish bait to me! Those little bluegills are bait, too. Why don't we just hook one under the dorsal fin and see if we can't fool a big catfish?
Maybe you'll be able to land her, maybe you won't. Either way you'll know you've been in a fight. Win or lose, you're tussling with something ugly. But if Momma's got a little cornmeal and cooking oil, everybody eats. That's life in Illinois, kids. If you had ever fought and tasted a catfish rather than being swayed by some liberal third-grade teacher's agenda, the channel catfish -- not the bluegill -- would be our state fish.
That said, here's a look at some top honeyholes to go after one fish that fits all sizes of anglers, from kids to grumpy old men like me: the channel catfish.
GILLESPIE CITY LAKES
These Macoupin County reservoirs are separated by a dam. There's about 275 acres of prime catfish water, with a good boat launch on each of the lakes and shore-fishing opportunities at several locations. There is a 10-horsepower limit in effect.
Local anglers say some of the best catfishing action can be found close to shore, targeting the edge of water willow and similar vegetation -- and around fallen trees -- with a number of different baits, from crawlers to dip bait being at the ready.
Department of Natural Resources biologist Jeff Pontnack said these waters are stocked annually with non-vulnerable 8-inch channel cats, with "multiple year-classes present," from eating-sized up to hawgs in excess of 20 pounds.
According to Pontnack, the Old City Lake is the place to go if you're looking for the prime ingredient for a fish fry or fast action for young anglers. Once new anglers have learned a little patience and figure they can whip anything that swims, take them to New City Lake. Bites won't come as often here, but when they do, the fish are capable of making the gears in that little Snoopy reel and pole sound like a bag of marbles in a crucible -- which automatically turns a kid into a fisherman for life. Both lakes hold good populations of 3- to 5-pound catfish that are a little too big to eat but a little small to destroy decent fishing tackle. It spells fun any way you slice it.
Contacts: Carlinville Chamber of Commerce, (217) 854-2141; Gilmore Bait & Marine, (217) 854-8136.
You'll need some heavy gear to hoist catfish out of the weeds on this 450-acre renovated cypress swamp that serves as a waterfowl refuge during the colder months.
Besides plenty of junk and fallen timber, this shallow lake has an abundance of American water lotus -- also known as lily pads -- that provide both shelter and cooler water that catfish find very attractive once summer arrives in southern Illinois.
The best way to access cats hiding under the pads is by suspending bait about 3 feet under a bobber, pulling gently until the offering settles between the greenery. Lotus stems are tough, but fish can be coaxed from this hiding place with 20- to 30-pound-test Berkley FireLine and a rod with plenty of backbone.
DNR fisheries biologist Chris Bickers said many catmen sit on rock levees that are found on several sides of the lake, especially as waters warm to about 78 degrees in the spring. This usually happens about mid-May when channel catfish move amongst the rocks to build spawning nests.
Because Mermet holds so much cover and structure, actually putting fish on the stringer can be challenging. But Bickers said the efforts are worthwhile, with "excellent numbers" of 3- to 5-pound channel catfish, and some bigger specimens swimming in these fertile waters.
There are three boat ramps, with rental boats and camping/picnic amenities that make this Massac County fishery a perennial favorite for downstate cat chasers.
Contacts: Mermet Lake Conservation Area, (618) 524-5577; Metropolis Chamber of Commerce, 1-800-949-5740.
CRAB ORCHARD LAKE
If you just want to catch catfish, it's real hard to beat Williamson County's Crab Orchard Lake. Crab has an average depth of 7 feet, with 125 miles of shoreline surrounding its beautiful 7,000 acres of surface water between Marion and Carbondale.
The catfish population here is self-sustaining and found from one end of the lake to the other in this water that is the heart and soul of southern Illinois.
It took two poles to catch my first Crab Orchard whiskerfish back in 1969. Several of us were fishing near Carterville Beach by the light of the full-summer moon. I left my best fishin' rod propped in a forked stick in the sand for just a minute to retrieve a cold beverage from a nearby cooler and was unable to grab the rod before a catfish pulled it in the lake. Twenty minutes later one of the girls in our party got a bite -- a 6-pound channel cat with my fishin' pole still attached!
This critter ended up greasing the skillet a couple days later. Back then there were no fish-consumption advisories for eating catfish from these waters. Today we know that PCBs from defense plants on the lake's east end have made Crab a catch-and-release-only fishery for catfish.
Cut shad was -- and remains -- the best all-around channel catfish bait on Crab Orchard, which has plenty of access, good marina facilities, camping and other amenities.
Although it is less than six hours' drive from any point in Illinois, I never cease to be amazed by how few upstate anglers have experienced this water or the other lakes previously mentioned. Fishing Crab is a "must do" item on my several trips to southern Illinois every year. Exiting Int
erstate 57 at Marion and heading west on Highway 13 toward Carbondale always feels like coming home.
Contacts: Williamson County Tourism, 1-800-433-7399; Cooksey's Bait Shop, (618) 993-3366.
About an hour north of Crab Orchard off of Interstate 57 is sprawling Rend Lake, an 18,900-acre U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reservoir that offers the best channel catfish action of Illinois three Corps reservoirs, and may be even better than Crab Orchard simply because it is more than twice as large.
Nightcrawlers are probably the best bait for Rend cats when waters are cool. But from now through the rest of summer, shad and dip baits are tough to beat.
Catfish are almost always biting on Rend, providing action when other species don't feel like cooperating. You'll find them relating to riprap around spawning time, points and creek channels close to timber most of the time, and cruising around in the back ends of bays during summer's peak heat.
Although catfish are found essentially all over the lake, those waters on the lake's north end seem to produce the most fish. Waters that lie north of Highway 154 are generally less than 10 feet deep, and a veritable maze of snags and stickups that hold vast numbers of 2- to 3-pound catfish call home. Although there are a few whoppers swimming here, 7 pounds is considered a big one by pole-and-line anglers. Rend is also home to monster flathead catfish.
Other good spots include the I-57 and Highway 154 causeways, and south end of the lake just off of the dam's riprap.
Rend is one of Illinois' most popular outdoor vacation spots, with six major recreational areas, Rend Lake Resort, marinas and other amenities. You're never more than 20 minutes from a boat launch, or 25 minutes away from tangling with your first catfish, either from shore or a boat. There are no boat or motor restrictions on this water.
Contacts: Rend Lake State FWA office (618) 279-3110; Bluegill Hole bait shop, (618) 279-7793.
This 158-acre state park lake located just east of Bloomington-Normal is just a little above average in the cookie-cutter profile of channel catfish populations that inhabit Illinois' state park lakes.
The Illinois state park system has a winning formula in place throughout our state in that a manmade lake from 80 to 200 acres is the centerpiece of park operations that include camping, picnicking and other amenities like a concession stand/boat livery.
These lakes are maintained with supplemental stocking of channel cats on a regular basis, with management tailored toward producing a population of "eater size" catfish in the 1- to 3-pound range.
Because this management plan has been ongoing for years, you always have the chance of hooking into a whopper. But the combination of fishing pressure and stocking keeps most of the catfish biomass at a size where they are fun to catch and great to eat.
Dawson is a case in point. Fish sampled in Mike Garthaus' DNR surveys here show solid year-classes of 11- to 24-inch channel catfish swimming in Dawson, with the dominant year-class about 20 inches long. According to Garthaus, the channel catfish population in Dawson is lightly pressured, making it an ideal lake to take the statewide six-cat limit out of in a couple hours on the water.
This time of year, channel catfish in state park lakes spend a lot of time tucked in the weeds in about 4 to 8 feet of water, facing the shallows and ready to pounce with little effort on any meal that comes close enough to eat.
Toward dark, these fish go on active patrol in the shallows, often following the inside weed edge like finned trash collectors making their nightly run. Obvious places to set up on Dawson are on the north side of the Black Locust picnic area and fishing the channel between shore and Honker's Island, and the point just north of Catfish Bay on the lake's west side directly south of the boat launch. There are two boat launches on this lake, which is surrounded by Moraine View State Recreation Area.
As is the case on other state park lakes, don't forget the deeper waters that are out in front of the dam, with the first main-lake point on the lake's west side north of the dam an obvious place to target with dip bait or fresh chicken liver.
Weed growth is a factor in most state park/state recreation area lakes in Illinois. In many cases the weedline is a prime fish habitat. When many state park lakes were built, not much natural habitat was left behind. In many cases the DNR has introduced fish cribs and other structures to these lakes. There are also instances of savvy local anglers sneaking in their own structures covertly to be fished at a later date. In some cases, most notably 318-acre Shabbona Lake in De Kalb County, natural structure has been pretty much left in place as the lake filled. On Shabbona the flooded timber, old roadbed and an entire set of farm buildings has since been augmented with more fish cribs and rockpiles.
Dawson doesn't have this kind of structural diversity. Therefore you need to target weeds. The best way to accomplish this end is with bait suspended underneath a float set to present the bait within a foot of the bottom, near but not in the weeds.
This formula is profoundly effective in Dawson and practically every other state park lake. If you're fishing from a boat, just pitch the bobbers a few feet away along the deep-water weed edge. If you're fishing from shore, toss that float at an opening in the weeds. The fish are holding in 4 to 8 feet of water right now. This habitat is typically just a short pitch away.
Many casual anglers who fish these waters think you have to wind up and pitch the bait as far as that push-button reel will carry that 1/2-ounce sinker. Big mistake. Light sinkers, pencil floats that offer less resistance and short, precise casts are the way to go. Don't forget the net.
The best way to find a state park lake close to home is to get on the DNR's Web site. For Dawson Lake in Moraine View, go to
dnr.state.il.us/lands/landmgt/PARKS/R3/Moraine.htm. For other areas, just type in the desired park at the end of dots and slashes.
Contact: Dawson Lake State Park, (309) 724-8032.
Shovel, Johnson and Wheel lakes that are the focal point of the Banner Marsh FWA receive regular stocking of channel catfish. Although these waters are close to the Illinois River, they are very clear, presenting a challenge to cat chasers.
DNR fisheries biologist Rob Hilsabeck said these lakes are home to "quality catfish in the 10- to 12-pound range, with bigger fish present."
The Banner Marsh complex provides a good opportunity to go catfish hunting when there is no wind and waters haven't been
clouded by recent rainfall. By cruising quietly with an electric trolling motor and wearing polarized sunglasses on a sunny day, it is sometimes possible to see these big cats waiting in the weeds in ambush, lying perpendicular to the shore in scattered weedbeds. A bluegill or shiner hooked under the dorsal fin and plopped on the inside of the weed edge in front of that ugly nose will sometimes prompt this omnivore to ease forward, flare her gills and rock your world.
If you can see fish but they won't cooperate, the immediate area is a good place to set up on toward dark and switch to cut shad or dip bait.
Shovel Lake on the southwest end of the Banner Marsh complex holds the greatest concentration of fish, according to DNR surveys. A 25-horsepower outboard limit is in effect on this project.
Contact: Banner Marsh FWA, (309) 647-9184.
WINDY CITY OPTIONS
While the most laid-back catfishing experiences are at least two hours' drive away from Illinois' most densely populated area in the northeastern part of our state, there are several lakes just a short commute away where you can experience consistent success on whiskerfish.
There are an infinite number of hiding places for catfish in the sprawling Fox Chain-O-Lakes. According to DNR fisheries biologist Mike Jones, the greatest concentration of forktails is in the south end of the chain, swimming in Pistakee Lake where you can catch eaters with the shot at a horse up to about 10 pounds. Pistakee's 1,700 acres are very fertile. There's plenty of access at numerous points around the lake. Some of the best cat action can be found near two of the most popular boat launches off of Bald Knob Point and essentially across the lake near Eagle Point on the lake's east side. Don't overlook waters around the Highway 12 bridge at the north end and on the southeast side of Coon Island. For more information, contact Triangle Bait at (847) 395-0813.
Busse Lake between Elk Grove Village and Interstate 290 has a solid population of 2- to 4-pound fish thanks to annual stocking. There is a good boat launch, with electric motors-only permitted. Contact the Busse Woods Forest Preserve at (708) 366-9420.
The Monee Reservoir is only 43 acres, with poor access along its two miles of shoreline in Will County near the town of Monee. The best way to get at these fish is via a rental boat, targeting the main basin and the channel south of the island. Monee is at the opposite end of the spectrum from isolated waters in the heart of Shawnee National Forest at the opposite end of the state.
No matter where you live in Illinois, there is catfish action within an hour's drive from your home. Some folks take catfishing seriously. For others, it's just an excuse to sit without appearing idle on a warm summer afternoon. Either way, it is beauty in an ugly package, and rightful heir to the state-fish designation!