Fishing for Illinois Channel Cats

Serious catfishermen know there's more to it than just sitting on the bank and waiting for the fish to come to them. That's why they target these lakes.

By Daniel D. Lamoreux

There is something about the "All American Attitude" that tends to lure us into the notion that bigger is always better. It's a signature of our prosperous way of life that we prefer to "super-size" our meals, drive monster trucks and brag about white-tailed bucks with rocking chairs for head ornaments. In most instances, that's OK. In fact, it's better than OK.

However, there are times when we may have a tendency to overlook some of the very best opportunities that life has to offer simply because they have been packaged in small containers. Catfishing can be like that.

Channel cats are a prolific breed that can be found in all corners of the Prairie State. There is a wealth of options to chose from when deciding upon which locations to highlight. In our search to bring you the latest scoop each summer, our tendency is to write about the well-known waters where so-and-so caught the 20-pound fiddler just the other day. That practice has its place.

The problem in this mindset is that when we constantly super-size our outdoor pursuits we may gorge ourselves while we forget to savor the flavor. We flock to the "hotspots" and along the way we bypass many hidden adventures and outstanding, but subtle, opportunities. In our rush to throw a line in the big water, most of the less glamorous but equally valuable honeyholes become nothing more than a blur as we race blindly by.

This season, let's take a slightly different tack.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

Each of our picks in this year's channel catfish review is still a "hotspot," but for different reasons. You may not find any aquatic felines in these waters that will break a broomstick or the state record, but what you will find is a lot of fishing pleasure. Better yet, chances are you won't have to share any of it with a thousand other anglers.

Slow down, get off the beaten path and break out the stink bait. There's fish to catch right next door!

The Banner Marsh area, located just south of U.S. 24 in Peoria and Fulton counties, is nestled up against the Illinois River and has benefited from yearly channel cat stocking for nearly the last decade.

"We annually stock with 8- to 10-inch non-vulnerable fish," explained Rob Hilsabeck, Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist. "Shovel Lake gets about 400 fish, Wheel Lake about 900, Johnson Lake about 900, and between the other waters we stock about another 500 fish. However, there is a low-density population at Banner Marsh. This is not a catfish factory. But it has a stable population and there are quality fish here that reach into the 10- to 12-pound range, and their body conditions are excellent."

The lower population numbers are compensated for by the fact that this area gets little catfishing attention. "There's not a lot of pressure," Hilsabeck said. "Especially from shore, because it's hard to reach." But those with the will can come away with some really nice fish, even if fewer in numbers.

Hilsabeck advised that anglers concentrate early in the year on those waters which warm first, indicating that Wheel Lake and the Johnson Lake sections produce very well during electrofishing and trap-net surveys.

While channel cats also have the best reputation for daytime bites, Hilsabeck explained that this area is somewhat of an exception.

"There is fairly clear water here," he said, "so catfishing is more difficult in daylight as the fish become more spooky. During the day, fish deeper and off the weedbeds. The best fishing will be at dusk, night and early dawn. Darkness will help on this area."

Gizzard shad are located in all of these waters and are a recommended bait by Hilsabeck. Stink baits also have a good reputation here.

There are three public access areas within Banner Marsh, all of which provide parking lots, boat ramps, restrooms and picnic areas. A 25-horsepower restriction is in effect.

On-site camping is restricted to youth groups, but other camping facilities are available at neighboring Rice Lake. Additional information can be received by contacting the Banner Marsh State Fish and Wildlife Area at (309) 647-9184. You can also check out their Web site, which is located at

"We put survey nets in Pierce Lake last April," explained DNR Fisheries biologist Alec Pulley. "I couldn't believe the number of cats we netted, and it was loaded with big ones, too! We did our last creel survey in about 1997, and it showed around a 1-pound average for channel cats, but we had fish in our nets (last year) up to 10 pounds, with all intermediate sizes."

Pierce Lake is also stocked on a yearly basis with 8-inch fish.

"The numbers change year to year," Pulley said. "We usually put in about 25 to 30 fish per acre, but we're trying to get up to 50 fish to an acre. This is a 162-acre lake, so it's well stocked."

Olson Lake, the little sister of Pierce Lake, is also stocked annually at about the same rate. Pulley advised that they do not assess the cats in Olson Lake as in-depth as on Pierce, knowing that the 8-inch stocked fish are going to survive. His assessment is that the Olson Lake cat population is "stable if not increasing."

Pulley advised that channel cats are being caught during daylight hours, but it is usually the smaller fish during these hours. This does create somewhat of a problem for die-hard catfishermen within the park.

"The bigger fish like to move at night," explained Pulley. "But the park is closed at night. They even have a sign up that says 'Closes at 10pm, Don't Get Locked In.' If you really want to do some night-fishing on Pierce Lake, be a camper. You get the run of the park if you're camping!"

There is no motor size restriction on Pierce Lake, but boats with motors over 10 horsepower must operate at no-wake speeds. Two launching ramps and boat docks are available, as are boat rentals. Information about rentals is available by calling (815) 885-2781. Olson Lake is restricted to carry-on watercraft with electric motors only.

Located in Winnebago County n

ear Loves Park, the area is open for summer hours from April through October from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Winter hours during November through March are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Additional information can be received by contacting Rock Cut State Park at (815) 885-3311 or by visiting their Web site, at

Even our Windy City anglers have opportunities close to home. Situated just south of Interstate 90 and tucked between Interstate 290 and Elk Grove Village is Busse Lake.

DNR fisheries biologist Mike Jones explained that this body of water has had its ups and downs with catfish populations, but nonetheless provides good opportunities for those willing to take the time to fish it.

Supplemental stocking takes place here at the rate of approximately 5,000 to 7,000 fish per year, using 8-inch non-vulnerable cats. Recent fish surveys have found cats averaging from 2 1/2 to 4 pounds, with historical sampling records indicating that fiddlers up to 12 pounds are possible.

Boat launching facilities are available, but motors are restricted to electric trolling motors only. For more information, contact the Busse Woods Forest Preserve at (708) 366-9420.

DNR fisheries biologist Rob Miller explained that the Monee Reservoir was originally built in the late 1800s to service the rail lines. Over the years, industrial activities and environmental factors took their toll. Then in the 1980s, Monee was given a new life. The reservoir went through a renovation process of draining, dredging and new excavation. The result was a new lease on life.

"This is really a pretty good fishery," Miller said, "despite its being so close to a big metropolitan area."

As with most relatively small impoundments, Monee's channel cat population is not self-perpetuating. It receives supplemental stocking of 8-inch fish on a fairly regular basis through a joint management agreement between the DNR and the Will County Forest Preserve District, which actually owns the property.

Miller advised that the waters are surveyed on alternating years. "On average the channel cats are 1-pounders," he said. "But they've got a good growth rate and we do get larger fish in the 6- to 8-pound range."

Bank-fishing is fairly restricted on these waters, the majority of the shoreline simply being inaccessible to anglers. Boat-fishing is allowed with boat rentals. In Miller's estimation, this diminishes the fishing pressure on the cats, leaving plenty of opportunity for those who want to target this particular species.

"If I were fishing for channel cats," Miller explained, "I'd probably forgo the bay. Instead, fish the main reservoir down to the back bay. Focus on the main basin of the lake and the channel south of the island. Really, you can find them most everywhere. Our sampling shows good quality fish on the eastern side of the lake in the fall."

Information for traveling anglers can be obtained by contacting the Heritage Corridor Convention and Visitors Bureau at (815) 727-2323 or 1-800-926-2262. You can also visit their Web site, located at

Homer Lake is only 81 acres in size, but once again the channel cat proves that you don't need big waters in order to find big fun.

"The catch rate on Homer is 18.7 fish per hour," said DNR biologist Mike Garthouse. "Channel cats are healthy and abundant. In our sampling we found most fish in the 15- to 17 1/2-inch range, weighing close to 2 pounds. This is right at what they should weigh (for this length). These are nice plump cats."

The cat population here is both healthy and plentiful.

"Channel cats have been stocked every year in the 12 that I've been here," explained Brian Taylor, the site superintendent for the Forest Preserve. "The fishing has been consistently good. With bass and some of the other species, the fishing will go up and down from year to year, but the catfishing has been pretty consistent. It wouldn't be uncommon for somebody who knows what they're doing to have a stringer of 1 1/2- and 2-pound cats with a 3- or 4-pounder mixed in there."

Taylor advised that fall - particularly between late August and the end of October - seems to be the best time for catching the bigger fish, but that "there's so many in here" that anytime is cat time on Homer Lake.

Homer Lake is a part of the Salt Fork River Forest Preserve in Champaign County. If you are planning to launch a boat, there is a permit required, which is available either on a seasonal or a daily basis. Shore-anglers have access to the lake at no charge.

Summer hours - late April to the end of October - allow access from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Park rules and fishing regulations are posted throughout the area.

Additional information can be received by calling the Salt Fork River Forest Preserve office at (217) 896-2733. You can also visit a Web site hosted by the Champaign County Forest Preserve District at

"This is an excellent fishery," said Mike Garthouse, DNR fisheries biologist. "The channel cats aren't subjected to heavy pressure - it's definitely not overfished - so there's good potential for catching cats. The fish are on the smaller side, but the numbers are great!"

Garthouse went on to explain that the DNR's night surveys through the year 2002 showed a channel cat catch rate of 5.3 fish per hour. He further stated that about half the fish in their survey ranged from 11 inches to 16 inches in size, with the other half measuring from 16 inches to 24 inches. The single-largest class of cats was in the 17- to 18-inch range, weighing about 1 1/3 pounds. The biggest was 23 inches and tipped the scales at 3 1/2 pounds. Dawson Lake receives a sizable stocking of 8-inch fish annually. In 2001, 7,486 fiddlers were released to supplement the population.

Garthouse said that the best success will be found at night as the cats move into shallow water anywhere on the lake.

Located just east of Bloomington/Normal, this lake offers backdoor access to our readers in central Illinois. Camping is available on site. A concessions operation is available near the boat dock and launch ramp. It offers dock and boat rentals, tackle and the usual supplies. A restaurant is also here. For additional concessions information, call (309) 724-8295. Additional information about the lake can be obtained by contacting the Moraine View State Recreation Area at (309) 724-8032 or by visiting their Web site: www.dnr

"The catfishing has been pretty good," explained Kurt Daine, DNR fisheries biologist. "Our stocking program has been going on for a very long time."

Last year saw 4,000 non-vulnerable 8-inch channel cats stocked in Dolan Lake, which only covers about 70 acres. That's a very good stocking rate. The program has produced a stable population, as evidenced by the DNR's electrofishing survey results.

"In our shocking, we're seeing fish at that 8-inch stocking size, all the way up to 6- and 8-pound fish, with everything in between. The average is about 3 pounds, but there are some big ones in there as well."

To find these fish, key in on the usual channel cat haunts.

"There's quite a bit of structure," Daine said, "like brushpiles, riprap along the dam, downed trees that people fish around near the shorelines - these are all good places to catch them."

Boat rentals are available on Dolan Lake through the concessions operation, which is open from April 1 through Oct. 31. A launching ramp is available if you want to bring your own watercraft, but a 10-horsepower restriction is in place. The area also has camping facilities on site for both tents and trailers, and a restaurant is available on the lake as well.

Additional information can be received by contacting the Hamilton County State Fish and Wildlife Area at (618) 773-4340 or by visiting their Web site:

"I highly recommend this place," commented Daine. "It's a real nice small lake, and it's a good experience to avoid the big boats and all of that."

* * *

In reality, good channel catfishing is much like panning for gold. The long-term riches are often found one small piece at a time. Good fishing!

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