Crappie fishing in Illinois is notoriously cyclic in size structure. A lake where one year the fish are big and fat may only produce stunted and skinny crappies the next year.
Fortunately, the Department of Natural Resources fishery biologists keep tabs on their fish with annual samplings to gauge the health of the fishery and, if necessary, adjust regulations or take measures to improve the fishery.
Here is a sampling of some of the better crappie lakes in Illinois for 2005.
Lake Shelbyville is an 11,000-acre reservoir managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It is located southeast of Decatur in Shelby and Moultrie counties. There are six small-craft launch facilities located in wildlife areas. Visitors with bigger craft are advised to use the larger access areas offered at marinas, state parks or Corps sites. Contact numbers are (217) 756-8260 for Eagle Creek SP, (217) 665-3112 for Shelbyville FWA and (217) 459-2831 for Wolf Creek SP.
"My primary management effort has been to utilize creel and length limits to try to protect crappie fishing quality," said Mike Mounce, the area's DNR district fishery biologist. "Lake Shelbyville should provide a good, quality fishery in 2005. I expected a high-quality fishery in 2004, but catch rates were poor. I believe that this was due to the erratic cold weather rather than the lack of fish.
"Many of the fish not caught or harvested should be available spring 2005," he continued. "In addition, the excellent fishery produced in spring 2003 resulted in many 10-inch-plus crappies released by fishermen. A reasonable number of these fish should still remain in the fishery as large fish."
Fishing pressure for crappies is relatively high in Lake Shelbyville, even throughout the winter months. This fishery is regulated with a 10-fish daily creel limit and a 10-inch minimum length limit.
Mounce also noted several other fisheries in the central Illinois area that have good potential in 2005 to be strong crappies spots, including Lake Decatur, Lake Mattoon and Mill Creek Lake.
Lake Decatur, a 3,092-acre reservoir, is found in Macon County just south of the city of Decatur. There are no motor restrictions and there are public ramp access points available throughout the lake. There is a 10-inch minimum length limit and 10-fish-per-day creel limit. Information about Lake Decatur can be found at the City of Decatur Water Department at (217) 424-2863, or Jerry's Sports at (217) 864-4867
"Lake Decatur can produce some very large crappies," said Mounce. "In spring 2004, conservation police officer R.J. Austin reported measuring a 19-inch crappie for a fisherman. An electrofishing brief survey in spring 2004 also revealed a decent number of large crappies. Fishermen are reporting good numbers of smaller crappies, which should recruit quickly into the legal size range. Crappie fishing pressure is low on Lake Decatur."
Lake Mattoon serves as the water supply for the city of Mattoon and surrounding area. The 1,050-acre lake is located in Shelby County just south of Mattoon. There are no horsepower limitations on the lake, but a city permit is required to launch a boat. Information about permits and Lake Mattoon can be obtained by calling the City of Mattoon Chamber of Commerce at (217) 235-5661.
"Lake Mattoon, at the intersection of Shelby, Coles and Cumberland counties, has been a steady producer of quality crappie fishing," said Mounce. "Although catch rates of larger fish were down somewhat in 2004, fishing prospects for 2005 remain good. Crappie fishing pressure is moderate on this lake. This lake has no creel or length limits for crappies, but fishermen are asked to be conservative on harvesting large fish to protect fishing quality."
MILL CREEK LAKE
This 811-acre Mill Creek Lake is located in Clark County five miles west of Marshall. There are no limitations on horsepower for motors, but a county-issued boat permit is required and can be purchased at the park. Information about Mill Creek Lake is available from Clark County Park District Mill Creek Park, (217) 889-2882 or (217) 889-3901 or www.clarkcountyparkdistrict.com.
"Mill Creek Lake can produce fair numbers of nice crappies," said Mounce. "This is a clear, deep lake with abundant vegetation. Mill Creek Lake only receives a limited amount of crappie fishing pressure. This lake also has no creel or length limits for crappies, but fishermen are asked to be conservative on harvesting large fish to protect fishing quality."
This 2,235-acre coal-fired cooling lake straddles Sangamon and Christian counties. There is a 25-horsepower motor limit, with multiple public access points throughout Sangchris Lake State Park. There is a 10-inch minimum length limit and 10-fish creel limit. The latest information on crappie fishing can be had by calling the park office at (217) 498-9208 or by calling Kate's Bait House at (217) 498-8508.
"Sangchris has been an excellent crappie lake for five years," said Dan Stephenson, the area's DNR district fishery biologist. "At this cooling lake, the density is not as high as one would expect of a crappie population, but the quality is definitely there. Twelve-inch-plus crappies are common, 15-inch fish are caught regularly and last year I saw pictures of two fish that were 17 inches long."
Lake Taylorville is a 1,236-acre city-owned lake located in Christian County three miles south of Taylorville. The lake has no motor restrictions, with multiple public ramp access areas. A city boating permit is required. Information can be obtained at City of Taylorville Marina, (217) 824-5606 or www.taylorville.net, and Lindsey's Live Bait and Tackle, (217) 287-7550. Crappies must be 9 inches in minimum length, and there is a 25-fish creel limit.
"Lake Taylorville has an excellent population that over the years has defied the typical boom-and-bust cycle," said Stephenson. "Year after year, young fish are produced and four year-classes of fish are present in the lake. The largest crappies range from 11- to 12-inch fish. The density is much higher than Sangchris Lake but the quality is not as good. Still, 11- to 12-inch crappies aren't bad. The crappies are quite 'fat' given the dense shad forage base."
CRAB ORCHARD LAKE
This popular waterfowl lake spans 6,965 acres and is located in Williamson County three miles east of Carbondale. There are no motor restrictions but a refuge user pass is required for anglers. There are no creel or length limits for crappies.
DNR district biologist Chris Bickers spoke highly of this lake.
"Crab Orchard is presently my best crappie lake," said Bickers. "The population cycle peaked in 2002, but is still holding up well. The Crab Orchard population is made up of two-thirds black crappies and one-third white crappies. However, average size of the white crappies is larger than the blacks. In October 2003, 93 percent of white crappies -- just counting those 5 inches and larger -- were more than 8 inches, and 34 percent were larger than 10 inches. Fifty percent of black crappies were larger than 8 inches, and 2 percent were 10 inches and above. We are annually adding brushpiles and threadfin shad, both of which crappies seem to enjoy. Brushpile maps can be obtained by contacting my office at (618) 993-7094."
Rend Lake is a massive 18,900-acre reservoir located just south of Mount Vernon in Jefferson and Franklin counties. There are no motor limits, and 13 public launch ramps. There is a 25-fish daily creel limit with no more than five fish 10 inches or longer. Anglers can contact the main park office by calling Rend Lake State Park at (618) 279-3110, or for more information visit www.rendlake.com.
"The Rend Lake crappie population continues to remain in excellent condition," said Mike Hooe, the area's DNR district fishery biologist. "White crappies 8 to 11 inches in length and averaging 1/4- to 3/4-pound are abundant, and should provide excellent angling opportunities this spring. The percentage of crappies greater than 10 inches in length has more than doubled in the last two years. Data from the 2003 fall trap-net surveys indicated that 35 percent of the adult crappie population exceeded 10 inches in length. If growth rates remain at their current level, the percentage of crappies greater than 10 inches in length should increase to 60 percent or higher by now, and the number of crappies exceeding 12 inches in length should show significant improvement as well."
What can these growth rates be attributed to?
"Improvement in the size structure of the crappie population is likely due in part to length and creel limits that went into effect in April 2002," said Hooe. "The crappies in Rend Lake are relatively abundant but slow-growing. This regulation shifts the majority of the harvest toward the smaller fish, thinning their numbers and improving growth rates. As growth rates of these smaller crappies have improved, the number and percentage of large crappies in the population have increased."
NORTH & SOUTH
Located in Tazewell County along the Illinois River, these two lakes total 1,285 acres. There is a 25-horsepower motor restriction. There are two gravel ramps and one concrete launching ramp on North Lake. South Lake has one concrete boat ramp.
Crappie regulations are a 9-inch minimum length limit and 25-fish creel limit. Information on the angling is available by calling Spring Lake State Park at (309) 968-7135 or Riverside Bait and Tackle at (309) 347-3793.
Wayne Herndon, the area's DNR district fishery biologist, spoke highly of the Spring Lakes.
"Both white and black crappies and their hybrids are present," said Herndon. "We have had multiple year-classes of good reproduction in both North and South Spring lakes. In 2004 we have attempted to control Eurasian milfoil on North Spring Lake using the herbicide, Avast. That attempt was very successful as the lake has completely opened up, allowing crappies to better forage on the available prey fish.
"We also stocked threadfin shad on North Spring Lake to enhance the forage base for crappies," Herndon continued. "This effort has also met with success. Growth and condition of crappies on North Spring Lake should be much improved because of these actions. We have collected crappies up to 15 inches in length during trap-net evaluations in March of 2004. Vegetation on South Spring Lake has also opened up due to aquatic weed controls accomplished this summer. Eurasian milfoil solid stands have given way to scattered coontail beds. This should provide excellent habitat and fishing cover for crappies.
"As on North Spring Lake, South Spring has excellent numbers of crappies in several year-classes. Fishing should be rated as very good in the lotus stickups in the spring 2005."
This Putnam County 2,600-acre wetland restoration managed by the Wetlands Initiative was recently opened for angling. Shore-fishing is prohibited, but boat-fishing is allowed with an electric trolling motor. The crappie regulations are a 9-inch minimum length limit and 25-fish creel limit. Call (312) 922-0777 or visit www.wetlands-initiative.org for more information.
"There is an excellent crappie population with many 10-inch-plus fish," said Herndon. Fishing is only allowed on Friday and Saturday, and no live bait or gasoline motors are allowed. The fishing season is restricted to May through September.
The Banner Marsh area is a complex mix of dozens of reclaimed lakes, with the three main lakes totaling roughly 1,200 acres. It is located 12 miles south of Peoria off Route 24. There is a 25-horsepower limit. There are two public ramps. The crappie regulations are a 9-inch minimum length limit and 25-fish creel limit. Anglers can get more information by calling Banner Marsh SFWA, (309) 647-9184.
DNR biologist Rob Hilsabeck recommended two sites for 2005.
"The 2003 and 2004 spring trap-net surveys revealed strong populations of both black and white crappies," he said. "Forty percent of the sampled crappies were more than 10 inches long in the East Point Access and the Main Access lakes. This site has a 9-inch minimum size limit and a 25-fish-per-day possession limit for crappies. This limit, coupled with a water level increase of over 5 feet that started in 1996, has created a consistent crappie fishery. The large areas of shallow water and flooded brush have provided excellent crappie habitat and lots of places for anglers to try their luck."
DOUBLE T STATE FISH & WILDLIFE AREA
The Double T SFWA, found three miles northwest of Canton, is one of the newest DNR sites and contains two lakes. Shoreline fishing is allowed and boaters are restricted to using electric trolling motors only. Crappie regulations are a 10-inch minimum length limit and 25-fish creel limit. The site phone number is (309) 647-9184.
"This site has a 64-acre final cut strip-mine lake with one concrete boat ramp, and a 14-acre lake accessible by shore or portable boat," said Hilsabeck. "The 2004 spring trap-net survey revealed a numerous black and white crappie population, with 67 percent of the sampled fish over 10 inches long. This site was first opened to the public in the fall of 2001. The gizzard shad forage base, deep-water profile and protective limit have helped create the current crappie population."
This 1,100-acre cooling lake is in Montgomery County and is one mile west of Coffee
n. There is a 25-horsepower maximum, and boaters can launch with larger motors only if they are used in idle. There is 10-inch minimum length limit and 10-fish creel limit for crappies. Anglers can contact site facilities at the park office at (217) 537-3351 or call Indian Grove Campground at (217) 537-3001.
"DNR Fisheries electrofished this impoundment for seven hours in the fall of 2003," said district biologist Jeff Pontnack. "We collected 257 white crappies measuring from 3.9 inches to 13.8 inches and weighing up to 1.49 pounds. Crappie reproduction and recruitment appear good at this time. A strong gizzard shad population should only benefit growth and body condition factors into the future. Population structure is excellent, although top-heavy from viewing the 2003 fall sampling information.
"An interesting thing to note of the 257 fish collected in the 2003 fall sample was that 238 white crappies (93 percent) were 9 inches or longer and 14 (5.4 percent) exceeded 12 inches in total length. The fish were heavy-bodied, and 201 white crappies (78 percent) weighed 1/2-pound or more, while 71 (28 percent) exceeded 3/4-pound. Most fish captured were found at the north end of the lake. This area is shallower, and has better vegetative cover for this species. With this solid size structure in place, anglers should be taking advantage of this strong fishery!"
Get to know your local district fishery biologist by volunteering to help out on electrofishing sampling or habitat improvement projects. District biologists appreciate the help and will pinpoint some of the best crappie fishing spots that few people really find. A new resource for maps, fishing reports and current fishing regulations is the DNR's new "I FISH ILLINOIS" Web site located at www.ifishillinois.org.