It sure is a lot of fun catching a mess of crappies, and right about now, the bite is heating up on these waters. (February 2006)
Photo by Tom Evans
Few things equal the fun and enjoyment of running into a mess of big crappies. They're exciting to catch and abundant throughout Illinois.
And our papermouth factories are shaping up for an incredible year. From north to south, serious crappie anglers will want to take note of the following waters, because no matter what region of our state you reside in, excellent fishing for slabs is just a stone's throw away.
MAZONIA STATE FISH & WILDLIFE AREA
Chicagoland crappie anglers looking for a quick, productive trip will want to consider the menagerie of strip-pit lakes in the Mazonia State Fish and Wildlife Area.
With over 250 lakes, ranging from 50 acres to a 1/2-acre, Mazonia is not short on water.
"Mazonia is a pretty consistent producer for crappies," said Department of Natural Resources biologist Rob Miller. "In lakes accessible by boat, most fish are between 8 and 9 inches."
Some of the more productive lakes include Carp, Gar, Bullhead, Bass, Monster and Ponderosa. The best times to fish are March to about May around shoreline grass, fallen trees and beaver lodges, by using minnows on slip-bobber rigs or jigs. Savvy anglers who pay close attention to their electronics and find brushpiles often find uncontested numbers of sizeable fish.
Along with the larger lakes of Mazonia, the park also boasts numerous "back lakes" that require anglers to access them by foot. Float-tubers or those who carry in small boats find papermouths in the 14- to 16-inch class.
Mazonia FWA is located in Grundy County. Boat launches are located on various lakes throughout the premises, but some are restricted to trolling motors. For more information, call the park office at (815) 237-0065, or Jon's Bait and Tackle at (815) 237-2822. For travel and lodging information, contact the Grundy County Chamber of Commerce at (815) 942-0113.
McLean County's 886-acre Evergreen Lake in Comlara Park, just north of Bloomington, is a definite destination for the crappie fanatics in central Illinois. Biologist Mike Garthaus said a lot of big fish swim here.
"There are some strong year-classes in Evergreen right now," said Garthaus. "The fish average about 12 inches and exceed all of our catch-rate goals. Last year, we caught about 55 white crappies per hour and 47 black crappies per hour."
According to Garthaus, 36 percent of the total sample were 10 inches or larger.
Mike Steffa at Comlara Park agrees that crappie fishing is exceptional:
"We had lots of guys taking their 25-fish limit last spring, and we've seen some nice-sized crappies up to about 15 inches."
Steffa suggested that spring anglers target the many coves of the lake. Two Cedars, Campground, White Pine, Beaver Den, Six-Mile Creek and the area around Deer Island attract good numbers of springtime fish. Jigs and minnows fished with or without a float -- and tubes -- are top baits.
Comlara Park has excellent facilities. Before launching a boat, you must purchase a sticker. It is $14 for residents of McLean County and $16 for non-residents. Yearly rates are available. For more information, contact Comlara Park at (309) 726-2022. For travel and lodging information, call the Bloomington Area Chamber of Commerce at (309) 829-6344.
Biologist Dan Stephenson said Sangchris Lake east of Springfield is an excellent lake for sizeable crappies.
"Sangchris has a good population of fish in the 12- to 15-inch class," said Stephenson. "You won't see outrageous numbers, but we have some really quality fish."
A nursery pond on premises bolsters the annual fishery, including 73,000 fish stocked last year. A recent creel survey revealed that anglers catch about 20 pounds of crappies per acre.
February through April is the best time to take advantage of Sangchris' crappies, when they relate to shallow cover. Jan Hill from Sangchris Corner in Edinberg -- at (217) 623-5252 -- said the best action comes from the backs of the coves around dead lily stems. Fallen trees, stumps and shoreline brush also attract numbers of fish. She suggested minnows fished below a float or on a jig For best results.
Sangchris maintains a 10-inch minimum/10-fish per day limit on crappies. Motors are restricted to 25 horsepower or less. For more information, call Sangchris Lake State Park at (217) 498-9208. For lodging information, call the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce at (217) 525-1173.
Anglers interested in finding numbers of crappies will want to visit 26,000-acre Carlyle Lake this spring. Biologist Barry Newman said the papermouth population has exploded over the past few years.
"Numbers are really high," said Newman. "In our survey last fall, we were seeing peaks of fish in the 8- to 9-inch class, and about 81 percent of our fish are 8 inches or better."
Carlyle maintains a 10-inch minimum on all crappies, and Newman predicted that this spring should see a bloom of keeper fish.
"These crappies have excellent growth rates, and by spring, there'll be very high numbers of legal crappies," he said. "Along with good recruitment and yearly stockings, the outlook is superb for years to come."
Newman advised anglers to target coves off the main lake.
"Allen Branch is really popular," he said. "There's lots of stumps, and we sunk about 18,000 Christmas trees there last year. During our spring survey, we're seeing some really nice crappies coming from there."
The Peppenhorst Branch, Coles Creek, the West Access area and the Boulder area are also productive.
As for presentation, many anglers run with traditional minnow rigs, but tube jigs and long cane poles are popular, too.
Carlyle Lake is located just north of Carlyle. Boat launches are located all around the lake, including in Eldon Hazlet State Park and in South Shore State Park. For more information, call (618) 594-3015. For lodging and travel information, contact the Carlyle Area Chamber of Commerce at (618) 594-4015.
Downstate, 18,900-acre Rend Lake attracts anglers from all over the Midwest to partake in what perhaps is the best crappie fishing in Illinois. This year should be no different from past years.
"The crappie population has always been strong really strong at Rend," said biologist Mike Hooe. "The number of fish more than doubled in our fall trap-net survey, and numbers of big fish also increased. Last year into June, anglers were reporting good catches of crappie from 1 to 1 1/2 pounds."
"Early spring is one of the most popular times to target crappies in the shallow brush," added Todd Gessner, guide and owner of Southern Outdoor Recreational Service at (618) 513-0520. He suggested targeting brush in the northern half of the lake.
"One of the best ways to catch crappies from the brush is to use a minnow on a slip-float rig and drop it right in the middle of the cover," he said. "It's a lot of work, but it tends to be very effective." Along with minnows, small white or chartreuse tubes and crappie jigs are productive.
Rend Lake maintains a 10-inch minimum on crappies, with a 25-fish per-day limit. The lake is located in Jefferson and Franklin counties about 10 miles south of Mount Vernon. Public boat launches are available in Wayne Fitzgerrell State Park. Also located on site is Rend Lake Resort (1-800-663-3341). For more information, call (618) 629-2320, or Rend Lake State Wildlife Management Area at (618) 279-3110. Area information is available from the Mount Vernon Chamber of Commerce at (618) 242-5725.
LAKE OF EGYPT
This year's "Blue-Ribbon Papermouth Factory Award" may just go to Williamson County's Lake of Egypt. Reports from all sources say this is the place to find not only great numbers of fish, but some slabs as well.
Tom Samples, owner of Pyramid Acres Marina on Lake of Egypt, said the best crappie fishing in Illinois is on Egypt's 2,300 acres.
"Our crappies average between 1 1/2 and 2 pounds," said Samples. "Sometimes guys will come in with 25 fish, and every one will be 2 pounds or better."
Ken Meyer, a crappie enthusiast from Egyptian Hills Marina, agrees.
"Crappies here are bigger and fatter than I've seen anywhere around," said Meyer. "Most every fish is better than a pound, and when they're biting, you have no trouble catching your limit in two hours. My biggest last year was 1 pound, 13 ounces, but I've seen good numbers of fish over 2 pounds come in, and one over 3 pounds."
Right now, the best crappie fishing can be found on the north end of the lake around shoreline grass and woody cover. In March and April, fishing becomes productive in the brushy coves of the lake. Meyer said a minnow and slip-bobber rig is the most popular setup, but he also favors small tubes with white, red or chartreuse patterns. Samples added that small Beetle Spins and Roadrunners can be productive and can help anglers find concentrations of fish. Most target the visible cover. Anglers with a keen sonar eye can key in on brushpiles that have been placed through public or private effort. You can find good numbers of hidden brutes in those brushpiles.
Lake of Egypt is owned by Southern Illinois Power Cooperative. Fee boat launches are located around the lake. A public launch is located on the east end, in the Shawnee National Forest. For more information, contact Pyramid Acres at (618) 964-1184, or Egyptian Hills at (618) 996-3449. For travel and lodging information, call the Marion Area Chamber of Commerce at (618) 997-6311.
NORTH & SOUTH SPRING LAKES
Named because of its unique distinction as the termination of the Mahomet Aquifer, Tazewell County's Spring Lake FWA is a bona fide crappie honeyhole.
Biologist Wayne Herndon said the crappie fishing on North and South Spring lakes this year should be pretty good.
"We have five distinct year-classes right now in Spring Lake," said Herndon. "Most of the population is between 9 and 11 inches, but we've seen fish up to 15 inches in our surveys."
"When the crappies are hitting, small jigs are a popular presentation," said Stan Weimer of Spring Lake FWA. "Wax worms and minnows are popular as well."
Both lakes are shallow, averaging only 3 feet. The months to cash in on the best fishing are March and April.
Weimer suggested anglers concentrate their efforts on riprap, docks, trees, stumpbeds and the stump-lined submerged levee in the south lake.
Located west of Manito, North Spring Lake is 578 acres, while South Spring Lake is 610 acres. Both offer excellent facilities. There is a 9-inch minimum on crappies, and a limit of 25 fish per day. Motors are restricted to 25 horsepower. For more information, call (309) 968-7135. For lodging info, call the Havana Area Chamber of Commerce at (309) 543-3528.
CRAB ORCHARD LAKE
A perennial papermouth palace, Crab Orchard Lake is shaping up to continue its reign as one of the premier crappie fisheries in the Prairie State.
"Crab Orchard is excellent, and that's the best way I can put it," said DNR Region 5 biologist Chris Bickers about the 6,965-acre lake. "We have good numbers of fish in the 8- to 10-inch class, and about 50 percent of the population is over 10 inches."
The lake is generally shallow with excellent shoreline cover. Bickers said most people target weed edges, laydowns and woody cover along the banks. As the season progresses, he said, the best fishing can be found away from the bank on the many DNR-established brushpiles. To bolster habitat, Bickers sinks numerous cedar trees in 8 to 10 feet of water each year, and has maps of their location with GPS enablement for interested anglers.
As for presentation, Bickers said anglers are split between those who favor small jigs to those favoring bobber-and-minnow rigs. Curlytailed grubs and Roadrunners also find good numbers of fish here.
No size or creel limit is in place for Crab Orchard crappies. Fish can be found anytime, but late April and early May are tops for finding numbers of crappies in shallow cover. Boat launches are located around the lake. For information on obtaining maps of sunken brushpiles, call (618) 993-7094. For additional information, call Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge at (618) 997-3344. For travel and lodging information, call the Marion Area Chamber of Commerce at (618) 997-6211.
Much as they do with the other perennial papermouth factories, serious crappie anglers will again look to Lake Shelbyville for numbers of quality fish.
Mary Satterfield, owner of Eagle Creek Guide Service at (217) 756-3299), said they had a lot of action last spring.
"We were seeing smaller fish," she said. "You had to work through a lot of crappies to find your 10-fish
limit of 10-inchers, but we caught a lot of fish." According to Satterfield, the average keeper in Shelbyville is in the 11- to 12-inch range, and there are also a lot of bigger crappies to be had.
She suggested that spring anglers concentrate on the Eagle Creek, Sand Creek and Wolf Creek areas of the lake.
"After ice-out, we fish a lot of standing timber and riprap," said Satterfield. "As the water warms up, we fish shallow laydowns, brushpiles and beaver huts."
As for presentation, Satterfield said she almost exclusively throws tube jigs on a 1/16-ounce jighead.
"Just about any color will work. But I favor brown combinations with chartreuse, pink, white or red." Minnow rigs, mini-mites and tinsel jigs are productive as well.
Lake Shelbyville is about 20 miles southeast of Decatur. At 11,000 acres, there's plenty of water. Boat launches are located around the lake, including Eagle Creek State Park at (217) 756-8260, and Wolf Creek State Park at (217) 459-2831. Travel and lodging information can be had at (217) 774-2221.
Perhaps the nicest thing about the Prairie State is its plethora of productive papermouth waters. The following is a collection of the best, but they surely don't include every potential fishery. Die-hard crappiteers may want to consider these waters as well.
In the north, Shabbona Lake in De Kalb County is a small crappie factory right now. There's no size limit, but there's a 10-fish per day creel limit, and this spring there should be numbers of respectable fish. April through June is the peak for finding hordes of slabs in shallow weedbeds and standing timber. Night crawlers, jigs and minnows are tops. For more information, call (815) 824-2106.
The midstate's Banner Marsh, a maze of Tazewell County strip-mines, boasts a very accessible population of specks. March and April are top months for cashing in on the shallow bite. Shoreline cover, beaver lodges and submerged brushpiles are the key focus. And Otter Lake in Macoupin County has plenty of brushy coves and subsequently, numbers of papermouths in the 10- to 12-inch class.
In the southern third of the Prairie State, Sam Dale in Wayne County is an early-spring lake for high numbers of fish. At 194 acres, it has no creel or size limit, and most action takes place along the bank near shoreline cover. Minnows and jigs are top offerings. For more information, call the site headquarters at (618) 835-2292.
Marion County's Forbes Lake in Stephen A. Forbes State Park is likewise a great spring fishery. Papermouths here tend to run in the 7- to 9-inch class, with larger fish available. There's no size or creel limit. Early and mid-spring tends to be prolific for high numbers of fish. Call (618) 547-3381 for more information.
Looking for a place to cash in on some serious crappie action? Regardless of where you reside in Illinois, excellent opportunity is right out your back door. Give some of these Prairie State papermouth hotspots a try this spring, and you won't be disappointed.