These are close to home, public waters that can provide a day's enjoyment while putting a platter of crispy crappie fillets on your table.(February 2008).
Photo by Gerald Pabst.
Spring crappie fishing in Illinois is great. The world is turning that delightful shade of pale green, redwinged black birds are flitting about the water's edge, the sun is warm and the fishing is easy. You don't need to be out before dawn and if you hit it right, you won't have to be on the water all day, either.
We are going to look at some crappie-fishing spots not normally seen on everyone's radar. These are public waters, close to home, that can provide a day's enjoyment and probably put a platter full of crispy fillets on your table. However, there are some things you should know about the crappie's spawning process that will enhance your chance for success.
Most anglers assume water temperature is the key to the onset of the crappie-spawning period. Although it is important, even more important is the length of time daylight is available, scientifically termed the photoperiod. In North America, crappies do not commence their spawning effort until early April, when the days lengthen. Once the photoperiod reaches the proper length, the fish are ready to do their thing, but then two other factors enter the equation. (Continued)
Water temperatures must rise to the mid-50s. This is the reason crappies begin spawning earlier in southern climates than they do in the north, but bear in mind, none of them will begin spawning before they sense the proper amount of daylight. The third factor influencing crappie spawning is water clarity. The fish shun cloudy, muddy water. To test for proper clarity, you can use what biologists call a secchi disc. This is nothing more than a one-foot diameter white plate tied on a line. Lower the disc into the water, flat side up, and if you can still see it one foot beneath the surface, you are in business. The crappies will continue their spawning effort until they get the job done. They will move on and off the nests, after the proper photoperiod arrives, motivated by fluctuations in water temperature and water clarity. Given steady, warm weather, the spawn may be over by mid-May, but in spring when constant cold fronts disturb the nesting effort, the fish could be on the beds until mid-June.
The spawning process is similar to bass or bluegills. The male crappies, usually smaller fish, move into spawning areas in early April to claim nesting sites and prepare the beds. These sites will be located in 4 to 6 feet of water, usually in protected coves and arms of the lake. The north end of the lake receives the most spring sun, so begin your search there.
Remember, just because
you are fishing for crappies doesn't mean you won't
find yourself tangling with
a walleye, catfish or hybrid striper, too. You don't have a problem with that, do you?
Crappies love structure and will always be found nesting around stumps, logs, rocky bottoms and old weedbeds. Work these likely spots carefully and slowly. Fish in cold water aren't going to react much differently than they did under ice. Small lures are mandatory, and live bait is best at this time of the season.
If you locate the crappies, but the fish you catch are on the small side, the chances are spawning conditions are not right for one reason or another and only the males are on the beds. Don't despair, because the larger females are not far away. They have simply moved into deeper water, nearby, to wait for things to improve. Many times, it takes nothing more than for you to turn around and drop your bait into slightly deeper water on the other side of your boat. You should find the big girls lurking in 8 to 10 feet of water and hitting the same baits as their boy friends.
My experience has been that early crappies like meat and nothing but meat. Fish small minnows under a slip-bobber and let them soak next to wood, rocks or weeds. Don't try to rush things. As the spawn progresses and the water warms, you may use a small jig-and-minnow presentation about 18 inches under a slip-bobber. Adjust the depth under the bobber as needed. Plunk that combo near any available cover and very slowly nudge it back by reeling a bit, pausing and then reeling a little more. When things really heat up, you can substitute a small twistertail or strip of black pork rind for the minnow.
Whenever I am fishing crappie-spawning areas I always put a minnow on the hook beneath a bobber and trail it 20 feet behind the boat as I move along the shore. This rig often picks up some of the biggest fish of the day because it is fishing slightly deep water where the big female fish may be. Keep this rod well inside the boat, especially if you aren't using a rod holder. A big crappie could tug your rod overboard, but a big bass surely will and I have had plenty of them whack that struggling minnow.
Don't be too quick to move away from productive cover. If you have worked over a spawning area and the action drops off, give the place a rest. You haven't cleaned it out by any means, but you probably spooked the fish just by being there. This is a good time for a snack, a beverage, or to try a nearby spot while you give the fish a chance to settle down. Sneak back in a little later and you might find another bunch of willing biters waiting for you. With these tactics in mind, let's take a trip through The Land of Lincoln and find some likely places to put the plan into action.
Most are aware of the big crappie waters -- Rend Lake in southern Illinois; Shelbyville, in the center of the state; and the Fox River's Chain O' Lakes near the Illinois/Wisconsin border. All three impoundments are noted for their fine spring crappie fishing, but there are some smaller, often overlooked waters we should consider.
In northwest Illinois, the Woodford State Fish and Wildlife Area is located along the east side of the Illinois River, just a few miles north of Peoria. More than 2,400 hundred acres of this 2,900-acre site are under water and while much of that is the Illinois River, there are 3,475 feet of manmade channels cut back into dry ground. These channels provide ideal spawning habitat for crappies, and every spring the fish move out of the main river and into the narrow channels.
Shore-fishing will be quite productive here, provided anglers move cautiously along the banks to avoid spooking the wary fish from the shallow water. Dipping a minnow along the shore with a fly rod or cane pole is all it should take to locate and load up on crappies.
I really don't know if Locks No. 14 and 15 of the I&M Canal should be included with the southern end of northern Illinois or the northern end of central Illinois, but in either case, it is a place you can truly enjoy, and catch some crappies as well. The dam at Lock No. 1
4 provides five miles of calm, sheltered water between LaSalle and Utica, all the way to Lock No. 15. An easily walked trail parallels the canal, and only canoes and similar watercraft are permitted; no motor boats. It is terrain the disabled can negotiate and a great spot to enjoy a picnic with the family while pursuing crappies and ever-plentiful catfish. Here is a tip: After you have had enough fishing, and worked up a good appetite, drop into Duffy's Tavern, in Utica, for a great meal.
Without doubt, the largest crappies to be found on a regular basis in Illinois occur within the backwaters of the Mississippi River. Each spring, the river fish leave the main channel to seek sheltered spawning areas within these shallow, tree-filled haunts. To find these elusive fish it is necessary to poke your boat far back into the brush-filled waters, and dip a minnow carefully right into the bushes, over submerged logs, and around the trunks of standing timber.
This is going to be hard work, and the prop on your motor is going to get a workout as it thumps over stumps, and churns through muck and mire. However, believe me, when the bobber goes down, and you haul back on a 14-inch or 15-inch slab crappie, all your labor will be forgotten.
Fishing the backwaters of the Mississippi is not something you do once. You will have to pay your dues here, and learn how and where to catch these big crappies. If you can hitch a ride with a seasoned veteran, by all means do it, and let him show you the ropes.
Without doubt, the largest
crappies to be found
on a regular basis in
Illinois occur within
the backwaters of
the Mississippi River.
In addition, be careful on that river. Remember, a storm upstream can send a rising gush of debris-filled water into your area without warning. Be aware of weather events that may have occurred upriver in the past several days.
Central Illinois has its share of productive crappie lakes, too. Don't overlook the Anderson Lake State Fish and Wildlife Area, near Browning, in Fulton County. This 1,134-acre lake is especially noted for duck hunting in the fall, but ice-fishing for crappies is a popular winter pastime and the good fishing carries over into spring. There are two launch ramps and boat docks available, but you will have to provide your own boat.
The Clinton Lake State Recreation Area is no secret hotspot, but for some reason it doesn't seem to get the recognition it deserves. The lake holds just about every species of game fish to be found in Illinois except muskies. Spring crappie fishing is very good below the spillway of the dam. You can hardly go wrong using a white, yellow or chartreuse jig when the fish school up preparatory to spawning. Special size and daily limit regulations are in effect at Clinton Lake, so read the posted signs carefully. And, remember, just because you are fishing for crappies doesn't mean you won't find yourself tangling with a walleye, catfish or hybrid striper, too. You don't have a problem with that, do you?
Coffeen Lake Wildlife Area is in Montgomery County, near Donnellson. While the lake is managed by the IDNR, it currently serves as a cooling lake for the Coffeen Power Company fossil fuel fired plant. Twenty-two species of fish are present in the lake, but the most popular are catfish, largemouth bass and white crappies. Coffeen Lake's depth averages 19 feet and its maximum depth is 59 feet. Since the power plant discharges hot water into the lake, fish activity is affected, but the growth rate seems to be faster than usual.
Two boat ramps with parking lots are at each end of the lake and handicapped accessible courtesy docks are in place. Considerable areas for bank-fishing are also provided. There is a 25-horsepower motor restriction on Coffeen Lake, but larger motors are allowed to launch or retrieve a trailered boat. Site-specific fishing regulations are posted prominently around the lake and the rules are strictly enforced.
Crappie possibilities abound in southern Illinois. The Ramsey Lake State Recreation Area in Fayette County near the town of Ramsey is intensively managed for fishing and waterfowl. The lake is drawn down each fall to attract migrating ducks and geese -- a process that benefits anglers by killing excess aquatic vegetation. The site covers 1,980 acres and the lake has a good population of black crappies.
In spring, crappies congregate around submerged weeds, fallen timber or any available structure. Fishing supplies are available at the concession stand.
Crappies love structure
and will always be found
nesting around stumps,
logs, rocky bottoms and
old weedbeds. Work these
likely spots carefully
Hamilton County State Fish and Wildlife Area, also known as Dolan Lake, is located about eight miles southeast of McLeansboro, off Route 14. This small 75-acre lake has a maximum depth of 18 feet but holds a decent population of black crappies. One nice feature of the park is the boat rental facility and launching ramp. There is a 10-horsepower motor maximum in place. It should not be hard to find the crappies' spawning areas on a small lake like this and the beautiful wooded shoreline just makes your job that much more pleasant. This may be the perfect place to get a youngster started on a lifetime of fishing enjoyment.
When you get down to the bottom of the state, in Union County, you are in goose and duck country. Everything there revolves around the arrival of migrating waterfowl each fall and many of the state wildlife areas are closed to fishing when the web-footed visitors appear. But when the birds return to their northern nesting areas, fishing is permitted.
Within the Union County Waterfowl Refuge lies Lyerla Lake, and excellent crappie fishing can be found there from Mar. 1 until Oct. 15. A 10-horsepower outboard motor limit is in place on the lake, and considering its rather small size, that is a good thing. The fishing is best in early spring, and late summer, when standard crappie tactics work well. Lyerla Lake is also noted for fine bluegill fishing.
Spring crappies are the ideal way to kick off your fishing season and they taste so good. Now is the time to get 'em. What are you waiting for?