From north, central and south -- and all points in between -- here's where you'll find some of our state's prime papermouth fishing for this coming season.
Catching crappies has not been a problem for veteran downstate angler Matt Strobel. Fitting in fishing time in between last year's seemingly endless spring rains was the greatest challenge for this southern Illinois fishing guide.
"It seems like it's rained almost every day," Strobel said during a typical outing last year. "The fishing has been good, but this wet weather sure makes the trips a whole lot less pleasurable."
Strobel, a partner in the SnS Guide Service, had just begun another wet fishing trip by boating his second crappie in nearly as many casts. While the first one was a definite keeper, the second somewhat shorter fish was returned to the water.
"Recently, we've experienced several unusual years," he explained. "Some of our very best fishing typically occurs during the early weeks of winter and we get a second taste of good crappie action once March rolls around."
CRAB ORCHARD LAKE
Williamson County's Crab Orchard Lake has long held the reputation for being among the first Illinois waters to produce good catches of crappies each year. But last year proved to be a bit different. The late spring had delayed the usual good spring crappie bite. Most years, the action heats up in mid-March. Last year, however, the good action didn't turn on until mid-April.
With rain predicted to move into the area by late morning, Strobel wisely chose to begin his fishing day by 8:30 a.m. Past experience had shown how weather predictors have an uncanny ability to accurately forecast undesirable weather conditions. It's only the predictions for good weather where their accuracy rate seems to drops.
Focusing his angling attention to northern shorelines where the sun's warming rays were most effective, Strobel quickly located the papermouths.
"While the water temperatures have been slow in rising, things are now just about perfect for crappie fishing," he said. "The next few weeks will likely bring the peak of the action."
Though the spring bite was already well underway during Strobel's outing, relatively few anglers could be found on this sprawling 6,900-acre lake. It was likely the high odds of rain that kept most anglers from the water.
Crappies were the targeted fish on this trip even though the lake boasts excellent populations of largemouth bass, catfish and various other panfish species.
"These fish will move into the shorelines for a day or two, and then another cold front seems to cause them to back off to deeper water," he said. "Right now, we are casting small slider rigs and catching fish at all depths."
Since it was an unusually cool spring, Strobel's technique was even more productive than other methods. The crappie seemed to be holding at various locations and were coming from depths ranging from a few inches to several feet.
"These fish often stage just outside of their normal spawning areas," he said. "With a few steady days of mild weather, they will move closer to the shorelines to begin the annual spawning ritual."
Crappies were not the only species brought to the boat during Strobel's fishing adventure. Several nice bluegills and a few largemouth bass fell for his tiny blue-green colored jig.
"Since Crab Orchard Lake is slightly clearer than some of the other area lakes, these colors seem to be the most productive," he explained. "Until now, these have been the most productive colors for me."
Strobel's fishing success continued until about 10 a.m., when the skies darkened and the rains returned. Within a few minutes, water was again pouring from the skies.
His day of fishing concluded after only two hours on the water. And of the 40 or so crappies caught during this relatively short time, nearly half occupied a spot in the livewell.
According to Strobel, crappie populations are thriving at this lake.
"Along with the good number of 11-inch and longer fish in the population, we been catching plenty of smaller fish that should mean good fishing in the coming years," he explained. "All we really need is some decent weather to make the fishing a bit more enjoyable."
Though there are no length or creel limits for crappies at Crab Orchard Lake, Strobel has a self-imposed length limit of no less than 10 inches. However, anglers wishing to keep smaller fish are not discouraged.
"Anglers fishing Crab Orchard Lake are blessed with some very good crappie fishing," he added. "And, this is only one of several excellent crappie lakes in the area."
Strobel says the good crappie fishing often continues well into June. However, March and April often bring the peak of the action.
Anglers who are looking to learn more will find the Williamson County Tourism Bureau offers a wealth of information about the fishing opportunities at Crab Orchard Lake. They can even assist in arrangements for fishing packages, overnight accommodations and boat rental. For more information, call (800) 433-7399.
For information about SnS guide service, visit the Web site at http://snsguideservice.com, or contact Matt Strobel at (618) 922-0354 or Tyson Shoots at (618) 889-3495.
LAKE OF EGYPT
While Crab Orchard Lake rates high among downstate Illinois crappie hotspots, the 2,300-acre Lake of Egypt in Williamson and Johnson counties may be even better. Crappies in the 3/4-pound range are common catches from these waters. And the occasional crappie weighing up to 2 pounds doesn't even raise eyebrows in this part of the state.
A great deal of the quality fishing found here can be attributed to the lake's artificially heated waters. Warm water released because of the production of electricity keeps water temperatures at this lake well above those of most lakes in this region.
The longer growing season, along with an ample food source in the form of shad, results in larger crappies. Because of the warmer temperatures, the crappie action also begins earlier in the deep, clear waters of Lake Egypt. Here, anglers can be found enjoying excellent crappie action as early as late January or early February.
Though the waters of Lake Egypt will occasionally become cloudy or dingy, anglers will typically
find this to be a relatively clear lake. Light-colored jigs or jigs tipped with minnows are the top producers. Aquatic growth is often found along the shoreline and this is the prime crappie habitat in these waters. Anglers often find the best fishing along the deeper edge of this weedline.
For details about southern Illinois' Lake of Egypt, contact the Department of Natural Resources' Region IV office at (618) 435-8138.
Southern Illinois also offers many other terrific crappie waters; among these are the 2,350-acre Kinkaid Lake in Jackson County, the 935-acre East Fork Lake in Richland County and the 18,900-acre Rend Lake in Franklin and Jefferson counties.
More excellent waters can be found as you head northward into central Illinois. Here, an assortment of fishing waters can be found, ranging from smaller private, state and city-owned ponds and lakes to a handful of major rivers and two sprawling Corps of Engineer impoundments. In fact, central crappie anglers need not venture far to shake the winter doldrums.
Compared with most other popular game fish species, crappie action starts relatively early in central Illinois. Many anglers begin putting big slabs in their livewells as soon as the last remnants of ice disappear from the lakes and ponds.
By early April, the crappie action in most central Illinois waters really begins to heat up. As water temperatures creep above the 50-degree mark, crappies begin to feed aggressively on shad and other small fish. And once water temperatures soar into the upper 50s, the crappies start seeking out spawning areas.
Coves and nooks offering a retreat from the current and waves are ideal spots to look for spawning crappies. During the spawn, areas containing logs, stumps and other types of cover often yield some of the best crappie fishing.
Coffeen Lake is one site offering anglers a cache of crappie fishing opportunities. Located less than a mile west of Coffeen in Montgomery County, this power plant cooling reservoir often begins yielding bragging-size crappies as early as February.
Unlike other cooling lakes, a railroad bridge splits Coffeen. This creates two completely different fishing environments. The southern half of the lake feels the warming effects from water released by the power plant. The warm water impacts the northern end of the lake very little.
According to fisheries biologists, recent population samplings revealed the best crappie numbers in the northern end of Coffeen Lake. Though fishing in this area is often quite good, it sees very little angling pressure.
Larger fish, however, will be found in the north end. This area also attracts more anglers. And, this is not without reason. Good catches of crappies averaging 1/2-pound or better are common from these waters each spring.
Veteran Coffeen Lake crappie anglers typically use two techniques. Many prefer to cast and retrieve small jigs near various shoreline structures like downed trees. Others will vertically jig the woody structure using long poles with jigs or minnows as the main attraction.
Anglers seeking additional information about Coffeen Lake can contact the site office at (217) 537-3351.
When it comes to crappies, central Illinois' 11,000-acre Lake Shelbyville has witnessed a major resurgence. Plenty of anglers still remember the crappie heyday this lake experienced some 25 years ago. Big crappies and plenty of them were the rule at that time.
Then came a relatively long, dry spell. Sure, some years were better than others, and crappies continued to provide action at this lake. But the fishing simply did not measure up to that experienced in the 1980s.
Now things have changed because of several recent years of high water. The crappie spawns have improved and an excellent food base has provided for good growth. You might say that Lake Shelbyville's crappie heydays have returned.
Crappie fishing during the high-water years has taken on a different appearance. Instead of lowering jigs alongside the many dead trees found in this lake, anglers have been fishing the flooded willows. This has meant fishing with slip-bobber rigs baited with minnows above these flooded willows.
If the lake doesn't flood this year, however, things could be different. This will mean the countless hordes of quality crappies now residing in these waters will return to the remaining available cover. Anglers can again return to fishing jigs along the downed or standing trees found in so many of this lake's deeper coves.
Though the fishing was been superb the past couple of years, this year could really bring crappie anglers something to talk about. As always, weather remains the only unknown factor at this time. If the rainfall doesn't get out of hand, the old techniques will be the ticket to success. However, if the lake floods again, anglers will simply return to fishing slip-bobber rigs over the tops of flooded willows.
For more information about Lake Shelbyville, contact the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Project office at (217) 774-3951.
Though the previously mentioned lakes fall among central Illinois cream-of-the-crop crappie waters, there are plenty of other waters in this region worthy of consideration. The top central Illinois crappie waters include the 1,300-acre Lake Lou Yaeger in Montgomery County, the 1,286-acre Lake Taylorville in Christian County and the smaller 51-acre Ramsey Lake in Fayette County.
As winter grudgingly releases its grip on northern Illinois, downstate anglers are already enjoying their first taste of the spring crappie action. But all good things are worth waiting for is yet another saying that definitely holds some merit when it comes to upstate crappie fishing.
Crappie fishing here often begins while ice cover is thick enough to support fishing activities. And it really heats up once the final remnants of ice disappear.
Following mild winters, open-water crappie action can begin as early as late February or early March. But during more typical years, action tends to turn on about the middle of April. This is generally when water temperatures finally climb into the lower 50s -- the temperature that typically triggers something of a feeding frenzy.
By mid to late April, crappie anglers throughout the state's northern reaches are enjoying delicious meals of fried crappie fillets.
In most northern waters, pre-spawn crappies will typically congregate along weedbeds, in areas containing flooded timber or near deeper brushpiles. Once the spawn begins, anglers will find shallow-water coves, weedy shorelines and areas containing downed trees or flooded brush the top fish-producing areas.
Diamond Lake is a little crappie gem in northeastern Illinois; it is certainl
y one of the area's best-kept crappie secrets. Located in Lake County, within the tiny community of Mundelein, the 150-acre Diamond Lake is one of those rare locations yielding quality crappie fishing throughout the year.
By the time this article goes to press, you can be assured that ice-fishermen have already hauled plenty of quality crappies from these waters. But the best news is that crappie-fishing action continues to improve after ice-out.
The deeper emerging weedbeds are the first to yield good crappie fishing in the spring. Once the spawn heats up, however, shallow-water areas tend to yield most of the fish.
The average crappie from these waters weighs in at about 1/3 pound. But crappies in the 1/2- to 3/4-pound class are common catches from this lake.
For more information, contact the Mundelein Park District at (847) 566-0650.
No list of crappie hotspots would be complete without mentioning Clinton Lake in DeWitt County. In recent years, this 5,000-acre water has earned quite a reputation for yielding 15-fish limits of slab-sized crappies.
A typical Clinton Lake keeper crappie will tip the scales at 1/2 to 3/4 pound. Occasional catches of 1-pound and larger fish are actually quite common.
Action at this lake usually begins to turn on in early April and reaches a peak by mid-May. Anglers experience some of their best early-season success by fishing the timbered coves with jigs or jigs tipped with minnows. As spawning time nears, crappies move into the shallow water and are often caught near logs and stickups.
Warm water is undoubtedly Clinton Lake's greatest attribute. Crappie anglers at Clinton feel less of an impact from cold fronts than those fishing at most typical lakes.
In addition to its 15-fish creel limit, a 9-inch minimum length limit ensures quality fishing each year. For additional information, contact the Clinton Lake Recreation Area office at (217) 935-8722.
Upstate anglers have many more crappie honeyholes from which to choose. The backwaters from the upper Mississippi River pools are famous for yielding excellent crappie fishing. Other upstate crappie honeyholes include Spring Lake in McDonough County and Spring Lake South in Tazewell County.
With warmer weather ahead, now is the time to dust off your fishing gear, grab your minnow bucket and head to your favorite crappie spot. The best crappie fishing of the entire year is about to begin.