Every Illinois angler knows that our state's big rivers and impoundments have good crappie fishing, but there are many waters where all you need is a canoe.
Photo by Michael Skinner
Crappie season is upon us. In April when the water temperatures begin creeping toward 60 degrees — or as some people say, when the dogwood trees start blooming — crappies begin their mass migrations to the shallows to spawn.
This is the time of year when crappies are most vulnerable. Concentrated in large schools, in shallow water and in predictable locations, spawning crappies are easier to find than they will be at any other time. The best fishing of the year awaits.
Where can you go to find spawning crappies? You probably already know about the big rivers and impoundments in Illinois. Rend Lake is the best crappie lake in our state. Lake Shelbyville is good, too. Crab Orchard and Lake of Egypt are both excellent. Certain pools of the Mississippi River and Ohio River have overlooked crappie fishing. Fish any of these big waters this spring, if you have the chance.
But not everybody does have the chance. For one thing, you need a boat to access the big waters. Other people do not have the time to travel to distant crappies hotspots. For these folks, this spring's crappie hunt will mean fishing whatever local waters are at hand, whenever they have the opportunity to slip away.
That's okay. You do not need a boat or need to be on a big impoundment to catch crappies. But you do — at least most of the time — need to get off the bank and on the water. That is where canoes come in.
People were fishing, hunting and trapping from canoes for years before Europeans arrived in Illinois. There is still a place for float-fishing in the modern world, especially for anglers who do not own boats. And in some cases, canoes can provide access to remote waters that boaters can never reach.
Some canoes cost no more than a few hundred dollars. They require little in the way of maintenance, and there are no insurance bills to pay. Forget about the hassle and expense of hauling a rig — just strap the canoe on top of your vehicle and go.
Canoes are amazingly stable and seaworthy vessels. Whitewater canoeing is best left to the pros, but otherwise there are few places a floating angler cannot go.
WHERE TO FLOAT-FISH
Canoeing is usually associated with "taking a float trip" down a river. While canoes are indeed ideal for river travel, plenty of other bodies of water are also open to exploration by canoe. Strip pits, small lakes and obscure streams may not have boat ramps, but they are all possibilities for the enterprising canoeist.
Hitting The Pits
Strip pits, for one, are especially conducive to float-fishing. Old strip-mining sites are locations where coal was once excavated near the surface of the earth. Afterward, the empty pits are allowed to fill with water and then stocked with fish. Pits are famously fertile waters for growing big game fish, but they are also notoriously hard to access.
Most pits have high, steep banks — the legacy of the former mining operations when the miners dug straight down for the coal. Rarely can pits accommodate boats, unless a special effort has been made to level a bank and construct a ramp. But a lightweight canoe can be slithered down a steep bank and launched at any point, opening up water that may be untouched by other anglers.
Crappie fishing on a pit is a little different from fishing on a lake. Spawning crappies have a well-known affinity for standing timber and other wood structure, but pits seldom have a lot of wood structure. This is another legacy of the hollowing-out process of strip mining. What wood cover you do find is typically the occasional tree that has been gnawed by beavers and then toppled into the water.
In these circumstances, any timber that you can find is worth fishing. But crappies will also relate to other forms of structure. Large rocks and boulders unearthed during mining are magnets for all kinds of game fish, if you can find them. Pits do have a lot of weed cover, and crappies will use weedlines to ambush passing minnows. Any variation in the bottom topography, such as the old road that the miners used to haul out the coal in trucks, is worth checking.
One specific strip-pit site in Illinois that has crappie fishing is Mazonia State Fish & Wildlife Area located about 60 miles southwest of Chicago in Grundy County. Here there are over 200 pits on 1,017 acres of land. A few of the pits are fairly large and have primitive boat ramps. Most are tiny hike-in pits that do not get a lot of fishing pressure. Some are so small that you can cast across them.
Some of the large pits on the west side of the park bordered by the Mazon River have been flooded by the river and contain river species like grass pickerel and suckers. Some of them have been stocked with pike and smallmouth bass by the Department of Natural Resources. All of the large pits have self-sustaining populations of crappies, as well as largemouth bass. The pit known as Monster Lake, where an artificial reef has been constructed to provide structure for game fish, is considered to be the best crappie pit on-site.
Hours at the park are 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. The daily creel on crappies is 10, with no size limit. For more information, call the Mazonia site office at (815) 237-0063.
Another good strip-mine site for crappies is Fulton County Camping & Recreation Area about an hour south of Peoria. Here there are a dozen pits on 440 acres of land. This area is considered one of the top pit-fishing sites in Illinois. It comes at a price, though. Daily admission is $4 per carload of people. If you prefer, you can buy an annual gate pass for $60.
Fulton County Recreation Area holds a big-fish contest every year, and past results give a good indication of the quality of the fishing. The biggest crappie ever entered weighed 2 pounds, 1 ounce, which is excellent by small-water standards. The biggest bass ever recorded weighed 8 pounds, 11 ounces, and the biggest channel cat was over 17 pounds.
The largest pit here is Lake No. 3, which snakes over 46 acres. This pit is known for producing the biggest crappies, bass, bluegills and bullheads on the site. There is a boat ramp on Lake No. 3, and bass tournaments are sometimes held here.
Of the more remote pits, the largest of the four pits called the Pasture Lakes has crappies — and bass up to 5 pounds. Devil's Hole pit near the camping area is noted for its good panfishing, especially for redear sunfish.
Limits at Fulton County are two largemouth bass under 12 inches and one over 15 inches, 25 bluegills or redear of any size, and six catfish of any size. There are no limits on crappies. Park office hours are 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. Call the park office at (309) 668-2931 for more information.
More accessible than pits are the many small lakes dotted across Illinois. Almost all lakes at state-run sites have boat ramps, which make launching a canoe a lot easier. They typically have more classic crappie structure than strip pits and are easier to fish in traditional ways.
Here are some small lakes in Illinois that float-anglers looking for crappies may want to try. All of the lakes listed below are under 200 acres in surface area, so they can be managed by floaters relying on paddle power or a trolling motor.
Dawson Lake in Moraine View State Park just east of the Bloomington-Normal area is a crappie factory. In fact, the 158-acre lake has been producing so many crappies for so many years that there may be too many of them.
Local anglers have long complained that very few of the crappies they catch are eating-sized. A sampling of the lake conducted a few years ago by DNR biologist Mike Garthaus seemed to confirm this. Garthaus found very high numbers of crappies, and 80 percent of them were over 8 inches long, but a mere 3 percent of them were over 9 inches.
Action was taken in 2003. The daily limit on crappies at Dawson was reduced to 10, but the size restriction was removed. The new limits aim at allowing anglers to take home more of the smaller crappies. Ultimately the new regulations should result in lower numbers of crappies, but more big ones. For now, expect to catch plenty of small crappies at Dawson.
For more info about Dawson Lake and Moraine View State Park, call the site office at (309) 724-8032.
In southwestern Illinois, Randolph County Conservation Area Lake may be the best small-water crappie lake around. The crappies seem to get off good spawns here every year, and they grow to respectable size.
Randolph County Lake is a great little lake for canoeing. It is only 78 acres in surface area with less than four miles of shoreline, so it is easy to get around. The lake is almost entirely surrounded by forest, which protects it from the April winds that are the bane of canoeists. It is fairly deep for its size, but there is a lot of shallow water in the sheltered coves where crappies like to spawn.
Local DNR biologist Barry Newman says that 53 percent of the black crappies in Randolph County Lake are over 9 inches. The lake also has excellent fishing for redear sunfish, and the saugeyes that have recently been stocked are coming on, too.
For more information about Randolph County Conservation Area, call the site office at (618) 826-2706.
Lake Storey in west-central Illinois is a lot like Randolph County Lake. The 138-acre lake is weedy and deep, but there are spawning flats for crappies in the lake's many coves. Storey is probably better known for its bass and muskie fishing, but it has high densities of crappies in the 8- to 10-inch range, according to biologist Ken Russell. The lake is located in Lake Storey Park in Knox County near the town of Galesburg.
Floating The Rivers
As for rivers, Illinois has many that are great for float-fishing. Some of them are famous among paddlers, streams like the Kankakee, Vermilion and Kishwaukee, to name a few. Those three and many others have crystal-clear water, scenic vistas and excellent smallmouth bass fishing. But unfortunately, they are not particularly good for crappie fishing.
The best crappie streams are slower and more turbid than classic float streams. Lowland rivers like the Kaskaskia, Wabash and Little Wabash rivers still have some good crappie fishing in their backwaters and oxbows, although public access is not very good.
Maybe the best canoe stream for crappies in our state is Salt Creek at the point where it flows into Clinton Lake in De Witt County. Clinton is a huge impoundment that was formed by damming the creek back in the 1970s. What remains of Salt Creek above the lake is now a designated canoeing area, and it is one of the best crappie hotspots around.
Access Salt Creek at the canoe landing on County Road 1200N. From there you can paddle up into the narrows of the creek, or downstream toward the lake. The current is so sluggish that you can paddle upstream without any problem, and put-in and take-out at the same place.
The creek, especially in its farthest reaches, is filled with standing timber and deadfalls that are prime locations for spawning crappies. Boaters moving up from the lake often try to reach this water but cannot penetrate the thickets as easily or quietly as can canoeists. Clinton Lake is loaded with crappies, and Salt Creek is an obvious place for them to mass when spawning season arrives.
For more information, call Clinton Lake State Recreation Area at (217) 935-8722.
FLOATING & FISHING
Fishing from a canoe takes some getting used to. The quarters seem a little cramped at first. Canoeists have to keep their heads on a swivel, constantly alert for hazards in the water while simultaneously targeting fish.
Beginners should canoe with a partner, for safety's sake if for no other reason. Tandem canoeing also has the advantage that the canoeist in the stern can navigate while the one in the bow fishes. The two people can trade spots from time to time.
After gaining a little experience handling a canoe, you might want to try solo canoeing. The lone canoeist should turn the canoe backward and sit reversed in the rear seat. This position puts the floater closer to the center of the canoe. The other end should be weighted down with gear to keep the canoe balanced.
Whatever canoe you buy should suit your needs as an angler. Aluminum canoes are cheap, but are slow in the water and heavy to carry. If there is the possibility that you will have to carry your canoe to your fishing places, keep this factor in mind. Canoes made of plastic, fiberglass and graphite can cost over $1,000, but they are lightweight and more maneuverable than aluminum. Big canoes over 17 feet in length are obviously roomier and will hold more fishing gear.
Float-fishing tackle, for the most part, need not be much different from the gear you would use in any other fishing situation. One exception is long fishing rods that protrude over the edge of the canoe and are liable to have their tips snapped off in tight corners. Rods under 6 1/2 feet long should be okay. Lack of space in a canoe also means that you will probably want to leave the six-tray tackle box at home.
Some float-fishermen outfit their canoes with electric trolling motors to push them through dead water. The obvious drawback to using a motor is all the weight i
t adds, especially the weight of the battery. This factor limits the use of motors to situations when you can drive directly to your put-in and take-out points. With a motor, you will also need to buy a bracket to mount it on the side of the canoe.
A small anchor is also nice to have, especially for solo canoeists. For crappie anglers, a brush clamp is useful for attaching the canoe to the structure you are fishing.
Portable battery-operated fish finders are a relatively new invention that have proven a boon to float-fishers. Some models suspend over the side of the canoe while mounted in a bracket. Others use a suction cup to attach the sensor to the bottom of the canoe. Both give floaters the same advantage as boaters in sounding the water column for structure and fish.
Backrests of any kind are worth every penny they cost, especially on long floats. In Illinois, personal flotation devices (PFDs) are required for all canoeists, just like boaters.
Don't miss out on the salad days of the spring crappie run. Liberate yourself from shore and see what awaits on the far side of the water. And you don't need a boat to do it!