Fishing for crappies is almost an obsession for some anglers in Illinois. If you're one who lives for catching slabs, give these waters a try. (April 2006)
For serious crappie anglers, chasing papermouths isn't just something you do -- it's what you live for. And for those whose passion borders on obsession, you know the value of finding an incredible lake that somehow got bypassed by the masses of anglers.
Interested in getting in on the ground level of some of the Prairie State's best sleeper papermouth spots? Then take note of the following waters. All have been overlooked by John Q. Angler, and great numbers of crappies are just waiting for you to wet a line.
Better known for smallmouth bass, the Kankakee River in Kankakee, Will and Grundy counties hides a considerable crappie fishery.
Most papermouths are pretty nice, averaging around 10 to 12 inches, and 14- to 16-inch fish are not uncommon. Bruisers up to 2 pounds are not unheard of. Catches of 20 or more crappies are frequently reported along the river.
Some of the most productive water can be found from the Indiana state line downstream to the town of Momence, Six Mile Pool from Aroma Park to the City of Kankakee, Custer Park in Will County and where the Kankakee meets the Des Plaines River to form the Illinois River. In all areas, crappies concentrate around brush, fallen trees and weed patches. Minnows fished below slip-bobbers take most crappies, but jigs and tubes can also be productive.
Boat launches are available at State Line Road, Momence, Aroma Park, Kankakee, Kankakee River State Park and Des Plaines SFWA. Good bank-fishing is available in Des Plaines SFWA. There is no size or creel limit. For more information, contact Kankakee River State Park at (815) 933-1383, or Des Plains SFWA at (815) 423-5326. For travel and lodging information, contact the Kankakee Chamber of Commerce at (815) 933-7721.
PEABODY RIVER/KING SFWA
Serious crappie anglers will also want to consider the montage of reclaimed St. Clair County strip mines in Peabody River SFWA. According to biologist Fred Cronin, this place is worth a look.
"Our 2004 survey data shows good numbers of crappies, with 54 percent of the population over 9 inches, and 35 percent over 10 inches," said Cronin. "Additionally, many fish over 12 inches were collected in a supplemental spring survey."
Inside the facility, Beaver Lake at 332 acres and Eagle Lake at 101 acres are the only waters where anglers can launch a boat.
"Eagle Lake is likely the best," said Cronin. "And Beaver Lake survey data shows a decent number of fish, with 74 percent of the fish collected over 9 inches."
In addition, there are numerous small back lakes in Peabody that few anglers bother to fish due to the difficulty of access. For those willing to walk-in a small boat or canoe, an excellent and somewhat uncontested crappie population awaits.
Crappies here tend to relate well to shoreline cover such as stumps, fallen trees and beaver lodges. Several brushpile fish structures have been placed by the park staff in various lakes, and for anglers who keep a keen eye on their electronics, these areas harbor good numbers of papermouths. Minnows and jigs account for most crappies.
Peabody River/King SFWA, with 534 acres of fishable water, is located just south of New Athens. There is a 9-inch 25-fish per day limit on all crappies. Eagle and Beaver lakes maintain a 10-horsepower restriction, and the smaller lakes are electric motor- or bank-fishing only. For more information, call (618) 785-2555. For travel and lodging information, call (618) 282-3505.
Overshadowed by its McLean County crappie contemporary Evergreen Lake, Lake Dawson in Moraine View State Park is a hot prospect that few papermouth enthusiasts know about.
"Dawson Lake is another lake not well-known for good crappie fishing," said DNR biologist Mike Garthaus. "A regulation change in 2003 helped reduce the number of crappies, and increase growth rates."
Most crappies on Dawson will be somewhere between 9 and 11 inches, and catching 10 to 20 fish in a day is common. Look for most to be hanging around shoreline brush and in emergent weeds. A number of fish attractors are present throughout the lake, and likewise are a focal point of crappie anglers. Minnows fished below a float are the top choice, but small chartreuse tubes, twistertails and Beetle Spins can account for some nice catches.
Lake Dawson is about 10 miles southeast of Bloomington. Boat launching, picnic and camping facilities are available. There is a 10-fish per day limit. For more information, call Moraine View State Park at (309) 724-8295. Travel and lodging information can be had at (309) 829-6344.
Decatur's municipal lake has come a long way as a fishery for most anything that swims, and crappies are no exception.
"Lake Decatur is exhibiting good size structure and good numbers," said biologist Mike Mounce. "Most fish here average between 10 and 12 inches, but densities of larger fish up to 14 inches are good. And in spring 2004, a conservation police officer reported measuring a 19-inch crappie."
When targeting Decatur papermouths, Mounce makes a few suggestions.
"Lake Decatur has very little structure except around bridges, so fishermen need to keep moving and varying the depth of their presentation until they find concentrations of active fish," he said. "There are also many docks on Lake Decatur -- some with brush -- where crappies concentrate. Feeder creeks and rivers are also good places to look in spring."
Decatur crappies can be caught with an array of tackle ranging from traditional minnow rigs to tubes and even trolling small Beetle Spins and crankbaits over large expanses of water while looking for scattered fish.
Lake Decatur is 3,093 acres. Boat launches are available, and there is a user fee to access the lake. There is a 10-inch minimum length, 10-fish limit on crappies. For more information, call Mike's Tackle World at (217) 423-0730 or Mac's Tackle Box at (217) 3620-6239. For travel and lodging information, contact the Decatur Area Chamber of Commerce at (217) 422-2200.
Many people would grimace at the assertion that 2,750-acre Kinkaid Lake on the western edge of the Shawnee National Forest is a sleeper for crappies. But with only peripheral fanfare, many anglers are oblivious to a population of papermouths that rivals
Biologist Shawn Hirst said, "Kinkaid Lake continues to be excellent, with numerous 3-pound fish caught in the last year, and there's been at least two 4-pound fish caught in the last four months."
Terry Graeff of Top of the Hill Bait in Murphysboro, at (618) 684-2923, said that this spring should be excellent for crappies.
"Last year we were catching a lot of 8 1/2- to 8 3/4-inch fish, which didn't meet the 9-inch size limit," said Graeff. "But this spring, all of those fish will be legal size."
With a 25-fish per day limit, Graeff said most anglers have no trouble finding a quota of calicos.
"The best months to fish here are April and May," he said. "Most anglers use medium-sized minnows either on a float or jig. The best areas to find crappies are either in standing timber or grass beds." Cochran Bay, Graff Bay and LaVan Bay tend to be very productive.
For more information, contact Kinkaid Lake SFWA at (618) 684-2867. Traveling and lodging information is available at (618) 684-6421.
Tiny 145-acre Lake Murphysboro is worth your time, according to Terry Graeff. There is no limit on papermouths, and the months of April and May tend to be very good for numbers of healthy fish.
"I'd say an average day would produce 10 to 20 fish for most anglers, and most of these will fall somewhere between 10 to 12 inches long," said Graeff. "The largest we saw last year was a 3-pounder that was taken near the concession stand."
He said that many crappies are taken with small- to medium-sized minnows fished near shoreline grass and fallen trees.
"You don't need a boat to do well on Murphysboro," said Graeff. "The area around the old concession stand is good in the spring, as are the two handicapped fishing docks. Crappies tend to stack up under each."
In addition to the opportunity available on Murphysboro, the facility has a small seven-acre pond known as "Little Lake." Graeff said this can be a real "sleeper" for good crappie fishing, especially around trees on the northwest side.
"You'll find comparable size and numbers in Little Lake as you would on the big lake," he said. "But you'll have to walk-in a small boat, and it's restricted to electric motors."
Boat launching and good facilities are available at Lake Murphysboro State Park. For more information, call (618) 684-2867 or Top of the Hill Bait at (618) 684-2923. For travel and lodging information, call (618) 684-6421.
Forbes Lake, about 10 miles northeast of Salem in Marion County, is a great spring fishery, according to biologist Steve Jenkins.
"Fishing on Forbes is excellent during the spring and around the spawn," said Jenkins. "Just about any shoreline can be productive, as long as it doesn't fall too quickly into deep water."
April and May are the months to find crappies shallow, and most run in the 7- to 9-inch class. Larger fish over 1 pound are somewhat numerous. As for presentation, Jenkins said a lot of anglers fish the traditional bobber-and-minnow rig next to shoreline cover, or they pitch jigs along the banks.
Forbes Lake is 585 acres. There is no size or creel limit on crappies, and during the spring, you'll catch high numbers of slabs. A boat launch is on premises, along with good facilities, and camping is available. Stephen A. Forbes State Park is located about 12 miles northeast of Salem. Call site headquarters at (618) 547-3381 for information. To learn about travel and lodging, call (618) 548-3010.
SAM DALE LAKE
Not far from Forbes Lake, Sam Dale Lake in Sam Dale Lake Conservation Area could be considered a little sister to Forbes, in that you'll find a similar spring fishery of crappies.
"We're seeing a three-year trend in the crappie fishery at Sam Dale," said Jenkins. "Some bigger fish are coming up, and most average somewhere between 1/2- and 3/4-pound."
Much like Forbes, Sam Dale is an early spring bite for high numbers of papermouths. At 194 acres, you can fish the entire lake in a day. A boat launch is available, but motors are restricted to 10 horses. There are no creel or size limits on crappies. Most action takes place along the bank near shoreline cover. Minnows and jigs are top offerings.
Sam Dale Conservation Area is in Wayne County, about 10 miles southwest of Flora. For more information, call (618) 835-2292 or (618) 662-5646.
Anglers in the metro region of northeast Illinois will be interested in little 36-acre Rice Lake in Danada Forest Preserve near Wheaton.
"In our last survey we found a lot of 12- and 13-inch fish," said DNR biologist Don LaBrose. "We netted one over 2 pounds, and we captured over 140 crappies."
According to LaBrose, 2002 saw an excellent spawn for Rice Lake, and many of these fish are now reaching the 9-inch size restriction.
But if you plan on fishing here, be ready to do some walking.
"Rice Lake is not heavily fished," said LaBrose, "and that's because facilities are underdeveloped. Parking for the lake is better than a half-mile away, and access requires a bit of a walk."
LaBrose suggested that anglers concentrate on the submerged cover placed in the lake.
"We put 337 Christmas trees along the south end of the lake, and numbers of wood pallets in about 15 feet of water on the deep western shore," he said. "There's also some concrete tile pipe sunk throughout the lake."
Most crappies are taken with traditional fare, but small ice-fishing jigs tipped with wax worms can be productive here -- and elsewhere, for that matter.
Rice Lake is located near the intersection of Route 56 and Naperville Road. Bank-fishing is all that is allowed. There is a 9-inch minimum on all crappies, and a 15-fish per day limit. For more information, call the Du Page County Forest Preserve District at (630) 933-7200.
Fayette County's little 40-acre Ramsey Lake will be another place to watch this spring, according to Tim Pryor of Ramsey Lake State Park.
"We usually have up and down years for the crappies here on Ramsey, but in our most recent survey we noted lots of fish in the 8 1/2-inch range, not too far off from the 9-inch minimum," said Pryor. "This spring should be really good."
Although a boom of keeper-sized fish is expected this spring, Ramsey has produces a number of fish up to 15 inches each spring. Pryor suggested targeting downed timber and subme
rged brush that has been placed in the lake. Minnows under bobbers tend to catch most fish, but many anglers cast jigs and tubes to shoreline cover.
Ramsey Lake State Park is located about 12 miles south of Pana. There is a boat launch on site, but the lake is restricted to electric motors only. Camping is available. For more information, call (618) 423-2215 or (217) 562-4240.
One final water worthy of papermouth mention is the Illinois and Michigan Canal in I&M Canal State Park near Channahon. Within an hour of the Windy City, this small, shallow defunct waterway averages about 2 feet deep, and is better known for its historical value. But every spring it gives up good numbers of slabs to anglers who have discovered the secret here.
April and May are the top months to catch papermouths. On any visit it's not unusual to catch 10 to 15 crappies. Most average around the 10- to 12-inch mark, but larger fish are possible. The best area is from Channahon to about Morris. Crappies tend to relate to the abundance of fallen trees and shoreline cover. Numerous lock systems attract numbers of fish. Minnow and float rigs are effective.
The canal is restricted to electric motors only, but you won't find many boats here. To access the canal with a watercraft, you'll have to walk it in. Canoes are popular, but most anglers just walk or ride bicycles along the trail to fish. For more information, call (815) 467-4271 or (815) 942-0113.
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If you're interested in getting in on the ground level of a lesser-known crappie hotspot, then be sure to give some of the above locations a try this year. They're full of papermouths, and word of their potential hasn't reached the multitudes of anglers -- yet!