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Our Small Lakes For BIG Crappies

Our Small Lakes For BIG Crappies

Most Illinois anglers head to our large reservoirs and impoundments to catch papermouths. But you could be surprised at the great fishing for slabs on these smaller waters. (April 2007)

Photo by Michael Marsh

It's springtime in Illinois, and that means it is time for some exciting crappie fishing!

As the weather pulls from winter's grasp and water temperatures warm, fish will begin making their way toward favorite spawning locations in shallow water. This can be one of the best times of the year to fill a stringer with jumbo-sized papermouths.

Many anglers head for the large impoundments and reservoirs across Illinois to take advantage of this spring feeding frenzy. But there is some superb crappie action in some of our smaller lakes as well.

Crappies are hard for fisheries personnel to manage in small lakes because papermouths are very cyclic in nature, meaning they have a tendency to have one great year-class followed by a couple of poor spawning years. Nonetheless, some small lakes have dynamite crappie fisheries, and these waters are expected to be on the upswing this spring.


In the Shawnee Hills east of Harrisburg is 105-acre Jones State Lake. This Saline County impoundment has a "pretty decent population of black crappies," according to Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist Kurt Daine. However, the size of the slabs here is what's unusual for a lake of this size.

No one knows the exact reason why this lake always tends to produce huge crappies, but one logical speculation is attributing the quality to a substantial population of largemouth bass. It is believed the bucketmouths prey heavily on the young-of-the-year crappies, thereby keeping their numbers in check and not allowing them to overpopulate and become stunted in size. A good supply of gizzard shad also helps give the crappies some broad shoulders.

Daine said this lake has nice-looking black crappies and good size distribution. The average size is probably around 10 to 12 inches, but many people often catch slabs up to 1 3/4 to 2 pounds.

Jones State Lake would be very clear and infertile without management. Biologists use a tool known as a Secchi disk to determine water clarity. With this test and without management, the clarity reading can be as much as 12 feet deep or more. However, this lake is fertilized every year to get an algae bloom, which in turn reduces clarity down to about 18 to 24 inches.

There is also some other work ongoing at the lake that should enhance the fishing opportunities and quality. The lake level was drawn down, which facilitated the installation of fish structures such as wooden pallets and stakebeds, as well as doing some much-needed work with brushpile structures. Additional work included putting in a new boat ramp, a bathroom and other facilities.

In April, the crappies begin moving into shallow water and can be found relating to natural structure as well as the aforementioned artificially placed structures. One shoreline is quite shallow, while another is steeper. Along the steeper shoreline, downed trees are a huge attraction for crappies. Daine said there is also some beaver activity on the lake and anglers should not overlook these areas as potential draws for crappies.

The Saline County Conservation Area office is occupied weekdays from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and usually on weekends as well. The phone number for the office is (618) 276-4405. The Saline County Chamber of Commerce can be reached at (618) 252-4192, or at their Web site.


There is a "ton of fish" in Lake Murphysboro, according to DNR fisheries biologist Shawn Hirst. The crappie population at this lake is very cyclic, but it should be in great shape this spring. A good year-class of papermouths is moving up into keeper-sized category and should produce plenty of smiles.

DNR sampling done during the second week of October 2006 showed the lake was loaded with 7- to 8-inch crappies. Hirst said this group of fish was "very impressive." However, the bulk of the papermouths here fall within that size category. Hirst said there are some larger slabs, but not many. Both black and white crappies swim in Lake Murphysboro, but the majority is white.

Lake Murphysboro is 145 acres in size and under statewide regulations, but boaters may not use a motor larger than 10 horsepower. There are two boat ramps and a couple of nearby bait shops.

About 80 percent of this Jackson County lake is surrounded by trees, and there is not much access for shore-bound anglers. One place where there is some bank access is in the Lake Murphysboro State Park. The park also offers tent camping, electric hookups and other amenities.

Finding structure is a key to crappie fishing, and Murphysboro is at no loss for structure. On this lake, locating structure is a sure bet to find papermouths. Regarding last fall's sampling effort, Hirst said, "Anywhere there was structure, we found fish."

With so many trees surrounding Murphysboro, more of them fall into the lake every year. These downed trees are prime locations for springtime crappies. There are also beaver ponds and a couple of fishing piers.

DNR biologist Ken Clodfelter

said sampling from Shabbona

in the spring of 2006 showed

a large year-class of crappies moving up into the 9-inch and above range this year. There

also was a big year-class of

papermouths in the sampling in the 7 1/2- to 9-inch range, and their condition was very good.

Artificially introduced structure is also a huge bonus. The DNR has put in a lot of structure, with the most recent additions being just this past winter. There are three or four places where these fish attractors are easy to locate. Anglers should look for four fence posts sticking up out of the water. These are fertilizer platforms. Fish attractors are located about 12 to 15 feet out in front of these platforms.

Beginning in April and continuing into May is typically spawning time for crappies in Murphysboro. A great location during the spawn is the area near the Water Lily Campground. The area is impossible to miss because it is about an acre in size and covered in aquatic vegetation. The name of the campground is actually a misnomer because although the vegetation looks like giant lily pads and is often called water lilies, they are actually lotus plants.

Contact the Lake Murphysboro State Park at (618) 684-2867. The phone number for the Murphysboro Chamber of Commerce is (618) 684-6421

, and their Web address is


Anglers should find some excellent crappie fishing at De Kalb County's Shabbona Lake this spring.

DNR biologist Ken Clodfelter said sampling from Shabbona in the spring of 2006 showed a large year-class of crappies moving up into the 9-inch and above range this year. There also was a big year-class of papermouths in the sampling in the 7 1/2- to 9-inch range, and their condition was very good.

This 319-acre lake is one of our state's newer lakes because it was built in the 1970s. It warms a little slower than some lakes, so the spawn generally runs a little later in April and the first part of May. Spawning activity can be scattered around the lake, but anglers can usually find crappies by concentrating on the woody structure and aquatic vegetation.

There is a long, shallow arm on the northwest side of the lake, and it is the only real finger coming into the lake. There is some good flooded timber in that area. There is more flooded timber about 200 to 300 yards upstream from the dam. These two areas are typically where most local anglers concentrate their spring slab angling efforts.

Aquatic vegetation can also be a good secondary location here. There are areas of coontail, pondweed and milfoil. In fact, the milfoil became a problem, but the DNR has been treating it to reduce its presence somewhat.

The best source of information on Shabbona is at the concession located at the Shabbona State Park. The phone number there is (815) 824-2106. Another great source of info is from Shabbona's Lakeside Bait, Tackle & Boat Rental, which can be reached at (815) 824-2581. For lodging information, call the De Kalb County Chamber of Commerce at (815) 756-6306, or go the Web site.


There good numbers of both black and white crappies in Lake George. This 167-acre impoundment is in Rock Island County. It's a fairly deep, clear lake, with clarity going as deep as 12 feet. The lake depth averages 24 feet, and has a maximum depth of 62 feet.

The DNR's Clodfelter samples the lake in both the spring and fall, and he reports a very nice population of crappies for this spring. In fact, it should rate near excellent. There is good distribution of white crappies from 7 inches on up, and the number of whites up to 12 inches is very good. A few fish as large as 14 inches can be caught on Lake George. There is also a good year-class of black crappies in the 10- to 11-inch range, which is very respectable for a lake of this size. A strong population of gizzard shad provides ample forage and helps the crappies reach slab status.

Lake George has a main body and two large fingers that almost form a Y-shape when viewed on a map. These fingers are much shallower than the main lake, and that's where the bulk of the spawning activity takes place. The spawn will typically occur here during the last part of April and continue into May. The fish will run up into these shallow fingers of the lake and then relate to much of the brushy structure found there. Most of the angler effort is concentrated around the brush.

The lake is fortunate to have a good amount of structure for the crappies to utilize. In addition to the brush, there also is plenty of woody structure. Submerged and fallen trees along the shoreline, logs and stumps make excellent spring fishing locations.

Lake George is in the Loud Thunder Forest Preserve, (309) 795-1040. Lodging information can be obtained from the Illinois Quad City Chamber of Commerce at (309) 757-5416, or their Web site.


There should be a very good crappie fishery to tap at Washington County Lake this spring. In fact, it's close to being excellent for big slabs. While it is usually hard to catch lunker papermouths in a lake this size, DNR biologist Barry Newman said the fish here are "very healthy and very plump."

There is good size distribution of white crappies up to 13 inches, and anglers may even pick up an occasional black crappie in the 8- to 10-inch range. There is a strong year-class of white crappies in the 9- to 10-inch range, and the number of 11-inch fish is not bad either. There are fewer 12- and 13-inch fish, but they are definitely there and make for some exciting fishing.

The spawn usually occurs at Washington County Lake by April 20, and the best fishing is usually during those last 10 days of April. But anglers should look for the crappies to begin moving shallow by late March or early April. Sometimes the spawn happens a little earlier or later, but many years it is fairly much history by the beginning of May.

Anglers have many choices for fishing spots on this lake. There are some good areas out on the main lake, but the crappies will often want to get out of the wind while carrying on the family name. There are some very large coves and big arms that offer shelter from the wind. And don't overlook the riprap around the dam, because it always holds crappies.

There is a lot of submerged woody structure here. There are ample fallen trees, stumps and buttonbush in certain coves. Newman said most of the crappies they've collected during sampling have been near the bigger structures.

For more information on the lake, call the Washington County Conservation Area site office at (618) 327-3137. There is also a bait concessionaire there that is a good source of current fishing info. Biologist Newman can be reached at (618) 443-2925. For lodging info, call the Nashville Chamber of Commerce at (618) 327-3700, or go to the Web site.


This fish and wildlife area southeast of St. Louis in southern St. Clair County is home to about 20 lakes that total 534 acres. Most of these small lakes have decent crappie populations, according to DNR biologist Fred Cronin. Substantial largemouth bass populations help keep the papermouths numbers in check, thus giving them the opportunity to grow to nice sizes.

These lakes have varying accessibility. Some have boat ramps, while others must be reached by hiking. The larger lakes allow a 10-horsepower motor, while some of the smaller lakes only permit trolling motors. Information on all the regulations is available at the site office.

Trap-net surveys on 101-acre Eagle Lake in March 2006 showed 70 percent of the crappies to be above 9 inches. Around 22 percent of the slabs were above 10 inches. These fish will have another year of growth on them by right about now.

There is good distribution of

white crappies from 7 inches

on up, and the number of whites up to 12 inches is very good. A few fish as large as 14 inches

can be caught on Lake George. There is also a good year-class

of black crappies in the 10- to

11-inch range, which is very respectable for a lake of this size.

Beaver Lake, at 330 acres, was sampled by electrofishing in October 2006. Cronin said they only sampled a small number of fish, but they were of very good quality. "This leads me to believe the quality of the crappies is very good," he said. The survey backed this up. Around 77 percent of the fish collected were above 9 inches and 66 percent were above 10 inches. With this sampling done last fall, this is probably a fair assessment of the fishery for this spring because they would not have added much growth over the winter.

All of the lakes on this property are old mining pits and are typically steep-sided and clear. Beaver Lake does have a good deal of variation in depth, however. Anglers can usually look at the slope of the banks and determine the location of some of the shallower areas on these impoundments.

Beaver Lake also has a good amount of woody structure in the form of stumps and logs. Christmas tree bundles have been placed in Eagle Lake, and they are marked on a map available at the site office. One other lake anglers may want to target on the property is Cottonwood, because it's a "sleeper."

The site office can be a big help for angler information, but there are times when no one is home. Anglers may want to call the nearby DNR office at Baldwin Lake from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays, and sometimes on weekends, at (618) 785-2555. For area lodging information, start by going to the Illinois State Chamber of Commerce's Web site at , or call (217) 522-5518 or (312) 983-


* * *

So, if you want to try something different this spring and avoid the crowds on our large lakes, think small for big crappies!

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