Crappie enthusiasts know that the spring spawning season is one of the best times of the year to target these feisty and tasty panfish. (February 2009)
It's time to start thinking about another great year of fishing! The excitement of the spring season is just ahead and most anglers are chomping at the bit to get out on the water and wet a line. Luckily, there are some fabulous fishing opportunities for Prairie State anglers and this year is full of promise.
Crappie enthusiasts know that the spring spawning season is one of the best times of the year to target these feisty and tasty panfish. When the papermouths move into the shallows to begin their annual spawning ritual, anglers are beside themselves with excitement. Casting a jig or minnow on light tackle into shallow-water woody structure is what a papermouth angler dreams about all winter. Well, now that the time is at hand, it is time to start thinking about where to go to chase that dream.
There are numerous great locations across the state and it's sometimes hard to narrow the search down to just a few top spots. From farm ponds to large reservoirs and rivers, Illinois has plenty of crappie waters from which to choose. However, crappie fisheries tend to be cyclical, which means an individual water can often go through up-and-down cycles, and just because the fishing was good at a particular location a season or so ago, doesn't mean it's great right now.
To help give some direction, we've talked with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources fisheries personnel, bait shop and marina owners and local anglers. Based on their knowledge and experience, we've picked one prime location in each of the state's five different regions. Does that mean these are the only good locations for crappies this year? Of course not, but it does give anglers a place to start and we've spread our picks around the state to give everyone a piece of the pie. With that in mind, let's take a look at some of the best of the best. (Continued)
Anglers can find some great crappie fishing only seven miles from Macomb and two miles from Colchester at the 95-acre Argyle Lake. Travel to Colchester in McDonough County and follow Coal Road two miles to the lake.
There are white and black crappies and hybrids present. Trap net data collected by the DNR over the past three years shows the fishery to be in good shape with plenty of numbers and varied size distribution. Fishing looks really good for 2009.
Crappies were really abundant when the surveys were performed. In one night with 13 trap nets out, the DNR collected 391 crappies, which equaled more than 30 fish per net, an excellent catch rate.
White crappies had two big year-class peaks during last year's surveys. One big group of fish was in the 8.5- to 9-inch range, with another group in the 10.5- to 11.5-inch range. There was a lower number of larger fish up to 13.8 inches long.
Black crappies had one big peak averaging about 8.8 inches or a third of a pound. There were fish up to 12.5 inches long, but numbers of larger fish dwindled.
If someone is looking for a real wallhanger crappie, it most likely will be a hybrid. There were some whoppers that measured up to 14.7 inches and weighed 2€‚1/4 pounds. There was a strong peak of hybrids at 9 inches and another at 11 to 11.5 inches.
Ken Russell, a fisheries biologist for Argyle Lake, said there are scattered numbers of big fish in the lake. "There are a few, but they're there," he said. "In a day of fishing, most fish will be in the 8- to 10-inch range, but an angler could come home with a lunker."
There are many fallen trees and much woody structure along the shoreline at Argyle Lake. During the springtime, look for crappies to be holding in the woody cover. Typical crappie baits such as minnows, jigs and jigs tipped with minnows are really productive.
After the water heats up and the thermocline develops, crappies are found offshore in deeper water. This is when drift-fishing comes into play to locate the fish. After a school is found, casting and fishing vertical are good options.
There is a 10-fish-per-day creel limit with a 9-inch minimum length at Argyle Lake. This creel includes white, black or hybrid crappies in aggregate, not 10 fish of each.
More information on fishing at Argyle may be obtained by contacting the Region I fisheries office at (815) 625-2968 or the Argyle Lake State Park at (309) 776-3422. Traveling anglers may want to contact the Macomb Area Convention and Visitors Bureau at (309) 833-1315 or visit www.macomb.com.
FOX CHAIN O' LAKES
Anglers in the northeastern part of the Prairie State have their own crappie haven in Lake and McHenry counties near the Wisconsin border. The Fox Chain O' Lakes provides more than 7,000 acres of angling bliss and is home to a very nice crappie fishery.
DNR fisheries biologist Frank Jakubicek said the lake doesn't experience big up-and-down cycles like other lakes and the crappie fishery stays pretty stable even though there are no creel or size limits for papermouths. He said they watch the Chain closely and haven't seen any evidence of overharvest.
The bulk of the crappies are the black variety, but there are some white crappies and hybrids as well. The average fish caught is about 9 inches long, but there are plenty of fish in the 10- to 12-inch range. Occasionally, crappies much larger will be caught, even up to the 15- to 17-inch range.
Jakubicek said almost all the lakes have good crappies, but access is a little better in the northern lakes than in the southern ones. There is not usually much fishing pressure early, because the weather is still chilly, which allows anglers plenty of uninterrupted angling if they are willing to brave cold weather. Of course, the early crappie action is dependent upon the weather and water temperature.
Early in the year when Jakubicek and other DNR personnel sample the Chain, they see the bulk of the crappies and crappie anglers near shore on the main lakes. By mid to late April, the crappies move more toward the back channels. The channels are not all created equal and the deeper ones tend to hold more fish. Anglers must do a little scouting to find the best ones. A real popular spot with crappie anglers is near the McHenry Dam.
The Fox Chain O' Lakes has numerous boat-launching ramps, some with fees and some free. There are ample choices for lodging, camping and dining. More inform
ation may be obtained from the Lake County Chamber of Commerce by calling (847) 249-3800, or go online to www.lakecountychamber.com. The McHenry Area Chamber of Commerce may be reached at (815) 385-4300 or www.mchenrychamber.com.
District fishery biologist Frank Jakubicek may be reached at (815) 675-2319, and the Region II office number is (815) 625-2968.
While there are several good crappie waters in Region III, one of the first locations in this region an angler should consider is definitely Lake Shelbyville. This 11,100-acre crappie haven offers nearly anything a papermouth enthusiast could want. From a great crappie population to excellent habitat and lake layout, Shelbyville has something for every taste.
DNR fisheries biologist Mike Mounce said the crappie population at Lake Shelbyville isn't quite as cyclical as at other lakes and the number of fish present is quite good. In fact, during DNR surveys, the biologists saw good numbers of fish over 10 inches. Recent flooding should result in numbers being very strong again this year.
During flooded conditions, crappies spread out and become harder to locate and catch. This results in fewer fish being harvested. Couple the reduced harvest with an ample amount of food available during flood periods, and it's easy to imagine a strong population of fish with good growth rates and size distribution. That's what we should see this year.
Lake Shelbyville has a moderate amount of woody structure, and during flood conditions, there is even more. Anglers can target wood, downed trees, old submerged fence-rows and artificially placed structure during the spring spawning season for some excellent crappie action.
The DNR, along with volunteers, place Christmas trees in the lake each year to provide structure and fish attractors. Maps of the attractor locations are made available to the volunteers. Others must seek them out with electronics.
The upper end of the lake typically holds more fish, but the southern end is usually clearer. However, crappies are widespread and can be caught throughout the lake. The many coves and pockets on Lake Shelbyville offer great angling opportunities in the early part of the year. Later in summer, the crappies go deeper and can be found along the channels or near bridge pilings.
Most people at the lake fish with either tube jigs or minnows. Other artificial baits work well too. Presenting the baits vertically is the norm, but some folks prefer to cast or troll. During the spawn, the smaller males are usually shallower than the larger females. If an angler seems only to be catching smaller fish, backing off a few feet into deeper water can oftentimes nudge the catch size up considerably.
Lake Shelbyville is located about 25 miles southeast of Decatur in Shelby and Moultrie counties. The lake may be accessed from Illinois Route 16, Route 32 or Route 128. There are three marinas on the lake with plenty of camping and lodging opportunities nearby.
Anglers needing info on lodging and dining in the area may contact the Shelbyville Chamber of Commerce at (217) 774-2221 or online at www. shelbyvillechamberofcommerce.com. Another great resource is www. lakeshelbyville.com. The Region III fisheries office may be reached at (815) 625-2968.
In Christian County, anglers have a real gem in Lake Taylorville, a 1,286-acre crappie fishery. Both good numbers and good size are accolades bestowed upon the crappie population in this central Illinois reservoir.
Dan Stephenson, the fisheries biologist who oversees Taylorville, reiterates those accolades and said the lake is known for quality as well as quantity. He said Lake Taylorville may not have the quality of Coffeen Lake or Lake Sangchris, but those lakes do not have the numbers of crappies found at Taylorville.
"Lake Taylorville has been good for quite some time for crappies and that should continue unless something happens," he said. Based on recent history, DNR surveys and reports from anglers, 2009 should once again be a great year for crappie angling at Taylorville.
One of the main reasons for the crappie success at Taylorville is the lake always seems to have good spawns and the fishery is not as cyclical as other lakes. There is good size distribution through a wide range with no missing year-classes. There are plenty of fish in the 5- to 6-inch range, the 6- to 8-inch range, the 8- to 10-inch range, and the 10- to 12-inch range. There are even some fish greater than 12 inches, although the numbers of fish this large tend to taper off dramatically.
Anglers traveling to the area from other locations in the state can find information on the lake, as well as help with planning, lodging and dining, by contacting the Greater Taylorville Chamber of Commerce at (217) 824-4919, or online at www.taylorville chamber.com.
The Region IV fisheries office may be contacted at (217) 782-6424. The number for Dan Stephenson is (217) 632-3841.
CRAB ORCHARD LAKE
We're not about to forget about those anglers in the far southeastern portion of the state. In fact, there's some mighty good crappie fishing to be found there.
One place in particular is Crab Orchard Lake, a 6,965-acre impoundment located within the Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge in Williamson County. It has recently been home to an impressive crappie population, and prospects for the 2009 season are very good, according to fisheries biologist Chris Bickers.
Bickers said, "Our annual fall survey in 2007 produced good numbers of black crappies and fair numbers of white crappies. More than 75 percent of the black crappies were larger than 8 inches, while 7 percent were larger than 10 inches. More than 90 percent of white crappies were larger than 8 inches, and two-thirds were larger than 10 inches. The bottom line is that between black and white populations of crappies, Crab Orchard Lake presently has a good number of keeper-sized fish and lots of youngsters ready to grow up and take their place."
There are definitely good numbers of quality-sized papermouths at Crab Orchard Lake even though the lake has no size or creel limits for crappies. The predominant variety is black crappies, which outnumbered white crappies in the survey by four times. Because fishing for the two types of crappies can vary somewhat, anglers should keep in mind the disparity of the species when considering fishing locations and techniques.
Before fishing at Crab Orchard Lake, anglers must first purchase a refuge user pass from the Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge visitor center located on Route 148 or by calling (618) 997-3344. The office can also help with information on fishing and spe
cial regulations at the lake and refuge. Another great source of information is the Web site for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge at www.fws.gov/ midwest/CrabOrchard.
Traveling anglers may contact the Marion Illinois Chamber of Commerce at (800) 699-1760, (618) 997-6311, or www.marionillinois.com.
The Region V fishery office may be reached at (618) 435-8138. The number for biologist Chris Bickers is (618) 993-7094.
BEFORE YOU GO
Each location listed above should provide some excellent crappie action this year. One of these spots should be close to home, but if for some reason you're not close enough or can't make it to one of these picks, don't hesitate to check with the DNR for other recommendations closer to home. The regional fisheries offices are great places to start when looking for information. Another great source of info is the DNR Web site, which is online at www.dnr.state.il.us.
We've also listed plenty of resources for anglers traveling to unfamiliar parts of the state. However, one other great contact for traveling anglers is the Illinois Department of Commerce and Community Affairs' Bureau of Tourism, which may be reached at 1-800-2Connect.