Load 'em up and head 'em out for the best ice-fishing you'll find this winter in the Prairie State.(January 2008).
Photo by Ted Peck.
This winter will be another banner year for ice-fishermen. Where there's safe ice, mixed bags of panfish, walleyes, northern pike and even an occasional bass or channel cat are all up for grabs.
Here's where you'll want to set your tip-ups this year to get in on the action.
Busse Lake is a favorite of locals in Chicago, said fisheries biologist Frank Jakubicek of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. There are plenty of chunky bluegills and good numbers of bonus bass to be taken.
"There is an 8-inch minimum-length restriction on the bluegills, so there are a lot of them just under that length," Jakubicek said. "The best bluegill fishing is on the southeastern section of the lake."
You'll have to do some walking to reach the far sections of Busse Lake, which is actually divided into three separate bodies of water. The Main Pool covers 419 acres; the North Pool covers 25 acres, and the South Pool covers 146 acres. Trails and shoreline access connect the smaller lakes.
Trying for the largemouth bass can be painstaking but well worth the effort if you connect into one of the lake's 5-pounders. The old creek channel in the Main Pool can be a good place to start, especially if you can locate some green vegetation under the ice.
Northern pike and walleyes are the mainstay of the South Pool, and plenty of them are caught. Even an occasional channel cat can be taken in the South Pool on a minnow under a float.
The pike are stocked to maintain the fishery and, in recent years, have been reaching up to 34 inches long. The 'eyes are topping the 6-pound mark.
Look around the area for the fishing walls that were constructed to provide shoreline access to the deepest points in the lakes. These areas are fairly obvious and are great start-off points to drill a few holes and test the waters.
Busse Lake lies in Cook County, south of Higgins. A map showing the submerged fish attractors and the location of the fishing walls is available from the IDNR Web site at www.ifishillinois.org. For more information, call the IDNR's Region 2 office at (708) 771-1570.
Peoria-area ice-fishermen can be proud of the 7-mile-long group of old strip-mine pits and small lakes that make up Banner Marsh. The largest lake is Johnson Lake, at about 100 acres, followed by Shovel and East Access lakes.
Crappies are the main drawing card. According to Tom Grider of Riverside Hunting, Bait and Tackle in Pekin, fish numbers and sizes are both good, and anglers can take plenty of them. Crappie numbers fluctuate from year to year, depending on the success of the spawn and other conditions that sometimes baffle biologists, but they're always available on the Banner Marsh lakes.
Northern pike aren't to be outdone by the crappies, although they're running on the small side. A 5-pounder is a nice one. And when largemouth bass are hitting minnows offered for the crappies, most will be about a pound or so, but 8-pounders have been taken.
"My biggest bass was a 9-pound, 3-ounce female that I released," Grider said, but this big bass was topped by a 9-pound, 12-ounce fish that ended up on Grider's wall.
According to Grider, the bluegill fishing is a disappointment. The fish are stunted, and there are many of them, though few worth keeping. (Continued)
All total, Banner Marsh covers almost 600 acres of water. The marsh lies four miles northeast of Banner, in Peoria County on Route 24.
Special fishing regulations are in effect. A three-bass daily limit is in effect with a 12- to 18-inch slot-length limit. The goal is to provide a trophy-class bass fishery, and the area is well on its way.
For additional information, contact Riverside Hunting, Bait and Tackle at (309) 347-3793, or the IDNR's Region 1 office at (815) 625-2968.
It's the northern pike that raise the eyebrows of ice-fishermen on this small but powerful pike fishery. Lake Le-Aqua-Na only covers 43 acres, but there's an estimated five pike per acre. Considering what willing biters they can be during the cold weather, that means plenty of good fishing.
The pike aren't massive and average only about 3 pounds. However, there are fish taken that have reached 38 inches and tip the scales at 12 or 13 pounds.
Chubs and suckers up to 6 inches long dropped down through the hole and allowed to swim freely under a float are the best bait going. Jigging spoons and vibrating baits work well when the northerns are hitting, but you'll still need to tie on a thin metal leader or risk losing both your fish and your bait.
Northern pike are considered a cool-water fish that remains active throughout the winter months when other predators, such as bass, slow down as their metabolism cools. Pike roam freely under the ice, often only inches deep as they take advantage of the overhead cover.
The lake lies three miles north of Lena, in Stephenson County.
For additional information, contact the IDNR's Region 1 office at (815) 625-2968.
"The crappie fishing is good on Decatur Lake in the Charleston area when the ice is thick enough," said IDNR fisheries manager Mike Mounce. "Walleyes are also present, but few, if any, locals target them in the winter."
According to Mounce, ice-fishing in fisheries District 11 may only last a few days, but last year was an exception with good ice for several weeks.
Crappies may be on the outside edges of breaks or just outside of the shallower areas where they're targeting baitfish that have retreated to deeper water. Using an electronic fish-finder through a hole or even directly through the ice can reveal if the spot you're on is going to be productive.
Offering a crappie minnow is the best way to tempt these sometimes-cautious fish. Use the minnow on a bare hook. An ice fly tipped with a maggot or wax worm, tiny jigging spoons, and jigs tipped with a minnow are also effective.
The lake averages about 6 feet deep, a good depth for ice-fishin
g. Crappies, white bass and the occasional largemouth bass are available. The crappies are running up to a pound, the whites up to 2 pounds, and the bass are a bit on the small side, despite the 14-inch minimum-length restriction in place.
No ice-fishing discussion
in Illinois is complete
without mentioning the
Fox Chain O'Lakes . . . well-known in ice-fishing circles,
and the great bite has been
a poorly kept secret in
Chicago for years.
Decatur Lake covers 3,093 acres on the east side of Decatur, in Macon County.
For more information, call the IDNR's Region 3 office at (217) 345-2420.
Lake Shelbyville is a Charleston-area lake that offers up a good crappie and walleye combination for ice-anglers, according to Mounce.
An IDNR survey completed in 2003 raised a few eyebrows. Biologists found walleyes up to 8 pounds, with a large number of fish in the 17- to 19-inch range, and some as long as 25 inches. The lake is considered an excellent walleye destination.
Taking walleyes from under the ice can be tricky. They're easily spooked by dropped equipment and heavy steps on the ice and will move on a whim. Try to locate a confluence of bottom structure that the 'eyes will be loosely relating to during the cold weather, but beware that they don't hug bottom structure as they tend to in summer. For some reason, these normally schooling fish will scatter throughout the lake.
Live minnows, jigging spoons and jigs tipped with a minnow or two can produce nicely.
Crappies and white bass provide some good under-the-ice action, as well.
When the crappies aren't biting on Lake Shelbyville, Mounce said, ice-fishermen do well to target the bluegills on Walnut Point Lake, north of Oakland, and Lincoln Trail Lake, south of Marshall.
Lake Shelbyville covers 1,100 acres of water east of Shelbyville, in Shelby and Moultrie counties.
Contact the IDNR's Region 3 office at (217) 345-2420 for more information.
Jim Edgar-Panther Creek
Fish and WildlifeArea Lakes
Fisheries biologist Dan Stephenson of the IDNR manages the ponds and lakes in the wildlife area. He reported there's plenty of water for ice-fishermen to try for winter panfishing on the lakes of Jim Edgar-Panther Creek Fish and Wildlife Area.
"The Gridley and Drake lakes are pretty good, as are several of the smaller ponds on the area," Stephenson said.
Gridley Lake covers 25 acres, and Drake Lake covers 35 acres, but both are dwarfed by the 210-acre Prairie Lake. The smaller bodies of water are probably the best panfish lakes on the area. Bluegills and crappies are pulled up through the ice regularly. The sizes aren't huge, but there are plenty of them.
Prairie Lake provides the most elbow room for visiting anglers and can yield good catches of bluegills on its own, but the fish will be a little tougher to locate.
Stephenson also recommends trying central Illinois' village water supply lakes, particularly Lake Williamsville and the Ashland reservoirs. Bluegill and redear-sunfish angling can be fair to good if the ice is thick enough to venture out on.
Jim Edgar-Panther Creek FWA is located in Cass County, 25 miles northwest of Springfield off Route 125. Contact the area office at (217) 452-7741 for directions to the lakes and ponds. Or, check in with the IDNR's Region 4 office at (618) 462-1181 for more information.
Staunton City Lake
"Staunton City Lake is an 85-acre impoundment in Macoupin County with a good population of bluegills and excellent fish habitat," said IDNR fisheries biologist Jeffrey Pontnack. "This one's a nice ice-fishing location when good ice conditions are present. The density of the bluegills is pretty good, but the sizes of the fish have been even more impressive over the last few years. The bluegills have been running from 6 to 9 inches."
According to Pontnack, the eastern shoreline and the far end of the watershed drainage have the best habitat. The 'gills will hang close to the green vegetation and other submerged cover and can be light biters.
Larval baits top the list of bluegill baits on Staunton, along with ice jigs tipped with a maggot.
Pontnack also recommended ice-anglers in his region try for bluegills on Roodhouse Park Lake, a 10-acre impoundment near Roodhouse, in Greene County. Bunker Hill City Lake is about the same size, located near the town of Bunker Hill. At 31 acres big, Mt. Olive Old City Lake, near the town of Mt. Olive in Macoupin County, holds plenty of scrappy bluegills, too, with a diverse submerged habitat that allows anglers to find concentrated schools of fish.
Additional information is available from the IDNR's regional office at (217) 833-2811, or the Staunton city clerk's office at (618) 635-2233.
Fox Chain O'Lakes
No discussion on ice-fishing in Illinois is complete without mentioning the Fox Chain O'Lakes. For those not familiar with this popular destination in northeast Illinois, the chain is a series of interconnected lakes on the Fox River, totaling 7,110 acres in Lake and McHenry counties. The chain is well-known in ice-fishing circles, and the great bite has been a poorly kept secret in Chicago for years.
The fishing pressure is high, thanks to the chain's location near Chicago, Depending on what you're chasing, you can have plenty of competition. The bluegills and crappies are the draw for lakes Bluff, Catherine and Pistakee in the chain.
Channel cats get little or no pressure on the chain and are sometimes caught incidentally by ice-fishermen. Someone who might want to put on a red worm or an earthworm and give a little winter catfishing a try should walk onto Fox, Grass or Pistakee lakes. The shallow waters of Pistakee are ideal for catfish anglers, and Fox and Grass -- which cover 1,700 acres and 1,360 acres, respectively -- hold plenty of cats, many of which are in the 5-pound category.
And don't be surprised when you hook a northern pike on your panfish rig. Northerns in the chain lakes can weigh up to 5 pounds or more and generally will be found in any remaining green vegetation. Catherine, Marie, Bluff and Petite are the best northern lakes.
A slot-length limit for walleyes has been doing its job on the chain, with the average female sampled in 2003 stretching to more than 22 inches long. The best walleye lakes in the chain are Channel, Catherine, Fox, Marie and Pistakee.
Access to the Fox Chain O'Lakes is from U.S. Highway 12 and state routes 59 and 173.
For more information, contact the IDNR's Region 2 office at (847) 608-3100.
Mazonia Fish and Wildlife Area
Ice-anglers wanting to fish small waters should take a look at the ponds and lakes on the Mazonia FWA. Winter fishing for crappies, bluegills and even largemouth bass can be very good here.
Mazonia's numerous ponds and lakes range from barely 1/10 acre to more than 150 acres. Typical of strip-mine ponds, the water is clear and deep. Each pond is a fishery unto its own, and there are no two that are exactly alike.
Bluegills are dominant in the ponds. Anglers wanting to take home a mess to eat should start with Ponderosa Lake, Pond 3 and Pond 10. Larval baits along the shoreline should provide good action.
Crappie populations in the ponds are cyclical with boom years followed by lean ones. There isn't any way to predict whether or not crappies will be doing well in any given body of water, so it's up to the angler to find them.
Largemouths can be tempted to bite during mild conditions of no ice or from under the ice with a minnow under a float. Ponds 3, 7, 8, 9 and Monster and Ponderosa lakes are the best bets, but bass can be found throughout the area. Bass fishing can be good when ponds off the beaten path are given a try.
Mazonia FWA lies two miles west of Braceville, in Grundy and Kankakee counties.
For additional information, contact the IDNR's Region 2 office at (847) 608-3100.
"Cedar Lake is an outstanding fishery, with one of the better bass populations in southern Illinois," said IDNR fisheries biologist Shawn Hirst. "There isn't a lot of ice-fishing, because there isn't usually a lot of ice, but fishermen stay on the lake all winter long."
The bass will bite throughout the winter months if anglers fish the structure and slow down their presentations, Hirst said. A 14- to 18-inch slot-length limit is in place, and there are plenty of bass in this range and larger.
Many crappies are taken through the winter months. Crappies average from 1/2 to 3/4 pound, which in anybody's book is a nice slab. Minnows are, of course, the mainstay, with small ice flies and jigs tipped with a minnow or minnow head completing the common bait rigs.
Purebred stripers can also be a bonus at Cedar Lake during a good winter bite if anglers can find them.
"I haven't gotten them figured out yet," Hirst admitted. "When I'm trap-netting them, I have to set the nets on the points out into deeper water. There's almost an art form to finding them, and some of the locals have got it down to where they can catch stripers consistently."
Cedar Lake covers 1,750 acres in Jackson County. It's located four miles southwest of Carbondale, off Route 51 South. A 10-horsepower motor limit for boating anglers helps keep the fishing pressure down.
For more information, contact the IDNR's regional office at (618) 687-4546.
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Visit the Illinois Department of Natural Resources Web site at www.ifishillinois.org/" for more information on ice-fishing resources in the Prairie State. Contact the Illinois Bureau of Tourism for lodging information at (800) 406-6418 or visit online at www.enjoyillinois.com./"
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