There's plenty of good hardwater angling to be had in the northern half of the Prairie State this year. Here's a look at several waters where the action will be hot! (January 2009)
Pinfish, northern pike, crappies and bluegills are the mainstay in northern Illinois when the temperatures nosedive. Drilling a hole through the ice and sitting down with a hot thermos of coffee puts a different perspective on life and has the added benefit of being some of the best fishing of the year.
Here's a look at the lakes where you'll want to spend a day on the ice this year.
The ice pickin's are good on Spring Lake. Crappies and redears easily run a 1/2-pound, and the northern pike aren't particularly large, but they're scrappy. Largemouth bass are sometimes taken on a jig or minnow and an occasional channel cat heads for the frying pan.
Spring fishing is a unique experience due to the shallow depths of both bodies of water. The average depth is less than 3 feet.
Many anglers come here for the pinfish, but because of the featureless lake bottom, the 'gills are tough to find. According to Kelly Presley of Presley's Outdoors in Peoria, bluegill fishing is good in both the north and south lakes. The lake bottom is flat and the best way to find good bluegill fishing is to figure out where the locals are going and take their lead.
The channel cat population is very healthy and it's possible to hook a 2- to 4-pounder even in the cold weather. They're not active in the winter months, but they will bite if on a window hanging just off the bottom. Cats won't travel fast or far to find your offering, so pick your spots carefully.
Spring Lake's largemouth bass are faring well. The three-fish, 15-inch minimum length restrictions have accomplished even more than fisheries managers have hoped. The increase in submerged vegetation over the last several years has also helped by allowing good survival rates and providing great cover. (Continued)
Northern pike are surprisingly abundant in the lake, and occasionally, a huge one is produced. The DNR uses Spring Lake to produce the lion's share of pike for its stocking program in the region. A spring cools the water below the mat of vegetation during the summer months and provides a cool-water refuge, allowing them to thrive in such shallow water. Winter angling is best around this spring that is located in the southern end of the lake.
The crappie fishing is best in the north lake with fish topping 10 inches.
Spring Lake was divided into two separate waters 30 years ago. Spring Lake South covers 610 acres, and Spring Lake North covers 578 acres in Tazewell County. Access is 12 miles southwest of Pekin in Tazewell County.
For more information, call the DNR's Region I office at (815) 625-2968 or Presley's Outdoors at (309) 697-1193.
Though better known as a warm-weather muskie lake, Evergreen offers some of the best saugeye fishing in the state. Next to a walleye, there may not be a better-tasting fish that makes a finger-numbing trip on the ice worthwhile.
According to fisheries biologist Michael Garthaus, the saugeye fishing can be tremendous. The current state-record fish was taken here.
Saugeyes are a hybrid cross between a walleye and a sauger. They'll readily take a minnow under the ice and lie low to the bottom like walleyes. These fish are a fish-stocking success story with good survival rates and growth. A 12- to 16-inch fish is just 3 or 4 years old.
Identifying a saugeye from a walleye or a sauger is no easy task. Saugeyes have markings on their sides that resemble saddles, similar to the sauger, but may have some white pigment on the lower part of their tails in combination with dark bars on the dorsal fin membranes. Walleyes have white pigment on their tails, solid shading on the dorsal fin membranes and won't have the saddle markings.
According to Mike Steffa, the McLean County Department of Parks and Recreation acting director, the best bets to tangle with saugeyes are the Big Flats, the Hump, near the swimming beach, the pump house and the boat rental areas.
Crappies are another mainstay here.
Channel cats generally average around the 4-pound mark, but this is a catfish lake second to none in the area. Fish up to 16 pounds can be taken.
The ice-fishing is always at the angler's own risk, Steffa said. The lake has a destratification pump that keeps part of the lake open year 'round.
Evergreen covers 886 acres and is 10 miles north of Bloomington in McLean County.
For more information, contact the IDNR at (217) 784-4730 or the McLean County Department of Parks and Recreation at (309) 726-2022.
It's the northern pike that raise eyebrows 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 these toothy predators can be during the cold weather, the fishing here is looking good.
Most of the pike aren't massive. The majority weighs in around 3 pounds, but there are fish taken reaching 38 inches and tipping the scales at 12 or 13 pounds. At least one fish hit the 42-inch mark, according to park superintendent Tom Jackson. A photo of the monster is hanging in the park store.
Drop a chub or a sucker up to 6 inches long through the hole and allow it to swim freely under a float. Jigging spoons and vibrating baits work well when the northerns are hitting, but you'll need to tie on a metal leader or risk losing your fish and your bait.
Northern pike are considered cool-water fish that remain active throughout winter when other fish slow down. Pike roam freely under the ice, often only inches deep as they take advantage of the well-oxygenated water right under the surface and the overhead cover.
Drill a hole over the submerged vegetation surrounding the lake's perimeter. Panfish and pike alike will be in the remaining green weeds.
Lake Le-Aqua-Na is 20 feet deep in the southeastern end and gets steadily shallower as you move northwest. The far north end is too shallow to bother with.
The lake is three miles north of Lena in Stephenson County.
A three-fish bag limit and 24-inch
minimum length restriction is in place on the northern pike. There is no closed season.
For additional information, contact DNR in Sterling at (815) 625-2968 or the Le-Aqua-Na State Park at (815) 369-9139.
Windy City anglers are enjoying great angling in a lake that's close to the city but is surprisingly productive. The DNR manages the lake intensively to provide Chicago-area anglers with good fishing, and according to fisheries biologist Frank Jakubicek, the lake's reputation is well deserved.
The bluegill fishing is best on the southeastern section of the main pool. Busse Lake bluegills are good-sized because of the 10-fish daily creel limit and 8-inch minimum length restriction.
The lake is divided into three separate bodies of water, and you'll have to do some walking to reach the more remote areas. The main pool covers 419 acres; the north pool is 25 acres and the south pool 146 acres. Trails and shoreline access connect the lakes.
Largemouth bass are an option here if you can tempt them to bite. The bass are in the 5-pound, 20-inch range, though most will be smaller. The old creek channel in the main pool can be a good place to start if you can locate some green vegetation under the ice nearby.
Northern pike and walleyes are the mainstay of the south pool. The northerns are stocked and growing well. Pike run 30 inches or better, and the walleyes are reaching 5 or 6 pounds. A big minnow under a bobber attracts pike, and small jig-and-minnow combinations or Repeal ice jigs will take the 'eyes. There is a three-fish limit with a minimum length of 24 inches on the pike and a six-fish, 18-inch minimum length on walleyes.
Channel cats occasionally surprise ice-fishermen. Looking down into your hole and seeing it filled with a big catfish is a pleasant surprise indeed. The cats are in the 24-inch range and six can be taken home at a time.
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. Access is from Higgins Road between Interstate 290 and Arlington Heights Road in Schaumburg.
A map showing the submerged fish attractors and locations of the fishing walls is available online at www.ifish illinois.org. For more information, call the DNR's Region II at (708) 771-1570. The Cook County Forest Preserve office can be reached at (800) 870-3666 or online at www.fpdcc.com.
If you can't find a fishing hole to call your own here, you're not looking. The 2,679-acre FWA has more than 200 ponds and lakes that range between three acres and 150 acres. The strip-mined land has been reclaimed from the days of the Peabody Coal Company and is now a sportsman's paradise.
The panfish are always a good bet here, according to Del Covin of Bert's Bait in Essex. Bluegills and crappies fall for the standard larval baits on most of the waters. The 'gills are best on Ponderosa, Carp and Bass lakes, and the crappies are just about everywhere.
"Wax worms were hot last year and a lot of bluegills were caught on them," Covin said.
Crappie populations are highly variable. A single pair can populate a fair-sized body of water during a single spawn. A female lays thousands of eggs and good conditions mean plenty of hungry young crappies. Fish can reach 10 inches and push the 12-inch mark, or more.
Minnows, mealworms, mousies or wax worms on tip-ups are killers. Small jigging rods and reels allow a more hands-on approach. Small panfish-sized ice jigs can put plenty of bluegills and crappies in the bucket. Ponderosa Lake has a 10-fish limit for redears, bluegills and hybrid sunfish. Crappies are under a 10-fish daily limit throughout the property.
Largemouth bass are possible. Smaller waters tend to produce big bass across the state and Manonia is no exception. The lakes are hit hard with angling pressure during the summer months, but few bass anglers brave the elements when the winter wind is whistling.
The best lakes are Ponderosa, Wilderness, Monster lakes and lakes Nos. 3, 7, 8 and 9. Fish up to 3 and 4 pounds dominate many of the remote ponds.
A lightly hooked minnow is just the ticket. Try cutting off a tip of the tail to give the minnow an erratic, wounded action. Three fish are allowed daily with a 15-inch minimum length limit.
Northern pike aren't major players here, but the DNR does stock them in Carp and Gar lakes. The state record came out of Monster Lake.
Redears are plentiful in Clear and Ponderosa lakes and provide rod-bending action.
Most of the lakes are deep with steep dropoffs and little shallow water. A sonar can help to eliminate fishless water.
Mazonia offers 576 acres of water. The FWA is two miles west of Braceville in Grundy and Kankakee counties. The area is closed to fishing seven days before the opener of the Central Zone waterfowl season and opens again at the end of the upland game season.
For more information, call the DNR's Region II office at (847) 608-3100, the area office at (815) 237-0063 or Bert's Bait at (815) 365-2103.
Bluegills, largemouth bass and northern pike provide a great multi-species fishery in this little lake on the southeast side of Chicago. Channel cats are possible as bonus fish. If you're industrious, you might tap into the walleyes as well.
Wolf is a big-bass lake with fish in the 18-inch range. The Eurasian milfoil invasion created weedy conditions in clear water, a combination that is favorable to bass growth rates. A small minnow, ice spoon or jig might put a big bucketmouth on the line. Most anglers wouldn't consider putting any effort into bass this month, and they're overlooking a lot of fun.
The northern pike population is outstanding. Pike up to 36 inches are in the lake with plenty of fish over 26 inches present. The DNR stocks over a thousand fingerling pike annually.
This is an excellent lake to try for your winter cat. The DNR stocks between 13,000 and 15,000 channels every year and many of them end up on the dinner table. Most of them aren't large, but there are plenty of them.
Walleyes are present, but no one knows just how many there are. Thousands of young walleyes are stocked annually and fish up to 10 pounds have been taken.
Wolf Lake covers 391 acres of prime ice-fishing water located in the Wolf Lake SRA. The office is at 12949 South Avenue AO at 130th Street in the Hegwisch neighborho
od. It lies on the Illinois/Indiana state line. Access is from highways 41, 90 and 94.
The lake is closed to fishing during the waterfowl season.For more information, call Region II at (847) 608-3100 or the area office at (773) 646-3270.
UPPER MISSISSIPPI RIVER
The frozen backwaters of the Mississippi River can be panfish bonanzas, according to Nancy McCune of the H&R Bait Shop in Sterling. McCune is about 20 miles from the action but still sells a lot of ice-fishing gear to locals willing to make the trip to the mighty Mississippi.
"There aren't many ice-fishermen trying to fish the main channel and it's primarily a backwaters fishery," McCune said. "There are some bass taken, but it's mostly a bluegill bite. Ice-fishing is getting to be a bigger sport every year."
Locating access is a matter of looking for it. The areas where most of the good winter angling is are around Albany and Savannah, McCune said.
The Mississippi River harbors just about anything that swims. If the habitat is right under your hole, you can find an assortment of species.
Safe ice is always an issue and it's especially important over a current. The backwaters where most of the angling occurs act more like inland lakes than powerful rivers, but looks can be deceiving. Currents can be anywhere because of river conditions miles up- or downstream, and the ice you think is safe can change quickly.
Drill a few holes on the way out to make sure you're not stepping into a disaster.
For more information, contact Region III at (815) 625-2968 or H&R Bait Shop at (815) 626-1288.
For information on where to stay, contact the Illinois Department of Commerce and Community Affairs' Bureau of Tourism at (800) 2CONNECT.