October 04, 2010
By Mark Fenske
On our power-plant cooling lakes, the open-water winter fishing can be really hot. Come on along for the boat ride as we chase stripers, largemouths, catfish and a few other species. (January 2006)
By Mark Fenske
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
It can honestly be said that the Illinois Department of Natural Resources really knows how to mix business with pleasure.
North to south, power-generating facilities provide much needed electricity to residents of the Prairie State, while offering Illinois anglers some of the best early-season open-water fishing to be found anywhere.
It doesn't matter what you enjoy fishing for, our cooling lakes are shaping up for an incredible year, and chances are good that one of them is near you. So if you like fishing for striped bass, largemouths, catfish and a few other species, come on along for the boat ride!
Baldwin Lake in the Kaskaskia River SWFA should be a definite pilgrimage for winter anglers this year.
Biologist Fred Cronin said largemouth bass are the spotlight of this 2,018-acre lake.
"Baldwin is an excellent lake to find good numbers of 3- and 4-pound bass," said Cronin.
Target the riprap banks and points throughout the lake with shad-imitating crankbaits, lipless rattling lures, spinnerbaits, plastics and the traditional assortment of largemouth offerings.
Hybrid striped bass at Baldwin this winter will be another main attraction.
"There are superb numbers of fish in the 3- to 5-pound range," said Cronin.
Most anglers target stripers with shad-imitating crankbaits, hair jigs, roadrunners and blade baits.
Catfish enthusiasts won't be disappointed either. According to Cronin, channel cats generally run in the 10- to 15-inch range, and anglers have no trouble catching their limit. Big blue catfish in the 40- to 50-pound range are caught often. Cut bait, chicken livers and big minnows are among the best offerings.
According to Cronin, the best winter fishing is found near the discharge in the northeast corner of the lake.
Baldwin Lake has a two-lane boat ramp and a maximum motor size of 50 horsepower or less. For more information, contact the Kaskaskia River SWFA at (618) 785-2555.
The opening-morning lines waiting to get in this 2,640-acre Will County cooler can exceed a mile, but this is for good reason: Fishing on Braidwood Lake can be phenomenal.
Largemouth bass are the perennial draw here. Most fish range between 14 and 16 inches, 4-pounders are common, and fish up to about 7 pounds are possible. Early bass relate well to shoreline structure. Shad-colored crankbaits and spinnerbaits are productive. Later, as fishing pressure intensifies, offshore structures such as breaklines, flooded strip mines, midlake humps and points attract fish.
Catfishermen won't be disappointed either. Most channel cats average between 12 and 18 inches, but channels and blue catfish surpassing 10 pounds and flathead catfish surpassing 25 pounds are available. Cut bait, night crawlers and the gamut of stinky catfish offerings will hook 'em.
Anglers can likewise expect to find good numbers of 6- to 8-inch bluegills throughout Braidwood. Anglers using minnows take crappies with some regularity. And good numbers of smallmouths in the 2- to 4-pound class are caught annually. In the early season, target the warm south end of the lake.
Braidwood Lake opens annually on March 1. Two boat launching facilities are located on site. For information, contact Mazonia/Braidwood SFWA at (815) 237-0063.
At 4,900 acres, Clinton Lake has plenty of water, and enough fish to keep everybody happy.
"We're seeing lots of good-sized largemouths in Clinton," said DNR biologist Mike Garthaus. "Our fall survey collected 40 to 50 fish per hour, with 30 percent exceeding 15 inches."
Look for early bass to be relating to wood and cover in the creek's various arms. Jig-and-trailer combinations, spinnerbaits and shad-imitating crankbaits are good bets to use.
For those who enjoy chasing walleyes, Garthaus said the population is very strong.
"Last fall, 84 percent of the sampling we caught exceeded the legal size of 14 inches," he said. "And some big walleyes swim here too."
Target the various bridges, submerged creek channels and the area around the dam. Minnows on a jig or below a float -- and trolling crankbaits -- are top presentations.
Good crappie fishing is available for serious slab hunters who know how to pattern fish in reservoirs. Early season and the spawn are prime times to find decent fishing in the brushy coves. Crappies average about 10 to 12 inches.
White bass are up, with numerous fish in the 12- to 14-inch range. Hybrid striped bass pushing 10 pounds are taken on blade baits, hair jigs, twistertails, lipless rattlers and big minnows. And Clinton is perhaps the best catfishery in central Illinois, with numbers of channels up to 15 pounds and flatheads topping 50 pounds. The best early-season cat action is around the buoy line by the power plant's warmwater discharge.
Clinton Lake is located in De Witt County and open year-round. Boat launching facilities surround the lake. More information, contact Clinton Lake SRA, (217) 935-8722.
Coffeen Lake SFWA site superintendent Brad Tedrick said Coffeen is a "bass magnet." Approximately 50 to 60 percent of the fish are over the legal size limit of 15 inches, the lake is well known for producing some respectable fish.
"A 4-pounder is pretty common here," revealed Tedrick, "and fish up to 8 pounds are possible." Target bucketmouths with crankbaits, Carolina-rigged worms and topwaters.
Coffeen is also a pretty decent crappie hole. "We don't have the numbers, but we have some sizeable fish," said Tedrick. Crappies here run about 13 to 16 inches, and can be taken with minnows and jigs.
If you like catfishing, Tedrick says that Coffeen is home to a good channel cat population, and 20- to 30-pound flatheads are common. Tedrick suggested winter anglers focus on the warm portion of
the lake south of the railroad trestle.
Coffeen Lake is located in Montgomery County near Hillsboro. It's open all year, with the exception of the firearm deer seasons. Two boat launches, concession and excellent facilities are on the premises. Motors are restricted to 25 horsepower or less. More information is available at (217) 537-3351.
Known locally as "Striper Alley," Heidecke Lake in Grundy County near Morris is a cooling lake in tradition only. Collins Station has been inoperative for the last year, but this 1,300-acre gem is still a premier destination for spring anglers.
Greg Heath of Fish Finder Guide Service (815-258-9136) said that Heidecke is by far the best hybrid striped bass water in the northern half of Illinois.
"In 40- to 50-degree water, I destroy the hybrid striped bass," said Heath. "My first two clients last year caught 135 stripers, with 10 over 10 pounds." Heath suggested casting or trolling chrome-colored crankbaits or lipless rattling lures along the rocky shorelines and wind-swept banks.
Walleyes are up at Heidecke this year. "Last year we boated over 300 walleyes," said Heath. "Most of these fish were between 16 and 18 inches." Heath catches walleyes in the same areas he fishes for stripers. Anglers specifically targeting walleyes drift night crawlers or minnows over humps or submerged trenches. Bank-anglers find success around the bridge area of the interior dike.
Serious smallmouth bass anglers should also get excited about this lake. "Seventeen inches is an average smallmouth in Heidecke," said Heath. "And there's plenty of 3- and 4-pound fish available." Target riprap banks with chrome or shad-imitating crankbaits. Early April to mid-May is when the best fishing occurs.
Heidecke is also home to numbers of big channel catfish and a sleeper population of muskies. This year, the lake opens April 1 for fishing. A three-slip launch, excellent parking, bank-fishing, boat rental and concessions are on premises. For more information, contact Heidecke Lake SFWA at (815) 942-6352.
LAKE OF EGYPT
Tom Samples of Pyramid Acres said Lake of Egypt in Williamson County is the best crappie and bass fishery in Illinois.
"Our crappies right now are averaging between a pound-and-a-half and 2 pounds," said Samples. "Anglers will sometimes come in with 20 to 25 fish, all 2 pounds or better."
Samples suggested early-season anglers concentrate their efforts on the north end, where water temperatures are warmest. Toss small RoadRunners or crappie jigs below a float into shoreline grass and woody cover.
Egypt's largemouth bass are nothing short of awesome. "We have the best bass fishing anywhere here at Egypt," said Samples. "The lake is full of largemouths in the 2- to 4-pound class, and we have a lot of 7- and 8-pound fish."
For winter bass, Samples suggested concentrating on the north end, and to fish light and slow. Spinning tackle, 8-pound-test line, small crankbaits, and jig-and-trailer combinations are top presentations.
Lake of Egypt is owned by Southern Illinois Power Cooperative and is governed by regulations consistent with the organization. Check ahead before making a trip. Private boat launches are located around the lake. A public launch located on the east side in the Shawnee National Forest. For more information, contact Pyramid Acres at (618) 964-1184.
LA SALLE LAKE
La Salle Lake in La Salle County is a 2,058-acre riprapping angler's dream come true, and it can be dynamite for anglers who like to keep busy by reeling in fish.
"La Salle has a lot of stripers in the 2- to 3-pound range," said Greg Heath of Fish Finder Guide Service. "We don't catch a lot of trophy fish from La Salle, but the numbers are there." Heath suggested targeting schooling fish on offshore humps with shad baits such as chrome lipless rattlers, or by trolling around windswept shorelines on the lake's north end and by the interior dike.
Largemouth bass and smallmouth bass infest La Salle. Most bass are between 12 and 15 inches, and typical daily catches number 50 fish or more. Heath suggested anglers look for 70 to 75 degree water, and use 3- to 4-inch black or smoke twistertails or shad-imitating crankbaits along the riprapped shoreline.
Catfish are numerous as well. "One day last year, while fishing in the discharge, I had to leave because I was getting tired of taking catfish off the hook," said Heath. Early in the year it's typical to find scores of 10- to 16-inch fish.
La Salle Lake SFWA traditionally opens March 15. There is a boat launch, excellent bank-fishing access and concession on premises. For more information, call (815) 357-1608. To contact Fish Finder Guide Service, call (815) 258-9136.
This winter, Jasper County's 1,775-acre cooling lake will be the focus of serious bass anglers once again. Biologist Mike Hooe said largemouths are doing really well.
"Last year our catch per effort was up 47 percent, and we've seen a 33 percent increase in fish larger than 18 inches," said Hooe. "Right now, about one-third of the fish we sampled were in the 15- to 20-inch class." The lake is well known for producing bruisers in excess of 8 pounds "Newton still has lots of really big fish, and the next few years should be really strong for bass fishing."
Winter anglers should concentrate their efforts in the warm west finger of the lake. During the coldest months, fishing is better as close to the discharge as regulation allows.
Along with largemouths, Newton has a decent white bass population, thousands of small catfish and a smattering of crappies.
Newton Lake State Park has a boat launch on site with excellent parking and good facilities. There is a 25 horsepower limit on all watercraft. For more information, call (618) 783-3478.
Traditionally, this Tazewell County "livewell" has been one of our best bronzeback factories. This year will be no exception.
"Smallmouth bass fishing continues to be good," said biologist Wayne Herndon. "Last fall, our sample indicated that 24 percent of the bass are over the legal size of 18 inches. We're not seeing as many trophies, but lots of bass though."
Powerton smallmouths relate well to the riprapped shorelines, and are frequently taken on twistertails, tube jigs, shad-imitating crankbaits and lipless rattling lures.
Herndon also commented on the outstanding catfishing available. "Big blue catfish up to 30 pounds showing up in our samples, and flatheads up to about 60 pounds are caught frequently," he said. Herndon added that many local anglers have been converted into trophy catfishermen as a result of the opportunity available. Cut bait, shad an
d live bluegills are tops for the big cats.
Along with smallmouths and catfish, Herndon said that Powerton is also a great place to fill a bucket with nice 7- to 8-inch bluegills.
Powerton Lake is open year-round. There is a boat launch with the usual park amenities on site. For more information, call (309) 968-7135.
Just minutes southeast of Springfield, 3,022-acre Sangchris Lake will be a bona fide destination for Prairie State anglers this year.
"We have an excellent population of largemouths," said Dan Stephenson, Region 4 fisheries biologist. "About 30 percent of the population is 15 inches or larger. There are a lot of fish in the 3- to 5-pound class, and good numbers up to about 7 pounds." Shaddy-looking crankbaits, spinnerbaits and jig-and-pig combinations catch most fish.
Crappie anglers will want to give Sangchris a go this winter. "Right now, we have a good population of fish in the 12- to 15-inch class," said Stephenson. The best time for papermouths is February through April around shoreline brush in the warm areas of the lake. Minnows below slip-bobbers locate fish the best.
Sangchris' striper tradition will also continue. "Right now, anglers are catching good numbers of fish in the 11- to 17-pound class," said Stephenson. "The best time for stripers is from about Christmas to April." Live shad, blade baits and Rat-L-Traps are perennial favorites.
Sangchris is open year-round. During the winter, angling is restricted to the warmwater arm in the center of the lake. Numerous launches are available, including Sangchris Lake State Park. All motors must be 25 horses or less. For more information, call (217) 498-9208.
Capital City's own 4,200-acre Lake Springfield may have the densest population of bass in our entire state. According to Stephenson, this is the place to go if you're looking to get tired of catching largemouths.
"We had a catch rate of about 80 fish per hour in the main lake, and west of Interstate 55, we had a catch rate of about 150 fish per hour," said Stephenson. "There's no real lunkers in Springfield, but it's the place to catch lots of fish." About 30 percent of the population exceeds 15 inches, but only 1 percent is larger than 18 inches.
Stephenson also said that Springfield has the best catfishing in Illinois. Channel catfish are well dispersed for numbers and size, and a lot of flatheads over 40 pounds are available, too.
The white bass fishery is tremendous, with good numbers of 15- and 16-inch fish available.
Lake Springfield is open year-round, but winter fishing is confined to the area north of Lindsay Bridge. Boat launches are located around the lake, but some require a fee. The launch by the dam is most popular with winter anglers. For more information, contact Region 4 Fisheries at (217) 632-3841.
Illinois is a state that definitely knows how to mix a little business with pleasure. Regardless of what you like to fish for, it's a good bet you can find it on one of our many cooling lakes within a few hours' drive of your home.
(Editor's note: For more information on all of our fishing opportunities, go to