Illinois' Best Bets For Fishing
October 04, 2010
Illinois is a lengthy state, with seven distinct climatic zones between the north and south. Fishing tactics can change considerably between Chicago and Cairo. But one thing is certain, there is always a bite going somewhere.
Here's a look at our top fishing trips for the next 12 months, and a chance to discover new angling adventures in Illinois.
Illinois River Saugers
Our namesake river may be frozen now, but in just a couple of weeks it will open up again, offering outstanding sauger action in deeper "wintering holes." Some of the best fishing occurs before the advent of spring runoff within one mile of the Abraham Lincoln Bridge on Interstate 39.
Light line and a vertical presentation are major keys to success during the peaceful coldwater period. Fish are seldom interested in aggressive feeding now, but you can trigger them all day long with blade baits and jigs with fliptails.
As runoff begins, fish start to move upstream, quickly drawing crowds of anglers. If you can't fish during the week, note the depth at which the fish are active in this glorified canal and try to replicate the presentation at that depth elsewhere.
Contact: Starved Rock Bait & Tackle, (815) 667-4862.
Lake Michigan Brown Trout
You may be fishing ice or open water. Either way, these salmonids are close to shore right now and willing to eat alewives or spawn sacs. Target harbors and warmwater discharges from the Windy City north to the Wisconsin line.
Pool 12 Crappies
If there is a "January thaw" near month's end, the rising Mississippi River will trigger crappies at Kehough Slough two miles north up the railroad tracks north of Galena. Take West Street due west out of town until you hit the river, then either follow the tracks or go straight ahead and try Fish Trap Slough, another winter hotspot. The L'il Cecil lure is a crappie killer!
Lake Sangchris Stripers
Big striped bass dog shad all winter long on this central Illinois cooling lake, with many fish congregated near the warmwater discharge at the powerhouse right now.
Troll large shad-pattern crankbaits behind planer boards or downriggers. Have a big blade bait ready, too. These fish sometimes bust shad on the surface. You can often hook up without spooking fish by making a long cast. Heavy gear is a must.
Contact: Sangchris Corner, (217) 623-5252.
Pool 13 Crappies
Mickelson's Landing at Potter's Marsh near Thomson on Pool 13 of the Mississippi River gives up huge slab crappies at the edge of the old dredge canal every winter. Although there has been considerable siltation, find at least 6 feet next to a foot or less of water and you're in the ballpark. Maps are available at the refuge office in Savanna.
Devil's Kitchen Rainbows
Fish close to the dam spillway with Berkley Gulp Trout Nuggets or salmon eggs about 10 feet under a small slip-bobber. The water is over 70 feet deep here. Fish often become airborne before you realize a bite.
Mississippi River Saugers
Watch the weather carefully. When we get a pattern with several days' warming trend, head for the tailwaters and try vertical jigging with blade baits or hair jigs.
Check for any special harvest restrictions. If possible, go during the week. There are only a few prime locations near the yellow "bullnose" below the dam. Use caution when the river begins to open up. Vertical jigging below the dam is effective. If you see ice floes coming, get out of the way and let them pass.
Contact: Big River Bait & Taxidermy, (815) 244-3115.
Shabbona Lake Catfish
Channel catfish are active through the ice, especially around the old farm buildings and cribs over the old roadbed. The best bait is a couple of red wigglers. Use electronics to locate suspended fish, then drop bait to this depth. Chances are the suspended fish have whiskers.
Baldwin Lake Bluegills
The warmwater discharge of this Randolph County lake offers super bluegill action using ice-fishing jigs tipped with wax worms. Bites can be light. Use a neutrally weighted float, light line and long rod. You can have a ball with a cane pole from shore.
Illinois River White Bass
White bass go on a feeding frenzy about mid-April, eating just about anything chrome-, shad- or silver-colored. Roadrunner jigs, Cicadas and Zip blade baits or a simple white plastic fliptail on a jighead will all catch fish -- once you find them. My personal favorite is a white-dot No. 3 Mepps Black Fury in-line spinner. Start up above Plum Island below the dam at Starved Rock State Park and fish current breaks clear down to the Mertel concrete plant in Peru.
Put the white bass on ice immediately and fillet the red mud vein out. When you get home, place the filets in milk in an aluminum foil roasting pan. Tastes like walleye.
Contact: Cajun Sporting Goods, (815) 667-4222.
Crab Orchard Crappies
Fish Cottonmouth Lures' Fuzz-E-Tail on a Hoop-I Head Jig around the spillway, brushpiles and riprap along Highway 13. Savvy anglers use a 10-foot Crappie Commander pole, FireLine and two jigs fished on loop knots about 14 inches apart. Tie the top jig on with a Palomar knot for a more natural presentation.
Powerton Lake Smallmouths
Our only true smallmouth impoundment, this cooling lake gives up some whoppers. Water temperature is a major key to fish location. Seventy-degree water is ideal. Target rocky shoreline with tube jigs, Kalin Grubs and suspended stickbaits. There is no doubt this lake near Pekin will produce our next record bronzeback.
Lake Michigan Cohos
Dodger/fly combinations and small trolling spoons are all you need to get hooked up on the tasty salmon that are following baitfish north along the shoreline right now.
Salmon in clear, shallow water are exceptionally spooky. Planer boards are a good idea. Multiple hookups often occur, so having a second net handy is a good idea. Lowlight periods generally offer the best action.
Look for water temperatures about 54 degrees and clouds of baitfish on your electronics. Find both, and cohos won't be far away.
A number of strip-pit lakes dot the landscape of southern Illinois. Many are on private ground, but there are also quite a few accessible to the public. Three of the b
est are around Pinckneyville. There are two super spots near Sesser. Some contain redear sunfish, crappies and bass as well. DeLorme's Illinois Atlas and Gazetteer and a county plat book are helpful in locating incredible clearwater fishing spots.
Fox Chain Walleyes
Most folks fish too deep for walleyes this time of year on the Fox Chain-O-Lakes. Target less than 6 feet of water. Channels between lakes, particularly around bridges, hold a lot of fish. Windblown shorelines and areas close to boat traffic also stir up bait, which attracts walleyes. Try pitching a Lindy Thumpin' Worm on a 1/8-ounce jighead, working the lure along the bottom.
Shabbona Lake Muskies
This 318-acre De Kalb County lake has held the state muskie record several times, with fish swimming here large enough to recapture the crown again. According to DNR surveys, Shabbona has more big fish per surface acre than any other Illinois lake.
With so much structure and forage base in the lake, this top predator decides the time and place to eat. Part of the picture is putting a desirable lure in front of the fish. Copious records indicate black/orange lures have an edge over other hues.
Before summer heats the water column, most large fish will be found in less than 15 feet, hanging close to their forage base and cover, probably off the first deepwater break. It's all about time on the water.
Contact: Shabbona Lakeside Bait, (815) 824-2581.
Pool 14 Walleyes
An ongoing stocking program has created a profound walleye fishery south of the dam at Fulton. With river levels at normal summer pool, look for walleyes along the upstream edge of wing dams and closing dams on the main channel by either casting or trolling crankbaits. Later in the summer, troll running sloughs with cranks or spinner rigs. Use chartreuse.
Rock River Flatheads
The full moon of June means these giant whiskerfish will be actively feeding during daylight hours. Target the leading edge of river holes with a small bluegill. There are flatheads in Rockton and Rockford pools and a few below the Oregon dam, but big-fish country is between the Highway 2 bridge at Grand Detour and the tailwaters of the dam at Sterling.
Mississippi River Largemouths
River pools 12, 13 and 14 hold incredible numbers of largemouth bass. River level drives bass location, with these fish more nomadic than lake-dwelling brethren.
If the river is falling, start by probing the backside of wing dams and riprap near the main channel. If the river is on the rise, target backwater areas, running sloughs and structure along migration routes between backwater areas.
One key is at least 7 feet of water close to shallower structure or cover near current. Bass in the feeding mode tend to concentrate around a small area. If action slows, don't leave, just change your presentation.
Be aware of your surroundings. Watch for gulls and bass busting baitfish, and for other boaters and water hazards, too.
Otter Lake Channel Cats
DNR surveys indicate a dozen year-classes of channel catfish present in this 723-acre Macoupin County lake, with specimens from 2 to 18 pounds noted. A six-daily bag limit is in place. Fishing pressure is almost nil. Target points and wind-swept coves, especially south of Highway 12. The night bite is best.
This northeastern Illinois river is a perennial smallmouth bass producer, with a canoe float trip the best way to get hooked up. Some current areas are swift, so look ahead and plan your cast close to structure, which is notoriously unforgiving. Weedless rigging or single-hook lures like spinnerbaits will save a lot of downtime.
Apple River Smallmouths
I've been fishing this pristine Jo Daviess County stream for more than 40 years. It remains Illinois' top smallmouth river, even after occasional fish kills over the years.
There is good fishing within the confines of Apple River Canyon State Park. But the action borders on incredible on private lands. Small in-line spinners like the Vibrax in copper color work well. You won't believe the ultimate weapon here: An X-5 yellow Flatfish with red and brown spots. I'm serious.
Contact: Tri-Lakes Sporting Goods, (815) 369-5520.
Carlyle Lake White Bass
The tailwaters of this vast reservoir can provide incredible action for scrappy white bass during the summer months. Small blade baits or the basic white twistertail on a jighead are all it takes to get hooked up when fish are active here. Dawn and dusk usually offer the best fishing.
Lake Michigan Salmon
Huge 4-year-old chinook salmon move inland to tributaries in late August through mid-September in an attempt to spawn before they die. Although these behemoths aren't actively feeding, they will strike small crankbaits, spoons and spinners. Once hooked, the combat is brutal.
Lake Shelbyville Muskies
Our current state-record muskie came from the Lake Shelbyville tailwaters, which are always a good place to check out. Come September try the rocks above the dam as well and other riprapped areas like the Lithia Springs Marina.
Shelbyville is not a "classic" muskie lake. But it has been the DNR's top muskie priority for many years, with activity increasing through October and the arrival of seriously cold weather.
Contact: Lithia Springs Marina, (217) 774-4121.
Lake Springfield Channel Cats
Target the backs of coves and main-lake points with dip bait and fresh chicken liver. Most fish are perfect eating size, about 1 to 3 pounds, but be prepared for a tussle with fish in double digits.
Pistakee Lake Largemouths
The "T" channel is the heart of bass country in this fertile lake in the Fox Chain-O-Lakes. The key is throwing something the bass likely haven't seen -- like the Chompers Techno-Tube in black/blue colors -- fished weightless around deadfalls and other wood.
Evergreen Lake Muskies
You probably won't hook a wallhanger here, but multiple muskie days are a real possibility. A 10-horsepower limit is in place on this county park lake. Try trolling big stickbaits at the 10-foot breakline with at least one lure right in the prop wash and that 10-horse at about 3/4 throttle.
Don't forget your walleye gear. This lake just north of Bloomington has an entire year-class of saugeyes heavier than the current state record.
Contact: (815) 667-4862.
Newton Lake Largemouths
When most bassers have all
but given up on largemouths for the year, fish in this Jasper County cooling lake are just beginning to get active. Use a surface temperature gauge to find the warmest water, then throw a suspending stickbait, slow-roll a spinnerbait or pitch plastics at wood cover and riprapped areas. Newton is managed as a trophy bass fishery.
Mazonia FWA Panfish
There are over 150 small lakes in this FWA project near Braidwood in northeastern Illinois. The more remote waters are always good. But anglers are staying away from even easily accessible lakes in droves now, making places like Ponderosa Lake a good bet.
Kinkaid Lake Muskies
This popular southern Illinois lake is developing a well deserved reputation as a muskie producer.
Kinkaid -- like Shelbyville and Shabbona -- is a place where you can expect to tangle with a big muskie. Although it hasn't achieved this benchmark yet, most among the muskie fraternity believe it's just a matter of time.
Water clarity changes from one end of the lake to the other. Most muskie activity is found in the lower reaches of the lake near the dam where florescent lures tend to work better than natural colors. Suckers are worth their weight in gold here.
Contact: Kinkaid Lake Guide Service, (618) 985-4105.
Rend Lake Crappies
This sprawling reservoir near Mt. Vernon is a serious contender as Illinois' top crappie water, and action is at a peak right now. According to the DNR, over 60 percent of crappies swimming here are longer than 10 inches. An unusual bag limit is in place with 25 fish, but only 10 can be larger than 10 inches. Filling a limit in just an hour is a possibility.
Rock River Walleyes
This medium-sized river has a substantial walleye population, with upper river pools generally the most productive. Action heats up with cooling water temperatures. When temperatures drop below 44 degrees and waters clear, it's time to go fishing. Simple rigging and jigging methods seem to be most productive.
Fox Chain Walleyes
First ice is the best time to fill a limit with tasty walleyes in this heavily fished chain of lakes in northeastern Illinois. Although walleyes are found in every lake, those waters at the head of the chain -- like Channel, Catherine, Marie and Petite -- are the most consistent producers.
Current is a major key to fish location. Areas where lakes neck-down -- like the passage between Channel and Catherine -- hold fish all winter long. Use extreme caution. Ice quality can vary substantially over just a few feet.
Contact: Triangle Bait (847) 395-0813.
Carlton Lake Muskies
This 77-acre state park lake in Whiteside County was once the primary muskie-rearing site in the state. It is still good, albeit overlooked. Catch a couple of crappies and drift them under a quick-strike rig before the lake locks in ice. You might be pleasantly surprised.
Farm Pond Panfish
Farm ponds are the first waters to freeze in the northern tiers of counties, providing fast and furious action at first ice. These waters are invariably on private lands where permission is required before fishing, but once you are on the ice, it doesn't take long to get a nice mess of bluegills. Use considerable stealth. Poke holes, then put the drill away. And leave the portable ice shanty in the truck. If they're active, you won't be out there long enough to get cold.