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Illinois' Best Bets for Fishing

Illinois' Best Bets for Fishing

In a state that's 400 miles long, there are plenty of places to fish in the Land of Lincoln. These waters are the best of the best.


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By Ted Peck

In a state that's 400 miles long, there is always a good bite going on somewhere in Illinois. Of course, it can be winter in northern Illinois while it's spring downstate. You could go ice-fishing for walleyes one day and be boating big largemouth bass the next day.

Here's our annual look at some of the best places to get your string stretched in the Prairie State in 2004.

Smithland Pool Stripers
Three states bordering the Ohio River in far southeastern Illinois all contribute to the striper/hybrid bass fishery, offering a chance for open-water action when much of Illinois is cloaked in ice.

Lindy-Rigged live bait and metal blade baits are the weapons of choice on these thundering nomads that can exceed 20 pounds. Always watch for seagulls feeding on baitfish on the surface because stripers will be feeding below the cloud of small fish.

Catching a mess of saugers is a good possibility here, too.

For more information, contact the Golconda Marina at (618) 683-5875.


Photo by Ron Sinfelt

Devil's Kitchen Rainbows
The Department of Natural Resources has been stocking deep and clear Devil's Kitchen Lake with rainbow trout for decades. The lake is located in Williamson County, not far from both Marion and Carbondale. But these scrappy trout are still a well-kept secret, waiting for cold weather to turn on. Fish along the dam face with Berkley Gulp trout bait under a small slip-bobber set at about 10 feet.

Farm Pond Bluegills
Farm ponds - both frozen and open - will yield bluegills to the angler who does his homework at the Soil Conservation Service office, gains permission and then offers up a wax worm under a tiny Thill float for the best eating found anywhere.

Pool 13 Crappies
Several years ago an extensive dredging project at the Potter's Marsh complex on the Mississippi River in Carroll County created overwinter habitat for fish, especially crappies.

These fish have proven the adage "if you build it, they will come." Target areas around stumps immediately adjacent to dredged-out trenches with a No. 2 Rembrandt willow spoon. Black is hard to beat.

Dead Lake and Sabula Slough on the Iowa side of the river are also good. You can fish between the railroad tracks that line both sides of the river with either state's license.

Shabbona Lake Panfish
Get a map from the concession stand on this 318-acre De Kalb County lake and then use a fish locator and an underwater viewing camera to locate structure and fish. New rockpiles placed on the old roadbed last year have proven to be genuine fish magnets. The afternoon bite is generally better. This state park lake closes at sunset.

Lake of Egypt Crappies
Although this large cooling lake south of Marion in southern Illinois is seeing a down cycle with the crappie population, the fishing is still consistently good when vertical jigging around deep brushpiles off of points and the mouths of coves.

Braidwood Lake Channel Cats
This cooling lake opens to fishing on March 1, with channel cats feasting on just about anything offered up on the bottom below, where you find a surface temperature of 65 degrees.

DNR surveys indicate an "excellent" forktail population. And every one of them is looking for the warmest water possible right now. Take a lot of bait with you!

For more information, call (815) 237-0063.

Illinois River Sauger
The sauger fishery here is no secret. But knowledge that this walleye cousin will be relating to the same approximate depth upstream and downstream is a secret. Try vertical jigging with a 5/16-ounce ball-head jig tipped with a minnow threaded on the hook. If you're on fish and the bite slows, change colors before changing locations, and then seek out fish elsewhere at the same approximate depth.

Kinkaid Lake Muskies
Muskies are cruising in shallow north-end coves, close to cover and moving on flats on warm afternoons. Try twitching a 6-inch Jake bait in orange with black spots, or a slow and steady retrieve with a No. 5 Mepps Giant Killer with purple hair.

Crab Orchard Lake Crappies
For sheer numbers and a tremendous average size, this may be the best crappie lake in our state.

There is no limit in place on this lake. Right about now, fish are moving shallow in preparation for spawning.

Live bait will work. But serious crappie catchers here prefer a red Hoop-I Head Jig and a clear/pepper Fuzz-E-Tail jig made by Cottonmouth Lures in Carterville, tweaking color combinations just a little bit as indicated by crappie activity - especially at the old submerged pump station down by the spillway!

Contact: DNR biologist Chris Bickers, (618) 993-7094.

Cedar Lake Largemouths

This city water supply lake just south of Carbondale has an incredible population of largemouth bass. The best way to fool 'em now is with a 1/4-ounce tandem green spinnerbait or watermelon Senko fished tight to shore. A 10-horsepower limit is enforced.

Illinois River White Bass
The white bass run here is beyond belief between the Starved Rock Dam and Mertel's Concrete plant downstream at Peru. Cast or troll a small Crazy Blade in Cajun/baby pattern, moving until you locate fish. Don't forget to tie the lure on using a snap.

Gillespie New City Lake Largemouths
The Illinois DNR rates this Macoupin-area lake in the top two statewide for largemouth bass, with surveys cranking up in excess of 250 largemouths per hour, and 30 percent of fish sampled exceeding 3 pounds. That's big!

Biologists say the incredible population and its health is due to forage base. With so much food in the water, fishing is sometimes tough - but not at this time of year. Right now, every adult largemouth is cruising close to shore in preparation for spawning, with platter-sized beds scooped out at intervals of just a few feet.

Contact: Ron Durbin, (618) 362-6363.

Ferne Clyffe Lake Panfish
Most anglers overlook this 16-acre state park lake in Johnson County because it is shore-fishing only and just 16 acres. Big mistake. DNR surveys indicate bluegills average 9 to 10 inches, with redear sunfish even bigger - and there are no harvest guidelines in place.

Powerton Lake Smallmouths
This Tazewell County cooling lake may be ugly and prone to wind-driven waves, but it stands alone as Illinois' premier smallmouth bass lake. Pitch plastics along the rocks where water temperatures are 65 to 70 degrees. Smallies grow to over 6 pounds here, and they have a nasty attitude when caught.

Sangchris Lake Largemouths
Post-spawn largemouth bass in this cooling lake straddling the Sangamon-Christian county line tend to move more than their cousins in non-cooling lake environments.

This migratory tendency is driven by both forage base and water temperature, which go hand in hand. Bass like to herd baitfish - primarily shad - to places of easy ambush like points, with wind helping bucketmouths achieve their mission. Look for active fish and then slow down the presentation. Find one fish and more of the same year-class will likely be nearby.

Contact: Sangchris Corner Bait Shop, (217) 623-5252.

Shabbona Lake Muskies
Denny Sands, concessionaire at this state park lake, keeps detailed notes on muskies and their behavior here. Many lures will fool this fish. The muskies like to hang out in deeper water adjacent to the brushpiles and other structure.

Mississippi River Walleyes
Our upper Mississippi River, particularly Pool 14, is a tremendous walleye factory. Many fish are relating to the upstream edge of wing dams off of the main channel right now. Find active fish with a trolled crankbait, and then slow down and give 'em the jig.

Otter Lake Channel Catfish
This 723-acre Macoupin County lake may be the best multi-species fishery in our state.

Channel catfish are all but overlooked here, with over a dozen year-classes from 2 to 18 pounds represented, according to DNR surveys.

A six-fish limit is in place. Jugs and trotlines are prohibited. Target windswept points and coves, especially south of Highway 12. Dawn and dusk are the best times to fish.

Contact: Jack Roberts, (217) 627-2416.

Mississippi River Largemouths
Look for grassy edges where water drops quickly away into 8 feet or more, and then cover the area quickly with spinnerbaits and other "search" lures. Your eyes are the biggest key. Look for predators busting baitfish on the surface. Smart money says they're bass!

Rock River Flathead Catfish
The run of the Rock River between Oregon and Sterling in northern Illinois contains our biggest population of big, ugly fish per surface acre in the state. Dixon-based guide Denny Halgren boats an average of 40 fish over 40 pounds here every year, using primarily just bluegills for bait. Although there is currently no limit and few restrictions, please practice catch-and-release with these hard-fighting fish. To hire a guide, call (815) 288-6855.

Rend Lake Flathead Catfish
Sprawling Rend Lake south of Mount Vernon has always had a good population of flathead catfish, according to DNR biologist Mike Hooe. But catching flatheads in a reservoir is different than chasing catfish in a river.

The southern techniques of jug-fishing and trotlines enable these predators to find your bait under the cover of darkness. An Illinois fishing license enables you to employ 50 remote hooks, but each device must be tagged with the angler's name and address.

Most catfish - both flatheads and channels - average about 4 pounds. But tangling with a 30-pound monster is not out of the question on Rend Lake.

Contact: guide Todd Gessner, (618) 629-2507.

Lake Michigan Chinook Salmon
Mature chinook salmon head toward tributaries and harbors from the Wisconsin state line down into the Windy City to attempt spawning before they die. Trolling J-Plugs at up to 4 mph can trigger fish into striking, leaving no question why these critters are called "kings."

Kankakee River Smallmouths
Although this northeastern Illinois river has seen considerable habitat degradation through siltation, fast-flowing rocky stretches still hold both size and numbers of smallmouth bass amongst all the snags. Throw crawdad-patterned twistertails upstream on light, slow-falling jigheads. Wear a personal flotation device when wading, because the Kankakee can drop instantly away into deeper water.

Mermet Lake Channel Catfish
Vegetation is the biggest problem in accessing this shallow southern Illinois' lake's channel catfish population during warmer months. But the most persistent flora - curlyleaf pondweed - dies back by mid-September. This allows access to a virtually untapped forktail population until these waters close around duck hunting season to become a waterfowl refuge.

A six-fish limit is in place, with no-wake restrictions in effect. Fishing is limited to two lines. Bring the heavy gear. Once hooked, th

ese fish will quickly scoot toward cover.

Contact: Cooksey's Bait, (618) 993-3366.

Fox Chain-O-Lakes Walleyes
Target necked-down spots like bridges with crankbaits and swimming jigs in these natural lakes come September on this northern Illinois body of water. Look for less than 8 feet of water. Ironically, boat traffic nearby tends to trigger fish into striking. A slot limit is in place, with many nice fish landed before you'll catch one for the wall.

Lake Shelbyville Muskies
Once summer heat departs, these big muskies put on the feedbag below the spillway, on the riprap above the dam and back in coves on Lake Shelbyville in Shelby and Moultrie counties. A big tandem spinnerbait is hard to beat. Don't overplay the fish, and return them quickly to the water after a photograph.

Kinkaid Lake Muskies
This popular southern Illinois recreational lake near Murphysboro will eventually produce a state-record muskie, and with the bite really coming on after the second serious cold snap in October, that's the time to be on Kinkaid.

Muskies follow baitfish into fairly shallow water and cruise the first deep-water break with the advent of fall weather. One angler should always throw a bucktail or spinnerbait, with a partner tossing a SpitFire, Burt or similar lure. Black and obnoxious fluorescents work best, with color selection determined by water clarity.

Contact: Kinkaid Lake Guide Service, (618) 985-4105.

Mississippi River Walleyes
Walleyes really strap on the feedbag when duck season opens on Pools 12, 13 and 14 on the Mississippi River. Target wing dams and dam tailwaters with deep-diving crankbaits. Chartreuse is generally the hot color, followed by orange/gold. If you get hung up, allow slack in the line. The bait will often come free of the rocks and then be followed by a strike.

Otter Lake Crappies
Although there is no limit on crappies here, this lake continues to produce some whoppers. Target steep breaklines, looking for fish to suspend at different depths, fishing 2 feet above those blips on the sonar. Otter is the best place to take a "stringer mount" in our state.

Rend Lake Crappies
Over 60 percent of this reservoir's crappie population is above 10 inches long, according to DNR surveys. The limit is 25 daily, but with only 10 fish in the bag over 10 inches allowed.

Biologist Mike Hooe says Rend Lake is a place to go "catching" instead of "fishing" when November rolls around.

A good trick here is to use ice-fishing weapons like tiny jigs and wax worms under a small bobber. You'll need a long rod if fishing from shore.

For more information, call (618) 629-2507 or e-mail

Evergreen Lake Muskies
This 1,000-acre lake just off of Interstate 39 north of Bloomington holds perhaps your best chance in the state of hooking into a mid-30-inch muskie before serious winter weather arrives. Target the shoreline with bright twitch baits. State-record-sized saugeyes live here, too.

Illinois River Saugers
The Senachwine Lake backwater of the Illinois River in Putnam County is a mecca for saugers when November rolls around. Fish from the channel buoy toward the mouth with a minnow-tipped 1/2-ounce standup jighead in orange/root beer hues.

Upper Mississippi River Panfish
Backwaters of Old Man River at Galena, Hanover, Savanna and downstream at Thomson offer incredible action on bluegills and slab crappies from initial freeze-up until arrival of severe winter weather about New Year's Day.

Since fish are in shallow water, a stealthy approach is required. Anglers standing back from the hole with a long, spring-bobbered pole and no ice shanty typically do much better than those fishing from the comfort of a tent.

Contact: Big River Bait & Taxidermy, (815) 244- 3155.

Sangchris Lake Striped Bass
Dress warm and troll deep water near the dam with shad-pattern crankbaits about 50 feet behind downriggers set at 20 to 30 feet. The fish are there. Change your trolling speed and presentation until you figure out what they want. And bring along your largemouth bass gear because this lake has bucketmouths hanging around in the warmwater discharge arm.

Lake Michigan Brown Trout
Big-pond brown trout are close to shore off of the Windy City right now. But every year's weather is different. You may be fishing open water off the warmwater discharges, or on the ice in harbors. Fish minnows or spawn sacs in a vertical presentation or toss Little Cleo spoons if the water is still open.

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