Largemouth bass fishing has never been better in the Prairie State. You can have
a blast on these lakes this year.
By Tom Chrismon
My search for Illinois' best largemouth bass lakes went into reverse from the beginning. Coming up with the Prairie State's dozen best bass fishing lakes was tougher than I thought - not because there weren't that many good lakes to choose from, but because there are so many good bass fisheries nowadays.
Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist Dan Stephenson put it this way: "It's almost easier to list the poor lakes than to list the good ones." He continued, "Overall, the bass have never been better throughout the state. The regulations, coupled with catch-and-release and improved water quality, have ensured that the bass will do well in almost every lake."
That's good news for Illinois anglers, but it didn't make my job easy. Our state's three main reservoirs - Carlyle, Rend and Shelbyville - have been consistently good for the past decade, but I've left them out of this year's listing so a few lakes that some anglers might not be familiar with, and that probably feature a little better bass fishing, can take their place among the state's best.
Here then, using information from the DNR's fisheries biologists, are what should be the top 12 bass fishing lakes in 2003, several of which will surprise even the most knowledgeable largemouth angler. In addition, I've included a half-dozen "sleeper" lakes at the end that biologists say should be checked out.
We'll start in northern Illinois and work our way downstate.
Photo by Tom Evans
FOX CHAIN-O-LAKES This series of lakes in northeastern Illinois provides consistent catches of keeper bass despite an unbelievable amount of fishing and boating pressure.
Located 50 miles northwest of Chicago, the chain includes more than 7,000 acres of water. But whereas the chain was a largemouth bass wasteland during the 1970s and '80s, a fingerling stocking program begun in 1989 resulted in a 150 percent increase in numbers by the mid-1990s. This program has continued, with close to 150,000 fingerlings being stocked the past two years.
The current population consists of a large population of bass larger than 12 inches. These fish are growing, and provide the chain with high reproductive potential, which translates into a bright future.
Fishing varies from lake to lake, but anglers fishing the channels and side lakes - those with the least boat traffic - find the best angling. Look for weedbeds and brushy areas, and fish near boat docks and structure by bridges. There is a 14-inch minimum length for bass throughout the chain.
LAKE MICHIGAN Lake Michigan's bass population continues to improve. DNR fisheries biologist Steve Robillard says Illinois' northern portion of the lake has a strong largemouth bass population that tends to stay close to the shoreline and harbor areas throughout the year.
While the cold waters seem to keep the lake from producing big lunkers, there are good numbers of fat and healthy fish. And the fishery continues to improve.
The best fishing is late spring into August, using spinnerbaits, crankbaits and jig-and-pig combos. Look for the bass around aquatic vegetation, along shorelines and along breakwater walls in harbors. Many of the harbors are off-limits to fishing. Call 312-742-PLAY for a free map of harbor areas open to fishing. Bass fishing in Lake Michigan is catch-and-release only.
SHABBONA LAKE If you've ever spent a summer weekend at Shabbona Lake in De Kalb County, you know this lake gets a ton of fishing pressure. Despite this pressure, the lake continues to produce large numbers of big largemouth bass annually.
Part of the reason for this 320-acre lake's continued success is that it was designed and built with fishing in mind, and it's full of habitat to enhance the fishery. Biologists have two bass rearing ponds at the site that have produced about 10,000 4- to 5-inch fingerlings for stocking there since the mid-1990s.
DNR fisheries biologist Dan Sallee says June is the best month for bass fishing, but the fall months also provide excellent opportunities. He suggests shallow-running crankbaits and spinnerbaits early in the year, then a switch to leeches and night crawlers near standing timber, stumpfields and fish cribs in midsummer, or fishing frogs and mice on lily pads.
While most bass will be 1-pounders, 2- and 3-pound fish are common, and the lake has a knack for producing occasional 5-pounders. The daily limit is one bass 14 inches in length or longer.
LAKE VERMILION Where in the Prairie State is Lake Vermilion? You know the answer to that question if you live in east-central Illinois. This Danville lake has a great largemouth bass population. Part of the success can be attributed to raising the lake level five feet in 1992, which increased fisheries habitat. Add to that good natural spawns and a cooperative stocking program resulting in more than 15,000 8-inch and 75,000 4-inch bass since the mid-1990s.
Fisheries biologist Mike Garthaus says 60 percent of the lake's population is over 12 inches and 33 percent is above 15 inches in this 900-acre lake. That translates into great bass fishing.
Vermilion has only one boat ramp and there is a fee to launch. There is a 15-inch minimum length and a six-fish daily limit.
LAKE SPRINGFIELD Lake Springfield has been a perennial favorite and this year is no exception. It has an excellent bass population and low fishing pressure. But if you decide to fish, plan to do it midweek. On weekends, this 4,234-acre lake fills with recreational boats, making it difficult to fish.
The lake has a good population of bass up to 16 inches weighing about 2 pounds that, according to fisheries biologist Dan Stephenson, are fat and healthy. There are good numbers of larger fish, too. Spring and fall are best along woody cover, riprap and boat docks. Most anglers begin the year near the hotwater arm and then move out into the rest of the lake as the water warms. The water west of the Interstate 55 bridge has the least boat traffic.
There is a 15-inch minimum, and a lake permit is required before putting a boat on the water.
SANGCHRIS LAKE DNR biologist
Dan Stephenson doesn't say Sangchris Lake is good. He says it's very good. He says he's always amazed at the way it continues to be one of the best bass lakes in our state despite the pressure it gets.
In a 1998 creel census, nearly 127,000 bass were taken, but only 2,600 were kept. That should give you an idea of both the pressure and how much catch-and-release fishing takes place. The 2,165-acre lake gave up 50 pounds of bass per acre in 2000, but anglers kept only 2 pounds per acre. There are high numbers of fish 15 inches and better and nice numbers of 6-pound trophy fish.
The lake shines from early spring into May and then again in the late fall - the water in this cooling lake tends to be too warm to provide good midsummer bass angling. Start your spring fishing in the hotwater arm and move toward the coldwater arm as the water warms. The lake features all types of habitat, so almost any lure you fish with confidence can put a limit of fish in the boat.
Sangchris Lake has a 15-inch minimum length limit and a three-fish-per-day creel limit. Anglers can only use boats with a maximum of 25 horsepower.
JACKSONVILLE LAKE A small lake with a big reputation, Jacksonville has excellent numbers of lunkers and a solid population of all year-classes of fish. Stephenson characterizes this 475-acre Morgan County lake as a "super" bass lake with one of the better populations in the state. "It displays a high-density bass population and produces excellent numbers of large fish," Stephenson said.
Thirty-eight percent of the fish collected during last year's fall survey were over 15 inches and almost 10 percent were over 18 inches. Natural spawns are supplemented by stockings from the hatchery system and an on-site nursery pond. More than 11,000 4-inch fingerlings were added to the population from the nursery in 2001.
Anglers know the lake's reputation, too. Despite Jacksonville's size, so many groups want to fish club tournaments that they have to regulate them. The lake closes when waterfowl season begins. A boat sticker is required to fish the lake. There is a 15-inch minimum length limit.
GILLESPIE NEW CITY LAKE DNR fisheries biologist Jeff Pontnack describes Gillespie New City Lake in one word: "Awesome." The lake is one of the best for numbers of fish and trophy bass. But because of the excellent forage, the lake also is very difficult to fish.
Pontnack says the 207-acre Macoupin County lake is loaded with bass ranging from 5 to 8 pounds. The lake has an abundance of weeds and woody cover along its shoreline, and most anglers use worms, jigs and crankbaits to coax them into biting.
The lake has a 12- to 15-inch slot length limit and anglers are limited to three fish per day. This water supply lake also requires anglers to pay a fee to launch.
GREENFIELD CITY LAKE Greenfield City Lake is only 60 acres and has less than 3 miles of shoreline, but it is loaded with bass. Pontnack said its population mirrors Gillespie New City Lake, except these fish are a little easier to catch. In addition to quantity, Pontnack said there are strong numbers of 3- to 6-pound largemouths.
Pontnack credits the lake's success to good reproduction, a nice balance of year-classes and low fishing pressure. Pontnack said that fishing on Greenfield, which is located in Green County, should be good for years to come. The lake's biggest drawback is that only trolling motors are allowed.
There is a 12- to 15-inch slot limit on the lake and a five-fish limit, with only one fish exceeding 15 inches allowed.
NEWTON LAKE Biologists put an 18-inch minimum length limit on the bass at Newton Lake as a management tool when the lake first opened, and it's been a perennial trophy fishery ever since. Catches of 6- and 7-pounders are taken from this 1,750-acre Jasper County lake regularly, and at least one 9-pounder is usually taken each year.
You can catch a lot of fish, too. A large portion of the population is made up of 12- to 16-inch fish. The lake rebounded nicely from a thermal fish kill in 1998 and 1999, according to DNR fisheries biologist Mike Hooe. He credits this to abundant forage and an excellent growth rate.
This is a power-plant lake, so you can catch big bass here year 'round just by following the water temperature as the seasons progress. The warm water also means a longer growing season for the fish. Hooe suggests jigs, lizards and spinnerbaits fished along weedlines and shallow brushy areas.
There is an 18-inch minimum and three-bass-per-day limit. The lake is restricted to 25-horsepower or smaller motors.
CRAB ORCHARD LAKE Crab Orchard is another lake with a strong big-bass history, and this year should be no exception.
The lake has suffered through some recent reverses, but regulation adjustments, habitat enhancements and the stocking of advanced fingerling bass and threadfin shad for forage have this 7,000-acre lake back on top. And these stockings were supposed to be increased last fall, which should make the population even better in the future.
Fisheries biologist Chris Bickers said about 25 percent of the bass collected during last year's survey were larger than 15 inches, and the lake has a very good growth rate, so anglers can expect these fish to move into the lunker category soon. Growth is good and anglers can count on the lake continuing to turn out a steady supply of 6- and 7-pound trophies.
April and May are the best months for this Williamson County lake, but lunker bass can be taken throughout the year. Bickers recommends jig-and-pig combos, crankbaits and spinnerbaits fished along weedlines and riprap areas.
There is a three-bass creel limit, and fish have to be a minimum of 16 inches. This is a federal lake, so a refuge pass is required. A portion of the lake east of Wolf Creek Road closes annually from October to mid-March for migrating waterfowl.
MERMET LAKE Mermet Lake might come as a surprise to many anglers, because this shallow southern Illinois lake usually has a weed problem each spring and early summer. But this Massac County lake also has a high-quality bass population.
Credit some of this lake's success to waterfowl. The 452-acre lake was built as a water supply for flooding waterfowl management areas. Annual drawdowns occur when water is utilized to flood areas, forcing sunfish and shad out of shallow water into areas where they can be preyed upon by the bass. A recent fall survey showed that more than one-third of the lake's bass exceed the 14-inch minimum length limit.
Anglers use jigs-and-pigs, crankbaits and topwater lures along weedlines, near riprap and by submerged brush with gre
Mermet doesn't get much fishing pressure. It gets overlooked by many anglers because of a 10-horsepower-motor restriction, but this year anglers can use larger motors at no-wake speeds. There is a 14-inch minimum length limit on bass. The lake closes two weeks prior to duck season.
* * *
There you have it, the 12 lakes fisheries biologists indicate should produce the best bass fishing this year. But we're also including a half-dozen other "sleeper" lakes that biologists say anglers should check out.
- Skokie Lagoons, Cook County: Rehabilitated in 1993, these ponds have shown great growth for largemouth bass and can provide excellent fishing for big fish. <liMazonia, Grundy County: Despite heavy fishing pressure, the south unit has a number of small lakes with good populations of trophy-sized bass. The best fishing is in the water that's hardest to get to, and fishing is best by casting jigs into the reed grass from belly boats.
- Spring Lake, McDonough County: This lake produces nice catches of bass ranging from 3 to 6 pounds, with the best fishing coming from the south shoreline around fallen trees and along riprap.
- Mt. Sterling Lake, Brown County: This small, out-of-the-way lake has a surprisingly nice population of bass, including a number of fish 6 pounds and larger. Not many anglers know about this lake, so it also has very low fishing pressure.
- Taylorville Lake, Christian County: This 1,200-acre lake has a great population of bass, including good numbers of 5- to 7-pounders, particularly in the lower half of the lake.
- Pittsfield City Lake, Pike County: You'll find good numbers of bass that are 5 pounds and larger. The lake has good reproduction and year-classes, which means it should be good for years to come.
To make sure you know the rules of the lake you fish, be sure to pick up a copy of the Department of Natural Resources fishing regulations. You can pick up the regulations booklet at most sporting goods stores and marinas, or write: DNR Clearinghouse, No. 1 Natural Resources Way, Springfield, IL 62702-1271; call (217) 782-7454; or email: Clearing@dnrmail.state.il.us.
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