February 08, 2011
The Prairie State offers year-round fishing opportunities. Here's where they are and how to make the most of them.
To enlarge this image, please click HERE
Travel the length of the Land of Lincoln and you will pass through a seven distinct climatic changes between the Fox Chain-O-Lakes and Horseshoe Lake just across the River from the honest south.
The greatest impact of climatic change is experienced in spring and fall in this 400-mile-long state, where folks can sweat in a tee shirt at one end while those at the other shiver in a hoodie on the very same day. That just goes to show you.
This diversity is great news for Illlinois anglers, who have the opportunity to experience two full months of prime-time action, unlike brethren who live in states to the east or west of ours.
Unfortunately, an Illinois fishing license will only allow you to fish 52 weeks this year, and we've already ticked down into the 40-week range. It's time to start scheduling the precious little time we have left to wet a line in 2011.
Smithland Pool Stripers
Don't get into an argument about Illinois' hardest fighting fish if you've only tangled with flathead cat, king salmon, muskie, smallmouth bass and bluegills. These long, silver rockets will break your heart, line and fishing rod, fighting until there is no fight left in them.
Hybrid and pure striped bass which swim in the Ohio River and its myriad side channels on our far southern border are always on the move, traveling from one zip code to another before you can yell "fish on."
Besides heavy gear like reels with a bait clicker and plenty of line capacity, you'll want to obtain a good map, GPS and Kentucky fishing license before making a road trip to Smithland Pool.
The Golconda Marina is a great contact for logistical support in chasing this wild fish in wild country. Their phone number is (618) 683-5875. The bite here is still going strong.
Illinois River Saugers
Winter has lost its charm for those who live north of Bloomington. Fishing from a boat is little more than a fond memory. The first place folks can fire up the Evinrude and leave winter blues behind is the Illinois River where saugers are ready to chomp on one of two presentations: vertical jigging downstream or "pulling" three-way rigs against the current.
On any given day, one method will outfish the other. Come rigged to do both. Bucktail jigs will out-fish plastics. A purple jighead with a minnow impaled through the mouth and out in front of the dorsal fin will catch fewer snags and more saugers than a jig with a stinger hook.
If you're pulling, use a big, soft, floating jighead on a 30- to 36-inch dropper and a 5/8 or heavier jig with a three-inch K-grub for weight on a six-inch dropper. Ever catch a fish on a sinker?
The best time to fish is before spring runoff is a factor. You'll likely find 'em deep, along the 16-foot contour. By early March, if river levels are stable, use lighter jigs and probe at about 8 feet.
Crab Orchard Crappies
"Crab" has been a crappie hotspot since before I stumbled through college at SIU back in the 60s. Several solid year classes of slabs are swimming in this 7,000-acre lake.
You can catch 'em from shore along Highway 13 between Carbondale and Carterville right now just like I did 40 years ago. The Wolf Creek Causeway off of Highway 148 is another sure spot.
The big blow that whipped through southern Illinois three years ago dumped a forest of trees into the lake. Every one is a potential crappie hotspot as fish move from deep-water brushpiles to shallow-water spawning areas towards the end of this month.
Right now, target deep brush with two 1/16-ounce jigs of different colors with Fuzzy-Tail plastic grubs pegged 18 inches apart. Ten-foot long Crappie Commander poles are the best weapons for probing this structure.
Use electronics to find the brushpile, and then mark the location with a buoy. Start fishing out from the edges of cover and work your way in. Bigger crappies tend to hold a little deeper. Depth is a major consideration in crappie location.
Little Wonders of the Shawnee
The Shawnee National Forest covers a substantial portion of southern Illinois. These public lands are home to over 200 small lakes and ponds, many of which seldom see a fishhook.
Obtain quadrangle maps from one of the National Forest headquarters and plan your attack. Some lakes have boat ramps. Some lakes have horsepower restrictions. Some lakes are a considerable walk from parking access.
With so many fisheries and limited resources, survey data may not be up to date. Come prepared for everything from bass to panfish, and don't forget the catfish gear. I'll never forget how my daughter Jessica's jaw hung open wider than the 8-pound bucketmouth that garwoofled her Devil's Horse on Dutchman Lake and plowed back to the safety of a cypress stump.
The A-41 pond is a little gem tucked between Devil's Kitchen and Little Grassy, a half-mile walk from the parking lot. Daughter Emily still talks about how that string of catfish gained 20 pounds by the time we got back to the truck.
One other gem, which shall remain nameless, gave up a hybrid redear sunfish to my sister, Deedle, which was almost 13 inches long. So much water, so little time.
Lake Michigan Coho
Scrappy silver salmon follow baitfish north along the Lake Michigan shoreline this month, providing an opportunity for any angler with a fair-sized boat and a little common sense.
Two critical components to small boat fishing on the Big Pond for salmon are calm winds and water temperatures in the mid-50s. Once waters warm into the 60s, salmon will be in the colder water -- deeper and farther up the coast.
If you get there too late, all you can count on catching is jumbo perch and scrappy smallmouth bass in northeast Illinois harbors and just beyond in the main lake.
The most productive presentation for cohos is trolling, although there are a very few special days when you can anchor up and find success casting spoons and stickbaits.
Use planer boards to carry lures away from the boat in this extremely clear water. Trolling speed is a major key to success. Start at 2.2 mph in a lazy "s" pattern, note which lines find fish and tweak the presentation from there.
Cleo and Krocodile spoons, chrome hued Yo-Zuri stickbaits and dodger/fly combinations all catch fish.
Lake Michigan can be a dangerous place. Special regulations apply. This is one instance where government regulations make sense.
Pool 13 Largemouth
Siltation is a major threat to the future of fishing on the Mississippi River in Illinois. Bass action here still borders on incredible, but some prime backwater areas are in the process of becoming essentially landlocked ponds.
River level and current drive bass location and activity. On a rising river, bass follow bait into backwaters and running sloughs. When the river is dropping, fish migrate towards the main channel. Structure in side channels is a staging area whether fish are coming or going.
Emergent vegetation is starting to appear by mid-June. Look for current trickling into the weeds with at least four feet of water at the weedline edge. Any stump or similar anomaly is a fish magnet.
Target riprap around islands with crankbaits, especially if the river is at low pool levels. The upstream edge is usually most productive. If the river is high, the upstream point of a weedbed where water splits and flows two ways is a great place to find active fish with a spinnerbait.
Wabash River Channel Cats
Prairie State catfish chasers have over 200 miles of this border river with the Hoosier State to get their strings stretched by forktails of often substantial dimensions.
Prime habitat has three major components: moderate current, rocky-rubble bottom and close proximity to woody structure.
Bait selection can vary from nightcrawlers to chicken livers to aged clams to cutbait. But if you just want to catch fish, go with a Doc's Catfish Getter dip worm, a good snap swivel, a 3/8-ounce egg sinker above the swivel -- and Sonny's Super Sticky dipbait.
Anchor up a long cast above a snag or driftpile and cast dipbaited plastic worms to cover as many paths to the snag as possible. If fish are present, you'll get bit in less than 15 minutes.
River level fluctuation and time of day both drive catfish location. Put this dipbait in front of fish and they will eat it. Anchoring cross-current and using longer rods will increase the area you can effectively cover.
No bites in 15 minutes? Move!
Brock Norman shows off a nice 33-Pound Powerton Blue. The fish was caught last Summer (2010) and was released back. Photo by Nick Bloom.
Aggressive stocking of blue catfish in this 1,426-acre central Illinois cooling lake by the DNR, which began at the turn of the century, has resulted in a solid population of huge, aggressive blue catfish.
Like flathead cats, blues are meat-eating predators. The best bait is a 4-6 inch shad or bluegill offered up on a Wolf River rig. The dropper with bait should be about 18 inches long and either 100 lb. superbraid or a steel leader. The dropper with a 2+ ounce sinker should be about six inches long, with no more than 20 lb. test line.
Current is a key to location for both flatheads and blues in this fishery. Electronics and a powerful trolling motor enable anglers to find suspended blue catfish and maintain a vertical presentation.
Strong hooks are a must. A #1 saltwater circle hook is a great tip of the spear. Forget the net. The best way to land a big catfish is by grabbing the lower jaw with leather gloves and sliding it over the gunnel. Be sure the deck is clear. These fish thrash even harder when out of the water.
This sprawling Corps of Engineers reservoir is still the premier muskie fishery in the Prairie State -- especially in September and October when many of these alpha predators cruise off of riprapped shoreline looking for an easy meal.
Seasonal change triggers both the migration and this bite. Get serious about two days after passage of autumn's second cold front, usually toward the end of the month.
Black and orange color combos are very effective on these fish. You can leave the big tackle box at home. A Top Raider, Bull Dawg and small bucktail are all the weapons you need. Keep these baits in the water -- especially at dawn, dusk and on cloudy days -- and hooking up is a matter of time.
Most fish you'll encounter will be in the 32- to 40-inch range. Shelbyville, Kinkaid and Shabbona are all contenders for the next state record. If this is your dream quest, fish Shelbyville now and Kinkaid in a couple of months.
Rock River Walleyes
This medium-sized north-central Illinois river becomes a better walleye and sauger fishery every year. There are countless places which hold fish, but the size of honeyholes is small; there's room to position just one or two boats with an optimum presentation angle.
A meat-and-potatoes presentation of either a plain jighead with a three-inch shiner or fathead or a basic Lindy rig with this same bait presented behind a 3/8-oz. walking sinker and 24- to 30-inch leader are the most productive weapons.
The Rock is aptly named and for the most part quite shallow in the most productive stretches from Dixon dam up to the state line, near Rockton. Any run of river over 10-feet deep has fish-holding potential. Vertically jigging a blade bait or orange Flatfoot jig with a rootbeer tail and going with the flow can produce a quick limit.
Tailwaters below dams are obvious spots. Not so obvious are small holes downstream from bridge pilings where slack water and fast water meet. These spots might hold only one or two fish but they can be beauties.
Go with a lighter jighead when pitching bridge piling holes -- no more than 1/4 ounce. Gold is a killer color.
The second major cold front of autumn comes a little later to southern Illinois. Thanksgiving is a great time to go after big muskies on this large southern Illinois lake near Murphysboro.
There are plenty of places for fish to hide in this 2,750-acre lake. Because this water gets so warm in summe
r months, fish tend to go deep or move to areas with high oxygen content. Right now they are cruising points and other ambush spots looking for an easy meal.
Water clarity changes a great deal between feeder creeks and the dam, especially if considerable rain has been falling. This will influence both fish activity and location.
Odds for hooking up are shortest right now down by the spillway and up in the Johnson Creek arm of the lake.
Lake of Egypt Crappies
Anglers in northern Illinois are either happily astride buckets on the ice from Miller's Lake on the Mississippi, Shabbona Lake in DeKalb County or on the Fox Chain in northeast Illlinois -- or they long for one last cast with the long rods before surrendering to winter.
If you relate more strongly with the latter group, a road trip to Egypt, south of Marion in southern Illinois, can scratch your fishing itch.
Lake of Egypt is a cooling lake. This fact and its latitude make it one of the first and last places in Illinois to find active fish in open water every year.
Bass, catfish and hybrid stripers are still willing to bite with winter knocking at the door. But crappies that swim here are jockeying to be the first one to chomp on your hook.
Coves and shoreline closest to the buoy line have the warmest water and most active fish right now. A small minnow suspended about 18 inches to 2 feet under a float will catch fish, but you can cover more water and generally find more success by casting a Fuzzytail grub on a 1/8-ounce jighead.
Guide Matt Strobel has these fish dialed in. Contact him at (618) 997-1341