The diversity and abundance of fish in Illinois make springtime something close to nirvana for Prairie State anglers. Here's where to find your slice of heaven.
May is a prime month for Illinois anglers. The broad diversity of fish species, coupled with favorable environmental conditions is conducive to getting anglers out and about. Prairie State anglers have no trouble finding excellent fishing right near home.
The geographic diversity of angling opportunities is exceeded only by the diverse number of species. For instance, an unscientific survey done by a Chicago columnist found that anglers in that area catch more then 50 different species.
The species ranged in size from panfish to salmon. Included were the so-called trash fish like gar and carp and the invasive species such as goby and Asian carp. There is something for everyone.
We have divided Illinois into six areas and offer the following locations for fishing in the month of May.
Probably the most accessible to Chicago anglers is the shoreline of Lake Michigan from the Wisconsin border down to the Indiana state line. Anglers line up to fish for the salmon and perch moving toward shore during May. Chicago has a series of boat harbors that are excellent fishing locations.
Coho salmon and steelhead are the primary offshore species, with the yellow perch being a favorite with the shore anglers. Both species come in from deeper water in pursuit of the forage base of alewives, smelt and emerald shiners.
Perch are found around rocks, piers and jetties where they are looking for forage. Minnows, crayfish, jigs and spinners are the best baits. A few consecutive days of clean water and calm conditions produce the best action. Water temperatures of 55 to 70 degrees and a southwest wind are desirable. Severe weather tends to drive them back into deep water.
Long fiberglass poles or a 5- to 6-foot ultralight rod and reel with 4-pound line are recommended. A 1/32- and 1/60-ounce jig tipped with a short plastic twister tail can entice those "jumbos." The heavier jig is tied to the end of the line. The lighter jig is tied on a leader, which in turn is secured to the line about 18 inches above the first jig.
Drop the lures down the side of the rocks and then slowly retrieve the baits just off the bottom. Once you locate fish, concentrate on that location.
Boating anglers find salmon in about 50 to 70 feet of water relating to any offshore structure. Flies and dodgers are the preferred lures. Trolling is mandatory.
To the north about a one-hour drive, anglers find the Fox Chain O' Lakes. Best known of the lakes are Channel, Marie and Catherine. All are good bass and bluegill waters. All three lakes are near the town of Antioch and to the east of Chain O' Lakes State Park (847-587-7165). Good bluegills in excess of 8 inches can be expected. Other species include black and white crappie, channel catfish and muskies. Fishing is usually best in the channels, along sand bars and in the weedbeds; anywhere there is clean water.
Runoff from spring storms tends to muddy the water and hinders fishing action. Crappie bite fathead minnows and hair jigs in sheltered areas. Bluegills are the best bet as they are on the beds and will take waxworms or crickets.
Fishing is good in the forest preserves of Cook and the collar counties. The primary species sought are crappie and bluegills. As the waters warm, the catfish action also picks up.
Bluegills are usually on the beds near shore or on the flats. Each of the counties involved maintains a Web site with fishing reports. Local bait shops and concessions at the preserves also are good sources about current conditions.
May is right on the cusp of the catfishing bonanza on the Rock River. An oil spill upriver hurt the action for a while, but stocking by the IDNR has renewed the fishery.
The Rock enters Illinois at the Wisconsin border, near Rockton, and continues southwest for some 160 miles to the Mississippi River. IDNR lists some 71 access points open to the public. They have a free booklet entitled Fishing the Rock, which is available from IDNR offices statewide.
Catfish are the most abundant species. There are also good numbers of northern pike, walleye, bluegill, white bass, and smallmouth and largemouth bass, as well as carp and freshwater drum.
Channel catfish tend to bite better at night. They can be caught from the bank using minnows. Other popular baits include stinkbaits, bloodbaits, cut bait and chicken livers. For the many flathead catfish in the river, fish the upstream lip of any holes with live baits such as bluegill or minnows.
The mighty Mississippi River is famous for its barge traffic and catfish. But that is not all to be found in the northwest part of Illinois where it borders the river. Pools 12, 13 and 14 have excellent crappie and bluegill fishing.
The river provides an abundance of sloughs and backwaters harboring great bluegills. Many of these waters contain crappie, perch, largemouth bass, white bass and pumpkinseed sunfish. Seasonal spring flooding restocks these backwaters. Locating the fish in them is the rub.
A good place to begin is with any shoreline structure. Particularly good are those trees that have fallen into the water from the shore. The tops create a maze of cover. Do not overlook boat docks and piers, regardless of their condition. Old structures are good bets.
Good baits include such things as waxworms, spikes and red wigglers.
The backwaters of Pool 13 tend to produce some nice bluegills. Fly fishermen like the backwaters where poppers and foam rubber bugs produce bluegills in the 6- to 9-inch range. Nice catches of largemouth bass occur during the pre-spawn and spawn this month.
IDNR has three free booklets describing fishing locations on the Upper, Middle and Lower Mississippi regions in Illinois. They are available at IDNR offices.
Over in Edgar County, on the north edge of Paris, are two lakes with good populations of largemouth bass, bluegill, crappie and channel catfish. Bass up to 10 pounds and catfish up to 20 pounds have been taken from these lakes.
Together, they are called Paris Twin Lakes, but separately they are East Lake and West Lake. Together, they encompass a little over 200 acres. The
re are boat access points and ample shore-fishing locations.
Bass fishermen use crankbaits in chartreuse and shad patterns. Worm and soft plastic anglers prefer dark colors with black/red and purple colors leading the field. White spinnerbaits with tandem blades, topwater crankbaits and buzzbaits are popular.
Most fish are found around brush and on the edge of weedbeds. If the fish are down deep, then look for old barn foundations and sunken bridge pilings right across from the launch ramp.
This part of Illinois contains a lot of former strip mine properties. Many are in private hands, but some are in state parks. Strip pits are excellent places to teach novice anglers fishing skills. Pits in the state parks are stocked regularly with largemouth bass, crappie, bluegill, sunfish and channel catfish. Listings of state parks, and some lake information, are available in the annual Illinois Fishing Information booklet available in IDNR offices and where fishing licenses are sold, including state parks.
The Mississippi River continues to offer up some great panfishing as well as some big bass. The pools around the quad cities and south offer overlooked bass fishing. Access can be found along the roads that parallel the river.
Most of the bass caught are 1 to 3 pounds, but an occasional large bass up to 6 pounds is taken.
Locals tend to fish jigs by flipping them into the tangle of brush and fallen trees along the shore. The jigs are usually tipped with a plastic worm or crawfish. Most of the fish are found in 1 to 4 feet of water in the pre-spawn pattern. High water and cool water tend to delay the spawn. Some action is found using a spinnerbait in chartreuse or chartreuse/white with a single blade. The primary forage in this area is shad and thus the effectiveness of spinnerbaits.
Access to Pool 24 of the Mississippi can be gained at the boat ramp just above the Pool 25 Dam in the south end of Pike County. The Mark Twain National Wildlife Refuge is found on the Illinois side of the river. To the north of the dam begins a series of oxbows and backwaters that contain good populations of crappie and bass.
Not every backwater is good crappie and bass habitat. Fishermen look for backwaters that contain a bottom structure of sand or rocks. Water here contains more oxygen and baitfish. Areas that are silted-in are not generally productive.
Crappie anglers use a long pole with a float and crappie minnow. It allows one to dip the minnow into tangled brush, weeds and along laydowns. Bass anglers should probe these areas, too, but with a jig-and-pig combination. In the thick cover, jigs in black, black/blue, or brown/chartreuse can be pitched. Some anglers prefer soft plastics like tubes or lizards.
Not just an aquatic waterway for barge traffic, the Ohio River is also a great fishery. The most popular area of the river is Smithland Pool -- the waters behind Smithland Dam near Golconda.
Anglers usually put in at or near the Golconda Marina at the end of Illinois Route 146 in the town of Golconda. It is just a few minutes south to the first of several feeder creeks where the bass, bluegill and crappie are waiting. In the mouth of the creeks the catfishing can be excellent. Catfish will also be found out in the river relating to any rocky structure that breaks the current.
"Smithland Pool is a relatively easy place to fish," says BASS tournament pro Mark Menendez, "as far as where the fish will be located and what is going to be good water." Menendez has fished the area most of his life. He recommends care entering and fishing the creeks due to fallen timber and submerged stumps.
Mark moves to a creek mouth and fishes the river water for 50 yards above the mouth and then for 50 yards below it. Sedimentation causes some of the mouths to silt-in, creating a flat. Menendez fishes the shallow flat with a drop of 3 to 5 feet and then works the secondary flat 10 feet down to the river's bottom.
In the creeks themselves, Mark follows the water back until he has flats on both sides. It allows the bass a deep-water sanctuary, a feeding flat and spawning areas. The presence of such habitat is the best indicator of good creek fishing.
Major creeks on the Illinois side include Lusk Creek, Barren Creek, Big Creek, Big Grand Pierre Creek, Bay Creek, Dog Creek, Alcorn Creek and the Saline River. In addition to the largemouth and smallmouth bass, bluegill, white and black crappie and channel catfish will be found. Water clarity is an important sign of good fishing action. If the mouth of the creek is muddy, try going back into the creek until clear water is found before beginning.
For bass, try some of the crankbaits that run about 3 feet deep. Salt Craws and dark-color worms fished "Texas-style" are good. Early in the morning, bass may respond to spinnerbaits or a buzzbait.
The crappies and bluegills tend to stay in the creeks near wood and clean water. Worms, pieces of shrimp or crawfish and a jig-and-minnow combination are good for both species. Catfish respond to dip baits and minnows.
Mermet Lake, a 640-acre lake in Massac County, is a sleeper when it comes to fishing. Its small size, 10-hp motor restriction and history of vegetation problems tend to make it low on the list for many anglers. That makes it a nice place for unpressured fishing.
The lake is in the Mermet Conservation area southwest of Mermet, on Illinois Route 45 about a half mile. It is a shallow lake with riprap, standing and fallen timber, depressions, lotus pads and stick-ups.
Known for fish kills, there have been none since 2007. The problem was an overabundance of curlyleaf pondweed. The pondweed died out in late summer and resulted in dissolved oxygen concentrations dipping far enough to stress and/or kill fish. IDNR has treated the lake for several years to get rid of the weed.
Today the bass populations have bounced back with the help of supplemental stocking of bass, channel catfish and threadfin shad. Bass sampled by the IDNR have excellent body condition. Bluegills are very abundant. Black crappies 8 to 15 inches in length are present, as are redear sunfish and channel catfish. The fish population is on the rebound and fishing pressure remains light.
May is a prime month for fishing. These are but a few of the many lakes and rivers available to Prairie State anglers.