You won't need to cast 10,000 times to catch a muskellunge or two from these select state waters. Is one near you? (August 2009)
Muskie hunting has arrived. Muskies are now stocked into 36 lakes in Illinois, depending on the availability of fingerling muskies each season; new waters are added when the opportunity arises. The statewide 36-inch minimum length limit, in combination with special regulation waters, is providing an excellent put-and-take fishery for muskellunge anglers.
The Illinois Department of Natural Resources (DNR) began stocking muskies in the 1970s and the rest is history. Spring Lake (North) received the first fish and the program was soon expanded to include other waters that were capable of sustaining these toothy predators. Bass anglers understandably put up a few roadblocks early on, but the protest was soon quelled by muskie diet studies that showed little predation on black bass.
New muskie waters have been added within the last few years. These are the newcomers to this fishing scene and are certainly worth keeping an eye on. They include Busse Lake in the Cook County Forestry District, Fulton County Recreation Area lakes No. 3 and No. 4, and Mallard Lake in DuPage County. State money is tight right now, so there aren't any plans in the works to add new lakes to the list.
According to Joe Ferencak, the Division of Fisheries' Impoundment program manager, most lakes can support an adult muskie population of one adult for every five surface acres of water. This density is what biologists like to see. Fingerling muskies are distributed based on how fast they grow in a given lake and on how many are available from the hatchery in a given year. In recent years, the survival rates of hatchery-raised muskies have increased and there has been a more predictable number of fish for stocking.
A surprising number of stocked lakes are less than 100 acres, but the size doesn't really matter. A small lake won't have nearly the number of adult muskellunge as a larger lake because of carrying capacity limitations, but on a per-acre basis, smaller lakes hold their own.
One of the key components in the muskie program is the anglers, according to Ferencak. The catch-and-release rates are right up around 99 percent. Muskie clubs have been an exceptional resource for the DNR, and for the last 20 years have assisted with creel surveys, have purchased much-needed equipment, and have paid for fingerling muskies.
Local fisheries biologists are on the front line of the DNR's muskie management program as well. If a biologist thinks that one of his lakes is a good candidate for a stocking, an impact study is coordinated with creel and population density studies to determine if it would be successful. If the answer is yes, a recommendation is made to the Division of Fisheries. The project moves forward, depending on the cost and availability of fish. If all goes as planned, a new muskie lake is born.
Conservation is the name of the game with these fish. Muskie stockings only work if anglers keep the fish alive and well. Though doing the right thing to preserve the state's muskie fishery comes natural for most anglers, catch-and-release does have a drawback, according to muskie guide Al Nutty.
The first thing to remember is that when surface temperatures exceed 80 degrees there is less dissolved oxygen in the water. Any muskie caught is easily stressed, and even if it swims away from the boat, delayed mortality may come into play. If catch-and-release isn't done with care, that trophy fish may be dead in a few days.
Nutty's second point of caution for summer muskies is their tendency to respond to these warmer temperatures by lying near the thermocline where the water is cool. Bringing a hooked fish to the surface can quickly induce thermal stress, similar to what happens when aquarium fish are introduced into a tank without letting the temperature in the plastic bag acclimate to the water already there. This is another situation where a big fish may swim off and then die a few days later.
If a muskie is hooked during hot weather, stress the fish as little as possible. Don't rush or horse it to the boat. Take whatever time is needed on a tight line to bring the fish in slowly. Net it quickly and leave it in the water, even for photos. This is important. It takes five or six years to grow a 40-inch muskie and only a couple of minutes to fatally injure one on a hot summer's day.
Muskie experts like Nutty strongly recommend practicing the fundamentals of CPR. The acronym CPR stands for Catch, Photograph and Release.
Here's a look at where you'll be able to get in on the Prairie State's muskie action this year.
FOX CHAIN OF LAKES
The Fox Chain of Lakes is one of the state's premier muskie destinations and it's gaining quite a following of dedicated hunters, according to fisheries biologist Frank Jakubicek. The toothy predators are running up to 46 inches. Suicks and bucktails of all descriptions are flying out of the boats and into likely looking muskie lairs.
The Fox Chain has been producing some really good fishing for walleyes, bluegills and crappies over the last several years. But even so, just about everyone has at least one story about a muskie, said Jakubicek.
The northern lakes in the Chain produce the most muskies. Channel, Catherine, Marie, Bluff and Petite get the most attention, but the backwater areas can sometimes produce a well-fed straggler. All of the lakes yield up a muskie or two at one time or another.
A thermocline usually develops at about 14 feet beginning in July and lasting through September. Fishing any deeper than this means you're beating dead water. The oxygen, and consequently all of the fish, will be above the thermocline and relating to shallow structure.
Muskie guide and expert Rich Gallagher has had a lot of success on the Fox Chain and says there are some challenges along with the successes. Gallagher usually positions his boat on the first break line and has one angler throwing a bait shallow and another angler tossing to the deeper water. By midsummer, the weeds are usually up to the surface, depending on lake levels, and short, accurate pocket casts are a must in order to keep baits free of the weeds.
During the search for the lake's big fish, Gallagher tells his clients to keep the bait within 12 inches of the surface. Active fish are the target and active fish is what they find.
Muskie baits of all sorts will do for casting, but trolling calls for a chartreuse Little Ernie, said Gallagher. Cloudy days with wind and a chop on the water are when the muskies are the most active.
About 3,000 fingerling muskies have been stocked every year since 2006, a big increase over the target numbers of earlier years. The recent fisheries survey produced some impressive results. The average female was over 39 inches long and weighed in at over 16 pounds. The largest fish was over 47 inches, and the heaviest tipped the scales past 29 pounds.
The Fox Chain covers 8,100 acres of water. A one-fish creel limit with a minimum length of 48 inches is in effect from the Wisconsin line south to the Algonquin Dam.
For more information, contact the DNR at (815) 675-2319 or guide Rich Gallagher at (847) 741-9771 and online at www.biggoomba.com.
Sterling is small, but it's mighty. It only covers about 80 acres, but it has more than its share of trophy potential. The recent DNR fish sampling found fish up to 37 inches. Biologists used electroshocking and caught six fish per hour of sampling, which exceeded the committee's goal of just one fish per hour. Fish up to 48 inches have been caught by hook and line.
The DNR has been stocking the lake with from 150 to 300 fingerlings a year. This number of fingerlings keeps the overall numbers up while offering the chance for a big fish at the same time.
Sterling offers muskie fishing right off the bank. It's a park with pit toilets and places for the kids to play.
Shore-fishing requires a long muskie rod and a smooth baitcasting or spin-casting reel spooled with 20-pound monofilament or an equivalent super line. As difficult as horsing a big muskie straight up to the boat can be, reeling it in from 20 yards out can be an even bigger feat. Come prepared to wade in to retrieve your fish.
There is a bag limit of one fish per day with a minimum length of 48 inches. There aren't a lot of adult muskies in the lake, so care should be taken to carefully release these fish when you catch them. This is the perfect spot to leave the fish in the water while you're releasing it.
Sterling Lake is in the Van Patten Woods Park in northeastern Lake County. It's located near Wadsworth on state Route (SR) 173, between SR 32 and Green Bay Road.
For more information, contact the Lake County Forest Preserve District at (847) 367-6640.
Lake Carlton only covers 77 acres of water, yet it's a muskie-producing hotspot. The stockings aren't heavy, and they don't need to be. Even with less than 100 new muskies being introduced on an annual or bi-annual basis, Lake Carlton has risen up through the ranks to become one of Illinois' premier muskie destinations.
To begin with, the lake's habitat is superb. Carlton has several shallow feeding flats in the western end, points, bays, weedbeds and exceptionally clear water, all of which give the predator the advantage.
There may be a lot of muskellunge in a small area, but they're no dummies. Many of these fish have been caught several times and it's going to take some skill to fool them again, especially the larger ones.
You might get a peek into a local's tackle box, but then again, you might not. Think again and bring your finesse baits. The clear water allows a muskie to eyeball the bait pretty well before it hits it.
The Illinois Chapter of Muskie Inc. has been a partner in stocking Lake Carlton. The initial lake stocking consisted of tiger muskies, but subsequent infusions of the toothy critter have been of purebred stock since 1983.
The lake's 36-inch minimum length and one-fish daily limit has helped preserve this little fishery. The density is high enough that the chances of tangling with a muskie are good. Fish over 46 inches have been recorded, but there aren't a lot of them reaching this size.
Lake Carlton is in the Morrison Rockwood State Park in Whiteside County. It's close enough to draw in Chicago anglers. There's a small campground and boat rentals. From Morrison, follow the signs on SR 78 for about two miles to Damen Road, then left on Crosby Road for a mile and a half to the park entrance. A small ramp is available. Motors are restricted to 10 horsepower, and the lake is entirely no wake.
For additional information, contact Region II in Bartlett at (847) 608-3100, Morrison Rockwood State Park at (815) 772-4708 or the park's marina and restaurant at (815) 772-3613.
Lake Mingo is one of the newer muskie lakes, and it's off to a great start. Stocking began in 2002, and according to fisheries biologist Mike Garthaus, there aren't any trophy fish here yet, but the angling can be intense.
The Illinois Natural History Survey of the University of Illinois' Aquatic Section in Champaign is conducting a muskie research project on the lake.
The muskies are exhibiting great growth rates and survival, said Corey DeBoom of the project. Lake Mingo is a great muskie fishery and will only improve over time.
During the recent netting survey, fish ranged from just under 30 inches and up to 43 inches. Several topped 20 pounds. DeBoom expects the lake to produce even larger fish and attributes the rapid growth rate to the abundant population of large gizzard shad. Lake Mingo muskies are hitting 37 inches at just 5 years old and 40 inches at age 6.
The fish move deeper in the summer months and then back to shallower depths in September. The lake stratifies at about 9 or 10 feet during the hot weather.
When it's time to tie on a bait, anything that remotely resembles a shad will be a winner. DeBoom has been checking the diets of sampled fish and found that they're almost exclusively eating shad. Ninety percent of the shad were between 8 and 12 inches, so it doesn't pay to be shy about using a big bait.
Anglers should concentrate their efforts around dawn and dusk in 8- to 10-foot depths near the flooded timber around the creek channel. Local anglers find the fish occasionally stacked up near the creek channel on the upper end of the lake in the fall.
Lake Mingo is part of the Kennekuck Cove County Park and covers 170 acres. It lies five miles west of Danville. A 9.5-horsepower limit is in effect and boat rentals are available.
For additional information, call the Vermilion County Conservation District at (217) 442-1691, the University of Illinois at (217) 333-0006, or the DNR's Region III at (217) 935-6860.
MILL CREEK LAKE
Most of the muskies caught on Mill Creek are coming from the area around the boat ramp, marina and boat docks, according to fisheries biologist Mike Mounce, though muskies are found throughout the lake. This is a developing fishery that began with the initial stocking a decade ago, and so far, there aren't any signs of it letting up.
The fishery is d
oing very well, said Mounce. He's heard of decent catch rates with fishermen traveling from the Chicago area to fish this lake, and he's seen photos of fish in the upper 40-inch range.
Anglers aren't surprised when they tangle with muskies between 35 and 42 inches. This is the result of great water quality, excellent habitat and a lot of gizzard shad and white suckers.
Apparently, the best baits to target toothy muskellunge with on this lake are whatever you happen to have in the tackle box. Bass fishermen catch muskies on standard bass gear.
Anglers targeting the 48-inchers that have been released back into the lake should think heavier equipment. Big baits with through-the-body wiring are needed. A big Dardevle spoon might also be just the ticket.
The fishing picks up in August, but a lot of muskie hunters avoid the lake because of the heat stress on caught fish.
Mill Creek Lake is located eight miles west of Marshall in Clark County. It covers 811 acres and plunges to 60 feet with an average depth of 22 feet. A one-fish, 42-inch minimum length restriction is in place.
A boat fee is charged at the boat launch.
For additional information, contact the DNR in Region III at (217) 345-2420 or the Clark County Park District at (217) 889-3901.
Muskie guide Al Nutty can be reached at (618) 694-4897 or visit online at www.kinkaidlakeguides. com.
Visit the Illinois Department of Natural Resources Web site at www.ifishillinois.org for more information.
Contact the Illinois Bureau of Tourism for lodging information at (800) 406-6418 or visit online at www.enjoyillinois.com.