Muskies just keep getting bigger and bigger in our state, as verified by last year's two state-record catches. Serious muskie anglers will be hitting these lakes this year.
By Ted Peck
It may take another 10 years before any Illinois muskie water is mentioned in a dialogue among muskie anglers with the same reverence held for "Leech," "St. Clair" and "Lake of the Woods." But make no mistake, the buzz will happen here.
We already have 30-pound and bigger muskies swimming in several Illinois fisheries. State records for both pure muskies and tiger muskies were broken again in 2002, with the new pure muskie weighing 38 1/2 pounds and the tiger within a bluegill snack of passing the magic 30-pound mark.
With a longer growing season, a burgeoning forage base, a strong push for exceeding larger size limits, and continued excellence with the Illinois hatchery system, it's just a matter of time before the Prairie State consistently cranks out tales of whopping muskies from the Fox Chain-O-Lakes in the north to Kinkaid down in Saluki Country.
I've "moved" record-class fish twice in the past few years on a pair of private lakes in northern Illinois. One gernipped a Mann's Plus-15 Deep Pig crankbait intended for bass on Stephenson County's Lake Summerset. It came steaming past the boat without an inkling of being hooked until my fishing partner Brian Evans tried scooping the trophy with a landing net, which resulted in tangled hooks and shattered dreams.
About 10 years ago, Summerset produced a state-record tiger muskie for Dave Pann and yielded yet another state-record tiger to Chicago angler Rob McDermott last summer. McDermott's fish was 47 1/2 inches long, tipping the scales at 29.56 pounds.
You can expect good muskie action on the Fox Chain-O-Lakes. Photo by Ted Peck
The other big "toother" that haunts my thoughts shadowed a small bass that my daughter Emily was bringing back to the boat on Apple Canyon Lake in Jo Daviess County last summer, prompting a spontaneous Tourette's syndrome outburst at boatside before the muskie ghosted away. The cleats on my deep-V guide boat are 48 inches apart. There were several inches of muskie on either side of the cleats - and a back 6 inches wide. That's the gospel truth. And a primary reason at least one muskie rod is ready to go anytime the boat gets launched on Apple Canyon when I'm either guiding or fishing for fun.
This lake yielded seven muskies to clients and me in 2002, the most exciting fish coming on a Lindy Tiger Tube in the hands of young Darrin Marcure, my 15-year-old nephew. The fish was an honest 40-incher, caught and released about two hours after Darrin had bagged his first gobbler last April on the family farm. Sharing both events with this serious young man that day holds only one regret: I should have bought Darrin an Illinois lottery ticket.
Some of the very best muskie action in northern Illinois - an area of the state where real estate values can be astronomical - is on private waters. But there are several public lake systems that hold both size and numbers of Esox masquinongy, too. And with size restrictions in place ensuring that fighters will be freed until they reach essentially the dimensions of a Mark IV torpedo, you don't have to travel more than a couple of hours from any point in our state to dance with a critter big enough to make the taunt "Who's your Daddy?" an honest toss-up.
Although the "prime time" bite right now is limited pretty much to lowlight periods and a rapidly falling barometer ahead of an approaching thunderstorm, you are a weapon anytime your lure is in the water. Here's a look at lakes where you have the potential to move from "Joe Angler" to "The Legend" in a single pitch of a bucktail.
LAKE SHELBYVILLE This sprawling central Illinois reservoir gets top marks for 2003 if for no other reason than giving up the new pure muskie record of 38 pounds, 8 ounces last year. Technically, this fish was taken in the spillway waters below the Shelbyville Dam in the Kaskaskia River. But Department of Natural Resources biologist Mike Mounce says the fish is undoubtedly an escapee from the other side of the dam.
Mattoon angler Matt Carmean landed this whopper in April while using a jig in pursuit of walleyes. At first Carmean said he was unsure if the big muskie surpassed the minimum requirement of 48 inches in effect on the lake and Kaskaskia River down to the Highway 128 bridge. But a quick check with a tape measure ensured that the fish was 2 3/4 inches beyond minimum keeper status - and holder of the new state record.
Shelbyville is third on the DNR's priority stocking list behind Spring Lake near Manito, which serves as the state's primary brood lake, and Kinkaid, the sole muskie gem of southern Illinois.
In years past Shelbyville had top stocking priority. It is now stocked at the rate of one-half muskie per acre because biologists feel there is a solid population of multiple year-classes of this top predator swimming in the lake.
Locals say that muskies become almost comatose this time of year, suddenly coming to life after the first cold front of fall passes. How good does fishing get? Several years ago local guide Mary Satterfield helped her two clients boat 12 muskies in a single day!
When the bite is on, bucktails and Jake baits are very popular, with topwater lures like the Bucher Top Raider another big producer. Orange seems to be a key, especially in conjunction with either black or chartreuse.
LAKE SHABBONA Folks who spend a lot of time fishing this scenic 318-acre lake in De Kalb County contend that this producer of the previous state-record pure muskie is our best fishery on an acre-per-acre basis.
In the summer of 2001, low water levels and die-off in the shad forage base made muskies hungry, with over 400 fish reported to concessionaire Denny Sands. Since this time the shad are back in good numbers, according to DNR biologist Alec Pulley, enabling the muskie population swimming in this structure-angler's dream to become considerably more selective in what they want to eat.
Make no mistake - the fish are here. A barrier net placed at the dam in 1997 has prevented fish from escaping the confines of the lake. This used to be a major problem. Before the barrier went up, Pulley said an average of over 40 fish would be retrieved from the shallow waters below the dam and returned to the lake each year. Now only a couple of fish escape in a typical year.
The shad are the most important key in getting hooked up here, according to Pulley. When cold water causes the shad metabolism to slow down
in mid-September the fish here go on a real feeding rip that lasts until serious autumn weather arrives.
Statistics kept by Denny Sands reveal that a wide range of lures are effective here. The best bait to throw is the one you have the most faith in.
A 48-inch size limit is in place on Shabbona, with a 10-horsepower outboard limit enforced.
KINKAID LAKE Guide Al Nutty will tell you that this incredibly beautiful lake just west of Murphysboro in southern Illinois is the best in our state, with 82 miles of scenic shoreline all holding the potential for you to hook into a solid 40-inch muskie - and a potential now existing to take fish in excess of the 48-inch limit.
It felt like a big-fish day when Nutty and I hit the water here before sunrise last September. We had two good fish boil right at the boat as the sun was just cresting the horizon, with the gut feeling it would be a day to remember. And it was. When Hanna Banana, my yellow Lab pup, chewed through Al's trolling motor cable, taking out the mother board, we were pretty well euchred for the day.
Kinkaid has a good forage base of both shad and suckers that grow muskies fat and fast. With plenty of woody cover, rocky dropoffs and many milfoil beds, the potential for hooking up is seldom more than a long cast away. Timing and lake aesthetics are the real draws here. The best time to hit the water is typically early December and again in March when chasing muskies elsewhere in the state might first require cutting a hole in the ice to launch the boat.
Contact: Kinkaid Lake guide service, (618) 985-4105; Apple Tree Motel, 1-800-626-4356.
LAKE SULE Thousands of anglers pass by this borrow pit lake at the intersection of Interstate 88 and Interstate 39 each year without even realizing it exists. The DNR has been quietly stocking pure muskies here for 10 years now, with any excess muskie fingerlings from production at the Jake Wolf Hatchery facility finding their way into Sule.
A 36-inch size limit is in place on these pretty much structureless waters that have a maximum depth of about 14 feet. A good boat ramp maintained by the park district provides access.
DNR fisheries biologist Alec Pulley said trap-net surveys indicate "good numbers of fish above the 36-inch minimum." Creel surveys indicate very little pressure on these muskies that are growing fat on a hearty forage base of shad and crappies.
Contact: Flagg-Rochelle Park District, (815) 562-7813.
JOHNSON-SAUK TRAIL LAKE This 58-acre state park lake located north of Annawan near Kewanee just off of Highway 78 in northwestern Illinois is another "sleeper" where big muskies hide in plain sight.
How big? Trap nets set by biologist Ken Clodfelter in the spring of 2002 only produced three muskies from the initial 1988 year-class, down from the typical nine to 11 seen in most surveys. But two fish were males weighing about 18 pounds. Their fat pig sister weighed in at a whopping 42 pounds, measuring 42.6 inches in length! This potentially record-breaking beast was found cruising near a fallen tree along the steep shoreline that is about half-wooded.
Sauk Trail is a wide lake with some natural structure and a few fish cribs over an otherwise unremarkable bottom. There is a boat launch, but boaters are limited to using electric trolling motors only.
There are limited amenities at the park, as a concession stand/boat livery here is in the process of renovation. A 36-inch size limit is in place for muskies, with the DNR supplementing the initial 1988 stocking with advanced fingerlings about 11 inches long for the past three years at the rate of one per surface acre.
LAKE GEORGE This 167-acre lake not far down the road from Johnson-Sauk Trail Lake southwest of Rock Island lies in the middle of a county park.
George is a deep lake, with a steeply sloping shoreline and a number of dropoffs that attract cruising muskies. A 36-inch size limit is in place, with boats limited to using electric trolling motors.
According to the DNR, muskies here grow fat on a hardy diet of gizzard shad. A 40-incher is a big fish in these waters, with the dominant year-class of muskies averaging 31 to 36 inches.
Short-line trolling close to the steep shoreline is a good way to trigger fish here, especially once weather cools in the fall.
Contact: Loud Thunder County Park office, (309) 795-1040.
LAKE CARLTON Lake Carlton was one of the very first lakes to be stocked with muskies, back in the days before the Jake Wolf Hatchery came on line. A small rearing pond located next to the lake produced many of the muskies stocked in northern Illinois lakes back when the DNR's muskie program was in its infancy.
Back then the accepted stocking guideline for muskies was one per surface acre. But there were several years when Al Pulley and the late, great biologist Mike Sule - for which Lake Sule is named - lost count and would stock these 77 acres at perhaps twice the accepted rate, which is in line with the two-fish-per-surface-acre practice seen as the standard today.
The biggest specimen of these early surveys was sampled at 32 pounds several years ago. If any "old" fish are still swimming in this 10-horsepower limit lake they are certainly beauties.
A recent spring trap-net survey turned up 29 muskies. The biggest was 46 inches, with one fat female weighing over 25 pounds, and six of the fish sampled between 40 and 44 inches long.
According to DNR biologist Ken Clodfelter, the minimum size on Carlton, which has "one of the best populations of legal muskies per surface acre in the state," is 36 inches
Lake Carlton is located in Morrison-Rockwood State Park near Morrison in the northwest part of our state. It's a beautiful park, with boat rentals available and great camping amenities for the family.
Contact: Morrison-Rockwood State Park, (815) 795-1040.
LAKE McMASTER This 141-acre strip mine/watershed impoundment lake's muskie population is flourishing, with a size limit of 42 inches now in place. Located in the Snake Den Hollow Fish & Wildlife Area complex 15 miles northeast of Galesburg, McMaster is one of the Prairie State's clearest lakes, which often makes for tough fishing.
DNR biologist Ken Russell says the secchi disk used to rate lake clarity can be seen 25 feet down in these waters that fish over 30 pounds call home.
There are two stands of undistur
bed timber in the lake in which the forage base of bass and bluegills takes refuge - no doubt with the muskies in close proximity. But big predators are no dummies. If you can see them, they can see you, making nighttime the right time to get hooked up on this 10-horsepower-limit lake. This is a great time to try a Hawg Wobbler, Tallywacker or similar noisy surface lure after the sun sets over western Illinois.
Contact: Snake Den Hollow FWA, (309) 879-2607.
EVERGREEN LAKE This 1,000-acre county park lake located just north of Bloomington off of I-39 is my favorite Illinois muskie lake - in spite of the $22 fee it costs non-county residents to launch their boats.
Part of the appeal lies in seven muskies over 30 inches coming to the boat in a single afternoon in the spring of 2002, the biggest of which was 37 inches - far from the 48-inch minimum in place here.
Biologists are quietly excited about Evergreen's potential, with almost the entire population of fish swimming here in excess of 30 inches. As yet, there are no real whoppers living in Evergreen. It's a numbers lake, with muskies hanging close to the lake's burgeoning crappie population. Fluorescent colors work best in these stained waters. A 10-horsepower limit is in effect.
Contact: Comlara County Park, (309) 726-2022.
MILL CREEK LAKE This is the year muskies swimming in this Clark County Park District lake east of Marshall will grow past the 42-inch minimum in place. Biologist Mike Mounce says Mill Creek is "like a 700-acre Kinkaid - beautiful shoreline and lots of milfoil in the water."
Four year-classes of muskies now present in these waters are finally getting the once overabundant shad and bluegill populations in check. Although this lake is quite clear and deep, the muskies that dwell therein are hungry now.
Contact: Park District Headquarters, (217) 889-3601.
LAKE MARIE By far the best muskie lake in the heavily pressured Fox Chain-O-Lakes in northeastern Illinois, Marie contains fertile waters that have the potential for producing the next state record. DNR surveys indicate fish in excess of the 48-inch minimum in place on The Chain are swimming here.
Bolstered by stockings of Leech Lake-strain advanced fingerlings over the past several years - with at least seven solid year-classes of fish already in place - Marie and maybe Channel are your best bets for hooking up with a muskie in The Chain this summer.
Trolling is your best bet. Try dragging a Depth Raider or maybe one of Musky Maina Tackle's Ernie lures.
Contact: Chain-O-Lakes State Park, (815) 675-2319.
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So just remember: if your line is in the water, you're always a weapon. But if you want to be the tip of the spear, go muskie fishing on these lakes this season.
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