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Illinois' Best Bets for Stripers

Illinois' Best Bets for Stripers

Because striped bass are such a difficult fish to figure out, most anglers don't bother fishing for them. That's a big mistake. You can get in on the red-hot action on these nine waters.

By Gary Thomas

The striped bass might be the most misunderstood fish in Illinois. It likely is the most underutilized, too. The reasons are clear. Striped bass and hybrid striped bass don't occupy the same habitat as most other game species. As a result, most anglers haven't taken the time to learn to fish for these hard fighters, and they are pursued by a relatively small following of anglers.

Stripers occupy the middle parts of lakes and feed on shad - especially the larger shad that are too large for other predators to feed on. These are fast-growing fish, so even small ones can weigh 3 to 4 pounds, and really big ones can top 25 pounds.

The anglers who have learned how to catch them are reaping the benefits of a great sportfishing opportunity. You can, too. We'll tell you nine great Illinois fisheries - one river and eight lakes - where you'll find good striper and hybrid striper fishing. Some of our state's best striper and hybrid striper anglers also will share with you tips and techniques they use to boat these fish.

"One of the most important things you'll need is patience," said Earl Shoemaker of Waverly. "This can be slow fishing, but if you catch one, you're rewarded quickly. Even small ones put up a great fight."

One of Shoemaker's earlier catches, a 22-pounder from Sangchris Lake, hangs on his wall and he has boated several larger ones since he caught that one. He offers this advice for anglers who are ready to take up striper fishing.

"Start with a strong reel capable of holding a minimum of 150 yards of line," he said. "Stripers can make long runs. I use heavy bass fishing tackle, including a rod that is at least 6 1/2 feet long, and 17- to 20-pound-test line. There are special lures you can buy, but big largemouth bass lures will work. Get to know the size of the shad they're feeding on. If they're feeding on 3- to 4-inch shad, use similar-sized lures. The key to catching stripers is to locate shad. You'll usually find stripers close by."


Let's take a look at the best fishing waters for stripers.

Waverly's Earl Shoemaker caught this 22-pound striped bass on Sangchris Lake a few years ago. Photo by Gary Thomas

Pool 14 of the Mississippi River has a trophy hybrid striper fishery because of the Exelon Nuclear Power Plant that has been doing experimental striper stockings of this species there since 1984. As a result, the 12,500 acres of water can boast one of the strongest populations of hybrids in the state.

Located between Fulton and Hampton, the average catch is a 2- to 4-pound fish, but 5- to 7-pounders are caught regularly, and 11-pound hybrids are not uncommon.

"Despite the number and size of these fish, most are caught are by anglers fishing for walleyes," said Larry LaJeone, Exelon's fisheries biologist. "But when the fishing is good, we'll see a lot of anglers fishing specifically for stripers."

The most productive method is casting or vertically fishing jigs tipped with twistertails or minnows. A growing number of anglers use three-way river rigs baited with minnows.

While the best fishing is at the north end of the pool near Fulton, nice catches also come from near wing dams throughout the upper half of the pool, according to LaJeone.

There are public launching areas at Fulton, Albany, Cordova and Port Byron. There are no creel or length limits for hybrid stripers on the Mississippi River.

Heidecke is the Illinois' lake most associated with big stripers, and big fish still live there, though not in the numbers found there 10 years ago. Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist Rob Miller says their electro-sampling of the lake last year showed the average hybrid was 23 inches long and 6 1/2 pounds. However, he pointed out that state-record size pure stripers weighing 35 to 43 pounds live in the Grundy County lake. The average hybrid in the 2,000-acre cooling lake will be from 3 to 6 pounds, but fish in the mid-teens turn up regularly.

Miller said the best fishing is on the north side of the center dyke, which anglers call "striper alley." The stripers are following shad, and anglers trolling shallow-running lures make nice catches. Shore-anglers casting blade baits near the bridge also do well.

Anglers are permitted up to 10 stripers per day, only three of which can exceed 17 inches. The lake opens in April and closes just before waterfowl season. Boat anglers are required to have a working gas-powered motor while on the water.

Clinton Lake has boasted a strong population of striped bass since Illinois first stocked them into its waters. Unfortunately, it fell on hard times in the late 1980s. Now it's back.

Biologists began an aggressive stocking program to restore the population for this 5,000-acre De Witt County cooling lake in the mid-1990s and today it features a rebounding striper population that is getting stronger each year.

Clinton Lake has a combination of pure and hybrid stripers, and they range in size dramatically. Anglers trolling the flats near the marina area report fish ranging from 2-pound hybrids to 22-pound pure striped bass. Their average catch, however, will be about 7 to 8 pounds.

While most anglers report the best fishing is by trolling, a growing number wait for stripers to bust shad on the surface and cast for them with shallow-diving lures during the early evening.

Clinton Lake has a 10-fish daily limit of which no more than three can exceed 17 inches.

Pittsfield Lake has large hybrid stripers but few anglers who fish for them. District fisheries biologist Mike Jones said the DNR has created a good population of big fish in the lake.

"The hybrid stripers in the lake average between 6 and 9 pounds, and 12- to 15-pounders aren't uncommon," said Jones. "My biggest concern is the gizzard shad isn't reproducing well there, and these fish depend on shad to survive. There aren't that many anglers who pursue these fish. Most fish taken are caught while anglers are pursuing other species. The lake could use a lot more fishing pressure."

The best fishing for stripers in the 240-acre Pike County lake comes by trolling deep-running lures in the open water near the dam, but some fish are caught by casting into areas where they're feeding on shad near the surface at dusk.

There is a three-fish per day limit, with a minimum size of 17 inches. Pittsfield Lake has a 25-horsepower limit and a permit is required.

This 450-acre lake has a great population of hybrid stripers. The DNR has been stocking - mostly hybrids, but some pure stripers - into the lake since the 1980s. Still, most of the catches are incidental by anglers fishing for other fish. But the fish are there and they will provide some great fishing if anglers target them.

The average hybrid will be about 5 to 6 pounds, according to Jones, but 10- and 12-pound fish are caught there regularly.

"The best way to catch stripers here is by ambushing them when they're busting the shad on the surface," Shoemaker said. "Position yourself near the dam in early evening, and wait to see disturbances on the water. Cast lures into the middle of where the shad were, ripping the lures and then letting them rest a second or two. The fish usually hit them when they are not moving or are sinking. I like to use surface lures with propellers and lipless crankbaits."

There is a three-fish per day limit, and boaters are required to purchase an annual lake-user permit.

Sangchris was stocked with pure stripers in the early 1980s and established a reputation for big stripers soon thereafter. It still has big fish. There is a huge year-class of fish weighing from 10 to 13 pounds, which is the average catch.

"This lake used to produce record fish every year, but it hasn't for a number of years," said district fisheries biologist Dan Stephenson. "There isn't an abundance of fish larger than 20 pounds in there, but there are some, and several get taken each year."

Stephenson said fishing for stripers is a year-round option, but the best angling is from January to mid-spring. During the early part of the year, concentrate your efforts between the east boat ramp and the west arm of the lake, and especially around the dam.

Girard angler Rod Schott fishes both Sangchris and Otter lakes. He begins fishing Sangchris in late January or early February each year.

"I fish by moon phases," he said. "Stripers bite better by day during a new moon and at night during a full moon. But moon phases are a lot more than that. These are opportunistic feeders, so you have to know when they're most likely to be feeding."

Schott, whose best Sangchris striper weighed 25 pounds, said the key is location. He uses a map and depthfinder to locate long, sloping flats.

"I look for long points that stick out into the lake, and if they have rocks or underwater stumps, that's even better," he said. "You can catch them trolling, but I prefer casting. I use jerkbaits on top, twitching them and walking the dog, or use a lipless crankbait and let it sink 4 to 5 feet before reeling it in. The best fishing comes when it's windy, rainy and overcast."

This 2.165-acre Sangamon and Christian County lake has a three-fish per day limit. Boaters are limited to 25-horsepower motors.

Otter Lake surveys show stripers there weighing up to 20 pounds. Most of the fish are hybrids, though there are some pure stripers. A year-class of fish weighing about 8 pounds dominates the population.

"I'd say this is one of the top five striper lakes in the state," said district fisheries biologist Jeff Pontnack. "They definitely are an underutilized species here, but there is a small group of anglers that fish for stripers, and they make nice catches each year."

While 2003 wasn't a great year for stripers, he expects a better 2004.

Schott starts fishing Otter Lake's flats in late March and continues through early June, using jerkbaits and lipless crankbaits. In late June and through July, he begins drift-fishing using live bait.

"I get shad using a throw net, hook them through the mouth and put about a 1/4-ounce split shot about 2 feet up on the line," Schott said. "I let out 20 to 30 feet of line and go slow with a trolling motor or just drift and let the fish swim."

Schott, whose biggest hybrid at this 750-acre lake is a 14-pounder, likes to night-fish late May into June.

"The best fishing is during a full moon," he said. "Cast a lipless crankbait out and let it drop about 4 feet, then reel it in slow. They'll be on the flats after shad. I've had them hit so hard they rip the hooks right of the lure."

Anglers can take 10 stripers per day, with only three being more than 17 inches. You need a yearly access permit to be on the lake, or you can buy a one-day $10 permit. Otter Lake has a 115-horsepower limit.

Only a handful of anglers are aware of how good the striper fishing is at Baldwin Lake. The lake has a large population of 3- to 5-pound hybrids and good numbers of 7-pounders.

Because it's a cooling lake, the best fishing at Baldwin is from October through May. District fisheries biologist Barry Newman said the water in the 2,000-acre lake gets too warm and the catch rate drops dramatically during summer months.

Dr. David Wells, a Red Bud physician, has been fishing the lake for stripers since 1985. He keeps a daily record of his catches. Last year he boated about 400 fish and his keepers averaged 6 to 7 pounds.

Wells likes trolling flats using a three-way swivel with a grub on a leadhead jig on a short line and a crankbait about 18 inches behind that. If the fish are deep, he uses a weight on the short line to keep the lure in productive water.

"In the spring, I usually go to the north end of the lake and use cut bait," Wells said. "I cast into the corner and use a tight line. The nastier the weather, the better the fishing. I've had days when I've caught a limit of nice fish and been back at the dock in 45 minutes."

If the fish are in the cold water, Wells anchors close to where the hot water enters the cold water.

"We use a three-inch white tube bait with a 1/8- or 1/4-ounce weight," Wells said. "I like to use a spinnerbait real early in the morning, a tube bait when it gets a little lighter. I'll also net some shad and hook it through the lips and just let it swim. This can be an effective way to catch stripers."

This Randolph County lake has a 17-inch minimum length limit and a three

-fish per day creel. There also is a 50-horsepower limit on the lake.

The numbers of hybrid stripers is down from past years at Rend Lake, but the size of the fish is up. District fisheries biologist Mike Hooe said hybrids in the Jefferson/Franklin County lake range from 2 to 12 pounds and average about 6 pounds. The lake also has an abundant shad population, which will further encourage growth.

The best fishing the 18,900-acre reservoir begins about June and continues through the summer. Look for shallow flats near deep water and along old roadbeds. Fishing usually is best early and late in the day by both trolling and casting.

Fred Hunter has been fishing for Rend Lake's stripers since they were stocked.

"Look for shallow flats close to the channels," Hunter said. "Shad come out into the shallow water and stripers go there to feed on them. Keep an eye out for seagulls, too. They hang out where stripers are feeding to pick up the shad that stripers miss."

Once Hunter locates stripers, he uses a specially made slab spoon to catch them.

"I just cast it out and let it fall, then raise my rod and give it a couple of pops and let it fall again," the Benton resident said. "They usually hit it when you bring it up and let it fall, because it really flutters then.

"Fishing stays good from June until it gets cool," Hunter continued. "Six-pound fish are common and there are times when I've caught a limit of fish almost one cast after another."

There is a 20-fish per day limit, with no more than three of the fish over 17 inches.

* * *
Now it's time to get out there, and here are some records to shoot for. The state record for hybrid stripers is a 20-0.32-pound fish taken from Lake of Egypt in 1993. The world record came from Greer's Ferry Lake in Arkansas and weighed 27 pounds, 5 ounces. The state record for pure striped bass is a 31-pound, 7-ounce fish taken at Sangchris Lake in 1994. The world record is a 67-pound, 1-ounce fish taken from the Colorado River in Arizona.

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