We have some wonderful walleye waters, and in February we told you about our best rivers. This time we focus on the hottest walleye lakes in the Land of Lincoln.
Photo by Tom Evans
The Creator blessed Illinois with precious few natural walleye lakes besides the Fox Chain-O-Lakes. But a need for reservoirs, cooling lakes and recreational complex centerpieces built over the past 30 years and a hatchery system second to none has evolved into some wonderful waters for walleye chasers in the Land of Lincoln.
Walleyes in lakes are usually easier to pattern than their riverine brethren, but walleyes can behave like walleyes no matter where they swim. Riprap along the shoreline in a manmade impoundment may not hold the pristine beauty of a natural Canadian Shield lake, but you can bet the recycled pavement that lines some Illinois waters will hold baitfish at certain times -- and the walleye version of a road trip is always a possibility.
Prevalent weed growth in lakes also varies a great deal from the cool blue north to northern Illinois, with significant changes in foliage from northern Illinois to southern Illinois. Baitfish seek refuge in weeds all over the map. Walleyes are seldom far away.
With the exception of some impoundments designed as adjuncts for power plants, walleye lakes have transition zones found in bottom composition, changes in weed type and similar parameters. Often these transitions are found near old feeder streams or original structure left in place as the lake began to fill. In many instances, man has enhanced the structure situation by placing cribs, lunker structures and creating artificial reefs. Walleyes find these places, too, because the baitfish are there.
If you're fishing a cooling lake with an essentially faceless bottom, the key to success often lies in finding the baitfish. If the power plant is in operation, baitfish location is driven by water temperature. Understanding the predator-prey relationship is the single most important factor in becoming a consistently successful walleye angler. The walleye's prey preferences change throughout the year, but one theme remains consistent: they will concentrate on the food that is the most readily available with the least amount of effort.
Here's a look at some of the hottest walleye lakes in Illinois where you can exploit the myopic manitou's fishy frailty in the months ahead.
Walleyes have been swimming in the Fox Chain since Chicago was called Fort Dearborn. But the walleye population is in much better shape than those days of antiquity, with reason to believe this positive trend will continue.
Back before the Jake Wolf Hatchery came online, the Fox Chain was the major source for stocking walleyes in other state waters. Natural production here has always ranged somewhere between good and phenomenal, with the slot limit that's been in place here for 10 years now ensuring this trend will continue with geometric progression -- in spite of mind-boggling fishing pressure.
Walleyes swim in all 15 lakes in the Fox Chain. Of course, some lakes offer more consistent fishing success than others. Habitat parameters in individual lakes are a major reason for differences in productivity, but walleye behavior is easier to interpret in some Fox Chain lakes than others.
With walleyes now post-spawn and moving into feeding mode, the predator-prey relationship is the most important factor. Walleye activity can be driven by time of day. If it's easiest for walleyes to eat at night, then night is the best time to go fishin'.
Water temperature is also a key to fish location and activity. Right after ice-out, lakes at the southern end of The Chain -- Nippersink, Pistakee and Fox -- tend to be the most productive. These are also the best places to target just before freeze-up next December.
Structural changes like the islands in Pistakee, Marie and Channel-Catherine are always good places to look. Any bridge crossing or narrows is also a high-percentage spot because there will be a slight current. Those who fish around the Highway 12 bridge figuring the current will bring them walleyes are missing the point. A bridge or narrows is the easiest place for walleyes to ambush dinner. The walleyes come because the food is there!
This ambush philosophy opens the door for solid tactics year-round on any lake at any time in the 7,500 acres of surface water in the Fox Chain-O-Lakes. Concentrate your efforts for catching actively feeding walleyes in less than 10 feet of water. Boat traffic is a fact of life on the chain, producing positive albeit artificial "wind effect" on shallow shorelines. Perpetual boat wakes beating against the shore clouds the water and disorients the baitfish, with walleyes ready to pounce.
These conditions call for a rattling, suspending stickbait or lipless vibrating crankbait like the Rat-L-Trap worked back to the boat with a steady retrieve. Orange crawdad is a hot color right now, with fire-tiger and chrome/blue good bets once serious summer weather arrives.
There are plenty of access points around The Chain, with many on private property where a substantial launch fee is often charged. The best public ramp is located in Chain-O-Lakes State Park.
Probably the best place for solid fishing information is Greg Dickson's Triangle Bait Shop, 23480 Grass Lake Rd., Antioch, (847) 395-0813.
If the 14-pound state-record walleye caught in Kankakee River in 1961 is broken in a lake, the smart money says the new champ will come from 318-acre Shabbona Lake in De Kalb County.
This structure-filled state park lake still has an archaic 10-horsepower limit in place, proving that politics is still more important than common sense in the Prairie State. Shabbona sees almost as much fishing pressure as the Fox Chain, in spite of the fact that park policy discriminates against anybody pushing a boat with more than a kicker motor.
Leave all your lures at home when chasing walleyes on Shabbona. A natural presentation is the only way to go, with a jumbo leech under a slip-bobber set at about 12 feet and fished close to cover being the shortest route to a stretched string.
Department of Natural Resources surveys indicate two year-classes of walleyes at or near the state-record mark. These fish got that big by feeding at night when fishing is not permitted by law. But until the law is changed and if an angler has infinite time and patience, dangling a 3-inch bluegill near the cribs on the old roadbed under a slip-bobber might garner the new state-record walleye.
Contact: Shabbona Lakeside Bait (815) 824-2581 or
This 4,700-acre cooling lake in central Illinois is only worth chasing walleyes on when smoke is visible from the power plant. The walleye population swimming here has come on strong over the past couple of years, after several years of less than stellar marble eye production.
No Illinois water better illustrates the predator-prey relationship than Clinton Lake. Launch the boat when the plant is online and use electronics to find baitfish, with the surface temperature feature a major clue as to where a baitfish cloud is likely to appear. Note the depth and plot the exact location of this bait that will probably be far from any shoreline structure in the main-lake basin, then set up planer boards to make trolling passes with fire-tiger crankbaits at or below the depth where the baitfish are located.
There is plenty of cover in Clinton, with some catchable walleyes relating to structures with classic walleye presentations. But the best way to hook up is by trolling at 2.5 to 3.5 miles per hour. Work in a lazy "S" pattern, adjusting speed according to which side of the boat strikes come on while you are turning.
Contact: Clinton Lake Recreation Association, (217) 935-8722.
EAST FORK LAKE
DNR fisheries biologist Mike Hooe said there is at least one year-class of walleyes swimming in this 935-acre eastern Illinois lake with representation in the double digits. Most adult year-classes of walleyes are in the 3- to 5-pound range. Statewide harvest guidelines of six fish/14 inches are in effect.
The city of Olney requires a use-sticker prior to launching your boat, with a sliding fee schedule based on outboard motor size. Stickers are available at several locations, including City Hall and Lakeside Bait Shop below the dam.
East Fork is exceptionally clear thanks to a silt-catching basin. Three-foot visibility is not unusual, with an average lake depth here of 15 feet and maximum depth of 38 feet just up from the dam. Several main-lake points with steep transition areas provide nearly classic walleye structure.
Try Lindy Rigging with a six-foot snell and either a jumbo leech or nose-hooked nightcrawler. Glass-pattern Rapalas and similar natural color scheme crankbaits also work here, especially during periods of low light.
Hooe says local anglers don't target the walleye population here, with most walleye catches incidental to fishing for other species.
Contact: (618) 393-4351.
The biggest problem anglers have with walleyes on this 2,335-acre southern Illinois lake is that crappie, bass and muskie fishing is so good that few, if any, who fish here have taken the time to figure Mr. Wally out.
DNR biologist Shawn Hirst has cranked up walleyes over 10 pounds in his spring fisheries surveys, with "good numbers of 18- to 23-inch walleyes present in the system."
Guide Al Nutty said, "standard walleye tactics like jigging and rigging simply won't work here," maintaining crankbaits tossed in pursuit of bass are about the only way folks ever see a walleye come from these Jackson County waters.
DNR fisheries survey data provides the biggest clue to walleye location. Hirst says he's only sampled walleyes consistently at the far north end where several tributaries enter, and near the spillway at the other end of the lake. Waters near the spillway are deep and clear. Waters near the upper end are turbid -- sometimes really turbid. Both walleye populations see virtually no fishing pressure.
Contact: Top of the Hill Bait Shop, (618) 684-2923.
This reservoir just north of Bloomington is somewhere between 975 and 1,100 acres, depending on the water table. Swimming in the slightly stained waters are bass, muskies, crappies and saugeyes of notable proportions.
Evergreen is the centerpiece of 686-acre Comlara County Park, which requires a $10 launch fee and has a 10-horsepower outboard limit in effect.
DNR surveys routinely note saugeyes -- a sauger/walleye hybrid -- in excess of the 8-pound, 7-ounce state-record mark. But as is the case in Kinkaid, fishing is so good for other species that nobody has taken the time to figure out the patterns of this walleye hybrid.
A major key has to be shad, a primain forage base in these waters. There are several steep breaklines near riprap and spillways, woody cover along the undeveloped shoreline, and good-looking main-lake points.
There are good camping facilities in the park, whispering a fishin' mission of several days' duration prior to Memorial Day weekend. Put in your time and success is part of the equation. A state record may be a bonus.
Contact: guide Duane Landmeier, (217) 286-7170.
PITTSFIELD CITY LAKE
This 241-acre reservoir located about three miles northeast of the city that bears its name has the largest population of walleyes over 5 pounds per surface acre in our state. Pittsfield has produced at least three walleyes over 12 pounds, with 10-pounders being an annual occurrence.
There are good boat launches on the east side after it branches off of County 3275E and on the north end of the lake off of County 1700N.
A 10-horsepower limit is in place and vigorously enforced. Statewide walleye bag limits apply. Walleye fishing pressure here is almost non-existent! Why? Three reasons. There's the 10-horsepower limit in place. Plus it's a remote location, just down the gravel road past the really rural part of the Boonies. But most notably, most who venture here chase largemouth bass that can be in excess of 10 pounds, hybrid stripers or channel catfish.
There are basic camping facilities and pit toilets in place on this project. The boat launches are gravel and somewhat shallow, but accessible. If gravel is the closest you've ever been to off-roading in that fancy new SUV, rent a DVD of "Deliverance" for the built-in player and head on down to the wilds of Pike County's Pittsfield Lake. You could catch a trophy walleye that will make you squeal when you get the pig in the net.
Contact: Neff's Bait & Tackle, Griggsville, (217) 833-2178.
OTHER WORTHY WATERS
Although private lake developments offer the best potential for catching walleyes in Illinois, biologists regularly stock these fish on a put-and-take basis in a number of public waters across our state as a "bonus" species, with state harvest guidelines typically in place. Most of these lakes are smaller than 250 acres and are focal points in state parks or other recreational areas.
Pierce and Ols
on lakes in the Rock Cut State Park complex on the north side of Rockford both hold catchable populations of eater-sized walleyes, with a few larger fish available. There is a "no wake" rule for boats hanging more than a 10-horsepower motor, but larger boats have not proven to be a problem, according to park officials, thus illustrating the lunacy of this kind of restriction on other state- and county-managed lakes.
Lake Carlton in Morrison-Rockwood State Park in Whiteside County still has the 10-horsepower restriction in place, too. It could be argued that an electric trolling motor is sufficient propulsion to navigate these 77 acres with a solid saugeye population. But the "no wake" management plan could be argued for as well.
Forbes Lake, northeast of Salem in Marion County, has walleyes but very little species-specific fishing pressure, according to the DNR.
The same scenario exists on Dawson Lake, located in Moraine View State Park southeast of Bloomington.
There are a lot of hooks in the water every year on Tampier Lake in southwest Cook County near Orland Park, with DNR surveys indicating a large part of the lake's biomass in excess of 16 inches. However, walleye catches are only incidental to fishing for other species.
Lake-born walleyes are an untapped resource across much of Illinois. Why? A look at recreational boat sales may provide a clue.
John Millard, vice president of Princecraft Boats, summarizes a recent National Marine Manufacturer's Association survey with the observation, "Illinois is right on the cusp with a clear but invisible line running somewhere just south of Rockford. North of this line, most fishing boat sales are deep-Vs preferred by walleye anglers. To the south, most boats sold are of the bass-boat variety."
Of course, most fishing boats have trailers under them when it's time to go fishin'. And a walleye doesn't really care what kind of boat you are fishing from. So no matter what type of boat you own, there's no reason for you not to get out there and enjoy the great walleye fishing in Illinois.