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The Prairie State's Best Walleye Lakes

The Prairie State's Best Walleye Lakes
From opening day till the first freeze, these are the best walleye waters in the Land of Lincoln. (May 2008)

You deserve a pat on the back. The healing has begun. You are still hungry for walleye information even after picking up this copy of Illinois Game & Fish and realizing you aren't on the cover holding the new state walleye record.

This magazine wasn't even being published when Frank Goselin horsed that 14-pounder out of the Kankakee River back in 1961. Maybe you weren't even born when Goselin caught his whopper. But since reaching the age of reason, you've always entertained pipe dreams about catching the big one.

Don't feel like the Lone Ranger. I've been chasing this dream since 1975 after losing a huge walleye in the Kaskaskia River tailwaters of the Lake Shelbyville dam.

The limited acreage below this sprawling central Illinois reservoir held the shortest odds for realizing "The Dream" back in the mid- to late 1970s when the spring spawning run reached its peak around April Fool's Day.

Although DNR technicians electroshocked several walleyes that were heavier than Goselin's fish, no sport angler ever brought one to shore back when Shelbyville's tailwaters were almost a sure thing for yielding double-digit 'eyes.

Consistent stocking since 1994 has resulted in a resurgence of walleye success on this 11,000-acre fishery straddling the Shelby-Moultrie county line. The return of the reservoir as a consistent trophy walleye lake is on the horizon with good numbers of fish over 25 inches showing up in recent surveys, according to the IDNR.

The key to success on Shelbyville is time spent on the water. Anglers who put in their time trolling crankbaits behind planer boards off main-lake points regularly fill limits of 14-to 18-inch walleyes, with early April through mid-June considered the most productive time.

A launch fee is charged at ramps maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Illinois' three vast reservoirs. Launching at state-maintained or gravel ramps is free. You can contact the Lake Shelbyville management office at (217) 774-3951.

Rend Lake doesn't have a walleye fishery, but Shelbyville is on the rebound with truly promising potential in years to come, and Carlyle Lake has seldom been mentioned in a positive light regarding any kind of game fish since the lake filled decades ago -- until now.

The IDNR white paper Status of the Walleye and Sauger Fishery, published last spring, reported the sauger population has become established in the lake. In a 2006 survey, there was a three-fold increase compared with the five-year average. Fifty-three percent of the fish surveyed were greater than 15 inches in length."

The IDNR credits the abundance of available forage for the evolution of the sauger fishery in Carlyle, which is fed by the Kaskaskia River. As was the case with walleyes 30 years ago and muskies today, the Kaskaskia River tailwaters below Carlyle dam are the epicenter of sauger activity with spring and late fall the most productive times to chase these fish.

Maybe a dozen years ago, Clinton Lake held promise for producing a state record, regularly giving up 25-inch-plus fish. This central Illinois cooling lake is still a worthwhile walleye destination, but surveys indicate the "Fish of Dreams" is not swimming there.

According to last spring's survey, the major problem on Clinton is lack of consistency. The 2004 data indicated one of the highest catch rates in more than a decade, but the numbers were off the chart in the other direction the next year, and 2006 showed even a greater decline.

Recent surveys indicate 318-acre Shabbona Lake in Dekalb County holds a few walleyes that could put you in the record books. This north-central Illinois lake is definitely one of our best.

Look at the cover one more time. That's not you holding a walleye. It's the month of May. Those big female walleyes have already lost a third of their weight dumping eggs in the spawn last month. Your next shot at stardom comes in late fall or early winter when walleyes are heaviest.

The Big Gal will probably hit at night. She didn't get that big being stupid. She straps on the feedbag when the sun goes down. Unfortunately, Shabbona Lake State Park that surrounds the lake is essentially closed under a winter moon.

What about a state-record sauger? The Illinois River is definitely the place to go, but you'll have to wait until next fall to boat a heavyweight with the shortest odds probably centering around Senachwine Lake.

Saugeyes? OK. We don't have to make a complete return to reality just yet. Although the best chance for breaking the walleye/sauger hybrid record in a big way comes late this fall or next spring when fish are heaviest. Many saugeyes heavier than 9 pounds, 11 ounces are swimming in Evergreen Lake right now.

The state record is just a small minnow shy of that mark, which this 1,000-acre county park lake north of Bloomington surrendered back in 2001. DNR fisheries supervisor Steve Pallo has Stizostedium fever as bad as you.

"I've held saugeyes over 10 pounds in my hands on Evergreen Lake," Pallo howled. "In my hands! There is no doubt that Evergreen has the greatest potential for producing a walleye-family state record of any lake in Illinois in 2008."

The IDNR began annually stocking this hybrid of a female walleye and male sauger in 1992, and according to IDNR status reports, anglers really started catching saugeyes in Evergreen in 1998.

With Mother's Day approaching, southern Illinois is already on the verge of serious summer. Even accidental walleyes will be rare until fish begin turning up on muskie anglers' jerkbaits this fall.

Check the kicker motor on your big deep-V walleye boat before you pack a clean shirt and digital camera on a record quest. There's a 10-horsepower outboard limit on Evergreen Lake. And you'll need to purchase a lake use sticker from the county that is available at the two boat ramps on the lake at the park visitor's center or by calling (309) 726-2022.

The 10-horsepower limit is also enforced on Shabbona Lake that continues to be a top walleye producer. Shabbona has greater fish carrying capacity than other 300-acre lakes because of considerable structure left behind when the lake filled in 1974 and introduction of countless rockpiles and fish cribs since.

A detailed map of this structure is av

ailable and is a good investment, but many anglers find consistent success by working visible habitat like flooded timber, outside weed edges and riprapped areas along the dam.

The considerable structure does a wonderful job of sheltering the lake's diverse forage base. With so much food in the water, there is little need for Shabbona's walleyes to chase down your crankbait.

Use the map and your electronics to key on structure. Anchor and soak a jumbo leech under a slip-bobber. Leave the cooler full of Red Bull and those headbanger, heavy metal CDs at home. The only time you want to move quickly for these fish is when it's time to dive for the landing net.

For more information, contact Shabbona Lakeside Bait at (815) 824-2581 or visit the Web site at .

The 15 natural lakes that make up the Fox Chain O' Lakes sees incredible boat traffic throughout the summer. But there are so many walleyes swimming here that the IDNR uses the chain as a brood lake, milking the eggs for stocking in other state waters.

Protecting reproductive-sized female walleyes that swim in the chain is critical to ensure the future of good fishing in the Prairie State. For this reason, the IDNR introduced a slot limit in 1996 that continues to shelter the walleye population.

This is the place where you want plenty of iced-down Red Bull, AC/DC blaring on the boom box and your ball cap on backward when it's time to go walleye fishing. Success on the chain is typically a run-and-gun proposal -- speed casting a No. 7 Firetiger ShadRap toward the wake-roiled shoreline at points where the chain necks down at bridges and between lakes. No kidding.

Throw conventional wisdom out the window. Fish in less than 10 feet of water, even during the hottest days of summer, casting crankbaits toward the shore. Twenty walleyes is an average day. Fifty 'eyes is not out of the question but 18- to 20-inchers are protected by the slot. If you want to eat fish, stop at Red Lobster or Long John Silver on the way home.

Every one of these lakes holds walleyes. If you're in a big hurry, the odds are probably shortest on Channel-Catherine, Marie or Pistakee lakes. If you don't hook up after 10 casts, move to the next narrows and try again.

Greg Dickson at the Triangle Bait Shop is the closest thing the chain has to a guru. You may call him at (847) 395-0813.

That IDNR white paper concerning walleyes and saugers said walleyes are the most sought-after game fish in Illinois. While that contention is certainly plausible on the heavily pressured waters of the Fox Chain, show the report to folks at Kinkaid Lake and you'll likely hear an expletive.

"Virtually nobody fishes for walleyes on Kinkaid," IDNR fisheries biologist Shawn Hirst said. "Anglers chase bass, crappies and, of course, a few go after muskies, but essentially the only time a walleye gets caught is with a hook intended for some other species."

'Eye chasers, take note -- Kinkaid is a sleeper by any definition of the word. Walleye growth is far above state averages because of an extensive forage base and a longer growing season. A barrier installed in 1998 effectively prevents walleyes from going over the spillway during periods of high water.

The IDNR has aggressively stocked walleyes here for years. In spring 2006, about 55,000 2-inch fingerlings and 1,300 6-inch fish were introduced. Later eight fish measuring 23 to 25 inches were recovered from trap nets. Other surveys have revealed walleyes in excess of 10 pounds.

With Mother's Day approaching, southern Illinois is already on the verge of serious summer. Even accidental walleyes will be rare until fish begin turning up on muskie anglers' jerkbaits this fall. The best time to fish for Kinkaid Lake walleyes is March and early April when fish congregate in clearer water near the dam.

Kinkaid has the potential to produce a state-record walleye. Why fly to a remote Canadian lake when you can fish essentially virgin walleye waters with your Illinois license?

Folks at the Top of the Hill Bait Shop can point you in the right direction. Their phone number is (618) 684-2923.

Pike County and walleye destination are seldom used in the same sentence, but if you have a 10-horsepower outboard on a small boat and don't mind traveling down hilly, curvy, bumpy gravel roads for several hours to reach rural western Illinois, Pittsfield City Lake earns our lowest per-acre odds of tangling with a walleye of trophy proportions.

This 241-acre lake produces 10-pound walleyes every year. The lake walleye record is nearly 13 pounds, just a couple of bluegills shy of the state record There are good boat ramps on both the east and north sides of the lake.

For at least the next couple of weeks, casting crankbaits toward the shoreline will put you within striking distance of most of this little lake's walleye population. Fish weighing less than 6 pounds don't even rate a Polaroid photo on the wall of Neff's Bait Shop in nearby Griggsville. The phone number is (217) 833-2178.

Johnson Lake in the Banner Marsh complex southwest of Peoria is easier to access and tougher to fish, but it's worth probing for walleyes. At 600 acres, Johnson is the largest of the three lakes that make up the lion's share of fisheries on this wildlife management complex.

Marsh isn't an accurate description of this clear strip pit lake with a maximum depth of about 60 feet. Deep weed edges and rocky points hold at least four adult year-classes of walleyes. Fish in the dominant year-class are in the 4- to 7-pound range, with recent IDNR fisheries surveys yielding specimens in excess of 10 pounds.

All three lakes in the Banner Marsh complex located near Highway 9/24 have good boat ramps, but a 25-horsepower motor restriction is in effect on these waters.

Johnson Lake's clarity is similar to that found on 935-acre East Fork Lake near Olney in the southeastern part of the state. East Fork's bass population gets much more attention than the walleye fishery, although the habitat parameters of this fishery are about the closest thing Illinois has to classic north country walleye structure.

At least four adult year-classes of walleyes are swimming in East Fork according to the IDNR; however, several year-classes over the past dozen years have been weak to the point of being almost nonexistent. As a result, you may catch a mess of 15- to 17-inch "eaters" or you may catch an 'eye that justifies an immediate trip to the taxidermist, but not much in between.

Consistent success on these fish requires extreme stealth with live bait definitely advantageous. Try a lighted slip-bobber or Lindy rig with at least a 4-foot leader baited with a jumbo leech dur

ing periods of low light.

East Fork Lake is managed by the city of Olney and as is the case with many lakes managed by municipalities or counties, special regulations are in effect. Launch fees are based on the horsepower of your boat. Access decals are available at city hall.

Many Illinois state parks feature a lake as the main attraction. The lakes are typically maintained with supplemental stocking by the IDNR with limit catches or consistently large walleye-family fish the exception rather than the rule. Two park lakes -- Dawson Lake in Moraine View State Park near Bloomington and Forbes Lake in Stephen A. Forbes State Park in Marion County -- stand out from the rest.

Both lakes show great promise as saugeye fisheries. According to a 2007 IDNR white paper, 96 percent of the saugeyes sampled on 525-acre Forbes Lake were at or beyond the state 14-inch minimum size and several 23-inch saugeyes sampled.

Dawson Lake management efforts switched focus from walleyes to saugeyes in 2003. During the 2006 survey, IDNR personnel cranked up an impressive 61 walleyes and saugeyes per hour using electro-shocking gear.

Saugeyes are clearly the wave of the future on many of Illinois' smaller lakes. They are truly beautiful fish, with the walleye's trademark white spot on the tail and a sauger's desert camo pattern color scheme tinged with green and gold along the flanks.

The IDNR tells us the walleye clan is the most sought-after game fish in Illinois waters, due in part to Stizostedium's well-deserved reputation as table fare. Walleyes, sauger and saugeye hybrids also share a reputation for being fairly tough to catch.

These fish don't grow to tremendous size or deserve a prize for fighting ability, but there is something undeniably special about the walleye. She is a fish of dreams and the only way to realize these dreams is to keep your line in the water. Somebody has to catch the next state record and it might as well be you. The cover of Illinois Game & Fish is waiting for you.

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