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Illinois' Eye-popping Walleye Lakes

Illinois' Eye-popping Walleye Lakes

The Prairie State's "Super 6" lakes . . . where walleye fishing is better than average! (May 2009)

IDNR volunteer Jeff Feasley holds a 12-pound, 7-ounce saugeye during an April 2005 survey at Evergreen Lake near Bloomington. Some of the best results for taking saugeyes occur on the dropoffs just outside the shallow spawning beds of crappies and bluegills.
Photo courtesy of Mike Garthous/IDNR.

If flavorsome fried walleyes and saugeyes are high on your list, you need not travel north of our border for these toothy members of the perch family. The Prairie State offers the "Super 6" lakes where walleye fishing is better than average! It's just a matter of knowing where, when and how.

Walleyes and saugers are native inhabitants of Lincoln Land streams and a few of Illinois' northernmost lakes. But massive amounts of factory waste discarded during the post-World War I and II industrial booms filled our tributaries with pollution and nearly wiped out these wonderful sport fish from Illinois waters. Factories in or near Chicago were the worst offenders of polluting the Illinois River, but many other cities with major industries near the Rock, Kishwaukee, Vermillion and Wabash rivers were habitual polluters of these waters as well.

I can remember fishing the Illinois River as a young man and catching many nice walleyes and saugers. This was after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began enforcing strict water-pollution standards and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) implemented restocking programs. When fried up, these fish smelled like creosote and had a chemical flavor. Yuck! As an experiment, I placed a 3-pound Illinois River sauger in a livewell at Heritage Lake near Mackinaw. This fish had no access to food and spent five weeks in crystal-clear, contamination-free water before being filleted, breaded and fried to a golden brown. The fillets smelled up the kitchen and still had a chemical essence.

I learned two significant things from this minor research project: 1) It would be many more decades before Mother Nature could purge the pollutants from our rivers, especially the Illinois; and 2) To catch eatable walleyes, saugers or saugeyes (the walleye-sauger cross), I would need to fish Illinois' inland lakes stocked and maintained by the IDNR.

Before detailing Illinois' best walleye waters, let's take a look at the closely related saugeye. As their name implies, saugeyes are a crossbreed between walleyes and saugers. They first appeared naturally in 1948 in Tennessee's Norris Reservoir. Saugeyes or saugers can be identified by the dorsal-fin spots not found on a walleye and the lack of the white tip on the lower tail section found only on walleyes. Saugeyes grow larger than saugers, but rarely as large as walleyes.

One of the first saugeye stocking efforts nationally from a state hatchery occurred in Ohio's Deer Creek Reservoir. My son, Monte, fishes Deer Creek regularly and occasionally catches a hefty saugeye. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources has notably done more in the area of saugeye research than any other state or federal agency.


"The saugeye is more tolerant of higher turbidity levels than the pure walleye," reports fisheries biologist Mike Garthaus of the IDNR. "They do better in Illinois lakes, especially smaller ones (lakes). Saugeyes are fertile, but we see no reproduction from them in our lakes."

Since 1954, walleyes have been surveyed by IDNR staff in the Fox Chain O' Lakes -- more than 7,000 acres of water in McHenry and Lake counties. Fry stockings -- "as required" -- were initiated in 1978 to supplement natural reproduction. The latest walleye stocking in "the Chain" was in 2007 when 1.1 million fry and 286,511 fingerlings (1.3 to 1.6 inches) were introduced.

New walleye possession limits for the Chain begin this year. Three walleyes from 14 to 18 inches long can be kept with no possession of fish between 18 and 24 inches. A one-fish possession limit of walleyes longer than 24 inches applies, with a total daily possession limit of no more than four walleyes.

IDNR fisheries biologist Frank Jakubicek reports that past and present regulations are doing their job of protecting female walleyes while allowing harvest of smaller, more abundant male fish. "Males rarely reach a length of over 18 inches," Jakubicek adds. "The 2007 survey showed females averaging 21.3 inches and males (averaging) 15.8 inches."

What are the high-odds areas to fish in May and early June, according to Jakubicek? First, fish the Chain in the spring while the walleyes are active and the water skiers and pleasure boats are not. Try the dropoffs in Lake Marie and the areas with current near any bridge. The vicinity around the mouth of the Fox River is excellent as well. Troll the open-water sand and gravel bars in Fox Lake. Any mid-sized jig tipped with a night crawler or minnow generally produces fish. Bigger fish are caught on artificial baits, trolled 6 to 8 feet deep at midday, and at 3 to 6 feet in the morning and evening hours when walleyes are more active.

For information about marinas, boat ramps and boat rentals on the Fox Chain O' Lakes, log onto or the IDNR's Web site: www.ifishillinois. org. Detailed topographic maps of the Chain and its many lakes and back-pools can be purchase at most Chicagoland bait shops.

This 1,955-acre former cooling lake located in Grundy County, 2 1/2 miles southeast of Morris, has received annual stockings of walleyes since 1980. These stockings have averaged 56 fingerlings per surface acre. Heidecke has a strong plankton bloom in early spring and also supports a thriving gizzard shad population. Both of these are plusses for the lake's thriving walleye population.

An intensive IDNR fish survey was conducted on Heidecke walleyes in fall 2006. The results, for any standardized Illinois survey, revealed the lake ranks as the state's top producer of walleyes The 2006 survey surpassed Heidecke's best-ever survey in 2004 by five times. The 2006 sampling yielded walleyes ranging from 7.9 to 23.6 inches and averaging 16 inches. Age recruitment and lake distribution proved excellent!

Midwest Generation impounded Heidecke Lake in the late 1970s to support its fossil-fuel peaking plant. Decommissioned in 2004, the plant was demolished but left Illinois with one of its finest walleye waters. Its fishing season opens April 1 and closes 10 days before the opening of the North Zone waterfowl season. Fishing hours run from 6 a.m. to sunset.

A concessionaire located at the boat ramp offers boat and motor rentals, bait, tackle and lake maps. There is no horsepower limit for boats. Choose yo

ur fishing days wisely on the lake; Heidecke whitecaps dangerously during high wind. Bank-fishing access is located on the east side of the lake and features a barrier-free fishing pier. Fishing sites are also provided for disabled anglers.

Evergreen Lake lies just outside Bloomington off old Route 51. Evergreen does not hold walleyes, but it's the home of the current state-record saugeye -- 9 pounds, 11 ounces -- and in many anglers' eyes is capable of breaking that record.

Evergreen was selected in 1992 for experimental stocking of saugeyes. It's been restocked with saugeyes every year since. A 2007 nighttime fish survey produced the phenomenal results of 98 saugeyes per hour of electro-fishing.

I've fished Evergreen many times in the early '90s and found it to be a lake heading downhill fast. An overpopulation of crappies and bluegills had taken its toll on the game fish population. The stocking of saugeyes and tiger muskies dramatically turned this lake around. Panfish are now sizeable, which has generated new fishing interest for this beautiful 925-acre, timber-lined lake

The best results for taking saugeyes occur on the dropoffs just outside the shallow spawning beds of crappies and bluegills. Like any predator fish, saugeyes are opportunistic feeders and are never far from game fish fry or baitfish. The mouths of Evergreen's many coves are excellent places to fish in the early morning and toward evening. These are the best saugeye haunts, as well, after dark by lantern light.

You'll find two boat ramps at Evergreen, where a 10-horsepower motor limit is enforced. There are no bait shops on or near the lake, but boat rentals are available. Saugeye fishermen are restricted to a six-fish creel limit, with a 14-inch minimum- length restriction. This is a great lake for a family camping or picnic outing. Much of the lake is accessible for bank-fishing.

At only 240 acres big, this city-owned lake supports walleyes very well. Pittsfield City Lake is located just off Route 107 north of Pittsfield in Pike County.

Since 1985, Pittsfield has received annual, supplemental stockings of 2-inch walleye fingerlings. The stockings produce strong multiple-year classes resulting in a well-structured population. Steep dropoffs, with maximum depths up to 34 feet, lie offshore and along the steep west bank, providing ideal sites for walleye fishing.

Pittsfield receives very light fishing pressure for walleyes. The primary method of success by local anglers is jigging a worm- or minnow-tipped jig along dropoffs easily located with a depthfinder. Early morning and late afternoon hours are best. The creel limit is six fish, with a minimum- length limit of 14 inches.

Pittsfield boaters are restricted to a 25-horsepower motor limit with a "no-wake" operating restriction. Motors larger than 25 horsepower must be tipped up and out of the water with the prop removed. Boat ramps are located on the east and north ends of the lake, but no boat rentals or bait concessions are lakeside. Bank-fishing is restricted to public areas owned by the city.

Just east of Clinton off Route 54 in DeWitt County, 5,000-acre Clinton Lake is one of my favorite walleye spots. It was built in the late '70s by Illinois Power Company to supply cooling water for its onsite nuclear power plant. The IDNR's 2007 catch-rate survey for walleyes at the lake revealed Clinton anglers produced the sixth highest catch rates of the past 14 surveys. Certainly, the lake is holding its own. About 40 percent of these walleyes were longer than the minimum length limit of 14 inches. This lake's walleye creel limit is six fish.

Purchase a detailed topographic map of the lake at the Clinton Marina found on the south end of the lake. Use it to locate any gravel or sand bar in the lake's open-water terrain where, according to former IPC fisheries biologist Ron Willmore, walleye fishing is best. He also leads walleye anglers to the area of the rocky riprap at the dam. The edge of the buoy line on the north end of the lake (where boats can not pass) is also excellent, and, he adds, bank-anglers can find the area below the dam in the spillway to be a super spot for walleyes.

The best bait for motor trolling or wind drifting is a simple leadhead jig tipped with a minnow or night crawler. The bigger fish at Clinton seem to be caught most often with mid- to deep-running orange or chartreuse artificial baits.

Clinton Lake boaters are not restricted to motor ratings, and they can find boat ramps at many sites around the lake. Picnic areas and camping are available. Boat and motor rentals, and bait, are offered at the marina. Small boats should stay out of the main body of the lake when winds are forecast for 15 miles per hour and higher.

Lake Shelbyville -- an 11,100-acre impoundment in Shelby and Moultrie counties, off Route 121 just south of Bethany -- was built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for flood control. Walleyes have been stocked in this impoundment since 1994. Many fish in the 8-pound-plus category were weighed during a 2003 fish survey. Just two years later, a fish survey in 2005 found even better results, with many 24-inch fish and better numbers, as well as fish in the 12- to 20-inch range. There is little doubt among many Illinois anglers that Lake Shelbyville holds a state-record walleye!

An average walleye angler's best chance for success lies just off the old flooded Kaskaskia River channel where it enters the lake at its north end and leaves the lake at its south end. You'll need a depthfinder to locate the old river-channel edges. Riprap near bridges and the dam area also hold good numbers of walleyes, and the mouths of any of Shelbyville's small feeder streams are also excellent bets in May.

The statewide walleye creel and length limit -- six fish and a 14-inch minimum length -- applies at Shelbyville. Multiple marinas with boat rentals and numerous boat ramps and picnic and camping areas are found at many sites on the big lake. Boat motor restrictions are not in place.

It's been said that 85 percent of anglers who fish for walleyes say they are not catching as many fish as they would like. The other 15 percent are liars!

Walleyes have been described as nomadic, contrary and finicky. Here's some fundamental professional walleye fishing advice from one of Illinois' own -- Terry Mayhall, Cabela's 2007 Master Walleye Circuit Champion.

"The best advice I can give any want-to-be walleye fisherman is to buy good line," Mayhall says. "Too many guys either don't change their line from year to year or fail to buy quality line. Poor line will not survive a walleye's teeth or the initial hook-set on a 3-pound-plus fish."

Anglers who are going to get serious about walleye fishing, he adds, need a quality depthfinder and a midline GPS (global positioning system). "This equipment is required for locating struc

ture and marking it, so time is not lost finding it later in the day or on a return trip," Mayhall explains.

In early- to mid-spring, Mayhall and his tournament partner, Tony Dowiatt of Stevens Point, Wisconsin, troll or cast minnow-tipped jigs at the mouths of a lake's feeder streams or near shoreline dropoffs. When the water warms to 50 degrees and higher in late spring, they tip their jigs with night crawlers.

Walleyes are recognized as bottom-dwellers, but these are not the fish Mayhall and Dowiatt search out.

"Tony and I look for walleyes suspended near baitfish or ones feeding near shoreline dropoffs or other structure where baitfish are present," Mayhall says. "If jigs tipped with live bait fail to catch fish that have already fed, we throw or troll crankbaits and look for reaction strikes (as opposed to feeding strikes)."

The two best crankbaits for walleyes, according to Mayhall, are the Rapala No. 7 Shad Rap and the Rapala No. 11 Original Floating Minnow. His preferred crankbait color pattern depends on the lake.

"If gizzard or threadfin shad are present, we use silver Rapalas. If the primary meals for walleyes in a lake are bluegills or other panfish, we try orange, blue and chartreuse, or baits with a combination of those colors."

Lastly, Mayhall advises that a top-quality fishing rod is essential for successful walleye fishing.

"A walleye rod needs to be soft-tipped (flexible) and made from high-modular graphite," he explains. "Tony and I fish tournaments with 6-foot, 3-inch and 6-foot, 6-inch St. Croix rods of moderate to moderate-fast action." Without a good rod, Mayhall says, an angler will never know when a light-biting walleye is testing his bait.

The "when" for walleyes is now and the "where" is one of Illinois' Super 6 lakes. The "how" is patience, persistence and good equipment and the right baits. Go get 'em, anglers!

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