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Prairie State River Walleye Bonanza

Prairie State River Walleye Bonanza

Our state's rivers are coming alive with this biggest member of the perch family. Read on for three top-rated river systems to try right now! (May 2010)

If you're looking for some off-the-beaten-path fishing this month, river walleyes are it. Most of the anglers you'll see on the state's rives are local anglers who know a good thing when they see it. Most marble-eye anglers will head for the Prairie State's many lakes, which leaves plenty of room for newcomers on our moving waterways.

River fishing can be excellent, but walleyes won't just jump into your bucket. Even die-hard river anglers will find this species to be finicky at times and that may be why there aren't more anglers pursuing them. But anyone who's had his eye on the frying pan when the fillets are sizzling, and then sampled the results, agrees there's no tastier fish to catch.

Our Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is doing a great job of stocking fingerling walleyes with an eye to the future. Thousands are stocked across the state and these fish are fueling many fisheries into becoming self-sustaining.

Here's a look at three Prairie State walleye rivers where you should do well this spring.

Walleye fishing is good through much of the Kankakee River as it flows through Illinois. From the Aroma Park area at the confluence with the Iroquois River to the Illinois/Indiana state line, anglers can find good numbers of 'eyes and an occasional lunker. Kankakee and Will counties produce most of the good fishing. Key in on the stretches near the Kankakee State Park and the Des Plaines Conservation Area, up in the tributaries and below the dams.

The argument can be made that the Kankakee is one of Illinois' best walleye fisheries. The habitat is good, and the water is predominately clear with gravel riffles, sandy bottom pools and lots of vegetation along the shoreline in the upper stretches.


Deep holes and sharp dropoffs characterize the river bottom in some areas. The dams at Kankakee, Momence and Wilmington, and the Dresden Lock and Dam at the Illinois River, back the water up to produce good fishing.

Fish in the 10-pound class and more are commonplace, though the average sizes will be smaller. The Kankakee produced the state-record walleye that weighed in at 14 pounds. Fred Goselin caught that record fish, which still stands on the books since 1961.

As recently as 2000, the status of the state's walleye fishery was in question. The DNR has had problems finding many walleyes during fish surveys. At the same time, anglers were complaining of low catch rates. Biologists began working on the problem and since that time have stocked thousands of walleye fingerlings into the river. It was a wise move. The growth rates are good and a 5-year-old male can exceed the 20-inch mark, while females the same age may hit 25 inches.

The Kankakee River flows for 52 miles, offering a lot of good walleye spots, according to owner Nick Carr of the Kankakee River Trading Post in Kankakee. Three of the best fishing holes in his neck of the woods are above and below the Kankakee Dam and near the Kankakee State Park.

"These walleyes will bite all year long," said Carr. "The fishing is different than in other places because they keep right on biting through the year."

By May the fish are done spawning. They'll weigh less after laying eggs, but that doesn't slow them down in the least. Anglers with larger boats do their fishing above the dam where the water is deeper. They'll also fish on the adjacent flats. Below the dam there are wading and small fishing boat opportunities, depending on the river conditions. The river at the Kankakee State Park is shallow and rocky, but boating is possible if you're careful.

Live bait is the way to go from May into summer, said Carr. Big flathead minnows are the best choice for a variety of river conditions. Anglers who don't want to mess with minnows can use night crawlers with pretty much the same success.

Smithwick's Rattlin' Rogues, Rapala Husky Jerks and Bill Lewis Rat-L-Traps are the crankbaits of choice along with a jig and Mister Twister curlytail for the lure fishermen. Carr recommends tying on whatever the water color demands. If the river is crystal clear, stick to the natural bait colors of black and silver. When the water is stained, try white, chartreuse and other bright colors.

The Kankakee River State Park has two small boat ramps for small watercraft with motors of 10 horsepower or less. The Chippewa Campground launch is at the Area 9 parking lot on the south side of the river.

Two more possibilities for tangling with Kankakee walleyes are the area from the trestle downstream of Interstate 55 to the riffles and the hot water discharge area by the Dresden Nuclear Station. Good spots for big 'eyes can generally be classed into faster moving current below dams and other obstructions and in the confluence with tributary streams.

The Kankakee River has a minimum length of 16 inches and a three-fish daily creel limit.

For more information, call the Kankakee River Trading Post at (815) 933-9652 or Angelo's Bait Shop at (815) 476-7584. For current fishing reports and water conditions, check with the Trading Post Web site at Contact the Kankakee State Park at (815) 933-1383 and the DNR at (217) 784-4730.

South-central Illinois anglers need look no farther than the Kaskaskia River for spring 'eyes. The river eventually flows into the Mississippi River in Randolph County and offers good fishing along the way.

The Kaskaskia River's reputation as a walleye river isn't overdone. Anglers take lots of walleyes below the Lake Shelbyville Dam in the springtime. The fish are stocked in Lake Shelbyville and the river picks up those that escape. During the spring, these walleyes will stack up in the tailwaters of Lake Shelbyville, where they create quite a stir among local anglers.

Anglers primarily find walleyes downstream of Shelbyville. Above the lake, the walleyes are far and few between though the occasional walleye is taken.

Fisheries biologist Thomas Trent is a believer in spring walleye fishing because of the amount of reports he sees on angler success. During the early warm weather, the fishing can be excellent. Farther upstream from Lake Shelbyville, anglers have been taking some walleyes with limited success, but public access is virtually nonexistent and it's tough to reach this stretch of the river. Locals put in at the bridge crossings, but the launch conditions are far from ideal.

One of the best spots on the river is below the Lake Shelbyville dam. Local anglers spend a lot of effort on this stretch of the river and traditionally do well. More good fishing is available in Lake Shelbyville itself above the dam in the 11,100-acre impoundment.

Shelbyville is typical of Illinois river impoundments in that it can produce outstanding walleye action. Fishing guide Steve Welch points out that at times the lake can be a tough walleye bite, but that windows of opportunity do come along. Every year the tailwaters produce one or two 10-pound 'eyes.

"During mid-May and all of June, expect to find walleyes roaming with the white bass up on the windward flats," said Welch.

Stumps on these flats are very productive and Welch has ensured his success by logging them all on his GPS. A jig and a crawler are all anyone needs to catch these 'eyes. Just keep tossing the bait alongside the area's stumps. It's not a problem to take a few largemouth bass and white bass along with the walleyes. Welch's favorite flats are from point two up to point six.

Before this pattern the walleyes will be up at the spillway. If it's a late winter, they can still be lingering in the area. Mark the calendar for the end of February and on through all of April for next spring.

Twistertails and crankbaits are good all-around walleye baits for the area. Orange colors with some added chartreuse are the best choices. The time of day is critical, and low-light situations or even during the night are the most productive times to fish.

Saugers are going to be joining the Kaskaskia walleyes beginning this year and make a great bonus fish on the river. The river is scheduled to begin receiving annual stockings of 10,050 saugers in the navigation channel below Fayetteville this year.

There is a boat ramp and bank- fishing just downstream of Lake Shelbyville, but the river is sometimes too shallow for most of the downriver boat traffic.

Another good stretch of the river for walleye anglers is the tailwaters below Carlyle Lake, according to stream biologist Randy Sauer. The saugers give the lion's share of the action here, thanks to the 12-million sauger fry stocked into the lake every year by the DNR, and most of them run from 1.5 to 4 pounds.

The tailwater walleyes can be a lot bigger. Walleyes in excess of 7 pounds are taken, but the numbers aren't high in the warm water. The habitat is good and used by walleyes from the dam to U.S. Route 50. Depending on the lake water releases, the current is strong over the gravel and cobble bottom. Bank-fishing anglers do well, but the majority of fish will fall to vertical presentations of small jigs tipped with minnows.

The General Dean suspension bridge congregates fish early in the spring when both walleyes and saugers attempt spawning runs below the dam. Big 'eyes can still be in the area this month depending on the weather.

According to Sauer, there are low numbers but decent-sized walleyes between the reservoirs at Vandalia. These fish average from 2 to 3 pounds but occasionally weigh in at over 7 pounds. The lowermost 32 miles of river form the navigation channel, which is more like a long lake than a river. Walleyes have access to it but anglers more commonly tangle with bass, catfish, and the occasional sauger.

For more information on Lake Shelbyville, contact the Findlay Marina at (217) 756-8595. For additional information, contact Steve Welch at (217) 762-7257 or (217) 840-1221 or online at www.lakeshelbyvilleguide. com. You may also contact the DNR at (618) 594-3627.

The Upper Sangamon isn't one of those walleye destinations most anglers have on their list of places to go. In many cases, even the locals aren't targeting the fishery's walleyes. That may be because of the difficulty of finding public access, or it might be that, as in the Gibson City area, the water is just too shallow to run a boat.

Another factor that points to why these 'eyes usually go overlooked is that the numbers aren't particularly impressive. Also, the fish can be scattered unless you know where to look. The DNR has taken all this to heart and is looking at stocking as being at least one of the answers.

The Upper Sangamon is probably best known for its impoundment at Decatur. Lake Decatur covers 3,093 acres right in the city lights. Shad were taking over in the late 1990s, so the DNR went to work diversifying the fishery and stocking walleyes. Big 'eyes soon measured up to 23 inches with most falling into the 14- to 16-inch bracket. Not bad for a lake that only averages about 6 feet deep.

During the 2008 fisheries survey, the biggest concentration of 'eyes was above Lake Decatur at Monticello. Walleyes are native to the river, but it appears that the stocking in Lake Decatur is probably fueling the fishery at this point.

Trent has requested a five-year plan that will involve stocking 12,750 walleyes into the river beginning this year. The numbers of walleyes will be going up and this relatively untouched fishery is in for a change.

Upstream from Lake Decatur the walleyes averaged about 2 pounds during the most recent DNR survey. The largest fish was well over 3 pounds and taken where the highest catch rates occurred near Mahomet. Downstream of Lake Decatur, the walleye fishing should be better. Walleyes in the 6- and 7-pound range showed up during DNR samplings, and fishing in the Lake Decatur tailwaters is expected to be good during both the spring and fall.

The most critical factor is water clarity, no matter what section of the river you're fishing. Clear water gives these fish a distinct advantage over prey because of the walleye's good eyesight. Take away the advantage and the fish turn off.

When the water is high and muddy, give it a couple of hours to see what happens. When you come back, try the same baits and spots you'd normally fish. If you don't catch anything, consider finishing up and calling it a day. What happens upstream determines the water levels and clarity, and you can't change nature.

The best baits for the river bite are jigs tipped with a flathead minnow or a small plastic trailer, a three-way rig, or a floating Carolina rig. The Carolina rig is constructed with a rubber cork-filled floating hook that keeps the bait up off the bottom where the low-lying fish can see it. Other good options are time-proven live night crawlers, minnows and leeches on a 1/2- or 3/4-ounce weight. Use only enough weight to keep the bait on the bottom and be prepared for a light bite.

Look for walleyes on a variety of habitat, depending on their mood. Sometimes they'll utilize a sandbar or a current break, at other times they'll hang on a point or in slack water.

Access to the Upper Sangamon is somewhat limited and a factor that keeps a lot of anglers from enjoying the fishing. The public access points are in the

Champaign County Forest Preserve District Parks, at Monticello, the Lake Decatur tailwaters and the Lincoln Trail Homestead State Park southwest of Decatur.

The statewide 14-inch minimum length and creel limit of six fish daily is in effect.

For more information, contact the DNR at (618) 594-3627. For a list of boating fees collected by the City of Decatur and a lake map, contact the city at (217) 424-2837 or visit

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