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5 Best Illinois Fishing Spots for May

5 Best Illinois Fishing Spots for May
Photo by Ron Sinfelt

Warming temperatures stir the desire of Prairie State anglers. When it comes to fishing in the Land of Lincoln, May is a prime month. Beginning in the south and continuing north across the landscape, a whole variety of species become available to anglers.

Illinois length of 400 miles from north to south provides a variety of fishing conditions. Weather also plays a role as numerous fronts with associated storm activity affects fish activity. Lakes in the south are ice-free all year and the growing period is longer. That gives the fish a headstart on activity. In the north the ice has recently melted and the fish are lagging behind their southern brethren.


This 2,300-acre reservoir in Williamson County, about 10 miles southwest of Marion, is a warm-water discharge lake. Water used to cool power generators is discharged back into the lake making it a fishery that is ahead of the rest of the state when it comes to fish activity.

A private/public partnership owns and manages the lake with law enforcement in the form of a Lake Patrol. Boat ramps at marinas require a daily launch fee. No fishing is allowed within 100 yards of any shoreline man-made structures. Very little shore fishing is available except in the southern reaches of the lake owned by the U.S. Forest Service as part of the Shawnee National Forest.

Spawning activity in this lake varies with weather conditions. Generally speaking, the crappie spawn takes place in late April and continues for the first two week of May. Last year it did not take place until the middle of May due to cold and high water.

This is one of the few lakes in the state that is not managed by an IDNR biologist. A privately owned lake, there is little information regarding the fishery other than word of mouth from local anglers.

According to Matt Strobel, SnS Guide Service, the crappies in this lake make up for their length with thickness. "Our crappies have shoulders," says Matt. He maintains that in the past five years the populations of both bass and crappies have remained stable. The crappies run about 10 to 15 inches in length and up to 2 pounds in weight. According to Matt, the past two years have each seen 27,000 crappie fingerlings stocked.

When crappies complete spawning they move off the shallow water areas into brush and grass that is 8 to 15 feet in depth. If there is a dropoff with deep water nearby, so much the better.

Crappie will take jigs tipped with plastic grubs or minnows. Strobel prefers jigs with a slider grub or a twister-tail in bright colors. Matt does not recommend vertical jigging. Instead, he casts jigs to brushpiles or other structure. Immediately, as the jig hits the water, he starts his retrieve instead of waiting for it to sink. Stroble finds this helps avoid problems with jigs getting snagged. Milfoil and other weeds can be found growing in areas up to 20 feet deep along the shore.

The unpredictable and frequent weather fronts of southern Illinois during spring have a considerable effect on the crappie and bass fishing. By the early part of the month about half the bass have completed their spawning activity and suspend near deep water. They take such lures as jigs, spinnerbaits, crankbaits and soft plastics.



IDNR Fisheries Manager Mike Hooe describes Rend Lake as a "catfish factory" providing fantastic action for channel catfish along the rocky shoreline. Flatheads are huge but not often caught by hook and line anglers. Most of the flathead action is on trotlines or jugs after dark.

Natural reproduction and recruitment is strong and responsible for the large population found in the lake. Growth rates of the fish from year to year are good. Channel catfish in the 1- to 2-pound class are abundant. It is common to catch fish up to 6 pounds.

There is no daily creel limit for catfish. The daily creel limit of 25 crappies can have only 10 fish over 10-inches in length.

Rend Lake is a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers impoundment found in Franklin and Jefferson counties, about 6 hours south of Chicago via Interstate 57. The Whittington exit (Illinois Route 154) provides quick access to the lake, which is 4 miles west of the Interstate. Parking and camping information is available at the Visitor Center located at the east end of the dam. The phone number is (618) 439-7430.

As the fish begin their spawn, channel catfish move up on the shoreline and can be caught almost anywhere around the lake north of Route 154. Shore fishermen find the areas near or in the sub-impoundments at the north end of the lake good locations. Any of the riprap areas are usually good on warm days. Boaters drift over the flats trolling leeches and nightcrawlers.

The flooded buckbrush and water willow hold excellent crappies in both numbers and size. Fish are found in depths of 3 to 14 feet. Additional areas holding crappies include riprap along Illinois State Route 154, stumps, stake beds and the mouths of feeder creeks.

Additional species available include white bass on jigs and curly tails along the bridge areas and near main lake humps, largemouth bass near riprap, weeds and wood with soft plastics and rattling crankbaits; bluegills take crickets, worms, wax worms and meal worms near riprap.


Carlyle Lake is 24,580 acres of public water in Clinton, Bond and Fayette counties northeast of Carlyle. Management of the recreation facilities is handled by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has a Visitor Center. Information about the facilities and the park can be obtained by calling the center at (314) 331-8622. There are fees for use of some areas of the park and parking.

The Illinois State High School Association Bass Fishing Finals takes place on this lake during the first weekend of May. The activity will probably hinder some of the fishing action for those two days. The rest of the month is crowded with good bass fishing opportunities on both the main lake in the tailwaters below the dam.

IDNR surveys find that this lake contains a healthy, well-balanced fishery. Over half of the adult population of largemouth bass is 12 inches or greater in length. The condition of all size-classes is very good. One-third are 14 inches or more and the rest are 15 inches. The legal fish range in length from 14 to 21 inches and weigh 1 1/2 to nearly 6 pounds. There are 6-pound fish in the lake but 7-pounders are rare. With the high numbers of young bass present, the future of the bass fishery in this lake is very good.

There is a 14-inch minimum length on keeper largemouth bass and a 6-fish-per-day limit creel limit.

The gizzard shad move up on the rocks early in the month. Bass follow the shad forage, taking buzzbaits and crankbaits. They stay in the shallower water during the month. The best fishing, according to the IDNR, is in the coves and other protected areas where the fish come to spawn. Early May is a good time to catch some keepers. Frequent spring storms cause the water to becomes stained due to runoff. Local anglers report baits that make noise and/or are brighter in color are a positive.

As the days warm, fish are found down in the sections near the dikes where the rock bottom meets mud. Drop-shotting and Carolina-rigging small plastics as well as wacky-rigging Senkos produce fish.

Other species available this month include white bass, hybrid bass, channel catfish, sauger, crappie and bluegill. Multiple species are found in the tailwaters below the dam.


Perch "jerkers" enjoy the lakefront access along the shoreline from the Wisconsin state line down to the Indiana border. Some areas have parking fees but the lakefront fishing is open to the public. It is easily accessible by public transportation.

Early in the month, jumbos are caught in deep water at the south end of the lake. Down at the 95th Street Bridge, fish are found in the canal around the barges. Minnows and softshell crayfish are good baits on jigs. Softshell crayfish are those that are molting and have shed their shell prior to growing a new one. They are available at local bait shops. The perch population further north close to the shoreline contains some jumbos in addition to smaller fish. Along the Navy Pier area anglers use live minnows and cooked shrimp on drop-shot rigs. To a lesser degree, ice-fishing jigs tipped with spikes produce catches.

Also available at this time of the year are smallmouth bass in the harbors on the north side of the city, Coho along the shoreline of the city and kings off-shore at the breakwaters as they move north during the month, seeking cooler water.

Information on current conditions, creel limits and fishing action is available in Chicago at Henry's Sports, Bait & Marine; (312) 225-8538.


Once a warm-water discharge habitat, this 1,955-acre this lake was perfect for the hybrid bass. Today the hybrids and yellow bass still provide a great fishery for both boaters and shore fishermen.

Located about one hour southwest of Chicago in Grundy County near Morris, the lake is very popular with anglers from the metropolitan area. It is open to fishing from April 1 until ten days before the opening of waterfowl hunting in the North Zone. Gates open at 6:00 a.m. and close at sunset.

Heidecke is a partially perched cooling lake and can become hazardous during windy conditions. Bait and tackle, as well as boat rentals are available from a local concessionaire at the lake. There is no motor horsepower restriction for boaters, but each boat is required to have a working, gas-powered engine.

Bank fishing access is located at the eastern side of the lake and is handicapped-accessible. There is a barrier-free fishing pier located there.

A number of state records for hybrids and pure striped bass come from these waters. The latter are no longer stocked here since 1994. The hybrids continue to be stocked annually to provide angling opportunities for Illinois' best fighting fish. The stocking rate is ten fish per acre.

Hybrid stripers are caught on chicken livers by shore fishermen. Boaters troll crankbaits or cast them to the riprap. The peak of the hybrid action is usually about mid-month.

Fishermen are allowed to keep a total of 10 "stripers" per day, three of which may exceed 17 inches. The "stripers" include pure and hybrids as well as white bass. A hybrid is easily identified by the broken lateral lines along its sides. Pure striped bass are few and far between and often confused with white bass, which are usually 1-2 pounds and have small teeth at the base of their tongue.

Yellow bass are the third-most commonly caught species during IDNR surveys. They trail only gizzard shad and bluegills. They consistently rank in the top ten of game species caught by anglers. The yellow bass average just under a half-pound in weight. They have no size or creel limit.

Also caught this month are walleye on worm harness rigs with nightcrawlers, catfish on chicken livers, yellow bass on the same rigs, and white bass on spinner rigs trolled or noisy crankbaits cast to the riprap.

These are five of Illinois lakes the angler should check out. They are, however, just a sample of the fine fishing to be found in the Land of Lincoln.

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