Between the Catchable Catfish Programs of the IDNR and local government bodies, as well as natural reproduction, the catfish is the most often caught fish in the Prairie State. Collaborative programs have stocked catchable-size catfish in a variety of waters.
The catfish family is the largest family of freshwater fish endemic to North America. In Illinois, the most common members are the channel catfish, flathead catfish, blue catfish and several species of bullheads.
Virtually every body of water in Illinois contains at least one species of the catfish family. Some are stocked and others are reproduced naturally. Catfish, mainly channel catfish, are produced in the three state hatcheries: Jake Wolf, LaSalle and Little Grassy. These facilities are dedicated to the expansion and enhancement of fish populations to meet a statewide need.
Voracious eaters, catfish are regarded by many as an easy catch. Dedicated anglers find that to catch the big ones requires time, skill and innovation. The big fish do not get that way by being stupid.
Many of the better-known catfish waters are heavily pressured this time of year, but we have identified five often overlooked Illinois catfish spots.
FOX CHAIN O' LAKES
The Fox Chain, as it is known locally, is actually a series of nine lakes through which the Fox River flows in northeastern Illinois. It is located about 50 miles northwest of Chicago along Illinois routes 173 and 12. Together, the nine lakes comprise 6,500 acres of slow-moving, interconnected water with a serpentine shoreline. Some adjacent swampy waters add an additional 500-acres to the waterway. The man-made waterway is a creation of the blocking of the river flow at the McHenry Dam.
The nine lakes are: Catherine Lake, Channel Lake, Lake Marie, Bluff Lake, Grass Lake, Fox Lake, Nippersink Lake, Petite Lake and Pistakee Lake. Heavily used in summer by recreational boaters, these lakes also contain an excellent catfish fishery.
The most popular fishing on the lake seems to be for game fish such as walleyes, pike, muskies and crappies. Some lakes also have good bluegill and yellow bass fishing available. The under-utilized fish in the chain is the channel catfish, even though they are abundant. There is no supplemental stocking required as the catfish reproduce naturally.
Catfish are available from the shore or by boat throughout the system. Numerous commercial and public access points make bank fishing possible. Local maps with launch ramp locations are available at local resorts and bait shops. Many areas have a swampy shoreline and are best fished from a boat. Channel cats up to 5 pounds are commonly caught. Flathead catfish, although not as common, are also caught. Most range in length from 5 to 33 inches and up to 25 pounds in weight. Both species are frequently caught in the tailwaters below the McHenry dam, at the south end of the Chain on the Fox River.
Local anglers recommend using medium-size fathead minnows, nightcrawlers, stinkbaits and cut bait. Nightcrawlers and stinkbaits seem to be the most productive in the warming water.
There are no site-specific regulations on catfishing these waters. Fishing piers, marina, bait and food service is available at numerous locations along the Chain O' Lakes.
Although owned by the City of Bloomington, this McLean County lake is managed by the IDNR though a cooperative agreement. The 635-acre body of water is located 10 miles northeast of the city.
The population of this lake is naturally reproducing and thus the lake is not stocked on a regular basis. However, in 2010, 10,000 3.75-inch channels were stocked to increase the species number in the lake. The adult population includes fish in the 21- to 33-inch class with weights up to 17 pounds being recorded by IDNR surveys. Fish in the 4- to 16-pound class are reportedly caught by fishermen.
There are also good numbers of flathead catfish in the lake. Both species are most often located in the upper arms of the lake, near the dam. Fishermen are limited to two poles and line with no more than two hooks on each rig.
Recreational boating and water skiing is permitted, but fishermen can beat the crowd by fishing at dawn and again at dusk. Many of the areas popular with catfish are not good for boaters and skiers.
There is only one boat ramp on the lake and an access fee is charged. Boats are limited to 40-horsepower outboard engines. For information on fees and the lake, call (309) 747-2615.
The City of Canton, in Fulton County, has a 250-acre reservoir with an average depth of 15 to 20 feet and a maximum depth of 35 feet. The wooded shoreline is about 13 miles in length. It contains a campground, boat launch and some private residences. The cold spring-fed lake produces clean, clear water.
The lake is just east of the city via East County Highway 27.
The channel catfish of this lake tend to run from 1/3 to 3 pounds. Apparently, the turbid water conditions permit natural reproduction and recruitment of a large number of smaller fish. Flatheads up to 42 pounds have been stocked and later some 5-inch blue catfish were added in the 90s. More recently, blues up to 28 inches and 15 pounds have been caught.
There is a six-fish limit of either channel or blues or a combination of the two. This lake also has a two-pole and line restriction with a maximum of two hooks or lures on each line. Boats are permitted provided they do not have an engine in excess of 90 horsepower and possess a boating permit issued by the city. More information is available at (309) 647-0288.
The forage base in the lake is gizzard shad, which is probably a good bet when it comes to bait. Popular locations for finding catfish are usually around submerged wood such as treetops. Woody areas are mostly found in the backs of coves.
A 4,234-acre reservoir on the south edge of the capitol city in Sangamon County, Lake Springfield does receive heavy recreational boating pressure during the summer months. However, shore fishermen enjoy the evening hours fishing for catfish. The channel catfish fishery has long been established and supports numerous tournaments. Channel catfish up to 12 pounds and flathead catfish up to 50 pounds are routinely caught.
According to Mark Hubbard, local angler, the lake has always supported a large breeding population of the rod-bending channels. He fishes the riprap, explaining that it provides breeding habitat and protective areas for young fish. The lake also sports a great forage base of threadfin and gizzard shad and bluegills upon which young fish will feed.
Hubbard also fishes the points, mouths of coves, around bridge pilings or along the breaklines created by dredging in the past in the upper arms of the lake. This month there is a great shallow-water fishery along the riprap shoreline. Hubbard believes they are following spawning carp and eating carp eggs as well as preparing for their own spawning season.
The standard catfish baits are nightcrawlers and cheese (stink) baits. Other baits include: shad, cut shad, shad guts, live or dead minnows, chicken livers, raw shrimp and dipbaits. All will work. Hubbard recommends fishing a nightcrawler about 12 inches below a float. He casts it from 1 to 5 feet from the bank and slowly retrieves the bait parallel to the shoreline. The best fishing time is at dawn and just after dusk.
A newer addition to the lake is the blue catfish.
According to Dan Stephenson, IDNR fisheries biologist for the lake, in the spring of 2005 the department began a stocking of blue catfish, a species more commonly found in larger reservoirs and rivers.
With the help of local fishermen, 146 blue catfish were brought from the Mississippi River and released in the lake. Blue cats from the Alton area, where these fish come from, are known worldwide as producing the largest of their species. The world records as well as state records for Illinois and Missouri come from these waters. The stocked fish were from 3 to 57 pounds in weight. The largest blue catfish caught more recently weighed in at 81 pounds and is probably from that original stocking.
In the years since, some supplemental stocking has occurred with the most significant one being in the fall of 2011. It was the second one of the year. It brought to 15,000, the number of 5- to 6-inch blue cats stocked during the year.
Catfish are known to prefer underwater structure such as rocks and brush. An addition in the past year is beaver "huts" in many areas of the lake. So much so that they are a problem for the landowners who's trees they cut down and who's docks they include in their home building. As much of a problem as they are, these structures hold the promise of being honey holes for catfishermen. This summer will tell the tale.
Blue catfish are live-bait eaters. Unlike their channel cousins, they will move out into more open areas to feed in the evening. Fishermen will suspend a live shad or goldfish about 18-inches below a float in hopes of hooking a big one.
Boats are permitted and several ramps are available. There is no motor restriction. Fishing access is available in numerous areas around the lake.
SOUTH SPRING LAKE
In the late 80s the IDNR established a major catfish fishery in the 610-acre South Spring Lake. Prior to that, all the undesirable fish population was removed.
Located about 12 miles south of Pekin, the lake is part of a dual lake divided by a causeway. The other lake is called Spring Lake North and contains 578 acres. Both lakes have good angling for catfish.
Over the years, supplemental stocking was done until natural reproduction established a good, catchable supply of fish. Today the fish range from 1 1/2 to 15 pounds in weight.
Most popular fishing locations are along the riprap as anglers establish their territories after dark. The best fishing opportunities appear to be along the center levee and on the west levee.
Nightcrawlers and stinkbaits are the primary baits. Some success is reported using minnows, cut shad and shrimp. Small bluegills are sometimes used but they must be legally caught at the site under Illinois law. No multiple hook devises are permitted. Pole and line fishing-only is permitted and there is a six-fish limit.
Boats are limited to 25-horsepower motors. The north lake has two gravel ramps and one concrete launching ramp. The south lake has one concrete ramp. Food and camping is also available on the property.
ILLINOIS URBAN FISHING PROGRAM
The bodies of water mentioned previously are just some of the lesser-known catfish waters in Illinois. One of the most popular catfishing programs is the Urban Fishing Program of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, providing additional catfish action in parks with ponds.
The program is basically designed to increase fishing participation by children. A key aspect is the stocking of catchable-size catfish in small ponds and lakes accessible to kids during the summer. Clinics are conducted at 16 local park districts throughout the state. Free loan of tackle and instruction on its use is also a part of the program.
Local adults are also allowed to fish for these catfish, providing additional little-known access to catfishing action. For more information about the Urban Fishing Program, contact the IDNR office near you or the main office in Springfield.