One of the best things about angling in Illinois is the diversity that can be enjoyed. Obviously there are no saltwater species, but we do have most any opportunity a freshwater angler could imagine. There is anything from farm ponds to large reservoirs, small streams to massive rivers. Plus, we even have the big-water opportunities at Lake Michigan. No matter whether it is chasing a plethora of species in the warm months or pulling a few through an ice-hole in winter, Illinois truly has something for everyone.
Each year we at Game & Fish consult with our experts, go over recent data and put together a calendar of top-notch fishing trips to keep anglers busy the entire year. We highlight a top pick for each month and toss in a couple of bonus picks as well to tally up 36 great opportunities throughout the Prairie State. We always try to give a good mix of species and locations. With that in mind, here are our 36 top choices for this year. Pick a spot, grab the gear, then get out and wet a line.
Fox Chain O' Lakes Panfish
Ice-fishing is very popular at the Fox Chain O' Lakes or "The Chain" as it is more commonly known by the locals. The Chain consists of nine major lakes connected by channels and totals over 8,000 acres. The Chain is located about an hour's drive northwest of Chicago off Illinois Route 173 and U.S. Route 12 near the cities of Antioch, Fox Lake and McHenry.
Several species of panfish can be caught through the ice at the chain, but bluegills are the most targeted. Anglers familiar with the lake congregate in the best locations, so newcomers to the lakes can quickly bypass unproductive areas simply by looking for where others are fishing. Channel Lake totals nearly 350 acres and is one of the more popular waters for ice-fishing.
Sampling for bluegills at the Chain in 2013 indicated numbers of 'gills over 6 inches at about 47 percent, which is up from 2011 and comparable to numbers from 2009. However, since the introduction of gizzard shad in 2009, the maximum size of bluegills collected has dropped below 8 inches.
Other Options: Good numbers of saugers are available below the dams on the Ohio River, and anglers are using minnows to catch northern pike at Busse Lake.
Illinois River Saugers
Saugers are rated as excellent in the Illinois River, and although often overshadowed by the larger rivers in angler conversations, the Illinois River offers some tremendous sauger fishing. Saugers are found throughout the river, but the portion from the Mississippi River up to the Starved Rock Dam has the most density.
Saugers begin stacking up below the dams in late fall and continue congregating throughout the winter. Great fishing is found this month, and it continues on into next month. As the water warms the fish eventually start spreading out more.
Look for saugers to stack up in scour holes or in slack water on the edge of a current break where they can pick off forage drifting by in the current. Most anglers fish jigs, minnows, or jigs tipped with minnows almost on the bottom. An overlooked but highly effective method is to use a blade bait such as the Silver Buddy.
Other Options: Perch can be caught along the Lake Michigan shoreline in open water areas. Look to find active largemouth bass in the warmer waters of our cooling lakes.
Rend Lake Crappies
Beat the crowds waiting on the peak of the spawn and get in on some great crappie fishing this month. The crappies are moving shallow in preparation to spawn, and the action gets better as the month wears on. Probe brush or woody structure in deeper water first, and then move shallower until the fish are found. To cover more water quicker, cast Blakemore Road Runners and retrieve slowly.
The crappie fishery is doing really well at Rend Lake. Anglers can expect plenty of fish between 9 and 12 inches, with some real slabs in the mix.
Other Options: Use live minnows or shad or chicken liver to take hybrid striped bass in the Ohio River. Use jigs or grubs to hook up with smallmouth bass this month at Powerton Lake.
Crab Orchard Largemouths
The largemouth bass fishery at Crab Orchard has been doing great for the past several years, and DNR sampling data shows bass present in a wide size distribution. Recent sampling from the fall of 2013 showed more than 65 percent of the bass caught were 16 inches or larger. An impressive 18 percent were also 18 inches or larger.
Bass are shallow this month and can be caught from boat or bank. Plenty of cover is available as well as fish attractors. Depending on water temperature and weather conditions, bass can be taken on a wide range of baits this month.
Other Options: This month crappies are spawning all over the state, so target shallow water areas with brush or wood to get a limit of papermouths. Trout stockings by the DNR this month are providing abundant opportunity at stocked waters.
Panfish action is red hot this month as bluegills and other panfish are making nests and spawning throughout much of the state. Look for the dished out bluegill beds in shallow water coves and then cast baits directly into the beds or suspend the baits below a bobber and drift over the beds.
Crickets or red worms are hard to beat as bluegill baits. For a change of pace and more challenge, try drifting small jigs or casting inline spinners. The bigger bluegills and redears tend to spawn in a little deeper water than the smaller ones.
Other Options: Fish red worms or crickets on a slip bobber near the bottom to catch redears at Devils Kitchen Lake. Largemouth bass are in all three stages of spawning at Lake of Egypt.
Tailwater Hybrids and Stripers
Several states bordering the Ohio River stock hybrid striped bass into the various pools of the river. Jumbo striped bass are also present in the river, and both of these species can be caught in the tailwaters below the dams.
Anglers wanting to cast baits should use soft baits such as the Sassy Shad. Cast into the current and retrieve along the current seams to pick up good bites. Live minnows or shad can be hooked up and drifted with the current. Lots of different species inhabit the tail waters year-round, so using live bait can result in bonus catches of other species. Hybrid striped bass are also susceptible to chicken liver.
Other Options: Curly-tailed soft baits, inline spinners and crankbaits will coax Fox River largemouths to bite. Use jig and minnow combos or bottom bouncing rigs to take walleyes at Heidecke Lake.
Wabash River Catfish
The Wabash River is shared by Illinois and Indiana, with the bulk of the river in the Hoosier State. However, Prairie State anglers have plenty of the river in which to hook up with some nice channel catfish this month. The Wabash also has some good flathead catfish in certain stretches.
Look for brush, downed trees or other woody structure to find the channel cats. Fish a slip rig on the bottom with night crawlers, chicken liver, dip bait or other stink bait. These baits can also be suspended below a bobber, but still presented near the bottom. Flatheads should be targeted with live minnows.
Other Options: Use jig and minnow combinations to catch nice-sized walleyes in the Pecatonica River. The channel catfish are actively biting at Rend Lake on live baits and stink baits fished on or near the bottom.
Statewide Night Bass
Temperatures are heating up all over the state, recreational lake use is abundant and sunlight penetration is intense. All these things have added up to take a toll on daytime bass fishing. However, after the sun goes down, it is a different ball game all together.
Largemouths can be targeted all month at night. Anglers can choose from a variety of tactics; each can be great depending on conditions and the receptiveness of the largemouths. Spinnerbaits, jigs with trailers and soft plastics all can be productive at times.
Other Options: Use crankbaits and minnow-imitating baits to take white bass in the Illinois River. In the larger Ohio River, all three major species of catfish can be caught this month on offerings ranging from stink baits to chicken liver to live shad or minnows.
Lake Michigan Mixed Bag
A good mix of species is available in Lake Michigan this month. Boat anglers can get out and catch lots of different species, including some jumbo lake trout. Fishing from the shore or piers is productive, too, as many species are in fairly shallow water. Coho and king salmon, brown and steelhead trout, perch and smallmouth bass are all very catchable right now. In the lagoons, anglers can still catch catfish and bluegills.
Other Options: Throw spinnerbaits along current seams, drop-offs or downed timber to catch quality northern pike in the upper reaches of the Des Plaines River. This is a great month to get out for a float trip or do some wet-legging in state streams to catch a variety of species, including bass, walleyes, crappies and panfish.
Rock River Walleyes
This river runs more than 150 miles across the northwestern corner of Illinois. It is a popular destination for numerous species, including catfish, smallmouth bass, saugers and white bass. Also popular and a very good target this month are walleyes. Jumbo 'eyes can be caught on minnow and jig combos below the dams and in deeper holes downstream.
Other Options: Labor Day marked the end of most of the recreational lake use, and falling water temperatures are pushing shad and largemouths into shallow water. Right now is a great time to get out and score on plenty of hungry bigmouths. Throw minnow-imitating baits or live bait in the tail waters of the Ohio River to catch a wide variety of species this month.
Fox Chain O'Lakes Muskies
The Chain is stocked annually with muskie fingerlings, and subsequently, the fishery is in really great shape. Hook-up rates are higher here than at many muskie lakes due to the numbers of fish present. Most of the fish caught are under legal keeper size, but some real giants are caught every year. Most anglers practice catch-and-release anyway.
Casting and trolling are both used to catch fall muskies at the Fox Chain. Large jerkbaits, spinnerbaits, surface disturbance baits and specially-designed muskie baits are used when casting shallow water or along the edges of weed lines. Other anglers prefer covering more water by trolling the edges of weed beds or over points and other likely locations.
Other Options: Fall is muskie time in Illinois, and Kinkaid Lake provides another great option to tangle with these toothy behemoths this month. If a higher catch rate and something a little more docile is desired, a good fall crappie bite is happening at Cedar Lake.
Ohio River Blue Catfish
Winter is one of the most predictable times for huge trophy blue catfish. The big whiskerfish "lay-up" in deep scour holes below the dams, on the outside bends of the river and at the mouths of tributaries. Use live shad or cut bait from shad or skipjack herring fished on a slip rig on the bottom. Be patient, as bites may be slow in coming. But when they do it could be a fish of a lifetime. Blue catfish are very vulnerable in winter, so please consider catch-and-release.
Other Options: Use drop lines with live minnows over deep brush and other cover to entice bites from tightly-schooled crappies at Lake of Egypt. First-ice is a favorite time of year for hardwater anglers, and several northern Illinois lakes should offer great bluegill fishing this month.