Another year is upon us, and that means 12 months of great fishing. No matter the season or the section of the state, Illinois anglers have a wealth of opportunities and diverse fishing options to choose from. From drilling holes through the ice in the middle of winter to sweating in the blazing sun of summer, there is something for every taste. Here is our 2016 look at 36 top fishing choices for the entire year.
Mississippi River Blue Catfish
Winter is an extremely harsh time to be out on the big river and certainly not a time of year when most people think about catfish. Nonetheless, the winter months are a great time for catching whiskerfish, even quality or trophy size fish. On the Mississippi River this is especially true for blue catfish.
The jumbo blue cats are pretty lethargic in winter. They usually find a scour hole or depression along the bottom and "lay up" most of the time. Anglers can exploit this pattern by locating these deep bottom areas and dropping baits right down almost on top of the catfish.
The cats are not going to chase baits, but they take them readily when presented at close range. Remember to protect the resource at this time of year by practicing catch and release with the trophy fish.
Other Options: Bluegills are being caught on wax worms and other baits through the ice on northern lakes, and black bass action is good on our cooling lakes.
Lake of Egypt Largemouths
Female bass are building their egg sack all through the winter and are approaching their heaviest weights of the whole year. Sure February bass fishing is much slower than immediate prespawn, and quite a bit tougher due to the elements, but it is a great time to get off the couch and get a jump on the season.
Largemouths are often found along areas that transition from deep water to shallower water, and they do not hesitate to move shallower if the water temperature jumps up a few degrees. Look for a few warming days in a row, then hit the lake and check water temperatures to find an area a few degrees warmer than the rest of the lake. Work jerkbaits at a snail's pace. If no luck, switch over to a jig and slow down even more.
Other Options: Right now is a great time to cast baits into the tailwaters below the Ohio River dams and catch a variety of fish. The Kaskaskia River has a great population of saugers, and they are biting on jigs and minnows.
Lake Michigan Coho Salmon
Even before the ice is off the boat ramps and out of the harbors, anglers are starting to catch coho salmon from the shore at the warm water discharge areas. Coho fishing is improving this month, and plenty of fish are being caught from both the shore and from boats. Cohos are stocked into lake Michigan by Illinois as well as Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan, so there are plenty of 2- to 3-pound fish available. Limits of cohos are common in early spring.
Bank anglers typically throw natural baits such as shrimp, squid and nightcrawlers or stickbaits. Spoons are sometimes effective as well. Boat anglers use natural baits, too, but more often than not they prefer to troll with artificial baits or the trusty dodger and fly approach.
Other Options: Spring Lake is giving up some good northern pike this month, while crappie fishing is picking up on Lake Shelbyville.
Crappie fishing is exploding all over the state this month. From the north to the south, crappies are found in various stages of spawning. Some northern waters still have crappies in pre-spawn mode while spawning is concluding on some of the southern waters, especially for black crappies, which spawn earlier than white crappies.
What this all means is great fishing in the shallows for papermouths all over Illinois. The crappie run is on. Try minnows and jigs near shallow brush and downed trees for white crappie. Cast curl-tailed grubs or Road Runner baits along sloping banks with gravel for black crappies.
Crappies move around a lot, so there are no hard and fast rules. Try following ditches or drains that run from deeper water to shallow water. Crappies often move up and down in depth along these drains as conditions warrant.
Other Options: Muskies are active on Lake Shabbona, and good catches of northern pike are possible on the Fox River below the McHenry Dam.
Devils Kitchen Bluegills or Redears
This is panfish month, and one of the best spots in the state is Devils Kitchen Lake at the Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge. The lake is 810 acres, with great populations of bluegills and redear sunfish. A recent fish sampling showed 81 percent of bluegills to be 6 inches or more, and over 50 percent of the bluegills were 8 inches or more.
Redears were even more impressive, and actually outnumbered the bluegills. The data showed 88 percent of the redears to be over 7 inches and 18 percent over 9 inches. A few jumbos even broke the 10-inch mark.
Both species are present in shallow water, with the redears generally a little deeper than the bluegills. Live bait, such as crickets, wax worms and red worms work well for both species, but keep the baits close to the bottom for redears.
Other Options: Try the Fox Chain this month for walleyes and Powerton Lake for some hefty smallmouths.
Cedar Lake Largemouths
There is a tremendous population of largemouth bass at the 1,750-acre Cedar Lake near Carbondale. So much so, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources has had a slot limit on largemouths to encourage anglers to harvest small bass to thin the population and allow more fish to reach quality size. The numbers of bass at Cedar Lake 18 inches and over is very good.
Bass activity varies this month, according to the water temperature in the various portions of the lake. It is very possible to find bass in all three stages of the spawn. Pre-spawn fish are hitting very aggressively on a variety of baits. Female bass that have concluded spawning have pulled out into a little deeper water and are feeding up to recover from the rigors of the spawn.
Other Options: Good white bass action is fast and furious at times on Heidecke Lake this month. Smallmouth aficionados are catching fat bronzebacks at Lake Michigan.
Stream Fishing Mixed Creel
Summer is heating up, and that is a great time to wade or float an Illinois stream and catch a variety of fish. Most of the up and down weather and storms of spring have subsided, and the water levels are staying more consistent now. A spinning rod and reel and a few baits are all it takes to get in on some great stream action.
A day on the stream often results in catches of largemouths, smallmouths, rock bass, crappies, bluegills and occasionally even northern pike or muskies. That is the beauty of summer stream fishing. There is no telling what is stretching that line.
Other Options: There is great night fishing for black bass this month throughout the state. Use live minnows or other legal fish just before and after dark to catch jumbo flatheads in the Ohio River.
Rend Lake Channel Catfish
Nights are hot and humid, but the channel cats at Rend Lake do not mind at all. In fact, they are biting like crazy. Daytime action is good too at times, but fishing success really picks up just before dark and then on through the night.
Rend Lake has a very good population of channel catfish, even though the angler catch rate has been down a little over the past two years. There are still a very large number of channel cats between 1 and 3 pounds in the lake, and fish are caught frequently up to about 5 pounds or so. There is also an excellent population of flathead catfish at Rend Lake. Most of the flatheads caught are 5 pounds or less, but catches of fish up to 20 pounds are fairly common.
Other Options: Anglers are chasing hybrid striped bass in the jumps on Clinton Lake while others are catching white bass in the Illinois River.
Kinkaid Lake Muskies
The muskie fishery at Kinkaid Lake is rated excellent, and there are plenty of quality fish in the population. Fish over 40 inches are caught frequently, and the IDNR sampled fish up to 45 inches during the last spring survey. Kinkaid is considered one of the top destinations in the state for muskies.
Water temps are cooling down, and shad and other baitfish are moving shallower. The big muskies are following and are often caught in fairly shallow water along flats and in any areas of timber or vegetation. Try casting long-arm spinnerbaits or inline spinners. At other times a minnow-imitating twitch bait is more effective. Other good choices include bucktail spinners or even topwater baits at times.
Other Options: Striped bass are a good bet at Lake Sangchris near "Striper Point" in the northern end of the lake. Anglers at Lake Michigan are looking for salmon and lake trout moving shallower near the North Point pier.
Lake Springfield Largemouths
The population of largemouths at Lake Springfield is one of the best in the state and there are very good numbers of fish up to about 3 1/2 pounds. Fish over 18 inches are not in great supply, but anglers looking for a lot of hookups enjoy great success on Springfield. The lake has a very good shad population. As a result, the largemouths at Springfield average about 25 percent heavier per length than the statewide average.
Bass are chasing shad, which have made the annual pilgrimage into shallower bays and coves. Use electronics or visually locate schools of shad or other baitfish and then cast minnow- or shad-imitating baits to entice hungry largemouths. Another great option is to throw a Big Hammer swimbait in the same locations.
Other Options: Fall trout season opens this month, so check for available waters and take advantage of some great autumn angling. Yellow perch are still being caught at Lake Michigan.
Heidecke Lake Walleyes
Fall is one of the best times of the year to hook into quality-sized walleyes, and Heidecke Lake has plenty of them. Walleyes are stocked annually at Heidecke at the rate of 40 fish per acre, and the electrofishing catch rate by the IDNR in 2014 was at an all-time high. DNR personnel caught walleyes at a rate seven times higher than the long-term average, and more than 55 percent were above legal size.
Walleyes are shallow chasing food and are found along points, rocks and other shallow areas where shad and other baitfish are present. A crankbait worked slowly is hard to beat at times. Of course, dragging a nightcrawler or large leech behind a spinner or bottom-bouncer rig is a top choice as well.
Other Options: Anglers looking for the river experience are turning to the Kankakee River for catches of walleyes, while papermouth enthusiasts are casting jigs and dunking minnows for crappies at Evergreen Lake.
Ohio River Saugers
Good numbers of these tasty and hard-fighting fish are stacked up in the tailwaters below the dams on the Ohio River right now, and the fishing remains good all the way until late February or into March. Boat anglers have a bit of an advantage at catching them, but anglers on shore are successful as well.
Saugers like to stage near the bottom in the tailwaters along eddies and current breaks or at the mouths of tributaries. Fish jigs, minnows or a combination of jig and minnow right on the bottom in these areas. For a change of pace, try ripping a blade bait like the Silver Buddy up from the bottom, and then let it fall back slowly. Most times the hit comes on the fall.
Other Options: Target keeper-size white crappies with minnows in deep brush or structure at Lake Jacksonville. Plenty of hybrid striped bass are still available for winter fishing at Baldwin Lake.