In years past, fisheries fluctuated greatly and it was not a given that a trip to the local water hole would produce fish. Fortunately we do not live with those uncertainties today.
Highly-advanced fish science, better equipment and lots of sweat equity by fisheries personnel at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, coupled with more knowledgeable and caring anglers practicing catch and release, has resulted in phenomenal bass fishing all across the country. Right here in the Prairie State are bass fisheries providing most anything a bass angler could want. No matter whether the preference is a high-stakes bass tournament or just a leisurely day on the water with the family, there is a location and a bass fishery to satisfy.
The coming weeks include some of the most popular and productive bass fishing days of the entire year. Pre-spawn is one of the very best times to be on the water chasing black bass. But we are fortunate to have such diverse waters that good bass fishing is found virtually all year long in Illinois.
Following is our 2016 look at some of the better largemouth and smallmouth opportunities in the state. Of course we cover some of the big names in bass fishing, but we also try to uncover a few hidden gems or up and comers. Read on to get the low down on some of the top bass fishing waters in Illinois this year.
CRAB ORCHARD LAKE
This lake is quite large, totaling almost 7,000 acres, and it offers almost limitless angling opportunities. Bass fishing is consistently very good at Crab Orchard, and it looks promising once again this year. No matter whether you are looking for lots of action or just the big bite, Crab Orchard is sure to please.
There is a 16-inch minimum size limit on largemouth bass at the lake, but no worries. The percentage of bass at or above the minimum has remained above 20 percent of the population for the past decade or so. The last available survey figures from 2014 showed some 22 percent of the bass fishery was 16 inches or greater. Even more impressive is the fact 10 percent of the bass caught in the survey were also greater than 18 inches. Bass have plenty of forage, and their body condition is excellent.
There has been a lot done at the lake to improve and maintain the quality of the bass fishery. Some changes include fingerling bass and threadfin shad stocking, changes to harvest regulations and certain limits on bass tournaments. There have also been plantings of vegetation, the installation of fish attractors and the development of a dedicated bass spawning area.
The lake is within the Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge, and a user permit is required before fishing. Infomation: (618) 997-3344.
LITTLE GRASSY LAKE
Another lake to consider is Little Grassy, which is also within the Crab Orchard NWR. This lake is much smaller, totaling 1,000 acres. But it has a really decent bass fishery and should definitely be on the to-do list. The bass population contains good numbers of fish and size distribution through all year- classes.
The most recent sampling effort by the DNR resulted in a catch rate greater than the management objective for Little Grassy. Survey workers caught 94 bass per hour of electrofishing, and the management goal was 60 per hour. This indicates good numbers of fish present.
Some 46 percent of the sampled fish were 12 inches or longer, and 13 percent were over 15 inches. Body quality was not as good as management goal, but the sample did produce bass over 5 pounds. Threadfin shad are being stocked annually to provide additional forage and bolster bass body quality.
Little Grassy Lake also requires a user permit prior to fishing. Anglers may call the number listed above for Crab Orchard Lake or visit the refuge visitor's center on site.
This is one of those locations where the bass fishing is always great. Lake Springfield's bass fishery has remained very consistent year after year, with plenty of available fish through a wide range of sizes. A very robust population of shad helps feed these bass and keeps their body quality in excellent condition. In fact, DNR sampling indicates bass at Lake Springfield are 25 percent heavier per length than the statewide average.
Springfield is more of a numbers lake than a trophy destination though. Of course on a lake the size of Springfield, nearly 4,000 acres, there are some large bass available, but they are not as numerous as at some other Illinois lakes. DNR electrofishing shows a significant drop in numbers of bass over 3 1/2 pounds, but there are excellent numbers of smaller fish. Sampling produced a catch rate of 82 bass per hour of electrofishing during the last survey, and the lake has routinely produced catches of over 100 per hour in the past.
Not all bass fishing is confined to large reservoirs. Stream fishing for bass is very fun and productive. Fortunately, Illinois has some really great locations for stream fishing. The Kankakee River is one of the best in the state, especially for smallmouths.
A very good population of smallmouths is present in the river, and they are fairly well distributed. But they are more numerous downstream of the Kankakee Dam. The best location for smallies on the upstream side of the dam is Momence, where the current is stronger.
The river was sampled in 2013, and results showed very good smallmouth spawns from 2011 and 2012. Young of the year and fish age one were very numerous in this sample. That should mean very good news for this year as those fish have by now grown into the fun-to-catch size.
But smallmouths are not the only game in town. The Kankakee River also has a decent population of largemouths. Bigmouths are scattered throughout the river, but they are a lot more numerous in the areas with less gradient and slower current. Any areas of what is often termed "standing water" are great places to target largemouths.
The Kankakee River is very accessible for both shore anglers and boaters. Boat ramps are found at Momence, Aroma Park, Kankakee and Wilmington. There is shore fishing access at these locations and at other towns along the river. Some 11 miles of river access is available at the Kankakee River State Park.
Staying with the theme of stream fishing, anglers have another great option for stream smallmouths in the Rock River. The river courses more than 150 miles through northwestern Illinois and offers great fishing for smallies as well as many other species. A very good opportunity exists on the river for fishing days with a mixed creel.
Smallmouths are widespread and very abundant in the Rock River, but like the Kankakee, most are on the smaller size. It is not a location to target trophy fish, but if a fun day with lots of hookups sounds inviting, then the Rock has much to offer.
The most recent sampling showed similar results to the Kankakee. There were a couple of missing or poor year-classes of smallmouths, particularly from 2008 and 2009. However, there were very good numbers of small fish from spawns in 2012 and 2013. These fish are now providing a lot of action for anglers.
Largemouth bass are also present in the river, but numbers are much lower than smallmouths. They are mostly found in backwater and standing water areas of the river.
Access is very good on the Rock River, with plenty of locations for shore fishing or launching a boat, especially at the many towns along the river and at the dams. Ramps are also available at the Erie Boat Club, Lowden State Park at Oregon and Prophetstown State Park as well as several other parks and forest preserves.
Clinton Lake totals 4,895 acres and is home to an excellent largemouth bass population. Plenty of fish are available throughout a good size distribution. In fact, the most recent electrofishing survey produced a catch rate of 92.6 bass per hour, which was about 5 fish more per hour than the average of the previous four surveys. That means good numbers and lots of action.
The survey produced bass up to 5.7 pounds, and angler reports describe catches of even larger bass. There are plenty of legal-size bass in the population and no shortage of quality fish. The DNR data revealed 51 percent of the bass to be 12 inches or longer and 33 percent of the bass to be over 15 inches.
Largemouths are the primary draw at Clinton Lake, but there are some smallmouths available. Smallmouths have not fared well at the lake, even though the DNR attempted stocking them from 2001 to 2012. Stocking has since been stopped, and the numbers of bronzebacks showing up in the surveys are dropping.
Clinton Lake is a cooling reservoir for the Exelon Corporation's Clinton Power Station. The lake is open year round for fishing, but there are site-specific regulations, portions of the lake closed or otherwise strictly regulated. Call (217) 935-8722 to learn more.
This 2,325-acre lake near Springfield was also constructed to be a cooling lake. There are very good numbers of largemouths in the lake and the fishery is one of the tops in the state for numbers. The down side is the body quality per length is a little below desired level, although it does still rate within DNR management goals for the fish.
There are a couple of reasons it is believed the body size is a little down. One is that bass most likely expend more energy than they consume during the summer. This relates to the second reason, which is an unstable forage base. There are both gizzard shad and threadfin shad present in the lake, but gizzard shad spawns are very erratic and threadfin shad often experience a large amount of winter die-off. The DNR often stocks threadfin shad to help bolster a less than desirable forage base.
The good news, though, is the number of big bass at Sangchris seems to be on the upswing. The past two available sampling surveys show an increase in the number of bass 18 inches and over. It is estimated that about 10 percent of the bass population is 18 inches or longer. This is double the percentage of the 10-year average. The largest bass caught by the DNR during sampling was 22 inches long and weighed 7 pounds.
Anglers have much to choose from at this 2,750-acre lake in Jackson County. The largemouth fishery is rated as very good by the DNR, and the smallmouth fishery is rated as good. There are good numbers of both species in the population.
Largemouth numbers are especially good, based upon the last available survey figures. Biologists recorded the fourth-highest catch rate on record during this spring survey. Of all the bass caught, some 20 percent were over 16 inches, and 9 percent were over 18 inches. This translates to lots of fish, lots of action and the very real possibility of hanging a hook into a quality-size bigmouth.
Smallmouths are also in good supply, and the number of legal-size smallies apparently is on the increase. Catches of smallmouths over 16 inches are being reported by anglers, and results from DNR sampling concurs. Smallmouths have been stocked into Kinkaid Lake since 2005.
Well, our look at 2016 bass prospects is complete. Obviously we could not include all the great spots in the state, but hey, that is a good thing. It is exciting to realize just how many great bass fishing locations there are in the Prairie State and that these locations are but a starting point. Remember to check current regulations for these or other waters prior to fishing.