Crappies swim as one of the most popular game fishes among Illinois anglers … so popular, in fact, some anglers say they are worried about the future of crappie fishing in the Prairie State. With advances today in fishing tackle and electronics, more anglers are successfully landing more crappies, and some aficionados say catches are taking place in such larger numbers that both creel and slot limits may need to be expanded or further restricted to relieve the pressure on the state’s crappie fisheries.
State fisheries biologists of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources one day may have to ponder a wider range of management measures for crappies in some waters or, perhaps, across all our lakes and rivers that hold crappies.
But for now, general creel or size limits are not in place across the state; rather, site-specific regulations impose length and creel limits on named waters to protect those fisheries’ spawning populations and produce good crappie fishing at the selected sites. Learn more about the regulations in place on selected waters by consulting the 2019 Illinois Fishing Information guide published online at ifishillinois.org and available at selected license vendors across the state.
North Spring Lake
IDNR doesn’t show much interest in stocking crappies across northern Illinois, as local anglers show more interest in cold-water game fish than they do in crappies. But Spring Lake, 6 miles northwest of Manito, offers north-state anglers good fishing for white, black and hybrid crappies.
Spring lake originally spread across the Illinois River bottom as a freshwater marsh. In 1916, it lost the Illinois’ direct influence when it was separated from the river by construction of a high levee. From 1916 to 1981 the quality of the overall fish habitat and populations declined. In 1978 Spring Lake, 6 miles northwest of Manito, was divided into two distinct waters — North Spring Lake and South Spring Lake — for the purpose of capital improvements and the restructuring of the fish population. In 1981 both sections of the lake were chemically treated to remove the existing rough-fish population and to encourage the growth of aquatic vegetation.
Today, the lakes features an average depth of just about 3 feet, with 578 surface acres mostly covered with aquatic vegetation, principally Eurasian milfoil, curly-leaf pondweed, water lilies and American lotus. In spring, a tremendous, unusual recharge from the bed of the lake feeds a very cold change in water-temperature under the insulating layer of vegetation that holds for most of the summer and keeps the fishing active. This is the only lake in Illinois where this occurs.
IDNR fisheries staff reports that one-fifth of the crappie population measures longer than 9 inches and weighs about 1/3 pound. Local anglers use leadhead jigs tipped with minnows or soft-plastic tube bodies. Most fish are found around anything wooden. With its focus set on growing larger fish, the IDNR in 2017 locally introduced a creel limit of 25 fish per day, but only 10 fish can measure longer than 10 inches. Ten-inch crappies weigh about a 1/2 pound.
As a power-plant cooling lake for Clinton Nuclear Power Station, Clinton Lake provides its game fishes with a 10-month growing season and open-water (the lake does not ice over except during especially severe winters) for early spring fishing that stands contrary to lakes farther north where ice still holds its grip until February or early March.
Clinton Lake’s crappie fishery is managed by the IDNR for natural reproduction of black and white crappies that spawn naturally in the lake, located about 7 miles east of Clinton. Local anglers occasionally may catch a “black-nosed crappie” — a black crappie that sports a black stripe along its top margin from its nose to its tail.
Local fishing guide Jeremy Stoddard of Monticello says water discharged from the power-plant artificially warms the 4,754-acre impoundment, producing a spawning period as early as late April in the lake’s east arm, Salt Creek. Tie up to the channel barrier and cast into the “closed” water. Anglers also find spawning crappie on the creek’s main lake points and structure. Come summer’s hottest days, the crappies here retreat to the lake’s deep channels, following suspended bait fish.
From October through spring into May, Stoddard says, Clinton Lake crappies are often caught over and around the many brush piles located in the 20- to 24-foot depths. Look to fallen trees along the shoreline, too, that fall away into deep water. Riprap along the bridges of Route 48 and Route 24 holds crappies throughout winter where bank anglers can easily fish.
Stoddard commonly casts small leadhead jigs with extra-light wire hooks that can be pulled relatively easily out of snags. He tips them with a minnow or soft-plastic tube bodies. He recommends silver, plumb-crazy and monkey-milk color patterns.
Local fishing regulations impose a 9-inch minimum-length limit and restrict individual creels to 15 fish per day.
When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers constructed the flood-control dam across the Kaskaskia River at the town of Shelbyville in central Illinois, a long, narrow, winding lake filled the bottoms behind it, creating Lake Shelbyville, Iowa’s first-rate crappie fishery. Anglers find hundreds of coves on the 11,100-acre reservoir that hold bait fish, structure in the form of standing and fallen timber, and buck brush where crappie spawn in the spring.
Generally, Shelbyville’s crappie are always biting somewhere and will likely be found near some kind of cover. “Locations can change from day to day, even during the same day,” says local fishing guide Mary Satterfield of Eagle Creek Guide Service in Findlay. Like most predator fish, she explains, crappies are cover-oriented. They use it to ambush bait fish, and anglers must use a lure or bait that mimics the baitfish present at the right time in the right place.
Satterfield prefers jigs, which she says are less trouble than fishing with shad minnows, the other popular bait. She suspends a jig or bait beneath a slip float until the depth of the fish is determined by trial and error. A fishfinder can help turn that learning curve in an angler’s favor, she says.
Crappie fishing at Lake Shelbyville is, in fact, rated “excellent” by the IDNR for both white crappies and black crappies. Both species commonly run from 9 to 12 inches long, with white crappies marking the longest lengths in the 13- to 14-inch range.
Best Fishing Tips Ever-Terry Blankenship
In southern Illinois, crappie anglers go for the big ones. Crappie tournaments and multiple guide services promote crappie fishing at local lakes that have produced state-record crappies, past and present.
In recent years a lot of talk has centered around Rend Lake — much of it on its crappie population that, in 2013 and ’14, saw the average size of the fish decline. Since then, the overall size of individual crappie has displayed a slow but steady increase. Fisheries officials say the decline, first, followed by an improving size structure of the population indicates mortality and growth rates are both high enough to prevent the population from becoming stunted.
Rend Lake was formed in 1971 when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed a 2-mile long dam across the Big Muddy River floodplain. It sits astride Interstate 57, about 15 miles south of Mount Vernon.
Local crappie guide Kyle Schoenherr of All Seasons Crappie Fishing Guide Service in Oakdale agrees that problems with the crappie fishery were displayed years ago when a lot of people fished Rend Lake but not so many people were catching fish. Currently, Rend Lake produces crappies that average more than 10 inches long that weigh from 1/2 to 1 pound. Fisheries managers restrict daily creels to 25 crappies, with not more than 10 crappies longer than 10 inches.
Early in the spring fishing season, Schoenherr fishes small jigs tipped with very small minnows and suspended beneath a small float and tossed into the buck brush he refers to as “bushes.” Once the fish move off those spawning sites, he moves onto the main lake in search of wood structure near the creek channels and where creek channels close in on the banks. Points and the back of any “neck” where a ditch empties into the lake are promising locations, too, he adds.
Today, the quality of crappie fishing at Rend Lake produces “… some of the best fish I have seen in a long time….That is all great,” Schoenherr adds, “but it is just that, sooner or later, we are going to have to adjust accordingly the number of mature and juvenile fishes we are taking out of the lake.” Schoenherr echoes the concerns of many Illinois anglers who expect the IDNR to respond to high catch rates at several lakes with more restrictive creel and length limits.