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Newton Lake: Illinois' Perennial Largemouth Bass Powerhouse

Change has been a constant, but the popular lake continues to kick out lots of big bass.

Newton Lake: Illinois' Perennial Largemouth Bass Powerhouse

Pitching jigs with bulky trailers to grass edges produces bass with consistency when water levels permit, as Newton Lake guide Tab Walker proves here. (Photo by Mike Pehanich)

For Midwest anglers, Newton Lake is a heartland lake with a faraway feel. The road maps tell you that it's located just a short jaunt from highways I-57 and I-70, somewhere near the towns of Dieterich, Wheeler, Olney and Newton and not too far from the city of Effingham.

But the long stretches of country road and sprawling farmland that lead there give it the elbow room of a remote and unique bass angling destination. And unique it is.

Bassmaster Magazine has dubbed it one of the "100 Best Bass Lakes in America," and it’s one of few waters in Illinois to lay claim to such a distinction. But it's the wild, hungry eyes and over-the-top fish tales of avid Midwestern anglers that reveal how truly rewarding this power-plant lake can be.

BIG BASS BACKSTORY

Newton Lake has a noteworthy place in Illinois conservation history. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) signed a lease agreement in 1979 that created the Newton Lake Fish and Wildlife Area and gave Central Illinois Public Service Company (CIPS) the right to discharge cooling water from its electric power plant into the 1,775-acre reservoir that was created a few years earlier.


The cooling water, which left the power plant at a hotter temperature than the lake's natural water, extended the growing season of Newton's abundant largemouth bass population. Sensing a trophy bass fishery in the making, the IDNR imposed an 18-inch minimum size limit on bass—a bold conservation experiment at the time.



The Newton Lake bass population thrived under this management practice and even more from its abundant forage base of threadfin and gizzard shad. Soon, Newton was producing big, fat bass in wildly impressive numbers.

Personally, I can count many memorable moments fishing Newton Lake. My first bass ever on a spinnerbait was an 18 1/2-inch largemouth caught in standing timber on a frigid April day with air temperatures in the 30s. However, that incidental career footnote did little to prepare me for what would follow when I returned there years later to fish with guide Tab Walker, who—along with wife Vicki—owns the Outdoor Sportsman’s Lodge (outdoorsportsmanslodge.com) bordering the conservation area.

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Largemouths like this make Newton one of the Midwest’s premier bass waters. Expect bigger bass in the future with the lake’s altered generation plan. (Photo by Mike Pehanich)

We counted 84 largemouths, caught and released, along with several 1- to 2-pound white bass and a bonus channel cat on our first day of fishing together. Lipless and shallow-diving crankbaits accounted for most of our fish early in the day. A few fish on skirted jigs and even a 4-pound bass on a tiny Road Runner jig padded our numbers. We ended the day with a hot topwater bite over a wide flat at the south end of the coldwater arm. Many fine days have followed since.

One rainy spring day, Walker and I each caught 7-pound-plus largemouths back-to-back off of neighboring points before a steady rain turned into a torrent that would flood nearby bridges hours later. A brief evening session once produced eight bass up to 6 1/2 pounds, all from a single 150-yard stretch on a black/blue jig-and-pork combination. Most topped 5 pounds; none were under 4.




One of the most appealing aspects of Newton Lake fishing is that almost any bait in the tackle box can have a shining moment on a given day. For me, skirted jigs with trailing plastic or pork have produced big bass with the greatest consistency over the years. Prime targets are deadfall, riprap and shoreline mixes of cogongrass and submerged vegetation.

Newton often hosts spectacular topwater days. Buzzbaits are mainstays, but wake baits, walk-the-dog lures and popper/chugger-style lures draw the kinds of incredible strikes that can turn casual anglers into topwater addicts. On more than one occasion, a one-two punch of walking bait and fluke-style plastic have provided spectacular action.

POWER CHANGES

The fate of bass populations in power-plant lakes often hangs on the host generating station's pumping patterns. The past three seasons, the Newton Lake power plant has operated only one of its two generating units, thus pumping hot discharge water at only half its capacity.


"A lot of anglers got the impression that this would hurt the fishing," says Walker, who has guided on the lake for more than two decades and fished it often in its early years as well. "But what they didn't anticipate was that pumping less hot water would lead to bigger fish."

The power plant has undergone several changes in ownership since the CIPS years. (Luminant is the current corporate owner/operator.) Power generation patterns have varied, too, and the shifting volumes and intervals of warm-water discharge have had their impact on the fishery.

Intermittent discharge from the two generating units in the early years moderated water temperatures. The practice led to good numbers of bass with a surplus of big fish. Walker recalls surprising numbers of 7- and 8-pound bass weighed in during tournament competitions, with an occasional 9-pounder making the bragging boards. Later, higher and more consistent discharge patterns made for warmer lake temperatures and faster growing but short-lived bass. Anglers had lots of 5- and 6-pound bass to play with, but few fish lived long enough to reach beyond the 6-pound range.

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Topwater lures prove deadly effective in spring, summer and fall on Newton’s well-fed bass. (Photo by Mike Pehanich)

Diminished warm-water discharge today has delivered another plus. Excessively high water temperatures in the past made summer fishing tough. Consequently, angling pressure tapered off somewhat in late May and rather dramatically in June. Relatively few of the lake's faithful followers dared to struggle with her bass during the hot months of July and August.

Today, peak fishing extends beyond spring into June, and even the summer months can be quite productive. This is particularly true on the lake's east arm, known better as the "cold-water" arm. Anglers working deep structure with football jigs and crankbaits are frequently rewarded with hefty Newton Lake bass.

Cooler lake temperatures have wrought another significant change.

"We have beds of healthy vegetation now in the cold-water arm," says Walker. "In some places, coontail grows to the surface, or nearly to it, 50 to 100 yards off the bank. It's great habitat for working a hollow-bodied frog or reeling a buzzbait over the top of the grass."

The expanded habitat has boosted the survival rate of young bass and boosted overall bass numbers. The only negative consequence has been a downturn in winter action at the lake.

"You don't see those topwater bites during snowstorms like folks used to brag about too much anymore," Walker says. "But most guys are happy with better summer fishing as a trade-off."

And, if these changes do in fact lead to bigger fish, that will only further sweeten the deal for those sacrificing a bit of their winter-fishing opportunities.

"With the plant pumping with only one generator today, the lake is more like it was in the old days in terms of water temperature," Walker says. "The fish are getting bigger because they live longer. Each year, we are seeing bigger and bigger top-end fish."

Welcome to Newton Lake

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Newton Lake has a 25-horsepower motor limit. Boats equipped with larger outboards may only use their electric trolling motors on the lake. Tab and Vicki Walker’s Outdoor Sportsman’s Lodge provides handsome, rustic accommodations close to the west arm boat launch on the southern end of the lake. Full cabin and single-room options are available. The lodge has a limited number of fishing craft equipped with 25-horsepower motors and electric trolling motors available for rent. You don’t have to stay at the lodge to rent one, and lodge personnel deliver boats to the dock each morning and pick them up each evening.

Good dining opportunities are available in Newton and Olney, or Effingham if you’re willing to drive a bit farther. However, most visiting anglers prefer to prepare most of their meals at the lodge to maximize their time on the water. Other lodging options are available in the towns of Newton and Olney.

The cold-water east arm also has a boat launch. Both launch areas feature quality ramps and spacious parking lots with restroom facilities. Early-season fishing is heavily concentrated on the west arm, which benefits from the warm power-plant discharge. As the season progresses, fishing quality improves farther down the warm-water arm and into the cold-water east arm. During waterfowl season in the fall, the cold-water arm is closed until 1 p.m each day.

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