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Seven Great Illinois Fishing Destinations

Summer is the perfect time to plan a fishing road trip in Illinois.

Seven Great Illinois Fishing Destinations

There are plenty of places to fish this summer that are still fairly close to home. The important thing is to plan ahead, prepare your gear and consult with area experts upon arrival. (Photo by Ron Sinfelt)

The adventurous angler finds a wealth of road trip possibilities in Illinois. It is time to pack up your fishing gear and head out on the highway. Excitement awaits those seeking giant trophy fish or wanting quality and quantity in smaller ones. Here are a few suggestions for this summer only a few miles from home.

CHICAGO WATERFRONT

Located on the shore of Lake Michigan, Chicago provides excellent fishing for the salmonids. Introduced to cope with a smelt invasion in the 1960s, this fishery now includes Coho and Chinook salmon, steelhead, rainbow and brown trout. It is possible to hook into fish approaching 35 pounds in weight.

Boaters can have access to nine harbors in the 22 miles of shoreline available to bank fishermen, as well as the north side of Navy Pier. The city has many charter boat guides specializing in the salmonids.

The charter boat captains often communicate with each other in locating schools of salmon and reporting the location to each other. This increases chances for the anglers to catch fish.


Shore anglers do well with power lines on coho and brown trout using lures like Little Cleo spoons and Baby Bunkers. Boaters find trout and salmon in about 85 to 100 feet of water on brighter-colored spoons and flasher/fly combinations.


All of the lures and colors are subject to change from day to day or even morning to afternoon. That is why the cooperation among charter boat captains is so helpful.

If You Go

Visit Henry’s Sports, Boat and Marine for up-to-the-minute information, charters and tackle that you will find helpful on the water. The address is 3130 S. Canal Street, Chicago.

OREGON ON THE ROCK RIVER

Located just 90 miles west of Chicago via Illinois Route 64, the Rock River Dam at Oregon in Ogle County is a catfish factory. In addition to channel catfish, this section of the Rock River is nationally famous for producing up to 35-pound flatheads.


Flathead anglers use salmon and muskie rod/reel combinations. The rig consists of a large hook on an 18-inch wire leader. Above it is a metal swivel, a bead and a large egg sinker. The bead prevents the sinker from fraying the knot at the swivel. The wire leader prevents the fish’s teeth from wearing through the line. The rig is tightlined without a float to keep a sucker right on the bottom.

For the shore angler, try the pool just below the dam on the west shore. Many larger fish are regularly caught there on summer evenings.

Boaters fish the deeper pools of the main channel. The rig will keep a live bait in the form of a bluegill low in the water column yet allow freedom of movement.

If You Go


Check in over at Kevin’s Bait Shop on the west end of the dam for key tackle and advice, local hot spots, the closest boast ramp and info on the action of the day.

SHABBONA LAKE

Out in DeKalb County, 2 miles south and 1 mile east of Shabbona is the unofficial “Muskie Capital of Illinois.” Constructed as a fishing lake, it has 318 surface acres. The original river channel that was impounded with old road beds and standing timber makes for great muskie fishing. Four state records for muskies have come from here. The average fish is 35 inches in length and weighs 13 pounds. The largest fish caught was 49 inches and weighed over 37 pounds.

The flat land surrounding the area can create windy conditions, making for challenging fishing. Early summer anglers put in near The Camp Store on the north side and enter the northwest arm with standing timber, submerged laydowns and its electric-motor-only area. The rest of the lake is limited to 9.9-horsepower outboards.

Additional muskie habitat is in east bay with wood, weeds and promising points.

“Knock on wood” with bucktails fan-cast into the shoreline when the water temperature is below 60 degrees. Switch to jerkbaits and crankbaits for the rest of the season.

Windy conditions cause blades to break the surface like a baitfish in a panic. Spend only 15 to 20 minutes in a location before moving on.

As the weed growth develops, work the outside weed edges with the same pattern.

If You Go

Plan to fish only in the early hours, as the boat traffic on the lake gets heavy later in the day with panfish and bass anglers. The Camp Store has food, fuel, boat rentals and sit-down dining available. Camping spots are available, and the park has hiking trails with wildlife viewing.

LAKE SHELBYVILLE

Moving south down I-57 from Chicago and a short drive east of St. Louis is the 11,100-acre reservoir Lake Shelbyville stretching across Shelby and Moultrie counties. For the angler in search of a change of pace, this flood plain impoundment on the Kaskaskia River is a fantastic fishery. Among the variety of species is the sometimes-overlooked white bass, which consistently account for the greatest number of fish caught. What they lack in size, they more than make up for in terms of their numbers.

The fish spread out across the lake in the 120 miles of mostly wooded shoreline. Beneath the surface are numerous ledges. Anywhere there is a ledge near deeper water, white bass often sit on the underside of the ledge just out of any current. They wait in the first 1 or 2 feet on the downside of the ledge for the wind or current to drive forage toward them. It is where the current seems to stall as it flows over them.

Lacking electronics, anglers look to the skies to find seagulls diving to catch bass breaking the surface as they attack the shad forage in the top of the water column. Popular lures are minnow-imitating spinners or small jigs with white or chartreuse tails. Jig/minnow combinations work well. Anglers can catch up to 100 fish in an afternoon, with the average one being 12 inches in length.

If You Go

Visit the Lake Shelbyville Visitors Center of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at the east end of the dam. It contains many exhibits of the natural history of the area as well as aquariums and an observation deck that overlooks the lake at the dam. Bait, tackle, and other marina services are available on the north end of the lake in Findlay and in the other surrounding communities.

ALTON POOL ON THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER

Ever since the days of Mark Twain, the Mississippi River has been associated with fishing for catfish. Today it is a great place to find big blues, channels and flatheads. Chief among the areas for all three is the pool at Alton, near St. Louis.

This stretch of the river has seen 125-pound blue catfish, 100-pound flatheads and channel catfish approaching 50 pounds.

The channel catfish tend to be found in the open river. Fish in the 5- to 10-pound range are pretty common.

The big flatheads come from just below the Mel Price Dam at Alton. Look for them behind the wing dams as they scour out holes just off from them.

For blue catfish, check out the area down near the mouth of the Missouri River. The river opens up more there, attracting the big guys. Unlike the other catfish species, blues like fresh bait suspended and not on the bottom.

A popular bait for the big blues seems to be the heads of skipjack herring caught locally in the tailwater. Cut bait in the form of shad is preferred by the channels and flatheads.

The locals are a friendly bunch who are happy to share fishing tactics with a new person on the river. There are numerous bank fishing and boat ramp access areas in this section of the river.

If You Go

There are many attractions in housing, restaurants, etc., in the St. Louis area. Great camping and state park resort facilities are on the river just to the north of Alton at Pere Marquette State Park. There is a boat ramp and docking facilities there, too.

STEPHEN A. FORBES LAKE

This Marion County 542-acre lake lies about 14 miles northeast of the east-central Illinois community of Salem. It’s within the boundary of the 3,100-acre Stephen A. Forbes State Recreation Area. A lack of cottages and docks on this lake makes it popular with anglers in search of some solitary topwater and shallow-water bass fishing.

The north end offers good vegetative cover for bass. Bass drive gizzard and threadfin shad into the shallows. Work the laydowns and along the outer edge of weeds with 7-inch plastic worms and salt craws. Flip lures into the submerged branches and along any tree trunks. Work spinnerbaits and buzzbaits over main and secondary points.

Natural bass reproduction is supplemented with fingerlings from brood ponds. A slot limit of 14 to 18 inches protects fish between those length. Most of the bass found in the lake average 2 to 3 pounds.

The vegetation is coontail moss and duckweed. Work topwater lures over surface vegetation. Fish exploding from the water beneath the vegetation is enough to excite even the most jaded of bass anglers.

If You Go

There are slips and boat ramps available as well as a concession stand offering rental boats, meals, bait, tackle and a variety of other services. A number of small ponds in the park provide some great fly-fishing for panfish.

CRAB ORCHARD

The largemouth bass caught in this lake are sometimes referred to as “footballs” for their rather hefty size and general body shape. In 2018, an angler boated a 11.71-pound behemoth.

Crab Orchard Lake is on the edge of Marion in Crab Orchard Wildlife Refuge in Williamson County, several miles west of Interstate 57 at Exit 54.

Bass are point-oriented and tend to concentrate in areas with some structure, be it wood or rocks. Most are found in areas less than a foot deep.

The coves north of Highway 13, Grassy Bay and the riprap in the western portion of the lake are also popular with the fish. Anglers are cautioned to proceed slowly in Grassy Bay due to an abundance of stumps that are often concealed by emergent vegetation.

Dark blue bass jigs, lipless crankbaits and spinnerbaits are the most popular terminal tackle. Catch and release is practiced by most anglers. There is an 18-inch length limit for keepers.

If You Go

A small museum focused on the refuge, the lake and the fishing available is open at the Visitor’s Center on Route 148, about a mile and a half south of Illinois Route 13. Necessary tackle and baits can be found over at Cooksey’s Bait Shop on Illinois Route 148 just north of the Visitor’s Center.

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