How to Hold a Musky (and other info)

Friday, March 17, 2006

Good old days of Illinois fishing here right now (for Muskie)

By Scott Richardson

I llinois fishing is in its prime from Mike Conlin’s point of view. “The good old days of fishing are here right now. They have been awhile, and they’ll continue,” said Conlin, who began as a fisheries biologist for Central Illinois and was head of the Department of Natural Resources fisheries division for 30 years.

Conlin, who oversees fisheries, wildlife, forestry and non-game wildlife, spoke to the annual banquet of the Central Illinois Musky Hunters on Saturday.

He said fishing in Illinois, indeed throughout the United States, moved in the right direction in the 1940s and 1950s thanks to push by fishing organizations for legislation to impose a small excise tax on fishing equipment. Still in existence, the money is collected by the feds and doled out to the states. The money was first used to hire biologists and professionalize fisheries management.

The 1970s ushered in a Golden Age with passage of the Clean Water Act. Conlin remembers a time before that when the odor of sewage was strong in the Illinois River. Fishing surveys produced mostly carp and many of those were deformed. But, the Clean Water Act forced a clean-up and remaining populations of sauger and walleye, bass, catfish and white bass replenished the river in a scene played out in waterways across America.

“That was the start of something very good,” Conlin said. “Twenty years later, even 15 years later, we saw tremendous things happen. Water quality increased tremendously. Now we have fisheries all the way up to Chicago. That doesn’t mean we don’t have further to go. But for point-source pollution, it is a fantastic story.”

Many reservoirs were built in Illinois in the 1960s and 1970s. Cooling plant lakes began to dot the landscape. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had been busy building Lakes Carlyle, Rend and Shelbyville, he said. More state fisheries biologists were added.

The state fish hatchery system also was expanded, and fish production jumped from 2- to 3-million bass, catfish and sunfish annually to more than 10 times that number of 19 species, including walleye, saugeye and a variety of salmon and trout. There are muskies, too. Conlin was instrumental in introducing the big fish to Spring Lake, which provides the brood stock to stock more than 30 lakes. The vision of Illinois becoming a trophy muskie state is reality.

Things are not all rosy, he admitted. Fishing in Illinois faces several challenges.

w Invasive species like Bighead carp and Silver carp are infesting the Illinois River as they make their way from the Mississippi River to the Great Lakes. About $9 million is being spent to build a permanent electronic barrier. Phase I is done, Phase II should be done by summer. But, Congress has not taken action to insure the $1 million needed to operate it on an annual basis is there.

w Gov. Blagojevich’s budget cutbacks hit DNR hard, causing significant layoffs. Others took early retirement. Fewer hands to do things have slowed work at the hatcheries and put added loads on already-busy biologists. The good news is the bleeding may have stopped. Conlin said the department has gotten enough money recently to fill some vacancies.

“That’s good, and that’s very positive,” Conlin said. “DNR, there’s just a ton of dedicated people who find a way to get the job done. That’s why I love this job. They really care about what they’re doing very deeply.”

That’s certainly true. Thanks to Conlin and crew, Illinois is a great destination for several species from bass, catfish, sunfish, Great Lakes’ salmon and trout and striped bass to trophy-sized fish, including saugeye, sauger and muskies.

Over the years, anglers have seen their annual fishing-license costs slowly rise from $2 to $5 in 1979, then $7 in 1983 and finally $12.50 in 1994. Where else can you get a value like that?

Club notes

Terry Brown, chief sales and marketing officer of will speak on bass fishing techniques and lures for Central Illinois lakes to the Faithful Fishermen fishing club at 7 p.m. Monday at Lexington Community Church.

Big fish

Don Farrell from Ottawa caught a 6½ pound bass at Evergreen Lake on Wednesday.

Renew licenses

DNR Direct, the Department of Natural Resources new automated license, permit and registration system, is up and running at about 200 vendors statewide. If you fish out of state, the system is like what you find in Missouri, Iowa, and Wisconsin. Licenses are printed out on point of sale terminals. No more hand-written forms. You can still buy licenses on-line at or by phone at 1-888-6-PERMIT. Fees remain the same.

Scott Richardson is Pantagraph outdoor editor. Phone (309) 820-3227 or e-mail Check out Scott’s past columns and blogs at


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