How to Hold a Musky (and other info)

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Illinois Muskie Madness!

You used to have to go to the Land of Cheese for world-class muskie fishing. Not anymore, because we have dozens of great Esox waters right here in the Land of Lincoln. ( July 2006)

By Ted Peck

Illinois has over 25 public lakes that the Esox king calls home, with muskies also swimming in a number of private impoundments and several rivers. The status of this fishery is excellent and getting better every day, so much so that the state record could fall again before year's end.

Several lakes hold the perpetual propensity for profound piscator production. Shelbyville, Spring, Shabbona, Otter and Kinkaid are all capable of generating multiple heart attacks in your boat when a 50-incher comes cruising by. Several more waters have fish very close to the 50-inch mark, with mid-40s fish swimming in waters all over the Land of Lincoln.

Illinois' biggest concentration of public muskie waters is in the area surrounding Peoria County, with more than a half-dozen "toother" lakes within a half-hour's drive from each other, and less than three hours' drive from any point in our state.

We have small lakes less than 100 acres that can be effectively probed in a couple of hours, and vast waters like Shelbyville that can take days to explore. Kinkaid Lake falls between these two parameters, and is at its very best when we're counting down the shopping days until Christmas, and a couple months after the new year begins when ice still covers much of Illinois north of Springfield.

Ironically, the cold-weather periods are prime time for muskies on the Rock River from the state line south to Sterling-Rock Falls. Most Rock River muskies are hooked by anglers chasing walleyes within a mile from dams at Rockton, Rockford and Oregon. This fishery exists courtesy of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, which stocked muskies in Lake Koshkonong about 13 years ago. There are only several low-head dams to prevent escape from Wisconsin and these fish thrilling Illinois anglers.

Land of Cheese muskies aren't the only representatives of this species with a ramblin' nature, with barrier nets now in place on waters like Pierce Lake in Winnebago County to keep these predators from flying the coop.

A half-dozen private lakes, primarily in northern Illinois, have been stocked with muskies large enough to establish state-record marks like the one that came from Lake Summerset on the Winnebago/Stephenson county line a few years ago. Because access to these lakes is limited to property owners and their guests, there is no point in providing further information on these waters beyond mentioning the fact that bona fide wallhangers are swimming in at least four of these developments.

The most recent data available from the statewide Muskie Creel Survey Project released last October, which was a joint effort between the Illini Muskie Alliance and the Illinois DNR, chronicles muskies caught in 49 different areas "as well as some unidentified areas" between inception of the project in 1987 and the end of 2004.

Both pure and hybrid muskies are found in the Prairie State, originating from several different genetic strains. Some have come from different states, either intentionally like fish procured from Pennsylvania, or covertly like the fish that sneaked out of Wisconsin's Lake Koshkonong after a heavy spring rain.

The Jake Wolf Hatchery facility has enabled Illinois to develop into a muskie destination of national merit in an evolution that has scarcely been 30 years in the making. We've come a long way since muskie stocking was a process of carrying five-gallon buckets containing 9-inch fingerlings from a rearing pond at Lake Carlton up over a dike and dumping them into the lake -- and dumping other buckets into a horse tank in the back of a flatbed truck with a jury-rigged oxygen tank for rapid transport to other northern Illinois waters. I'll never forget the late fisheries biologist Mike Sule standing there wet beyond his waders and covered in mud while holding up one such fish and proclaiming, "Here is the future of Illinois fishing!" before placing the little muskie in a bucket. Retired DNR biologist Al Pulley took about six steps toward the waiting truck with this pail before he stumbled and fell, producing a gut-busting fit of laughter from all forgathered.

Gut-busting is still part of the Illinois muskie picture in 2006, but the character of laughter has changed, because you gotta get her back in the water after a quick photo. With catch-and-release in mind, here's a look at your shortest odds for a Kodak moment in the months ahead.

KINKAID LAKE
Creel survey data indicates this 2,750-acre lake near Murphysboro on the fringe of the Shawnee National Forest may be our state's premier muskie water.

Kinkaid is tied with the Fox Chain-O-Lakes in northeastern Illinois for the greatest number of muskies caught over 48 inches with 11 fish. This incredibly scenic lake has also produced more muskies since 1987, according to survey data, with 1,334 fish of all sizes. The Chain was second in this category with 1,064. These lakes were the only two waters with four-digit catches.

As noted earlier, fishing is better here and on other downstate waters like Shelbyville and Otter Lake earlier and again later in the year than on northern waters. However, Kinkaid differs from the other top six lakes in the state in that lures with white colors outfish black ones here. But the color and character of Kinkaid changes considerably between its upper reaches and the dam. Waters in the upper arms and bays of this lake are more discolored. Statistics indicate casting a bait with more color, as it will work better here. Statewide, 47 percent of all muskies were caught by casting lures with more than basic colors.

Of course, muskies could care less about statistics. But if you want to talk short odds, try speed-trolling big shallow ShadRaps in firetiger and metallic carp patterns on short lines in November and early April in the upper end of the lake close to the shoreline.

Another solid pattern is casting Jake lures and big tandem spinnerbaits in the bays and points down by the marina. On a good day, the 11-hour average it takes to hook up goes right out the window, especially up in the Johnson Creek arm or down by the spillway.

It's a well-known fact that muskies can suffer from stress quickly in warmer water. And water temperatures between now and late September will be above 80 degrees in Kinkaid. Illinois' admirable 92 percent catch-and-release rate established over the years doesn't mean squat if the fish go belly up. Consider leaving Kinkaid, Otter and Shelbyville alone until the kids are back in school if you don't know how to conduct a safe release.

For more information on fishing Kinkaid, contact the Kinkaid State FWA at (618) 684-6421 or the Murphysboro Chamber of Commerce at (618) 684-6421.

LAKE SHELBYVILLE
With over 11,000 acres, this U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reservoir has countless places for fish to hide from summer's heat. But a well-established pattern that comes into play after Labor Day makes this prime water to target until the leaves begin to fall.

Shelbyville is far from classic muskie water. But riprap wasn't part of the Creator's grand scheme in the initial wiring of these predators that have grown to dimensions well in excess of 50 inches in recent years.

If you just want to catch a muskie, tie on a chartreuse Jake or a big black tandem bucktail with orange blades, and then cast around the docks and rocks of the Lithia Springs Marina or walk the shoreline below the Shelbyville dam. Several other riprapped areas in close proximity to a boat launch farther up the lake hold even greater potential for hooking up.

If you're looking for an Illinois muskie autumn dream trip, book lodging at Eagle Creek State Park and be certain the batteries on your trolling motor are fully charged. You may want to use the big motor to load the boat on the trailer at day's end. And a memo: There will be at least one huge, whopping pig-beast of a muskie hanging very, very close to the Eagle Creek boat ramp when the acorns start falling from the trees!

Statistics from the creel project indicate 744 muskies caught here between 1987-2004, with eight fish greater than 48 inches. This lake has already produced one state record and drawn attention from the national muskie trail.

Connect the dots. October. Rocks. Big bucktails and jerkbaits. Your name in chalk as the new Illinois state-record muskie holder!

For more information, contact the Shelbyville Chamber of Commerce at (217) 774-2221 or Eagle Creek State Park at (217) 756-8260.

EVERGREEN LAKE
This 1,000-acre lake just north of Bloomington surrounded by Comlara County Park is my favorite Illinois muskie lake. A 10-horsepower limit and pricey boat launch fee keep all but serious anglers away in droves.

Get past these ground rules and you're fishing Illinois' third-best big-muskie lake from a statistical standpoint, with 6 percent of the 157 muskies chronicled here over the years at that 48-inch benchmark. This translates into 10 fish -- just one big toother behind Kinkaid and the Fox Chain.

Although you can target most of the prime points and flooded timber areas on this lake in a good day on the water, there is much to be said for camping at the county park in a multiple-day effort. Don't forget a good selection of obnoxious fluorescents. If you keep 'em in the water, they'll likely have toothmarks when you head home.

For more info, call the Comlara Park Visitors Center at (309) 726-2022 or the McLean County Chamber of Commerce at (309) 829-6344.

FOX CHAIN-O-LAKES
Recreational use at the opposite end of the spectrum from Evergreen can be found on the Fox Chain-O-Lakes in northeastern Illinois, with these 7,400 acres of interconnected waters certainly holding the potential for a new state muskie record.

The DNR muskie program on this water was initiated in 1982 with a number of Leech Lake-strain muskies. Since the mid-1990s, The Chain has been giving up an average of about one fish in the 48-inch class per year.

The odds that you will be the lucky angler to boat such a fish in 2006 are pretty long. The creel survey indicates over 17 hours of species-specific pressure for every muskie boated on The Chain, which sees an average of over 50,000 people out there on the water on any summer weekend.

Of course, few of these people are muskie anglers, and an even smaller number have more than a basic knowledge of how to fish these critters. Bearing in mind the old adage, "You can't catch any fish with your line out of the water," a key to hooking up here centers around a trolling presentation this time of year with a hefty lure like the Bucher Depth Raider.

Past DNR surveys show a real muskie affinity for Lake Marie and Pistakee Lake, especially in Pistakee Bay. Nippersink and Bluff lakes also hold good muskie potential, as does trolling the waters that connect the lakes, which is probably your shortest odds for putting a lure in front of the fish.

For more information, call Chain-O-Lakes State Park at (847) 587-5512.

SHABBONA LAKE
With waters like Otter and Spring Lake North raising so many eyebrows among the muskie fraternity in recent years, some have forgotten that this 318-acre De Kalb County lake with the 10-horsepower limit has produced four state-record muskies. Although fish of these record-setting year-classes likely have little representation in the ecosystem anymore, there are solid numbers of mid-30-inch fish eager to stretch your string.

Traditionally, fire-tiger and orange/ black colors have worked quite well here, especially when trolled over the old creek channel, deep weedlines, the levee and around the many other manmade structures in the lake. If you feel like casting, go work the flooded timber.

Although Shabbona sees tremendous pressure, your chances for "moving" a fish here are excellent, especially when a front is moving in or toward dusk during the middle of the week.

Call Shabbona Lake State Park at (815) 824-2106 for more information.

OTTER & SPRING LAKE NORTH
Both of these midstate fisheries have the potential for producing both a state record and a multiple-muskie day when the fishing window is open. Unfortunately, weeds block your attempts to hook up about 11 1/2 months out of the year. Go to next year's calendar and put the lake names with a question mark down in early March. Chances are if you're on the water when it all comes together, the window will be closed by the time you tell the local muskie club your story.

Otter is one of just a dozen Illinois lakes with reputations for giving up a beast. When you figure the number of days when it's possible to fish this lake in a calendar year, the 335 fish indicated in the October 2005 creel survey make this water the place to be when it all comes together.

THE BIG PICTURE
There is no such thing as an easy muskie. My nephew, Darrin Marcure, caught his first muskie, a 40-incher, in just four casts on Apple Canyon Lake in Jo Daviess County. He's made thousands of casts since, and he's only had a couple of follows.

One of the state's oldest muskie lakes, Lake Carlton in Morrison-Rockwood State Park, is still stocked at one muskie per surface acre every year. Since 1987, anglers have reported 820 muskies caught on these 77 acres, by far exceeding the 744 fish noted on 11,000-acre Shelbyville. But the creel survey indicates it takes over 22 hours to catch a muskie on tiny Carlton, with hooking up in Shelbyville only taking half as long, and fishing the Kaskaskia River below the Shelbyville dam even more productive.

Muskie success is all about intelligent time on the water. June is a much more productive time for Illinois muskies than July. But your chances of hooking up are much better an hour ahead of an approaching weather system in July than putting in workmanlike eight-hour days in the middle of June.

When the time is right, Loon Lake near Antioch in northeastern Illinois is a great place to fish, even though it's close to a large segment of Illinois' population. Ditto Lake George in Rock Island County, which receives an average of 300 hours per acre of muskie fishing pressure each year because of the lake's proximity to the Quad Cities. Lake Storey just down the road near Galesburg is about the same size but receives twice this much fishing pressure. However, DNR biologists say Storey still "has the potential to produce 30-plus-pound muskies."

A barrier net placed in Pierce Lake near Rockford in 2002 is keeping muskies in this 162-acre state park lake. Before placement of this barrier, 39 muskies were recaptured below the dam and returned to the lake from 1997-2001. Where are these fish today? Many of the escapees are probably still in the lake, and are considerably larger now.

Every single muskie is a valuable natural resource. Once these fish grow beyond 36 inches, their actual cash value is in the hundreds of dollars, or to paraphrase a charge card commercial, "priceless." With a catch-and-release rate at 92 percent statewide, Illinois muskie chasers are certainly on the right track. Catch-and-release is only part of the program. You can do more for this valuable resource by not overplaying or overstressing fish, and using a cradle for capture and an in-the-water photo before release.

Illinois has arrived as a muskie fishing destination of national merit. The future of this fishery is entirely in your hands.

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