Archive for February 2012


April brings showers, but before then, the crappie move into the staging areas in preparation for the annual spring spawns.  Knowledgeable anglers know that Williamson County contains some of the premiere crappie lakes in Illinois.  For some helpful information about the lakes and fish, read on.

 The largest single recreational area in Williamson County is the 43,500-acre Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge located near Marion, Illinois.  More than a million people visit it each year.  Many of the visitors partake of the fishing available on the refuge’s three lakes:  Crab Orchard, Little Grassy and Devil’s Kitchen. 

The sprawling 7,000-acre Crab Orchard Lake is a popular one.  The lake’s 125 miles of shoreline contain weed beds which are home to the white and black crappie.  The adult fish stage just off shore and move in to the spawning beds as the water warms.  Additional action is found along the rip rap and causeways.  Small jigs and jig/minnow combinations are the baits of choice.  These small leadhead jigs are floated below a bobber or just jigged up and down.  The jig tipped with a small minnow is used to entice the reluctant bite. 

By the end of the spawn the fish scatter but remain catchable.  Many fish can be found relating to brush piles and beaver dams. 

To the south of Crab Orchard Lake, but still within the refuge property, Devils Kitchen Lake can be found just off Spillway Road.  Here too the crappie will be staging and soon move into the spawning beds.  This 850-acre lake contains a good population of crappie.  Action in the pre-spawn can be uneven but the areas near the beaver lodges in the southern reaches of the lake are usually a good bet. 

Later during the spawn the shallows are the best bet as fish move in to the lay their eggs and later to defend the nests.  As the fry hatch the adult fish tend to scatter to other parts of the lake.  Again jig and jig/minnow combos are the ticket to success. 

Two miles further south on Spillway Road one finds the third and final lake on the refuge.  Little Grassy Lake is a 1,000-acre lake waterway with wooded shoreline.  Crappies stage in about 8 to 12 feet of water before moving in to the brushy areas for the spawn.  Following the spawn, they move back out to the 8 foot level.  After a brief respite they continue into deeper water of six to 20 feet for the rest of the year.

 The fourth major lake in Williamson County is Lake of Egypt,  a 2,300-acre power plant cooling lake.  Located about seven miles south of Marion and three miles east, this lake is famous for its bass and crappie fishing.  Due to the warm water discharge from the cooling of electrical turbines this lake tends to be slightly warmer than surrounding bodies of water.  As a result crappies tend to stage and spawn a couple of weeks earlier. 

Most of the larger crappie (up to two pounds) are found in the brush just off the points.  Smaller fish will be hanging around the banks in the southern parts of the lake where water is shallower.  Following the spawn crappie move out into the main creek channel and are usually found relating to wood structure and drop-off in up to 20 feet of water. 

Wherever one decides to fish for crappie this year chances are they will be there.  Locate a school of fish and have a ball. 

Local bait shops and sporting goods stores are an excellent source of information.  The people are happy to steer you toward where they are biting.


The most popular area of the Illinois River for sauger and walleye fishing is between Henry, Illinois and the Starved Rock State Park.  The fish population is about 80 percent sauger, 10 percent walleye and 10 percent saugeye.

At the Spring Valley boat ramp, anglers drop their boats into the water and begin a day long quest.  The winter cold is forgotten and the heat of summer is yet to come.  But, the cool temperatures and high water will bring the big female fish back from down river.

When the water temperature of the river rises into the 50-degree range, the fish provide anglers with opportunities to catch big fish.  With the assistance of trolling motors, fishermen work lead head jigs just off the bottom of the river at about 15 feet as they drift with the current.  After drifting a significant distance they return working the same water upstream.

The warming water brings the big female fish back to the area in search of spawning areas.  Anglers begin catching 15 to 16-inch fish in the 2 to 3 pound class.

The basic rig is a three-way variation on the classic Wolf River rig.  The main line is tied to one of the three-way eyelets.  To another is a short drop line of about 8 inches with a 3/8th to ½ ounce jig which will bounce off the bottom.  The other eyelet leads to an 18-inch line and another jig and minnow combination.  Often a trailer hook is added.

In the warmer weather a 1/4-ounce jig is used.  Both jigs are in bright colors to better allow the fish to see them in the dark water of the river.  Blaze orange, chartreuse or pink are popular colors but others work as well.  As the water cleans up black, blue and purple begin to produce results.

Anglers seem about equally divided in their use of braided vs. monofilament line.  Most prefer the lighter 6-pound test line but some will go to 8-pound.  For the three-way rigs some anglers prefer 6 ½ to 7-foot rods.

During summer some anglers turn to trolling crankbaits 100 to 120 feet behind the boat on either lead core or monofilament line.  The lead core line keeps crankbaits down near the bottom.  Other anglers like to stay with the lead core line all year.

The rigs are trolled in slower moving water at about 14 or 15 feet deep.  The rods used are in the 5 ½ to 6-foot length with sensitive tips.  Out in the deeper water anglers switch to longer rods set wide and off from the boat.

Tournaments during the spring season produce sizeable amounts of money that is poured back into programs for the river.  Some 10 to 15 million fish are stocked into the river for the future.  The tournaments have always been catch and release since they began in the Spring Valley area.

This economic treasure to the area is in jeopardy from the advancement of the Big Head and Silver Carp.  Both are invasive species not native to the area.  The Big Head eat the eggs of the sauger. The Silver Carp devour the zooplankton upon which the sauger and walleye depend.


Out foxing the wild turkey can also mean conquering the weather.  Some springs in Illinois have been rainy ones.  Nevertheless, turkeys stay out in the rain and if a hunter wants one, he has to do the same.

Rob Keck, former Executive Director of the National Wild Turkey Federation, finds that some springs it rains on his parade too.  “Everywhere I go,” says Keck, “It seems like it rains.  I hunt more times in the rain than I can remember.”

Keck has to find way to get around the weather.  He spends a lot of time just trying to find a dry place where he can still hunt.  Out buildings and rock outcropping are just two of the places he uses.

Always on the alert for ways to beat the weather, Keck takes his slate call, turns it upside down and uses it that way.  When not using it, he keeps the call and striker inside his coat.  By using these two maneuvers, he is able to keep it out of the elements.

Keck, who uses slate calls quite a bit, always carries his strikers in Zip loc bags.  He just pops the bags into his vest.  He usually has his vest on the outside of his rain gear so that the calls and strikers are accessible.  In the bags, they remain dry.

He stresses the need to keep a striker dry.  Because once that tip gets wet, you are out of business.

Speaking of strikers, Keck finds that a real ticket to successful calling relates to the fact that some birds want you to start with one call and finish with another.  He has to carry a variety of strikers.  However, he likes to do that anyway.

When in the woods, Keck carries a variety of calls from box calls, mouth calls, slates of different compositions, even wingbone calls.  When asked how many calls he carries, his response is, “I usually put a 50-pound limit on it.”

Keck finds it amazing that he can get one turkey to gobble on one particular striker and the next bird will not even listen to it.  He just keeps switching around to find what is really going to work.  Sometimes it appears that a bird appears not to respond to a slate call, but it may be that he will not work a slate call with that particular striker.

Keck points out that often a striker with a commercial call does not match the slate.  He works at matching strikers to the slate.  Each combination sounds different even though they are made of the same types of woods.  Keck carries a variety of wooden strikers, usually made out of very dense and heavy woods.  He uses everything from tiger wood, rosewood, ebony to a whole variety of woods.  This enables him to find what works best with a particular call.  He explains that, “everyone is going to have a different sound when you combine two surfaces.”

That includes box calls as well.  Keck finds that changing the angle of the lid on a box call can make a different pitch.  To do this Rob either backs out the Phillips head screw or tightens it.  “What this does,” explains Keck “is change where the paddle is actually striking on the lip of the box.”  As you get out closer to the edges, a higher pitch results.  Moving more to the center, you are going to get a deeper pitched sound.

Every turkey wants something different.  Changing calls is one way to change the sound of the box call.  Another is how you hold the call.  You change the sound by changing the location of where you hold it.  Holding it into your body and reversing where the hinge is located will change it as well.

Keeping your calls dry, experimenting with them and their use, and using different calls and strikers, can make all the difference in sound.  It can spell the difference between bringing home a big old tom and just getting wet and frustrated.


Professional anglers have told me that jig fishing is a go to system for big bass.  On Crab Orchard Lak ein southern Illinois it is probably the most popular lure in the tackle box.

This popular impoundment in Williamson County, near Marion ,Illinois is a known bass factory.  The 7,000-acre lake has a rather featureless bottom due to years of silting action.  What structure is available is in the form of some rip rap and a lot of buck brush and weeds.  The latter is the most popular with the bass and anglers.

You can fish this versatile bait in a variety of ways and in many situations.  The simplicity of the lure allows an angler to cover a lot of water.  That is an important factor to the time pressured tournament fisherman.

When working shallow water near rip rap along the western shore of the lake you can move along the bank pitching to targets that are likely to hold fish.  This is usually sticks or vegetation.  Pockets in the rocks also are good targets.  Most bites come on the fall so it is important to watch the line as the lure enters the water.

The weed guard on a jig helps to keep it from snagging in vegetation or becoming wedged between the rocks.  The key is to be able to maintain sufficient accuracy to enter the water without making a big splash.

Try to find water that has either rock or wood associated with it.  Bass prefer cover and there is not a lot of it in this lake.  The rather shallow (maximum 18 feet) bowl shape of the lake is not conducive to finding a lot of structure.  Local anglers report that fish are in the shallows almost all year.

Shallows located close to cheek channels such as those in the north western part of the lake are desirable.  One can cast a jig and swim it.  Work it like a crankbait and let it occasionally fall.  This allows one to cover a lot of water.

If that fails to produce action try slowing down.  Just hop or drag the bait in and around the vegetation.  Pitch to any irregular feature.

Fishing a jig in the brush or among the racks may not be the most glamorous way to fish.  It can be downright frustrating with the hang ups that occur.  The pickings may be slim but what you do catch is well worth the effort.


Spring is a good time to get rid of winter blues with some fishing action. Crappie fishing really puts fillets on the table and heals the soul dimed by winter.

Of the two crappie sub-species the White Crappie prefers the larger more open water. Both the white and black sub-species will suspend in relation to the points, sunken islands, bars, creek beds and debris. Both can and do inhabit the same waters.

Early in spring the fish feed constantly. They bulk up for the spawn. When the air starts warming fish move to colder parts of the water. They are somewhat lethargic and are tougher to catch.

Both species have roughly the same spawning habits, laying eggs in water 3 to 8 feet in depth, once temperatures near the mid-sixty degree range near cover. Whites tend to like brush piles, bushes, or sunken logs. The blacks like reeds or other weeds. There is a great deal of pre spawn angling in main lake channels and bays due to warming water.

Deep creek channels are the key to cold water crappie locations. Begin by searching for likely summer holding areas and then back track to the nearest deep creek channel. Follow the channel to the best available holding area. It can be a considerable distance. Some areas are more promising than others. Wood in or near the deep water is best. Rock and sunken brush or weeds are excellent. Even stumps will do the trick. The more densely wooded places have the best chance of holding crappie.

If the bays or creek channels do not seem to have any wood available, either visible or hidden beneath the surface, try submerged points, bends and intersections. A good topo map helps here. Dark bottoms are good sources of fish. They get the early sun and hold warmth. Channels that dead end minimize current flow that draws off warm water.

Good bays should have no channels, or at least not adequate ones. If all else fails try the deep water and fish deep. Follow an old creek channel and pull up on deep stumps. There are many anglers who catch crappie out in 20 to 40 foot of water all year around.

Jigs are the bread and butter of crappie lures. A good assortment of leadhead jigs, in 1/16 to 1/64th ounce, in colors of white, black and yellow are basic tools of the crappie fisherman. Some of us are confirmed fishers of artificial lures and prefer red hooks on our lures. Black/chartreuse to watermelon/chartreuse, red/chartreuse and June bug/chartreuse are popular colors for lures. We cast them around trees and shallow grass. Then reel back the lure very slowly. The idea is to stay in contact with the cover at all times.

Try to stay over the top of weeds. Many of us like to use 1/8th ounce jigs but we tend to reel a little faster. That is where many people go wrong because crappie will not go down to feed. They are always looking up so you must keep the bait above them.  For those who prefer natural baits the basic is a minnow or wax worm.

Fishing for crappie in the warming water of spring is very productive. It is also a time to unlimber that old casting arm and get rid of the winter blues.



Spring is coming and you should put away the hunting gear until next fall.  NOT!  For the dyed-in-the-wool hunter the season is never over.  Just the quarry changes from season to season. 

Flexible hunters with a good imagination can always find another quarry to pursue.  You just have to keep an open mind.  True, hunting rats or pigeons is not as glamorous as hunting that big whitetail.  It can be equally as challenging and helps to hone skills that might come in handy next fall. 

Remember that dispatching a woodchuck with a clean, humane shot still is vital to the hunting experience as would be a trophy whitetail deer.  It is a self-imposed moral responsibility to maintain the same high standard of ethics all year around. 

When one speaks of varmint hunting the mind conjures up a view of a coyote coming to a call.  There are other varmints out there to hunt.  Do not forget the pigeons, rats, gophers, and woodchucks that are available.  Except for the woodchuck, they all can be hunted the year around. Illinois does have a specific and generous season for woodchuck hunting.  It does not conflict with other hunting seasons.

Among the game birds that can be hunted in what is traditionally the off-season is the turkey.  With both a spring and fall season this bird provides ample opportunity to polish hunting skills and a chance to be in the woods. 

For the bowhunter there is bowfishing for rough fish and frogs.  Frogs have a specific season but rough fish can be pursued all year.  The extra tackle for bowfishing can be purchased at a local archery pro shop or by mail order.  The cost is minimal and the equipment can be used for years of enjoyment. 

Coyotes are probably one of the most challenging of the off-season quarry inIllinois.  Huntable in good numbers the entire year, the sun dog requires skill in hunting, scouting and calling.  It is a chance to try out that new camo pattern and perhaps a new deer weapon.  The small size of this canine makes proper shot placement a must. 

Pigeon shooting helps to control their numbers and is a good warm up for pheasant, partridge, dove and quail seasons.  The darting flight of these birds presents and interesting challenge to even the most skilled of shooters.  Pigeons are available to the hunter all year around.  They make an interesting fill in for the more popular game birds. 

As if there are not enough game animals available in the state one can also go to a shooting preserve to pursue such game animals as wild boar.  This European immigrant to the country has been stocked into a number of locations throughout the Midwest.  It is one of the most popular big game animals hunted by bowhunters.  If the preserve is large enough a very challenging hunt can be had for a minimal cost.  Ads for these hunts can be found in outdoor publications and online.

During the summer months the “grass rat” is king.  In addition to the woodchuck, other rodents in this category include: Norway rat, thirteen-lined ground squirrels, and gophers.  All of these rodents present difficult and challenging targets.  Hunting them also is beneficial to landowners upon whose grain crops they feed. 

Only your imagination limits your off-season hunting opportunities.  For the truly dedicated hunter off-season hunting is fun and worthwhile in itself.  Besides it gets one away from the lawnmower or painting the family home.


It is not sufficient to cast to a bed and retrieve the lure, one must find the sweet spot in the bed to either antagonize or seduce the fish into striking.  That is the basic theory of Zell Rowland, veteran bass tournament angler.  Rowland’s theory centers on their being a spot the size of a half dollar somewhere in that bed.  It is the heart of the bed. 

A while back I visited with Roland on the deck of his Skeeter bass boat.  It was spring and we were on Lake Fork in Texas.  The lake is known for the excellent bass fishing in the spring of the year.  He gave me the following advice for fishing bedding bass. 

The spot may not be in the center of the bedding area.  It may be off to the side, in front, or behind.  It is probably the spot on the bed where the female first deposits her eggs.  The male becomes very protective of this location. 

Bass may not be feeding but one can still antagonize fish into striking a lure.  It may require numerous casts over a lengthy period of time to a specific fish.  The patient angler can work a fish’s bed over and over again until he finds the sweet spot.

 As Rowland works his boat along the shore in semicircles around the particular fish he is targeting.  He casts to the fish from three sides.  He concentrates most upon bedding fish and the sweet spot. 

“When we travel down the bank,” stresses Rowland, “we may want the boat to stay in anywhere from 5 to 6 foot of water and follow that contour line with it.”  This way the boat actively changes positions as it travels down the bank.  “The most important thing if you going to structure fish is to keep the boat in position by constantly watching the fish locater. 

Windy conditions make it more difficult but do not change the pattern. 

When fishing a point in the summer, throwing a Carolina rig on windy days, it makes it a lot harder to keep the boat in the position so that you can fish the drop off as you desire.

 When not sight fishing you are actually doing is the same thing you just can not see it.  Rowland explains that he looks for a spot on the point and once he gets the bite he knows where the fish are going to bite.  As he moves from point to point Zell looks for the same scenario to set up on each point.

 “I start on the side of a point and thoroughly fish that point,” says Zell.  “I will want to cover every 4, 5 or 6 feet of that point as I move around it.”  Roland keeps his boat in the same depth of water as he moves around the point.  That makes fishing deep water structure more effective.  He does not go in with a pre-conceived idea but rather responds to the first bite.

 “What the fish do is tell me that they are at this depth, on this type of bottom, and they are either on the right side or the left side of this point,” says Roland.  It also tells him if they are out on the main drop off.  Zell points out that a lot of times in the spring he will position on a drop off and cast parallel right down the bank.  It allows him to cover twice as much water in a lot less time.

 Roland will use a number of different styles of baits.  “Fish hit a lure, shad or crayfish for one of four reasons,” says Zell.  The reasons are sight, sound, smell or vibration.  He maintains that vibration is the reason bass anglers have more than two baits in their tackle box.  They have big crankbaits; they have medium size crankbaits and small crankbaits.  “Normally a fish is going to tell you if he wants to take the big, medium or small bait today,” states the pro. 

Rolland is quick to point out that one should change the action and speed of each lure before switching to a different bait. 

Boat position is the key to catching bedding bass.  Attention to such detail makes for successful angling.

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