Harkins 004

Looking over the most recent fact sheet on the bass population in Crab Orchard Lake one is immediately impressed with the work done by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) during the past 10 years.

Crab Orchard Lake was a “bass factory” in the early to mid-90’s.  Then, there was a dramatic decline in terms of fish size.

The IDNR came entered the picture under a “cooperative management agreement” between the IDNR and the US Fish & Wildlife Service.

“We had a public meeting at John A. Logan College in Carterville, Illinois,” explains Chris Bickers, IDNR District 22 Fisheries Manager.  The meeting drew a good crowd of interested citizens from the area.  “I think the attendance was good was because the fish quality was poor.”

IDNR proposed changing the bass limit from 6 per day, 15-inches long to 3 per day, 16-inches long.  That basically would have given the bass one more of year of life in the lake, one more year to spawn.  Plus people could take only half as many fish as they could before the limit was proposed.

The lake was probably in its poorest condition in 1999- 2000.  The meeting was in 2001 and it takes a year to get regulations in place.  Officials might have been a little slow to react but things off on the right track.

The proposed regulations went into effect April 1, 2002.

IDNR met with the Refuge officials and talked about pressure that fishermen were putting on the fish.  With all the fish offs and tournaments, they decided to limit bass tournaments and fish offs to one fish off per club per year.  The dates on the tournaments were scheduled for earlier in the spring.  They now are about a month earlier than was historically the case.

When you handle bass and in place them in livewells, the warmer the water is the more mortality you have with the fish.  That makes a big difference in the number of fish that die.

Bass returned to the lake alive after being in a live well and hot water all day experience delayed mortality.   The stress might cause them to die three or four days later.

The fisheries officals also stepped up the stocking of bass in the lake.  They were getting 7,000 to 10,000 fish stocked by the fish hatchery each year.  They increased the activity to somewhere around 30,000 bass stocked per year dependant upon the year.  The additional fish are “advanced fingerlings” from 4-inches in length up to 7 or 8 inches.  The hatchery provides 14,000 largemouth bass.  Bickers stocks about again as many from the rearing pond where IDNR are raise fish.  Occasionally, the federal people are able to get some fish out of their Genoa, WI fish hatchery and IDNR also tries to accept any additional left over fish from the fish hatchery.  Those are usually, “advanced fry stage” of about an inch to an inch and one half.

The next step was to up the Threadfin shad stocking.  For a while the Take Pride in America people were buying the shad for the lake.   IDNR supplemented that stocking with shad caught in Baldwin Lake and brought down to release in Crab Orchard Lake.

Now their money is going to other projects.  But stocking with the shad from Baldwin continues to the tune of around 10,000 Threadfin shad each year.

A program of enhancing the habitat at Crab Orchard Lake began in 1999.  Actually they were brush pile projects.  Officials and volunteers go out every February or March.  One section of the lake is selected and brush piles are added to the water.  Their location is marked on a map with GPS coordinates for the public to locate them.

The brush piles do two things:  they concentrate fish so anglers can catch them a little more easily and it works for crappie as well as the bass.  It also provides habitat for small fish to hide in to get away from the big fish.

A “spawning sanctuary” in the back end of Grassy Bay was established.  There is a 40-acre area of water in the back end of Grassy Bay that is closed to boats and fishing from the first of April to the end of June.

It allows the bass a place to spawn unmolested.  They can go through the spawning ritual and guard their fry after their hatched.  It allows the fry protection until they disperse before the fishermen go in there after the end of June.

There are also 50 artificial structures in that spawning sanctuary.   The structures are 55-gallon drums with concrete and gravel in the bottom.  It gives the bass a good firm place to spawn and they are not trying to spawn on a bottom that is basically muck.  Bass need a good firm place to spawn.  The only place on Crab Orchard that meets that description is wind swept clay pan.  That is not suitable for spawning bass.  The two or three foot waves hitting it just hinder the bass in their attempts to spawn.

The tournament organizers decided that they would assess a “resource enhancement fee.”  That fee was set at $5 per person or $10 per 2-man boat.  That goes into a fund that is used to enhance the habitat or something to increase the fish population on Crab Orchard Lake.

In the pas the fee has gone to stock fish.  They have purchased a used pontoon boat for us to use in fisheries projects.  We have used it to put brush in the lake.  They purchased a hauling tank that can hold the Threadfin shad to bring them to Crab Orchard Lake.  It also is used to haul bass from the rearing ponds to the lake for stocking.  If they do not have another project they will use the money to buy bass for stocking.

The rearing ponds are set up so that you can release fish into the lake if desired.  The route to the lake is not direct and some fish may not make it.  The other issue is when you drain the rearing ponds directly into the lake you do not know how many fish you are stocking.

They place a screen in the back of the catch basin when draining the ponds into the catch basin.  The fish are taken out of the catch basin and to get an average weight and length of the fish and then we weigh the rest of them.  With the total weight of the fish they can get and estimated number of fish released.

The number of fish that you stock determines how well that year class does in the lake.  It is good to know how many bass are stocked.

You can tell from the fishing tournaments how the sizes of fish are coming.  In 1999 and 2000 a 5 or 6 pound fish tending to be the big fish in our tournaments.  Today the body condition of the bass is excellent.  The percentage of fish larger than the 16-inch minimum size limit is 29% an increase of 9% in the past 8 years.   Some anglers bring in fish in the 7 and 8 pound weight class.

For more information on the fishing opportunities at Crab Orchard Lake contact the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in Marion, IL at 618-997-3344.


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