Prairie Lake a bass jewel
Cedar hot for bass
The usual suspects head up the list of Illinois’s best bass lakes.
Newton Lake. Spring Lake. Jacksonville Lake. Lake of Egypt. All rank highly.
But Cedar Lake in southern Illinois may have edged past all of them in terms of sheer trophy potential. This spring the 1,750-acre lake produced 111 bass of 18 inches or longer in 120 minutes of sampling by biologists. The largest bass netted weighed 7 pounds, 4 ounces.
That unheard-of total of big bass prompted biologist Shawn Hirst to say, “Cedar is just amazing. I can’t imagine there’s any better (bass lake) than that right now.”
One obvious drawback for central Illinois anglers is the 250-mile drive to this lake, located south of Carbondale on the edge of the Shawnee National Forest.
Then too, Cedar Lake has a strict 10 horsepower limit on gas motors. And the lake’s deep, clear water can be challenging to fish.
All that said, if you are headed south to fish for bass, Cedar is worth a visit. The daily bass limit is one fish over 18 inches and five under 14 inches. The lake also has striped bass up to 20 pounds.
CHANDLERVILLE—So this is what they were talking about.
For years I heard anglers in Decatur discuss the glory days of Lake Shelbyville, when standing timber was everywhere and so were fish.
That’s what came to mind after a day at Prairie Lake, the timber-filled, 210-acre fishing centerpiece of Jim Edgar-Panther Creek State Fish and Wildlife Area. Opened to anglers in 2002, Prairie Lake was designed to convert wooded ravines into a fishing paradise.
Trees that were felled were cut off waist high and many were left standing. “There are stumps all over those hillsides,” said biologist Dan Stephenson, who helped plan the lake.
The resulting flooded stumps and tree-lined shores offer so many places to cast that it’s almost intimidating. Fish thrive among the dead trees and coontail weeds, particularly bass, muskie and channel catfish — all rated very good or better.
Word is steadily spreading. While Stephenson said the largemouth fishery was better from 2003-06, last spring’s surveys showed 82 percent of bass collected were over 15 inches and 12 percent topped 18 inches.
No wonder Bartonville angler Bill Hurst makes regular trips to Prairie Lake, located southeast of Chandlerville. Hurst was there on a recent stormy morning when I fished with Gordon Inskeep and Tony McCoy of Elmwood.
“This is a great bass-fishing lake,” Hurst said. “This lake is a jewel.”
I agree, even though our post-thunderstorm outing produced only six fish. Two came in the first 20 minutes, prompting grandiose thoughts that never materialized. Even so, the potential of a well-planned lake is obvious.
Prairie Lake and all of Jim Edgar-Panther Creek was developed at a time when the Department of Natural Resources had money to spend. And the DNR spent plenty after purchasing the 16,550-acre “Site M” property in 1993.
Prairie Lake’s concrete boat ramp is one of the best you’ll find on a small state lake. The lake also features a handicapped fishing pier, playground, pavilion, a camping area with rental cabins, boat docks for campers and a 17-mile hiking trail that traverses two large steel bridges on the lake’s west side.
One thing lacking are panfish. Bluegill and redear are poor and black crappie, while sizable (most 12 inches or longer), are few and far between.
That may change if shad ever become established. Until then, the lake remains a bass/muskie destination.
Largemouths here are chunky and most caught are 14 inches or longer. The lack of small fish worries Stephenson some, but not seriously.
As an added bonus, Stephenson stocked smallmouth bass last fall and plans to continue adding bronzebacks. Inskeep caught one close to 12 inches during our trip — the smallest of our six bass which otherwise ranged from 15-18 inches long.
Muskie of up to 50 inches have been reported and Hudson guide Thad Hinshaw caught a 46-incher last May.
Channel cats are rated excellent for numbers and sizes.
And unlike many of the area’s top bass lakes, motor restrictions here are more accommodating. Anglers with gas motors of 10 hp or less can operate at full throttle and larger gas motors are allowed, but can run at no-wake only.
Being able to fish three anglers in relative comfort out of the same boat even helped ease the pain of driving past the bass-filled Emiquon Preserve, which allows no gas motors.
So did the scenery. When bass weren’t biting, there were birds of all types flitting between the dead timber. At one point two orioles tumbled to the water in an apparent tussle.
Scenes like that and the potential for a big bass or a toothy muskie made for an enjoyable outing that’s worth repeating.