Illinois’ 10 best bass lakes
Ranking the top 10 public largemouth bass lakes in Illinois is subjective, difficult and sure to generate arguments. Here goes anyway, based on a three-pronged evaluation of: 1. trophy potential, 2. bass numbers, 3. lake accessibility.
1. Jacksonville Lake
Field & Stream magazine named Jacksonville tops in 2007 and not much has changed since. The 476-acre Morgan County lake produces big bass, with 26 percent of the fishery 16 inches or longer. No wonder the 32 available tournament slots fill in a hurry each Jan. 2 when they are allocated. Drawbacks here are too many pleasure boaters, a boat-launch fee based on residency and boat motor horsepower and required proof of boat insurance. Otherwise it’s all good, with plenty of weed edges, fallen timber and even lily pads.
Call (217) 479-4646.
2. Spring Lake
Two weeks ago Peoria Bass 25 anglers caught 151 fish averaging 2.67 pounds in a one-day event. Tourney weights have been similarly outstanding for the last two years at this Tazewell County hotspot, which is divided into 578- and 610-acre lakes. Anglers also caught and released bass over 9 pounds in the three previous years.
The main drawbacks are intense fishing pressure, a 25 hp limit and weeds, which have come on strong despite a more aggressive spraying regime by the state. Then too, this is not a numbers lake, but rather a quality fish lake.
Call (309) 968-7135.
3. Lake of Egpyt
This 2,300-acre power-plant lake in Johnson and Williamson County offers excellent numbers of bass and year-round fishing, since there’s less impact from the power plant discharge. Even so, the night bite is best in the heat of summer. “Whatever lure or technique you like to catch bass on, you can catch them at Lake of Egypt,” guide Jason Johns said. Most bass are 14-16 inches long, though there are plenty of 3-pounders and a few over 4 to be found in the lake’s abundant weeds.
There is a boat-launch fee at this lake run by the Southern Illinois Power Cooperative and regulations vary depending on which marina you launch from.
4. Newton Lake
Year-round warm water and plenty of forage have made this 1,650-acre Jasper County power-plant lake a traditional hotspot. In the past two years the already-strong largemouth population has only improved, with spring surveys showing 42 percent of bass over 15 inches and 16 percent over 18 inches. “As a trophy fishery it’s totally awesome,” says former Mad Dog Baits owner Gene Cailey, who says each year sees numerous lunkers over 6 pounds.
Limitations are a 25 hp limit and very hot water in the summer that concentrates prime fishing to fall through spring — though deep points can yield summer fish.
Call (618) 783-3478.
5. East Fork Lake
This 935-acre lake near Olney in Richland County is quietly gaining a reputation as a top bass fishery. That’s no surprise, what with 41 percent of the fish over 15 inches based on recent surveys and annual catches of bass over 8 pounds. Despite that, Wired2Fish guru Terry Brown of Normal still calls East Fork “The best-kept secret in Illinois.”
A boat-launch fee is required. Call (618) 395-7302.
6. Cedar Lake
If not for a 10 hp limit, this 1,750-acre lake 5 miles southwest of Carbondale in Jackson County would rank higher. Biologist Shawn Hirst said, “Cedar is by far the No. 1 bass lake” in his district, which includes largemouth meccas like Pinckneyville City and Kinkaid.
Cedar is deep, clear and tough to fish at times. But the lake’s bass are both abundant and big, with 34 percent over 14 inches and 15 percent over 18 inches last year.
Call (618) 549-8441.
7. Emiquon Preserve
The Nature Conservancy’s 4,000-acre wetland in Fulton County northwest of Havana is No. 7 with a bullet. There’s huge trophy potential in the years to come for this marshy lake that opened to fishing this spring. Right now fish over the 18-inch limit are rare, but abundant 12- to 16-inchers should grow quickly in this fertile lake.
Access is the main problem, as gas motors are not even allowed on boats. Anglers must also obtain a free permit.
Call (309) 547-2730.
8. Mill Creek
Long known as a lunker maker, this 811-acre Clark County lake suffered through lean years in the late 1990s but has come on strong. Numbers are strong and anglers report plenty of fish from 3-5 pounds and several over 8 in the past two years. That’s no surprise since there’s a plethora of points, weeds and wood to fish.
Unfortunately, the lake muddies up easily after rain and pleasure boaters rule the roost in summer despite a boat-launch fee.
Call (217) 889-3901.
9. Banner Marsh
No, this 1,150-acre complex of strip-mine lakes in Peoria and Fulton counties is not a destination for bass eaters thanks to an 18-inch minimum length limit. But if you like chunky 16- and 17-inch fish and a decent chance at catching a 5-pounder, Banner is worth a visit.
The downside here is very heavy fishing pressure and a 25 hp limit. Good news is all ramps are now open, though the road to East Point Access is one lane in places.
Call (309) 647-9184.
10. Coffeen Lake
This 1,000-acre power plant lake near Hillsboro in Montgomery County is another numbers destination. The lake features a huge population of 12- to 15-inchers but fish over 16 inches are not as abundant as in years past. “There’s not much trophy potential any more,” Cailey said.
Call (217) 537-3351.
The next 10 lakes
Crab Orchard, Pinckneyville City, Gillespie New City, Springfield, Pittsfield, Kinkaid, Shelbyville, Eureka, Taylorville and Little Grassy.