Illinois hunting and fishing

Larry and David Celia (above) arrived at 4 a.m. and were second in line at the Emiquon Preserve once gates opened (fishing hours are sunrise to sunset).

Bass bonanza at Emiquon opener

April 20, 2009 at 04:28 PM

HAVANA—I can still see the line of vehicles stretching through Wildlife Prairie State Park’s gates onto Taylor Road.

Lakes at Prairie Park opened to public fishing on a chilly April morning several years ago and the turnout exceeded everyone’s expectations. Unfortunately, fishing fell short of everyone’s expectations. Prairie Park has never again seen a crowd of anglers that big. Actually, you seldom hear talk about wetting a line there.

I suspect just the opposite will happen at the Emiquon Preserve, the Nature Conservancy’s 4,000-acre wetland restoration between Havana and Dickson Mounds Museum on the west side of the Illinois River.

Monday was opening day for fishing at Emiquon and the crowd was pleasantly sparse. By the time The Farmer and I arrived at 8:45 a.m., there were only 25 trailers in the gravel parking lot. The wet, grassy overflow lot was, thankfully, not needed.

Perhaps the wind and threat of rain kept most of the 500 permit holders away (free permits required for fishing are available at Dickson Mounds Museum daily, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.). Maybe work got in the way. Or maybe other people also remember the Prairie Park opener and decided to wait to see if this new public spot was worth their time.

Whatever the reason, I hope the crowds remain this manageable. But I suspect that won’t be the case. Because just as word got about Prairie Park, word will get out about Emiquon.

And the word is ... bass. Not big bass, even though Monday morning produced at least two lunkers approaching 5 pounds.

The reality of Emiquon this year is that the fishery is loaded with largemouths from 10-14 inches long. Given the site’s one-bass, 18-inch minimum limit, those fish should have ample opportunity to grow into wall-hangers. Until they do, Emiquon is best viewed as a numbers lake—a great place to bring youngsters or to test new lures and techniques.

A telling overview of opening morning came from Jerry Tamborine of Manito, who is conducting a creel survey for the state at Emiquon. As one of his questions, he asks anglers to rate their fishing experience on a 1-10 scale. “There have been a lot of 10s today. And I’ve got one boat that I’m betting will give it a 12 or 13 when they come in,” Tamborine said. “Because one of the guys has got a blister on his thumb from catching so many bass.”

I believe that.

At one point, The Farmer (pictured below with one of his many bass) decided to tie on an ugly black-and-yellow spinnerbait. He informed me the bait had “never caught a fish before.” I believed that, too. A few casts later, he had a fat 12-incher dangling at the end of his line. Moments later another bass bit. So it went on a chilly, windy morning when we combined for more than 30 fish.

Illinois hunting and fishing

Most came on spinnerbaits or jigs worked over the tops of flooded weedbeds in 5-7 feet of water. I relied on a small, pink-and-white crappie spinner made by Paul Clay of Chillicothe. A few months ago I gave the bait to my middle son thinking he could use it for crappie. Monday morning I remembered pink was often a hot color at the Hennepin-Hopper wetland restoration.

So after taking the kids to school, I raided my son Victor’s tackle box for that pink spinner. Don’t tell him, but he’s not getting pinky back anytime soon.

Not that any single lure is all-important. Several bass hit at the side of the boat, a surprising number striking as I whipped the spinnerbait in a figure-eight pattern. “Dumb-bass syndrome,” my buddy Flathead said. That will change. So will the lake.

On Monday water was 60.4 degrees and weeds were nicely submerged. Vegetation will start emerging in the months to come. Eventually, panfish should also start showing up. When we left at 1 p.m., Tamborine said he had not yet heard of a crappie, bluegill or catfish. “Some guys said they were fishing for crappie, but they just caught bass,” he said.

The only other downside to the day was the wind, which whistled out of the northwest and made us wish we had remembered an anchor. At least one boat tipped. Though nobody was hurt, the incident underlines the need for caution on such a long, wide-open lake.

Despite the wind, anglers launched numerous canoes and even a few kayaks. In one canoe, tied off to flooded trees near an old gravel pit, sat Farmington natives Larry and David Celia. While Larry now resides in Chicago (David lives in Bellevue) they arrived at 4 a.m. and were second in line once gates opened (fishing hours are sunrise to sunset).

The brothers finished with about 20 bass and said they enjoyed the trip despite rough paddling on the way back in. So would they return? “Oh yeah,” Larry said.

Me too. But first I’ve got to round up a few more pink spinnerbaits.