Getting Started with Fishing in Illinois – What Should You Know

Known as the “Land of Lincoln” and the “Prairie State,” Illinois boasts a rich history intertwined with natural bounty.

This state is the birthplace of eight U.S. presidents and features extensive agricultural lands.

Fishing in Illinois reflects this diversity, offering a range of experiences.

You can troll the vast waters of Lake Michigan or cast your line along some of the state’s 86,000 miles of rivers.

Whether you’re seeking adventure in the Mississippi River or looking to catch Bass in cooling lakes, Illinois provides a variety of angling opportunities.

Types of Fish in Illinois

Largemouth Bass

Largemouth Bass in the Illinois Waterways

Largemouth Bass are prevalent throughout Illinois waterways and are a prime target for anglers.

They thrive in warmer waters but can be found year-round thanks to power plant cooling lakes.

One of the best times to fish for Largemouth Bass is in October, as they aggressively feed in preparation for winter.

Smallmouth Bass

Smallmouth Bass are known for their agility and strength, often found in northern Illinois rivers and Lake Michigan.

Anglers prize them for their spirited fight, especially on a fly rod.

Monroe Harbor provides exceptional Smallmouth Bass fishing, particularly around structures during spring and fall.

Trout

Trout Fishing in Lake Michigan

Illinois offers excellent opportunities for catching Brown, Rainbow, and Lake Trout, primarily in Lake Michigan. Rainbow and Lake Trout are the most common species.

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources stocks over 80,000 Rainbow Trout annually in rivers and lakes, with the season opening on the first Sunday in April and the third Sunday in October for specific waterways.

Popular Trout fishing spots include:

  • Apple River near Canyon State Park: Known for its scenic beauty and abundant Trout during biannual stocking.
  • Big Lake in Silver Springs State Fish & Wildlife Area: Offers the unique opportunity to catch overwintered Trout in the spring.
  • Axehead Lake, northwest of Chicago: Offers ice fishing for Rainbow Trout in the winter.
  • Pine Creek, a Rock River tributary: A rare location for summer Rainbow Trout fishing.

Salmon

Lake Michigan is the focal point for Salmon fishing in Illinois, hosting species like Chinook (King) and Coho (Silver) Salmon.

These Pacific Salmon were introduced in the 1800s and continue to provide thrilling fishing experiences.

Nearshore Coho fishing starts in April, while deeper waters yield both species during the summer months.

Musky

Musky Fishing in Illinois

Muskies, renowned for their challenge and thrill, are apex predators and a coveted catch for dedicated anglers.

Despite their reputation as the “fish of 10,000 casts,” Illinois offers relatively easier Musky fishing due to well-stocked lakes.

The Fox Chain O’Lakes is a top destination for trolling and casting for Musky in the fall.

Catfish

Illinois is famous for its Catfishing, highlighted by a world-record Blue Catfish caught in the Mississippi River.

Blue, Flathead, and Channel Catfish are prevalent throughout the state.

The Ohio River is a prime location for Catfish fishing, with Channel Catfish thriving on spilled grain from barges and grain elevators.

Crappie

Crappie - Illinois Fishing

Crappies, both White and Black, are among the most popular and tasty fish in Illinois.

They inhabit various lakes, but some of the best Crappie fishing occurs in the Mississippi River’s sloughs and backwaters during spring.

Other Common Fish in Illinois

  • Bluegill: The state fish of Illinois, Bluegill, are abundant and well-regarded for their taste. Rend Lake is a notable location where Bluegill can grow larger than average.
  • Walleye: A favorite for their culinary value, Walleye fishing is excellent in northern rivers and streams, particularly in the spring.
  • Northern Pike: These predatory fish frequent glacial lakes and rivers north of Peoria. The Des Plaines River is a hotspot for Pike, especially between Lyons and Lemont.
  • White Bass: Known for their spirited fight, White Bass are widely targeted in large bodies of water, including the Mississippi, Fox Chain O’Lakes, and Lake Michigan.

Each of these fish species provides unique opportunities and challenges for anglers, making Illinois a diverse and rewarding fishing destination.

How to Go Fishing in Illinois

How to Go Fishing in Illinois

Guided Fishing Trips

When setting your sights on Lake Michigan’s Salmon and Lake Trout, having an expert guide is invaluable. A fishing charter with a seasoned captain is essential, particularly as you’ll need a boat to access the deep waters where these prized fish are found.

Many fishing charters operate throughout Illinois, but Lake Michigan charters are primarily based at Montrose Harbor in Chicago and North Point Marina in Winthrop Harbor.

In addition to Lake Michigan, you can also find guides that offer trips on Illinois’s smaller lakes and rivers. These guides provide local expertise, showing you the best spots and sharing tips that come from years of experience in the area.

Fly Fishing

Illinois offers fly fishing enthusiasts a variety of spots to explore. While the state is known for its larger rivers, there are also hidden streams and smaller waterways ideal for fly fishing. Smallmouth Bass and Rainbow Trout are popular targets, but you can also find Pike, Crappie, and Largemouth Bass if your fly presentation is just right.

One prime location for fly fishing is the Kankakee River State Park. The Kankakee River is teeming with Smallmouth Bass, and its tributary, Rock Creek, gets stocked with Rainbow Trout in both spring and fall, ensuring a great fishing experience.

Ice Fishing

For those looking to enjoy fishing during the colder months, ice fishing is a popular winter activity in Illinois. North of Interstate 80, you can find reliable ice fishing spots where families and friends gather to catch Bluegill, Crappie, Perch, and Walleye under the frozen surfaces.

Fox Chain O’Lakes is an excellent destination for ice fishing, offering a variety of species to catch. Another good location is the backwaters of the Mississippi River, particularly in Pools 12, 13, and 14, which are known for their diversity.

While some anglers enjoy ice fishing on Lake Michigan, always be cautious. The ice conditions on this vast lake can change rapidly, so wearing a personal flotation device and observing where others are fishing before venturing out is advised.

Top Fishing Spots

Northern Illinois

Northern Illinois Fishing

Most residents and the highest fishing activity in Illinois occur north of Interstate 80. This region’s cooler waters are ideal for species like Yellow Perch, Pike, and Smallmouth Bass.

  • Fox Chain O’Lakes: A series of natural glacial lakes encompassing over 7,000 acres, known for excellent Walleye fishing and supporting most of Illinois’s fish species.
  • Lake Michigan: Forming the northeastern border of Illinois, Lake Michigan is a premier destination for Salmon, Trout, and Yellow Perch fishing.
  • Mississippi River: Particularly fruitful north of Grafton, this section offers great Bass fishing along the western border of Illinois.

Central Illinois

Known as the “Heart of Illinois,” this region features man-made lakes and the Illinois River cutting through fields of corn and soybeans. These bodies of water host numerous sport fish.

  • Lake Springfield: A 3,866-acre power plant cooling lake near the state capital. Known for its abundance of Bass, although not typically trophy-sized, and hosting Channel and Flathead Catfish.
  • Lake Jacksonville: Spanning 476 acres, this lake offers scenic surroundings and larger, but seasonal, Bass.
  • Illinois River: Flowing almost halfway through central Illinois, key spots include the Marshall State Fish and Wildlife Area in Lacon. The Peoria Pool section is exceptional for Bluegill, Largemouth Bass, Walleye, and Channel Catfish.

Southern Illinois

Southern Illinois Fishing

South of Interstate 64, the region called “Little Egypt” is bordered by the Mississippi, Ohio, and Wabash Rivers. The area is rich with large lakes, offering diverse fishing opportunities.

  • Lake of Egypt: Covering 2,300 acres, this lake is renowned for Crappie fishing, especially notable for its winter Crappie catches and early spring spawning.
  • Mississippi River: The southern Illinois portion of the river is famous for hosting large populations of Catfish, including Blues, Channels, and Flatheads.
  • Carlyle Lake: The largest man-made lake in Illinois, Carlyle Lake is a top spot for Catfish, particularly Channel Catfish. Recently, Blue Catfish have been introduced to these waters.
  • Crab Orchard Lake: Encompassing 6,965 acres with 125 miles of shoreline, it’s one of the best fishing locations in the state. With abundant Crappies, healthy Largemouth Bass, and excellent Channel Catfish and White Bass fishing.

Fishing Regulations

Fishing Regulations in Illinois

If you’re over 15 and planning to fish in Illinois waters, a fishing license is essential. Check a detailed guide to confirm whether you need one and learn how to obtain it.

In addition to a license, Trout stamps are required for those fishing for Trout in rivers and lakes, excluding Lake Michigan. For fishing in Lake Michigan, a Salmon stamp is necessary, which covers both Salmon and Trout in this specific waterway.

Illinois offers diverse fishing experiences year-round. In the spring, look out for Largemouth Bass and Rainbow Trout. Summer on Lake Michigan features legendary Salmon fishing.

During the fall, this waterway becomes ideal for Lake Trout and Coho Salmon, with Walleye, Musky, and Rainbow Trout actively feeding as they prepare for winter. This season is excellent for ice fishing in northern Illinois and searching for Crappies in the southern part of the state.