The Prairie State may not bring to mind visions of fisherman-lined banks, rather you might envision the bustling streets of Chicago and miles of driving just to get from top to bottom, but surprisingly enough the state does have plenty of action to offer fly fishermen. While most people associate Lake Michigan with Illinois, there are also 87,000+ miles of streams and rivers and dozens of beautiful lakes scattered throughout the landscape. These waters serve as home to a wide variety of fish, including largemouth and smallmouth bass, bluegill, Coho salmon, lake trout, rainbow trout, and more.
While there’s certainly nothing wrong with sticking to the urban experience by trying your luck on the banks of Lake Michigan, you’ll be rewarded by traveling a bit away from the big city and seeking out the Illinois fly fishing opportunities further inland.
This is a common question, even among residents of the state, and while trout fisheries aren’t exactly a dime a dozen, there’s no reason not to hit up some of the favorite angling waters for other fish.
Up in the northern part of the state, not far west of Lake Michigan, you’ll find a vast series of lakes at the top of the Fox River. This impressive collection is comprised of 15 lakes totaling more than 7100 acres of water. Fish species found in the chain include muskellunge, walleye, black crappie, white bass, yellow perch, largemouth bass, bluegill, and more.
Public access is available via the state park. You can also try out the Route 12 bridge, as well as entrances along Route 173 along the river. Seek out a secluded spot for yourself, as the chain is the busiest recreational waterway per acre in the entire country. The Grass Lake bridge and the upper Fox River are both great places to cast a line, particularly for walleye.
This locale offers close proximity to Chicago, and features smallmouth and largemouth bass, crappies, as well as stocked trout. You can wade or canoe and there are many access points to make your adventure easier.
The following are some good sources for smallmouth bass, particularly in the fall:
Island Park at Momence – located at Route 17 and Route 1, this area offers riffles and rocks that harbor good action.
Warner Bridge Rd. Access – bridge pilings give shelter, making them ripe for the ambush.
Area 7 – located at Bonifield Rd. off of Route 113, this spot sits upstream from the access road and features water weed beds in deep pools that hide potentially large bass.
Rock Creek at Route 102 is another local favorite – this 24.7-mile tributary of the Kankakee empties into the river at Kankakee River State Park. The creek offers an isolated little branch of water that yields smallmouth bass, panfish, and rock bass, depending upon the time of year.
Just southwest of Chicago there’s a 28-mile tributary of the Des Plaines River that features good public access and houses largemouth and smallmouth bass, catfish, crappie, walleye, and northern pike. The Naperville area in particular is known for its healthy sized smallmouths – the Riverwalk is a great place to try out. Knoch Knolls Nature Center is also located in Naperville and is a good place to wade. Other access points include:
DuPage County Forest Preserve District
Plainfield Park District
The Illinois Department of Natural Resources administers a trout stocking program funded by the sale of trout stamps on fishing licenses. The IDNR stocks over 80,000 rainbows in trout fishing waters all over the state. Some places to try include:
Lake Milliken – Des Plaines Conservation Area
Apple River – Apple River State Park
Big Lake – Silver Springs State Fish and Wildlife Area
Sand Lake – Illinois Beach State Park
Mill Race Ponds – Belvidere
Pine Creek – White Pines Forest State Park
Bird Park Quarry – Kankakee
Siloam Springs State Park Lake
Lake of the Woods – Champaign County Forest Preserve District
Miller Park Lake – Bloomington
Forest Park Lagoon – Shelbyville
Clear Lake – Kickapoo State Recreation Area
Boston Pond – Stephen A. Forbes State Recreation Area
Fairgrounds Pond – Fort Massacc State Park
Frank Holten State Park Main Lake
Sam Dale Trout Pond – Sam Dale Lake State Fish and Wildlife Area
The important thing to remember when planning your Illinois fly fishing trip is that anywhere you can fish “normally”, you can fly fish as well. You’ll just need to learn the type of fish in the area and what they typically bite on.
The state stocks trout in the spring, so it’s best to get in early on that action before the supplies are depleted (which happens by about June). Largemouth bass are also typically biting in April, and are known to be shallow.
Come June you’ll find stripers and hybrid bass, particularly in the tailwaters. June is also a good time to fish the Fox River for largemouth bass.
In September, hit Lake Michigan for large lake trout and the piers and short for Coho salmon, browns, steelheads, and smallmouth bass.
October brings out the walleye, especially up at the Rock River in the northwest of the state.
If you hit the Fox Chain of Lakes during November you may just hook yourself a monster muskie. While most of the fish won’t be keepers, the lakes have been known to give up some trophies.
The rivers in Illinois can be tricky – particularly the Kankakee and the Fox. In addition to your normal gear – chest waders, hat, sunscreen, insect repellant, polarized sunglasses, etc. – you’ll want a wading staff and preferably cleated boots. The rocks in the Kankakee can trip you up so be prepared for a plunge or two. Slippery surfaces and moss under the water can prove a challenge without spiked waders. In the Fox, watch out for sudden drop-offs that can take you by surprise and put you in over your head.
Because this state offers a wide variety of species, you’ll want to be equipped with a range of rigs. Use a 4 or 5 weight rod with 5X or 6X tippet and about a 9-foot leader for trout, but for bass, up that weight to between 6 and 8 depending upon the size of your fly. For bass you will want to use bushy streamers, clouser minnows, wooly buggers, and in the DuPage River – a crawfish imitator. The bass at Rock Creek respond well to hoppers, poppers, and minnows, while minnow patterns should also be in your box for Island Park on the Kankakee. You can even try plastics for bass, such as a worm or lizard.
If you want to fish anywhere except private property in the state of Illinois, you will need to obtain a fishing license from the IDNR. A yearly resident license can be purchased for $15, while a non-resident will pay $31.50. If you want to fish for trout, you’ll also need a trout stamp, available to residents and non-residents for $6.50. A Lake Michigan Salmon Stamp may be obtained for $6.50 as well. Children under age 16 do not need a fishing license in Illinois, and seniors receive a 50% discount. Active military members who are residents of the state and on leave from active deployed duty may fish without a license.
Most states impose size and quantity limits on fish takes, as well as designate catch-and-release areas and/or time periods for different waterways. Illinois is no different, and the best thing is to acquaint yourself with the regulations so that you can rest assured you’re angling within the limits of state law. While the complexity of the language can seem intimidating, simply search the document by the location you plan to fish and the type of fish you’re angling for, and you’ll be able to efficiently pinpoint exactly which rules you need to follow.
Illinois isn’t your traditional, textbook fly fishing locale, but that can work to your benefit because with the vast number of rivers, streams, and lakes, and plenty of public access throughout the state, you can stake out your own little gem of a location without being crowded out by other fly fishermen.
Don’t forget to check out some of the lesser known streams and retention ponds. With such a vast selection of bodies of water throughout the entire state, it’s impossible to cover every single area that might yield good fly fishing results. Despite the lack of dedicated trout fisheries such as some other states have, there is an active community of fly fishermen in the state, and they’re usually more than willing to offer advice through online forums and in “real life” to those who need a little guidance in the right direction. Time to grab your rod and check out one of the dozens of rivers and lakes in Illinois for some unique fly fishing action.