Updated: June 29, 2011 12:23AM
Suddenly, it’s spring!
A week ago there were still plenty of places sheathed in ice. Several hours to the north, local guides were still driving onto lakes with their pickups piled high with power augers, shanties and even four-wheelers.
Then, a tell-tale sign, an indisputable harbinger of warmer weather passed high over the valley. The cranes were heading north. There are other signs that winter has lost its battle.
Braidwood Cooling Lake is open, with LaSalle right behind it. Then, Heidecke Lake, once the pride of Illinois’ DNR fisheries managers who catapulted the Prairie State into national headlines as the cooling lakes began to spit out trophy bass, world-class hybrids and walleyes, catfish, even muskies to rival fisheries across the Midwest.
How big were the bass?
“This is the nine-pounder,” Jon said pointing to the photo on his wall. It was one of many instant photos pinned to the bulletin board of his South Wilmington bait shop. Most were showing bass over five pounds and, while the local guy who caught it traveled to Bloomington, the others were mostly from the Mazonia pits and several local club lakes.
“This is a two-pound crappie,” Jon said, lighting up despite that he’s been in business for thirty-some years.
We agreed that most two-pounders that are reported rarely break the pound mark, that a 15- or 16-inch crappie was seldom seen by most anglers. There was no doubt that the fish the youngster in the photo was holding up was huge, well over two pounds.
The Mazonia pits were not the only place producing huge crappies.
“The DNR has been quietly dropping in crappies for some years now,” Heidecke Lake Concessionaire Sam Palumbo said. “We don’t have the kind of structure like the pits or Braidwood so our fish tend to be scattered. I can’t say for sure but I’d guess they’re roaming most of the time, following the shad like everything else in this lake does.”
When found, they tend to group in loose schools and, he added, “They tend to be nice. We have very nice crappies in here and it will only get better.”
“The other surprise is that the walleye are back,” Palumbo said. “For a couple years, they seemed to disappear. Guys who used to come out and catch a dozen had trouble finding any. The first fish taken when we opened was a walleye — a very nice walleye. And, we’ve been hearing about a lot of muskies being caught.”
Although recent rains have swollen the Illinois River, one fisherman told Jon that he and his five- and 10-year-old partners found an eddy where they were sheltered from the current and “...literally on every second or third cast, we had a fish. We must have caught 75 stripers in those two hours. It was fantastic.”
Fantastic is a word used often to describe fishing close to home. Rivers, pits, ponds and cooling lakes and all well within a 45-minute drive of downtown Aurora.
Some are better than others, like everything in life, but there isn’t a fisherman reading The Beacon-News who couldn’t find a quiet little corner beside the water with no one around but the herons, ducks and muskrats.
Threats to disable my truck if I mention the smallmouth bass fishing in the lower Fox River — from Yorkville west to the Dayton dam — notwithstanding, the river supports a wonderful population of panfish and rock bass, too, and I am not sure what would round out a soft, warm summer day better than a few hours wading with a light rod, drifting crawlers without any weight for whatever hits.
Most often, it would be a channel cat. They are firm and full of fight in the cool, flowing water and produce some of the sweetest fillets this side of a Great Lakes perch.
So, if the fishing was that good a decade ago, how good is it now? You drive over the Fox River every day on the way to work? You pass LaSalle or Braidwood on the way to visit friends in Champaign? Maybe it’s time you packed an ultra-lite in the trunk and came home after work with a smile instead of an ulcer.
Fishing? It’s great! Like the DNR jingle that was so popular back then proclaimed, “...just outside your own back door, in a place called Illinois!”