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The Illinois River, A Sauger Bonanza
By Gary Engberg Outdoors
10106 Hwy.  Y Mazomanie, WI.    53560
   Phone & Fax    608 795-4208
   E-mail    gengberg@chorus.net
Web site: http://www.garyengbergoutdoors.com

     The first time I saw the Illinois River, I couldn’t believe that this was the river I had heard so many stories about. The stories I had heard told of great sauger and walleye fishing. This muddy, barge-filled river didn’t look like a fish factory to me. Instead, it looked like somewhere where the fishing would be done from the bank and the main quarry would be carp. But, I later found out that the Illinois River, which starts 100 miles south of Chicago and travels a meandering 273 miles to the Mississippi River, is truly a sauger and walleye factory well worth fishing from February thru May.
      Few, if any people would believe that this river, formed by the union of the Des Plaines and Kankakee Rivers, would ever become a top-notch sauger and walleye river. The river was for years the recipient of Chicago’s waste flow and that of numerous industries and municipalities up and down the river. In the 1960’s, about the only fish that swam in the Illinois’ waters were carp, gizzard shad, and goldfish. But, much like Lake Erie, which caught on fire in the 1960’s and was called the “Dead Sea”, the Illinois River began to clean up and support a diversified fishery. Pollution regulations and conservation practices helped start a comeback in the 1970’s that has continued to this day. The 1980’s fishing for sauger (the walleye’s cousin), walleyes, and other gamefish became very good. And now, this former cesspool is an angler’s dream!
     February brings excellent pre-spawn action for both saugers and walleyes. The severity of winter and the thickness of the ice, determine the start of fishing on the Illinois River. Recent mild winters have allowed fishing year-round eventhough the good action starts this month and peaks the end of March or the beginning of April. Good boat landings and facilities allow the hardy and adventurous angler to fish a month or two earlier than the spring’s traditional beginning. Remember, that the Illinois River is 2 ½ hours south of Madison in northcentral Illinois, which is usually 5 to 10 degrees warmer than the Dane County.
the Author Gary Engberg with an Illinois River Sauger The best early season fishing, as with most rivers, is within a few miles of the dam which begins at Starved Rock State Park. The twenty-mile stretch from the dam to Spring Valley is the most fished and most productive part of the river. This area offers some of the best spawning habitat on the whole river system. 
       The first few miles of the river flow over limestone bedrock containing rock from baseball size to boulders.  This pea gravel and rock, located directly below the Starved Rock Dam, can be a hot spot for pre-spawn saugers and walleyes in February, March, and even into the first week of April. Saugers usually make up most of the spring harvest, although walleye numbers have been growing every year. But, the main fishing action happens downstream near the mouths of the Little Vermilion and Vermilion Rivers, at the numerous creeks and springs which drain into the river, on the many clambeds (Peru Flats), and near the humps and deep holes where the bottom drops to 30 and 35 feet deep.
      The techniques used are those typical of any medium to large Midwestern River. Some anglers still anchor near the tailrace area and use large jigs (1/2 ounce and more) dressed with plastic tails and minnows. You can catch fish this way, but the more productive way to fish the Illinois River is to slip the current (point your bow upstream and use your trolling motor (hopefully a Minn Kota) and electronics (Lowrance and MK) to stay on current breaks and slowly drift downstream). You want to keep your line as vertical as possible and actually be chasing your jig downriver. When slipping, you may use a lighter jig depending on the river’s current that day. Jigs (the Slo-Poke by Bait Rigs), plastic twister tails (Kalins), and minnows are all one need to catch the rivers saugers and walleyes. The only other thing that you may need is a stinger hook (#10 or 12) on about three inches of mono for the short biting fish.
      Other methods for taking saugers and walleyes are; live bait rigging with a plain hook (VMC) and a Lindy type rig (either a single split shot or a slip sinker), three-way rigs with floating jigs and heavy jigs as the dropper, and trolling small crankbaits (Mann’s Stretch 5’s, Shad Raps, and Reef Runners) slowly upstream of bottom bouncers or three-ways. Experiment with your jig colors till you find the combination that the fish want that day. I’d start with hi-vis colors like orange, chartreuse, blue, and white. These colors show up well in the dingy waters of the Illinois River. Style of jigs vary on the anglers preference with flat style jigs and horizontal types leading the way. Round head jigs fall too fast and get caught easier.
      I use the following equipment when river fishing; a medium action rod with a fast tip like a G. Loomis SJR 721(this is a 6 foot rod some people like shorter rods for a better hook set), a quality open face spinning reel like a Daiwa SS 700, and Stren Hi Vis monofilament in 6 or 8 pound test (you can see the line better in cloudy water). If trolling I would use a baitcasting reel.
     As the year progresses,  don’t forget about the Illinois River because it has a big white bass run from April thru May. There also is good fishing for large and smallmouth bass, catfish, drum, and panfish.
       From Madison, tale the Interstate 90 (and 39) south to Rockford and then Interstate 39 to Spring Valley, Illinois. There are landings from Spring Valley to the dam at Starved Rock and plenty of bait shops.
        If you’ve got cabin fever and want a day or two of good fishing sooner than you can typically fish in Wisconsin waters, check out this early season sauger haven. Watch out for barges because the Illinois is a commercial river and has plenty of traffic. But, it also is pretty and gives one the solitude and peacefulness of a river. There also is a growing population of eagles to watch.
        Info and contacts;
· Guides Dominic Culjan (815) 667-4074 and Darrell Culjan (815) 667-4222. These two guides also own bait shops in Utica, Illinois.
· Spring Valley Business Owners Association, Bill Guerrini, (815) 664-4221
· The Illinois Department of Conservation has a free pamphlet called “Fishing the Illinois River”. Call them at (217) 782-7454.

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