It’s been an unusual winter for sure. I remember that right around Christmas we still had no ice to speak of in northern Illinois lakes. Local ponds, Shabbona, the Fox Chain of Lakes and our rivers all had open water but no one was going out. The hunting season kept us busy as our winterized boats took a rest in the garage or while under a tarp in the back yard.
Braidwood Lake will open on March first and that means warm open water fishing is only a month away.
Sauger anglers will be heading to the Illinois River next month too, but that doesn’t mean you can’t go out and catch them now.
I’ve learned over the years that the river has a few good wintering spots for sauger. Don’t expect to catch big fish from the cold water, but they’ll be big enough to bring back the excitement of winter fishing.
Launching in Ottawa out of Allan Park, your on the water travels won’t be far. Go across the river and up river a little east of where the Fox River spills into the Illinois. There’s a nice drop off there and if you keep an eye on your depth finder you’ll see the fish.
Heading west to the lower Peoria pool you can launch out of the Starved Rock State Park. Across the river and down past the 178 bridge you’ll see the grain elevators there. Again, cruise the area on the north side of the river and you’ll find fish.
Coming out of the Barto Landing in Spring Valley all you need to do is take a left hand turn and go to the east side of the bridge. Both the north and south sides of the river have winter homes for sauger.
I’m sure there are more areas than this but if you’ve never ventured out to the river in late February or March, these will be good places to start.
There’s no doubt that it will still be cold. Ramps can be frozen, maybe we’ll have snow, but if you check on the weather, chances are you can get our boat out of storage and back on the water to kick off the 2017 fishing season a little early.
I’d say that fishing with minnows will be the best presentation. Use the lightest jig that you can in order to fish vertically. River levels and current will help you make the choice. With more current and higher water you may need a heavier jig.
When it comes to fishing line, I’ve come to like Berkley’s NanoFil line. It’s not a braid nor is it a mono line but it is super strong and very thin.
I’ve grown to like using the NanoFil on my spinning reels (it doesn’t work well at all on baitcasters) and tying on a fluorocarbon leader. With the NanoFil being so thin, it will slice through the water much easier and not get swept away with the current. This allows you to use a lighter jig in your presentation.
With the water being cold at this time of year, the bites will be light. Use the most sensitive rod that you have so you can feel the tap. Ditch the heavy gloves too. They’ll only take away from the feel.
This is also a good time to consider using a stinger hook. It’s a small treble hook that’s on a short 1.5 – 2 inch leader that attaches to the jig. When hooking on a minnow the jig is attached by running the hook up under the minnow’s chin, up and out around the nostril. The stinger hook is run along the minnow’s body and one hook is set in its back or side. Many times a stinger hook is what makes the connection when the finicky sauger will just pick up the minnow by the back end and not inhale it.
Does the color of a jig make a difference? Honestly, I don’t know. The Illinois River is a pretty dark body of water, especially when fishing off the bottom. I’m more convinced that the sauger will be reacting to the movement of the minnow and the scent that it gives off. But I do like the brighter white, chartreuse, or orange jig heads.
Now since I brought up minnow movement, two things should be kept in mind. Always use fresh and lively minnows. It will increase your odds of hooking up with a fish because of its lively appearance. And your rod action should be subtle. Don’t make erratic rod tip movements. The water is cold and these cold blooded fish won’t chase a bait. Go easy.
Sometimes you may need to switch over to a three-way rig using a floating jig. I’ve learned from a old Illinois River guide that on the three-way swivel, tie one end to the line on the reel, On the next tie on a 3 or 4 foot leader. Again, I’m going with fluorocarbon. On the leader attach a floating jig. For the dropper, use floral wire. You can find it in the craft sections of any box store. At the swivel, twist the wire on with 6 or 8 tight twists. About a foot down, string on a bell weight and with about 5 inches of wire, wrap it up the line with only two loose twists. The reason for this is you’ll have an easy release of your bell weight when you get snagged (or when you want to change weight size). You won’t loose your whole rig with a system like this.
Using the three-way rig system with a floating jig, lift the rod by about a foot on occasion. This will cause the jig to dive on the lift and float back up as you bring the rod tip down.
Offer your presentation while slowly moving up river with your electric trolling motor. Go slow. Try your best to keep your line vertical. Your trolling should be in a zig zag pattern. This will bring you back and forth from deep to shallow water.
These tips should help you hook up with a sauger or two. But most importantly, I’m hopeful that you are inspired to get you boat ready and head out on the water this month. Taking I-80 out west from the Chicagoland area will get you too many different spots on the Illinois River and you’ll quickly see that “Great Fishing is not that far away.” tm