Saturday, April 23, 2016

Illinois River carp

I've been on the road a lot this spring, so it was nice to check out some spots close to home for a change.  A biologist with the DNR gave me two local spots to try for black buffalo.  One was an old lock channel on the Illinois River, and the other was the mouth of the Spoon River.

Paul Kessler, another Peoria-area fishing enthusiest, joined me for the day.  We started off at the old lock, chumming with corn and alfalfa pellets, and then rigging up with corn and nightcrawlers.  The corn took a while to bring the carp in, but Paul was able to hook into one right away using a nightcrawler.  It was a good start to the day!

Common Carp (Cyprinus carpio)

My bottom rig with corn got picked up next, and instead of being a common carp or buffalo, it was a grass carp, which was a species we did not expect!  Grass carp usually feed on vegetation and are often seen near the surface.  I guess they feed off the bottom too!

Grass Carp (Ctenopharyngodon idella)

About an hour after we started chumming the common carp really showed up in force.  We probably caught fifteen to twenty of them.  We weighed one of the larger ones at 9 lbs 10 oz.

My next fish was the largest of the day.  We didn't get a weight, but it was a big fat fish!

Paul had a lot of fun catching carp.  This was a new type of fishing for him, and I'm glad we had a lot of action so he could get the hang of it.  Paul is a quick learner, and now he knows everything I do about carp.

The only fish besides carp were a bunch of small drum and one white bass.  Drum are fun when they're big, but they're a nuisance when they're small.  They're also infamous for swallowing the hook so deeply that you have no choice but to cut the line.  Fortunately, most of the ones we caught were hooked in the front of the mouth.

Freshwater Drum (Aplodinotus grunniens)

After the old lock we drove down to the Spoon River and launched our kayaks.  We paddled down to the mouth where it joins the Illinois River.  I fished from shore for a while and caught some drum.  Paul explored the Illinois a bit, then he came back and we both fished the mouth from our kayaks.  We both caught drum, and Paul got one small channel catfish.  I'm sure this is a great fishing spot, but we weren't getting anything else so we didn't stay too long.

The search for a black buffalo continues!

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Quick stop at Rend Lake spillway

I couldn't complain after catching two new lifers in Kentucky (bluntface shiner and bandfin darter), but after the sharp rocks of death and the bulldozer pushing mud into the creek, I was ready to head back to Illinois.  My route took me past Rend Lake, so I stopped at the spillway to fish for a bit (a bit ended up being multiple hours, funny how that happens).

The water was fairly low, and surprisingly there weren't many people fishing.  Usually the concrete ledge separating the rocks and the side channels is packed with people.  I was able to grab the spot right up near the discharge.  I tied on a white curly tail jig and immediately started hooking up with gizzard shad.  None of them were hooked inside the mouth though.

Gizzard Shad (Dorosoma cepedianum)

I saw a few of the shad chasing my jig and actively biting at it.  The jig was pretty big, so I tried switching to a smaller size.  However, with the current and turbulence I wasn't able to get it down to them.  I should have rigged something up with jigs above a sinker.  Oh well.  I switched back to the heavier jig and hooked up with a really nice hybrid striped bass.  This was great, because I need a photo of one!  I kept it in my landing net as I got my camera out, but someone how it spit the hook and flopped back in the water.  Really glad it wasn't a lifer.

For a while the bite really died down, but an hour or so later it picked back up, and this time it was freshwater drum that were biting.  Drum on artificials is unusual for me, and they were nice big fish, so catching them was a lot of fun!

Freshwater Drum (Aplodinotus grunniens)

I was catching them at the current seam between the discharge and the side pool.  My 8 lb line was plenty strong for low current situations, but here I had to be careful not to let the fish head downstream in the current discharge.

Each one was bigger than the last.  They weren't monsters, but they were fun.

The drum bite died off as quickly as it had turned on.  I stopped getting hits, and the only fish I pulled in after that was a foul hooked smallmouth buffalo.  It was a male with spawning tubercles.  I didn't try bottom fishing at this spot, but I'm curious if buffalo could be caught in the pools on either side of the discharge.  Future trip perhaps?

Smallmouth Buffalo (Ictiobus bubalus)

Buffalo are handsome fish, that's for sure.

I didn't pay attention to the time, so I had to make the long drive back to Peoria in the dark.  It was midnight when I finally arrived home.  It was a tiring but very productive trip.  Five new lifers in a two day weekend is not something to be taken for granted!

Creeks of Western Kentucky

On Sunday I parted ways with Lance and his girlfriend and drove south, stopping to check out the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers at Fort Defiance State Park.  There were a lot of barges.  I crossed the Ohio River into Kentucky and continued on until I reached Mayfield Creek.

The spot looked really interesting with a stretch of rapids dumping into a deep pool.  I did my carp and buffalo routine - chumming with corn and alfalfa pellets and fishing with nightcrawlers and corn - but I didn't catch any carp or buffalo.  The nightcrawlers got a few hits, but none of the fish were impressive.

White Bass (Morone chrysops)

Bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus)

Freshwater Drum (Aplodinotus grunniens)

I had high hopes for my next spot, Terrapin Creek, which is a tributary of the Obion River near the Tennessee Border.  It has over a half dozen species that I need, including some really cool darters like firebelly and brighteye.  The creek looked great and was cold when I stepped in.  However, I soon discovered that I was sinking into the gravel with every step.  Think quicksand... but replace the soft sand with lots of sharp rocks.

Fortunately, even with sharp rocks in my water shoes, I was able to pick up the one easy species in the creek, bluntface shiner.  Some of them looked like gravid females, but I didn't come across any spawning males.

Bluntface Shiner (Cyprinella camura) - new hook & line species #327

After the bluntface shiner I couldn't catch much else.  It was pretty bad.  I was godzilla walking upstream, sinking up to my knees with each step, sharp rocks in my shoes.  I spotted a funny looking darter.  Wait, nope, it was a pickerel.  Grass or chain, who knows, who cares.

Pickerel sp. (Esox sp.)

I tried going barefoot for a while.  My hamburger feet didn't thank me.  Oh hey there's a darter.  Can't find a stonefly nymph anywhere.  Maybe it will go for a bit of redworm.  Nope, I guess it won't.

Darter sp. (Etheostoma sp. who cares)

Hamburger foot godzilla walked back to the car, hoping he'd never see that creek again.  He dried his red disgusting feet, put on dry socks and shoes, and ate a banana.

Feeling better, I started working my way north.  I only had two spots to try in Kentucky, so I hoped the second one would be better than the first.  I pulled over at a highway bridge over the West Fork Clarks River.  Fortunately, I could see darters right away.  It took me a while to find a stonefly nymph for bait, but once I did I was able to quickly catch a male bandfin darter.

Bandfin Darter (Etheostoma zonistium) - new hook & line species #328

The females were also biting, but they didn't have the bright colors that the males had.

I didn't want to deal with the bright sun directly overhead, so I took the two previous photos in the shade under the highway bridge.  In hindsight, I wish I had dealt with the sun so the colors would have popped more.  This stream also had speckled darters, so I worked my way downstream looking for them.  My first catch was a male fantail dater.

Fantail Darter (Etheostoma flabellare)

I found the speckled daters, along with some more impressive male bandfins, hanging out in stoneroller nests.  They weren't interested in bits of redworm, so I got to work hunting for stonefly nymphs.  By the time I found one, I noticed the previously clear creek was getting muddy, and it wasn't from me!  Thirty seconds later it was the color of chocolate milk.

The muddy water was the end to my day in Kentucky.  When I arrived at the bridge I could see a bulldozer on the other side, pushing dirt into the creek.  Why someone thought dirt needed to be in this particular creek, I have no idea.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Creeks of Shawnee Forest - part 2

When we arrived at Big Creek, Lance set up his equipment and got to work photographing the darters.  He starts by putting the fish in a photo tank and then uses a plate to gently press the fish against the front glass.  Once the fish is roughly in position he takes photos while making sure all the fins are flared.  It was a neat process to watch!  If you haven't seen Lance's photos, take a look at his Flickr album.  Make sure you have a few hours of free time when you do!

While Lance did all the hard work, I hopped in the creek and continued fishing.  I spotted a big logperch on the bottom of a pool.  Somehow I managed to dive bomb my bait past all the striped shiners and get it in front of him.

Logperch (Percina caprodes)

Lance's girlfriend and I worked our way upstream in search of darter habitat, but all we could find were gravel riffles and deep pools.  A few of the pools had redhorse in them, and one in particular must have had fifty or more of them.  Most of them were suspended off the bottom, and none of them were feeding.

I walked out on the fallen tree trunk so I could put my bait right in front of one of the fish.  However, they just weren't interested.  A sunfish rushed over and grabbed my worm.  The commotion startled the school of redhorse, and they broke formation and started swimming around.  This turned out to be a good thing, because now they took an interest in my bait.  Fish on!

My first catch turned out to be my lifer black redhorse, but I didn't realize it at the time!  I bet if I had caught a golden first and then the black, I would have realized it right away.  The good news is that I took a photo; the bad news is that I didn't bother to check if it was any good.  My hand and camera cast a shadow across its face, and the focus wasn't great.  It's still an exciting catch though!

Black Redhorse (Moxostoma duquesni) - new hook & line species #326

After the one black redhorse, the next seven or eight fish I caught were goldens.  The difference in scale size, shape, and color was obvious.  The males were covered in tubercles, which means they were getting ready to spawn!

Golden Redhorse (Moxostoma erythrurum)

Look at that horny boy!

Lance finished his work, so we packed up and drove over to the western part of the state to look for fringed darters.  They have an even smaller range than stripetails and spottails, but we had good data, so we felt confident we could find them.  We stopped at a tributary of Mill Creek and saw the large slab rocks right away.  It took us longer to catch bait than it did to catch our first darters.

Fringed Darter (Etheostoma crossopterum)

Until recently it was thought that this population was E. squamiceps.  The mistake was realized when someone took a closer look at breeding males.  The tips of the rays on the second dorsal fin are black, which is a characteristic of E. crossopterum.

We didn't have much daylight left, so Lance took his photos quickly so we could head down to our campsite next to Horseshoe Lake.  I've camped at this lake several times over the past few years, and it's a spot I'm always happy to return to.

We had hoped to see gar and bowfin below the spillway at the southern end of the lake, but instead we found millions of juvenile Asian carp.  I'm guessing they were silvers, but they also could have been bigheads.  They were packed in so tightly that some of the ones at the top were being pushed out of the water.  It was a crazy sight.

Asian Carp (Hypophthalmichthys sp.)

On the way to our campsite we stopped at a fishing spot that's usually good for a variety of species.  I threw a small chartreuse jig and caught a good number of black and white crappie and one freshwater drum.  We saw schools of juvenile Asian carp here as well, and the crappie were definitely feeding on them.

Black Crappie (Pomoxis nigromaculatus)

We set up our tents by the lake and enjoyed a fantastic homecooked dumpling stew cooked by Lance and his girlfriend.  I went to sleep well fed and feeling accomplished that we had found all three of our targets in one day!

Creeks of Shawnee Forest - part 1

Last weekend I finally took a trip to Shawnee National Forest to look for three darters that have very limited ranges in Illinois: stripetail, spottail, and fringed.  Their peak spawning month is April, and I've been wanting to look for them for several years, but the timing just hadn't worked out until now.

On Friday I drove down to Cave-in-Rock, a small town on the Ohio River.  I camped that night at the state park, went for a run in the morning, and then fished the river for a bit with an inline spinner.  Visibility was low, and I didn't get any hits, but that was ok.  What I really wanted was in the creeks nearby.  My friend Lance Merry and his girlfriend were on their way down, so I packed up and headed over to the first spot.

We chose our sites using data from an INHS paper by Jeremy Tiemann and Josh Sherwood.  Our first stop was a tributary of Big Creek.  It was clear and cold and the right size to wade with water shoes and shorts.

The creek was full of fish, but I had a hard time finding the stripetail and spottail darters.  The riffles and runs were full of rainbow darters.  Despite being colorful, they were not what I was looking for.

Rainbow Darter (Etheostoma caeruleum)

The stonerollers were certainly spawning.  The males didn't show any interest in my bait (because they were busy doing epic battle with each other), but the females were hungry and happy to bite.

Central Stoneroller (Campostoma anomalum)

Lance and his girlfriend arrived and used their seine downstream of where I was fishing.  I found some habitat that looked good for the stripetail and spottail darters - large slab rocks.  I dropped my small piece of redworm in between the rocks hoping that a darter head would pop out.  However, when a head finally did pop out it was a lot larger than I was expecting!

Banded Sculpin (Cottus carolinae)

Finally, I saw one of my targets, a small stripetail darter.  It didn't show any interest in biting my piece of redworm, so I caught a stonefly nymph from under a rock and put it on my Tanago hook instead.  Darters go nuts over stonefly nymphs, and right away I hooked my target.

Stripetail Darter (Etheostoma kennicotti) - new hook & line species #324

Once I started using stonefly nymphs, the spottail darters were happy to come out of their nests to bite.  Almost every large rock had a male spottail under it.  I looked for ones with especially dark heads to target, because I knew they would have the most impressive colors and patterns.

Spottail Darter (Etheostoma squamiceps) - new hook & line species #325

Here is one I think is a female.  We didn't see any gravid spottails, and the males' nests were loaded with eggs, so we think the spawn might have been near its end.

This is stripetail and spottail spawning habitat.  Most of the larger rocks had males under them, and the females could be seen roaming around out in the open.

Here's one of the male spottails shortly after being released.  He sat out in the open for a while, but eventually he dashed back into the rocks.  I hope he found his nest!

One species that we saw but I was unable to catch on hook & line was creek chubsucker.  They're one of the toughest suckers to fish for, so I'm not surprised that I didn't get one.  Before we left I used Lance's dip net to catch one for a photo.

Creek Chubsucker (Erimyzon oblongus)

It's hard to tell from the side photo, but this male had the craziest tubercles of any fish we've ever seen.  Instead of small, smooth bumps, his tubercles formed sharp horns that protruded out from the sides of his face.  It's hard to imagine two males battling each other with such fearsome weapons!

Once Lance had enough specimens to take photos of, we move on to the Big Creek proper a little ways down the road.  We were off to a good start!

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Big Illinois fish

It was windy.  Seriously, I'm not joking.  If you don't believe me, go to and look at the history tab for Pekin, IL with the date set to April 2nd, 2016.  The max wind speed was 36 mph, and the max gust speed was 53 mph.

I arrived at Powerton two hours before it closed at 4pm.  It wasn't much time, but I wanted to practice using my new travel surf rod in windy conditions.  I also wanted to get a photo of a hybrid striped bass, so perhaps I could kill two birds with one stone.

There were only half a dozen people fishing by the discharge, but most of them had hybrid stripers on their stringers, so I felt confident I could get one too.  The discharge was flowing, but it wasn't hot, because the power plant was offline for maintenance.  I tied on a small Little Cleo spoon with a 1 oz egg sinker above a 2 ft leader.  The egg sinker combined with the 10 ft rod allowed me to throw the spoon reeeally far.  The downside was that I had to reel in fairly quickly to keep the spoon from scraping bottom and getting caught on the rocks.

I had a few strong hits and even had a big fish on at one point, but it came off before I could see what it was.  Finally, 10 minutes before 4pm I got a solid hit and had a fish on.  I kept the drag loose and took my time fighting it.  I didn't have a landing net, so I wanted the fish worn out when I brought it in.  After a few minutes, I saw that it was a huge buffalo!  I brought it up to a shallow spot, stepped in the water, and hoisted it up to the grass above the rip-rap.  It was the largest buffalo and probably the heaviest freshwater fish I have ever caught!  It measured 35 inches.

Hybrid Buffalo (Ictiobus bubalus X Ictiobus niger)

I've received different opinions about the ID of this fish.  Two angler friends who are familiar with buffalo told me black buffalo because of the big fleshy lips and head shape.  Two Illinois DNR biologists told me smallmouth buffalo because of the high back.  Biologists from two other states told me hybrid, which is what I'm going to call it.  A smallmouth buffalo can't have lips that big, and a black buffalo can't have a back that high.  Hybrid it is.

The next day I drove down to Shelbyville to fish for carp and buffalo.  The spring crappie bite was doing pretty well, and there were a fair number of people fishing for them.

One of the crappie fishermen accidentally snagged an enormous walleye in the tail.  It was a big female.  He took its weight before releasing it.  It was nearly 11.5 lbs!

Walleye (Sander vitreus)

The carp took their time showing up, but eventually they wandered over to the corn and alfalfa pellet chum pile.  Once they showed up the bite was pretty steady.  Unfortunately the buffalo did not show up.

Common Carp (Cyprinus carpio)

A few of the smaller carp were really dark in color.  I wonder if they have different genetics, or if the color is caused by the environment.

After seeing everyone else catch crappie after crappie, finally I pulled in one of my lines and tied on a small chartreuse jig.  On my very first cast, I hooked up with something bigger than a crappie.  It was another carp!

Once the carp left me alone I caught a few crappie.  About two thirds of them were black, one third were white.  None of them were big, but the steady bite was fun.

Black Crappie (Pomoxis nigromaculatus)

White Crappie (Pomoxis annularis)

I tried throwing nightcrawler halves out on the bottom.  They got picked up by either bluegill or yellow bass.  None of them were very impressive looking, but it's always fun to see how many species I can get in a day.

Bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus)

Yellow Bass (Morone mississippiensis)

Muskie were surfacing throughout the day, and the number of them was staggering.  In the afternoon I decided the buffalo weren't going to show up, so I pulled in my lines and put a big swimbait on one of my medium setups.  First cast, nothing.  Second cast, fish!  I set the hook and reeled in my second ever muskie.

Muskellunge (Esox masquinongy)

I always try to end my fishing trips on a high note.  I wasn't going to top the muskie, so I packed up my gear and drove home.  What a weekend!