Illinois River Fishing: An Angler’s Guide

woman fly fishing on the illinois river

Extending 274 miles southwest from Chicago to where it joins the great Mississippi just north of St Louis, the Illinois River offers one of the largest and best sport fisheries in the eastern midwest. The Illinois River provides anglers the opportunity to catch largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, white bass, yellow bass, channel catfish, bullheads, drum, walleye, sauger, warmouth and variety of panfish, including crappie, bluegill and sunfish.

Bass, crappie, bluegill and sunfish are most common catches and they are commonly found throughout the length of the Illinois River. The majority of sauger are found south of Starved Rock Dam to the Mississippi River. You’ll find health populations of bass and panfish along this stretch of the river as well. If you’re interested in walleye, target below Marseilles and Dresden dams in the upper pools where you’ll find abundant populations. Another hotspot for walleye fishing is Starved Rock below the dam.

The tailwaters are a great place to catch a variety of fish including white bass, catfish and drum. If you’re interested in catfish wet your line in one of the many side channels that branch off from the Illinois River. Fishing for cats is best when waters flood into the lowland timbers. When river levels are high, catfish will move into these areas in search of food. For bullhead and sunfish, try slow moving waters of the lakes and sloughs along the river.

The follow map provides coordinates and target fish species for the top fishing spots along the Illinois River. If you decide to visit any of these locations, I recommend also fishing the surrounding area. Typically, nearby lakes and waterways will also support abundant populations of target gamefish. To learn more about a specific location, click the blue map marker.

The following table lists the top fishing locations along the Illinois River along with the most abundant fish species. Each location below can be located in the map above. (Data provided the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.)

BluegillCrappieWhite BassCatfishBullheadDrumWarmouthSmallmouth
Swan Lakexx
Long Lakexxxxxx
Stump Lakexx
Flat Lakexxxxx
Fowler Lakexxx
Twelve Mile Islandxxxxxx
Hembold Islandxxx
Dark Chutexxxx
Hurricane Islandxxxx
Pohlman Sloughxxx
East Pearlxxxxxxx
Big Blue Islandxxxxx
Meredosia Lakexxxxx
LaGrange Damxxxxx
LaMoine Riverxxxxx
Bar-Grape Islandxxx
Meyers Pondxxxx
Bach Sloughxxx
Chain Lakexxx
Snicarte Sloughxxx
Anderson Lakexxxx
Bath Chutexxxx
Spoon Riverxxxx
Meyer's Ditchxxxx
Spring Lakexxxx
Coon Hallow Islandxx
Turkey Islandxxx
Peoria Damxxxxxx
Peoria Narrowsxxxx
Peoria Lakexxxxxx
Goose Lakexxxx
East Riverxxxxx
Lacon Harborxxxx
Henry Islandxx
Old Henry Lockxxx
Twin Sisters Islandxxx
Vermilion Riverxx
Starved Rock Damxxxxxxx
Sheehan Islandxx
Covel Creekx
Fox Riverxxx
Marseilles Damxxxx
Clarks Islandxx
Dresden Damxxx

The most common gamefish targeted by anglers include largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, channel catfish, drum, crappie species, walleye and saugeye. Other popular species include bullheads and a variety of panish, including bluegills and green sunfish.

You’ll find fish throughout the Illinois River, but knowing where to fish and proven techniques for each species will improve your catch rate.


Black and white crappie are found throughout the Illinois River. While both fish are noticeably different in appearance, the same bait and fishing methods are used to catch them. To catch crappie you want to fish near cover and structure. Some of the best spots to catch crappie are next to submerged stumps and along side brush piles.

The best method to target crappie is to fish a small minnow hooked high on the back suspended about two feet below a bobber. During the early spring, nightcrawlers and small worms are another great bait for catching crappie. Pre-spawn, from the beginning of April through May, ledhead jigs and spinners fished alone, or with a a lip-hooked minnow, will get crappie biting.

Early spring, from March through the end of May, and again starting in fall, are the best times to fish crappie along the Illinois River.


Sunfish are abundant throughout the Illinois River. You’ll find bluegill, warmouth, green sunfish and few pumpkinseeds in the slower moving waters, lakes and sloughs. Like crappie, sunfish prefer areas where there is ample cover. Fish next to submerged stumps, brush piles and weed beds for best results.

Fish just off the bottom using a small hook baited with a worm. A simple bobber attached to your line or a slip float rig will help maintain your bait at the correct depth. You can also use crickets, grasshoppers and other local insects for bait. When ice fishing, wax worms are effective.

White and Yellow Bass

White and yellow bass one of the only bass species that are native to the Illinois River. White bass are larger and more abundant than yellow bass in most areas throughout the river. Starved Rock pool is one of the few locations where yellow bass rival white bass in numbers. Both bass species thrive where there is current and are most common in the river’s tailwaters.

White and yellow bass are taken using jigs fished in the current below dams, rough water behind large rocks and other obstructions found throughout the main channel, as well as the calmer water along the banks. In addition to jigs, white and yellow bass will readily take minnow like spinners and artificial lures, including fliptail worms on jig head, blade baits, in-line spinners and cicada jigs. If you’re lucky enough to spot a school of minnows breaking the surface, there’s usually a white or yellow bass just beneath them. Cast your minnow lure and you’ll likely get a bite.

The best time of day to fish white and yellow bass are the early morning or evening during the cooler hours. During the heat of the day, fishing the deeper water just off the bottom with a minnow or artificial lure that resembles a minnow is effective. May and August tend to be the best months to fish white and yellow bass on the Illinois River.

Largemouth Bass

Largemouth bass are a favorite trophy catch for anglers fishing the Illinois River. They’re found throughout the river but tend to congregate in the main channel and lake habitats along the main channel. Largemouths stick close to underwater cover such as stumps, weed beds and other vegetation where they can hide and wait for prey.

Largemouth bass are sight feeders. They are attracted by movement. Top lures for bass fishing the Illinois include plastic worms and spinners. Attaching a live minnow to a spinner is a sure fire way to get the attention of a largemouth bass. May, June and September are reported to yield the highest catch rates for largemouths. During the heat of the summer, fishing early morning or later afternoon/evening is best.

Smallmouth Bass

Smallmouth Bass are plentiful in the Illinios River, but not as common as Largemouths. Smallmouth are most abundant in localized stretches of the river north of Peoria. Many of the same lures to catch Largemouths will also work for Smallmouth bass. Jigs, spinners, spoons and plastics worms are favorites of anglers targeting smallmouth bass in the Illinois, but crawdads and frogs will also work. Early morning and late evening when temperatures are cooler is ideal for fishing smallmouths.

The Powertorn Cooling Lake a couple miles downstream from Peoria offers possibly the best smallmouth fishing on the river in my opinion. Fish the rocky shorelines using stickbaits, plastic grubs and tube jigs and you’ll catch some lunkers.

Walleye and sauger

Walleye and sauger are two favorites for anglers fishing the Illinois River. They’re not as abundant as other fish species, but they’re fun to find and fish. Weighing in at up to 8 pounds walleye are larger than saugeye that max the scales at about 5 pounds. Walleye in Illinois can reach over 24″.

One of the popular (and effective) lure combinations for targeting walleye and sauger is a minnow hooked through the head with a jig fished about 12″ off the bottom using a three way swivel rig or a mullet type rig. Fishing minnows or lead head jigs alone is also popular.

The tailwaters of Starved Rock Dam is one of the most popula locations for fishing walleye and sauger. Spring is the best time of year to target both species and it’s also when anglers show up in numbers. The tailwaters can also be fished throughout the winter since the current keeps the river from freezing over. Many angler swear they catch the largest walleye from Starved Rock Dam during the dead of winter.

Some of the best sauger fishing is just before the spring runoff about a mile downstream of where Interstate 39 crosses the Illinois River via the Abraham Lincoln Memorial Bridge. Target the deeper wholes where wintering sauger hold up using a vertical presentation with a fliptail worm jig or blade bait.

Frehswater Drum

Freshwater Drum, including white perch, silver perch and sheepshead, is another popular target of anglers fishing the Illinois. Drum prefer water current and are most commonly found in tailwaters and main channel borders along the Illinois River.

Drums will take a variety of natural baits including worms, minnows, and shrimp fished on the bottom in areas where there is current, as well as the bottom of the river’s larger lakes. The cooler months of spring and fall are the best time of year to target drum.

Channel and Flathead Catfish

You’ll find catfish throughout the Illinois River wherever there is amble underwater cover including submerged stumps, fallen trees, and log jams. Channel cats in particular like to hole up along the banks anywhere there are deep holds where they can hide.

Catfish hunt and feed primarily scent. If you want get a catfish on the end of your line, prepare baits that generate a strong odor. Effective baits include cheese baits, blood baits, chicken livers, even hot dogs. They’ll also take shrimp, nightcrawlers, crayfish and variety of concoctions such as doughballs. Baits fished on a treble hook on the bottom using a sliding or slip sinker rig is an effective presentation. When targeting flatheads, using larger bait and hooks.

Your average Illinois River catfish is going to weigh between 2 and 10 pounds, with the occassional channel cat weighing in at over 15 pounds and flathead tipping the scale at 30 pounds.

Just as fishing for other gamefish starts to slump in July, fishing for catfish is just picking up. July through September if prime time for targeting catfish in the Illinois River. You can fish for channel cats and flatheads during the day, and throughout the night.


The Illinois River is home to black, yellow, and to a lesser degree, brown bullheads. The most common, and effective, bait for targeting bullheads is a nice juicy earthworm. You can fish a worm suspended under a bobber near the bottom, or directly on the bottom without a bobber. Grubs, shrimp, liver and well-prepared doughballs will also catch bullheads. Like channel cats, bullheads also feed throughout the night.

Common Carp

While not a popular gamefish among anglers, Illinois River has it good share of carp. You can wet your line anywhere along the Illinois with the right bait and pull out a carp. In recent years, the carp has grown in popularity as a gamefish due to their size, fighting prowess and viability as tablefare.

Fish on or near the bottom using worms, corn, or doughballs on a treble hook. Carp are fished throughout the spring, summer and fall.

The following table provides a comprehensive list of the public and private—but mostly public—boat ramps along the Illinois River from Grafton, just north of St Louis, to Dresden Lock and Dam just south of Chicago. Each listings includes the availability of amenities including picnic, camping and restroom facilities—as well as decimal map coordinates. I verified all coordinates, so they should be spot on. To learn more about a boat ramp, you can search the coordinates in Google, or locate the corresponding orange marker in the map above.

Pere Marquettexxxx38.973752, -90.547507
Long Lakexxx38.990119, -90.559497
Hadley Landingxxxx39.046167, -90.590519
Gladesxxxx39.048377, -90.576875
Godar-Diamondxxxx39.198553, -90.610367
Pohlman Slough/Calhoun Pointxxx38.942411, -90.504187
Grafton Harborxx38.969259, -90.442345
Florencex39.632367, -90.609415
Naplesxx39.743063, -90.617958
Meredosiaxx39.828156, -90.563264
Meredosia Lakex39.886939, -90.530540
Beardstownxxx40.023485, -90.426132
Sanganoisx40.130844, -90.346853
Anderson Lakexxxx40.202846, -90.200370
Bathx40.192788, -90.143947
Havana - Riverfront Park 3 Rampsxxx40.301885, -90.066586
Havana - Tall Timbers Marinaxxx40.305989, -90.065776
Havana - Hwy 97x40.294518, -90.072104
Liverpoolxx40.390935, -89.997340
Spring Lake Boat Ramp - Southxxxx40.450220, -89.895841
Spring Lake Boat Ramp - Northx40.470282, -89.867497
Pekin - Eastx40.571314, -89.652938
Pekin - Westx40.574904, -89.655932
Peoria Lake - Cooper South Boat Launchxx40.695782, -89.543923
Peoria Lake - East40.681652, -89.558144
Peoria Lake - Eastport Marina & Boat Ramp40.691325, -89.545497
Detweiller Riverside Parkxx40.701980, -89.570356
Peoria Lake - Wharf Harborxxxx40.714342, -89.556894
Peoria Lake - National Marinax40.754705, -89.558569
East Peoria Boat & Recreationxxxx40.757430, -89.534422
East Peoria - Marina Spring Bay & Boat Clubxx40.747186, -89.533754
Woodford - Hamm's Harborxxxx40.890257, -89.496129
Woodford - Illinois River Rampx40.915512, -89.482882
Chillicothexx40.916459, -89.482456
Laconxx41.024525, -89.413755
Bartonvillex40.610723, -89.652695
Henryxxx41.111372, -89.351135
Henryx41.108403, -89.355397
Hennepinxxxx41.252817, -89.347881
DePue - Illinois River Rampxx41.321089, -89.309913
Spring Valley - Illinois River Rampxxx41.315554, -89.200134
Spring Valley Boat Clubxx41.310118, -89.198750
Peru - Illinois River Rampx41.321459, -89.126225
Peru - South Shore Boat Clubxx41.320562, -89.134002
Starved Rock - Lone Point Boat Rampxxxx41.311132, -88.940123
Starved Rock Marinaxx41.321515, -88.945866
Vermilion River Boat Rampxx41.302430, -89.038389
Ottawa - Allen Parkxxx41.341131, -88.846176
Ottawa - Sanite Genvieve Boat Rampx41.343390, -88.842542
Ottawa - Heritage Harborxx41.341355, -88.785377
Laselle - Spring Valley Access Areax41.324624, -89.083241
William G Stratton State Parkxxx41.355880, -88.420489
Dresden Dam - Access via Harborside Marinaxx41.383794, -88.247728
Hardinx39.153894, -90.616830
Powerton Lake Rampx40.538572, -89.700241
Kampsville Public Rampx39.298486, -90.607327
Michael's Landing Accessx39.235529, -90.608396
Pearl - Illinois River Rampx39.456377, -90.609072
Don Birch Boat Dockxxx40.649261, -89.609477
Utica - Boat Rampxx41.326896, -89.006531
Marseilles - Snug Harbor Marinaxx41.323522, -88.699773
Marseilles - Mallar Bay Boat Rampxx41.320438 -88.700832
Seneca - Spring Brook Marinaxx41.299847, -88.630735
Seneca - Public Boat Launchxxx41.300645, -88.605104
Seneca - Anchor In Marinaxx41.298271, -88.603532