15 Best Bass Fishing Lakes and Rivers in Illinois

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Illinois offers some truly exceptional bass fishing. From the sprawling impoundments of Southern Illinois to the rambling rivers and natural lakes farther north, it’s almost impossible to exhaust all of the Prairie State’s bass fishing possibilities. 

The real “ace in the hole” of Illinois bass fishing might just be its power plant cooling lakes, which provide exceptional wintertime angling opportunities and make bass fishing in Illinois a true year-round event. 

Largemouth and smallmouth bass are both fairly common in Illinois, though largemouths are far more widespread and abundant. They thrive in lakes large and small all over the state, particularly in lakes that have lots of weeds and woody cover.

Quite a few Illinois lakes have produced bass over 10 pounds, and anglers have a real shot at 5-plus pound largemouths on any given day. 

Smallmouths earn their fair share of attention too. They’re especially dominant in the rivers of Northern Illinois, and in the vast waters of Lake Michigan. Pound for pound, there may be no harder fighter in freshwater. 

There are no statewide size limits or closed seasons on bass in Illinois. That being said, many lakes and rivers have site-specific regulations, including slot limits in many cases. So be sure to check the current regulations before you hit the water.

Top 10 Illinois Bass Fishing Spots

Newton Lake

Tucked away in the farmland of Southeast Illinois, 1,750-acre Newton Lake has consistently ranked among the best largemouth lakes in the Midwest for decades. And although there have been changes to this lake in recent years, its future as a bass factory looks bright. 

Newton Lake is a power plant cooling reservoir. The warm water discharge from the Newton Power Station has historically supported abundant gizzard shad and created an extended growing season for bass. 

That has always been the secret behind Newton Lake’s ability to crank out 5- to 8-pound largemouths like no other lake in Illinois. In the last few years, the plant has only been operating one of its two generating units, and the long-term effects remain to be seen. 

It’s possible that Newton Lake will gradually become more of a numbers lake than a trophy fishery, but if so, that has yet to happen. Reduced power plant operation has also had a positive effect in that summer bass fishing—once very challenging due to hot water—is greatly improved. 

Newton Lake also remains a stellar winter bass lake. Largemouths reliably follow shad toward the western arm of the lake (usually referred to as the Warm Water Arm) throughout the cooler months. 

Prime areas to target include riprap banks and shoreline laydowns.

The topwater bite is often excellent, with buzzbaits and Zara Spooks being favorite lures.

Lots of largemouths fall for spinnerbaits and fluke-style soft jerkbaits too. 

Sometime around May or June, the best bass fishing shifts from the Warm Water Arm over to the Cold Water Arm, where weed beds provide outstanding summer bass habitat. Try working a weedless frog over beds of coontail.

Ample access is available through Newton Lake State Fish and Wildlife Area, including boat ramps and bank fishing on both arms of the lake. Boats are limited to 25hp or less.

Lake Michigan

The Great Lakes consistently offer some of the best smallmouth bass fishing in America (along with some highly underrated largemouth action), and Illinois’ portion of Lake Michigan is no exception. This is arguably the best place to target smallmouth bass in Illinois.

Some of the best spots are within a stone’s throw of Downtown Chicago. In fact, a new state record smallmouth was caught from shore in Chicago’s Monroe Harbor in 2019, weighing 7 pounds 3 ounces and besting a record that had been on the books since 1985 by 12 ounces. 

Lake Michigan smallmouth fishing is at its best in spring, when smallies gravitate to the abundant artificial structure in and around Chicago’s harbors. Anglers have miles of riprap and bulkheads to explore here, as well as reefs, sunken wrecks and piers. 

The fishing continues to be excellent through summer, when big bass often move a little deeper, but many stay within casting distance of bank anglers.

The fall months bring a lot of big bass back into the harbors again. 

The aforementioned Monroe Harbor is a perennial hotspot, with ample access via the Lakefront Trail and a continuous network of public parks, piers and docks along the shoreline. Northerly Island, a 119-acre island managed as a public park, is another great spot. 

The sheltered, weed-filled waters of Burnham Harbor, on the land-facing side of Northerly Island, is a haven for largemouths. The Burnham Harbor Boat Ramp is a popular public launch site here. 

Almost any classic bass lure can be effective, with tube jigs and wacky worms being consistent favorites. Smallmouths and largemouths alike commonly dine on round gobies, and any lure that is even remotely goby-like is likely to catch their eye.  

Lake Springfield

Some of the best bass fishing in Central Illinois can be found at Lake Springfield, a 3,866-acre reservoir on the outskirts of the capital city. Though it’s not known as a trophy bass lake, it’s been one of the most consistent for decades. 

For the most part, anglers can expect to catch great numbers of healthy mid-sized bass ranging from 12 to 18 inches. Interestingly, DNR surveys show that bass in Lake Springfield average significantly heavier for their length than other lakes in Illinois.

For example, a 15-inch largemouth would typically weigh 1.75 pounds. In Lake Springfield, bass that length average 2.25 pounds. Chalk it up to being well-fed on the lake’s abundant shad and bluegill. 

Lake Springfield is a power plant cooling reservoir. However, unlike similar power plant lakes in Illinois, the effect of the warm water discharge is limited by the fact that the plant expels water into the lower end of the reservoir, just above the dam. 

Even so, it’s a safe bet that the bottom fourth of Lake Springfield will offer the best bass bite in winter and early spring. Bass usually spread out in April as the rest of the lake starts to warm up. 

The shoreline of Lake Springfield is highly developed, and one could fish this lake for a lifetime and never run out of docks, boat houses and stretches of riprap. These are all prime areas on sunny spring days and can also be outstanding in fall. 

Lake Springfield can be challenging in summer due to the volume of recreational boat traffic on the lake. During the busy season, aim to get on the water early and focus on the less-traveled area above the I-55 bridge. 

The city of Springfield maintains excellent access facilities on the lake, including eight public parks and three public fishing areas. Center Park, located at the midpoint of Lake Springfield on the east side, is a great place to start. 

Crab Orchard Lake

A Southern Illinois reservoir spanning 6,965 acres, Crab Orchard Lake offers an outstanding multi-species fishery for bass, catfish and crappie. Largemouths here are healthy and abundant, and 44% of bass measured in a 2020 survey were 16 inches or more. 

Bass fishing is excellent from March through May, as bass move through their pre-spawn and spawn cycles in the lake’s many coves and creeks. The coves north of the Highway 13 bridges offer great structure and provide some of the best spring bass fishing. 

Crab Orchard Lake has long suffered from excessive siltation. It’s one of Illinois’ oldest reservoirs, and as the lake has aged, the DNR has taken a variety of steps to help stabilize and improve the bass fishery. 

Efforts include generous stocking of larger fingerling bass and planting large areas of water willow, lotus, and other vegetation in the lake’s coves. 

The DNR has also placed artificial bass spawning beds across a broad area within Grassy Bay. This “spawning refuge” is closed to bass fishing from April through June. By June, many bass will have spawned, and there’s great fishing just outside the closed area.

The riprap along the face of the dam is also a good area to target, as are blowdowns along the banks and any of Crab Orchard Lake’s several causeways. Plastic worms and spinnerbaits are top lures.

Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge completely surrounds the lake, and the refuge provides ample bank access, several boat launch sites and campground facilities.

Mississippi River

The sheer scale of the Mississippi River can make it an intimidating place to fish, but it also offers some of the best bass fishing in Illinois. Sloughs and backwaters all along the river host largemouths, while smallmouths are more common in areas with more current. 

The Mississippi River forms Illinois’ western border, flowing more than 575 miles from East Dubuque to Cairo. The best bass fishing is above the confluence with the Illinois in Grafton. From there up to the Wisconsin state line, a series of locks and dams controls the Mississippi. 

Those locks and dams divide the river into pools, which range from 10 to 47 miles in length. As a general rule, the bass fishing just gets better the farther upriver you go. 

Pool 13—the second to last pool in Illinois if you’re heading upriver—is arguably the best for largemouths. A lot of bass tournaments happen here, and the Illinois side of Pool 13 is minimally developed, with a maze of channels and sloughs waiting to be explored.

Largemouths favor areas that are near, but not directly in, the main current of the river. Woody cover like inundated trees and brush is at the top of the list of places to target, along with the weed beds and lily pad fields that develop in summer. 

The area known as Spring Lake is one of the most consistent places to catch Mississippi River largemouths. It’s accessible by bank and by boat through Spring Lake Campground.

As a general rule, largemouths will inch closer to the current when water levels are low but will seek out the most protected areas they can when the river is up. Smallmouth are also common in the Mississippi River, though they’re more prevalent farther upriver. 

Pool 12 of the Mississippi River provides some of the best smallmouth fishing. Look for smallies around riprap banks and wing dams, which are rocky structures built as far back as the 1800s to moderate the river’s flow. 

Pools 12, 13 and 14 of the river are within Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife Refuge. Among other great resources, the Fish & Wildlife Service provides detailed maps of each pool within the refuge. 

Sangchris Lake

Sangchris Lake is practically right down the road from Lake Springfield in Central Illinois. Like its neighbor, 2,321-acre Sangchris Lake is a power plant cooling lake with a fishing calendar that very much revolves around the plant’s warm water discharge schedule. 

Sangchris Lake has three main arms, each fed by a different branch of Clear Creek. Warm water discharges into the middle arm, and then cycles back to the plant via the western arm. It should come as no surprise that the middle fork is the place to be during the cooler months. 

The lake has abundant forage in the form of gizzard and threadfin shad. The latter, in particular, rely on warm water from the plant to survive the winter. Shad head to the middle arm of the lake in droves every winter, and bass follow. 

As a general rule, the middle arm continues to be the best place to fish until April, when the west arm really turns on. In both cases, anglers do quite well targeting stickups and fallen trees. 

Just about any lure can do the trick here when the bite is really cooking.

Spinnerbaits, chatterbaits and soft jerkbaits excel when bass are feeding on shad near the surface.

When bass slide a little deeper along main lake points, try a plastic worm or jig.

Fishing in Sangchris Lake can get tough in summer due to the warmth of the water. The ambient eastern arm is worth a shot this time of year, but it suffers from siltation and lack of plant life, and the bass fishing simply isn’t as good as in the middle and western arms. 

Sangchris Lake is known for a high catch rate, with abundant bass in just about every size class.

Bass over 5 pounds aren’t exactly common, but neither are they rare. Spring is the best time if you’re after a trophy.

There’s a public boat launch and fishing access site on each of the lake’s three main arms, and Sangchris Lake State Park offers campgrounds and lakeside picnic areas as well as fishing piers and boat ramps.

Kankakee River

Illinois is home to several excellent smallmouth streams, of which the Kankakee River is almost certainly the best.

Smallies over 14 inches are abundant in the Kankakee, and if strong year classes in recent years are any indication, that isn’t about to change any time soon.

The Kankakee River begins in Indiana, and the state of Illinois is home to a relatively brief section of the river. Just 59 miles of the river flow across the Prairie State, from the state line to its confluence with the Illinois River. 

The upper half of Illinois’ portion of the Kankakee River tends to be marshy, silty, and generally less-than-ideal for smallmouths. But things really start to improve around the city of Kankakee. 

From here on, the gradient increases, the water gets clearer, and the bottom is predominantly bedrock and cobble, along with some deep, sandy pools. In other words, it’s perfect for smallmouths.

The best fishing tends to be in the 11-mile section downriver from Kankakee that flows through Kankakee River State Park.

The state park section has a ton of excellent access, with walking trails along the riverbanks and convenient parking areas. Below the park, the fishing continues to be excellent, but access is more limited, making the lower Kankakee more suitable for float trips. 

Most smallmouths spawn from May into June, and this is a great time to fish gravel-bottomed areas near shore. The river is often still high and turbid this time of year, so target eddies, creek mouths, and areas that are somewhat protected from the current. 

Summer might be the best season to fish for smallmouths in the Kankakee River. The water is generally low enough to allow easy wading, and top spots include the heads of pools, rocky banks, bedrock ledges and any structure like a boulder or log that creates a current break. 

Topwaters like Heddon Tiny Torpedos can be excellent in summer, and crawfish imitations like jigs and tubes nearly always catch fish.

The smallmouths often turn on in a major way in early fall, so try a faster-moving lure at this time.

More: Complete Guide to Kankakee River Fishing

Kinkaid Lake

Bass anglers too often overlook Southern Illinois’ 2,750-acre Kinkaid Lake. That might be partly because it lies in a region littered with great bass lakes. 

It’s probably also because Kinkaid Lake is known more for other things, like being one of the best muskie lakes in Illinois. But Kinkaid also supports a healthy population of largemouths, and catch rates among anglers who target them are consistently good.

A 2022 survey by the Illinois DNR turned up bass as heavy as 6.4 pounds, with a healthy spread of fish in all size classes. There are also a lot of sub-keeper bass here that should ensure the future of the fishery for a good many years ahead. 

Backs of coves are key areas to look for big bass in spring, with most fish shifting to main lake areas in summer.

Riprap banks, weed beds, and woody cover throughout the lake have potential. The grass beds around Buttermilk Hill and the main lake islands are some of the most reliable spots. 

Anglers have plenty of options for bank and boat access on Kinkaid Lake.

The eastern portion of the lake is part of Kinkaid Lake State Fish & Wildlife Area, which offers camping, fishing piers and boat ramps. 

The Johnson Creek Arm to the west is surrounded by Shawnee National Forest, which includes several recreation areas and an extensive trail system around the lake. Johnson Creek Recreation Area is one of the better fishing and boating areas within the national forest.

The DNR also made a strong effort to establish a smallmouth bass population in Kinkaid Lake, though stocking was suspended after 2016. Still, don’t be too surprised to land an occasional smallie in rocky parts of the lake.

Jacksonville Lake

Though it’s a relatively small reservoir at just 476 acres, Jacksonville Lake produces some seriously big bass. DNR surveys have collected largemouths weighing 8 pounds, and bass over 18 inches make up a significant portion of the catchable population year after year. 

This West-Central Illinois reservoir has been quietly building a reputation as a great bass lake since the 1980s, when it underwent a massive rehabilitation project to improve the habitat and quality of the fishery.

Today, Jacksonville Lake offers excellent bass fishing from spring through fall, with the spring pre-spawn period offering the best shot at a trophy.

Jig-and-pigs around shoreline cover are top producers early in the year. 

Crankbaits and spinnerbaits start to become more effective as the lake warms up each year, and soft plastics frequently get the call in summer. There can also be an explosive topwater bite on summer nights.

One of the great things about Jacksonville Lake is that it offers almost every kind of bass cover. The water is fairly clear, and weed beds are abundant.

The lake also has riprap banks, flooded fence lines and stumps, sunken Christmas trees, cribs, and other cover.

Shoreline laydowns are common along wooded stretches of the banks, and boat docks line some of the more developed sections.

Jacksonville Lake is a great place to work your way along the banks, methodically flipping soft plastics under docks and around trees. 

The city of Jacksonville provides access, including a boat ramp on the north shore and camping and bank fishing areas. A special permit from the city is required to operate a boat on Jacksonville Lake. 

Fox Chain O’ Lakes

The Fox Chain is a group of naturally occurring glacial lakes in Northeast Illinois consisting of nine major lakes and a handful of smaller lakes. About an hour from Chicago and mere feet away from the Wisconsin border, these are some of Illinois’ best multi-species fishing lakes. 

The Fox Chain O’ Lakes spans about 7,100 total acres, and has a shoreline that stretches 50 miles.

The chain lakes are arguably best known for walleye, but they also offer outstanding bass fishing. 

Bass fishing in the Fox Chain is just getting warmed up when walleye fishing hits its peak in spring. The lakes cover a decent amount of latitude, and the more southerly lakes in the chain—Fox, Nippersink and Pistakee—are the first to warm up. 

During the month of May, bass are either spawning, getting ready to spawn, or have just finished spawning in various parts of the chain, and this is a glorious month to fish here.

A black plastic lizard is a local favorite for catching bedding bass. 

A variety of soft plastics, from tubes and craws to creatures and wacky worms, can tempt bass this season. Shallow flats and the back channels that connect the lakes are prime areas. 

Bass fishing continues to be excellent throughout June and July as weed beds develop and post-spawn bass hunt actively. Bass often stay surprisingly shallow in summer, and prime areas include boat docks and the shallow, shore-facing edges of weed beds. 

The Fox Chain O’ Lakes do not suffer from a lack of access. Chain O’ Lakes State Park is a good starting point, and marinas, campgrounds, and resorts dot the shorelines of most of the lakes. 

5 Honorable Mentions

Clinton Lake

Yet another power plant cooling lake that offers quality bass fishing in Central Illinois, Clinton Lake encompasses 4,895 acres in DeWitt County. Warm water from the plant discharges into the lake’s eastern arm, so it’s no surprise where most anglers try their luck in winter.

Clinton Lake warms quickly in spring, with bass spawning first in the “Warm Water Arm,” and then spawning up to a month later in the cool arm.

Trees grow right down to the waterline along much of the largely undeveloped shoreline, and laydowns are often key cover. 

Any of Clinton Lake’s many finger-like coves can be productive in spring, while bass are more commonly caught on points on the cool side of the lake in summer.

There are also several bridge crossings and extensive lily pad fields at the upper end of each arm worth exploring.

Smallmouths are also available, though their numbers have declined since stocking ceased in 2012.

Clinton Lake State Recreation Area provides various access and facilities, including a full-service marina and several excellent bank fishing spots on both arms. 

Lake Shelbyville

One of the largest lakes in Illinois, Lake Shelbyville is an 11,100-acre impoundment of the Kaskaskia River in the east-central part of the state. It’s well-regarded as a crappie lake, but offers some very good bass fishing as well.

Lake Shelbyville’s bass fishing has had its ups and downs. Largemouth bass virus took a toll a few years back, and had a lasting impact on the population. However, at this writing, the recovery is well underway, and anglers have been catching more and bigger bass of late. 

Casting crankbaits around downed trees is a good approach in springtime. Then, as the lake warms up in summer, the extensive areas of shoreline brush and water willow increasingly attract largemouths in the lake’s many coves. 

Lake Shelbyville also has some flooded timber and artificial fish habitat structures.

The reservoir features more than a dozen bank fishing and boat launch sites, most maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Lake of Egypt

Lake of Egypt is a 2,400-acre reservoir in Southern Illinois that the Southern Illinois Power Cooperative owns. Its waters are used to cool the power plant at the lower end of the lake, unsurprisingly creating a hot spot for cool-weather bass fishing. 

February is a great time to take advantage of the warm water. This month doesn’t offer the most consistent bite of the year, but big female bass are at their peak weight in late winter.

Lake of Egypt produces a lot of 5-pound bass and occasional 10-pounders. 

The pace of the fishing picks up from March into April as the rest of the lakes warm up, and bass get into the spawn. Wagon Creek and Cliffy Creek are prime spring areas with lots of woody cover. 

In summer, weed beds grow prolifically in the clear water, and working a buzzbait or crankbait over the tops of the vegetation is a great tactic.

Several privately owned marinas offer launch facilities on the lake. 

Cedar Lake

Southern Illinois has no shortage of great bass lakes, and 1,750-acre Cedar Lake is definitely one that anglers should keep on their radar.

A 10 hp limit on outboard motors keeps pressure from getting too intense, and a 14- to 18-inch protected slot limit helps maintain the fishery.

Cedar Lake is known for excellent numbers of largemouths but also shelters some real monsters, as a 10-pounder weighed in a 2022 tournament shows. However, anglers won’t easily catch fish of that size. 

For numbers, you can’t beat fishing the banks. Deadfalls litter the wooded shorelines of Cedar Lake, which produce lots of healthy bass.

But the really big ones tend to relate to deeper submerged trees and brush piles away from the banks. 

Bank and boat access is available through Shawnee National Forest.

Though it’s a long boat ride from the ramps, it’s worth the trip to the southeast arm of Cedar Lake. Here rocky bluffs plunge into the water, with bass often hiding in every crevice among the rocks. 

Heidecke Lake

About an hour southwest of Chicago, Heidecke Lake is a 1,955-acre reservoir that was once a cooling lake for the nearby power plant. It is currently maintained as an ambient lake and has fallen off many anglers’ radar since the plant closed up shop. 

But the fish are still here, and Heidecke Lake continues to offer excellent bass fishing. Largemouth and smallmouth bass are both present in the lake, with smallmouths being the dominant species. 

Riprap lines about 75 percent of Heideke Lake’s shoreline, and lots of bass are caught by working the rocks around dawn and dusk. Tubes, craws and worms account for a lot of smallies, and burning a crankbait along the banks can also be great when fish are active.

Heidecke Lake State Fish & Wildlife Area includes a boat launch on the lake’s south shore, with a pair of rocky breakwaters around the harbor. There is also a bank access site at the east end of the lake with a wheelchair-accessible fishing pier.

Catch More Bass

Be sure to read our guide to simple bass fishing tactics, tips, and top lures that catch fish across the U.S.