6 Best Fly Fishing Rivers in Illinois (Trout, Bass & Pike)

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You could be forgiven if Illinois isn’t the first state that comes to mind when you think of great fly-fishing states. But if that’s the case, you might be missing out on some truly excellent fishing. 

The Prairie State offers a wealth of options for fly anglers, and not just for trout. Although rainbow trout are widely stocked throughout Illinois, some of the state’s best fly fishing destinations offer opportunities to catch other species swinging the long rod.

These include river-dwelling smallmouth bass and toothy northern pike, which are thrilling fish to tangle with on the fly. We could even say the same of carp, which fight like bulldozers and inhabit many of Illinois’ slow-moving rivers.

Regardless of your target species, fly fishing in Illinois can be excellent if you think outside the box. Approach any of these Illinois fly-fishing rivers with a willingness to catch whatever bites. 

Kankakee River

The Kankakee River is a prime fly fishing destination less than an hour from Chicago, offering some of the best smallmouth bass fishing in Illinois.

The river begins in Indiana and flows 59 miles through the Prairie State before merging with Des Plaines River to form the Illinois River. 

Smallmouths inhabit areas throughout the river, but the section between the dams in Kankakee and Wilmington is arguably the best. Anglers catch lots of 12- to 15-inch smallies here, as well as some 20-inch brutes. 

A smallmouth that size can give you a serious run for your money on light tackle, so consider sizing up if you’re accustomed to trout fishing. A 9-foot 6- or -weight rod is ideal.

Top smallmouth flies include Muddler Minnows, poppers, sculpin and crawfish patterns.

The Kankakee River has a bottom of mostly gravel and cobble, but there are also some sandy-bottomed pools. However, the limestone bedrock is exposed in places, and the descending limestone shelves provide fantastic smallmouth structure.

Smallmouths generally gravitate to any structure that provides a break in the current. However, they may also congregate at the upper and lower ends of pools, along deep river bends, and at the mouths of tributaries. 

Kankakee River State Park provides access to a beautiful 11-mile section of the river, including walking trails along both banks. The river is ideal for float trips, and summer is a great time for wading. 

Smallmouth bass are not the only species fly anglers can target in the Kankakee River. Largemouth bass and crappie are also common, especially in some of the river’s marshier backwaters close to the Indiana state line. Anglers even take a few big northern pike on streamers. 

The Kankakee River also hosts an outstanding spring walleye run. Walleye are seldom targeted by fly anglers, but they may fall for streamers, leech patterns and Wooly Buggers in March and April. Use sinking line to keep your fly near the bottom. 

Trout aren’t available in the Kankakee River, but the DNR does stock catchable rainbow trout every spring and fall in Rock Creek. This Kankakee River tributary is easily accessible through Kankakee River State Park, and trout season typically opens in early April and mid-October.

More: Complete Guide to Kankakee River Fishing

Apple River

Widely considered to be Illinois’ premier trout stream, the Apple River is a Mississippi River tributary that flows through 55 miles of Southwest Wisconsin and Northwest Illinois.

There may be no more beautiful place to fish for trout in Illinois. 

The Apple River is part of what is known as the Driftless Area, a region that was spared the effects of the glaciers during the last Ice Age. Consisting of wooded hills and steeply carved river valleys, it’s considerably more rugged than the typical landscape of the Midwest. 

This is the landscape that surrounds the Apple River. It’s ideal trout habitat, and although the stream is managed as a put-and-take fishery, its waters stay cool enough to allow some occasional holdover trout. 

The Illinois DNR stocks catchable rainbows in the Apple River every spring and fall. These fish average 10 to 12 inches, and stocking centers around the mile-and-change segment of the river that flows through Apple River Canyon State Park

This section includes some beautiful limestone bluffs and consists of numerous pools, riffles, undercut banks, eddies, and other prime trout spots.

Hatchery-reared rainbows usually aren’t the pickiest eaters. 

Size 16 Parachute Adams and Pheasant Tail Nymphs usually tempt their fair share of fish, and a size 8 Wooly Bugger is also a good pick.

Most trout are caught within the first couple months after stocking, after which many anglers shift their attention to smallmouth bass. 

Waders are recommended in spring, but shorts and an old pair of sneakers are better summer attire.

Once the spring runoff subsides, the Apple River is seldom more than 30 feet wide and 5 feet deep, with the exception of a few deeper pools where where tributaries meet the larger stream.

Fox River

The Fox River is a 202-mile tributary of the Illinois River that begins in Wisconsin before crossing the state line near Antioch. In addition to feeding the legendary Fox Chain O’ Lakes, the river offers an outstanding warm water fishery in its own right. 

For fly anglers, smallmouth bass are often the primary target. But the Fox River also has significant populations of largemouth bass, bluegill, rock bass, walleye, and even muskellunge, which have become well-established due to escapement from lakes.

Generally a low gradient river, the Fox is slow and meandering most of the year, making it easy to fish. Thirteen dams control the Fox River, and tailwater areas below each dam are some of the best fishing areas, especially in spring and fall.

In April and September, there is excellent walleye fishing below the dams in McHenry, Saint Charles, North Aurora, Montgomery, Yorkville and Dayton, often with some healthy smallmouths mixed in. 

Summer and early fall offer the most agreeable fly fishing conditions. The river is easy to explore on foot or by canoe or kayak this time of year, and bass commonly fall for streamers, poppers and terrestrials. 

The majority of the Fox River flows through the suburban sprawl west of Chicago. As a result, you won’t always find the most wild and remote fishing experience. But on the plus side, the river offers a wealth of public access, with at least 100 public parks in the Illinois portion alone. 

Public parkland surrounds most of the dams, offering access to some of the best fishing holes.

North Aurora Riverfront Park is an excellent starting point. It’s the first of a nearly unbroken chain of parks and trails that parallel the river from the North Aurora Dam downriver to the Montgomery Dam and beyond. 

This whole stretch offers great bass fishing.

Muskie fishing, on the other hand, gets better from Montgomery downriver to Silver Springs State Fish & Wildlife Area. Muskies inhabit the deepest pools of the river and may strike oversized streamers around weed beds and fallen timber.

Pine Creek

Meandering through the forests and farmlands of Ogle County, Pine Creek is a quality trout stream in Northern Illinois. Catchable rainbow trout are stocked here twice annually, leading into the spring and fall fishing seasons.

Pine Creek is a beautiful stream, and a great section of it is open to fishing within White Pines Forest State Park. Roads and trails crisscross the creek within the park, providing ample access. 

Wading is allowed, and Pine Creek has some beautiful holes.

Stimulator flies, Hare’s Ears, Copper Johns and Parachute Adams are all good choices. 

Trout harvest seasons begin on the first Saturday in April and the third Saturday in October. As with the Apple River and a handful of other waters across the state, Pine Creek is also open for a special catch-and-release-only fly fishing season two weeks before the regular season.

Anglers usually swarm Pine Creek during the first couple of weekends of trout season, so try to visit on a weekday.

Spring-fed creeks keep the water cool enough that holdover is possible, but relatively few trout evade anglers for long.

Some sections of Pine Creek have open, grassy banks, while other areas are more wooded. Overhanging trees and the relatively small size of the stream make shorter fly rods advantageous. 

In summer, smallmouth bass, rock bass and sunfish often gulp terrestrials from the surface, so bring a few ant and grasshopper patterns. Any shady spot is a likely place to pick up a few fish when the sun is out. 

Pine Creek also has some hefty carp, and fly fishing for carp has recently gained popularity. Trout-style nymphs, smaller crayfish flies, and wooly buggers often do the trick. Many anglers employ a drag-and-drop technique for cruising carp.

Rock River 

The Rock River starts in Wisconsin and flows 325 miles—155 in Illinois—before reaching the Mississippi River. It’s a broad, meandering river that supports a wide range of warm-water game fish. 

Chief among them are smallmouth bass, which are abundant throughout the river. DNR surveys reveal a healthy bass population in all size classes, including occasional 18-inch-plus smallies. Expect to catch more bass in the 12- to 15-inch class.

The best smallmouth fishing is in tailwater areas below dams. The Rock River has several of these, but the Rockford, Dixon and Oregon dams tend to have the best bass fishing and the easiest access for fly anglers. 

The Rock River is about 15 feet deep in many places (and occasionally considerably deeper), which can be challenging for fly anglers unless bass are willing to rise to the surface. Tailwater areas tend to offer more accessible shallow structure.

The Rock River also supports a decent population of northern pike, which can be quite an exciting catch on a fly rod.

Pike are most commonly caught near vegetation and downed trees, particularly in deeper, slower parts of the river. Try casting to shoreline cover along river bends.

For anglers who prefer to fish by boat, the Rock River is large enough to accommodate a wide variety of craft. Launch sites are available at Lowden State Park and Castle Rock State Park, with the latter especially known for good fishing and rugged scenery.

Carp and several species of suckers are common in the Rock River. Nymphing often will catch either species.

Bluegill are also abundant, particularly in upper areas around Rockton and Rockford.

Catfish are also common, though fly anglers do not often catch them.

Des Plaines River

The 133-mile Des Plaines River flows southward through the varied urban and suburban landscape west of Chicago. Despite its developed setting, a network of parks and greenways shields much of the river. And the fishing is excellent. 

Once heavily polluted, the Des Plaines River has made an impressive comeback since the Clean Water Act of 1974. In particular, it’s known as one of the best places to fish for northern pike in Illinois. 

Pike inhabit areas throughout the Des Plaines River, and DNR surveys show that a significant portion of the population measures 21 inches or more.

Pike prefer slack water outside the main current and gravitate to sloughs, weed beds and deep pools.

Anglers can catch pike in almost any season. These fish become active in early spring and make an upriver spawning run around the same time as walleye in March. In springtime, pike often seek warm, sunny spots in shallow water.

Pike also actively feed through summer, ambushing prey fish along weed edges and other cover.

Pike are voracious predators, and fly fishing for them generally requires large flies and sturdy 7- to 9-weight fly rods.

The best pike flies are generally streamers that measure 5 to 7 inches. Clouser Minnows, Umpqua Baitfish and Barry’s Pike Flies are popular patterns. Floating frog and mouse imitations are also effective. High-visibility colors tend to fare best.

The Des Plaines River Greenway spans almost the entire length of the river, including dozens of access points accessible through Lake County Forest Preserves and Cook County Forest Preserves.

These include several excellent canoe landings, and the tranquil currents of the Des Plaines River make it perfect for float trips, especially in summer.

In addition to pike, anglers may encounter largemouth and smallmouth bass, rock bass, bluegill and carp.