Rend Lake Fishing: Complete Angler’s Guide

Sharing is caring!

Rend Lake might not be a household name in most parts of the county, but Illinois anglers know what a hidden gem they have tucked away in the rolling farmland of Franklin and Jefferson counties. 

The second-largest inland lake in Illinois, Rend Lake spans 18,900 acres and stretches 13 miles end-to-end in the southern part of the state. It’s a powerhouse fishing lake for crappie, catfish and bass.

Built in 1973, Rend Lake is an impoundment on the Big Muddy River and Casey Fork. Oriented north-to-south, the reservoir is divided into upper and lower segments by the Route 154 Causeway, which crosses its midsection from east to west.

The deepest, clearest water in Rend Lake is below the causeway, but both halves of the lake offer tremendous fishing opportunities. 

Above Route 154, Rend Lake is mostly shallow and includes vast areas of standing timber, stumps and brush.

The lake branches into two forks at its head, one fed by the Big Muddy and one by Casey Fork. Each branch features a sub-impoundment dam that keeps the lake mostly free of silt.

With dozens of access sites and miles of public access managed by both the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Rend Lake provides virtually endless fishing opportunities. 

Rend Lake Crappie Fishing

Easily one of the best crappie lakes in Illinois, Rend Lake is a regular producer of both black and white crappies in the 2- to 3-pound range. The Illinois state record black crappie, weighing 4 lb 8 oz, was caught here in 1974, though white crappies are more common today.

As with most lakes, crappie populations in Rend Lake go through boom-and-bust cycles depending on the strength of any given year class. Even so, it’s a rare year that doesn’t offer solid numbers of crappies over 10 inches. 

Unsurprisingly, spring is the best time to catch them. Crappies start to gravitate toward shallow cover in March—occasionally even earlier during warmer winters—spawn from April into May, and then gradually transition back toward deep water from May into June.

The key to locating spring crappies often comes down to buckbrush, a type of thick, tangled shrubbery that grows wild around much of the lakeshore. Local anglers have a love-hate relationship with the stuff. 

Buckbrush almost always attracts crappie in April and May, but its gnarled branches also claim more than their share of tackle. 

Threading your minnows onto thin Aberdeen hooks will reduce snagging, and long rods make it easier to dip your bait into the brush. But at the end of the day, just accept that you’ll lose some hooks. With a little luck, you’ll have a nice cooler full of crappies to show for it.

Gun Creek is one of the best and most popular spring crappie areas on Rend Lake, but most coves attract crappies in springtime. In general, the lake’s upper half above the Route 154 causeway is best.

The causeway area itself is also excellent and offers a lot of good bank access. Lots of crappies pass through the narrow gaps between the causeway’s long stretches of riprap. 

Crappies are harder to pin down during summer but you can still catch them from deeper cover. Hundreds of artificial cribs and other habitat structures have been sunk throughout Rend Lake, many marked with buoys.

Rend Lake Bass Fishing

Rend Lake is one of Illinois’ best largemouth bass fishing lakes, though it also tends to be underrated. The common impression of Rend Lake seems to be that it’s a great numbers lake but one in which bass size has fallen off over the decades.

But Rend Lake is also a tournament staple, and if the pair of 9.3- and 8.25-pound largemouths caught during tournaments in 2022 are any indication, this lake is still more than capable of producing trophy bass.

The best bass fishing at Rend Lake is generally from April through June when largemouths go through their annual transition from pre-spawn to spawn to post-spawn. Soft plastics like Zoom Flukes and Senkos excel in shallow water this time of year. 

Bass relate to a variety of cover in Rend Lake, and areas all over the reservoir provide varying fishing opportunities. Riprap is especially productive early and late in the day, and you’ll find miles of it lining the Route 154 causeways across the middle of the lake.

Several of Rend Lake’s large coves and “branches” are perennial largemouth hot spots. The Jackie Branch, located on the west side of the lake just north of the Route 154 causeway, is always worth investigating, as are Gun Creek, Sandusky Cove, and the area around the big island.

In spring, there’s great fishing among the shallow stumps, flooded timber and buckbrush in the upper arms formed by the Big Muddy River and Casey Fork. 

That said, boating in these areas can be hazardous, especially when water levels dip in summer. But early in the year, when the water is high and a bit stained, you can clean up in this area with a flashy white or chartreuse spinnerbait.

Bass fishing tends to slump a bit during the dog days of summer, but plenty of largemouths can still be caught around creek channels and deep weed edges using crankbaits and jigs.

In fall, many bass return to spring haunts.

In addition to natural reproduction, the Illinois DNR stocks largemouth bass in Rend Lake as advanced fingerlings most years. Recent surveys show that the majority of the population is larger than 12 inches, and 35% is over the 14-inch legal length.

Rend Lake Catfish

Rend Lake offers excellent catfish angling, especially for channel catfish, which are abundant in areas all over the lake and typically weigh anywhere from 1 to 5 pounds. Ten-pounders are not uncommon, and there may be no other Illinois lake that kicks out more channel cats.

There’s also a solid population of flathead catfish here, and flatheads commonly weigh in the 15- to 25-pound range. Every once in a while, anglers wrestle 50-pound flatheads to the bank.

Spring through early fall are the prime catfish seasons on Rend Lake, and good areas to fish are too numerous to list.

The upper end of the reservoir, with its forests of timber and stumps in 3 to 8 feet of water, offers exceptional catfish angling.

Any time it rains, head to Rend Lake’s creeks and coves. Nutrients washed into the lake from its many small tributaries invariably attract catfish. 

Drifting natural baits close to the bottom from a boat is the most widely productive tactic for channel catfish, and a range of baits can be effective. Triple S Dip Baits are popular, along with chicken livers and cut bait made from shad.

A lively leech is also a great channel cat offering, especially around chunk rock and riprap banks. Try drifting a leech below a float along Rend Lake’s rocky causeways, especially when channel cats spawn in May and June.

Bank fishing at Rend Lake can be excellent for catfish throughout the summer months. Catfish are typically most active at night this time of year, with prime bank fishing spots including Waltonville Dam, Bonnie Dam, and the Ina boat ramp.

For flathead catfish, live baits work better, and the biggest flatheads are almost always caught after dark. Jug fishing catches a lot of monster flatheads using live bluegill, though hook-and-line anglers catch plenty. 

“Noodling,” or hand-fishing for flatheads, is also possible when these fish create dens in which they spawn from June through August. Flathead catfish typically spend their days in these shoreline dens, emerging at night to hunt on shallow flats.

Other Fish Species

A well-rounded warm-water fishery is available in Rend Lake. In addition to the other gamefish species mentioned below, the lake also supports the following gamefish. Additionally, you will likely catch Rend’s abundant buffalo, common carp, freshwater drum and bowfin. 


A prolific bluegill population resides in Rend Lake, and these panfish are known for reaching noteworthy sizes here. Although massive 9- and 10-inch bluegill are less common than they once were, a large share of the population still measures 7 to 8 inches. 

Bluegill are known for biting red worms and crickets with little hesitation.

You will find them around nearshore brush and weed beds during the warmer months. Gun Creek, the causeway, and the flats at the upper end of the lake are all good areas. 

The best time to target bluegills is during May and June, when they spawn across the lake’s soft-bottomed flats, creating colonies of nests that honeycomb the bottom, often numbering in the hundreds. 

Catching bluegill can be a lot of fun using tiny jigs on ultralight tackle. Fly fishing for bluegill is often excellent on summer evenings, with light popper flies being very effective.

Some anglers also catch bluegill through the ice during Rend Lake’s brief ice fishing season. Ice fishing is usually limited to the lake’s shallow coves for a few weeks in January and February.

White Bass

White bass are abundant in Rend Lake. Some anglers target them when they head uplake and into the reservoir’s various tributaries to spawn in springtime. Lots of white bass measuring up to 15 inches and weighing 1 to 1.5 pounds are caught this time of year. 

During the rest of the year, white bass favor main lake structure, generally staying in deep, open water during the day, and sometimes transitioning toward points and other shallow areas around dusk.

Main lake humps are some of the most reliable places to find schools of white bass. Rend Lake has quite a few large humps both above and below the causeway, and they’re easy to pick out on a topographic map of the lake.

Sometimes it’s also possible to spot surface activity caused by white bass feeding on shad at the surface. Casting small spinners, spoons, and other minnow imitations can be a great way to quickly catch your limit when this occurs.

Yellow Bass

Closely related to white bass, yellow bass are also abundant in Rend Lake, though relatively few anglers go out of their way to catch them. Multispecies anglers most frequently catch them along with bluegill, crappie, and white bass. 

Identifiable by their brassy yellow color and more distinct stripes compared to white bass, yellow bass commonly measure 9 or 10 inches but are capable of topping 2 pounds. They typically travel in large schools and readily snap up small jigs and minnows.

Yellow bass usually cruise the creek channels of Rend Lake but head into the shallows around dusk. Fishing for yellow bass usually turns on a little earlier than white bass in spring, and catching a mess of yellow bass is a sign that the white bass run is just about to start.

Hybrid Striped Bass

The Illinois DNR has been stocking hybrid striped bass (also known as wipers) into a handful of large reservoirs across the state since the 1990s, including Rend Lake. The overall population remains relatively low, but some quality fish are caught here every year. 

Wipers inhabit many of the same places white bass do, including main lake humps and points. Shad are their main forage, and in spring and early summer, it’s common to find them chasing schools of baitfish from creek channels up onto nearby flats and submerged road beds. 

Anglers catch them either by trolling or casting shad imitations, including jigging spoons, Rat-L-Traps and Rapala Shad Raps.

Hybrid stripers typically weigh 3 to 5 pounds, but Rend Lake produces some that weigh 10 pounds or more. 

Planning Your Trip

Spring and fall are arguably the best times to fish Rend Lake. Summer fishing can also be excellent, though you can expect the lake to be somewhat busier this time of year.

Public lands, including state and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers properties, encompass virtually the entire lake, offering plenty of shore fishing and boat ramps. Multiple campgrounds and more than 20 boat launch sites are available.

Getting to Rend Lake

Rend Lake is in a predominantly rural area of Southern Illinois. The nearest major city is St. Louis, MO, about 90 minutes northwest via Interstates 64 and 57. The lake is less than 20 minutes from several small Illinois cities, including Mt. Vernon and Benton.

I-57 runs north to south, roughly parallel to Rend Lake’s eastern shoreline (the Interstate even has its own rest area overlooking the lake). Exit 77 off I-57 will put you on State Route 154, which crosses the lake via a series of causeways.

Bank & Boat Access

The official Rend Lake Brochure published by the Corps of Engineers is a great resource for fishing, boating and other recreation on Rend Lake. All Corps of Engineers sites charge a launch fee of $5.

Although the following is by no means an exhaustive list, some of the best places to launch a boat or fish from the bank at Rend Lake include: 

  • Wayne Fitzgerrell State Recreation Area: The largest recreation complex on Rend Lake, Wayne Fitzgerrell State Recreation Area offers multiple bank access sites, a large campground, and boat launches on the east side of the main lake and the Gun Creek arm. It is possible to walk out onto the Route 154 causeway from the park.
  • Gun Creek: Located opposite the state recreation area on the Gun Greek arm of Rend Lake, the Corps-operated Gun Creek Recreation Area offers a boat launch and campground, with bank access within walking distance of the campsites.
  • Marcum Branch North & Marcum Branch South: Two neighboring Corps of Engineers access sites at the southeast corner of Rend Lake, the Marcum Branch North Recreation Area and Marcum Branch South Recreation Area each have excellent launch facilities and bank access. 
  • Dam West: The Dam West Recreation Area is located at the southwest corner of Rend Lake, just west of the dam. Also operated by the Corps of Engineers, this site has a boat launch, bank fishing, and is also home to the Rend Lake Marina.
  • South Sandusky & North Sandusky: Two neighboring Corps recreation areas on the west side of Rend Lake, the South and North Sandusky Recreation Areas offer multiple ramps, fishing access and campgrounds on Sandusky Cove.
  • Public Access Areas (West Side): Several free public access areas for hunting and fishing are along the west side of Rend Lake. Starting just above the Route 154 Causeway, sites with boat ramps are located at Jackie Branch, Turnip Patch and Waltonville.
  • Public Access Areas (Nason Area): Several additional access areas are in the Nason area, on the wedge of land between Big Muddy and Casey Fork at the upper end of Rend Lake. Launching is available at the North Nason and South Nason access areas and Bluegill Hole. 
  • Public Access Areas (East Side): Public launching for fishing and hunting on the east side of Rend Lake is available at the Bonnie Dam access and the South Bonnie ramp. The Ina launch ramp also has excellent bank fishing access.