Kankakee River Fishing: Complete Angler’s Guide

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Traversing 133 miles of Indiana and Illinois, the Kankakee River is one of the best warm-water fishing rivers in either state. It’s a perfect river for float trips—the entire river is a designated National Water Trail—and offers excellent fishing for bass, catfish, panfish and walleye.

The Kankakee River looks quite different in each of the two states it crosses, largely due to manmade alterations that have significantly changed the character of parts of the river.

Illinois is home to the lower Kankakee River. This section has a relatively high gradient compared to the upper part of the river and is both swifter and better oxygenated as a result.

The Illinois section follows its natural course, ultimately merging with the Des Plaines River to form the Illinois River just outside Chicago.

Farther upriver in Indiana, the Kankakee River has been almost completely channelized. This section of the river once meandered through one of America’s largest wetlands, which were largely drained in the late 19th century to create farmland.

As a result, the Kankakee River of today is over 100 miles shorter than its historical course, and Indiana’s share of the river flows in straight lines between a series of levees. 

Even so, there’s excellent fishing throughout the entire river. And while fishing in the main river can be top-notch, the bayous, backwaters and marsh areas along the channelized upper Kankakee River also have some unique surprises to offer. 

Smallmouth Bass Fishing

The lower portion of the Kankakee River is widely regarded as one of the best smallmouth bass rivers in Illinois.

With its rocky bottom structure and well-oxygenated water, the lower Kankakee River supports an abundance of smallmouths over 12 inches. 

Anglers also catch quite a few 3-pound smallmouths over 18 inches here, though most of the bass in the Kankakee River are more modest-sized. Still, 50-fish days happen often when the bite is good. 

That’s a real possibility in summer when water levels are reasonably low, and clarity is fairly high. Smallmouths often lie in wait behind boulders and bridge pilings this time of year or hunt along deeper rocky banks. 

Creek mouths are key areas after a summer rain.

As the river starts to cool in fall, look for bass in deep runs on the main river. Fishing can be outstanding as smallmouths key in on minnows this time of year.

There’s good bass fishing in spring, too, though higher and more turbid waters often push smallmouths close to the bank. Target nearshore eddies this time of year, and expect smallmouths to be spawning from late May into early June.

Crawfish imitations, including tube jigs and craw-colored curlytail grubs, are great choices around rocky areas when clarity is decent. In muddy conditions, try a lure with more flash or vibration.

Topwaters fare well in summer, and fly fishing for smallies is also popular, with the Kankakee River offering some of the best fly fishing in the Chicago area. Streamers like Clouser Minnows are a top choice, along with crawfish and leech patterns and topwater poppers.

Overall, anglers can find the best smallmouth fishing in the 25-mile stretch of the river from Bourbonnais to the Interstate 55 bridge.

This section includes Kankakee River State Park, which has about 11 miles of bank access and launch sites at either end, making it great for floating.

Catfish Fishing

Some of the most consistently good fishing along much of the Kankakee River is for channel catfish.

Inhabiting virtually the entire river from Indiana into Illinois, channel cats typically weigh around 3 pounds here, and 10-pounders are relatively common.

Kankakee River channel catfish are also known for being easy to catch. Just about any smelly, natural bait will do the trick, from live nightcrawlers and crawfish to chicken livers and a wide range of dough baits and stink baits. 

And given the generally-stained nature of the water, one can often catch plenty of catfish during daylight hours as well as after dark.

Holes, brushy shorelines and creek mouths are the best areas to target, along with current breaks like boulders, deadfalls and bridge pilings.

Of all the potentially effective baits, large minnows are favored by many local anglers to catch bigger catfish. Try fishing either live minnows or cut bait on a three-way rig.

In snaggy areas without too much current, you can use a float to suspend the bait just above the bottom.

Virtually any of the river’s many access points can provide some catfish for bank anglers, but many of the best spots are in the middle portion of the river, close to the state line.

The Momence Wetlands Preserve in Illinois and the LaSalle Fish & Wildlife Area in Indiana offer prime catfish water. 

Flathead catfish are also available in the Kankakee River, but they are not nearly as widespread as channel catfish.

The lowest section of the river, from the dam in Wilmington to the confluence with the Illinois River, is the best place to find flatheads. The Wilmington tailwater is a top spot.

Flathead catfish are more strictly nocturnal than channel cats and also more apt to choose live bait over other offerings. They inhabit deep holes in the lower river, and emerge at night to feed in nearby shallows.

Kankakee River Walleye

Though the upper and lower areas of the Kankakee River look very different, both offer outstanding walleye fishing opportunities. There’s a strong case to be made for the Kankakee as one of the best walleye rivers in both Illinois and Indiana. 

The Illinois section has more of what you might call “classic” walleye habitat. That includes a lot of deep holes, rock and gravel bottom, and riffle-pool-run configurations. 

And thanks to ample stocking by the Illinois DNR starting in the year 2000, walleye fishing continues to get better and better. Anglers catch 10-pound walleye from the Kankakee River every year.

Walleye fishing typically gets going as early as February and peaks from March into April as walleye head upriver to spawn. Tailwater areas below the dams in Wilmington and Kankakee are a couple of the most reliable spring walleye spots.

Bank anglers in Illinois also catch a lot of fish along the river as it flows through Kankakee River State Park.

A little farther up the river, some nice fish are also caught in the Aroma Park area, where the Iroquois River feeds the Kankakee River. 

Up in Indiana, where the Kankakee is highly channelized and flows between dikes, traditional walleye habitat isn’t quite as apparent. But this stretch of the river still supports a great walleye population.

Bridge crossings are good places to start on the Indiana side. Walleye reside in the river’s deeper holes year-round, and many of them head into the adjacent bayous during the spring spawn. 

Kankakee Fish & Wildlife Area, which encompasses the confluence of the Kankakee and Yellow Rivers in Indiana, is one of the best places to target walleyes in the Hoosier State and offers plenty of bank and boat access. 

Jigs tipped with minnows are the go-to presentation for spring walleye. Bright-colored soft plastic jig trailers like curlytail grubs and paddle-tailed swimbaits can also be effective.

In summer, try baiting your hook with a lively leech after dark.

Other Fish Species

The Kankakee River offers a well-rounded warm-water fishery. Anglers catch the species listed below from the river, along with many non-game fish, such as common carp, freshwater drum, rock bass and redhorse sucker.

Largemouth Bass

Although smallmouth bass are the dominant black bass species in much of the Kankakee River, there’s also a significant largemouth bass population. Largemouths favor weedier habitat than smallmouths and also gravitate to areas that are protected from the main river’s current. 

Weed beds, sloughs and sheltered areas around river islands are some of the best places to find largemouth bass in the Kankakee River. Lots of 2- and 3-pound largemouths are caught here, with occasional bass over 6 pounds.

Good fishing for largemouths usually gets going in April as shallow areas warm up. It peaks as these fish spawn toward the end of May.

There is often great largemouth fishing in backwater areas all summer long, especially early in the morning and in the evening. 

Largemouths inhabit areas on either side of the state line.

In Illinois, the backwaters of Des Plaines State Fish & Wildlife Area are productive, along with the Momence Wetlands, River Isle and state line areas.

In Indiana, try Black Oak Bayou inside of LaSalle Fish & Wildlife Area. 

The best largemouth spots on the river tend to be filled with thick, snaggy cover, so use weedless rigs when possible and keep your lure up off the bottom.

Spinnerbaits and soft plastic jerkbaits are great options, as are walk-the-dog-style topwater lures. 


Rivers tend to get overlooked by crappie anglers, and the Kankakee River is no exception. But the upper portion of this river, with its countless miles of backwaters, bayous and sloughs, offers a highly underrated crappie fishery. 

Crappies measuring 9 to 12 inches are common in the upper Kankakee River, and anglers catch a lot of scrappy 2-pounders every spring. March through May are prime months. 

The best crappie fishing is in the Indiana portion of the river, particularly the stretches that flow through Kankakee Fish & Wildlife Area and LaSalle Fish & Wildlife Area. These areas offer an abundance of fairly shallow backwaters filled with logs, stumps, brush and other prime cover. 

Black Oak Bayou is a particularly good crappie haunt in LaSalle Fish & Wildlife Area. A small minnow on an Aberdeen hook beneath a float is the presentation of choice in these quiet backwaters just off the main river.

Within the Kankakee Fish & Wildlife Area, a little farther upriver, anglers can access a lot of quality crappie water by following Ten Mile Road, which parallels the Kankakee near its confluence with the Yellow River and provides easy bank fishing access.

Northern Pike

Northern pike inhabit all areas of the Kankakee River, though they’re most abundant in the relatively low-gradient upper portion of the river above the Kankakee Dam in Kankakee. These fish favor deep holes, backwaters, and other places that offer a break from the current. 

Pike are particularly prone to using weed beds, fallen trees and other types of cover as ambush points.

In much of the Illinois portion of the Kankakee River, pike are generally seen as ‘bonus fish’ that are seldom targeted specifically. 

But pike are common enough in Indiana’s share of the river that many anglers go after them with both spinning and fly-fishing gear.

The timber-and-weed-filled bayous of the upper Kankakee are picture-perfect pike breeding grounds.

The best approach to catch pike in the Kankakee River is to target individual pieces of cover.

Large, flashy spinnerbaits and spoons are usually the best lures, though pike are also known to strike a topwater. For fly anglers, large streamers are the offering of choice. 

Pike spawn in early spring as soon as the ice is gone from backwater areas. Once they’ve recovered from spawning, the fishing is often good through summer.

Pike measuring 20 to 28 inches are common in the Kankakee and fish up to 40 inches are possible. 

Planning Your Trip

The Kankakee River offers year-round fishing opportunities. Only the absolute dead of winter would be considered the off-season here, with good bass fishing as late as November and productive walleye fishing as early as February.

Several major population centers are nearby—most notably Chicago—and numerous parks offer camping and launch facilities. The entire river can be paddled by canoe or kayak as part of the Kankakee National Water Trail

Getting to the Kankakee River

The lower end of the Kankakee River is less than an hour from Chicago via I-55. The interstate offers a direct route from Downtown Chicago and ultimately crosses the river just west of Wilmington. Several smaller cities, including Kankakee and Momence, overlook the river in Illinois.

The Indiana section of the Kankakee River is much more rural and undeveloped. Since wetlands surrounded the river when people founded many villages and towns, most communities are some distance away. The Kankakee’s headwaters are just outside South Bend.

Bank & Boat Access – Illinois

The first boat launch on the Kankakee River above its confluence with the Des Plaines River is within Des Plaines State Fish and Wildlife Area. There are also several spots to fish the bank within this area. 

Just a few miles upriver, several City of Wilmington public parks provide access to the river. Most notably, South Island Park includes bank fishing access below Wilmington Dam. 

Some of the best river access is a few miles farther upriver at Kankakee River State Park. The park stretches 11 miles along both banks of the river and includes abundant bank access, campgrounds, and two boat launch sites. 

Continuing upriver, the neighboring village of Bourbonnais and city of Kankakee offer many acres of parkland along the river. Jeffers Park is a good fishing spot just below the Kankakee Dam.

Additional boat launch facilities are available upriver in the village of Aroma Park and the city of Momemce. Bank anglers can also wet a line from Island Park in Momence and at several points in and around Momence Wetlands Nature Preserve

Stateline Road, which follows the border between Illinois and Indiana, provides access to the Kankakee River as it flows between the two states. You’ll find parking, bank access, and an unpaved boat ramp just north of the now-abandoned Stateline Bridge. 

Bank & Boat Access – Indiana

LaSalle Fish & Wildlife Area encompasses a significant stretch of the Kankakee River that extends upstream from the state line. The wildlife area includes multiple boat launch sites and parking areas, with access to the river and the adjacent backwater known as Black Oak Bayou.

Another good access point is Grand Kankakee Marsh County Park, which includes a boat launch about a mile above where I-65 crosses the river. The park is popular for float trips and also provides bank fishing access.

Developed access is sparse along much of the Kankakee River in Indiana, though informal access is available at many bridge crossings. Continuing upriver, the only official access in Porter County is at Dunn’s Bridge County Park

Better access is available farther upstream in LaPorte County, including multiple locations within Kankakee Fish & Wildlife Area. Boat launches and bank fishing are available here near the intersection of State Routes 8 and 39. Walking trails along the riverside dikes offer additional bank access. 

Another section of the river farther upstream is accessible through Kingsbury Fish & Wildlife Area, though there are few amenities here other than a modest parking area and canoe launch. 

The final access point to the Kankakee River is the Leo Jasinski Public Access Site, a canoe launch just outside South Bend. This site is near the confluence of several drainage ditches, which essentially serve as the Kankakee River’s modern headwaters.