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Illinois' Small Water Crappies

You don't have to go to our big reservoirs to catch crappies. In fact, you may be surprised to learn that there's a papermouth-producing pond near your home!

by Daniel D. Lamoreux This article was originally published in Illinois Game & Fish magazine. Visit their website at

At first sight, it appeared to be little more than a puddle. A fair toss would send a baseball across its width, and a hardy heave would probably have a baseball clear its length if the motivation was there.

The pond’s perimeter was ringed with tall grass, intentionally left long as a buffer between the water’s edge and the manicured lawn. A couple of old trees stood on its banks and bowed toward its center, while remnants of trees past lay half submerged here and there, offering refuge to tiny minnows among their branches.

On that clear day, absent the wind, the pond appeared to be nothing more than a large looking glass for the tall white house that sat on the hill to its east.

There was nothing there to set this place apart-except the sound of laughter.

On a cool morning last spring, we found ourselves on this puddle, and the laughter was our own. Although we each carried an ultralight rod and reel, we were fishing less than we were playing, 6-year-olds in the guise of old, fat men. By simply enjoying the day as we had done as kids, we discovered this little pond’s secret: crappies of respectable size!

Generally speaking, crappies don’t do well in impoundments of less than 10 acres in size. The reason is basic. The crappie is a prolific fish species that adapts well to new environments-too well.

The Department of Natural Resources doesn’t recommend stocking crappies into tiny ponds, because the fish can overpopulate the habitat quickly. They reproduce at a fast pace, and their voracious appetite causes the groceries to have to be stretched too thin. Even with limited food supplies, they continue breeding. This process creates a situation wherein the population can get too large for the habitat and the fish remain stunted in size. A pond full of dinks is the result.

Nonetheless, certain pond dynamics can create exceptions to the rule. Now and again, these little pockets of water can surprise you with mammoth panfish that would make your mouth water. The obvious example is the current state-record white crappie, caught by Kevin Dennis from a farm pond in Morgan County. That monster tipped the scales at a whopping 4 pounds, 7 ounces.

Finding your own pot of leprechaun’s gold may be easier than you think. These small impoundments aren’t one of a kind, nor are they likely to be complete secrets. In fact, chances are that you may have just such a spot in your back yard.

Scott Stuewe, fish management supervisor for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Fisheries, indicated that private waters within our state account for approximately 40 percent of Illinois’ fishing pressure, and yet, Stuewe said, “They contain the best fishing in the state.”

In addition to Dennis’ white crappie, eight more of our state’s current record fish were taken from either strip mines or farm ponds.


These small fisheries are not only healthy, they are also abundant.

Besides Lake Michigan and the three reservoirs of Lake Shelbyville, Carlyle Lake and Rend Lake, all lakes and ponds are classified as “impoundments” by the DNR. Impoundments include any permanent, open bodies of water 0.1 acres or larger in size. The current Surface Water Resources Summary indicates that Illinois lays claim to some 90,614 impoundments, covering over 262,000 acres.

Broken down into five distinct categories, impoundments are identified either by ownership or use. Finding these small waters can be done through a variety of avenues, depending upon which category they fall within.

State Impoundments

This category includes all impoundments that are either owned or leased by the DNR. This includes more than 500 bodies of water statewide. The most obvious examples would include waters within state parks and state wildlife refuges.

Finding the nearest accessible state waters can be accomplished by simply contacting your DNR regional office. They can offer information regarding site fees, special regulations and best times for fishing.

A great deal of information is also available on the DNR Web site, including a calendar of fishing events and activities, license information, fisheries facts, and status reports on specific bodies of water for a variety of fish species, including bass, walleyes, muskies and catfish. Check out this site at

Public Impoundments

Public impoundments include those areas owned or leased by a government agency other than the DNR. An example of this type of area is Monee Reservoir. This 40-acre lake is owned by the Forest Preserve District of Will County but is open to public fishing.

These areas can be identified by contacting your local forest preserve district, local or county park districts, or local chambers of commerce. The DNR may also offer information about some of these areas, including stocking schedules and special fishing events. The DNR’s priorities include providing the greatest recreational opportunities, and thus management emphasis, on state-owned and publicly owned waters. Stocking programs were carried out by the DNR on 1,026 state and public waters during fiscal year 1999 alone.

The latest water resource survey included 754 public waters in Illinois, covering a total of over 80,000 acres of surface water.

Organization Impoundments

This category includes all impoundments owned or leased by any organization. Included would be sportsmen’s clubs, civic organizations, homeowner’s groups, country clubs, industries, institutions and so on. Aside from private waters, the category of organizational impoundments contains the greatest number of locations in the state, with 2,077 bodies of water.

Obviously, the easiest way to gain access to these areas would be to join the organizations. Finding them can be as simple as a phone call to your local chamber of commerce.

Many homeowners’ associations were built with small lakes and ponds as the centerpiece of their development. Often viewed by many as ornamental in nature, these bodies of water can contain surprising fisheries. Larger organizations often create their own fishing clubs that oversee fisheries management and stocking programs.

If purchasing a lot for fishing access or buying a membership in exclusive clubs is simply out of the question for you, try contacting the fishing clubs for these groups to volunteer time and energy in supporting their efforts in exchange for fishing rights.

Additionally, many organizations allow their members to bring friends and family along on fishing outings. This could finally be the one way that you and your brother-in-law can have a common interest!

Commercial Impoundments

Although licensed by the DNR for operational purposes, those places belonging to this category include either privately owned or leased waters for which an access fee is charged. Most recognizable would include “trout ponds” that are stocked regularly and for which you pay either a daily fee or a per-fish fee. Statewide, there are 508 areas operated as commercial fishing impoundments, encompassing over 3,000 acres of water.

The DNR and local chambers of commerce can offer information on these locations, including where to find them, dates of operation, stocking schedules and up-to-date fee schedules.

Although some sport fishermen frown on these types of operations, these places offer an ideal opportunity for introducing youngsters to fishing, as well as a fun way to spend the day with out-of-town guests.

Private Impoundments

Finally, the largest single category of waters available in our state is those that are privately owned or leased and which are not operated as organizations or commercial areas. These we all know as the farm pond, abandoned quarry or ornamental pond just down the road.

Including a total of 86,769 bodies of water statewide, that averages out to 1.5 ponds for every square mile in the state! With this many opportunities available, chances are that you have at least one (and probably more) right next door.

Of course, the obvious problem with these waters is that “private” means not open to the public. Gaining access to private properties for recreational pursuits may take more than a simple phone call. However, experience and research have proven that it may not be nearly as difficult as some think.


Nearly 96 percent of the impoundments in our state are classified as private, and chances are that a percentage of those are probably owned by your neighbors. Finding these precious pots of gold and identifying the owners may just take a little research.

A good place to start is the local office of the Soil and Water Conservation District in your county. Comparing aerial maps of the region with county plat books can help you determine not only where these waters exist, but also who owns them.

Although originally set up as a program for hunters, the Access Illinois Program can also offer assistance to anglers looking to find private waters where access can be gained. For a small fee, the state will process our application and pass it on to the owner of private waters so that they may contact you about getting on their property to fish.

At the present time, the Access Illinois Program has arrangements made with landowners in the following counties: Adams, Brown, Calhoun, Greene, Hancock, Jersey, Pike, Schuyler and Scott. If you are interested in this program, you can receive more information by writing Access Illinois Outdoors, 110 East Fayette, Pittsfield, IL 62363, or by calling (217) 285-2464.

It doesn’t hurt to ask around either. Local bait shops, coffee shops and sporting goods stores are gathering places for people just like yourself. Respectfully asking about private waters can often lead to an invitation for an afternoon of fishing fun.

Other possible sources of information can include your local Farm Bureau office, your resident DNR enforcement officer, and your mail carrier or deliver driver. When looking for paradise lost, it doesn’t pay to be bashful!

An important thing to remember about private waters is that the owners often have these ponds for specific purposes. As an example, the pond first described in this story is owned by a fellow who really doesn’t fish but enjoys having the ornamental aspects of the water next to the house. When he does wet a line, he prefers bass and catfish.

Because of the owner’s preferences, and the problems associated with panfish in small ponds, he welcomes anglers who are willing to toss back the bass and the cats. His main rule is that all bluegills caught must be kept, and keeping that nice crappie is OK, as long as it’s not overdone.

Many times, access can be gained if you are taking the kids out for a day. Personally, I find fishing with kids to be a lot of fun. Small ponds and lakes are the perfect locations for teaching fishing techniques, as well as ensuring plenty of action to keep young minds occupied.

Finally, realize that there may be a price. I’ve never been approached about paying a monetary fee; however, it doesn’t hurt to offer a little time and sweat to help maintain the waters, help the farmer with a few chores, or share in the bounty by offering cleaned and filleted portions of the catch.

A close friend of mine is a meat cutter. This fellow has access to quite a few private waters for some of the best fishing in our area. He helps to maintain those good relationships by butchering deer for those owners who hunt.

The bottom line is that you should respect these special places and show that respect to the owners. By doing that little extra, you can help ensure that our private waters continue to be excellent fisheries well into the future.


Fishing for crappies on small waters is not unlike chasing them around the large reservoirs-they can be nomads. However, finding structure is generally the ticket. Submerged trees, drop-offs, rock piles and the like will often hold these fish.

With spring approaching, keep in mind that they can be easier to find during the spawn. Crappies will usually spawn before other panfish. At this time, look for them in 2 to 10 feet of water over gravel or sand. Depending upon the particular location, papermouths have also been known to spawn on mud, on boulders, within dense mats of plant roots, in shell beds and along large structure like logs.

Quarries are a preferred favorite because they have a lot of bottom structure, as well as generally having deeper holes to hold larger fish. Clearer water in these places, however, sometimes calls for stealth tactics when fish are spawning in the shallows. Crappies can be sensitive to disruption during the spawn and can spook clear of an area if you make too much disturbance.

Small jigs, minnows and leaf worms can be just the ticket for bringing on the bite. And don’t forget these same places for ice fishing, when wax worms can work magic.


While you’re chasing the crappies around, don’t forget the other residents of these small-water gems. The best private fishing holes will also generally have nice populations of bass, bluegills and channel catfish. Some of the best will also hold northern or muskies that can make your eyes pop!

A good rule to follow when going to these spots is to be prepared for anything. If the crappies aren’t active on any particular day, toss a bass plug, drag a spoon or throw out a gob of worms-there is sure to be fishing action of one kind or another on most any visit.

There are nearly 90,000 opportunities in this state to gain access to “the best fishing in the state.” These opportunities reside in everybody’s back yard. They are close, quiet and relatively unheard of. In many cases, nothing will set them apart-other than laughter. And the best part is that gaining access may be no more difficult than turning a neighbor into a friend. Good fishing.