Reagan Smith enjoys guiding for three kinds of crappie in central Illinois.
Destination: Springfield, Illinois
by John E. Phillips
Twenty-seven-year-old Reagan Smith of Reag’s Guide Service in Tremont, Illinois, has been crappie fishing much of his life and guiding crappie fishermen for four years.
“All the lakes I fish are power-plant lakes located more or less in central Illinois, including Lake Springfield, Sangchris Lake and Clinton Lake,” said Smith.
During the winter you will have a hard time finding any lakes, other than power-plant lakes, that aren’t iced-over in that section of the country. When the power plants generate electricity, the water coming out of those plants is warm enough to keep part or all of the lake from freezing.
“We really enjoy some fantastic crappie fishing then, not only in Lake Springfield, but also in the other two lakes. I’ll have six poles rigged for dock shooting, six poles rigged with slip bobbers with 1/32-ounce jigs, six poles rigged with 1/16-ounce jigs and 10’ and 11’ ACC Crappie Stix rods for vertical jigging bridges. However, my customers want to fish, I’m prepared,” said Smith
Smith prefers to shoot docks near the power plant from where the water comes out of the power plant all the way down the bank, until the lake starts icing up. Sometimes he’ll fish 60-degree water and farther down the lake in 34-degree water. He usually catches bigger crappie on the docks.
“My clients often like to shoot the docks with the 5’6” Crappie Stix rods, but I prefer the 7’6” split grip,” Smith explains. “We use 6-pound test and generally shoot 1/32- or 1/16-ounce minnow-head-style lead-headed jigs I make myself. The smaller jigs fall slowly. I fish the 1-1/2-inch long soft-plastic, paddle-tail style Charlie Brewer Slider Crappie/Panfish Grubs as well in the chartreuse or the funky monkey tail colors.”
Lake Springfield offers black crappie, white crappie and the black-nosed crappie. The creel limit is 10 crappie, 10 inches or longer. In Illinois, catching a 2-pound crappie is a big deal.
“I guess I’m a teacher at heart,” Smith emphasizes. “There’s a thrill that comes to an individual when he can: hold a jig in one hand; pull back on the line; bend the rod with his/her finger holding the line in the other hand; look at the place where he wants the jig to land; release the jig; and have the rod shoot that jig to the exact spot he wanted to hit.”
“I run two Humminbird Helix 10 side-scanning and down-scanning GPS depth finders,” Smith says. “I’ll have one Helix on my console set on side-scanning. Up front with the trolling motor, I’ll have another Helix on down-imaging. When I pull up to a bridge piling, before we ever start fishing, I want to see if any crappie are holding on that piling.”
Smith thinks wind direction and boat traffic on the day you’re fishing helps to determine which pilings will be the most productive. With a west wind, he probably won’t catch fish on some of the pilings. With a northwest wind, his clients usually won’t catch any crappie on the northwest side of pilings.
“We’ll vertical-jig all the way around and in-between the pilings, depending on where we see the crappie holding,” Smith says. “During the winter months, the water depth around the pilings will be 11-12 feet deep, and we’ll often catch the crappie at 9-10 foot deep. I tell my clients, ‘Just lower your jigs down until the tip of your pole is just above the water. Once the crappie bites, set the hook hard, and try to jerk the crappie into the boat.”
Drop Shotting at Sangchris Lake
Sangchris Lake near Rochester, Ill. doesn’t have as many docks as Lake Springfield. Smith can’t use more than a 25-horsepower motor there. In the state of Illinois, anglers aren’t permitted to put out brush piles unless they go through the state DNR. However, the state will certify Boy Scouts, working on their Eagle badges, and crappie clubs to place brush piles for crappie.
Smith says, “Sangchris also has quite a few trees that have fallen into the water. I have more than 100-brush piles marked in my GPS as waypoints.”
Smith uses a different type of rig when fishing the brush piles than when shooting docks or fishing around bridge pilings.
“When I’m fishing brush piles, I vertical jig with a drop-shot rig. I tie a 1/4-ounce drop-shot weight on the end of the line. About 8 inches to a foot above that weight, I’ll tie on a #2 Tru-Turn hook on the main line. Usually, I’ll bait with minnows instead of plastic.
“The advantage of rigging like this is if your hook gets hung in the brush, you can drop your rod tip, and the weight will pull the hook out of the brush. If the bite’s strong, and we’re catching numbers of crappie out of brush tops, I may put plastic on the hooks instead of minnows.
“Fishing on Sangchris is closed down during duck season and gives the crappie some rest from crappie-fishing pressure,” said Smith. “We catch and release a lot of crappie less than 10 inches to get 10 crappie per person at Sangchris. But this lake characteristic is an advantage to fishing Sangchris with families. Youngsters can pull in a lot of fish and stay busy catching crappie.”
Things to Do Near Springfield
The Springfield, Illinois, area offers many water recreational sports, including at highly-ranked fishing Lake Springfield where folks can participate in fishing, boating and swimming (in designated places). You can use canoes, motorboats, pontoons, rowboats and sailboats as well as personal watercraft there like jet skis.
Lake Springfield has 15+ sports fish species that can be caught there – either from boats or from any public portion of the shoreline. The top fish caught include: bluegills; channel, flathead and blue catfish; largemouth and white bass; white, black and black-nosed crappie; and walleye. Two posted public-fishing places are at the Dividing Dam and the Sunset View Fishing Area, and one unposted fishing pier between the East and the West Tom Madonia Parks, which is also designated for persons with disabilities. The lake does offer boat ramps but no boat rentals. Also, no camping is allowed.
Lake Springfield is close to the campus of the University of Illinois and borders the Abraham Lincoln Memorial Garden, a local arboretum, and the Henson Robinson Zoo. At Lake Park, near the zoo, you can see preserved ruts of the Edwards Trace pioneer trail.
This section of Illinois is rich in historical places to visit, including nearby Rockford, Ill., the home of the Historical Auto Attractions, containing the world’s largest collection of presidential and world leaders’ automobiles, and one of the largest collections of Kennedy artifacts and memorabilia in the country. Dixon, Ill., also close-by, features many Ronald Reagan artifacts, including the restored Reagan family home and visitor center. Springfield, Ill., homes the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, the New Salem Historic Site, a restored pioneer village where Lincoln lived, and for fun, the Route 66 Cozy Dog Drive (the original hot dog on a stick) and Lincoln’s Ghost Walk, a spooky nighttime tour of the area’s haunted spots.
(John Phillips holds an array of awards including the 2012 Homer Circle Fishing Award from the American Sportfishing Association and the 2007 Legendary Communicator inducted into the National Fresh Water Hall of Fame. He has written more than 6,000 magazine articles and served as Outdoor Editor for the Birmingham Post-Herald for 24 years. Phillips is a founding member of the Professional Outdoor Media Association and an active member of the Southeastern Outdoors Press Association. The author of more than 100 books, you can learn more from his book, “Crappie: How to Catch Them Fall and Winter.)