Fly fishing in Illinois: The 21 Best Spots

Key Takeaways:

  • Illinois offers a wide range of opportunities for fly fishing, with various fish species and scenic locations to explore.
  • In Illinois, fly fishing is popular on the Kankakee River, Apple River, Fox River, Rock River, Des Plaines River, and many others.
  • The best time for fly fishing in Illinois varies by season, with spring, summer, and fall being popular times for different species.
  • Fly anglers in Illinois can target a variety of fish species, including bass, bluegill, northern pike, carp, trout, muskellunge, catfish, and more.
  • If you plan to go trout fishing in Illinois, check local rules and fishing seasons, such as the Inland Trout Stamp.
  • Many fishing locations in Illinois have site-specific opening times, and it’s essential to verify these details to plan your trips accordingly.
  • The Illinois fly fishing season offers an enjoyable experience for anglers of all levels, whether you’re looking for a quiet day or a more active fishing trip.

Top 21 Places for Fly Fishing in Illinois

Top 21 Places for Fly Fishing in Illinois

Illinois offers plenty of opportunities for fly fishing, from the lush valleys of the Shawnee National Forest to the banks of the Rock River. Here are some of the best fly fishing spots in Illinois:

  • Kankakee River
  • Apple River
  • Fox River
  • Rock River
  • Des Plaines River
  • Pine Creek
  • Illinois River
  • Lake of the Woods
  • Kishwaukee River
  • Iroquois River
  • Ohio River
  • Wabash River
  • Spoon River
  • Silver Springs State Fish and Wildlife Area
  • Kickapoo State Recreation Area
  • Siloam Springs State Park
  • Chain O’Lakes State Park
  • Rice Lake State Fish and Wildlife Area
  • White Pines Forest State Park
  • Horsetail Lake
  • Rend Lake

Let’s take a closer look at each of these places and what they offer.

1. Kankakee River

  • In northwestern Indiana and northeastern Illinois, the Kankakee River flows for approximately 133 miles before emptying into the Illinois River.
  • This beautiful river boasts some of the best smallmouth bass fishing around, particularly in the Kankakee-Wilmington section. Cast your fly and expect to reel in some impressive 12 to 20 inch smallmouth bass.
  • The Kankakee River is accessible year-round, allowing for ample fly fishing opportunities no matter the season. You can also enjoy its stunning natural beauty while fishing, so be prepared to relax and take in the scenery.

2. Apple River

  • You’ll find the Apple River flowing through Jo Daviess County, near Stockton, Illinois.
  • Fly fishing enthusiasts in search of cool waters and bountiful trout should head straight to the Apple River. The area is excellent for catching trout and rainbows, and even the most seasoned anglers will find it rewarding and challenging.
  • The Apple River is situated in the heart of a picturesque natural setting, offering a tranquil and peaceful environment for fly fishing.

3. Fox River

  • From southeastern Wisconsin to Ottawa, Illinois, this 202-mile-long tributary flows into the Illinois River.
  • If you’re a fan of variety in your fly fishing experiences, the Fox River is the place to go. Smallmouth and largemouth bass, bluegill, rock bass, walleye, and muskellunge fishing are abundant in this river, particularly below dams.
  • The Fox River is a great location year-round to fly fish and is easily accessible from several points along the river. Its diverse fish population and scenic beauty make it an ideal location for anglers of all levels.

4. Rock River

  • The Rock River is a tributary of the Mississippi River, running for approximately 299 miles through Wisconsin and Illinois.
  • This river is known for great smallmouth bass and northern pike fishing and also offers opportunities to catch other species. You can particularly enjoy the tailwaters of the Rock River, which offer excellent fishing opportunities.
  • The Rock River is a great destination for fly fishing year-round and is ideal whether you are experienced or inexperienced.

5. Des Plaines River

  • After flowing 133 miles through southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois, the Des Plaines River joins the Kankakee River to form the Illinois River.
  • In the summer months, fly fishing for northern pike is especially effective in slackwater areas outside the main current of the Des Plaines River. Fly fishing in this river will yield largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, rock bass, bluegill, and carp.
  • The Des Plaines River offers ample fly fishing opportunities throughout the year and is easily accessible from multiple points along the river.

6. Pine Creek

  • Pine Creek Township is located in Ogle County, Illinois.
  • If you’re a trout enthusiast, Pine Creek is a must-visit location for your next fly fishing adventure. This quality trout stream is home to catchable rainbow trout and has a catch-and-release fly fishing season.
  • Pine Creek is situated in a beautiful natural setting, offering a peaceful and tranquil environment that’s perfect for fly fishing. Fly fishing enthusiasts enjoy the pristine, clear, and cold water year-round.

7. Illinois River

  • A major tributary of the Mississippi River, flowing through central Illinois. As well as having a drainage basin of 28,756.6 square miles, the river is approximately 273 miles long.
  • Offers excellent fishing for various species, including bass, bluegill, catfish, crappie, muskie, sauger, and more.
  • Part of a large drainage basin, the Illinois River provides diverse opportunities for anglers in a vast area.

8. Lake of the Woods

  • Located in Mahomet, Illinois, within the Champaign County Forest Preserve.
  • Provides opportunities for bass, bluegill, channel catfish, Redear sunfish, crappie, bullheads, and muskie fishing.
  • Stocked with various fish species and surrounded by smaller lakes and ponds for additional fishing options.

9. Kishwaukee River

  • The Kishwaukee River, locally known as simply the Kish, is a 63.4-mile-long river in Illinois. A tributary of the Rock River, its name comes from a Potawatomi word that means “river of sycamore.”
  • Offers fly fishing for smallmouth bass and catfish in a scenic setting.
  • Known for its average width of 50 feet and the potential for quality smallmouth bass fishing.

10. Iroquois River

  • Flows through northern Indiana and northeastern Illinois, draining a 103-mile-long tributary into the Kankakee and Illinois rivers.
  • The area offers fly fishing opportunities for smallmouth bass and pike, with limited public access.
  • Iroquois River provides a unique fishing experience, and the only public boat launch is in Watseka, with access further upstream via the Kankakee River.

11. Ohio River

  • This 981-mile river flows from western Pennsylvania to its mouth on the Mississippi River in southern Illinois.
  • Various fish species can be caught in the Ohio River pools, embayments, and open water areas, including walleye, sauger, bass, bluegill, and crappie.
  • Controlled by the US Army Corps of Engineers for navigation, the Ohio River provides many fishing opportunities in accessible locations.

12. Wabash River

  • A 503-mile long river, it flows from its headwaters near Ohio’s Indiana border, turns south near the Illinois border, and empties into the Ohio.
  • Offers opportunities for bass and carp fishing, with over 150 species of fish in its waters.
  • The Wabash River features various habitats, including river pools and open water areas, making it a great location for diverse fishing experiences.

13. Spoon River

  • A 147-mile-long tributary of the Illinois River in west-central Illinois. The river drains largely agricultural prairie country between Peoria and Galesburg.
  • Known for its abundant channel catfish and flathead catfish populations, offering excellent catfish angling opportunities.
  • You can also catch other species, including bass, bluegill, and carp, in the river’s fertile waters, making it a great choice for catfishing.

14. Silver Springs State Fish and Wildlife Area

  • Located in Kendall County, Illinois, on a sprawling 1,350-acre state park.
  • In Loon Lake, you can fly fish for channel catfish, largemouth and smallmouth bass, bluegill, crappie, and stocked rainbow trout.
  • An angling enthusiast’s favorite destination, Silver Springs State Fish and Wildlife Area offers abundant fishing opportunities in the lakes and Fox River.

15. Kickapoo State Recreation Area

  • Located in Vermilion County, Illinois, just off I-74.
  • Kickapoo State Recreation Area boasts a vast 2,842-acre land area for deep-water lakes, including access to the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River. During fall and spring stockings, you can catch largemouth and smallmouth bass, channel catfish, bluegill, crappie, and rainbow trout.
  • For fly fishing enthusiasts looking for a versatile location, Kickapoo State Recreation Area is an ideal location for boating and other water-based outdoor activities.

16. Siloam Springs State Park

  • Situated in Adams County, Illinois, about 11 miles south of Clayton on Route 24 in a 3,323-acre oasis of nature.
  • Fishing opportunities include catfish, bass, and stocked rainbow trout at Crabapple Lake, one of the park’s highlights.
  • Siloam Springs State Park’s regulations ensure a quality fishing experience, as well as a peaceful and serene natural environment.

17. Chain O’Lakes State Park

  • A suburban wildlife area near Chicago, the park occupies 2,793 acres near the Fox River inlet into the Chain O’Lakes.
  • This park offers fly fishing opportunities with various fish species, including largemouth bass, walleye, northern pike, and more.
  • Chain O’Lakes State Park’s interconnected lakes, channels, and abundant fish populations are popular among boaters and fly fishermen.

18. Rice Lake State Fish and Wildlife Area

  • A four-mile drive south of Banner, Illinois, on Route 24, leads to the park in Fulton County. It is spread over 5,660 acres, with wetlands and waterfowl hunting being the primary activities.
  • With a delightful variety of bluegill, largemouth bass, black and brown bullhead, and black crappie, Rice Lake State Fish and Wildlife Area is an excellent spot to fly fish.
  • Rice Lake State Fish and Wildlife Area offers you a variety of small lakes and ponds to explore. You will also find channel catfish, Saugeye, and rainbow trout stocked in the lake.

19. White Pines Forest State Park

  • Located in Ogle County, Illinois, White Pines Forest State Park marks the southern limit of the historic Chicago-Iowa Trail in the Rock River valley.
  • Pine Creek in White Pines Forest State Park offers a mix of smallmouth bass, sunfish, carp, and suckers. During special catch-and-release fly fishing seasons, only fly fishing is allowed for trout.
  • The park is renowned for its scenic beauty, hiking, fishing, camping, and picnicking facilities in a stunning natural environment. And it’s a fantastic location for you if you are a fly fishing enthusiast.

20. Horsetail Lake

  • Located in Cook County, Illinois, Horsetail Lake is a great place for fly fishing enthusiasts.
  • This 12-acre lake has a maximum depth of 19 feet near the east end and offers a variety of fish species. It includes bluegill, channel catfish, largemouth bass, and yellow bass.
  • Adjacent to Cherry Hill Woods, Horsetail Lake provides a peaceful and easily accessible location for fly fishing and offers a serene and picturesque setting for fly casting.

21. Rend Lake

  • This lake is located near the town of Benton in Franklin and Jefferson Counties in Southern Illinois.
  • An angler’s paradise with numerous fishing access points, piers, and docks, this reservoir is 13 miles long and 3 miles wide.
  • Rend Lake offers a wide variety of fish species to target, including largemouth and smallmouth bass, crappie, catfish, bluegill, and more. This makes it an excellent choice for both beginner and experienced fly fishers.

When is the best time to fly fish in Illinois?

When is the best time to fly fish in Illinois

Depending on the season and the location, fly fishing in Illinois is more enjoyable in different seasons. Here’s a breakdown of the ideal fly fishing times:

Spring (March to May)

  • If you’re planning on fishing for smallmouth bass, the Kankakee River is the place to go in the spring. Keep an eye on water temperatures and be there when they start rising.
  • Conversely, if you prefer trout, head to the Apple River during this season. Rainbow and holdover trout are more active in the spring, making it an ideal time to target them.

Summer (June to August)

  • During the summer months, the Fox River is the best place to catch smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, rock bass, bluegill, walleye, and muskellunge.
  • Dams are especially great spots in the spring and fall.
  • Meanwhile, northern pike fishing in the Des Plaines River is best in the summer. Slack water areas outside the main current are where you’ll catch these fish, so ensure you have the right flies and rods for the job.

Fall (September to November)

  • Smallmouth bass fishing on the Kankakee River is best in the fall, just before winter, when the fish are more active.
  • Smallmouth bass and northern pike can also be found in tailwater areas below dams on the Rock River during this season.
  • And if you’re looking for a variety of fish to target, head to the Illinois River in the fall where you can catch bass, bluegill, catfish, and more.

Year-round (Varies by Location)

  • For year-round fly fishing opportunities, the Wabash River offers a range of fish species to target. Smallmouth bass, carp, and panfish can be caught any time of year.
  • Rice Lake is another year-round fishing destination, where you can fly fish for pike and bass.
  • And for a special catch-and-release-only fly fishing season before the regular season, head to Pine Creek. This stream allows for year-round fly fishing for trout.

What are the best fish species to catch with fly fishing in Illinois?

Fly fishing is great in Illinois, there are plenty of fish species to choose from based on your preference and skill level. Here are some of Illinois’ best fly fishing fish species:

Largemouth and Smallmouth Bass: These two species are a fly angler’s delight, offering exciting battles in rivers, lakes, and ponds. You can catch largemouth bass in weedy areas, while smallmouth bass prefer rocky bottoms.

Bluegill: This species is a favorite for panfish enthusiasts and provides consistent action. Bluegill is abundant in Illinois and can be caught in the early morning or late evening.

Northern Pike: Known for their aggressive strikes, Northern Pike provides a thrilling fly fishing experience. You can find them in rivers and lakes, especially in weedy areas.

Carp: Catching carp on the fly is challenging, but the unique angling experience is worth the effort. Look for them in shallow, weedy areas and use a sinking line for the most success.

Rainbow and Brown Trout: If you’re looking for designated trout fishing areas, Illinois has you covered. Rainbow and brown trout are the primary targets, and you can catch them in cold, clear water using small nymphs or dry flies.

Muskellunge: Pursuing muskies on the fly is a thrilling pursuit, with these apex predators lurking in Illinois waters. Look for them in deep, weedy areas and be prepared for a long fight.

Channel Catfish: Don’t overlook channel catfish as a fly fishing target in Illinois. You can fish for them in rivers and lakes, using a sinking line and meaty flies.

Rock Bass: Although small in size, rock bass are scrappy fighters and a common catch in Illinois waters. You can catch them in rivers and lakes, using small nymphs or dry flies.

Walleye: You can enjoy pursuing Walleye on rivers and lakes, especially in summer. Look for them in rocky areas and use a sinking line and streamers for best results.

Crappie: Fishing for crappie on the fly can be great fun, especially in the summer. You can catch them in shallow, weedy areas using small nymphs or streamers.

Sauger: These close relatives of walleye are another intriguing fly fishing target in Illinois. You can catch them in rivers and lakes with streamers and sinking lines.

Salmon and Steelhead: If you’re fishing in Lake Michigan tributaries, you can pursue salmon and steelhead during the salmon runs. To achieve optimal results, use large, weighted streamers and floating lines.

Fly Fishing Regulations in Illinois

Fly fishing regulations in Illinois, especially for trout, can vary by location and season. Here are some key points to consider:

Seasonal Restrictions

Some locations have specific seasons for trout fishing, such as spring and fall seasons. You need to be aware of the opening and closing dates for these seasons as they differ from one location to another.

The trout fishing season opens in mid-April and usually closes towards the end of October. During this period, you can take home a limited number of trout each day you fish.

Catch-and-Release Period

The catch-and-release season typically precedes the regular fishing season and allows anglers to fish for trout without harvesting any. This practice helps sustain the trout populations by giving them ample time to spawn and grow.

During the catch-and-release period, catch-and-release rules apply, which means you must immediately release any trout you catch back into the water.

Daily Harvest Limits

Once the regular trout fishing season begins, there is a daily harvest limit set for each angler. The daily limit varies depending on the location, but it typically ranges between three to five trout per angler daily. The limit ensures that trout populations remain stable and healthy while allowing anglers to take home their fair share.

Location-Specific Rules

Different fishing locations may have specific regulations and restrictions that anglers should be aware of before going fishing. Such rules may include specific gear requirements, fishing hours, and catch limits.

Before heading out to a fishing location, check with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) or the specific fishing site for detailed rules and guidelines.

Fishing License

To fish for trout in Illinois, you must have a valid fishing license and the Inland Trout Stamp. The fishing license ensures that the state’s fishery resources are being managed sustainably and that anglers are held accountable for their actions.

Citations and Enforcement

The IDNR enforces all trout fishing regulations, and anglers who violate these rules may face citations. You must follow the regulations to protect the fishery and ensure sustainable angling opportunities for future generations.

Stamp Purchase

Fishing licenses and trout stamps can be purchased at various IDNR license and permit locations, including bait shops, sporting goods stores, and online platforms. The cost of the trout stamp is used to support the Illinois Catchable Trout Program, which is responsible for stocking over 80,000 trout in Illinois waterways each year.

Site-Specific Opening Times

Not all fishing sites open at the same time on the opening day of the season. To avoid disappointment, you should check the specific opening times of your chosen fishing locations.

The IDNR usually lists the 58 locations for the spring trout season, including catch-and-release opportunities, which anglers can use to plan their fishing trips.