Walking out in the dark Thursday at Braidwood Lake, north winds gusting past 30 mph and rolling hard rain and dense fog over the south bank, I thought how right fisheries biologist Rob Miller was when he said, ‘‘It is a destination point in March.’’
How else do you explain dozens of shore fishermen fishing in the dark, despite savage weather bad enough to close the launch to boaters on the hot side of Braidwood?
The Braidwood opener has become a destination again. The cooling lake in the southwest corner of Will County hit bottom as a fishery a decade ago, then slowly came back.
It’s not the glory years of a couple of decades ago, when thousands descended on opening day and entrepreneurial landowners rented field parking, but Braidwood has come back, especially for largemouth bass and (with recent stockings) blue catfish.
Every other year, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources surveys fish populations. The one last fall had Miller saying: ‘‘We did really well on largemouth bass — pretty remarkable, really — especially with the amount of tournament fishing.’’
That survey produced the most largemouth ever collected in an IDNR survey. Largemouth shorter than 8 inches accounted for 44.4 percent of the total, and those 8 inches and longer reached record-setting numbers and were twice the long-term average.
The experimental stocking of blues, which began in 2003, was almost immediately a hit. Miller hasn’t stocked them in the last couple of years, but blues are doing just fine and are another fish that makes Braidwood a destination.
The survey last year had blues from 11 to 36.6 inches, the big one weighing 26œ pounds. Fishermen have caught blues heavier than that and should again this year.
I didn’t see anyone land a blue Thursday, but I had the sense to concede after a couple of hours. My all-weather goose-hunting camo was so heavy with water that I felt like I was carrying William Perry around on my back.
As I walked back, I saw a guy who had caught and released a hybrid striped bass of 16 or 17 inches. That was kind of surprising. Miller said they only sampled a couple last fall.
Stocking of hybrids began in 2011 and ran through 2016 (except for 2013). The success of that fishery has been variable. Miller said Exelon might stock some hybrids again this year from the Quad Cities hatchery.
Part of the question about what to stock has to do with a drop in numbers and the aging of gizzard shad. But the threadfin shad, first stocked in 2002, are doing quite well.
Bluegills, once a fishery good enough that I took my kids to Braidwood, haven’t been the same recently.
Numbers were down in the fall survey, and the average size was 5.3 inches. Bluegills longer than 7 inches were uncommon.
I am used to seeing lots of ‘‘fiddler’’ channel catfish — those of 10 inches or so — caught, but every catfish I saw caught Thursday was eater-sized. Then again, the average size in the survey was 13 inches.
Overall, Miller said, ‘‘Compass points up.’’
Braidwood is open daily from 6 a.m. to sunset. There are no new regulations this year. Jon’s Bait & Tackle Shop — (815) 237-2822 — is a couple of miles south.
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