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‘Stupid easy’ on Illinois River: Walking the dog, smallmouth bass, topwaters, barges, fall fishing

A good morning of topwater fishing for smallmouth bass on a strange year on the Illinois River.

Yes, there is special joy in catching a good smallmouth bass on a topwater lure on the Illinois River. Credit: Dale Bowman
Yes, there is special joy in catching a good smallmouth bass on a topwater lure on the Illinois River.
Dale Bowman

OTTAWA, Ill. Rigging up Sunday night, I came across a custom-painted walk-the-dog lure in a plastic tray in my late father-in-law Tom Weinhold’s stash.

Of course, I tied it on.

For weeks, Pete Riedesel texted about topwater fishing on the Illinois River, so good he even caught channel catfish on topwaters.

Monday, we met at Allen Park across from the confluence of the Fox and Illinois rivers in the fog.

As we started, Riedesel said, “This is not a place with dozens of smallmouth [bass]. We’re fishing for 20 fish, hoping to catch six.”

On my first cast at a vegetated point, my lure had barely began the zig-zag of walking the dog when a smallmouth exploded. It missed. Second cast, I missed it. Two casts later I caught, then released a 14-inch smallmouth.

“River fishing is like stupid easy, stupid fun, find anything that breaks the current,” Riedesel said. “That is especially true in August and September when the water is down.”

An island scene on the Illinois River spotted Monday with the sun screened by fog and haze. Credit: Dale Bowman
An island scene on the Illinois River spotted Monday with the sun screened by fog and haze.
Credit: Dale Bowman

That’s what we did, fishing vegetated points, rock points, creek mouths, rock shoals and islands.

We hit B and C spots first, then Riedesel finally reached the A spot and said, “The birds are here. That is a good sign.”

They were swallows. That spot must have been fishy because the raspy chatter of belted kingfishers wafted from shore.

A few casts in, I lost the best smallmouth, 3-plus-pounds. It came off on its fourth jump, seven feet from the boat, when it threw the Pop-R.

In high current, we used a Pop-R or Skitter Pop. Walk-the-dog lures such as mine or Riedesel’s Zara Spook would not work there. After we picked off a fish or two at each spot, Riedesel followed up with a white Fluke, blade bait or a small plastic worm. I followed up with a double-jig rig.

“The other thing this year as to why they are so good is they are working on the locks and there is no barge traffic,” Riedesel said. “So those shallow spots, the water doesn’t get sucked out when the barges go by.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers coordinated the closure of the Dresden Island, Marseilles, Starved Rock, Peoria and LaGrange locks on the Illinois to facilitate major repairs, scheduled to last into late October.

The Illinois without barges is almost eerie.

At our seventh spot, the back of an island, Riedesel busted off a big fish, possibly a catfish, and I caught my biggest, 15 inches, for the day.

Our 11th and final spot was a re-try of the first stop. Nothing.

It was time.

We caught and released 13 smallmouth and two white bass. Five of the smallmouth were 14 to 15 inches; the rest were 11 to 13, typical river smallmouth in Illinois.

Pete Riedesel holds one of the typical smallmouth bass caught Monday on topwaters on the Illinois River. Credit: Dale Bowman
Pete Riedesel holds one of the typical smallmouth bass caught Monday on topwaters on the Illinois River.
Dale Bowman

HUNTING

Refunds are being given for spring turkey hunting permits at public sites in Illinois, which were closed by pandemic restrictions. Click here for details.

WILD THINGS

Sandhill cranes and hummingbirds are among the migrators easily seen. . . . Fall mushrooms are doing well (though the long-range forecast looks dry.)

STRAY CAST

I think World Series with more confidence than I do 5-pound smallmouth.