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Making a getaway: Public spots are nearby in Illinois; for me, it’s Mazonia SFWA

One thing Illinois residents have is a getaway site nearby across the state; for me, it’s Mazonia State Fish and Wildlife Area.

Sunset brought colors Sunday to Mazonia State Fish and Wildlife Area Sunday. Credit: Dale Bowman
Sunset brought colors Sunday to Mazonia State Fish and Wildlife Area Sunday.
Dale Bowman

A deer snorted behind the phragmites hiding the other shore as evening settled Sunday at Mazonia State Fish and Wildlife Area.

I snorted back. I couldn’t help myself.

I have learned to do a passable enough deer snort through the years that the deer and I spent the next five minutes snorting back and forth as it worked east along the other shore.

The deer never showed itself.

Experiences such as that one are part of why Mazonia is my great nearby getaway. It helps that it is a short drive for me.

Too many people don’t know the Illinois Department of Natural Resources has a public site near them. Virtually every county has a site. They are places to clear your head, not just visit on July 4.

I am working my way through all the sites on the IDNR’s ‘‘All Parks’’ page (www2.illinois.gov/dnr/Parks/Pages/AllParks.aspx).

I’ve been to all the northeast sites, two-thirds of the northwest and east-central sites and half of the south sites. My weakness is west-central, where I’ve only been to a third of the sites.

Mazonia is a collection of 200-plus strip pits, from tiny water holes to serious lakes, in the southwest corner of Will County.

It’s where I clear my head.

It used to be easier to clear my head completely there. When the IDNR acquired the Mazonia South Unit in 1999, there was no cellphone service. That changed through the years — and I’m not sure if that is for the better. I enjoyed disappearing completely.

The other great draw of Mazonia is its variety, size and abundance of fish (redear, bluegills, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, northern pike, gar, crappie, catfish, etc.).

I focused Sunday on the North Unit, starting with a small lake I knew. I wanted to catch 10 fish before switching to what I really wanted to do, which was wander around trying new lakes.

As I began casting, red-winged blackbirds trilled and rustled in the phragmites, a frog I couldn’t identify with certainty croaked and a turtle swam through a school of green sunfish and came up for air.

A turtle comes up for air after swimming through a school of green sunfish Sunday at Mazonia State Fish and Wildlife Area. Credit: Dale Bowman
A turtle comes up for air after swimming through a school of green sunfish Sunday at Mazonia State Fish and Wildlife Area.
Dale Bowman

I caught six green sunfish and four bluegills within a half-hour on a tungsten jig and spikes or a small spinner.

With that, I began to explore. I couldn’t reach my first new lake because of growth, primarily phragmites. Mazonia needs serious work to control phragmites.

The second lake was so flooded that I needed my high rubber boots for wading. I wear rubber boots at Mazonia because it is notorious for ticks; my worst day was having two dozen on me. Since switching to high boots, I rarely come out with a tick. I missed the two bites I had.

As I was walking out, a couple of a certain age in a red roadster stopped to chat. They seemed at peace with each other and life, bringing me joy.

Two great blue herons squawked off as I hit my final lake, which had a flooded launch. High boots were useful again, and I waded along the flooded lip, fancasting. I plucked a white bass near a flooded trash can, which brought memories of the late Norm Minas and his feats of fishing flooded picnic tables. Another white bass came near a flooded tree.

Mazonia closes at sunset. Driving out in the dying light, a plethora of rabbits fed roadside and a doe bolted across in front of me.

It was time.

Taking back roads toward home, I savored fireflies over fields, lighting the night.

A flooded shoreline and flooded trash can, where two white bass were caught Sunday at the end of the evening at Mazonia State Fish and Wildlife Area. Credit: Dale Bowman
A flooded shoreline and flooded trash can, where two white bass were caught Sunday at the end of the evening at Mazonia State Fish and Wildlife Area.
Dale Bowman