Nothing tops holding a coho with the Loop as a backdrop or catching and releasing a smallmouth bass across Lake Shore Drive from the Buckingham Fountain.
This list of top fishing spots is Chicago-focused. Nearby out-of-state favorites are for another day. In Illinois, those 16 and older need a fishing license. Options are a resident one-day ($5.50), resident senior ($7.75) or resident ($15). A Lake Michigan Salmon Stamp ($6.50) is needed if fishing for salmon or trout on Lake Michigan. If buying online, tack on extra charges.
1. Montrose Harbor: History clings to the top fishing spot in Chicago from the deadly seiche of 1954 to Ken Maggiore becoming first to catch two Illinois-record fish on the same day (burbot and lake whitefish on March 22, 2017).
Fishing there can be as eclectic as its history.
Depending on conditions, fishing is done inside the harbor, around the revetment around the peninsula or on the breakwall known as “The Horseshoe.”
Fishing varies by season.
In spring, the focus is coho, especially by those practicing the Chicago tradition of powerlining (propelling, generally with a fire extinguisher, a line with multiple hooks on it far out into the lake.). In April, the tradition of netting smelt at night hangs on, even though virtually no smelt are netted any more.
In summer, in recent years, the focus turns to freshwater drum and the occasional trout. In rare instances, there’s some summer perch fishing.
In fall, the big focus is on Chinook, which can top 20 pounds, doing their return to harbors.
In winter, well, most winters, there is surprisingly good ice fishing for panfish.
Rock bass and bluegill are available inside the harbor nearly year-round.
A bonus is the best view of downtown Chicago from the south side of the harbor.
The Chicago powerline and lakefront fishing (powerlining) Facebook page is a good place to gain advice. For bait and fishing supplies, Park Bait at (773) 271-2838 is open March through November or December.
2. LaSalle Lake: Want a chance at a 50-pound fish or a 50 fish day? The cooling lake south of Seneca is your spot. It’s not about the ambience by any stretch (this is the antithesis of the North Woods); it’s about the fishing. As a perched lake, LaSalle is designed to cool water for a power plant. Outstanding fishing is a byproduct of the warm waters. Numerous blue catfish have been documented heavier than 50 pounds. Boaters and shore anglers do well on a wide spectrum: blues, hybrid striped bass, bluegill, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass and yellow bass. Experienced shore anglers use bicycles and various contraptions to navigate the miles of shoreline. Boaters should check at (815) 357-1608 around 6 a.m. on whether the lake will be open for boats (winds regularly close the lake to boaters). Have supplies — bait, food, drinks — before arriving. The lake is open March 15 to 10 days before waterfowl season opens in October.
3. Ice fishing the Chain O’Lakes: Fishing on the Chain is good most of the time, but ice fishing, which usually lasts three months or more, is the most egalitarian, and you don’t have to fight the boat traffic and personal watercraft of open water. In ice fishing, you can go nearly anywhere, which is why I call it egalitarian, when the ice is good. At the start of every ice fishing season, I update access points for the ice, generally it’s $5 parking or you need to patronize the business. For tackle, bait and information, check with Triangle Sports and Marine in Antioch — (815) 395-0813 — or Dave’s Bait in Crystal Lake — (815) 455-2040. Check conditions at the Fox Waterway Agency (foxwaterway.com).
4. Charter fishing Lake Michigan: If you want the perfect Chicago fishing photo, pick a charter and go. There is something special about doing a classic fish-holding pose with the Loop as the background. The primary catches are lake trout and coho with the occasional Chinook to 30 pounds, acrobatic steelhead and big brown trout. It’s a chance at a lifetime fish, here at home. The late Marge Landeen caught the Illinois record Chinook (37 pounds) out of Waukegan in 1976. Deva Vranek caught the Illinois-record brown (36 pounds, 11.5 ounces) off Chicago in 1997. Charters go out of North Point Marina in Winthrop Harbor, Waukegan and Chicago (Montrose, Diversey, DuSable, Burnham harbors).
5. Wading the Kankakee River: Smallmouth bass are the favorite target for waders at Kankakee State Park, where there are 10 miles of public shoreline; but others chase walleye at low light or catfish any time. The community holes are the mouth of Rock Creek and around Warner Bridge. Rock Creek is very scenic with waterfalls, and the lower end is a favorite for families to chase crawfish. The Kankakee River Trading Post — (815) 933-9652 — has bait, tackle and camping supplies in Altorf on the eastern edge of the park.
6. Wading/shore fishing the Fox River: Especially in the low water of summer, much of the fishing effort is focused below the remaining dams. In the western suburbs, virtually every town has significant public shoreline. Smallmouth bass and catfish are the top targets. For boaters, flathead catfish have become a major target at night, a special time to be on the water. Dicky’s Bait in Montgomery — (630) 675-4371 — has tackle and bait.
7. Chicago River downtown: From shore, anglers fish from the south shore of the main stem, sharing the Riverwalk with other users, to catch a wide variety of fish, most commonly bluegill, channel catfish, smallmouth bass, largemouth bass and perch (in winter). For boaters, the top spot is the area around the big discharge at the Merchandise Mart. It’s the most unique fishing spot in Chicago. The topper is afterward visiting one of the fancier establishments on the Riverwalk for a drink or dinner carrying your gear.
8. South Side perch in winter: In winter, the top fishing in Chicago is a collection of spots on the South Side, such as at Steelworker Park, nearby quasi-legal slips and spots around Calumet Park and the Calumet River. For boaters, the best spot can be all the way to the Ford plant on the Calumet. Refuel at the Skyway Doghouse at 95th and Ewing, or Calumet Fisheries on 95th. Bait and tackle are available at Henry’s Sports and Bait — (312) 225-8538.
9. Shabbona Lake: The 318-acre impoundment in DeKalb County is the most intensely fished lake in Illinois per acre, yet it continues to provide lots of fish and a great variety: crappie, bluegill, channel catfish, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, hybrid striped bass and muskie (the lake has produced four Illinois records over the decades). The site has the best concessions in the state, including food, bait, meals and boat rental. Reach Boondocks at (815) 824-2581. If going with family, a stop at the Dairy Joy Drive-In in Hinckley is the cherry on top.
10. Smallmouth bass at Monroe and Burnham harbors: In recent decades, smallmouth bass (a sight feeder) steadily improved as the water cleared on Lake Michigan, largely because of the filtering impact of invasive mussels. There’s something righteous about catching a smallmouth with Buckingham Fountain to your back or at the good drop-off at the Shedd Aquarium. Parking is tough, so take public transportation or be prepared to circle Solitary Drive searching for meter parking or to use one of the many parking lots around Museum Campus.