Regardless of the reputation, any state around the Great Lakes is going to have quality fly fishing. Illinois might not be at the top of anglers’ lists of places to fly fish, but you’ll find plenty of success across the state. The rivers that flow in and out of Lake Michigan contain an immense amount of life that are well worth fishing. Small streams and large rivers are going to provide you with a great amount of success.
If you’re new to the sport, you’ll find that Illinois is an especially great state to visit. The water is manageable and access is easy. No, you don’t have hundreds of miles of untouched water in the mountains to access, but you have enough room to wet a line and land a nice amount of fish. If you’re in the area and have access to local Illinois water, give it a shot.
The Kankakee River is one of the most unique fishing experiences in Illinois. Since it is a tributary of the Illinois River, you’ll receive a nice variety of species to target. The Kankakee is close in proximity to Chicago, but while you’re fishing it you don’t have to worry about the noise of the city. You’ll find beautiful rock walls and luscious cornfields keeping you company.
Also, the river flows through Kankakee River State Park so you’ll have quite a bit of undeveloped land to travel and experience. The main species targeted are smallmouth bass. Smallies aren’t always the first species that comes to mind when thinking about fly fishing, but you’ll find that they’re some of the strongest freshwater fish you can find. They always make for an extremely entertaining fight.
They’ll eat throughout the spring, summer and fall and give your fishing skills a true test.
Where to Fish on the Kankakee River
If you’re looking to spend time on the Kankakee, you’re going to want an area to fish where there’s plenty of access. There is quite a bit of private land throughout Illinois, but the state park is going to provide you with a nice amount of room to fish. The park runs on both sides of the river for 11 miles. There is a paved trail that runs along the river, so you can hop on the river anywhere you see a solid riffle or pool.
The river is 60 miles long so there are other areas to fish, but your most significant access is going to be found in the state park.
Recommended Flies for the Kankakee River
Since the primary target on the Kankakee are bass, you’ll need to make sure you’re stocked up on a few specific flies. Bass will eat baitfish and feed in all levels of the water column. Be prepared to cover a decent amount of water when you’re targeting bass.
- Poppers, size 8
- Clouser Minnows, size 4
- Woolly Bugger, size 6
The northwestern part of Illinois happens to reside in the Driftless Region of the United States. For fly anglers, any mention of the Driftless Region piques their interest. This portion of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois provides extremely productive fly fishing and beautiful scenery. The Apple River falls in the Driftless Region and gives folks in Illinois a true taste of fly fishing.
The Apple River Canyon falls within Apple River Canyon State Park. While it’s only about 300 acres, it’s a glimpse into amazing fishing. Located near the town of Galena, you’ll have a chance to catch stocked brown trout, bass and a variety of other freshwater species.
The trout thrive throughout the spring and later in the fall when the water is cool. In the peak of the summer, you’ll struggle to land these fish. Brown trout are hearty, but the warmer water can be a challenge.
Where to Fish on the Apple River
Stay within the confines of Apple River Canyon State Park. The high rock walls make wonderful pools and give the fish deep water to hide in throughout the warmer months. There are also going to be your fair share of eddies and riffles for you to target. The water is rarely very deep so you can wade through the majority of it to find your perfect place! In the warmer months, you won’t need waders, but in the spring, make sure you pay close attention to the water levels and understand where you’re fishing!
Recommended Flies for the Apple River
Since the trout are stocked, you’re not going to find that they are very picky. As long as you present your fly in a natural way, you’ll be okay. Stick to some of the classic driftless patterns like Prince Nymphs, Pheasant Tails and Caddis Patterns.
- Pheasant Tail Nymph, size 16
- Parachute Adams, size 18
- Woolly Bugger, size 8
The Fox River is the ideal location if you’re interested in a lot of water and quite a few access points. The Fox River isn’t as well known as the Fox Chain of Lakes. The river connects this group of 10 lakes. There’s a state park that protects quite a bit of this water. The Chain o’ Lakes State Park borders the Grass, Marie and Nippersink Lakes. You’ll also have access to a 44-acre lake inside the park that presents its own share of fishing opportunities.
You’ll find your fair share of freshwater fish in these waters! Bass, pike and walleye are some of the most common and fun to target. Bass and pike will hit flies just as hard as they do the rest of the baits thrown their way. If you’re looking for wilderness fishing, these lakes are great.
Where to Fish on the Fox River
Fishing within state parks is often the most efficient way to go. You know all the water is public, you’ll have easy access and likely be able to fish some of the most productive water available. The portion of the Fox River that runs into the Grass River will work great for you. Fish love to sit at the mouths of rivers that flow into lakes. It provides an added amount of oxygen and continuous food that flows into the lake. Spend the majority of your time fishing the moving water, but if it doesn’t work, don’t be afraid to move to the lake.
Recommended Flies for the Fox River
Since you’re targeting predator fish, you want to make sure your flies are obnoxious and catch the attention of these fish.
These fish will feed at the bottom of the water column all the way to the top of the column. As a result, you’re going to need to carry an extensive number of flies to make sure you’re able to change up the way you’re fishing!
- Lefty’s Deceiver, size 4
- Clouser Minnow, size 4
- Popper, size 6
Lake of the Woods
You’re likely far more familiar with the Lake of the Woods in Minnesota and Canada than the Lake of the Woods in Illinois. Lake of the Woods is 900 acres and it’s right near the Sangamon River. In the lake, you’re going to find bass and pike. Bring along your 6-weight to ensure you have enough power to land the fish and the distance necessary to cover quite a bit of water. Large streamer and popper patterns are going to put you on the most fish.
Fly fishing lakes are quite a bit different than fly fishing rivers. The skills required to fly fish in a river are transferable to a lake. Focus on targeting structure and look to find feeding fish. Many fly anglers find themselves casting directly out into the middle of the lake and expect fish to find their bait. Most fish are willing to feed in all levels of the water column so bring a variety of flies and try to follow feeding patterns as best you can. This will help you not make too many unnecessary casts.
Siloam Springs State Park is located within Adams and Brown Counties. This 3000-acre state park has Crabapple Lake in the middle. This 60-acre lake isn’t massive, but it has a very healthy fish population. You’ll find catfish, bass and stocked rainbow trout.
If you’re going after the rainbow trout, make sure to do so right after they’re stocked in the spring. You’re going to want to give them a couple weeks to adjust and grow, but once they’re acclimated, they’ll feed on almost any fly you throw their way. As long as you’re able to present the flies well, you won’t struggle landing them. Woolly Buggers, Prince Nymphs and other sinking patterns are great for when insects aren’t hatching.
As soon as you see the fish start rising, you can switch to dry patterns. Parachute Adams, Caddisflies and any sort of gnat pattern is going to work great early in the mornings and later in the evenings! Siloam Springs State Park is beautiful and the lake is an added bonus.
Guide Tip: Selecting flies can be difficult. Heck those little pieces of fur, feather and wire are expensive – read – 15 Best Flies for Rainbow Trout (with videos to setup)
Rice Lake located in the Rice Lake State Fish and Wildlife Area is a popular hunting spot in the fall, but the number of fish in the lake make it a wonderful destination for fly fishing. The majority of these fish are seeing live bait or common lures. Flies aren’t something they’re regularly seeing. The pike and bass are more likely to hit your fly as long as it’s presented well and looks enough like the food they’re eating.
Minnow and Crayfish patterns are great places to start. You won’t struggle to land fish if you stick to the structure and areas filled with food. Bring along your 5 or 6-weight as well as floating line. There are quite a few opportunities for snags throughout this lake so you want to minimize the number of things under the surface if at all possible.
The Rock River is located in northwest Illinois. It flows for 155 miles and is a main tributary of the Mississippi River. As a result, you know you’re going to have plenty of opportunities to catch fish. Bass and Walleye are the two primary targets of the Rock River. Fly anglers are going to have far more success if they choose to fish for bass. Spend your time fishing the dams in Rockton and Rockford. The water below these dams is going to be far more productive than the most of the rest of the river.
Bring your 6 or 7-weight rod because you never know what you’re going to find. Enjoy fishing this beautiful part of Illinois. It’s definitely one of the most picturesque areas in the state.
Smallmouth Bass and Catfish are the most common species within the Kishwaukee River. You’ll find many of these fish weighing between three and four pounds. They’ll definitely put up a wonderful fight on the fly rod. The Kishwaukee River is located near the Rock River in Northern Illinois. You can access this river through a variety of public access points near the city of Rockford.
A 5 or 6-weight is plenty of rod to land any fish you might find. Bring your poppers and deep diving streamers to meet these fish in the deeper portions of the Kishwaukee. Clouser Minnows are your best bet. They’re a great imitation of baitfish.
Guide Tip: Are you wondering what all those numbers on a fly rod mean? I’ve got a complete guide explaining it all – What Do the Numbers on a Fly Rod Mean? (With Fly Rod Chart)
The Iroquois River flows out of Indiana into the eastern edge of Illinois. You’ll find Smallmouth Bass and Pike all throughout the Iroquois River. If possible, you’re going to want to fish this river with a boat. There aren’t a ton of access points, but if you’re able to get yourself on the water in a watercraft, you’re going to find yourself fishing fish that aren’t too heavily pressured.
The boat launch in Watseka is the only public launch on the river, but any bridge access point is able to be fished. Once you’re in the water, you’re good to move below the high-water line, but don’t be too eager to access the river via private property. Bring along your 6 or 7-weight. These rods may be a bit heavy for smallmouth bass, but you’ll want them for northern pike.
Extra strong leader is necessary as well! You don’t want to lose out on a large pike because you weren’t properly equipped. Crayfish, Minnow and any sort of bright deceiver pattern is going to help you land quite a few of these fish. Stay patient and fish this river with a boat if at all possible.
The Wabash River forms quite a bit of the boundary separating Indiana from Illinois. It’s on the southern part of the border and stretches over 200 miles within the boundaries of Illinois. You’ll find your fair share of bass and carp swimming through these waters.
Carp on the fly are a blast to catch! They’re a bit easier to target in moving water. Fish this river near the boat launch in Mt. Carmel or at the mouth of the river above Old Shawneetown. You’ll find a great amount of access and plenty of fishable water.
Recommended Gear for Fly Fishing in Illinois
Since trout are not a common species found throughout the entire state of Illinois, you’re not going to need much finesse gear. If you have somewhere between a 5 and 7-weight rod, you won’t have any trouble landing fish. Pike and bass are easily landed on these rods!
You’ll want both floating and sinking line when fishing in Illinois. Also, bring 0 or 1x leaders to make sure you don’t snap when you land heavier fish. Even wire leader isn’t a bad idea if you’re specifically targeting pike.
For flies, stick with your classic streamer patterns for the pike and bass. Deceivers, Clouser Minnows, Woolly Buggers and Crayfish patterns are all going to help you land fish.
Official Resources for Fly Fishing in Illinois
For more information on fly fishing in Illinois, be sure to visit the Department of Natural Resources Page. On the website you’ll find all the information you may need on access and fishing locations. These websites can be a bit cumbersome, but you’ll find that they’re quite helpful and have a great amount of information that you may need.
- The State of Illinois Department of Natural Resources has a great website with access, stocking and all the regulations. https://www2.illinois.gov/dnr/Pages/default.aspx
Some popular fly fishing clubs in Illinois include:
- Chicago Fly Fishers – https://chicagoflyfishers.org/
- Northern Illinois Fly Tyers – https://northernillinoisflytyers.blogspot.com/
- Oakbrook Trout Unlimited – https://obtu.org/
- Rock River Fly Casters – https://www.facebook.com/Rock-River-Fly-Casters-165739210125758/
Popular Fly Shops in Illinois
If you’re in need of some fly fishing information, you do have a few fly shops to visit when you go to fish in Illinois.
- Chicago Fly Fishing Outfitters: https://chifly.com/
- DuPage Fly Fishing Co: https://www.dupagefly.com
- Dooley’s Fly Fishing: https://www.dooleysflyfishing.com/
Danny Mooers is a high school English teacher in Arizona with a love for fly fishing. Growing up in Minnesota gave him the opportunity to experience all types of fishing and grow his skills. After living out in the Western United States for several summers in college, his fly fishing obsession grew. Having the opportunity to share in his passion for fishing through writing is a dream come true. It’s a lifelong hobby and he strives to make it understandable for people of all skill levels