Jeff Lampe: Winter whoppers

Jeff Lampe

After a few hours of fishing at Powerton Lake last Wednesday, Steve Smullin was anxious for his first nibble. Actually, Smullin has never had much luck at Powerton.

But the Peoria Heights angler still wets a line at the Pekin lake. 'Just the thought of that big one biting keeps me coming out here,' Smullin said. 'I know you can't catch them if you're at home.'

And when it comes to catching big fish in winter, there's no better place in central Illinois than Powerton. The lake's rock-lined shores are open to bank fishing daily from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Boaters can launch starting Feb. 15.

Once known primarily for white bass and smallmouth bass, the cooling lake southwest of Pekin has become a destination for anglers seeking trophy catfish. At present, trophy class means 50-pound flatheads and 40-pound blue cats. Catching fat-bellied fish of that caliber is not uncommon at Powerton, particularly in January and February, when catfish crowd into the steamy hot-water discharge.

This year has been a bit unusual in that regard, since the plant went off line and the lake froze for only the third time since 1971. In addition to killing numerous threadfin shad, the freeze slowed fishing. In the past week action has improved now that the plant is back on line, with anglers reporting blue cats of up to 40 pounds.

Even bigger blues are expected in the near future, according to fisheries biologist Wayne Herndon. Since an initial stocking of 35,000 Arkansas-raised fish in 1999, the fast-growing catfish have been released annually. And they've flourished.

'I'm expecting we'll probably see 50- or 60-pound fish, if not this year then in 2009,' Herndon said. 'They cohabit in there pretty good with the flatheads.'

Angler David Blank of Springfield agrees. Blank makes the long trek back to Powerton's hot-water discharge several times each winter to target blue cats. While many regulars have turned to bicycles, carts or wagons to ease travel to the hot water, Blank is content to walk.

But he has devised his own sinker with metal prongs to hold the bottom better in the oft-swift current. Blank has also modified his choice of scale owing to the size of the fish he's seen. After starting with a hand-held model that registered up to 8 pounds, he quickly switched to a 20-pound model, then one rated for 50 pounds. These days he totes a spring scale that's accurate to 100 pounds. So far his heftiest fish registered at 41 pounds.

Last Wednesday, Blank caught an 18-pound blue shortly after arriving. The best action, though, is typically in the afternoon according to Blank. True to form, that's when David Grethey of Morton caught a pair of 35-pounders and several 7-pounders. Both Blank and Grethey released their catfish. Said Blank, 'Even if I caught a world record, I'd let it go.'

While a world record is unlikely, Powerton has spurred its share of state-record talk. In the not-so-distant past many expected Powerton to produce a smallmouth bass that would top the Illinois record of 6 pounds, 7 ounces. While those hopes have faded, similar expectations are growing for the 78-pound flathead record.

Herndon cautions such optimism. 'Even though you are growing lots of fish and getting them large quickly, longevity might be a problem,' Herndon said. 'The problem is, the larger the fish, the more stressful the thermal temperature change.'

Record or no, there are big fish to be caught. Most anglers say January signals the start of prime flathead fishing. 'And most guys I've seen catch big flatheads park right over the discharge and use big live bluegill,' Blank said.

Blue cats are more widely distributed and will take a wider variety of offerings, though they seem partial to fresh cut shad.

Beyond catfish, Powerton also features abundant plump bluegill, occasional yellow or largemouth bass and fair to good smallmouth bass fishing. Recent stockings of redear sunfish and largemouth bass should add to the fishery, as will planned stockings of hybrid striped bass.

For anglers trying to avoid cabin fever while waiting for ice to form or the spring warm-up, that's welcome news.

JEFF LAMPE is Journal Star outdoors columnist. Write to him at 1 News Plaza, Peoria, IL 61643, call (309) 686-3212 or e-mail to