Another sure sign it's spring in Illinois: rainbows.
A rite of the season for more than 40 years, Illinois natural resources officials stocked 47 designated ponds, lakes and creeks across the state last month with more than 60,000 Missouri-raised rainbow trout in preparation for today's 5 a.m. opening of its spring catchable trout program.
"It's kind of like the robins," says Dan Stephenson, assistant fisheries chief with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
If the weather holds today, Kickapoo State Park Superintendent John Hott says the banks of Clear Pond, where more than 1,200 rainbow trout are stocked each spring and fall, will be lined with all kinds of anglers — novice and seasoned, young and old.
Lisa Sprinkle with the Champaign County Forest Preserve says about 1,500 pounds of trout were stocked in Lake of the Woods near Mahomet.
Opening day there usually draws about 100 people — from the serious anglers who hit the banks at 5 to the families who generally come a little later.
"It is a great kid activity," she says.
The popular sporting fish is not native to Illinois, but its ability to thrive in hatcheries has enabled the rainbow trout to be introduced to other areas of the United States beside its historic range that extends from Alaska to Mexico.
A coldwater fish, rainbow trout would not survive Illinois' summers, Stephenson says, and most of the 60,000 stocked across the state will be fished out by anglers within six weeks of today.
They're fun to catch because they really put up a fight for their size — and "people like that," Stephenson says.
Here are five other things to know about Illinois' spring rainbow trout season.
1. Top of the morning
Merle Miller of Danville has been fishing for more than 60 years, 30-plus of those for rainbow trout at Kickapoo. He says the best time to catch trout are early morning or just before dusk. But neither's a sure thing.
Like any other fish, trout may be biting like crazy, or not at all, Miller says . It can depend on the weather, or the water temperature, or who knows, sometimes they just aren't biting.
Everett Walter, who owns Uncle Boonie's Bait Shop in Homer, recommends going out the first couple weeks because the trout leave the hatcheries hungry and usually stay bunched up.
"The early bird gets the worm," he says. "The first two or three weeks, they catch a bunch of them."
Miller, who fishes from his boat, doesn't like hitting the lake this first weekend because it's too crowded. He says anglers will be elbow to elbow on the banks, and just as crowded on the water, too. He's had other boaters bump right up against his boat when he's landed a hot spot.
"I just don't like fishing like that," says Miller, who plans to wait until a weekday to try his luck this spring.
2. An acquired taste
Rainbow trout aren't Gary Henk's favorite fish to eat. But the owner of Henk's Bait and Bite outside Kickapoo State Park says regulars in his shop like the taste and like to grill trout, partly because they're a greasy or oily fish.
Miller filets them, sometimes fries them and also likes to smoke them after soaking the fish in soy sauce for about an hour.
"I love them," says Miller, noting that they're a nice change of pace from the bluegill and other native fish he catches and eats. Rainbow trout have a different texture and flavor, he says.
Miller says the trout are fast — they really do jump out of the water, he swears — and the bigger ones put up a heck of a fight.
"I go more for the fun than the eating," he says.
3. Come prepared
If you're fly fishing for rainbow trout out West, your list of gear would be long. But if you just want to catch your daily limit of rainbows in Illinois, all you need is a regular fishing pole, line and the right bait.
No waders necessary — just stand on the bank and wait for a school to swim by, Miller says. Once you find a school, he adds, "You can probably tear the heck out them."
The most important item you'll need to catch rainbow trout in Illinois is a fishing license and an inland trout stamp. The Illinois catchable trout program is made possible through the sale of the stamps to the anglers who participate.
Licenses and stamps are available at the Lake of the Woods pro shop and many bait shops and sporting goods stores.
4. Keep it or throw it back?
Illinois' catchable trout program is meant for keeps — up to five fish per angler. No worries about conservation; the stocked trout are meant to be fished out. Stephenson predicts most rainbows across the state will be gone in several weeks, and what few trout remain likely won't make it through the summer.
It's not unheard of, though — local trout veterans have heard stories of rainbows that have survived an Illinois summer. Their chances are better at Kickapoo State Park, because the former strip mine is home to very deep lakes and ponds, including Clear Pond. The cold, deep water gives rainbows a better chance of making it. Miller says he has even caught some rainbows through the ice during the winter months.
5. Know your bait
According to Miller, there are about three to four baits everybody uses — small minnows, spinners of various colors, canned corn or various colored doughs. The dough is good for fishing toward the bottom, he says.
Walter says most people use spinning lures, but others prefer minnows, trout pellets or salmon eggs that come preserved in a bottle. If an angler actually uses a fly rod, he says, it's long and limber, allowing the line to float and keep the bait on top of the water, where the trout will hit.
"There are all kinds of tricks to catching trout," he says.
The stocked fish weigh about a pound or a little more, although a fisherman once brought a nearly 8-pound rainbow into Henk's shop to show everyone.