You don’t need lots of gear to fish on frozen water. Just a hand auger to drill a hole (cheap ones can be had for around $40) and your usual fishing rod and tackle, plus a few other odds and ends. (An electronic fish finder, pictured above, is decidedly optional.) Even better, the Forest Preserves of Cook County permits winter fishing in 20 local lakes, ponds, and reservoirs, and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources has deemed locally caught panfish safe to eat. We asked Mike McNett, Lombard resident and freshwater sport fishing director for the U.S. Angling Confederation, how to get started.
Can I even get bait in the city?
Yes! Henry’s Sports & Bait [3130 S. Canal St., Bridgeport] is a great shop. They’ll also know what the conditions are like and where to fish.
Do you have a favorite spot in Cook County?
Busse Reservoir is a good one.
Besides bait and a rod, what do I need to bring?
You’ll need a $15 Illinois fishing license, which is available online. If you don’t own an auger to drill a hole, ask anglers on the ice to lend theirs. And bring snacks: Offering some is a good way to say hello. Bring a bucket to sit on.
How do I know when it’s safe to walk on the ice?
Wait until the ice is at least four inches thick, usually not until January or February. If you see groups of people out, the ice is OK.
Still, accidents happen. Any safety tips?
Always go in pairs, and pack a throw rope or flotation device. You can also buy inexpensive cleats for your shoes to prevent slipping.
What have you been catching?
Crappie and bluegill are the target species, and the most common bait for them is spikes, fly larvae, or waxworms. You can get a dozen at the bait shop for a couple dollars. To detect the small bites, make sure your line isn’t more than two to three pounds.