SHABBONA – When Daniel McGovern wants to get away from the stress of homework and classes at Northern Illinois University, he gets in the car with his girlfriend, Paige Valente, drives to Shabbona Lake State Park and goes fishing.
“I like to just come out here and fish,” McGovern said. “It’s a nice escape from school, and it’s a nice place to relax. Sometimes, I rent a boat and go out on the water. You have everything you need here, even a cafe and bait shop.”
Shabbona Lake State Park, celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, was designed specifically with fishing in mind. The lake features more than 12 species of fish, including bass, bluegill, redear sunfish, rock bass, crappie, bullhead, channel catfish, walleye, perch and muskellonge, also called muskie.
The park has been nicknamed the “Muskie Capitol of Illinois” and “Illinois’ Best Fishing Lake.” Four state muskie records and two state hybrid crappie records have been set at the lake. The largest fish ever caught there was a 49.125-inch, 37.81-pound muskie, reeled in by Chris Kim of Elk Grove Village on April 1, 1997.
To teach future generations how to fish, the Shabbona Lake Young Angler’s Fishing League was established 23 years ago. The league is free and open to children and teens ages 3 to 17. The league meets for six weeks over the months of July and August, teaching the youth how to fish in different locations in the park.
Multiple fishing opens and derbies and Illinois High School Association’s student/ coach fishing tournaments also are held at the lake.
Duane Landmeier of Hinckley, a member of the Illinois Fishing Hall of Fame, has been a professional fisherman for 20 years and has been a guide at Shabbona Lake for 15 years. He has won 18 fishing tournaments around the country, but he practices as often as he can on Shabbona Lake.
“I love that the lake is close to home, only 12 miles away,” Landmeier said. “It’s a pretty park, and it was made just for fishing. There are no big powerboats, so even when it’s busy, it’s quiet.”
Denny Sands, whose family has leased the park’s concessionaire since 1998, said that what sets Shabbona Lake apart from other lakes is that it was created specifically for fishing by biologist Alex Pulley.
“Usually, the land is cleared out before it’s flooded, but trees and 47 fish cribs were left for smaller fish to live in,” Sands said. “Those habitats have really made a big difference to the survival of the fish.”
Additional fish cribs have been added to the lake over the years, ensuring fish species’ future survival. Shabbona Lake Sportman Club and Friends of Shabbona Lake members periodically rescue and release large fish caught in the spillway barrier back into the lake.
Sands, who visited the park on the day it opened, Jan. 1, 1978, has been fishing the lake ever since. His son, Aaron Sands, is now a fishing guide on the lake.
“It truly is a fishing lake, designed with fishing in mind,” Aaron Sands said. “The fish cribs give a place for smaller fish to live, hide and feed, and our fish-rearing ponds allow young fish to mature before being moved to the lake.”
Ron Fulk, who also is a fishing guide, said the community of anglers is what keeps him coming back to the lake.
“Everyone is friendly, we wave, say ‘hi’ and give tips or pointers,” Fulk said. “I fish for the fun of it because fishing can be difficult and some fish are hard to catch. The lake has something in it for everyone and anyone interested in freshwater fishing. There are a lot of big fish to go after, or you can just relax and catch smaller fish.”
Alberto Hernandez of Waterman fishes out on the lake nearly every day.
“I come out here every chance I get, even if it’s just for a few hours,” he said. “There are all kinds of fish and it’s close to home. There’s no reason to go fishing anywhere else.”