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BOWMAN: Braidwood opener right around the corner



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Updated: March 25, 2013 6:16AM

It’s always about the access in northeast Illinois. Even more than the fishing itself, it’s about the access.

Braidwood Lake is a crucial piece of that access puzzle for several reasons. For one, it’s the first of the three cooling lakes easily accessible to Chicago-area fishermen to open, with a tradition of opening March 1. The 2,640-acre, partially perched cooling lake opens Friday. It will be open daily from 6 a.m. to sunset.

The second reason is the variety of options its offers for fishermen. Bank fishermen have miles of shoreline, from natural to rip-rap. Boaters have multiple launches on the north end (cold side) and south end (hot side).

That variety extends to the species options. The fishery for largemouth bass made the lake, but the ease with which channel catfish and bluegills can be caught made it a family-friendly site for other species, too. It’s our family’s favorite fishing spot.

So a significant fish kill for several days during the heat wave around the Fourth of July last year caused major concern among fishermen and fisheries biologists alike. I even had fishermen asking if it was a 100 percent kill.

It wasn’t. In fact, it appears the lake survived surprisingly well, according to district fisheries biologist Rob Miller. They did a fall survey, checking the better spots by electroshocking for bass.

‘‘Back by the old rearing area, we just hammered on them,’’ Miller said. ‘‘It is going to be a good spring for bass fishermen. Our catch rates were really good. We were not just getting big fish, we were getting the smaller guys, too. That was encouraging.’’

More than a decade ago, the bass fishery crashed when aquatic vegetation largely disappeared from the lake. But intensive yearly stockings, the addition of structure and more restrictive regulations (a daily bag of one largemouth or smallmouth bass, 18 inches or longer) brought the bass fishery back.

An example of just how well the lake rebounded was shown last April. Braidwood was the third-best site in the state during sectionals for the Illinois High School Association bass-fishing championship.

‘‘Bass fishing looks pretty good,’’ Miller said.

So does the experiment of stocking hybrid striped bass. In 2011, 24,000 hybrids 2 inches or shorter were stocked. Last fall, they found some hybrids pushing 19 inches.

‘‘That’s crazy,’’ Miller said. ‘‘It should be an exciting fishery.’’

To protect that fishery, there is a 10-fish daily bag for hybrid stripers, striped bass and/or white bass, only three of which may be 17 inches or longer.

Blue catfish are the other relatively new fishery. In 2003, an experiment began with the stocking of 11,000 6-inch blues. Most years since, depending on availability, blue catfish or a hybrid of blue catfish and channel catfish have been stocked.

Braidwood hasn’t matched LaSalle Lake, where blues have become the glamor fish with some topping 40 pounds, but Braidwood does have blues well over 20 pounds.

For family action, bluegills and channel catfish remain the best options, especially if fishing from shore with light line, small pieces of bait and/or small jigs. But bluegills aren’t the quality in size or numbers they once were.

What should keep Braidwood a quality fishery is its baitfish.

‘‘There are a lot of gizzard shad and a lot of threadfin shad,’’ Miller said.

I’m ready.

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