May 17, 2007

Anglers Should Not Overlook Strip Pits: Sites Are Often Teaming With Fish

By Gary Dotson, Belleville News-Democrat, Ill.

May 17--The brown plastic lizard had barely disappeared beneath the water when a 3-pound largemouth bass sucked it in, then leaped high into the air with violent head shakes, trying to spit out the hook.

The bass dove for the thick vegetation that grows abundantly in the gin-clear water of the strip pit, then made one more splash dance across the surface before succumbing to the angler's waiting hand.

"Nice fish," his partner said. "What is that now? Fifty? Sixty?"

The two were fishing strip pits on private land in Missouri, the byproduct of surface mining that occurred in the 1960s and '70s. Today, the lakes are full of bass, crappie, catfish and panfish of all varieties, the result of a successful reclamation project and careful fisheries management.

They fished last weekend during the spawn, catching bass with an average size of 2 pounds, and hefty crappie, many of which topped a pound. By any measure, the fishing was spectacular.

Strip pits similar to these are scattered across Southern Illinois, which was once one of the nation's leading coal mining regions. Many are located in county parks and state wildlife recreation areas and are open to public fishing.

But fishing them can be tough.

Most strip pits have high, steep banks. Old strip-mining sites are locations where miners excavated coal near the surface of the earth. Afterward, the empty pits were allowed to fill with water and were stocked with fish.

They generally are clear and have steep drop-offs. Some pits can cover just a few surface acres but be 50-60 feet deep. Lack of cover and shallow-water spawning habitat can limit quality fishing in some strip pits. And they easily become choked with weeds, especially shallow lakes such as those at St. Ellen Mine Park in O'Fallon.

However, they also are legendary for growing big gamefish.

"The clear water and steep banks make strip pits more difficult to fish," said Fred Cronin, a regional fisheries biologist for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. "You definitely want to go to a lighter line. Look for any bank that's slightly more gradual than any other, such as off a point. The fish will congregate there."

Devoid of gradually sloping banks and hard bottoms, bass, crappie and other fish will be found deeper in strip pits than other bodies of water in the spring, Cronin said.

"In the strip pits in Southern Illinois, the fish are spawning now, but because of the unusual conditions that strip pits present, you're going to find them deeper, in 5-10 feet of water, where in a regular lake or farm pond they would be 2-3 feet deep," he said.

Plastics baits, such as Senkos or dark-colored lizards, and deep-running crank baits work well, but don't overlook surface lures, especially early and late.

"It just depends on what mood they're in," Cronin said. "Buzzbaits and topwater lures will kill them when they're actively feeding, looking for food. When they're not feeding, you have to go deeper."

Cronin said he believes the bass in this region may have gotten off a decent spawn before the recent cold snap in April, and some fish are beginning to move back into deeper water as a result.

"It's been kind of a mixed-up spring for the fish, but I still expect them to be somewhere near the shallows," he said.

Edward Helf, an employee at Open Season in Belleville and an avid fisher of strip pits, said he recently took several bass over 6 pounds from the big lake at St. Ellen Mine Park using a Scumbug and other surface lures.

"The bass are done spawning there and will be a little tough to catch now, but in a few weeks, when it gets hot, those big bass will move back into the shallows and lay up under the weeds to stay cool," Helf said.

Helf said many strip pits in the area are found on private property, and gaining access to them can be difficult, but private sportsmen's clubs can provide some opportunities.

Public fishing is available at the Peabody-River King State Fish and Wildlife Area near New Athens, Pyramid State Park near Pinckneyville, and the World Shooting Complex near Sparta, among other places.

Cronin said it's hard to generalize about strip pits because even in a concentrated area, one can be totally different than another.

"Strip pits have wonderful fishing, but they can be tricky. They don't have the numbers and are not as fertile as regular ponds, but they can produce some good-sized fish," he said.

Gary Dotson is city editor of the Belleville News-Democrat. Contact him at [email protected] or 239-2536.


Copyright (c) 2007, Belleville News-Democrat, Ill.

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