Photo by Chris Young

August 1, 2023

Fly Fishing in Illinois

Mention fly fishing and many people picture an angler wading in a mountain stream or saltwater flats. Or perhaps, in the springtime shallows for panfish. However, fly fishing opportunities in Illinois are plentiful and varied.

Like other forms of fishing, fly fishing can occur on a broad range of water bodies, from lakes to ponds and rivers, with anglers working from a boat, wading, or fishing from the shoreline. Illinois fly fishers target a variety of fish, including bass, panfish, muskie, pike, carp, gar, buffalo, salmon, steelhead and trout. Unless the water is completely frozen over, it happens all year long.

Why Pursue Fish with a Fly Rod?

The motivations for fly fishing are as numerous as the anglers undertaking the sport. For some people, fly fishing is an additional way to fish. Others are challenged by a new experience. Some are enchanted by the graceful, rhythmic casting motion or the excitement of the fish’s “grab” followed by the deep bend of the rod. Some anglers find fly fishing to be a peaceful, elegant way of fishing, while others thrive on adrenaline-charged episodes with reels screaming, line streaming out, and the rod straining as fish head for heavy cover and deep water.

Fly fishing is often seen as floating a tiny, dry fly on the surface, but can be done down to about 30 feet of water. Those tiny flies can be part of the game, but for critters like muskie, the fly may appear to be a chicken on the end of the line.

Who Can Fly Fish?

A woman in a green t-shirt helps a young girl in a bright pink t-shirt learn how to fly fish.
Photo by Chris Young.

Casting ability is the key to successful, and enjoyable, fly fishing. Good form, rhythm and timing are more important than brute strength. Women often excel at fly fishing. Though age 14 is usually a good time to start, some interested and attentive 10-year-olds are quite capable, as are some people in their 90s. You don’t even need water to refine your casting skills. Step outside and practice your casting on the lawn. Immerse yourself in always learning and enjoying the ecosystem you and the fish share. Learn what food is available to the fish and when, where, and how to best imitate it. Then make your delivery.

How to Get Started

Rule #1. Don’t buy anything – yet. Get casting instruction from a qualified instructor. It can put you years ahead. Videos and books are helpful, but they can’t see, or tell you, what you’re doing right or wrong. Practice does not make perfect; practicing the right technique does. If you already cast, and it seems difficult, you are not doing it right. It should be a joy.

Now About Buying

Your instructor should have a variety of rods available for you to discover which best suits your style, common fishing conditions, and budget. It is best to cast a rod before you buy it. A good fly shop will let you do that. With most freshwater fly fishing, you put your money into the rod, the line, and the reel, in that order. With saltwater, or freshwater big game, expect the costs to go up.

Other “Pro’s” of Fly Fishing

You can learn to:

  • Fish open water pockets of weeds or brush without dragging through debris on the way out.
  • Fish around and behind stumps, rocks and trees.
  • Drop the fly close to the fish without spooking it.
  • Pick up the fly and recast to another target without reeling in the line.
  • Fish multiple flies at the same time.
  • Eliminate line tangles on the reel.
  • Easily walk a long way along a shoreline or bank carrying just a rod and a few flies.
  • Quickly release a fish. Most, but not all, flies have a single hook, which more easily goes into, and out of, the fish, your clothes, and you. Release is especially easy if the hook is made barbless.
  • You don’t have to tie your own flies, but it is a lot of fun if you do.
Author Tom Yocum provides fly fishing instruction to a group of nine people at the Illinois State Fair.
Casting instruction from a qualified instructor helps to improve your techinique. Photo by Chris Young.

If you have a fishing boat, canoe, kayak or paddle board, you can fish from it, even sitting down. Here are a few tips to make it easier.

  • Practice casting while sitting in a lawn chair.
  • Fly line tends to seek out things to tangle on, especially for novice fly fishers. Minimize tangling by draping something over the protruding boat items, such as a bait net or a wet, old beach towel.
  • Another good way to manage the line and minimize the wind’s effects, is a “stripping basket” or a commercially made canister type container. Improvised versions are available online.

Tom Yocom, fly casting instructor, guide and fly tying instructor who has fly fished for everything from bass to barracuda, from panfish to permit and trout to tarpon. His home waters are now the warm waters of Illinois, which he notes are different from Alaska’s or the Bahama’s. His two favorite things about fly fishing are “the grab,” when a fish hits the fly, and the moment “the lights come on” in his fly casting students’ eyes with their first good cast. A student in a Becoming an Outdoors-Woman illustrated this by exclaiming “I love this! It’s like archery, but you don’t have to chase the arrows!”

Yocom ran a fly shop for 15 years, outfitting fly fishers, leading trips, and guiding. He has authored articles for sports magazines, appeared at sport shows, taught fly fishing at a community college, did a fly fishing show for German TV, and was invited to fish with a Japanese fly fishing team. He is a member in a host of fly fishing organizations. Today he focuses on instruction and guiding, as well as consulting for a top fly tying materials business.

Share and enjoy!

Submit a question for the author