The Kankakee Marsh was for thousands of years one of the largest wetlands in North America.
Waterfowl and wildlife thrived in the basin, and Native American tribes, including the Miami, Illinois and Potawatomi, lived off the river’s bounty. Ultimately, the wetlands were drained and reduced to an arrow-straight stretch of river.
In a short film, “Indiana Everglades,” Kankakee Valley Historical Society director John Hodson said, “The story of the Kankakee River, I think, is a unique story that shows the good and bad in a man. And also, it shows and reflects efforts that can be made afterwards to correct the mistake that was made.”
The Indiana portion of the Kankakee River begins its westward journey to the Illinois border just five miles southwest of South Bend.
The once-wild river flows through its constrained channel forming the north/south borders of LaPorte and Stark, Porter and Jasper, and Lake and Newton counties. It passes through some of the most rich and fertile farmland in the Midwest; the reason for the river’s identity theft in the first place.
Although anglers may not be able to glide the nature’s course of the Kankakee, they are still left with the ability to fish for an abundance of the river’s natural inhabitants.
Species diversity is an absolute plus when angling the river, considering it contains walleye, northern pike, smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, crappie, bluegill, carp and more.
Bob Santangelo, owner of Kankakee River Valley Guide Service, said, “The Kankakee is undoubtedly one of the best smallmouth bass rivers in the state. In 2011, my clients caught and released 11 smallies over 20 inches, with the largest going 21 and a half.
“It’s much more than just a smallmouth river, though. The species diversity is amazing.”
Perhaps the best-kept secret of fishing the Kankakee is the large number of northern pike in the river. Not only are there a lot of pike, but they grow large, and the time of year when they are most active is late winter and early spring.
“Certain sections of the river seem to hold certain species of fish. I don’t run into northern pike all over the river, but there are places where they are thick,” Santangelo said.
One such place is around Grand Kankakee Marsh County Park in southern Lake County.
There are a number sloughs in and around the park connected to the river. Northerns will stack up in the shallow backwater. You can walk around the sloughs, on top of levees and dikes, fishing from shore.
The best bet for northern pike, though, comes by float fishing so you can hammer the agricultural ditch mouths.
The river is littered with ditches dumping into it. When you come across ditch mouth, fish it thoroughly. Chances are, you’ll be able to tell which ditches are hot because someone will be sitting there in a lawn chair next to a fully stocked cooler watching a bobber dance above a big shiner minnow.
River access is really good on the Indiana portion of the Kankakee. Major access points are found at Kingsbury State Fish and Wildlife Area, Kankakee State Fish and Wildlife, the State Road 49 bridge near Kouts, Baum’s Bridge near Wheatfield, Grand Kankakee Marsh County Park, State Road 55 bridge in Shelby and LaSalle State Fish and Wildlife area on the Indiana and Illinois border.
See you down the trail.
Brandon Butler’s outdoors column appears Saturdays in the Daily Journal. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.