The Lure of the Kankakee


the author, Mark Toth

Some History of the Kankakee
The Potawatomi Indians were the first to settle along the river, using the marshes as a refuge from other warring tribes, like the Iroquois. They relied on the wildlife of the surrounding marshes for their existence. French explorers were among some of the first to map the area – Charlevoix, Tonti, Father Hennepin and LaSalle. As the area was being explored, it wasn’t long before fur traders gravitated to the Kankakee for its flourishing bounty, primarily muskrats and beavers.

As the immigrants moves West, many came to settle along the Kankakee, which soon came to be a haven for sportsmen from all over the world – at that time, approximately one hundred years ago, the Great Kankakee Swamp was one of the largest marsh-swamp basins in the United States – encompassing 5,300 square miles of Indiana and Illinois . . . the meandering river being more than 240 miles in length.

Brown Levee Ditch, Grand Kankakee MarshThe Kankakee Marshes came to be known as the place where "kings and queens" hunted and fished – mallards, pintails, spoonbills, teal, wood ducks, sandhill cranes, bluebills and other waterfowl were abundant; the fishing was heralded as some of the finest inland available.  Unfortunately, as more and more people flocked to this area, farmers started draining wetlands and the need for lumber for cities like Chicago, started to alter the course of the river.  Channelization of the river began around 1911, and by 1917 the Kankakee was straightening out in Indiana . . . and came to be known as the Kankakee Ditch.

Today, less than 30,000 acres of wetland can be found along the Kankakee and due to the extensive channelization of the river, what was once a winding river stretching 240 miles from Indiana to Illinois is now approximately 90 miles in length.

There’s still a diversity of resources along the Kankakee.  Trees like the ash, white pine, black cherry, sweet gum, black walnut, cottonwood, sycamore, and cypress; marsh vegetation like sedges, wild rice, cattail, duckweed, and many other forms of vegetation; wildlife including beaver, muskrat, deer, otters, mink, eagles, osprey, bobcats, fox, coyotes, herons and many other small animals and birds; fish like northern pike, musky, largemouth and smallmouth bass, crappie, walleye, bluegills, carp, suckers, catfish, freshwater eel, mussels and more.

The Kankakee Ditch offers opportunities for both boaters and shore fishermen alike. In Indiana, where I fish, it spans across three thousand square miles and encompasses thirteen Northwestern Indiana counties. The river bottom is primarily sand and gravel, with many lay downs along the banks, commonly referred to as "snags."

Fishing the Kankakee
There are as many ways to fish the Kankakee as there are fishermen up to the challenge. I ponder daily which areas of the Kankakee I’ll concentrate on in the coming year and which techniques I’ll employ. It’s not for the weak of heart, because on any given cast you might be hooking into the fish of a lifetime. . . the State record walleye was caught on this watershed – a fourteen pound, four ounce monster. I myself have taken bass in the eight plus pound range and I’m acquainted with others who have done the same, or better. Not only are there giant largemouths in the backwater areas and slower connecting ditches, but in the main channel there’s great smallmouth fishing to be had.

Typical habitat to be found while fishing the Kankakee Ditch and connecting waterways. There’s good fishing to suit everyone’s taste here, bass, pike, musky, catfish, and a multitude of other fish species. Whether you’re into crankin’ ‘em up, worm fishing, spinners or spoons, or just drowning some live bait, you’ll need to rise to the challenge and study nature around you, the types of weeds, the seasonal patterns, etc. to truly be successful on a consistent basis. . . but, once you’ve taken your first quality fish, you’ll be hooked for life.

When I fish the marshes and ditches, I get lost in the natural beauty of it all. . . I enjoy observing the antics of fishing herons, the playfulness of a river otter, the deer playing cat and mouse with my ever-changing location; I enjoy the swamp mallow in bloom and the cardinal flowers along the banks, in Fall the changing colors of the foliage, in Winter the starkness and feeling of total solitude; I enjoy watching parents trying to teach their children to fish, and kids catching frogs with dip nets; I enjoy the elderly couples who bask in the warmth of a Summer day and smile peacefully with every bluegill they land; I enjoy the ever changing panoramic view and the continual discovery. . . the Kankakee warms my soul.

I have been fishing the Kankakee Ditch, bayous, oxbows, marshes and connecting feeder ditches ever since I was a young boy, and will continue to do so until I am no longer able to.

"Most days of the week from March through December I can be found somewhere along the
Kankakee River, where Indians roamed, where explorers wrote of the many bounties there,
where kings and queens hunted and fished…where their spirits live on the river and in me."

Access to Indiana’s Kankakee Ditch
LaSalle Fish and Wildlife Area –
LaSalle is bordered on the East by Route 41, on the West by State Line Road, on the South by Route 10 and on the North by 241st Avenue.

Two thousand seven hundred and ninety-five acres, hunting, mandatory check-in, quail, rabbit, squirrel, deer, woodcock, waterfowl, night hunting, raccoon, fox, gun & archery range, river fishing, boat ramp / canoe access, rest rooms. Information – (219) 992-3019.

1. State Line, Northeast side of the State Line Road bridge you can launch a boat, or walk the banks of the bayou to the North.

2. Area No. 3, South side of the Kankakee off of Route 10 has a launch and plenty of shore fishing available also.

3. White Oak Bayou, South side of the Kankakee, just West of Route 41 has a boat launch and shore fishing, but be prepared to wear boots and use extreme caution when wading along the shoreline.

Route 55 Boat Launch – South of Shelby on Route 55 – Northeast side of bridge is a boat launch.

Not much in the way of shore access here, but on the South side of the bridge you can carefully park along the highway and fish the bayou on the Southeast side of the bridge.

Grand Kankakee Marsh – You can get to the park from the North by taking Range Line Road SouthWildlife can be observed all along the Kankakee. for 6 milesoff of Route 2, between I65 (approximately 1.5 miles East) and Rt. 231.

The Grand Kankakee Marsh encompasses one thousand nine hundred and thirty acres, running three miles along the Kankakee Ditch – marshes, ditches, oxbows and swampland – map available from the Indiana DNR or may be seen at the park headquarters. Public hunting area. Excellent launch site and canoe Shore and bank fishing available.  Rest rooms, drinking water, vending machines, picnic tables, shelter, hiking trails, cross country skiing and bridle trails, five miles of river corridor includes Little Hickory, Hog Marsh, Goose Lake and bird watching areas.
Information – (219) 755-3685.

Route 49 primitive launch
On the Northeast side of the bridge there’s a primitive launch for small boats (not a lot of room to manouevre down under the bridge) and limited parking for shore fishermen.

On the Southeast side of the bridge there’s parking for shore fishermen only.

Dunn’s BridgeThere’s a launch at Dunn’s Bridge, but is dangerous when the water level is down, limited shore fishing available at this location, but of note, the original bridge (no longer in use) was built from the first Ferris wheel, which was at the Chicago World Exhibition.

Where the Yellow River empties into the Kankakee Ditch – West of the Kankakee State Fish & Wildlife Area and North of English Lake, on the Southwest side of the bridge that crosses the river at 650 West Road is a primitive launch and parking area, with adequate areas for shore fishermen to access the Kankakee Ditch and the Yellow River.

Kankakee State Fish & Wildlife Area – Three thousand three hundred and thirty seven acres, hunting, shore fishing, canoe access, picnic tables and shelter house. Information – (219) 896-3522.

Boat launch is on the Northwest side of the bridge, North of Route 8. There is a primitive one lane road into the park with a few small parking area scattered throughout – precarious when meeting oncoming traffic.

Kingsbury State Fish & Wildlife AreaEast of Route 35, North of Route 6

5036 acres, hunting with mandatory check-in, shore fishing, boat ramp and canoe access, primitive camping, rest rooms, drinking water, picnic tables and fire rings. Access to Tamarack Lake. Information – (219) 393-3612.


A nice bass from the Grand Kankakee Marsh.

These are not all of the possible access sites along the Kankakee Ditch, but they are the more accessible ones.

Interested in other articles by Mark Toth on fishing? Read Finding Hidden Fishing Treasures, Basic Ditch Fishing, My Approach to Slop Fishing, Packing for Mobility, Milfoil – friend or foe?, Basics for a Good Fishing Experience, and Strategies for Ditch Fishing.

Mark Toth, The Ditch Fishing Chronicles

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