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Printed in Peoria Journal Star - June 2009

Dixon Fishing Lakes are back, for the kids

With the Illinois River in Peoria setting a record this spring for the number of consecutive days above flood stage, a new not-for-profit that wants to inspire youngsters to fish has had a slow start.

Hooked on Fishing, the kid-centric reincarnation of the Dixon Fishing Lakes, already has pushed back its programming twice this year - from May 1 to June 1 to, now, sometime later this month.

But when the facility finally does open, it promises a potentially unrivaled fishing experience to those who may be wetting a line for the first time. The facility will offer free fishing to young people who register with the program but will not be open to the general public.

And that experience will come in - and will be a product of - a rather unique hydrological environment that, at least from the Illinois Route 116 roadside vantage point that the ponds are most often viewed, defies common assumptions.

"People think this water is all from the river, but it's actually from an aquifer," said Nate Herman of Herman Brothers Pond Management as cool, fresh spring water bubbled from artesian wells on property purported to be the first fee fishing area in the nation.

"We can keep fish in here that nobody else can keep in central Illinois," he said.

That's because the constant flow of cold water creates a habitat suitable for rainbow trout and other species that wouldn't otherwise survive in stagnant pond water.

But the moving water also removes limits on the amount of fish that can be stocked in the ponds, Herman said, allowing the lakes to be as full of as many fish as the program can keep fed without fear of pond failure from overpopulation.

That combination of characteristics leads Mike O'Reilly, one of the major sponsors of the program through Prairie Home Alliance and Timber Creek Land Co., to view the property as a home for a one-of-a-kind facility.

He should know. Timber Creek Land Co. buys Illinois farmland and refines or converts it into prime hunting and fishing areas for resale, though this project is a little different. While O'Reilly has run fishing derbies and other outdoor recreational activities for children before, he's never devoted that effort to establishing an ongoing program for such activities.

"I've done a little bit of it in the past, but when I came down to this facility . . . it's like aces," he said. "The concept and the facilities here could really make this a one-of-a-kind deal."

Of course, the land didn't come into his hands last fall in pristine condition. After generations of anglers had learned to fish in the ponds since the 1940s, the lakes were closed in 1992 and had received only basic maintenance since then.

The fishing area dates back to 1922, when the first pond was built to store fish caught on the Illinois River for later sale through Dixon's Seafood. More ponds were added in 1937 and 1958 as fee fishing caught on at the facility.

That part of the business was born in the late 1930s when Don Dixon, the late father of Jim Dixon, started renting cane fishing poles to passers-by who saw him and his brother doing the same. They would also charge for the fish that were caught.

Don Dixon eventually sponsored kids fishing rodeos at the facility long before park districts and conservation groups throughout the state began their own programs.

But when the purported founder of fee fishing began to age and fewer people showed up to use the ponds, the facility was indefinitely closed. Jim Dixon, however, said he's received plenty of interest from other parties wanting to reopen the waters.

"We've had a lot of people interested in the past, but most people do not understand the work involved," Jim Dixon said. "We agreed to do this with Hooked on Fishing because they're doing it for the kids. . . . My father would be extremely proud with what we're seeing out there today."

With a 10-year lease for little more than the taxes on the property, Hooked on Fishing has built a pavilion in the middle of the three largest ponds, new artesian wells, a 10-foot wide concrete seawall for handicapped-accessible fishing and concrete and white-rock walkways throughout the property.

O'Reilly said that work so far has cost about $200,000 that has been raised through several investors. Additional work planned for the site over the next few years could push the total to half a million. The hope is that the program will become fully self sustaining through donations and fundraisers.

But just as that work will slowly progress, so too will programs at the ponds develop. For the first summer, the program will concentrate on small groups of children ages 10 to 12, with free, equipment-provided programming eventually planned for people with special needs and senior citizens.

O'Reilly said he expects the other age groups to eventually be included, though there are no plans at this time to open the ponds to the general public for fee fishing, as it was in the past.

"This place is first for kids, for education," he said. "We're going to teach them how to fish with qualified trainers.

"Our goal is when we teach anybody to fish over this sea wall, they're going to catch a fish every cast," he added. "We're going to get them excited about fishing."


 
 
Herman Brothers Lake and Land Management