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Other Fishing Articles:
Keeper of the Keys
Loons on the Lake
An Open Letter
In a Hurry?
Finest of Times
More Information about
Lake State Park
Note: A recent Facebook post alerted
us to the fact that "Shabbona
Lakeside Bait, Tackle and Boat Rental wrote: 'Denny has passed along the
Keys to his son Clint, the business is no longer for sale.'"
We're glad to hear that the leys are still in the hands of a Sands.
OK - I apologize... I stole that
line (albeit a different lock) from an early Neil Young song (The Loner
Emperor of Wyoming,
Young's first album
); it just seemed to fit.
First, an update (12-26-09): Denny Sands will be inducted into the Illinois Outdoor Hall of Fame on
Saturday, March 13th at Pheasant Run in St. Charles. (The Illinois
Outdoor Hall of Fame is the means by which the Illinois Conservation
Foundation each year recognizes those in Illinois who have a
long-standing commitment to natural resources protection, conservation,
and enhancement of outdoor recreation opportunities in the state.)
tickets for the event will go on sale in mid-January.
Most people outside of a twenty-mile
radius of Shabbona, Illinois have likely never even heard of the small
lake -- of the same name -- and State Park there, let alone Denny Sands.
But anyone who has ever visited the lake, with even a slight intention
of doing some fishing, has undoubtedly met the man who treats the lake
as if it is his best friend. And likely it is. You see,
Denny Sands grew up in Shabbona and, as a kid, often dammed up one end
of Indian Creek to create a small swimmin' hole for himself and friends.
So he knows and remembers just about every detail of the lake... and
what lies beneath it. He was there when plans were drawn back in
1965 to make a permanent dam in the creek and develop a lake and
recreation area. And he has been there ever since, caring for the
park and the lake as if they were his very own.
I had the distinct pleasure recently
of meeting Denny Sands and talking with him about
Shabbona. It was a delightful interview that I shall not soon
forget; the knowledge base he has stored in his head -- about all things
Lake and Park -- is incredible. Having attended the Shabbona Grade
School and Shabbona High School, Denny was already quite familiar with
the land that was originally home to tribes of Native Americans --
including Chief Shabbona -- who once camped in the area that is now
approximately 1500 acres of park land. Indian Creek was a natural
playground for Denny and his friends... obviously they had no idea at
the time that one day the creek that they used to play in would become a
318-acre lake and be part of what was to be called Shabbona Lake State
Park. After graduating from Northern Illinois University, Denny
served in the United States Air Force and later with the county police
department; he was never too far from home.
In 1969, the state began acquiring
land from local farmers and, by 1978, a total of 1550 acres had been
obtained. Approximately $3 Million had been allocated to build the
park. About half of it was used to purchase the land; the other
half was used to do the work on the lake basin and to create the
3,000-foot-long earthen dam and concrete spillway at the southeast end
of the lake. Shore modifications, clearing the lake area of trees
and erection of earthen fishing piers, fish cribs (47 of them, all still
there) and brush piles took place in 1973 (the dam and spillway were
completed by 1975) and in August of 1975, the lake started to fill.
Just 256 days later, in May of 1976, Lake Shabbona was filled; what lay
beneath -- a farm foundation, a road bed and, among many other things, a
supposed stash of about $100,000 in silver, "buried next to
a creek bend so the robbers could find it later" was forever covered with
17 billion gallons of water. (You should have seen Denny's eyes sparkle
when he told me the story of the silver heist... True Story?
Maybe... For more information, you'll have to consult the Shabbona
Lake State Park Trail Guide.)
Matters more important than sunken
silver have occupied Sands' time since the early 1980's. At that
time, inflation was high (and if you are old enough to remember the 80's, you
also remember the double-digit inflation that was running rampant) and
budgets were tight. A new campground area in the park had just been completed,
but there was a strong possibility that it would never open; the park
itself was looking at a possible closure. Money was likely not
going to be available to keep things going; a lot of blood, sweat and
tears were at stake, not to mention the park itself.
It was at that point that the park
superintendent contacted some of the local guys who were serious about
fishing. One of those contacted was Denny Sands. The result
was the formation of the Shabbona Lake Sportsman's Club. Money was
in short supply, so the club volunteered to do work such as painting
picnic tables and performing other tasks that normally would have been
undertaken by park staff. Shabbona survived the financial squeeze
with the help of Denny -- the founding president of the Sportsman's Club
-- and lots of other dedicated Shabbona sportsman; they also started a
poachers program (all of the conservation officers at the time were tending to lake
Michigan; Shabbona was too far away and too small to worry about), dug and maintained rearing ponds to stock the lake with
largemouth bass, and generally kept the park from closing by selflessly
donating their time and efforts. Their hard work has paid off, as
the park is a great destination today.
Since the mid-1990's, the
Sportsman's Club has also been continuing to act as perennial stewards
of Shabbona, performing such additional tasks as adding to the structure
of the lake by creating additional rock and brush piles for cover,
netting and returning to the lake hundreds of muskies that "escape" over
the dam after heavy rains, and annually collecting bass from the rearing
ponds to re-stock the lake. A new project is under consideration
to stop the loss of muskies from Shabbona -- which can easily exceed
$25,000 worth of fish per year -- from spilling over the dam. Four
state record muskies, by the way, have been taken from Lake Shabbona,
the "Muskie Capitol of Illinois" -- a term coined by none other
than Denny Sands -- and there are plenty of big ones in what has been
designated as a brood lake, one supplying viable musky eggs and sperm to
produce new fry for stocking.
And speaking of records, the lake
has also produced record-sized crappie of 17+ inches, weighing in at
close to 3 pounds! (Check out the great pictures on their
Wisconsin thinks they have the market on Muskies...) There are also 20-pound catfish, 14-pound
hybrid stripers and gi-normous large- and smallmouth bass that
have been taken from the lake, not to mention the slab-sized
bluegills... Hanging on the walls of the bait shop -- and taken with
Denny's underwater camera -- are some incredible pictures of Shabbona's
denizens of the deep; these fish are out there just waiting for your bait.
So if you have fished Lake Shabbona and have not caught much, you need
to either get a detailed map of the lake, or talk to Denny, or both...
There is a great boat launch at the lake with plenty of room, but don't
get upset if it takes awhile to get your boat into the lake -- Shabbona
averages about 425,000 visitors to the park each year! I'm not
sure if that includes ice-fishermen or not, but I know that there will
be at least one more visitor making several trips to the lake --
especially during the hard-water portion of the season: me! There
are some great spots for catching limits of crappies, blue gills and
perch, not to mention the potential for lunker largemouth, hybrid
stripers and fat catfish.
Together with a partner, Denny Sands
has managed all the concessions at the park: the fully-stocked Bait and
Tackle Shop, the Boat Rentals (about 60 small boats & motors, several
bass boats and about a half-dozen pontoon boats), Pokanoka's restaurant
(a great place for breakfast, lunch, dinner... or an ice cream cone on a
hot day) and the Camp Store for the last twelve years. And for
seven of the twelve months of the year, my guess is that one would be
more likely to find Sands -- quite busy -- at the Bait and Tackle
Shop than at his own home. Even on the cold and rainy mid-October
day when I was there, we were interrupted frequently by ringing phones,
customers coming in for bait, advice on where to fish and what to use...
and Denny still remained calm with a steady smile always upon his face.
An easy-going and very likable guy, he graciously answered my questions,
shared stories about "the big ones" on the lake and kibitzed with
occasional customers. Other than perhaps his graying hair, it
would be impossible to guess his age; it is evident that he so much
enjoys what he does.
I have been told that Denny Sands is
ready to sell his concessions, hopefully to someone else as dedicated
and in love with Lake Shabbona as he is. The Keeper of the Keys to
the Loch may just be ready to pass the baton. And I would guess
that he is probably also quite ready to take his own boat out onto the
lake, drop a line into the water -- or not -- and just relax, imagining
what this peaceful park and all its natural residents may have looked
like oh so many years ago when Chief Shabbona made his home here.
On the other hand, maybe he would just like to smile as he recalls the
farmer that yelled at him for damming up the creek, just so he could go
"Welcome to Shabbona,
Illinois, Home of Chief Shabbona, Shabbona Lake State Park and "Muskie
Capitol of Illinois". Located in Southern De Kalb County
(Northern Illinois), Shabbona is about sixty miles west of Chicago."
(From the Shabbona, Illinois website)
As always, I hope to
see you On
Photos courtesy Tom Adair