Lake State Park
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
an early Neil Young song (The Loner
from the Emperor of Wyoming,
Young's first album ); it just seemed to fit.
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.
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
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.
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.)
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
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.
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.
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
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
website. And Wisconsin thinks they have the market on Muskies...)
There are also 20-pound catfish, 14-pound hybrid stripers and
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
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.
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.
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 swimming...
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 the Lake!
Photos courtesy Tom