Keeper of the Keys to the Loch

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 keys 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 from Young's first solo 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.
Sunset at Lake Shabbona

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.

In a rare moment of relaxing, Denny hauls in a nice largemouth...

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.

The still-standing remains of long-dead trees provide some great cover...

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.)

Lakeview from just outside Pokanoka's Restaurant

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.

Fall provides some excellent colors at Shabbona

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.

Bait, an endless range of tackle, and lots of fish pictures on the walls of the bait shop!

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.

Denny knows right where to find them during the hardwater season!

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 website.  And 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.

Fishing boats, bass boats and pontoon boats - all available for rental

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 and 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.

Denny takes some time out to chat with diners at Pokanoka's Restaurant

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 swimming...

"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 the Lake!


Photos courtesy Tom Adair

Related Products

Shabbona Lake Fishing Map