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Crab Orchard Lake is the largest of three reservoirs that are part of the 43,899-acre Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge in southwestern Williamson County of Illinois. Located a few miles east of Carbondale, home of Southern Illinois University, Crab Orchard Lake is a popular destination for boating, camping, fishing, and swimming. Spreading out over 6,695 watery acres, the reservoir was created after construction of a dam across Crab Orchard Creek in 1939-1941. The waters of nearby Devils Kitchen Lake and Little Grassy Lake, the smaller two reservoirs in the Wildlife Refuge, feed into Crab Orchard Lake--the fourth largest inland lake in Illinois.
Before the days of the Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge, farmland and forests were depleted from extensive agriculture and logging practices. In 1936 the Resettlement Administration acquired 32,000 acres to launch the Crab Orchard Creek Project, which outlined the construction of three lakes for recreation and industrial water supply. The project was transferred to the War Department during World War II, acquiring 12,000 more acres, and then to the Department of the Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service after the end of the war. The Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge was established on August 5, 1947 for wildlife conservation, recreation, agriculture and industry.
Crab Orchard Lake is one of the finest angling and recreational lakes in the region. It is a fairly shallow lake with an average depth of about 9 feet, though the west end of the lake can reach depths of about 25 feet. Boating, swimming, water skiing and other water sports are popular summertime activities. There are two full-service marinas and about a dozen paved and gravel boat launch ramps located around the lake.
Crab Orchard Lake is teeming with fish, including a healthy population of largemouth bass. The largest largemouth bass caught in Crab Orchard Lake weighted in at an impressive 10.6 pounds. Other fish species include white bass, black and white crappie, flathead and channel catfish, and bluegill. Because of contaminants from heavy industry and munitions production during World War II, the Illinois Department of Public Health issued meal frequency guidelines for largemouth bass and channel catfish.
More than a million people visit the Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge annually to enjoy lake recreation, wildlife viewing, hiking, camping, and hunting. For a quick visit to the Refuge, a 2-1/2 mile auto tour introduces visitors to the area's flora and fauna; white-tailed deer are usually seen in abundance at dawn and dusk. For visitors who prefer to explore on foot, the Refuge provides miles of hiking trails. Camping opportunities range from primitive campsites to modern RV sites. The Refuge also offers occasional special tours through areas that are closed to the general public. More than 200 species of birds make the Refuge their home, including osprey, bald eagles, songbirds, cormorants, Canada geese, snow geese, ducks, and herons. Waterfowl find refuge at Crab Orchard Lake during fall and spring migrations.
Because Crab Orchard Lake is nestled within the Crab Orchard Wildlife Refuge, the shoreline is not overrun with resorts and housing developments. So, take some time to enjoy the harmony between humans and wildlife in this beautiful and peaceful natural resource.
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