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Pistakee Lake is a well-known destination to generations of Chicago area Lakelubbers. Located on the famous Fox River Chain of Lakes in the Chicagoland Region of Illinois, Pistakee Lake has been welcoming visitors since the mid 1800s. The southernmost large lake in a chain of lakes stretching north to the Wisconsin border, Pistakee Lake attracted settlers early. Efforts at farming were often stymied by the marshes and bogs surrounding the lakes. Fishing and hunting quickly became the main cash business, and hunting inns were soon built along the shorelines. Brown's Inn in McHenry was the first inn to be built on the chain in 1837. By 1883 cottages were being built along Pistakee Lake, primarily as hunting lodges and upper-income resorts. Resort inns and accommodations soon proliferated around Fox, Nippersink, and Pistakee Lakes.
The Pistakee Lake area attracted large numbers of visitors coming to enjoy the fishing, hunting, and the many acres of American lotus that covered much of Grass Lake, another lake in the Fox Chain. Only 40 miles northwest of Chicago, the Fox Chain also attracted the less-than-genteel clientele who came for gambling and other vices. Several of the inns and resorts became favorites of notorious gangsters, and there were several concerted efforts on the part of officials to 'clean up' crime, only to find their efforts were in vain. The marshy ground and maze of waterways simply made it too easy to hide illegal behavior; an uneasy co-existence usually resulted until the next outburst of outrageous behavior again brought forth the wrath of the authorities. Meanwhile, more legitimate visitors enjoyed speedboat racing as early as 1905, picnics, steamboat excursions and the proliferate speakeasies during Prohibition. After World War II, people gave up the excursion by train in favor of the private automobile, and the resort hotel was replaced by the lake cottage. Pistakee Lake was considered a commute-able distance from Chicago and the daily job; communities such as Fox Lake Village grew with new residents and businesses.
A rough dam was built near McHenry across the Fox River in 1907 to try to stabilize lake levels . It succeeded in raising the lake levels, but was not reliable and was subject to flooding. In 1939, The William G Stratton Lock and Dam was completed, providing reliable water levels and boat navigation down the Fox River. Water levels are lowered in winter to reduce possible damage from ice. The Fox Waterway Agency, located on Pistakee Lake, was created with a heavy responsibility to waterway users. Their web site states their mission thus: "to improve and maintain the Fox River and Chain O' Lakes public waterway for recreational use, to restore environmental quality, control flooding, promote tourism and enhance the quality of life along the waterway for residents and users alike." As the chain is the busiest inland recreational waterway per acre in the United States, the Agency does an admirable job of managing the varied needs of all users. Navigation maps, boat registrations, and regulatory enforcement are all managed by the Agency.
The Fox River Chain, as the area came to be known, consists of at least 10 large lakes and many smaller lakes connected by natural or artificial channels. Pistakee, Nippersink, Fox, Grass, Bluff, Channel, Marie, Petite, and Catherine Lakes are connected along the Fox River and its tributaries. Redhead and Dunn Lakes, Lake Louette, Lake Jerilyn, and Lake of The Hollow are accessible by navigable channel or stream. Other small lakes in the area surround the chain, although many are not directly connected. The area is also home to several protected marshes, including a rare bog that exhibits all stages of bog succession. Southeast Volo Bog Nature Preserve features a floating mat of sphagnum moss, cattails and sedges surrounding an open pool of water in the center of the bog. Sandhill cranes, great blue and green-backed herons, raccoon, mink, muskrat, whitetail deer and many other smaller creatures are often observed. Interpretive trails and a visitors center attract many visitors each year to this rare landscape.
Boating on Pistakee Lake is one of the main reasons people visit. Sailboat racing occurs nearly every weekend near Kings Island, and large pleasure boats often cruise both the lake and the Fox River to points both upstream and downstream. All types of watercraft are permitted, from jet skis to power boats. Residents and visitors alike enjoy water skiing, tubing, wakeboarding and pontooning. Canoes and kayaks especially enjoy accessing the smaller lakes via stream and channel, or heading upstream on Nippersink Creek. The Chain O'Lakes State Park borders Grass, Marie and Nippersink Lakes. The 2,793-acre state park provides camping, fishing, mountain biking and nature trails. Cross-country skiing and snowmobiling are enjoyed in winter. The State Park and the adjoining 3,230-acre conservation area support a variety of wildlife, including white-tailed deer, raccoons, skunks, badgers, beaver, opossum, mink, rabbits, fox, coyotes and nearly 200 species of birds. In the winter, some areas are open for hunting with permit. A large area along the shore on Pistakee Lake is conservation land under the control of McHenry County Conservation District and open for public use.
Several species of game fish attract fishermen to Pistakee Lake year round. Fish caught here include white bass, largemouth bass, yellow perch, bluegills, crappies, channel cat, and the big fish: northern pike, walleye and muskie. The smaller bays and connected lakes are particularly fruitful fishing waters. Nearly a dozen boat launch sites along the northeast and southwest shores of the lake assure easy access from every travel direction. Ice fishing and ice skating are enjoyed in winter. Several marinas are located on Pistakee Lake, with more located on other lakes in the chain. Several inns and restaurants on the chain are accessible by water - some have been in existence for over a hundred years.
Vacation rentals are available on the lakefront of Pistakee Lake. Both resorts and private rentals exist, as do townhouses and condos available on weekly and monthly lease. A few bed-and-breakfasts exist in the area. All amenities are available locally, including golf courses, shopping, movie theaters, cultural activities and sports venues. Real estate is usually for sale in the area, often close to both the lakefront and the Metro train to Chicago. Pistakee Lake offers everything the visitor or full-time resident could want from water sports to fishing to swimming. Come spend a weekend at Pistakee Lake. You'll fall in love with this water wonderland - come, fall in love.
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