What’s Iowa’s top ice-fishing opportunity for the winter of 2010-2011? The list of contenders is long.
Ice anglers at Big Spirit Lake in northwest Iowa set records for the numbers of yellow perch and walleyes caught last winter and continued that trend throughout open-water fishing this summer. So prospects are excellent for this winter.
The backwaters of the Mississippi River in northeast Iowa have produced three state record yellow perch in recent years and filled anglers’ buckets with thick bluegills and crappies.
Ice anglers at Big Creek Lake near Des Moines put thousands of panfish on that lake’s ice last winter, while anglers at Storm Lake in northwest Iowa set records for the number and size of walleyes they pulled through the ice.
It’s time to go ice fishing in Iowa, and readers want to know the best places to drill holes. Here are the nominees for Iowa’s top pick for ice anglers this winter:
THE IOWA GREAT LAKES
Iowa Department of Natural Resources fisheries management biologist Mike Hawkins said Big Spirit Lake is riding high on a multi-species fishing boom.
“For various reasons, Big Spirit is THE fishing hotspot right now,” he said. “Yellow perch have been on a roll for the past year or two, and they should continue to be great this winter. Bluegill and crappie numbers are strong in Big Spirit. Walleyes are looking real good, too. We had the best harvest of walleyes from Big Spirit last spring since 1964. They caught walleyes all summer, and that’s a good indicator ice fishing will be good this winter.”
Yellow perch aficionados have enjoyed the boom of perch fishing in recent years at Big Spirit and have been waiting for the “bust” that seems to inevitably follow any “boom” in perch numbers. Hawkins said unknown factors have disrupted that traditional cycle.
“We’re seeing a trend at Big Spirit that we’ve never documented before,” he said. “We’re seeing year after year of big year-classes of yellow perch. Last spring there were clouds of young perch in the lake. All those young perch are fueling phenomenal growth of not only predator species like walleyes, smallmouth bass and northern pike, but the older yellow perch are like little footballs from feeding on the young perch. Just about every species in the lake is going gangbusters.”
Ice fishing at East and West Okoboji lakes would be headline news if they weren’t in the shadow of nearby Big Spirit Lake. Hawkins said ice anglers reported “excellent” catches of 8-inch bluegills and 10-inch crappies from both lakes last winter.
“The numbers might not be what people are used to from those lakes, but the quality and size is exceptional,” he said. “They generally catch them in the shallow bays – Emersons Bay, Millers Bay, Smiths Bay, the Triboji area – but last year they were deeper. Bluegills especially seem to be deeper than normal, in 15 to 20 feet of water. We don’t know if that will continue this winter, but…if they’re not biting where you’d normally find them, move deeper till you find them.”
Ice anglers at Clear Lake in north central Iowa have two targets: yellow bass and walleyes. Both species are doing well in the big natural lake thanks to a major renovation project.
“The dredging project, along with water quality management efforts around the lake, is really paying off,” said Scott Grummer, DNR fisheries management biologist. “Yellow bass populations have been strong here for the past several years and walleye numbers and sizes are good and keep getting better.”
Grummer reported the dominant year-class of yellow bass should average 9 inches this winter, with enough 11-inchers from a fading year-class to keep things interesting any time a spring bobber begins to bounce. He noted the dredging project has changed traditional movements of yellow bass beneath the ice.
“It used to be the yellow bass bite started at the west end at freeze-up, then slowly migrated across the lake so they were near the Island at ice-out,” said Grummer. “Last year we noticed the yellow bass stayed more toward the west end, around the dredged area, all winter. There were 100 permanent ice-fishing shelters in that area during the peak ice fishing season. On good days I’d say an angler who knew what he was doing could bring home 20 to 25 yellow bass per trip. Best time is just after first ice and again just before ice out.”
Grummer noted the magic depth for yellow bass at Clear Lake seems to be 8 to 12 feet. While bottoms of dredge cuts drop to 15 feet in many places, yellow bass in those areas hover along the edges of the cuts, between those magical depths of 8 to 12 feet.
“(Yellow bass) are usually close to the bottom,” said Grummer. “I want my waxworm within 6 inches of the mud. I’ve noticed some guys unconsciously keep tightening their reels an inch or two, or they raise the tip of their rods when they rest their arm on their leg. Either way, they’re accidentally raising their baits till they’re a foot or more off the bottom, and that’s too high when you’re fishing for yellow bass through the ice.”
Walleyes provide Clear Lake’s second ice angling opportunity, and Grummer said last winter’s walleyes have grown to keeper size.
“Last winter they caught a ton of sub-legal walleyes,” he said. (All “keeper” walleyes must be at least 14 inches at Clear Lake; daily limit per angler is three walleyes; anglers can keep only one walleye per trip over 22 inches.)
“Growth rates looked real good last summer, so I expect the guys to see a lot of 13- to 15-inch walleyes this winter. The walleyes are in the same areas as the yellow bass, feeding on the small bass. Use a bigger minnow and you’ve got a good chance to catch some nice walleyes.”
While Clear Lake has motel and restaurant facilities open year-round to accommodate ice anglers visiting from Des Moines and other urban areas, local anglers in north central Iowa often focus on smaller lakes. Grummer said. Crystal Lake, in Hancock County, has a growing population of 7- to 8-inch bluegills, courtesy of a major renovation project several years ago. He also reported Rice Lake, near Lake Mills, has a good early-ice bite for yellow perch and a significant population of crappies as well.
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