The scrubby woods shouted “quail” as Dave Novak and I slowly worked our way through a brushy tangle surrounded by picked bean fields. Best of all, it was a public hunting area that we had to ourselves on a gorgeous fall afternoon.
After cresting a low rise, we were greeted by an unexpected sight. Tucked down in a ravine sat a fishy-looking pond. We hadn’t seen a quail, so fishing gear beckoned from the pickup. A half-hour later, we’d traded shotguns for rods and were casting into a pond brand new to us. When fishing unknown water, I often start with a small Mepps spinner, a lure that suckers nearly all fish species.
A few cranks into my second cast, a heavy fish socked the lure and streaked for the pond’s far bank. It was too heavy for a bluegill, but it didn’t fight like a bass. As I gradually worked it toward me, I was greeted by another surprise. A monstrous crappie, probably the biggest I’d caught in Iowa, flashed its speckled, yellowish flank in the sun. Dave ran over, and soon we were admiring the 15-inch slab. Anticipating excellent fishing, we cast for a half-hour, with only a few small bluegills and bass to show for it. No more slabs.
Walleye and catfish anglers will argue that their favored species is the best eating of Iowa’s many fish. To me, they don’t hold a candle to fresh crappie filets, and that evening my wife and I dined on the husky fish.
Then, a nagging thought entered my mind. It was an awfully big crappie. I couldn’t remember ever getting a better one in four decades of fishing, and I wondered if we’d just eaten a trophy. Within minutes I was on the phone to Iowa’s premier crappie master, Bob Middendorf. A retired Iowa Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist, Bob spends many of his days targeting crappies on Lake Macbride and Coralville Reservoir. It’s a safe bet that no other living Iowan has handled as many crappies as Bob.
When I told him I had landed a 15-incher, his enthusiasm penetrated the phone line. “Bring that fish down right away. We need to get it weighed and measured. I haven’t seen many crappies that big,” he remarked. Then I sheepishly told him how good the fish tasted!
A few weeks later, Dave and I fished Middendorf’s home turf. We pulled a stringer of decent crappies from a brushpile sunk in Coralville Reservoir. All were respectable, but none were remotely the size of the pond monster.
Crappies are fickle. They can be a snap to find, or frustratingly difficult to find. Once located, they may bite like a batch of starving football players or sulk with lockjaw. A lake may seem filled with hungry fish one year and devoid of them a few years later. Sometimes they’re stunted and razor thin, while a year or two later the same lake’s fish are chunky.
Dave and I experienced two extremes of Hawkeye State crappie angling: a small pond with but one fish and a massive reservoir with an abundance of smaller fish. Both waters produced impressive catches and were typical of their habitat.
Ponds usually provide poor and inconsistent crappie fishing. Enthusiastic landowners often stock crappies in their pond, only to watch them quickly be gobbled up by voracious largemouths or spawn to stunted abundance. Thousands of razor thin crappies fill too many Iowa ponds. But ponds can yield an occasional monster, as happened to me. It’s no accident that I caught only one crappie that fall afternoon. Bass had probably devoured nearly all other crappies, leaving only a few to enjoy little competition and grow to extreme size.
While ponds are unlikely crappie producers, big reservoirs are fairly reliable. Iowa’s massive Rathbun Lake is renowned throughout the Midwest as a crappie factory, and Coralville, Red Rock and Saylorville also yield good catches. All the reservoirs were impacted by high water and flooding last spring, which will impact fishing the next few years.
Biologist Randy Schultz is one of the state’s foremost crappie experts. He’s stationed near Rathbun Lake and readily admits that crappies are one of the most difficult sportfishes to manage. “Erratic recruitment is typical,” Schultz explained. “It’s what creates the boom-and-bust cycle that many anglers are aware of. In Rathbun, juvenile abundance is directly related to the amount of water stored above the conservation pool from April through August. It takes two to four years for a tiny crappie to reach catchable size, so spawning success is a good way to predict future fishing success. Turbidity impacts crappie spawning. So do temperature, substrate firmness and wind. There’s a strong correlation between numbers and water clarity, and that’s related to how the land is managed in the watershed.”
Massive 2008 floods may give crappie angling a real boost in a couple of years. “The short-term positive impact of last summer’s flooding was excellent spawning success of crappies, largemouth bass and white bass in the big flood-control reservoirs,” said IDNR fishery biologist Paul Sleeper. “Coralville is loaded with young-of-the-year crappies. If we have a dry spring with relatively little runoff, fishing should be tremendous in 2009. There are excellent numbers of 7- to 9-inch fish, with good numbers in the 11- to 14-inch range.”
Although the flood news is good in the short term, Sleeper is concerned about the negative long-term impacts. “There was a lot of siltation that covered up habitat and reduced water clarity,” he said.
Coralville is immediately adjacent to Lake Macbride, long known as one of eastern Iowa’s best crappie holes. “There are strong year-classes reaching catchable size in Lake Macbride with lots of crappies in the 8- to 10-inch range,” he reported. “Fish a year older are ranging from 11 to 12 inches.”
Enthusiastic crappie angler Steve Krotz agrees: “Macbride is coming on. It’s a strong upswing with many small fish reaching catchable size.”
Sleeper shared a crappie-angling tip: “Backwaters of the Cedar, Wapsipinicon and Maquoketa rivers offer outstanding fishing. The fish move to backwaters in mid-May to spawn.”
Few anglers even realize that Iowa’s interior rivers host populations of crappies, but if an angler finds the right spot he’s treated to fast action. A well-known backwater is below the partially broken dam in Palisades-Kepler State Park near Mt. Vernon.
Although few anglers fish interior rivers, the giant Mississippi is a popular destination, and biologist Scott Gritters keeps track of the river’s fish populations.
“Crappie fishing in the big river wasn’t the best in 2008,” Gritters admitted. “Overall, they have been in a slightly declining trend for the past 18 years, and our 2006 and 2007 netting counts were the lowest during that time period. Still, crappies are a fickle fish capable of very rapid rebounds. I believe the long-term downward trend is due to sedimentation that’s destroying backwaters.”
Mississippi River crappies range from 9 to 13 inches and average right around 10.5 inches. “The biggest ones I see are right at 16 inches,” continued Gritters.
According to Gritters, crappies are in every Mississippi River pool bordering Iowa. Sometimes they are abundant but hard to find. He suggested fishing backwaters near brushpiles in the clearest water that can be found. “Often the best spring fishing is in shallow water from 1 to 3 feet deep,” he said.
When asked which pools look best in 2009, Gritters named his favorites: “I suggest the New Albin area of Pool 9. Fish the edges of sloughs or at the mouths of backwaters.” He reminded anglers that this pool is near the Minnesota border, and anglers going north will cross the state line. “Anyone venturing upriver should buy a Minnesota license,” he said.
For Pool 10, Gritters suggests the sloughs and backwaters around the Sny Magill boat ramp. He recommends Johnson Slough, Wyalusing Slough and the Methodist and Norwegian backwaters. In Pool 11 he recommends the Guttenberg area. “Some good fishing will be over near the Wisconsin side, especially Swift and Dead sloughs,” he said.
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