Folks who live along the Mississippi River still rely on nature’s subtle queues more than TV meteorologists to predict changes in weather conditions. Right now those who travel Route 26 along Iowa’s northeastern border are particularly interested in huge white tundra swans which spend most of the day loafing and feeding heavily on “duck potatoes” on certain backwaters of the Big River.
Legend holds when the swans leave to continue on their annual fall migration, backwaters will freeze over in 48-72 hours. Although this observation lacks scientific support, it is at least as reliable as the best TV meteorologist who only has to be correct 50 percent of the time to keep his or her job.
Last December a few pensive bucketeers were easing out on a thin veneer of hardwater just north of Lansing two days after the tundra swans moved on, with the grey and ominous Mississippi lapping mere yards from where two crazy high school kids were waiting for their spring bobbers to dance.
“Those kids are nuts,” my wife Candy snorted. “A bluegill certainly isn’t worth drowning over,” I chimed in. But after the third respectable ’gill in five minutes lay flopping on the ice there was no doubt the inflatable PFD with res-q-piks tucked in front pockets would be my outerwear of choice the following day.
Shore slough is one of the first backwaters on the upper end of Pool 9 to lock up with ice every December. Within days of this blessed event other ice anglers are taking tenuous steps out on other waters in the northeast corner of the Hawkeye state and across the Mississippi in Wisconsin.
You’ll see just as many vehicles with Iowa license tags parked in the lot at Blackhawk County Park, near DeSoto, Wisc., as those from the Land of Cheese in late December. It’s only a hundred-yard walk from this lot to a place the locals call Green Lake.
A variety of panfish, bass and the occasional pike are the main draw here. But you need to get out there quick. A week after reasonably safe ice shows up, many of the bigger panfish have already gone home in six-gallon buckets.
The walk for willing fish is even shorter downstream at a place called Cold Springs near the little Wisconsin town of Ferryville. But here you’ll find few Iowa license tags in the parking lot, because this hardwater is just east of the railroad tracks.
Reciprocity agreements with Wisconsin and Illinois honor valid Iowa fishing licenses on waters on the river side of railroad tracks which parallel the Mississippi. It was on the Wisconsin side, not far from Green Lake where I first struck gold back in 2003.
Yellow perch were uncommon back then. Anyone icing a 10-incher was sure to be a topic of conversation at local cafes that day. With 2012 knocking at the door, this prince of panfish is abundant in backwaters of pools 9 and 10, with a fat 15-incher claiming an Iowa state record mark a couple of years ago.
Hawkeye anglers who chase perch with an intensity several degrees beyond passion speculate the next state record will come from either Big Spirit Lake in the Iowa Great Lakes or a faceless backwater known to local anglers as Ambro Slough, Little Missouri, Sunfish Lake, Hayshore, Bear Claw and Indian over on the Mississippi.
Clients fishing with me last winter iced several perch over 15 inches — and two pounds — but every one of them came through the Mississippi River ice over water in either Minnesota or Wisconsin.
Many anglers who live or fish regularly in the northeast corner of the state cough up fifty bucks for a non-resident license to probe the ice at places like Cold Springs, which lie just beyond the railroad tracks.
THE RIGHT TOOL
The main channel of the Mississippi seldom runs right down the middle between towering bluffs on either shore. Waters on the opposite side of the prevailing flow are typically quiet backwaters which Iowa DNR studies tell us fish prefer during the cold-water period.
Most of these backwaters are less — sometimes much less — than 10 feet deep, making a 48-inch graphite pole with an integrated spring bobber tip a more popular weapon than a 24-inch jigging stick with a small spinning reel taped to the handle.
The longer pole allows an angler to stand away from the hole where whopping big perch and other panfish may be swimming inches under the ice with only 24 inches in the available water column.
River anglers also find some peace of mind in longer wands during early and late ice periods, when getting wet is a distinct possibility. On April 2, 2010, I guided several anglers from Madison, Wisc., into four perch over 15 inches on a backwater of Pool 9. The ice went out on April 3.
ON THIN ICE?
Last year most anglers were back to chasing walleyes and other species from boats by mid-March, with ice gone from even the most sheltered backwaters by the end of the month.
By winter’s end ice thickness in some places was right up to the base of the power head on my Strikemaster auger.
Veteran guide John Grosvenor reports ice on the Iowa Great Lakes in the other northern corner of the state attained a depth of about 28 inches last year. Grosvenor attacks Big Spirit and West Okoboji lakes with a two-seat snowmobile, which he says is the most efficient way to get around on these waters.
“Last winter travel success was ‘marginal’ for those in 4 x 4 trucks and ATV’s,” he said. “Get much more than a foot of snow on the ice and its tough to get around if you don’t have a snowmobile.”
PERCH NUMBERS VS. SIZE
DNR studies indicate the average size of yellow perch on Big Spirit has decreased about an inch since last year. “Most of the nicer ones were 9 1/2-10 1/2 inches last summer,” Grosvenor said. “ A 12-incher is a big perch here. The biggest I’ve seen on the chain is 13 1/2 . There is a place I fish just north of the state line, which has some 15-inchers. But what we lack in whoppers we more than make up for in numbers.”
Grosvenor said many anglers who used to make the trip up to Minnesota’s Big Winniebigoshish or Devil’s Lake in North Dakota report better success right here in the Hawkeye state, where catching a 25-perch limit is usually “pretty much a sure thing.”
Clusters of anglers indicate locations of big schools of perch, which tend to move in big, lazy, counterclockwise circles mere inches off the lake’s bottom. At first ice, Grosvenor starts fishing in Angler’s Bay in the northeast corner of Big Spirit Lake, targeting the area between Cottonwood and Big Stony points.
Several weeks into the hardwater season, perch start migrating south into the mid-lake basins where they gorge themselves on tiny, red bloodworms wriggling up from the bottom muck.
Grosvenor says his secret weapon is red Berkley Power spikes, fished on a Shuck’s Jigger — a variation of the old Rapala Pilke lure. This is essentially a flashy spoon with a small hook on a beaded chain several inches away.
Perch tend to be both curious and pensive, drawn by flashy things but hesitant to chew on anything directly attached to the source of flash.
Grosvenor says he catches bigger perch on minnows or, more precisely, artificial baits that imitate minnows. “I always have some of those Berkley Alive ‘fish fry’ within arm’s reach,” he grins “Big Spirit and West Okoboji are so clear that it’s often possible to sight fish perch on the bottom in 20 feet of water. It’s pretty easy to animate that little plastic-type bait to torment fish into biting.”
A month from now you may find Grosvenor’s snowmobile parked somewhere between Buffalo Run and Templar Park — always near the edge or slightly away from the crowd.
If he’s not out on Big Spirit, you can bet the farm ol’ John is just a little farther down the chain sight-fishing bluegills on profoundly clear West Okoboji. “We made an ice fishing DVD down there last winter,” Grosvenor says. “The water was so clear it looked like the fish were swimming around down there in mountain air.”
Grosvenor said West Okoboji may surpass Big Spirit as northeast Iowa’s top perch water this winter.
“Last spring my son and I were fishing below the spillway where water comes in from Big Spirit,” he said. “We saw at least 1,000 perch come tumbling across the spillway in the hour we fished there. Talk about an aggressive stocking program!”
Panfish aren’t the only finned critters Hawkeye anglers hunt under the Iowa Great Lakes ice — these waters also offer perhaps the best hardwater walleye action in the state, rivaled only by the walleye fishery in Storm Lake, also in northwest Iowa.
The DNR protects the Storm Lake walleye fishery with slot and creel limits. All walleyes 17-22 inches must be immediately released. Only one fish over 22 inches is allowed in the three-walleye daily bag.
Last year’s banner year class of 15- to 16-inch fish has now grown into the protected zone, but DNR Fisheries Biologist Ben Wallace says there are “plenty” of walleyes on both sides of the slot limit to keep anglers busy this winter.
Electronics are a major key to walleye location on Storm Lake, where an ongoing dredging project creates new habitat every year. These cuts are not precise, with many bumps, humps and crannies providing microstructures to attract fish.
Perhaps the best places to find active walleyes are around small anomalies on the lake bottom in 9-10 feet of water, close to areas where the bottom drops away into trenches in which the water is about 15 feet deep.
A similar bag/slot walleye limit structure is in place on Clear Lake in the north-central part of the state. Fish here also relate to dredge cuts. Action tends to be better on Clear Lake, where aggressive yellow bass will often get to your bait before the walleyes do. Success on yellow bass is even more pronounced when you target them with waxworms or spikes instead of minnows — especially on the west end of the lake.
Iowa is on the cusp when it comes to ice fishing, with the hardwater season measured in months across the northern tiers of counties and sometimes mere weeks in the southern part of the state.
To the best of my knowledge there are no tundra swans to herald the arrival of the ice man down on Lake Rathbun, but when this water finally freezes sometime next month those who get absolutely giddy over a 15-inch crappie being pulled through the ice should ready the family truckster for a trek to flooded timber on the west end of this sprawling reservoir near Bridgeview.
Veteran guide Leo Brokken says most anglers that successfully chase slabs through the ice here “dead stick” a small minnow hooked under the dorsal fin on one rod while actively working a small Northland Puppet Minnow, Forage Spoon or a Wolf Li’L Cecil on another rig.
Electronics are a major key to success for winter crappies at Rathbun, where many fish suspend over 10-12 feet of water close to the old creek bed. Brokken said the best action is usually before 8 a.m. on a sunny day but “the crappies often bite all day long under cloudy skies with a falling barometer and snow on the way.”
There will likely be a few rare days when temperatures are moderate and winds calm between now and the time Lake Rathbun locks solid in ice. Crappies are already staging where you will find them a month from now.
Combining the ice tactic of a small minnow suspended under a neutrally buoyant bobber with the leverage of a long pole like the 10-foot Crappie Commander by HT Enterprises enables a few hearty souls to cash in on Rathbun’s slab crappie bonanza from a boat seat rather than a bucket.
But many Hawkeye outdoors types who put down the bow or gun to chase fish seem to prefer short rods and walking on water in its frozen state until the sun goes down after suppertime again.