Best Bets for Iowa Fishing in 2012
February 22, 2012
Want to catch a limit of walleyes to eat, or maybe an 8-pounder to brag about? Hoping to tangle with a world-class muskie or smallmouth bass? Maybe you're more interested in "volume" than "size," and looking for a livewell full of fat crappies. Iowa's waters offer all those angling opportunities, and more. The secret is to know when, where and how to capitalize on the myriad fishing opportunities the Hawkeye State offers. Here's a rundown of how to be in the right places at the right times to catch fish in Iowa in 2012.
Big Spirit Lake
Yellow perch populations at Big Spirit Lake in northwest Iowa, are still at record highs. Awestruck ice-anglers report "clouds" of perch on their Vexilars. For unknown reasons, the perch bite starts at the north end of the big lake and works toward the south during the winter. For numbers, fish where everybody else is drilling holes. For size, fish on the edges of large groups of ice anglers. Larger perch seem to frequent the edges of feeding areas.
Yellow bass populations at Clear Lake, in north central Iowa have been strong since the 1990s, with no indication of decrease in the near future. Look for them through the ice around the dredge cuts in the "Little Lake" portion of Clear Lake. In eastern Iowa along the Mississippi River, anglers who fish Brown's Lake and other dredged backwaters that create wintering holes for panfish — including dredged boat harbors — enjoy strong bluegill fishing through the ice.
The Iowa DNR continues to expand its winter put-and-take trout-stocking program that provides anglers a chance to catch trout in parts of the state where trout normally aren't found. Anglers can fish for trout through the ice at Blue Pit near Mason City, Heritage Pond near Dubuque, Lake Sauganash and Big Lake near Council Bluffs, North Prairie Lake near Cedar Falls, Lake of the Hills near Davenport, Bacon Creek Lake near Sioux City, Banner Lake (at Summerset Park) near Des Moines and Ada Hayden Lake at Ames.
The spillways below Saylorville, Red Rock and Coralville lakes never freeze, and a few arguably insane anglers pursue walleyes from those open waters throughout the winter. Rumors of 5- to 8-pound pigs caught on white twistertails suggest they have good reason to brave nasty windchills. At Clear Lake, in north central Iowa, yellow bass school beneath the ice along the edges of dredge cuts in the Little Lake area until ice-out.
Black Hawk Lake
Ice-out in many lakes in Iowa triggers a one- to two-week feeding binge by channel catfish. Lanny Miller, retired DNR fisheries biologist, said he's had catfish-on-every-cast success fishing with soured shad, from the windward shore of Blackhawk Lake when, "shards of ice were still tinkling against the shore." Similar channel catfishing successes have been reported at Lake Rathbun, Coralville Lake and any other lake where gizzard shad and other baitfish suffer winter-kills.
Northern pike spawn soon after ice-out in our northern natural lakes, in backwaters of the Mississippi River, and in shallow areas of artificial lakes in southern Iowa. Anglers who soak a big chub or shiner under a bobber near inlets to marshes in natural lakes or river backwaters, or near weedbeds in shallow bays on artificial lakes, are often rewarded with 2- to 10-pound northerns. In southern Iowa after ice-out, big bass in farm ponds lounge in shallow, south-facing, mud-bottomed bays on sunny afternoons. Target them with a slow-moving rubber worm or jig-and-pig.
Twelve Mile Lake
Twelve Mile Lake in south central Iowa has a significant population of huge, 1- to 2-pound bullheads. "Serious" anglers may turn up their noses at bullheads, but for sheer fun few species fill the bill better. Look for Twelve Mile's bullheads near the silt dike in the upper end. Bullhead hunters in northern Iowa know April is also traditionally when bullheads turn on along the "North Grade" at Big Spirit Lake and in the spillway between Big Spirit and East Lake Okoboji.
DNR Fisheries Biologist Bryan Hayes says Lake Anita, in southwest Iowa has become his primary focus for crappie fishing in recent years He said crappies move into the lake's shallower east arm in early April. He expects this year a huge year-class of 9-inchers, with a healthy older year-class in the 10- to 11-inch range. At Storm Lake, in northwest Iowa, walleyes traditionally go on a bite when water temperatures reach the upper 40s in April. Anglers in recent years have set records for filling their three-fish/day limits with 15- to 16-inch walleyes from that lake.
Check out page two for the best bets for Iowa fishing for May, June, July and August
"2012 should be the year that crappies are back at Lake Rathbun," said DNR Fisheries Biologist Mark Flammang. "We had an outstanding year in 2011 — people caught their limits (25 per angler per day) of legitimate 12- to 15-inch crappies. We have awesome numbers of fish (spawned during) the 2007 floods, and high waters in 2008, 2009 and 2010 have contributed more fish, to the point where 2012 could remind crappie anglers of, "the good ol' days" when Lake Rathbun was the place for crappies in the Midwest."
The Missouri River along western Iowa in May offers a unique fishing opportunity for Iowa anglers. "Shovelnose sturgeon fishing in the Missouri during May is about as easy as it gets," says DNR Fisheries Biologist Van Sterner. "Fish the sandbars between the wing dikes on the inside bends. Use 'crawlers on the bottom in 3 to 10 feet of water." Scott Grummer, DNR fisheries biologist at Clear Lake, says yellow bass numbers and sizes have been good in that lake since the mid-90s. "In May they're shallow, around the Island on the south side; easy to catch with small jigs from shore or boats, and they're the best eating you can find."
Big Spirit Lake
Iowa Great Lakes bass-catching expert Carl Vogel catches smallmouth bass at Big Spirit Lake throughout the summer, but says the action is best once emergent weedbeds appear. "Find a weedbed where the weeds form a wall, then look for a pocket in that wall. The smallmouths push baitfish against that wall of weeds. I flip a crankbait or jig right up against that edge. I'm not surprised by 20-inch fish anymore — the smallmouth bass fishing at Big Spirit is as good as any place in North America right now."
DNR fisheries biologists say the 20- to 27-inch protected slot limit for walleyes on the Mississippi River in Pools 12, 13 and 14 is paying off. "During a tournament last year, Tommy Skarlis' average was 26-inches and 7.3 pounds," says Fisheries Biologist Kirk Hansen. Hansen directs walleye hunters to the troughs on the upstream sides of wing dams, and said three-way rigs tipped with crawlers or leeches, or jigs with ringworms or goby-style plastics are top baits. In southern Iowa, private farm ponds in June are gold mines for anglers who get permission to fish in them. Bass are spawning, blugills are shallow, and channel catfish aggressive. Don't overlook public ponds associated with Lake Sugema, Badger Creek and other state-owned areas.
Gray's Lake, in downtown Des Moines, is home to what DNR biologists call "phenomenal"-sized carp. Considered trophy fish in Europe, carp are slowly gaining popularity with anglers in Iowa. Two- to 5-pound carp bite easily on 'crawlers or dough baits and fight hard enough to make bass anglers pay attention. Battle a 10- or 20-pounder and you'll think you've hooked a freshwater tarpon.
Warm water temperatures in the Mississippi River encourage northern pike to seek the mouths of cool water streams. New Albin fishing guide Ted Peck says tossing crankbaits or other pike lures into plumes of cooler water from those streams produce hefty pike throughout the summer. Elsewhere on the Mississippi, smallmouth bass favor rocky areas — railroad embankments, wing dams, etc. Don't be surprised to encounter 4-pound smallmouths in the Mississippi this summer.
White bass are the heroes of many fishing trips in Iowa during August. When other species turn lethargic on blistering hot days, whites "bust" shad on the surface and provide non-stop action for anglers who cast shad-bodied crankbaits alongside the frenzy. Lake Red Rock, Saylorville Lake and Coralville Lake are all reknowned for late summer white bass fishing.
Low river levels make float trips or wading effective tactics for channel cats in interior rivers. It's as simple as drifting a 'crawler, chicken liver, shrimp or dipbait into a hole or alongside a logjam. In northeast Iowa, trout are stocked frequently, often weekly, to keep fishing action in our cool water streams as hot as the weather.
The best bets for Iowa Fishing in 2012 for September, October, November and December can be found on page three
Iowa Great Lakes
Carl Vogel, the bass angler from the Iowa Great Lakes, last year started September with a 42-inch muskie from Emerson Bay on West Lake Okoboji. Vogle is a multi-species expert, and knows what the lakes are capable of producing. "There are 50-inchers in there," he said. "I've had "follows" come right up to the boat that looked like a submarine surfacing."
In September, flathead catfish go on a feeding binge. They're used to feeding on baitfish grown large — use 10-inch bullheads, suckers and carp up to 2 pounds to target the biggest, meanest flatheads from the largest logjams in the Des Moines, Raccoon, Iowa and Missouri rivers. At Big Creek Lake, north of Des Moines, 9-inch bluegills favor mud flats associated with brushpiles in the northern third of the lake during early September.
Many crappie anglers say October is actually the best time of year to catch crappies in Iowa. Crappies at Lake Anita, Lake Rathbun and other crappie hotspots reliably frequent flats and ledges in 10- to 15-feet of water during October, and feed aggressively as water temperatures cool. A simple black jig, with maribou or a twister tail is deadly when dangled just above their school.
The walleye bite that begins when interior river water temperatures cool in mid-September hits full force in October, just before walleyes begin their annual migration to deep-water wintering holes. Reports of 7- to 9-pound walleyes from rivers across Iowa in October are not uncommon each fall. Wiper bass, an artificial cross between ocean striped bass and white bass, traditionally go on a bite in the spillways below Saylorville Lake, Lake Red Rock and Coralville Lake in October. Prepare for an arm-wrenching battle if you hook a wiper above 5 pounds. And you'd better get ready to wave "bye-bye" if you're unprepared and end up hooking a 10-pounder.
Decreasing water temperatures in November and other factors send walleyes in rivers on migration to specific wintering holes where they'll spend the coldest season. Anglers who fish in summertime walleye haunts during November go home empty-handed. Anglers who find and fish wintering holes enjoy outstanding walleye fishing. Look for deep holes with gentle currents that provide oxygenation, and structure that allows walleyes to rest out of the current.
Panfish in the backwaters of the Mississippi River also migrate to specific wintering holes in November. Dredged backwaters, like Brown's Lake, are prime panfish wintering holes. Trout in northeast Iowa's cool-water streams happily savor the chill of late autumn and early winter by feeding aggressively, to the benefit of anglers willing to stalk ice-rimmed streams.
The DNR begins its put-and-take trout stockings around the first of December. Anglers near Des Moines, Council Bluffs, Sioux City, Davenport, Mason City, Dubuque, Ames and other yet-to-be-announced cities get opportunity to catch trout throughout the winter. A tip from DNR fisheries biologists: Schools of trout stocked in those ponds or small lakes tend to swim endlessly around the perimeter of those waters. Drill holes in the ice near shore in the vicinity of where a point or obstruction chokes the schools into smaller travel corridors.
At Storm Lake, anglers keep their fingers crossed hoping for the first hard, clear ice of winter so they can tip-toe across that skin of ice to the edges of the lake's dredged channels and drill holes for a strong population of walleyes up to 5 pounds. At Big Spirit Lake, eager anglers also risk a dunking to take advantage of the first-ice bite for yellow perch that traditionally starts over the weedbeds in Anglers Bay.