5 Hotspots For Eastern Iowa Bass

With the warming waters of early April comes some of the ear's most rewarding bass fishing. At five particular lakes, the action promises to be singularly hot this month.

It’s been a long winter. If you’re looking to do a little bass fishing in eastern Iowa this spring, you’re in luck. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources has an aggressive management program for their fisheries that benefits largemouth bass and anglers alike.

We’ve surveyed several lakes with an eye to picking some that will offer high numbers of bass and others that offer a realistic shot at a trophy. Most are small; don’t let that fool you. It’s an advantage. Smaller venues warm more quickly and, in most cases, produce a better early-season bite.

So, without further ceremony, let’s see what the experts have to say.

Steve Waters is a regional fisheries supervisor for the IDNR. He’s responsible for maintaining the fisheries in the Southeastern Region. He’s also an avid angler.

Talking to him about bass fishing is like drilling a hole in the bottom of a dam — it just keeps coming and coming. His insight and understanding of largemouth bass come from a rare combination of intellectual knowledge and practical, on-the-water fishing experience.

HAWTHORN LAKE

When asked about his picks for April, Waters first mentioned Hawthorn Lake, a 172-acre impoundment in northeast Mahaska County about a mile south of Barnes City — “There’s nothing better in the state,” he said — and went on to provide various reasons for the little lake’s high-quality offerings.

At the top of the list is structure. Hawthorn contains some of the best in the state. It offers wood, holes, channels, rock and some vegetation. Along with all that, there are four fishing jetties built by the IDNR that provide additional habitat. The jetties hold fish year ’round.

An aeration system was installed to further improve the fishing. This system was designed to reduce the problems associated with freezing, but it also adds oxygen to the water all year long. This dramatically increases the survival and growth rates of the forage, which, in turn, increases the survival and growth rates of the largemouth bass.

Since 2003, anglers have been reporting excellent catches of quality largemouths. Many bass have been at least 16 inches long, some much bigger, and bass to 19 inches began showing up in 2004. This spring, the largemouths will be even bigger. Fish up to, and in some cases exceeding, 22 inches are expected.

The population of smaller fish, 12 to 16 inches in length, is even better. Anglers are reporting huge numbers of them.

Electrofishing results from 2003 and 2004 paint the same picture. Waters said that results from recent studies show a super population of largemouths in this small southeastern Iowa impoundment. “The fish have good color … fat, slick … obviously healthy,” he said.

Relatively clear water helps anglers fish this lake effectively in the spring. After ice-out, when other bodies of water are murky or downright muddy, Hawthorn stays fishable. The clear water not only helps sight-feeding fish like largemouths find food, but also helps catch bass as well.

Instead of the usual jig-and-pig combinations or perhaps big spinnerbaits, anglers can select something different — something the fish might not have seen in a while. With that in mind, several local anglers opt for small, hard jerkbaits early in the season. Most throw them on medium-weight spinning tackle. Lines around 6-pound-test are popular.

Color choice varies by angler, but it’s hard to go wrong with a shad imitation. A silver and gray body with a black or blue back will produce most of the time.

Other good lure choices in the spring for Hawthorn bass include small crankbaits, tubes and lizards. During especially warm periods, small topwater baits produce. Poppers and buzzbaits are especially popular. Natural colors are always a top choice with local anglers.

There are two hard-surfaced boat ramps that provide convenient access to this lake. There’s no horsepower limit so long as you maintain a no-wake speed. An excellent contour map is available from the IDNR Web site, www.iowadnr.com.

LAKE MIAMI

Waters also suggested Lake Miami, which is located within the Miami Wildlife Area in Monroe County, about five miles southeast of Lovilia. At 140 acres, Miami is one of our smaller picks.

Miami was a top producer in 2004 and is expected to be even better in 2005. In past years it developed a reputation for producing huge numbers of keeper-size largemouths. With a little help from the IDNR in the fall of last year, that reputation should shift slowly toward producing larger bass — maybe a few really big ones.

This lake is expected to benefit from a drawdown that occurred in fall 2004. The IDNR has used this management technique on several lakes around the state with good success. The first drawdowns were done to control panfish populations. Soon, however, drawing down lakes validated itself as a smart technique for helping to grow big predators.

Basically, a controlled drawdown concentrates small fish with big fish in a confined area. Enough water is allowed to remain in the basin to support the fish but not enough to allow forage and babies to escape predators. Under such close conditions the big fish find it easy to eat the little fish.

In short order, most of the smaller fish are gone. The ones remaining are usually big, fat and very healthy. At that point the water is allowed to rise to normal levels, and the natural forage/predator relationship resumes. The result is a “new” body of water with fewer, but larger, predators.

Miami should be at or close to normal pool by April. Even if it’s down a little, that won’t matter much: The ramps are designed to function in low-water conditions, and there’ll still be plenty of water for fishing.

Along with carrying out the drawdown, the IDNR is putting structure and cover in the lake. That will include brushpiles, stakebeds and perhaps a hump or two. All in all, Miami should b

e in great shape this spring.

Try fishing the north shore, near the dam, and the north shorelines of any cuts, bays or coves you can find. There are at least three in the upper third of the lake.

Spinnerbaits, small jerkbaits and jigs are all popular lure choices. Work them carefully around any cover you can find, giving extra attention to all woody cover.

There’s a no-wake speed limit on the lake but no horsepower limit. An excellent contour map is available from the IDNR Web site.

LAKE WAPELLO

Lake Wapello, a 280-acre impoundment in Davis County, got the nod from Waters last year, and he’s making the same pick this year.

Wapello is a “test” lake for the IDNR. The lake was restored in 1992. The restoration was total in every sense of the word: Water was drained down to dry substrate, after which the lake was refurbished to offer high-quality habitat for the fish.

While all species of fish benefited from this, largemouth bass were especially fortunate. Extensive structure was placed or built in the lake, including a substantial number of brushpiles, stakebeds, humps and underwater islands. Riprap was dumped along much of the shoreline.

Adequate shallow-water habitat for reproductive success was created or restored. No body of water can survive as a fishery of quality without places for the fish to spawn, and Wapello now has acres and acres of those places — and the results are beginning to show.

To make certain that the fish will be able to use these improvements for a long period of time, three sediment basins were built. Sediment basins work by slowing the water entering an impoundment. As the water slows, it drops the suspended solids it’s carrying — sediment. As a result, sediment fills in the basins, not the main lake.

It’s a simple concept, yet very effective. Sediment basins will extend the life of a body of water for many, many years. They’re being used more and more on small artificial lakes.

After the restoration, which occurred in 1992, the IDNR stocked Lake Wapello with a wide variety of fish species. Included in the mix were largemouth bass. The IDNR has taken great care to preserve and promote them.

Wapello is a “no-kill” or catch-and-release-only lake. That regulation applies to all largemouths, regardless of size. The IDNR takes this regulation seriously; it’s strictly enforced.

The no-kill regulation is an experiment. The question: Can a largemouth bass fishery be created and maintained that will produce large numbers of ordinary-sized fish while at the same time producing a few trophies?

The answer, at this early date, seems to be yes. Reports from a wide variety of anglers, supported by scientific data, indicate high catch rates of ordinary-sized fish. Mixed in with these fish are an occasional largemouth weighing up to 5 pounds.

Lake Wapello offers two boat ramps, one universally accessible pier and three fishing jetties. Lake Wapello State Park has a number of cabins for rent at the lake, and there is a full-service restaurant for your convenience. It’s a wonderful area to visit and vacation on a bass-fishing outing.

There’s no horsepower restriction on the lake, but there is a no-wake requirement. An excellent contour map is available from the IDNR Web site.

LAKE SUGEMA

Lake Sugema, another top producer that comes highly recommended by Waters, lies in Van Buren County three miles southwest of Keosauqua.

At 574 acres, Sugema is a little bigger than the other lakes reviewed here. Unfortunately, that’s not true of its fish. This is a numbers lake, not a trophy destination.

Despite the lack of big bass, however, this is one lake you should fish if you can fit it into your schedule. It was first stocked in 1992, and since that time, the largemouth bass population has virtually exploded. Currently there’s a slot limit on bass mandating that fish between 12 and 18 inches in length must be released immediately.

Waters and his colleagues at the IDNR encourage anglers to release those fish that are more than 18 inches in length. That will help grow true trophy-size largemouths. At the same time, they want the smaller largemouths — those that measure less than 12 inches — to be harvested.

While catch-and-release is a wonderful concept, it isn’t always the best management tool. On some bodies of water the smaller fish need to be thinned out to make room for the big ones. Small fish eat a lot of forage and, in some waters, can make it difficult for the bigger fish to continue growing. After all, nothing grows if it doesn’t eat properly, man or beast.

There’s plenty of wood in Sugema. Much standing timber was allowed to remain when it was first filled. Most of the timber holds bass. Look for areas that get the benefit of sunlight all day long — most of them will be on the north side — and work spinnerbaits through the wood.

Smaller baits seem to work better on this lake. Their optimal colors will vary according to water conditions. If the water’s stained, try yellow, chartreuse, green or even bright pink; if it’s clear, stick with white, silver or gray. On unusually warm days, give small poppers and tiny walking sticks a try.

Sugema has two large sediment catchers — one around 20 acres, the other maybe 10. Many anglers pass them by, thinking that they don’t hold bass. That’s a shame, because nothing could be farther from the truth.

The question: Can a largemouth bass fishery be created and maintained that will produce large numbers of ordinary-sized fish while at the same time producing a few trophies?

These areas warm up quickly in the early spring. The forage moves into the warm water, and the bass follow the forage. At times, both of these sediment basins can be full — absolutely chock-full, in fact — of bass. They may not be the biggest fish in the lake, but they’re bass.

Fish any lure that runs shallow in these small ponds. Buzzbaits, soft-plastic jerkbaits, spinnerbaits and floating minnows should all be high on your list. Bright, flashy colors seem to work best in the stained water.

Sugema is a no-wake lake without any horsepower restriction. An excellent contour map is available from the IDNR Web site.

LAKE ODESSA

At the southern end of the state, along Pool 18 of the mighty Mississippi, is the huge slough that is Lake Odessa. Depending on water conditions Odessa’s size ranges between 2,000 and 3,000 acres.

Spring can be problematic on Odessa. If the water’s right, the largemouth bite will be right — really right! On the other hand, if the river’s up, Odessa will be a mess. Check local conditions, including the river level, before making a long drive.

At one time Odessa was an isolated lake surrounded by dikes and cut off from the main river. No longer: Time and high water have taken their toll. The dikes are deteriorated, and the lake is now accessible from the main river.

This lake is known for its vast, thick stumpfields as well as its countless laydowns. According to fisheries biologist Don Kline, Odessa has a tremendous population of 14- to 16-inch largemouth bass. Bigger largemouths, up to 19 inches, are sometimes reported by local anglers.

Odessa is shallow, the main lake being no more than 6 to 8 feet deep, with many areas shallower than 2 feet deep. The deepest water is at the levee, and it’s only 10 feet deep. On top of that, the IDNR draws the water down at least 2 feet during the summer to encourage weed growth (they’re needed for duck habitat).

If you’re boating on Odessa, be very careful. The lake’s shallow water and stumps have claimed a number of lower units and cracked plenty of fiberglass hulls over the years.

Standard shallow-water, spring bassing tactics will work here. Throw spinnerbaits in and along the wood. Flip and pitch jigs and plastics along and into the laydowns. Be precise and fish thoroughly. These bass hold tight to cover, so make several presentations from different angles. Late in the day, after the water has warmed a bit, throw buzzbaits, poppers and walking sticks. Any color, so long as it has a white belly, will get the job done.

A locally popular technique involves flipping and pitching crankbaits. Your crankbait should be small and bright-colored. Allow it to land gently on the water; then, pull it through the wood. When you encounter a log or other wooden obstruction, allow the bait to float up and over it. Highly buoyant crankbaits work best.

For anglers who want to access Odessa without navigating the main river, there are a couple of good ramps. One is located at Schaffer’s Landing, the other at Sand Run Landing. Both are improved; both will handle a modern bass boat.

A map of the area can be accessed from the IDNR Web site. Look in the Southeast Region, under the Mississippi River for Pool 18, Section 1.

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