2009 Iowa Fishing Calendar
October 04, 2010
There's no shortage of fishing adventures to be enjoyed across the Hawkeye State this year. Here's where -- and when -- you can maximize your angling action! (Feb 2009)
Fishing in Iowa keeps getting better and better. Into record-size fish? Well, last summer an angler on a southern Iowa farm pond landed a 10-pound largemouth bass that was only ounces shy of the state record. In western Iowa, the Missouri River has in recent years produced a 101-pound blue catfish and a 38-pound channel catfish that established new state records, as well as a 92-pound flathead catfish that would have set a new record had it been weighed on a certified scale.
Looking for quantities of fish? You too have lots of options in the Hawkeye State. Lake Rathbun maintains its reputation as a crappie factory. Channel catfish are so thick in some rivers in southern Iowa that Iowa Department of Natural Resources surveys show that overpopulation is actually stunting some cats' growth. At Lake Red Rock and Saylorville Lake, anglers each summer fill livewells with feisty white bass during the fish's midsummer feeding frenzies.
Anglers have lots of options when it's time to go fishing in Iowa. Here's a quick overview of some of the best places to catch big fish, or lots of fish, in 2009.
The saugeye is a cross between a walleye and a sauger. During recent winters, saugeyes in the Iowa River immediately below the Coralville Dam in eastern Iowa have quietly gone on an incredibly intense bite.
"Last winter, fishing for saugeyes and walleyes below Coralville Dam was absolutely tremendous," said Roger Mildenstein, owner of the Fin and Feathers outdoors store in nearby Iowa City. "But you'd never know it talking to the guys who were fishing it. They'd come in, buy their jigs and tackle and never say a word about how good the fish were biting."
The hottest spot was in the spillway below the dam, where the floods of '93 -- not to mention those from last summer -- scoured a deep hole at the point at which waters from the emergency spillway dump into the main channel. Anglers fished jigs from boats, cast from shore and drilled holes in a shelf of ice that formed over quieter waters in the spillway.
Many anglers who fished the secret saugeye bite below Coralville Dam in midwinter were convinced they'd filled their five-fish-per-day limit with walleyes. Regional fisheries biologist Paul Sleeper said it's difficult to differentiate between saugeyes and walleyes.
"We did some genetic testing and compared the genetic results with what we visually guessed the fish to be," he said. "We were wrong about 30 percent of the time with our visual identifications. About the only consistent difference between saugeyes and walleyes is that the white spots on the tails of saugeyes (are) smaller, and that saugeyes rarely get larger than 4 or 5 pounds, while walleyes can get up to 10 pounds in our rivers."
If you want to draw a crowd of ice-anglers, pull a 30-inch northern pike weighing 10 to 15 pounds through a hole in the ice at one of the natural lakes in northern Iowa.
Patience is the key to pike. Drill holes along the deepwater edges of submerged weedbeds at Ingham Lake, High Lake, Tuttle Lake or other natural lakes. Use tip-ups baited with large suckers or chubs. Don't expect lots of fish, but expect at least a few larger fish from a patient day of fishing. Many ice-anglers keep an eye on tip-ups targeting northern pike while they fish for bluegills and crappies in nearby holes in order to catch not only size but numbers of fish during a day of ice-angling.
By March, most folks have tired of winter and are ready to focus on the approach of open water fishing. But a few diehard anglers at the Iowa Great Lakes know that last ice can present some of the best ice-angling of the winter, and they don't give up on drilling holes until the last floes melt.
By March, the best ice-fishing spots are marked with a winter's worth of ice-fishing holes. Shallower areas might outperform deeper spots as fish respond to snowmelt flowing into the backs of bays. Safety becomes a concern as ice softens and thins. A few fanatics actually put boards or ladders across open water that develops around the edges of bays in order to access hard ice. Flotation vests are valid outerwear for those who view the risk of a dunking worth a last dozen yellow perch (or more) to end the ice-fishing season.
Do fish sunbathe? Many serious bass anglers think that's an explanation for a phenomenon often noticed in farm ponds during early April. On sunny afternoons large bass drift into shallow mud-bottomed bays or along shallow south-facing shorelines. Perhaps they're females scoping out potential spawning sites. Maybe they're feeding on worms or small invertebrates emerging from the warming mud. Or maybe they're simply savoring the sunshine after a long, cold winter.
Whatever the reason, early spring is a great time to sneak up on those lounging bass with a slow-moving rubber worm, or jig-and-pig danced across the bottom. Normally the big fish are somewhat lethargic, but there are times when they inexplicably go nuts for a crankbait ripped over their heads.
Waters in farm ponds are often clear immediately after ice-out, so stealth is an advantage, whether anglers are casting from shore or working from a small boat. Move slowly, keep a low profile, and ease up on the big bass of spring as they bask.
Mother's Day weekend historically coincides with the peak of the crappie spawn across Iowa. Crappies at Lake Sugema and Lake Rathbun in southern Iowa may be a week or so ahead of that target date, while crappies spawning in the canals at West Lake Okoboji or in the backwaters of Pools 10 or 11 on the Mississippi River might reach their peak closer to mid-May. If you're a crappie enthusiast in Iowa, you probably have the first two weeks of May blocked off for a fishing vacation.
No matter where you fish for crappies in Iowa during the spawn, the approach is similar: find a shallow bay with brushpiles or submerged structure. Flip a 1/16- or 1/32-ounce white, yellow or chartreuse tube jig into the shallows and pull in a crappie. If shorelines are flooded, consider using a 10- to 16-foot-long pole to dab a minnow under a bobber down into holes in vegetation or structure. And never forget that a 2-inch minnow fished under a neutrally weighted bobber drifting over a shallow brushpile probably catches more crappies each spring than all the tube jigs sold in Iowa.
Some smallmouth bass enthusiasts vehemently disagree with rating smallies as a top pick for June. They know that smallmouths are especially susceptible to anglers' lures when they're on their nests during the spawn. Because nests are quickly pillaged by other species of fish when nesting smallmouths are removed by anglers, diehard smallmouth hunters quit fishing during
the spawn to avoid damaging the reproductive process of their favored species.
However, anglers can honor that mid-spawn moratorium and still enjoy some of the best fishing of the year by fishing pre- and post-spawn at West Lake Okoboji and Big Spirit Lake. Focus on rocky points and underwater reefs using crawdad-imitating lures or minnow crankbaits. Smallmouths are notoriously curious -- noisy lures fished with a start-and-stop motion can draw their attention. Never overlook boat docks near rocky reefs or large weedbeds on either of those lakes.
Anglers in central Iowa can find their share of smallmouths in June in the Des Moines River downstream from the Saylorville Dam. A few knowledgeable anglers have enjoyed pulling smallmouths weighing up to 5 pounds from rocky areas between the dam and downtown Des Moines in recent years. Those anglers reluctantly admit the fishery is good, emphasize that it is delicate, and recommend 100 percent catch-and-release for smallmouths taken from that stretch of the river.
For some reason white bass don't get a lot of respect. But if anglers are looking for an opportunity to catch lots of feisty fish in a short time, white bass are the answer.
Look for schools of whites feeding near the surface on gizzard shad on Lake Red Rock or Saylorville Reservoir, or in the spillways below either of their dams. Toss a minnow-imitating crankbait beyond the feeding frenzy and rip it back through the melee. Some anglers prefer a silver spoon or a large tube jig or twistertail, if only because it's easier and faster to remove a single hook than a treble hook and return to fishing.
Shore-anglers have access to white bass when whites drive baitfish against windward shorelines just before sunset. If Saylorville is at normal pool, the huge shallow flats off Sandpiper Beach are only 3 to 4 feet deep, allowing anglers to wade out and work whites feeding on those flats.
The image of catfishing in the dog days of summer was once that of bib-wearing farmers sitting beside holes in Iowa's rivers and catching 30- to 40-pound flatheads. No more: A new breed of young, aggressive, record-oriented flathead hunters learned that September is actually the best time of year to land -- and release -- flatheads that exceed 50 pounds.
Hull's Ryan Wassink has pulled 60-pound flatheads from rivers in northwest Iowa for the past decade. Mike Kemble of Panora caught and released several years ago a Missouri River flathead that topped 90 pounds on an uncertified scale. Both list September as prime time to target the biggest catfish of the year.
"The rivers are low so the fish are concentrated in the deepest holes," said Wassink. "I fish during the day, and drop my baits right down into where they're resting underneath logs and brushpiles. It's precise fishing, because they're not in feeding mode. You have to put it right on their nose and aggravate them into biting."
Kemble fishes at night on the Missouri River, using a combination of setlines and handheld fishing rods. He uses huge baits. The 90-pound-plus flathead was caught on a setline using an 8-pound carp for bait. "You can't imagine how big of a bait a 90-pound flathead can take until you actually see how big their mouth is," he said. "That 90-pounder didn't even have to stretch his mouth to swallow that 8-pound carp."
The potential for fall crappie fishing is underlined by comments made by Joe Schwartz, retired IDNR fisheries supervisor for southwest Iowa: "Spring is good, but if there's one time of year I want to be fishing for crappies, it's October."
As lake waters cool crappies feed aggressively. Combine that aggression with a slow migration toward areas of lakes where they'll spend the winter, and anglers often find dense schools of crappies suspended along dropoffs and brushpiles in 10 to 15 feet of water.
"Three things I like about fall fishing for crappies," said Schwartz. "One, they're an inch bigger than they were in the spring because they've been feeding and growing all summer. Two, they're schooled up and tend to stay in the same areas for days at a time. You can go out and hammer them day after day in the fall. And three, everybody else is busy with football games or hunting or everything else that's going on in the fall, so I have the lake pretty much to myself."
Schwartz and other anglers in tune to the potential of fishing for crappies in the fall have many lakes from which to choose. Crappies at Lake Anita turned on last year after that lake finally re-filled after a major renovation. Big Creek Lake has a couple huge year-classes of 7- to 11-inch crappies. Lake Rathbun always has crappies galore, and Lake Red Rock is the place to go if you're looking for some of the largest crappies.
"There are 16-inch crappies in there," said Rich Bass, a regular at Red Rock. "They're hard to find, and you'll go crazy wandering around trying to figure out where they are. But if you get on top of them, you'll have crappie fishing like you never dreamed of."
Anglers tend to "think spring" when walleyes are the contemplated target. But a few veteran walleye anglers don't get really serious about catching their biggest walleyes of the year until their calendar shows the month with Thanksgiving in it but, instead, target riffles, rocks and wintering holes in the Des Moines, Cedar, Raccoon and Iowa Rivers to catch and release some of their largest walleyes of the year.
Rod Campbell of Boone pulled the biggest walleye of his career, a 27 1/2-inch specimen weighing 10 1/2 pounds, from the Des Moines River on Nov. 16 several years ago. He said he doesn't give up on walleyes in that river until freeze-up. "Everybody else is pheasant or deer hunting, but I'm out there catching big walleyes," he said with a laugh. "It seems to be getting better and better. I'm not surprised to catch and release -- I always release -- 7-pounders anymore."
Campbell dances 3-inch twistertail jigs along rocky riffles and along the base of rock walls in the Des Moines River. He often fishes from shore, targeting rocks near deep holes.
The Iowa Great Lakes have traditionally been walleye and perch fisheries, especially through the ice. But things are changing, and bluegills and largemouth bass have established a large presence in the lakes in recent years. Bluegills now compete with yellow perch for the attention of anglers on Big Spirit and especially on West Lake Okoboji.
Look for 8- to 10-inch bluegills beneath the first ice that forms on West Okoboji's main bays -- Miller's Bay, Smith's Bay and Emerson's Bay. The edges of submerged weedbeds in those bays are prime places to drill holes in the ice, even while the main lake may still have open water. A waxworm on a teardrop jig or a gold hook will usually put a pile of bluegills on the ice within a half-hour. If not, move and drill another hole. The fish are there; it's just a matter of finding them.