Troubleshooting Iowa Bass

Keep fishing your favorite Hawkeye State bass waters the same way you always do, and you can watch your success rate dwindle. Here's what you can do to excel with the bigmouths this summer.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

We could say - with apologies to Charles Dickens - that August is the best of times and the worst of times for largemouth bass anglers in Iowa.

Upside: Warm waters raise the bass' metabolic levels, making the fish more active and requiring them, in turn, to eat more to support the increased activity. But - downside - bass in Iowa's public lakes have also had five months of advanced tackle-and-lure education. By August, Hawkeye bass have seen, heard and often felt almost every lure known to clutter the tackle box of any self-respecting bass hunter. Getting a hook-scarred bucketmouth to sample a lure in August requires either a new lure that it's never seen before or an old lure presented in a way that makes it irresistible.

Dan Luke of Winterset and Mike Reindell of Van Meter are members of the Central Iowa Bass Anglers. Their approach to bass angling combines the fervor of religious zealots with the clinical analysis of fisheries biologists, with years of competing in bass tournaments having helped them identify the lures and strategies that produce bass during August's dog days.

Iowa Game & Fish played "What if . . ." with Luke and Reindell to discover how they catch Iowa bass when other anglers are merely exercising their casting arms.

The clear blue skies and high barometric pressures that follow the passage of a cold front are groaners for bass anglers.

"That's the toughest fishing any time of year," said Luke. "And it's even tougher in August when the bass are getting a little lure-shy. Bright sunlight seems to drive them deeper, so in most of our lakes that means working the old creek channels."

Veteran anglers can study the shoreline of an artificial lake in Iowa, make a few passes with their sonar, and develop a good idea of what the lake's bottom looked like before the lake was built. Amateurs can take a short cut and obtain topographic maps of lake bottoms from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources; these are available on the Internet at the agency's Web site, www.state.ia. us/government/dnrfindex.htm, or at park offices at most lakes.

In August, the secret to finding prime deep-water bass habitat is to pinpoint areas where major shoreline points terminate near bends in the old creek channel. "Bass like where creek bends and points meet," said Luke. "It's easy for them to go from shallow to deep without moving a long horizontal distance. I'll work the inside and outside of that creek bend, but my favorite is the inside bend, where the point comes down and meets the bend.

"On those days with clear blue skies, I'll slow my presentation way, way down. One trick that a lot of weekend anglers don't know about is to crawl a spinnerbait along the bottom. Crawl it down that point toward the creek channel just fast enough to make the blade twirl - no faster. A lot of the time they nab it when it falls off the point into the old channel."

Luke prefers spinnerbaits with both Colorado and willow-leaf blades. "It might not work for anybody else," he said, "but I've got confidence in having some thump from the Colorado (blade) and some flash from the willow leaf. To me, it's the best of both worlds."

For clear water Luke chooses a spinnerbait with nickel-colored blades; for stained water, he selects gold-colored blades. He noted that in very turbid or darkly stained water he sometimes opts for a single large Colorado blade in gold.

"The bigger Colorado gives more thump when visibility is low," he explained, "plus the bigger blade helps keep it shallow on the retrieve, which is good, because the fish tend to be shallower when light doesn't penetrate as far."

Mike Reindell agrees that deep water is a great place to probe for bass during the dog days of August. He, too, looks for areas where points meet creek channel bends, and is enthusiastic about a relatively new technique for fishing those areas.

"I'm using drop-shotting a lot this year," Reindell reported. "It's like an upside-down Carolina rig, with the weight about 14 to 18 inches below the hook. You fish it vertically, like you're jigging for walleyes. It's great over the dropoffs into creek channels, and it's killer when you fish it around deep brushpiles.

"The advantage is that you can fish it very precisely. It lets you keep it right in front of them and just annoy them with it until they can't resist striking."

Reindell notes that anglers fishing deep in late summer must be aware of thermoclines - layers of oxygen-poor water that form in the lower levels of lakes during summer. "Each lake is different, so you have to watch your sonar to see where the thermocline is," he said. "Sometimes it's at 25 feet, sometimes it's at 15 feet, but you've got to be aware of it. Creek channels can be good fishing, but if they're below the thermocline, there probably won't be many fish there."

Anglers in eastern Iowa find classic creek channel/point structure at Pleasant Creek, south of Center Point. Impounded in 1976, the lake's fresh enough that the creek channel hasn't yet silted in. An excellent example of a major point terminating in a creek channel bend lies due south of the boat ramp on the north side of the west arm. The creek channel switches from the north side of the lake to the south after it passes that point, and several other point/creek channel bends lie due southeast of that same boat ramp. IDNR surveys indicate that a strong population of midsized bass swims Pleasant Creek.

Observers can identify experienced bass anglers from a distance simply by watching how they react to emergent vegetation. Anglers who randomly work whatever water weeds are there are probably amateurs; those who ignore large areas of weeds to hammer specific small areas know what they're doing.

"It's what's under the weeds that counts," explained Reindell. "If I find a weedbed that's got more than a couple feet of water under it, or is real close to deep water, I'm going to work it hard with a grass rat or a frog. I'll cast it up on top and drag it to the edge, or let it fall down into any holes in the vegetation."

Luke likes to fish the front and back edges of topwater weeds. "A weedline is a great place to drag a buzzbait," he said. "Pull it parallel to the edge. Or if there's open water between the weed

s and shore, that's a killer place to run a buzzbait."

Luke has noticed that casual anglers often misuse buzzbaits. "In most cases, you want a buzzbait to run on the surface or just below the surface so it creates a bulge in the surface as you retrieve it," he said. "The first time you throw one, if you do it right, you'll think you're going to scare away all the bass in two counties. But when they're in the mood, a buzzbait is absolutely unbelievable."

Luke also noted that some fishing reels may be inadequate for fishing a buzzbait properly, and that some anglers might require "backwards" tackle to take the most advantage of buzzbaits. "Guys using slow-geared closed-face spinning reels might not be able to reel fast enough to fish a buzzbait correctly," he noted. "Personally, I have to use a left-handed baitcasting reel when I'm topwater fishing, even though I'm right-handed. I want to get that buzzbait moving as soon as it hits the water, so it never even 'plops' - it just takes off buzzing right away. You'll get a lot more reaction strikes that way. The only way I've been able to do that is to use a left-handed reel, so I can cast right-handed and not have to switch hands to retrieve."

Emergent vegetation was key for Reindell last summer at a tourney at Brushy Creek Lake, southeast of Fort Dodge. A very new lake - it was impounded only in 1999 - Brushy Creek is on the verge of achieving the status of being one of Iowa's top all-round fishing lakes.

"That lake has some nice deep water close to shallow weedbeds," he said, "and we tore them up last year with a grass rat pulled across the weeds. The lake is too new to have many big bass, but we saw a 4.7-pounder last year during the tournament. They're the type of bass you see in new lakes - thick and round, like footballs."

Long, narrow and deep, Brushy Creek features plenty of steep points that drop off into the old creek channel. Standing timber, often within casting distance of fishing jetties, was left in large areas of the lake.

Prior to construction of the lake, a gravel road ran lengthwise down Brushy Creek's valley; a number of bridges and culverts had been built where the creek zigzagged back and forth beneath the road. Rockpiles and brushpiles on that now-submerged roadbed, along with the old bridges and culverts, create a mile and a half of bottom topography that should have a practically magnetic attraction for both fish and anglers.

A hallmark of August in Iowa is the occasional spate of hot winds blowing hard from the south. The winds are a blessing in one sense, in that they break the heavy humidity of dog days, but they pose a challenge to anglers who don't know how to take advantage of the relentless wave action they generate. Reindell's got it covered; he alters his weedbed fishing pattern to exploit windy conditions.

"If the wind has been blowing steady and hard into a big weedbed, I make sure to fish the windward edge of that weedbed," he offered. "The waves break up the surface, and fish are more inclined to be shallow when the sunlight doesn't penetrate as deep."

Taking a cue from walleye anglers, Luke fishes the mudline on the windward side of lakes. "The waves will encourage the bass to be shallower," he explained, "and they'll be on the windward shore taking advantage of baitfish that feed on all the stuff that the wind blows to that side or dislodges from the shoreline. The bass will be right at the mud line, on the clear-water side. If the mudline is 5 feet from shore, the bass will be laying at 6 feet."

Iowa's lakes shrink under August's blazing sun, leaving bare shorelines easily eroded by wave action. According to Luke, low water levels present certain opportunities. "By August, bass in the heavily fished lakes have learned to associate the 'plop' of a lure hitting the water with danger," he said. "If there's a bare mudbank along the shore, I'll toss my lure up on the mud and pull it into the water. That reduces the plop, and there's something about a lure coming from shore into the water that increases reaction strikes."

Reaction strikes are an important part of tournament bass anglers' strategies, as bass can often be coerced into nabbing baits that they might otherwise ignore.

"The idea is to burn it past them so fast they don't have time to look at it," said Luke. "They aren't hitting it because they're hungry, they're hitting because they're a bass, and it's a moving target."

Persistence also creates reaction strikes. If Luke is confident that a stump or brushpile holds bass, he hits it repeatedly from several angles. "In clear water, I've watched a bass ignore my lure when I pulled it right in front of it several times," he recalled. "They weren't interested in fast, slow or in between. When that happens, I'll cast over the fish and on the retrieve, before the lure gets to the fish, I'll give it a pop so it hops over the fish real fast. That burst of speed from a lure that the fish can't see directly seems to cause strikes you won't get if they have time to watch it approach."

To both Luke and Reindell, the ultimate place for catching Iowa's late-summer bass is a farm pond.

"I know guys who catch and release 100 bass a day from farm ponds," said Luke. "The fish will take just about anything you throw at them. But if they are a little slow, I've never seen anything work as well in a farm pond as a plain 4-inch pre-rigged plastic worm.

"Don't use any weight - just the bead and spinner at the front of the worm. I like yellow, purple or white Baby Crawlers. Cast them parallel to the shore or any weedbeds and work any deadfalls around the edges. Retrieve them with a darting motion, and let them fall almost all the way to the bottom before you start your retrieve. If you fish all the way around a farm pond with a small plastic worm in August, and don't get any bites - well, I'd say there aren't any bass in the pond."

Urban anglers who have no country connections often have difficulty gaining access to farm ponds. Those anglers can still experience farm pond-style fishing in urban areas by identifying "city ponds."

The Des Moines urban area has a number of small ponds. Fort Des Moines Pond, just southwest of South Ridge Mall on the city's southeast side, is a local secret that harbors more than a few respectable bass.

In Ankeny, on Des Moines' prairie-flat north side, the city has excavated run-off catch basins in a number of city parks. Ponds just east of Ankeny's main water tower, near the new municipal aquatic center (that's a "swimming pool" to us old fogies), and across the street northeast of the John Deere factory can all provide urban bassin' opportunities.

Don't overlook the small lake on Des Moines Area Community College's campus between Ankeny and Des Moines; just because a body of water is at the intersection of busy highways doesn't mean its resident bass don't grow big and hungry.

An odd thing about urban ponds is that they're ringed with panfish anglers in May but often deserted in August. Everybody's anxious to get out to fish in the spring, when the angling's easy, but once the weather turns torrid and the fish become more selective, fishing fervor wanes appreciably.

Too bad - August is one of the best times for bagging big Iowa bass; right now they're hungry, and they're active. And now you know where, when and how to catch them. It won't always be easy, but it'll always be worth it.

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