Lunker Largemouths of Western Iowa
October 04, 2010
Think that summer is bad for bass fishing? You're out of the loop! See what our experts have to say about the best western Iowa hotspots for hot-weather bassin'.
By Ed Harp
It's unfortunate, but many anglers think that hot weather, warm water and heavy boat traffic put an end to Iowa bass fishing. Not so, according to local bass angler Mike Fogue (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Fogue believes that summer is a perfect time for taking a trophy largemouth. His recommendation for a body of water apt to yield up such a fish? West Okoboji, known in the area as "West O." He opines that this lake is the state's best largemouth venue in terms not only of the quality of individual bass but also of bucketmouth numbers.
FOLLOW THE FORAGE
Largemouth bass are no different from any other living creature: In order to survive, they've got to eat. Shad, the standard forage species for largemouths, are few and far between in West O. The lake has historically had difficulty maintaining an adequate shad population, and recent years' production has been no exception.
Fortunately for largemouths and anglers alike, however, plenty of other creatures swimming West O's waters also represent dining opportunities to the bass. According to Fogue (president of the Iowa Bass Anglers), the primary largemouth forage in the lake is crayfish - which, given the environmental conditions found there, should come as no surprise.
Crayfish flourish in waters such as West O, which combines hundreds of acres of shallow, weedy water with a fair amount of rock structure. And, although its waters are somewhat murky (and perhaps just a little too fertile from the farm run-off in its watershed), it doesn't hurt the crayfish one bit; they're quite tolerant of such conditions - in fact, they thrive in them.
The crayfish in West Okoboji are fat, slick and healthy. Owing to the massive amount of vegetation in the lake, the crayfish have all they can eat and more. (Although they will eat both animals and plants, they do quite well on plants alone.)
The lake also harbors sturdy populations of perch, bluegills, crappies and white bass. The predatory largemouths will eat any and all of those species when they can catch them. Perch are an especially favored bass delicacy, according to local anglers; the stomachs of big largemouths' are frequently found to be stuffed with perch.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
Before scouting and selecting a spot for your summer largemouth angling, it'll be beneficial to think back to spring. Fogue notes that largemouths typically spawn in May in this northwestern Iowa lake, and points out that some of the lake's most frequented spawning areas lie at the north end, near the canals. The fish use the canals as staging areas for their prespawn movements before building their nests on the weedy flats that adjoin them.
The big female largemouths follow the same path, in reverse, after the spawn. Once they lay their eggs, they retreat to deeper water - the canals. After rest and recuperation in the wake of the spawn, many of them remain in the canals to exploit the safety, security and more favorable water temperatures that these troughs afford.
In the canals, they're only a few feet away from the thick, lush weedbeds that've been growing as the water warms and the days get lengthen. These weedbeds offer the largemouths forage - crayfish and baby perch, mostly - as well as a sense of security. At least, that's what anglers and biologists think is happening.
THE NIGHT BITE
IS THE RIGHT BITE
Crayfish are nocturnal, moving only at night for the most part, so if largemouths want to dine on them, they too must move at night. This works well for anglers wanting to target the big ones in August.
West O sees such heavy recreational boat traffic during the summer months that fishing during the day on weekends is nearly impossible. Anglers unable to fish during the week have discovered that night-fishing is a very satisfactory alternative.
Crayfish move at night; therefore, bass feed at night - and anglers should fish at night.
Any number of lures will catch these fish, but one of the most excitingly effective, especially after dark, is the venerable buzzbait. Because of the angling pressure on this lake, however, an ordinary out-of-the-box buzzbait just won't get the job done. These bass have been conditioned by thousands of passes over their heads by standard buzzbaits; they've seen it all. Accordingly, modified offerings are necessary if you're to trick such fish.
As a first step toward overcoming conditioning, buzzbait experts recommend altering the splash that the bait makes as it crosses the water. Begin by bending the blades: Bending them in generates less splash, while bending them out creates the opposite result.
This may seem like a very small and insignificant matter - but it's important to the fish. Largemouths grown accustomed to a particular bait, perhaps one that's used and overused locally, will often ignore it. They will, however, readily strike one that has a different splash. It's new to them.
Creating less, or more, splash with your buzzbait will help match it to prevailing weather conditions. In especially calm water, less splash may be more desirable, while fishing water with a chop to it may require more splash in order to help the fish find the bait. As with most techniques, it's best to experiment, and to go with what works at the time. Every night will be different, so don't get in a rut. Think creatively.
Drilling holes in the blades will also help with conditioned fish. Holes tend to help create a trail or wake of bubbles as the bait crosses the water; they also create a bubbling or gurgling sound in the water as the lure is retrieved. Holes can be either drilled with a drill motor and bit or made with a punch. Conduct trials and assess the results. Try varying the number, size and placement of the holes.
For an inarguably unique modification, cut slits in the blades with a pair of side cutters. Try short cuts and long cuts, as well as cuts of different lengths on different blades. Use right-hand and left-hand cutters - the variation in the curl of the metal will give the bait its own particular splash. Each combination will give your buzzbait a new look. (Be careful when handling the blades after cuts are made, as the edges will be as sharp as an old straight razor.)
For after-dark angling, black is generally considered to be the color of choice by most proficient buz
zbait anglers. Black makes a distinct silhouette against the sky and usually gets the job done. But black is also hopelessly ordinary; as it's resorted to by almost all anglers, the fish have seen it a thousand times. Why not try something novel? Paint the blades with dots and/or stripes, or in any manner of color never before seen by man or fish. Attach a skirt to match, or to clash - whatever your preference. Give them something they haven't seen before, no matter how crazy it may look to you or your buddies.
Sound is a vital component in the success of any bait, and especially of a buzzbait. To customize the sound of your buzzbait, try one - or all! - of the following tricks.
Tie the lure to the radio antenna of your tow vehicle, if it has one, and allow the buzzbait to spin while you drive to the lake. This creates wear on the blade and shaft which will, in turn, generate a peculiar squeaking sound as it is being retrieved. (The easily-embarrassed can generate the same wear by tying the lure in front of a fan or air conditioner the night before your trip. This can be done in the privacy of your own home.)
Another technique for creating wear, and hence an unusual sound from the rotating blade, involves wetting the blade and covering it with salt for at least 12 hours; rock salt works best, but ordinary table salt will do if nothing else is available. The pitting effect is amazing in its ability to alter sound. This salt trick is how most anglers make "squeakers." which are legendary for their ability to elicit strikes from trophies.
You can make a "clacker" - renowned for coaxing bass in plenty to bite an offering- by removing the blade and tapping a nail into the hole. This will make the hole square and create a very distinctive clacking sound. Be very careful when you do this - just a light tap will do.
Another way to make a clacker: Bend the shaft on which the blade rotates down so that the blade just ticks the lower shaft during the retrieve. This makes a singularly unusual sound.
The beauty of all these modifications is that each and every bait created will be one of a kind. There's no way, even if you were to try, to make several baits just alike. As a consequence, the fish will always be seeing and hearing something different. Each bait will be an original.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
Once your baits are properly modified, it's time to select an appropriate location. Begin by finding the spots you fished in the spring; go right back to them. Cast your buzzbait parallel to the canals, along the edges and in the center. From there, work your way out until you've covered an area at least 200 feet from the canal. If the bite's not on, pick another likely prespawn area and repeat the process.
Don't hesitate to throw again and again over the same area, as buzzbaits are known to draw strikes after repeated casts. There are as many theories as to why this works as there are anglers practicing it - but the fact is, however, that it works.
IF NIGHT'S NOT RIGHT
FOR YOU ...
If night-fishing's not your thing, try deep-running crankbaits along the canals when the recreational boat traffic's lighter. Lure selection will vary from angler to angler, but a top choice is Luhr Jensen's Hot Lips Express crankbait in either the 1/4- or 1/2-ounce model.
Crank them down hard on the initial retrieve, and then slow your retrieve. Just work them along, making sure your bait is ticking the tops of the weeds. At times, a suspending crankbait will provoke strikes from neutral fish. A Hot Lips can be made to suspend easily enough: Just take four Storm SuspendDots and rotate the Hot Lips over on its back. Place one SuspendDot on the bottom side of the running lip just forward of the screw that holds the lure tie in place. Then place three more in a triangle pattern around the first hook tie on the belly of the lure - one in front of the tie and one on each side of the tie. Such a modification makes the crankbait neutrally buoyant, such that it'll remain motionless in the water almost indefinitely.
At times, a long pause will be effective; at others, a series of short pauses will work better. As with all things in fishing, experiment, and let the fish tell you what they want.
OTHER BAITS THAT WORK
Other anglers opt for hard jerkbaits. A favored technique involves pulling them down hard and then bringing them back to the boat with a stop-and go-retrieve. Vary the length of your stops until you find the cadence that triggers strikes.
Jigs too are popular with bass anglers in the area, most of whom opt for jig-and-pig combinations in crayfish colors or blue-and-black. Given the heavy vegetation, practically everybody places rattles in jigs regardless of whether the fishing's during the day or after dark. They theorize that the rattles help the largemouths find the bait in such thick cover.
MORE ON WEST O
Mike Fogue reports that anglers can expect to catch several fish a day from the waters of West O. Most fish will be modest in size, 12 inches or so, but specimens to 5 pounds and even larger are caught with some frequency, and a huge one is always a possibility. This isn't surprising as far as the history of West O goes. It's produced several state records and any number of other trophy-sized fish.
West Okoboji, a 3,800-acre impoundment in northwest Iowa's Dickinson County, has three state parks lying along its 20 miles of shoreline. The lake offers anglers several hard-surface ramps with easy main-road access from around the state.
MISSOURI RIVER BASSIN'
An alternate summer largemouth destination is the Missouri River. According to Iowa Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist Lannie Miller, the Missouri is on the rebound and has been for several years. Although best known as a smallmouth and catfish venue, it's beginning to surrender high-grade largemouths as well.
A number of largemouths in the 5-pound class have been taken from its waters over the last several years. Predictions for the future are promising. The largemouths should just get bigger and bigger.
The area around Council Bluffs is considered to be especially worthy during the summer. Most years see the water levels stable and the water as clear as it'll get. Besides, there are any number of cuts and fish-holding irregularities in this section of the river.
The main river harbors the better fish. Most anglers select their fishing locations by cover and structure rather than by name. Locals suggest scouting the river and locating areas where high water has jammed logs, drift and other wooden debris into piles. The thicker the tangle, the better the fishing spot.
The recommended technique is to pitch and flip plastics into every nook, cranny and hole that can be found. Work slowly and carefully, making certain that every piece of available cover is thoroughly fished.
Many Missouri River anglers are achieving success with creature baits. These come in an infinite variety of sizes, styles and colors. Your choices are limited only by your imagination and your wallet.
Tackle for this style of fishing is heavy. Most anglers select heavy-action 7-foot baitcasting rods with reels to match. Twenty-pound-test line is standard with abrasion-resistant characteristics the norm.
Early morning and late evening often make for a fine topwater bite on the Missouri River. Small poppers are much liked, as are walking sticks. Color varies by angler, but it's hard to go wrong with something that has a white belly. Work the lures slowly, unless the fish indicate that they might have another preference. Most of the water is shallow and the fish can be easily spooked by a noisy lure landing on top of them.
Other techniques include Carolina rigs worked slowly and carefully along the channel wherever there is a bend or other irregularity. Crankbaits will do well at times, as will old-fashioned Texas-rigged plastic worms.
No matter what you prefer to fish, lakes or rivers, there's a place for you in western Iowa this summer if you want to target largemouth bass.
Discover even more in our monthly magazine,
and have it delivered to your door!
Subscribe to Iowa Game & Fish