Best Bets for Catching Crappies

Best Bets for Catching Crappies

Spring brings crappies into the shallows, which makes for fast action and fun fishing. We'll check out the sites in every part of Iowa that yield the most slabs.

The good news is that the Iowa crappie-fishing outlook looks very promising. The bad news is that … well — there is no bad news! Prospects appear positive across the board.

Several Iowa lakes are on the upswing, and at least one is at its peak, with a record number of slabs being taken from its waters. Iowa Department of Natural Resources officials see no reason for the trend not to continue for at least another year or two.

We’ll look at waters throughout Iowa that offer fine potential, so no matter where you live, one should be close to you. A notation at the end of the entry for any given lake that indicates the availability of an online map is intended to point you to the IDNR Web site, from which you can print a contour map (in some cases, more than one) of that lake.

SPIRIT LAKE

In the far northwestern corner of the state, Spirit Lake is home to some of the best crappie fishing in the Iowa. Spirit Lake, which covers a little more than 5,600 acres, produces excellent numbers of good-sized crappies. Last year was a banner year, according to Jim Christianson, the IDNR fisheries management biologist for the lake.

As of late fall, more than 35,000 crappies had been harvested from Spirit Lake. Most were around 9 inches in length but quite a few exceeded 10 inches. While that’s not a slab by any means, it’s a good solid keeper for northern Iowa.

According to Christianson, 2005 should show even better size, although the numbers might be down a little. He suggests that anglers look for crappies along the north end of the lake. Early in the season, the water warms a little faster in that area, and the bite gets going a little earlier. Look for them in shallow, weedy areas with a bit of wood nearby. Northern exposures are best.

As the season winds along and hot weather arrives, the crappies will migrate toward deeper water. You’ll find most of them in holes, channels and cuts not too far from their spring shallow-water haunts.

Another favorite spot on Spirit Lake is Anglers Bay. Look for bulrushes and cattails — that’s where most of the big crappies will be hiding. It’ll take some work and practice to get back among the dark, twisted roots and stems, but the rewards warrant the effort. Approach quietly and carefully; shallow fish spook easily.

Spirit Lake is about a mile north of the town of Spirit Lake in Dickinson County. It’s accessible from several major highways. Several improved ramps are located around the lake, and there’s no horsepower restriction on the lake. Plenty of motels, bait shops and convenience stores surround the area. (Online map available.)

BLACK HAWK LAKE

Another favored destination in the area, Black Hawk Lake also produces big numbers of crappies, with plenty of nice-sized fish. At 957 acres, Black Hawk is considerably smaller than Spirit Lake, but that hasn’t hurt the crappie fishing. Known for its tremendous population of black crappie, this might be the best lake in the state for high numbers of fish.

Most crappies will measure 8 or 9 inches, but fish up to 12 inches are harvested from Black Hawk from time to time. Lannie Miller, fisheries management biologist for the lake, recommended West Stone Pier for early-season fishing.

The marina and the universally accessible fishing pier too are favored by early-season anglers. After the water starts to warm, seek crappies in the deepest water you can find, so long as it’s near grass or wood.

Black Hawk Lake lies along the eastern edge of Lake View in Sac County. Several highways offer easy access. Four ramps provide access. No horsepower restrictions are in place. (Online map available.)

BROWNS LAKE

One Iowa lake on the upswing is Browns Lake, a 580-acre oxbow off the Missouri River. In the last couple of years, crappie fishing has steadily improved, and is now at the point that crappies average 10 to 12 inches.

Miller reported that the fishing is best during the spawning season, (usually May), but quite respectable eating-size fish can be taken year ’round. Some of the better spots on the lake are near the boat ramp and east of the swimming beach.

Search out the thickest, nastiest brush tangles you can find; grass or deeper water will make a spot even better. Browns Lake will be best early in the morning, late in the day, or when cloud cover is thick and heavy. Low light is a real key to success.

Don’t put off a trip to this lake, however. Like most oxbows, the fishing action comes and goes quickly. What’s good this year may be lousy next year. Sometimes it doesn’t take that long.

Browns Lake is two miles west of Salix in Woodbury County. The roads are good, so travel is no problem. Be careful if you boat: The water is shallow and full of snags, making Browns a likely place for damaging a lower unit.

LAKE MEYER

Moving on to the northeastern corner of the state, we encounter Lake Meyer, which anglers might want to take a look at. Though tiny, covering only 40 acres, it’s developing a big reputation for both the quantity and the quality of the crappie it fosters.

Tina Hammond, natural resources aide for the district, reports that 2004 was a fine year for this lake. She says that angler information and interviews indicate that the fishing is the best it’s been in several years. There’s no reason that shouldn’t go on into the foreseeable future.

Lake Meyer is three miles southwest of Calmar in Winneshiek County. Access to prime spots from the shore is no problem.

LAKE HENDRICKS

Just a little to the west, Lake Hendricks serves up solid numbers of crappies of pretty decent size. It too is about 40 acres.

Hendricks regularly gives up limits of keeper-size crappies in just a few hours. The lake is at its best in the early spring and late fall, when the fish can be found sh

allow. The summer heat turns off the bite, although some anglers report creditable catches after dark during July and August.

Lake Hendricks is about a half-mile northeast of Riceville in Howard County. Once again, shore-fishing opportunities abound.

VOLGA LAKE

South of Lake Meyer is Volga Lake, which is big enough at 119 acres to grow quality crappies, but not so big as to intimidate novice anglers. If you’re new to this great sport, give Volga serious consideration.

According to Hammond, crappie catches from Volga equal or exceed those at most of the top lakes in Iowa. Limits of fish between 8 and 10 inches are common, with occasional crappies up to 12 inches possible. Volga crappies are well known for thick bodies and excellent filleting characteristics.

Early spring and late fall offer anglers the best fishing, but respectable catches can be had during the summer months and from under the ice.

Volga Lake is about three miles north of the town of Fayette in Fayette County. A number of bait and tackle stores are in the vicinity. With a no-wake speed limit on the water, it’s an excellent venue for canoes and smaller boats. (Online map available.)

RATHBUN LAKE

Way down along the southern edge of the state is Rathbun Lake, which, at 11,000 acres, is one of our physically biggest picks. More important, it’s our best pick — because, without a doubt, Rathbun is the top crappie lake in Iowa.

Mark Flammang, the Iowa fisheries management biologist who oversees Rathbun, reports that the lake’s is at the high point in its production cycle. “The year-classes of 1998 and 2001 were the best we’ve ever had,” he said.

That’s very good news for crappie anglers, as it takes about five years for a crappie to reach 10 or 11 inches in southern Iowa. So the 2001 year-class should be just about right for eating in 2005. And the 1998 class will be 12 to 13 inches in length. Of course, there’ll be more fish living from 2001, so most of your crappies will be around 10 or 11 inches, but there still should be high numbers of the bigger ones.

On top of that, there’s always the possibility of a true trophy, maybe something around 15 or 16 inches — if fate smiles down on you at the right moment.

Flammang advises anglers to begin fishing early in the spring and to time trips to coincide with periods of high water, if possible. At normal pool, Rathbun sits 904 feet above sea level. If the water goes a few feet higher than that, say to 906 or even 910, anglers will see the big slabs move back into the coves. That’s when they become the most vulnerable.

“The water pushes them into the flooded grass and vegetation, way back in the very back of the coves … that’s where you’ll find the big females,” Flammang advised. He suggested fishing with the usual baits, minnows and small jigs, so long as the water stays high and stable. “The crappie fishing can be unbelievable under those conditions,” he remarked.

When fishing the coves, look for those that have a lot of northern exposure, especially along any shallow-water flats you might discover. They warm faster. That has a tendency to turn up the bite, especially early in the year.

Flammang also reminded anglers that a large number of very serviceable fish are caught from the riprap banks lining a large portion of this reservoir. Once again, watch the water, and fish when it’s high and stable.

The dam area can lead to happy results at times, as can the Bridge View area. There’s also a flooded timber section of the lake that extends into the North and South Fork rivers. Many big crappie move out into these channels as the weather and water warms. At times they will school very close to the timber, so careful use of your electronics is a must.

Rathbun is a little north of Centerville in Appanoose County. Plenty of bait shops, tackle stores and convenience stores surround the lake, and several ramps provide boating access.

(Four online maps, including one of the timber section, available. Print them and use them when you fish this legendary Iowa crappie venue. It’s the best lake in the state; fish it right.)

RED ROCK RESERVOIR

Spread over 19,000 acres north of Rathbun, Red Rock Reservoir offers worthwhile crappie action throughout the year. Red Rock supports plentiful fish for those willing to spend a little time getting to know its waters.

The average size of the crappies here is probably the second-best in the state. Fish in the 10- to 12-inch class are routine during early spring. A 14-inch fish is a realistic possibility, which isn’t something that can be said of many places in Iowa.

The most rewarding early-season fishing is found in the numerous coves scattered around the lake, according to fisheries management biologist Dick McWilliams. Coves that have deep, steep-walled, well-defined channels and a little grass or wood are best.

As the season progresses, consider the marinas and docks in this massive body of water. They offer plenty of baitfish for the crappies to eat, and shade to keep the water cool. Oblivious to heat, strong sunshine and heavy boating activity, crappies will hang around the docks most of the summer.

Of course, don’t neglect the countless drops, holes, breaks, channels and ditches that are found under Red Rock’s surface. These will almost certainly hold a school of crappies if there’s a little wood on them. Red Rock crappies are known to school by size, so if you start catching little ones, it might be time to move along.

Red Rock is four miles north of Knoxville in Marion County. There are several improved ramps on the lake, and with no motor restrictions, you can let ’er rip. Plenty of bait shops and convenience stores are in the area.

ROCK CREEK

Rock Creek, east of Des Moines, is another spot you might want to consider. At 600 acres, it’s not very big. However, at times it does produce some decent crappie fishing.

McWilliams reports that the population’s good but that overall size can be, in his word, “spotty.” Don’t expect much over 10 inches from this venue.

Rock Creek is about four miles northeast of Kellogg in Jasper County. Hard-surface ramps are available. As long as you run at no-wake speeds, there are no motor or horsepowe

r restrictions. (Online map available.)

DON WILLIAMS LAKE

If you’re looking for something a little smaller in the same part of the state, try Don Williams Lake. It covers only 150 acres, but offers some fairly good angling on occasion. It’s at its peak in early spring and late fall.

The lake is inside a major recreational area, so it’s best to fish during the week or after dark, as weekends and late afternoons on pretty spring days can get crowded.

There are hard-surface ramps at the lake. No motor restrictions apply, provided you don’t exceed no-wake speeds. (Online map available.)

DON’T FORGET THE BIG RIVERS

The Missouri River on the west side of the state and the Mississippi River on the east side both serve up good crappie fishing. Both feature countless bays, oxbows, seasonally flooded ponds and small embayments that harbor crappies at various times throughout the year.

The Mississippi is undoubtedly better than the Missouri for taking bigger fish, but you can harvest a limit for supper from either. Spend some time scouting the spots in your neighborhood, and try to find something with deep water, grass and wood. To be productive, a spot should hold water most of the year.

And never forget: River fish are always shallow compared to lake dwellers, so even during the hottest of summer’s dog days, you can catch fish in only a foot or two of water. At times, that can be a real advantage, especially if you’re inexperienced or are fishing with youngsters.

Make time for a couple of crappie trips this year. You’ll be glad you did.

FOR YOUR INFORMATION

For detailed information about lakes in Iowa, check the IDNR’s web site at www.iowadnr.com. One of the best in the business, it’ll help get you started on the right foot.

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