Iowa's Best Iced-Up Panfishing

Bluegills and crappies are both staples of our hardwater action, and if the weather cooperates, there'll be no shortage of venues to auger into for them. (January 2007)

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

For enthusiastic Iowa ice-anglers, last winter was disappointing. The season started with great promise, Arctic air sweeping over the state in early December, bringing with it bone-chilling cold that quickly froze our ponds, lakes and even rivers. A few days later, a half-foot of fluffy snow fell over much of the state. It looked as if we were in for a winter like those in the good old days.

Then the weather turned. Snow quickly melted; so did the ice. The rest of the winter was balmy. In most parts of Iowa, either there was no ice, or what little there was too thin to support an angler or two safely. Even worse, the weather pattern was dangerous.

"An insulating blanket of snow fell on thin ice, but it was very cold out in December," said Steve Krotz, fishing manager at the Cedar Rapids' GOT Outdoors store and a dedicated angler. "Ice-fishermen are an enthusiastic group, and they like to get out on the early ice. They assumed the ice was safe when it wasn't. Many went through. It was a deadly pattern -- and we want ice-fishing to be a safe sport."

Every biologist and most experienced ice-anglers I talked with in preparing this article expressed concern about ice-fishing safety. Several said that no fish is worth getting drowned for! Brian Hayes, an Iowa Department of Natural Resources employee at the Manchester Trout Hatchery, told me that an ice-angler drowned while fishing South Prairie Lake in Cedar Falls. Biologist Andy Moore said, "We had one drowning and one near-drowning at Prairie Rose Lake in Shelby County due to poor ice conditions. Fortunately, park personnel were close by to make the save."

Although some parts of Iowa had safe ice in December, the rest of the winter turned out unusually warm, and ice-fishing was impossible in most of the state for most of that long winter. According to most biologists, few anglers attempted to fish open water; most, apparently, stayed home and watched football games on TV.

Hopefully, this winter will be better. The fish are certainly there: Biologists across the state report that many lakes, reservoirs, and river backwaters harbor respectable populations of bluegills, redears and crappies. A few lakes and Mississippi River backwaters offer fine winter fishing for yellow perch, and some lakes boast large numbers of yellow or white bass, which, although rarely pursued by ice-anglers, offer the possibility of interesting panfishing. Assuming the ice is safe, it looks like a great winter for Iowa ice-anglers.

The biologist with what's probably the best feel for statewide ice-fishing opportunities is IDNR fisheries chief Marion Conover. He tends to encourage Iowans to head for the state's bigger waters. "I'd look for excellent fishing at Lake Anita, Three Mile Lake, Spirit Lake, Brushy Creek Lake, Clear Lake, Big Creek Lake, Lake Rathbun, Lake Wapello, Pleasant Creek Lake, and the Mississippi River backwaters," he said.

These lakes are scattered all over the state, putting some pretty decent public waters within easy reach of most ice-fishing Iowans.

Biologist Dick McWilliams has suggestions for good fishing in Central Iowa. "For a smaller body of water, Lake Ahquabi south of Des Moines tops my list," he said. "There are crappies in the lake, but not as many as sunfish. The bluegills are in the 7- to 8-inch range, and the redears are 9 to 11 inches."

This pleasant 114-acre lake, situated in a state park just south of Indianola in Warren County, is an easy drive from Des Moines. A few years ago the IDNR lowered and restored Ahquabi, and fishing's now is on the upswing there.

For larger waters McWilliams recommends Big Creek Lake, which has numerous 7- to 9-inch bluegills. "They are in excellent condition," he said, adding that Rock Creek Lake will probably be the best bet for crappies in the 8- to 10-inch range. Both are also reasonably close to Des Moines.

"For reservoirs, Red Rock will likely be a better bet than Saylorville. The really big year-class of crappies has gone through Red Rock, but there are still good numbers of fish. Sizes range widely, but I've seen crappies up to 14 inches," he said.

The biologist commented that, sometimes, the biggest challenge in finding good fishing in the massive reservoir is simply finding fish that can rove widely. Sometimes the best fish-finding tip for beginning ice-anglers fishing a big reservoir is simply to locate the other anglers. Often, most will be clustered in a small area for a good reason: That'll be where the fish are!

As for Iowa's eastern edge, biologist Scott Gritters' outlook on ice-fishing up and down the Mississippi River this winter is optimistic. "Yellow perch has been a nice addition to the bag for most panfish anglers," he said. "Perch have always been an incidental catch in the big river, but in the past few years, populations have boomed. This is probably due to good aquatic vegetation that is flourishing. Perch need vegetation for spawning and feeding. There are nice perch in the river, and some anglers are beginning to target them during the winter. Most use minnows for bait." Small jigs can be extremely productive for perch as well.

Unlike bluegills, perch are a schooling species. When the school swims by, fishing can turn red-hot but then suddenly stop as they move out of the area.

For sunfish along the Mississippi, Gritters recommends Mud and Sunfish lakes in lower Pool 11, above Dubuque. "Fish have moved behind the new upper protective dam by the harbor," he reported. "Last winter there weren't too many panfish in the area, probably due to too much flow coming down the cuts. The (U.S. Army) Corps of Engineers has tweaked it a bit to try to maintain enough flow to keep the water oxygenated yet still enough to attract panfish."

According to Gritters, panfish cluster in predictable places in the winter. They shun moving water, even though many still-water areas have low dissolved-oxygen concentrations. "The fish are in a delicate balancing act, trying to locate water that has oxygen but isn't flowing much," he said.

Bottom line: Find still, oxygenated water along the Mississippi River, and the panfishing there is likely to be good.

Other recommendations from the biologist: in Pool 9, Bear Paw and Fish lakes, near New Albin; in Pool 10, Joyce and Mud Hen lakes, near Harpers Ferry, and Methodist and Norwegian lakes, south of McGregor; and, in Pool 11, Swift Slough and Bertom Lake, near Guttenberg.

Cedar Rapids angler Steve Krotz keeps his eye on ice-fishing quality statewide, but knows Eastern Iowa best. "Crappies go through a five- or six-year cycle," he remarked. "Some lakes are cycling up, while others are going downward.

"Lake Macbride has been in a lull for a few years, but it's now coming up. Several years ago the IDNR lowered Macbride to construct islands, reefs and brushpiles. They also ringed most of the shore with riprap. The lake is now on an upswing, due to vastly improved habitat. I look for good fishing there this winter. Crappies are in the 10-inch range. The bluegills are coming on but tend to be small."

The other big Cedar Rapids-area lake is Pleasant Creek, near Palo, one of the few lakes in the area that contains yellow perch. "Pleasant Creek is hard to predict, and it's challenging to fish," said Krotz. "The water is very clear, and fish can be spooky. Sometimes it produces good fishing."

Ice-anglers seem either to love or to hate quirky Pleasant Creek. It's not an easy lake to fish, but it's one of the most productive waters in Eastern Iowa. The most successful anglers there use very light line that's nearly invisible in the clear water. They also tend to fish evenings and early mornings. Often Pleasant Creek's crappies refuse to bite during the day but go on a feeding spree at dusk -- just when many anglers are heading home.

With nearly everyone concerned about ice thickness and safety, Krotz reported that sometimes big Coralville Reservoir could have safer ice than that at nearby lakes. "The river brings in super-chilled water that can freeze hard in coves," he explained. "If the ice is safe, anglers find excellent crappie fishing, especially near shoreline structure in coves."

In Krotz's view, some of Iowa's best and safest ice-fishing will be found at small lakes and ponds that are often on county conservation board property. "Smaller lakes like Belva Deer, Lake Iowa and Kent Park can be good producers," he said, "but I wouldn't pass up any pond in a county park. They can be dynamite, and they often freeze up sooner than bigger lakes."

Southwest Iowa fisheries biologist Andy Moore noted that there were only about two weeks of ice-fishing last year before the weather warmed. Ice-fishing interest remains strong, even though the weather has been frustrating. Assuming that the ice is safe, he recommends fishing for bluegills in Greenfield, Orient, Fogle, Icaria and Wilson lakes, where fish run in the 7 1/2- to 9-inch range; for crappies he suggests Little River lake and Red Rock Reservoir, where fish run about 9 inches, or a shade bigger. And if you want both? "Three Mile is a good lake for both bluegills and crappies," he said.

Southeast Iowa biologist Steve Waters also recalled the ice-fishing season having been very brief last winter. "Conditions were so marginal that we asked anglers to be prudent and avoid ice-fishing," he said. "Some anglers headed to colder northwest Iowa. Others drowned their sorrows by watching TV fishing shows."

Assuming that ice conditions are safe, Waters suggests trying Hawthorne, White Oak, Miami, Wapello, Sugema, Geode, Odessa, Hannen and Diamond lakes and farm ponds for bluegills. Most bluegills are in the 6- to 8-inch range, with some bigger fish. For crappies he recommends lakes Miami, Keomah, Sugema, Darling and Union Grove, and Coralville and Rathbun reservoirs.

"Most lake crappies are in the 8- to 10-inch range," he offered, "but the fish in the reservoirs are more robust. Expect to catch some 12-inchers."

Down in the southwest corner of Iowa, biologist Chris Larson reports that there was only a little ice-fishing there in mid December last year. He hopes for a "normal winter" -- one with some ice-fishing! Assuming safe conditions, he recommends Mormon Trail, Greenfield, Nodaway, Orient and Meadow lakes in Adair County and Anita and Cocklin's Fish Farm Pond in Cass County. East Hacklebarney Lake in Montgomery County should also produce. Further, Larson feels that the numerous farm ponds in the hilly county are good bets.

"Many of the lakes in my area have been going through a natural drawdown caused by ongoing drought conditions for the past three years," he said. "This exposes small bluegills to largemouth bass predation. That usually leaves more food for the remaining bluegills, which show increased growth."

According to Larson, in his region most bluegills run 7 to 9 inches and most crappies 9 to 10 inches.

Although many Iowa lakes and ponds have the potential to produce great ice-fishing when the weather allows, the state's northern counties tend to have the coldest weather and the most likely safe ice conditions.

Probably Iowa's prime ice-fishing destination is the Great Lakes area in Dickinson County. East and West Okoboji and Spirit Lake offer outstanding panfishing during the warm months -- and those same fish are there in the winter. The big lakes normally freeze solid and stay that way all winter. But not last year.

"I've lived up here many years and have never seen as much open water as we had during the 2005-2006 winter," said Jan Shuttleworth, an employee at Lakeside Lab on the bank of West Okoboji. "Several winter events had to be cancelled. Even up here in the coldest part of Iowa, people need to be very cautious before going out on the ice."

West Okoboji is one of Iowa's deepest lakes, and probably has the state's greatest diversity of fish species; it's one of the few places in Iowa at which anglers can catch pumpkinseed sunfish. The lake also has smallmouth bass, northern pike and muskies.

Fortunately, the Okoboji area has many smaller lakes and sloughs that tend to be frozen longer and to have thicker ice than do the big lakes. Many are weedy and hard to fish when the water's open, but can be highly productive through the ice.

So with the ice so iffy just what is the future of the sport?

"The last few winters have taken a toll on ice-fishing effort," said Andy Moore. "My sense is that interest is level. It's not increasing or decreasing. If this winter is a cold one with safe ice, Iowa's hardy winter anglers are in for a great season."

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