Best Bets For Hawkeye Slabs

Iowa anglers in search of consistent -- and occasionally explosive -- crappie fishing this year have no fewer than a half-dozen options across the Hawkeye State! (March 2010)

Iowa crappie anglers are likely to find quality fishing in multiple waters across the state, from the Mississippi River and its backwaters to the Iowa Great Lakes.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt.

The good news for Iowa's crappie anglers in 2010 is slightly ironic: there will be no single, super-hot, must-visit lake for crappie fishing in Iowa this year. There's no lake where experts guarantee anglers can easily fill their 25-fish-per-angler daily limit with 12- to 14-inch crappies.

Instead, there are a half-dozen or more lakes in Iowa that promise consistent and occasionally explosive crappie fishing this year. That's good news, because instead of having to travel across the state to a specific lake to experience our best crappie fishing, anglers can visit selected lakes closer to home, still confident they'll enjoy good fishing.

According to biologists with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, fishing guides and veteran anglers, here are those top lakes for Iowa crappies in 2010:

LAKE RATHBUN
For decades, Lake Rathbun was Iowa's crappie capital. No other lake could touch Rathbun for crappie size and numbers. But anglers who traveled to Rathbun last year found the lake uncharacteristically high, muddy and hard to fish. IDNR fisheries biologist Mark Flammang said several years of unfortunate weather have knocked askew Rathbun's crown as Iowa's Crappie King.

High and muddy water conditions at Rathbun were compounded by the lake's age. Anglers who fished the big lake in the early 1970s remember when its shoreline was pocked with thousands of small coves and irregularities. Its points were sharply defined. Age and siltation have smoothed the lake's shorelines and contours, reducing the type of structure that makes crappies easy to locate, target and catch. Flammang said the IDNR and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are working hard on projects to improve water quality and shoreline habitat at Rathbun, but for the next year or so, anglers will have to accept "average" crappie fishing in the lake.

"Guys expect phenomenal crappie fishing from Rathbun," said Flammang. "When it gets a little tough, they're frustrated. The thing is, less-than-average crappie fishing at Rathbun is better-than-average crappie fishing at most other lakes in the Midwest. I would never overlook Rathbun if I want to catch crappies. (Crappies) are there; you just might have to look in different places and work a little harder to find them."

Ron Boylan is a professional fishing guide on Rathbun (641-203-1411) who specializes in crappies and walleyes.

"There were a lot of 6- and 7-inchers in the lake in 2009, and guys got frustrated because they couldn't find the slabs that Rathbun is famous for," Boylan said. "We caught a lot of 13- to 16-inchers, but you had to know certain small key areas. It was pinpoint fishing. We could consistently catch 20 to 40 of them a day, but (we) had to work at it. What I noticed was that they were unusually shallow. We caught a majority of our crappies in 4 to 6 feet of water, even after the spawn and through the summer."

Boylan noted that there seems to be a "hole" in the crappie population at Rathbun. "We're missing a year-class or two," he said. "Last year we didn't see many 9- to 10-inchers, and that means 10- to 11-inchers will be in short supply this year."

Flammang says Boylan's observations are accurate. "For a number of reasons the crappies at Rathbun didn't get off a good spawn or had poor survival for a couple years," he said. "The good news is that there's a year-class coming up that will make up for lost time.

"In 2005 and 2006, (Rathbun) was unusually low," said Flammang. "In 2007, the lake went from 5 feet below normal pool to 10 feet above normal pool, right during the crappie spawn. They got off great reproduction that year, and we have a huge year-class coming up as a result. . . . By late this summer, and especially next spring, those fish will be up in the 9- to 10-inch range and Rathbun will be tough to beat for crappie fishing."

SOUTH-CENTRAL RESERVOIRS
Gary Sobotka is an IDNR fisheries management biologist for south-central Iowa in charge of several lakes on the rebound after major renovation projects. He said anglers can "go big or small" to catch crappies in his territory.

"Three Mile and Twelve Mile lakes are both coming back fast after their renovation projects several years ago," he said. "The majority of crappie -- the first big spawns after the lakes refilled -- are in that 9- to 10-inch range anglers find acceptable, with enough 12- to 13-inchers to keep things interesting. Lake Icaria is doing really well, too, after its renovation.

"For shore-anglers, there are some smaller lakes we renovated that showed up really well in our surveys," said Sobotka. "Binder Reservoir and Corning Reservoir, both in the city of Corning, had good numbers and sizes of crappies in our surveys. Down in Taylor County, a couple of 15-acre lakes -- Windmill and Wilson lakes -- produced a lot of 8- to 10-inch crappies when we last looked at them. Those small lakes are really good for shore-anglers."

Sobotka is especially enthused about how crappies are responding to renovations at Twelve Mile Lake. "Our goal at both Twelve Mile and Three Mile was to maintain the traditional spots where anglers knew they could find crappies but improve the areas that were only so-so for crappies."

At Twelve Mile, anglers knew the steep western shoreline studded with standing timber was a "fair" place for crappies. Sobotka says that shoreline should now be one of the top spots in the lake for crappies. The lake's renovation plan required the shoreline be covered in riprap. Because of the steep shoreline, the only way the contractor could haul and install rock in the area was to carve a road parallel to the lowered lake's shoreline.

"When the lake refilled, we ended up with a bench around 14 to 16 feet wide that's about 3 to 4 feet below water line all along that shoreline," said Sobotka. "There's riprap from the bench up to the waterline, and we had the contractor scatter rock chips and leave a few piles of rocks on the bench itself. The outside edge of the bench drops off into 20 feet of water, with the standing timber still standing down into the deeper water.

"I use the lightest jigs I can find," Sobotka said. "Sometimes I'll use 1/64-ounce and a small bobber to give weight so I can cast it. My theory is that crappies are sight-feeders who tend to feed 'up,' so small baits that fall slowly t

oward them give them more time to see them. Those small jigs fall with a fluttering action that looks more natural than a 1/8-ounce jig plummeting past them. Color-wise, black is good. Maribou-type jigs have always worked better than tube jigs for me. I want the fuzziest, tiniest jig I can find."

Sobotka will ply several lakes this summer with fuzzy, tiny jigs. He rated Twelve Mile Lake and Three Mile lakes as his prime spots for 9- to 10-inch crappies. If he is in the mood for numbers rather than size, he'll head for Lake Icaria, where a huge population of crappies that measured 7 to 8 inches last fall will grow to keeper-size this summer. He'll also consider recently renovated Lake of Three Fires, where growth rates for both crappies and bluegills have put it on his list of top panfish lakes in Iowa.

MISSISSIPPI RIVER & BACKWATERS
For sheer size, no fishery in Iowa can compare with the Mississippi River's backwaters when it comes to crappie fishing. Unmeasured miles of timber- and weed-filled backwaters provide shelter and forage to produce crappies that average 9 to 11 inches. The challenge is to find them. IDNR fisheries biologist Gene Jones, another die-hard crappie catcher, says it's actually easy to pinpoint the best places to target crappies in the big river.

"For all the area they cover, most of the backwaters are severely silted in and now are so shallow that they don't hold many fish," he said. "Crappies are going to be in the deeper backwaters, and there aren't many of those deeper areas left. If you target dredged areas like Spring Lake in Pool 13, you're going to be looking at the best spots."

Jones said a "thinking" angler can discover other crappie holes. "Think about anything that would create deeper water that's out of the main current," he said. "Marinas have deeper water and lots of docks and structure, so they're great spots for crappies. The same goes for dredged sandpits that connect to the river. If there's a direct connection to the river, then the public has the right to access those pits. Crappies love them. Just be careful to stay out of the way of any equipment or barges that are moving around the area."

LAKE MACBRIDE & CORALVILLE LAKE
Lake Macbride was renovated several years ago and has been reborn as eastern Iowa's premier crappie lake. IDNR fisheries biologist Paul Sleeper said surveys indicate crappies at Macbride average 9 to 10 inches. Eleven- to 13-inchers show up frequently in both IDNR nets and anglers' fish baskets.

"Fourteen- to 16-inchers don't surprise me at Macbride," Sleeper said. "(Crappies) always seem to associate with brushy or rocky structure at Macbride. Early in the spring, they're in the shallow water east of the causeway in the south arm and above the silt dike in the north arm. Those areas warm up first and crappies really move in. During the spawn, they're in shallow brushpiles. We put a lot of brushpiles along the shoreline, especially near fishing jetties. Another spot that's hot during the spawn is the riprap along the causeway where the road crosses the south arm."

Coralville Lake has for decades teased crappie anglers. Erratic water levels in that flood control reservoir create flooded, weedy shorelines that favor large spawns that translate into healthy year-classes of crappies, thanks to the lake's abundant shad forage base. But decades of flooding have floated away most woody habitat, making it difficult for anglers to pinpoint crappie locations.

"We've added brushpiles to the mouths of a lot of the coves whenever ice conditions during the winter allowed us to," said Sleeper. "We've also dropped some full-grown trees along shorelines, but it takes a tremendous amount of weight to anchor those trees when the lake floods. The most consistent spots for crappies, year in and year out, are the vertical rock walls in the lower end."

There will be no "super-lakes" for crappies in Iowa this year, merely a half-dozen or more premier lakes and the Mississippi River's backwaters primed to produce consistent catches of slab crappies. Odds are one of them is within reach of your house.

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