Iowa's Urban Ice-Fishing Adventures

Urban ice means more than just slick roads when you head out for hardwater fun. (February 2007)

You've got cabin fever in the worst way. An ice-fishing trip is just the ticket to get you and some family or friends outdoors for an afternoon of fun and fishing.

But the same weather that contributes to cabin fever creates nasty road conditions. Icy roads, drifted roads and blowing snow take the fun out of possible trips to longstanding Hawkeye ice-fishing hotspots such as Kent Park, Clear Lake, Big Creek Lake, Lake Ahquabi or Lake McBride.

All's not lost, however: You and your buddies or children can still salvage an afternoon of ice-angling, and provide the fixings for a midwinter meal of fresh fish. There are small, often overlooked ice-fishing opportunities within the city limits of all our larger metropolitan areas. Without leaving the city limits, creative anglers can drill holes and catch crappies, bluegills, walleyes and even northern pike.

DES MOINES METRO AREA

Ice-anglers in the Des Moines metropolitan area have a dozen or more urban ice-fishing opportunities. Gray's Lake, Easter Lake and the ponds at Waterworks Park come quickly to mind, but there are smaller venues worth exploring when the weather is too nasty to travel to lakes outside the metro.

Ankeny, a suburb north of Des Moines, has a policy of creating fishable ponds whenever possible in new parks or subdivisions. "Our engineers make a conscious effort to create ponds that will hold fish when they design new parks and public areas," said Ed Gooch, Ankeny maintenance supervisor. "Ankeny was originally a pretty low area, so it's not hard to dig a hole and fill it with water. So when they have to incorporate a storm water control structure or water-retention basin, they make an effort to make it big enough and deep enough to hold fish."

The result: nine small public ponds sprinkled around Ankeny, some old, some new. Hawkeye Pond, in Wagner Park, just north of the fire station on First Street, was originally 13 to 15 feet deep when it was constructed in the late 1960s, but is now probably around 8 feet at its deepest point.

"That pond, and all our ponds, were originally stocked with bluegills, largemouth bass and channel catfish," said Gooch. "But they've got every species of fish found in Saylorville and Big Creek lakes. People go fishing at Saylorville and Big Creek, bring home fish, decide they don't want to clean them, and turn them loose in one of the ponds."

Gooch doesn't advocate such stocking, because it can unbalance fish populations. But he admits that there are interesting angling possibilities in many of Ankeny's city-owned ponds. "I've heard of walleyes and northern pike being caught," he said. "Not many, and not often, but enough to keep things interesting. Mostly, it's bluegills, crappies and bass. Crappie and bluegill fishing can be pretty good in some of the ponds. The north pond at Springwood Park produced some nice stringers of bluegills last summer, and should be just as good this winter."

Gooch noted that fishing at one of Ankeny's public ponds may soon suffer owing to aesthetic reasons. "People around Springwood want the water crystal-clear and weed-free in their pond," he said. "Our other ponds weed up a little in the summer, which is what ponds normally do, and those weeds create good fishing. If we treat the water at Springwood, the fishing will probably decline."

An urban ice-fishing opportunity between Ankeny and the north side of Des Moines is the big pond at Des Moines Area Community College, near the intersection of Highway 69 and Oralabor Road. Drill holes in the southern third, over the old creek channel, to find bluegills and crappies that run from 7 to 9 inches. Be wary of open water or soft ice near the aerator in the pond's upper end.

Urbandale, on Des Moines' northwest side, has a couple of small ice-fishing opportunities for anglers who want to stay close to home and hearth on cold days. The small pond at Lakeview Park, on Aurora Avenue between 86th Street and Merle Hay Road, is shallow and weedy in summer, but supports more and larger fish than many observers might expect. I watched a young man fight and land a 15-pound channel cat from the pond several summers ago.

"It's mostly small bluegills," said Jim Fazio, who's with Urbandale's municipal department. "But who knows what people have put in there? There's talk of dredging it, to help control the weeds in summer, but for now, it is what it is, and there might be some good fishing in it. The same applies to a little pond in Walker-Johnston Park, on Douglas Avenue, west of 86th Street. People have put fish in it, and some of them might be decent. It's a potluck. You never know what you might catch if you drill a hole."

Within Des Moines' city limits, Fort Des Moines Pond, between Southridge Mall and Blank Park Zoo on the city's southeast side, has long had a reputation for big crappies and bluegills. Local bait shops report catches of 10- to 14-inch crappies and 8- to 9-inch bluegills -- when the fish are in the mood to bite.

Panfish at the Pond are either on or off: If they're in the mood to bite, they bite quickly and aggressively, but if there are no bites after a half-hour's fishing at the Pond, move on to other opportunities. Just be sure to dangle baits directly over or into any woody structure in Fort Des Moines Pond before surrendering. Panfish at the Pond seem to be tightly associated with structure, and don't wander far into open water.

CEDAR RAPIDS

Anglers in Cedar Rapids have several opportunities to fish within in their city limits during the winter. One of the most unusual is McCloud Run, a cold-water stream that runs near Interstate 380 in Cedar Rapids. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources regularly stocks trout in the open water of the urban stream, and anglers catch them throughout the winter. Jigs, spinners and small live bait are as effective as sophisticated fly-fishing tactics during winter months.

Traditional ice-anglers can also target several small urban ponds or lakes in the Cedar Rapids area.

"We (the IDNR) just got control (of managing the fishery) of Cedar Lake, in downtown Cedar Rapids," said Paul Sleeper, IDNR fisheries biologist. "It has a lot of nice bass, and tons of decent bluegills. It's a warmwater discharge for the power plant, so the ice-fishing may be iffy, but if it's not frozen, then fish the open water. The warmer water temperatures keep the fish active all winter long."

Murphy Lake is a 10-acre borrow pit created when the Iowa Department of Transportation needed fill dirt for a highway project. The large pond is off Highway 13 near Bertram Road, on the southeast corner of Cedar Rapids. It's stocked with the usual menu of IDNR-stocked fish -- b

luegills, largemouth bass and channel catfish. Fish it like a farm pond: Find the deepest water, identify any dropoffs left by excavating equipment, and you'll find panfish under its ice.

Sleeper noted that the backwater ponds in Ellis Park in central Cedar Rapids are shallow, but have deeper areas that harbor all fish species found in the adjacent Cedar River, and decent populations of crappies, bluegills and other panfish. Drill holes over dropoffs into deeper water, and be prepared for an occasional walleye or northern pike if you're fishing with minnows.

Anglers in North Liberty, a fast-growing town between Cedar Rapids and Iowa City, will soon have several intown ice-angling opportunities. According to Sleeper, North Liberty's city planners incorporate fishing into their urban dreams.

"They're doing a great job putting ponds in parks and housing developments whenever they can," he said. "They're working with us to stock the existing ponds and put fish in any new ones that get built."

OTHER URBAN OPTIONS

Every city in Iowa has some sort of river backwater or oxbow related to rivers, or excavated ponds associated with parks or housing developments. Even if the IDNR or city officials don't add fish, well-intentioned local anglers often introduce bluegills, crappies and other species to any body of water that looks like it might support a population of fish.

When road conditions deter travel to the standard ice-fishing lakes around the state, consider exploring an urban pond in your city. Access is easy, surrounding trees block the wind, and the fishing might be far better than you expect. Fish are fish. They don't care if they're in a huge lake in a remote area or a small pond surrounded by split-foyer homes and duplexes -- when they're hungry, they eat. And if your bait's in front of them, you'll catch them.

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