Iowa Bluegills: Just Add Ice

Want some big trophy bluegills this winter? If your answer's yes, read on to see what our experts have to say about where and how to get them.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

By Ed Harp

Want a treat this winter for the dinner table? Well, if you're willing to brave the cold, follow a few safety precautions and do your homework, it shouldn't be a problem. Big, fat bluegills can be found in nearly any part of Iowa.

No matter where you live in the Hawkeye State there's a lake near you that offers trophy bluegill possibilities. Of course, those residents in the northern half of the state will have a longer season with safe ice but those anglers in the southern half of the state can harvest big 'gills as well. All you need is a little information, and you'll be good to go.

Iowa is full of small lakes both natural and artificial. They're everywhere. There are a few big ones, but most are small. Some are deep, but most are relatively shallow and weedy. Small, shallow, weedy - that's prime bluegill water.

This basic advantage for the fish is strengthened by the management practices of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. (Well, truth be told, some fish have benefited - others have been eaten.) The IDNR has been draining a number of their fisheries around the state. These drawdowns have dramatically improved the fishing.

Gary Sobotka, IDNR fisheries management biologist, can't say enough good things about the drawdowns. He points out that when the water is dropped it concentrates the fish in a smaller area. This has several immediate and direct effects on the fish. Among them is more efficient feeding by predators and a lowered competition for forage.

A BIOLOGY LESSON

Any rookie fisheries management biologist can tell you the first two steps towards growing big fish are reducing total numbers of the species you're trying to grow and increasing the food base relative to the number of fish living in the fishery. These usually work hand in hand.

The reduced water volume allows predators to hunt and capture smaller fish more efficiently. With bluegills, this means that bass and catfish are able to eat more of them, primarily the little ones. This reduces the number of bluegills fighting for the available food.

Reduced water volume also has a secondary effect by reducing the shad population. It makes them more vulnerable to predators. This is helpful to the bluegills because shad compete directly with them for the same forage. In fact, shad are their principal competitors.

This means that the surviving bluegills are fewer in number, larger in size and better fed after the drawdown than they were before. Once the fishery is allowed to refill, they grow even bigger and faster.

This doesn't happen overnight, however. A true and dramatic increase in size takes some time. The best bluegill waters will grow their biggest fish anywhere from three to seven years after a drawdown.

So, as you read along, if you don't find a place you like listed in this article you can find your own. Check around with local residents, local anglers and the local IDNR biologist. Find a lake or large pond that has been renovated by the IDNR.

Make certain it was the subject of a drawdown, and then calculate the time needed for the bluegills to benefit - and you're in business. It's really not all that hard, and it'll improve your catch of big bluegills dramatically.

Some of the waters listed in this article have benefited from IDNR drawdowns; others are just natural producers. No matter the reason, they have been selected with the help of the IDNR as some of the best trophy bluegill waters in the state. Take advantage of them while they're hot. The best fishing is often cyclical and may not last long.

TRY EARLY AND LATE - EVEN UNDER THE ICE

No matter where you're fishing - according to Dick McWilliams, IDNR fisheries management biologist - the best bite will most likely be in the early morning or in the late afternoon.

The reasons for this are unclear, but probably have something to do with light penetration. The angle of the sun is lower during those times, so there's less light stretching into the water, even under a thick layer of ice.

The better baits seem to be universal. Most Iowa bluegill anglers fish with small jigs, which are usually dressed with a skirt of some sort or a tube. Colors vary, but the most popular are chartreuse or orange, or a combination of the two.

Bluegill jigs are normally tipped with live bait. In most cases that will be a wax worm, but wigglers, earthworms, night crawlers and very small minnows are also popular. A number of anglers believe that small minnows are best when searching for really big bluegills. They believe that this will help sort the big ones from the small ones. Others disagree. This is one call you'll have to make yourself.

If you fish in waters that are dingy or unfamiliar, a portable depthfinder may be useful. There are several models made specifically for ice-fishing. Features and prices vary widely so check carefully before you buy.

SAFETY FIRST - AND LAST

Before considering the best waters to fish this winter, however, a short discussion of ice safety is in order. To avoid tragedy keep a few things in mind. Never, not ever, fish alone. Always check the ice with a pole, staff or ice chisel. Never fish over moving water. And always wear a personal flotation device - no exceptions. (For an excellent discussion of ice safety and a thickness and load chart, see www.mvp-wc.usace.army. mil/ice/ice_load.html.)

WHERE TO GO

OK - let's go fishing. If you live in the northwest corner of the state one of your top choices should be West Okoboji. This 3,800-acre natural lake is located in Dickinson County on the northwest edge of Arnold's Park.

A conversation with Andrew Scholten tells us a lot about fishing for big bluegills on West O as well as trophy bluegill fishing in general. Scholten is an avid ice-angler as well as a Creel Clerk and Natural Resources Aide with the IDNR. This gives him a unique and insightful perspective on the sport.

He recommends anglers fish any of the four major bays on the lake: Triboji, Emerson, Miller's or Smith. "Any of them are capable of producing a monster," he said. Not all areas in these bays are equal, however. Some spots produce better than others.

Early and late in the season, Scholten scans the ice for areas where the tops of the weeds are growing up to the ice. He then searches out pockets or holes in that weed growth. During the middle of the season, as the weeds are beginning to turn brown and die, he'll look for areas of deeper water away from the weeds.

Experience has taught him that's where the big ones are lurking. Why? He's not sure.

One theory - "just a theory," he emphasized - is that the forage and oxygen is better in the weeds early in the season, while they are still green. Then, as the weeds die, the forage drops, as does the oxygen content of the water. Late in the season, after the weeds are dead (as opposed to dying), the oxygen returns, and so does the forage - along with the bluegills.

He suggests anglers consider the new horizontal jigs. They're all the rage these days. Some models are offered in glow in the dark colors. When it comes to basic jig colors Scholten agrees with McWilliams: Chartreuse and orange can be hot. He believes, however, that gold is the best choice for a consistent bite. He tips his jigs with wax worms.

Scholten also has some thoughts about drilling ice holes. He considers the hole size and its effects on the fish. The waters of West O are clear, most times to 20 feet. A big hole, 12 inches, allows you to see what's going on underneath the ice. It also lets the fish see what's going on above them. Sometimes a 4- or 6-inch hole is better.

Scholten also recommends Minnewashta, 122 acres of water located just south of East O, for "real monsters." Fish the south end of the lake, near the rock bar, for best results.

Spirit Lake's 5,600 acres in Dickinson County also holds some fine bluegills. Recommended spots include Angler's Bay and the North Slope. "Fish the edges of the lily pads," Scholten's advised.

East Okoboji, its 1,800 acres also located in Dickinson County, is another venue to consider. It's considered to be a prime location.

On East O fish the weeds that have a little green in them. Those growing in water around 10 feet deep are best. If you can find weeds with some wood mixed in - maybe a stump or a laydown - so much the better.

Bluegills in East O tend to school by size. If you start catching small fish, move along. The bigger ones probably aren't there. And don't be surprised if you catch a big crappie or two while searching for the 'gills. They like to mix it up in this lake.

Lake Hendricks, in northeast Iowa, is another respectable choice for trophy bluegills. It's small, only 40 acres, but has consistently produced big, trophy size bluegills over the years. The lake is located in Howard County about a half-mile northeast of Riceville.

Northeast district fisheries supervisor Dave Moeller recommends searching for the big ones in the northern half of the lake. Try to find a spot with some weed growth or perhaps a sharp drop or old channel. That's where you'll have the best success.

Moeller suggests dressing your jig with a wax worm or small minnow to entice the biggest ones in the neighborhood to bite. This lake also supports an excellent crappie population, so don't be surprised if they're part of the day's mix.

Another good choice, according to Moeller, is Casey Lake in Tama County. It's closer to the middle of the state but still on the east side. Casey isn't much bigger than Hendricks, only 54 acres, but holds some awesome bluegills. He recommends fishing deeper water, 12 to 14 feet, around the numerous brushpiles and artificial habitat that the IDNR has dropped in the lake.

Awaiting really serious trophy hunters are the backwaters of the Mississippi River. Scott Gritters, fisheries biologist for pools 9, 10 and 11, opines that those waters hold some truly huge bluegills.

Gritters warns anglers, however, to be very careful when ice fishing these waters. "The ice can be treacherous," he said. Be wary of current, obstructions under the ice and areas where the river water has dropped after the ice formed. Never fish the backwaters alone.

His recommendations for Pool 9 are Cordwood Lake, Fish Lake, New Albin, Lancing Lake, Shore Slew, Conway Lake, Catfish Lake and Zoll Lake. In Pool 10 he recommends Harper's Ferry, Lower Joyce Lake just north of Harper's Ferry, Mud Hen Lake, Marquette and McGregor above Guttenburg and Bussey Lake.

As for Pool 11: "They're not there - not the size you're looking for," he offered candidly. If anglers insist on fishing it, he suggests that they search out the dredged areas with weed growth. "You'll need some depth to catch them downstream that far - at least 6 feet of water," says the Mississippi River biologist.

No matter the pool, Gritters' advice is the same: Fish the deeper areas of any backwater, especially where there has been some dredging or renovation. Weeds are a very important addition and never pass up an area with wood if the water has any depth at all (5 or 6 feet).

Fish slowly and carefully, making sure all likely spots are covered. Don't get in a hurry. The best holding areas are small on the Mississippi. You must put the bait right on their noses.

As for the extreme southwestern corner of the state, IDNR fisheries biologist Gary Sobotka recommends Pioneer Park in Page County as an option for big bluegills. The lake is small, less than 5 acres, but the bluegills are big - real big. Many are caught each year between 9 1/2 and 10 inches in length. The usual baits are successful in this venue.

One of the best spots in the southern half of Iowa - maybe in the entire state - is Three Mile Lake. Just short of 900 acres, Three Mile, constructed in 1996, lies approximately three miles northwest of Afton in Union County.

Its age makes it just about perfect for the big ones. Bluegills of 10 inches have been hauled from Three Mile's water for several years. It's possible that this might be the home of the next state record.

There are a number of old creek channels that run to and fro across the lake. For best results, try to find areas with some weed growth - still green if possible - that lie very close to the channel drop. Places where the channel bends or swings - the sharper the better - seem to produce the biggest fish.

The deeper coves and bays, and those with steep sided channel breaks, will also produce big fish. The many areas of standing timber are especially productive. Detailed maps of the lake are available locally.

West Lake Osceola in Clarke County, two miles west of Osceola, is another hotspot in the area. Covering 335 acres, it is a consistent producer of big bluegills.

Green Valley Lake is another place you should add to your places-I-need-to-fish list. (You do have one - don't you?) Situated in Union County, its 335-acre size makes it big enough to offer ch

oices and small enough to fish in a day. Several seriously big bluegills have been caught in its waters. Don't pass it up this year if it's near home.

In the same area is Big Creek Lake. Located in Polk County, a couple of miles north of Polk City and adjacent to Saylorville, this 883-acre body of water has consistently produced big bluegills over the years.

Dick McWilliams advises the lake has recently undergone a partial renovation. There was a drawdown along with fish attractor placements of brushpiles and rock. This renovation is having the desired effect: The bluegills are growing big, very big.

McWilliams recommends fishing over areas of deep water, 10 to 20 feet, which are located around the manmade fish structure.

There are several fishing jetties along its 21 miles of shoreline. They offer excellent winter bluegill fishing. Don't pass them by when fishing this lake.

McWilliams also points anglers towards a small, yet most productive, lake near Exira in Audubon County: Littlefield.

Its name and small size, 70 acres, shouldn't fool you. The bluegill fishing is top shelf, especially for bigger fish. Littlefield has been especially productive over the last couple of years. McWilliams suggests fishing near the lower end of the lake in 8 to 10 feet of water. Fish any structural irregularity you can find.

There you have it. All you need now is hot grease and some corn meal.



Discover even more in our monthly magazine,

and have it delivered to your door!

Subscribe to Iowa Game & Fish



Magazine Cover

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Temporary Price Reduction

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get the top Game & Fish stories delivered right to your inbox every week.