Best Bets For Iowa 'Eyes
October 04, 2010
Whether you're looking for fast action or for trophies, our walleye waters have something to offer you. Which rivers and lakes promise to serve up the best angling? (February 2006)
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
One of our favorite fish in the Hawkeye State is the walleye. One experience that I won't forget is the first time I ever caught one.
I unhooked the creature and just stared at it.
"What is it?" I asked, a little more perplexed than I wanted to let on.
"A walleye," responded my more experienced partner.
I'd never even seen anything that looked like a walleye. It had more teeth than I was used to, and the oddest opaque-looking eyes.
Needless to say, I'm no longer taken aback by the sight of a walleye. As a matter of fact, it now tops my list of deep-fried delicacies.
I'm not alone.
The Iowa Fisheries Bureau has invested a lot of time and effort in improving the state's fisheries. Many of our larger lakes and rivers now offer outstanding walleye angling for both big catches and trophy-class fish.
"About four or five years ago, our hatchery started producing a lot more 6-inch walleye for stocking, and you can see a remarkable improvement in the year-classes," said Lannie Miller, a fisheries management biologist at the Black Hawk Lake fish management station.
Statewide, biologists discovered that larger walleyes had a much greater survival rate. Though more expensive to produce, 6- to 8-inch walleyes stocked in the fall have resulted in more fish in the boat for Iowa anglers.
Gary Sobotka, a biologist with the Mt. Ayr fisheries management station, is completely sold on the idea. "We stock 8-inch fish every fall. By the next fall these fish are about 11 inches, and then by the year after that, they'll go about 14 or 15 inches."
In addition to bigger fish, anglers are also enjoying greater numbers of walleyes than in previous years. Reports from around the state show that last year's catch rates were admirable. According to biologists, this year is expected to be another banner year as well.
Here's a look at the hotspots at which fishermen can find not only a lot of walleyes but also an occasional lunker.
BLACK HAWK LAKE
"If you want to catch a bunch of fish from 15 inches up to about 22 inches, this is a lake to come to," said Miller. "In 1999 the walleye population suffered a summer kill and lost from 75 to 85 percent of the fish. We stocked that fall and ever since, and this past spring has been one of the better years."
According to Miller, Black Hawk walleyes enjoy one of the fastest growth rates in the state. Couple that with an aggressive stocking program, a 15-inch minimum size and a three-fish bag limit, and you've got some outstanding walleye angling.
In 1978, an aeration system designed to stop the winterkills experienced on the lake in the past was installed. The summertime kill, the result of cloudy, still weather and the dying of submerged vegetation, which produced lethal levels of carbon dioxide in the water, came as a surprise; since then, the walleye fishery has rebounded.
"This past year a guy caught a 7-pounder that was over 19 inches, and we've seen several 5- or 6-pounders," said Miller. "About four or five years ago, our hatchery started producing a lot more 6-inch fish to stock, and you can see a remarkable improvement in the year-classes. The walleye are extremely healthy."
A lot of fish in the 15- to 18-inch range are available this year. The relatively new minimum-size restriction seems to have helped Black Hawk's walleyes to move on up the yardstick. These fish will be providing a lot of action in the coming months.
When, according to Miller, the water warms up in April, the east end of the lake is the hotspot. The fish move up into the spawning areas along the rocks. After two or three weeks of good action, walleyes move out onto the sand close to shore. Use a leadhead jig and a leech or a slip-bobber and a jig to target these fish.
June fishing revolves around the rockpiles; after that, anglers will pick up a few fish by trolling crankbaits. In July and August it's a tough bite, as there's plenty of forage and the water is warm.
The action picks up again with the cooling of temperatures in September or early October; hitting the spring hotspots will put you on the fish at this time of the year, says Miller. The lake is shallow and windswept -- something to keep in mind when venturing out in questionable weather.
Another area of the lake recommended by Miller is the dredge cut extending from the east to the west ends of the lake right out in the middle. A depthfinder is needed to locate the deeper water, but at times the fish can be stacked up just inside of the cut.
Black Hawk is on the east edge of Lake View in Sac County in the northwestern part of the state. It covers 987 acres in the western part of the state and has over 11 miles of shoreline. Creel surveys show that here, unlike at most of our other walleye waters, shorebound anglers can catch walleyes right from the bank. More than half of the land surrounding the lake is publicly owned and so accessible by shorebound anglers.
There are no horsepower restrictions. For more information, contact the Black Hawk fish management Station at (712) 657-2638.
THREE MILE LAKE
"I look for Three Mile to have a really good year," said Gary Sobotka. "Our stocking program is fairly aggressive, and there are a lot of big fish in there. Neighbors of mine have caught fish from 22 to 28 inches. The 18-inchers looked like runts."
One of southwest Iowa's best walleye fisheries, the 880-acre lake has 23 miles of shoreline, and excellent shallow habitat, but the average depth is 16 feet, with a maximum of 50 feet.
Fishing jetties are available for bank-anglers, while three ramps cater to boaters out for walleyes, which have only been stocked since 1996. "We did a lot of in-lake fish habitat work prior to the lake's being impounded, and now we're reaping the benefit," said Sobotka.
Fishing on the rock and artificial structure is the key. Walleyes frequent several earthen mounds, especially when rocks, flooded timber or deeper water can be found on one side of the feature. Some of the mounds have old creek channels leading up to and away from them where the walleye
s will also concentrate. The mounds are in water about 12 to 14 feet deep.
The night bite can be hot on the east end of the emergency spillway. A cobblestone area was laid in the water about 6 feet off shore and runs about 300 feet in length. There aren't many fish on this area in the daylight, but it's a different story after dark.
The early-spring fishing is very impressive, according to Sobotka. Spring anglers should target shallow water on the shoreline rocks and fish mounds. Troll crankbaits about 8 to 12 feet deep around the points and rocks. In June, you should fish in about 14 to 16 feet of water, since the fish go deeper in the lake's clear water. Sobotka recommends fishing slowly with light jigheads or harnesses using minnows or whole, large leeches.
Summer angling slows down, though last year the bite slowed only temporarily before taking off again. In October and November, walleyes can be taken by means of springtime tactics
"The water is so clear that anglers may have to fish a little deeper than they're used to, "said Sobotka. "A lot of times you can see the lake bottom in 6 feet of water. Make a conscious effort to adjust your depths accordingly."
Sobotka looks for Three Mile to be excellent producer well into the future. "I've got 8,800 walleyes to go into the lake this October," he said. "We put in this many 8-inch fish every year, and I'm hoping they all grow up to be trophies."
If the current sizes of the fish are any indication, catching a trophy is well within the realm of possibility.
Right now, no special regulations are in effect on the lake located three miles north of Afton. For more information, contact the Mt. Ayer Fish Management station at (641) 464-3108.
"The walleye fishing has been improving in the last several years," said Mark Flammang, fisheries management biologist with the Rathbun fish management station. "In 1997 and 1998 we stocked 2-inch fingerlings in June and 8-inch fish in October, and starting in 1997, we began an assessment on the fish we'd been stocking. We learned that it takes a big fish to survive in Sugema, while in other lakes it may not."
The Iowa Department of Natural Resources' response? Stock the bigger fish. Now, high-end walleye at Sugema top out at around 20 to 24 inches. Most are from 14 to 19 inches, but occasionally an angler will reel in a 25-incher.
"The last several springs, the walleye fishing has been outstanding," said Flammang. "There's a lot of action. I was there three times last spring, and on two days, I caught my five-fish limit in an hour and a half or less."
Flammang reports that the fishing is good right at dark, thanks in part to the clear water in the lake, where visibility can be as good as 5 or 6 feet.
Anglers can score big in late March to mid-April by trolling a jig and minnow over the rocky areas and sandy points. The pre-spawn and post-spawn fish will be holding on these areas. Later on in the season, the action can be just as good; the same lake areas draw fall fish as well.
The 574-acre lake, part of the 3,000-acre Sugema Wildlife Area in Van Buren County, was developed with anglers in mind: Trees were left standing in the main-lake basin, and three boat ramps serve visiting fishermen.
Contact the Rathbun fish management station at (641) 647-2406 for more information.
DES MOINES RIVER
The current state-record walleye -- 14 pounds, 8 ounces and measuring over 30 inches -- came out of this river. Are there new state-record fish swimming these waters? Only time will tell -- but chances are good that there are.
The Des Moines, Iowa's longest river, extends for over 400 miles through the Hawkeye state. Though not all stretches of the river are equal when it comes to walleyes, there are sections that hold huge 'eyes and provide some of the finest angling opportunities that we have for trophy-class fish.
The river winds its way from the northern border of Iowa to the southern border -- and the city of Des Moines is right along some of the best fishing on the river.
River fishing differs from big-lake angling; it calls for an entirely new approach. "The best areas when the river levels are up are below the dams and structures along the river, such as below the Saylorville dam, below the Scotts Street dam, and so on," said Dick McWilliams, a fisheries biologist who spends time targeting Des Moines River walleyes when he's not at work. "Having said that, the fish will also hang out in the deeper pools when the river levels are low."
McWilliams recommends trying the Saylorville and Red Rock sections of the river for fish in the 12- to 20-inch range.
When walleyes are congregating in low-water pools, they can be reached with jigs and minnows or deep-diving crankbaits. Below dams, riffles and tailraces, where the current is strong, try casting spoons and jigheads tipped with a minnow. Walleyes will often hold just outside of the current behind abutments and other structure, waiting for an easy meal to pass by.
Anglers drifting or working pools often use larger weights and floating jigheads. For fishing Saylorville or Red Rock in particular, spinners and various types of jigs all seem to work pretty well. If a lure isn't working, said McWilliams, switch techniques or colors and try again.
For additional information, contact the Boone fisheries management station at (515) 432-2835.
The mighty Mississippi can boast good walleye angling all along its course through the Hawkeye State, according to Mike Steuck, a Bellevue fish management station biologist who knows the walleye haunts along much of the river from both a scientist's point of view and his own experience with catching the fish.
"Our goal is to make the fishing better," he said. "We like to fish ourselves, so we want to make the fishing better. An ulterior motive!"
Steuck pointed out that in his area, pools 9 through 14 are all pretty good for walleyes, and there are also good catches in pools 15, 16 and 17.
On the Mississippi, bait selection depends on the activity levels of the fish throughout the seasons. "Two years ago I caught a ton of fish on crankbaits," said Steuck. "Last year I caught them on a three-way rig and a night crawler."
During the pre-spawn and spawning seasons, Steuck recommends, use three-way rigs with a night crawler or a leech with a sinker to keep the bait near the bottom. From June through September, jigs and three-way rigs work well; anglers can do equally well casting or trolling. A variation of the three-way rig that's worked for Steuck is a floating jighead tipped with a minnow on a 3- or 4-foot leader weighted with a sinker. Stay near the shorelin
e, and definitely try the tailraces.
"There's some 30-inch-plus fish over 10 pounds out there," said Steuck. "The main size range is from 17 to 20 inches. There's a good year-class in there that's coming through now and is being caught."
Walleyes on the river can most easily be taken in the early morning and evening hours. Sometimes a mid-day bite is on, but this is a low-percentage time of day.
As with the Des Moines River, low flows concentrate walleyes in pools and holes while higher water finds them below dams, in tailraces and around rocky or artificial cover.
Anglers will find good concrete ramp access anywhere near a population center. The county conservation boards have done a lot of upgrading in recent years.
For more information, call the Guttenberg fish management station at (563) 252-1156 or the Bellevue fish management station at (563) 872-4976.
Walleye fishing in Iowa is only getting better. Studies indicate that the larger fish being stocked survive in greater numbers and grow to trophy-class sizes. For further information on our great walleye angling, contact the IDNR Fisheries Bureau at (515) 281-5918, or online at