Iowa '˜Eyes On Fire

Iowa '˜Eyes On Fire

With walleyes on the rise in the Hawkeye State, these seven hotspots will keep your line tight in 2008. (February 2008).

Photo courtesy of Ted Peck.

Photos of grinning Hawkeye anglers hefting big walleyes used to provide the opportunity for weaving fish tales set only beyond our borders. But changes in the Iowa Department of Natural Resources' walleye management philosophy set in motion in 2000 are making a profoundly positive impact across the state, creating ever-growing opportunities for Hawkeye anglers to tangle with trophy walleyes close to home.

Growing walleyes for sport angling is somewhat like growing corn: The success of naturally produced walleye year-classes is driven by environmental conditions in individual ecosystems. To generate a good "crop" where yields have historically been low -- or nonexistent -- you need to plant the right "seed" and provide the appropriate nurturing.

Over the past several years the IDNR has been aggressively stocking larger fingerlings in a number of state waters, a phenomenon that has truly jump-started the state's walleye fishery.

During the same time frame, survival conditions for natural and hatchery-raised stock have been extremely favorable. Across the state there now are numerous waters where both walleye populations and dimensions are growing increasingly larger.

The days of walleyes being considered a "bonus" species may be behind us forever. Following is a look at our state's top spots for chasing the myopic manitou -- that dual-dorsal denizen of the dim depths -- that is the walleye.

IOWA GREAT LAKES

A slot limit that went into effect on both East and West Okoboji lakes and Spirit Lake in 2007 is showing promising results, according to IDNR fisheries manager Mike Hawkins.

Under the new regulations, fish between 17 and 22 inches are protected, and anglers are allowed to keep one walleye over 22 inches.

"Walleye fishing the past couple of years on Spirit Lake has been tremendous," Hawkins said. "We estimate a harvest of nearly 17,000 for 2006 -- the largest one-year harvest on this water in over 40 years!"

Most fish that have been greasing the skillet out of this sprawling northwestern lake are progeny of the banner 2001 year-class. Most of the class of '01 now is entering the protected slot size and should provide great fishing for years to come.

In 2007, creel surveys indicated that anglers harvested about 7,000 walleyes from Spirit Lake, which Hawkins pegs "well above the 20-year average." Further IDNR sampling indicates the 2007 year-class will be another beauty, with seine hauls yielding "great numbers of young-of-year walleyes," according to Hawkins.

STORM LAKE

Storm Lake in Buena Vista County also saw implementation of a slot limit protecting 17- to 22-inch fish in 2007. IDNR fisheries manager Lannie Miller said that anglers in western and northwestern Iowa took advantage of rule changes, posting a record harvest of more than 24,000 walleyes during April, May and June of 2007. Most fish put on the stringer were between 13 and 15 inches.

"Due to the record harvest last year, those anglers looking for fish below the protected-slot size will find a little tougher fishing in 2008," Miller said. "Walleyes protected by the slot limit will grow rapidly, producing some excellent catch-and-release action this year. It will be a couple of years before this dominant year-class works through the system and will be vulnerable for harvest again."

Many serious walleye anglers release walleyes over 22 inches, realizing they hold the future of good fishing literally in their hands. It will be interesting to watch the status of the walleye fishery on Storm Lake as we ease into 2010.

Seasonal movement of walleyes is fairly predictable in this fishery. Male walleyes move into the shallows at ice-out, where they are veritable fools for wading anglers tossing a jig-and-minnow combination until the larger female fish start to move in as waters warm.

After this initial flurry of activity anglers tend to target other species as walleyes shake off the post-spawn blues. By early May the bite is on again, with crankbaits serving as the weapon of choice. Most anglers employ a trolling presentation in between 5 and 7 feet of water.

Some anglers effectively probe the edge of dredge cuts, either vertical jigging or drifting live bait such as night crawlers or jumbo leeches.

By about the Fourth of July, the walleye population turns most of its attention to the finned fireworks of the gizzard shad hatch. With so much natural food in the water, it is tough to impress a marble-eye with even the fanciest crankbait.

There is practically zero angling pressure during autumn months on Storm Lake. Walleyes have depleted the shad forage base and have strapped on the feedbag to beef up for the colder months ahead. Those few who pick up the rod again and leave the scattergun in the safe do quite well as the leaves begin to fall.

Black Hawk Lake in Sac County is another fishery that holds good walleye potential in the northwestern part of the state, according to Miller. A three-fish, 15-inch limit is in place on these 957 acres. Look for action to start on the east end of the lake a week or so after ice-out.

Come May, fish in this natural lake migrate to rock piles and flats over about 5 or 6 feet of water. A leech under a slip bobber is a great way to get your string stretched until hot weather arrives and the bite slows. When autumn rolls around, check out waters in Town Bay and around Ice House Point.

North Twin Lake in Calhoun County and Brushy Creek Lake in Webster County also hold good walleye populations according to Miller.

CLEAR LAKE

IDNR fisheries manager Jim Wahl says Clear Lake in Cerro Gordo County is the best walleye lake in the 10 north-central counties he is tasked with managing. Creel surveys indicate May and June are great times to hit the water here, with more than 8,000 walleyes reported during this period in 2007.

"About 60 percent of these fish were over 17 inches," Wahl said. "Anglers can anticipate another excellent season in 2008, although the average size may be slightly smaller with most fish harvested about 14 to 16 inches in length."

Shortly after ice-out in early April, try targeting rocky shorelines, especially the areas around the outlet, islan

d and Dodge's Point. Wading anglers casting a jig and minnow do well with this presentation prior to walleye spawning, which occurs at night in these areas when water temperatures warm to between 45 and 48 degrees.

Walleyes in Clear Lake rebound from spawning efforts by early May to slide just offshore, where anglers do quite well by either trolling crankbaits or drifting night crawlers. Fish tend to hold in this pattern until the arrival of serious summer when most activity comes at night off of the aforementioned island, Dodge's Point, Billy and Gilmore reefs and the state dock.

RATHBUN LAKE

Anglers in southeastern Iowa flock to this 11,000 acre Appanoose County lake, ranked in the top 25 percent of all walleye waters in North America. Rathbun is a structure angler's dream, with a large percentage of the walleye biomass relating to protuberances along the lake's irregular bottom contour during the highly productive summer months.

The IDNR's Rathbun Fish Hatchery pioneered new methods of growing large fingerlings about a decade ago, reinvigorating the walleye fishery in this flood control reservoir. In 2005, anglers set a new harvest record for the lake, reeling in an estimated 13,000 walleyes.

There are so many walleyes swimming in Rathbun that no length limit is in place. Size of the catch is driven by dominant year-classes. IDNR fisheries manager Mark Flammang says most fish swimming here now are 15 to 21 inches long.

Bring your entire walleye armament when fishing Rathbun. The fish may want cranks, a leech behind a Lindy rig or a night crawler trolled in a spinner rig configuration.

LAKE SUGEMA

Van Buren County is home to 575-acre Lake Sugema, a rising star amongst the Hawkeye walleye-chasing fraternity. This is a new lake, finished and filled in 1993. Anglers who have taken delight in tormenting their cronies with photos of walleyes from North Dakota's Devils Lake over the years have already figured out how to whale on 'eyes relating to standing timber throughout the year.

Others who have not ventured beyond our borders settle for casting cranks and jigs along the dam and other rocky shorelines in the spring to get their walleye fix.

"The walleye resource in Sugema is truly under-exploited," Flammang said, "perhaps because anglers in this part of the state are having too much fun chasing largemouth bass, crappies and bluegills."

Flammang said there is a "huge group of walleyes in the 14- to 19-inch range" swimming in Sugema. As is the case on Rathbun, there is no minimum size restriction.

INLAND RIVERS

Mention walleyes and most anglers immediately think of running water. Iowa has a wealth of riverine habitat, with many streams holding good to excellent walleye populations.

In recent years, the IDNR has experienced outstanding results in stocking two-inch-long advanced fingerlings in a number of flowing waters, several of which have been traditionally overlooked as walleye fisheries.

Most notable are the Turkey, Cedar and Upper Iowa rivers in the northeastern part of the state, all of which are virtually untapped walleye fisheries, perhaps owing to their proximity to the mighty Mississippi.

All three of these rivers have been receiving Mississippi strain fingerlings reared at the Fairport hatchery since 2000. All of those fish were introduced upstream from the first dam above the big river.

According to IDNR fisheries manager Bill Kalishek, the Upper Iowa offers good fishing from Lime Springs clear down to its confluence with the Mississippi south of New Albin in Allamakee County.

He rated the run of Turkey River from Cresco to Garber as "generally good," most of the fish being found along rocky stretches of rubble rather than those with a sandy bottom.

Kalishek called the action in Cedar River from the state line to Nashua "good to outstanding." Said the biologist, "All three of these rivers hold good populations of walleyes in the 14- to 18-inch size range now, with fair numbers of fish in excess of 20 inches. The only thing lacking here is angling pressure."

Other noteworthy rivers in the state include the Raccoon River in Sac, Calhoun and Carroll counties, the Wapsipinicon, Maquoketa, Shell Rock, east fork of the Des Moines River in Kossuth and Humboldt counties and Iowa River in Hardin County.

The east fork of the Des Moines will be a great destination for chasing a trophy walleye next month from Algona to Dakota City '¦ especially if spring runoff is not overpowering. Both anglers and fish congregate near low-head dams. Use extreme caution when fishing near low-head dams, which often are referred to as "drowning machines."

THE MIGHTY MISSISSIPPI

Old Man River stands alone at the pinnacle of walleye fishing in the Hawkeye State. After a lifetime of fishing and more than 30 years of guiding on the "Father of Waters," I still can't explain why the walleyes and saugers that swim here go where they go and do what they do.

The Mississippi also remains an enigma for fisheries biologists, who have learned that they can make only timid suggestions regarding the biomass of this magnificent fishery.

"Natural reproduction drives the fishery here," northeastern Iowa fisheries supervisor Karen Osterkamp said. "Fish from artificial stockings, which were marked with a freeze brand in pools 12, 13 and 14, showed minimal survival. Less than 5.5 percent of fingerlings make it to age one. The river takes care of itself."

Over the years, this river has taught me the value of fishing at night in the spring when in pursuit of walleyes, often from shore.

I rarely use a jig heavier than a half-ounce. A 5/16-ounce lead-head seems to be the ideal weight. I don't use live bait for walleyes in the Mississippi either. Instead, I turn to 3-inch plastic K-grubs in the spring, cranks when waters warm after spawning, and bigger K-grubs and 4-inch ringworms behind 1/4- or 3/16-ounce lead-heads or blade baits in the fall.

Throughout most of the year, I seldom fish deeper than 15 feet, although I sometimes will go much deeper when vertically jigging blade baits in the fall. From post-spawn until hot weather, some wing dams hold a lot of fish, but side channels do too. And you'll find more walleyes back in side channels and running sloughs than the main river throughout most of the summer months.

My best day of walleye fishing ever was two years ago on pool 9 when two clients and I boated more than 200 walleyes on an eight-hour trip.

My worst day of walleye fishing ever was down on pool 13 in 1967. The biggest walleye of my life at that point -- a 28-incher -- was dragging behind the boat below the Bellevue dam on a long cord stringer. It was the only walley

e I hooked that warm spring day.

When it came time to go home I pulled in the stringer and discovered that something -- I'm still convinced it was a great white shark -- had cut my big walleye in half, leaving just the head and a few inches of body on the stringer.

It had to be a great white, not the prop of my little 6-horsepower Evinrude as my fishing partner claimed. Either way, the event left me scarred for life -- and forever in search of the elusive, myopic manitou that we know as the walleye.

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