'Eyes On Iowa

'Eyes On Iowa

Don't let winter weather keep you off the water this year. Tap these nine walleye waters for a chance at some phenomenal fishing. (February 2009)

Walleyes tend to work on your psyche like no other fish that swims Iowa's waters.

Walleye metabolism tends to slow when water temperatures dip. Anglers will do well to opt for presentations designed to induce a strike rather than those aimed at normal walleye feeding patterns. Photo by Ron Sinfelt.

They don't fight as hard as white bass, smallmouth, trout, carp or even sheepshead do. The species has a well-deserved reputation as table fare, but let's be honest -- bluegills taste just as good. Northern pike taste even better. And sheepshead? If I had a nickel for every sheepshead fillet that got passed off as walleye to rave reviews over the years, I wouldn't need to work as an outdoor writer and fishing guide.

Why are this fish and its cousin the sauger so fascinating to Hawkeye anglers? Intelligence? A walleye's brain is no bigger than that of any other fish. When juxtaposed against a human brain, it's like placing a pea next to a basketball.

Perhaps it's that finding consistent success hooking up with this green ghost is a challenge -- especially now, with the near-freezing environment slowing the marble-eye's cold-blooded metabolism.

Is this a problem? No. Consistent success with catching walleyes comes from analyzing facts and applying logical solutions. That cold-blooded metabolism will see to it that this fish isn't on the move in February, so all you have to do is find it. And the winter walleye doesn't want to eat very much or very often, so it's more susceptible to a striking presentation rather than a feeding presentation.

Walleye catching boils down to attitude. I guide on the Mississippi River's Pool 9, one of the best walleye fisheries in the state. The Mississippi is challenging in its own right, but I believe that even if only one walleye swam these 30,000 acres, she would indeed feel my hook --eventually.

Realizing this goal is easier now than in July, when the walleyes might be busting shad on the channel end of a wing dam or skulking back in the Winneshiek in search of little bluegills, frogs, crayfish or mayflies.

The first step in catching walleyes is finding where they live. It's a simple matter of perspective-driven attitude: This ain't Minnesota, the Land of 10,000 Lakes -- Iowa contains only a few walleye destinations. In this article we'll look at where these fish swim, and how you can introduce them to your hook.

MISSISSIPPI RIVER

This time last winter, a cadre of perhaps 20 anglers gathered on the ice below the dam at Lynxville and waled away on saugers, walleyes and a few jumbo perch. Weapons of choice were No.'‚3-5 jigging Rapalas with minnow heads on the treble hooks and basic Lindy rigs employing egg sinkers about 24 inches above plain hooks.

Proven methods of success when fish are in this coldwater pattern include vertical-jigging with metal blade-baits like Sonars and Big Dudes and dragging either bucktail jigs or plastic flip-tails along the bottom.

Many anglers tip their jigs with minnows. Some use stinger hooks. I've found that stingers catch more snags than fish; you'll do better just to thread the minnow on a bare hook, going through the mouth, out the gill and burying the hook under the dorsal fin.

Although I'm not too proud to use minnows under extreme cold-front conditions, I believe they attract mostly smaller fish. Dragging a jig with plastic or hair -- and no "meat" -- will usually result in a heavier stringer at the end of the day.

Blade-baits are a perennial favorite for those fishing Old Man River's tailwaters when temperatures are below 39 degrees Fahrenheit. This method is so effective that the Iowa Department of Natural Resources closed the tailwaters of the Dubuque dam and Bellevue dam downstream to fishing through March 15 to protect this vulnerable population.

The tailwaters of Pool 13 below the dam at Clinton haven't been productive in recent years, according to ardent angler Rudy Morgan, co-owner of R&R Sports in Clinton. "Locals either go upstream and hit the wintering holes several miles below Dubuque or Bellevue," he offered, "or go downstream and hit the tailwaters in the Quad Cities. Pool 16 tailwaters gave up some really nice saugers last spring."

Veteran Dubuque guide Jimmie Oberfoell spends a lot of time probing the turbulent waters of Hurricane Chute at Guttenberg every spring. "This is a boiling, snaggy mess," he said. "I have better luck working the breakline out of the current here. Walleyes and saugers don't like fast water. They like calm water close to fast water. Saugers typically hold in swifter water than their larger green kin."

One of Oberfoell's most productive setups is a modified Wolf River rig that employs a pair of barrel swivels rather than the standard three-way swivel. Oberfoell fishes a heavy jig with a white twister tail on the lower dropper, noting he hasn't "caught a walleye on the sinker yet." The longer dropper is about 28-48 inches long with a large, soft floating jighead and minnow hooked through the head.

"Using barrel swivels rather than the three-way enables the upper line to slide to a point where the fish seem to hold rather than being tight against the bottom," he said. "You're covering more of the water column that way, too."

On Pool 9, a great deal of time is spent working deep backwaters with current like Minnesota slough or main channel areas like the long run on the Wisconsin side by Victory, rather than playing "bumper boats" up by the dam.

Walleyes typically spawn in the Mississippi between April 10 and April 20. This is a good two weeks later than the spawning run on smaller rivers like the Wapsipinicon, Cedar and Turkey.

Larger female walleyes on the Mississippi take their time moving upstream. A few fish may take up winter residence in scour holes directly below the dam. But the lion's share of the walleye biomass is far, far downstream -- something walleye chasers on pools 12 and 13 were forced to learn when tailwater restrictions went into effect several years ago.

Walleye anglers are susceptible to positive reinforcement, perhaps more so than "normal" folks. It isn't uncommon to see more than 50 boats bunched directly below a Mississippi River dam from mid-march through late April.

With all these lines in the water, fish are bound to stumble into a hook on a fairly regular basis. This goads

anglers to stay with the pack a little longer. Fine by me. I seldom fish a jig heavier than 5/16 oz. When fishing from a boat, a quarter ounce is plenty of weight if you want to catch bigger fish.

The observation Oberfoell makes about walleyes preferring slack water is right on target. Why would a 4-pound walleye want to spend precious energy fighting a raging torrent when she can tuck up behind a barrier or fan in warmer water over a quiet sandbar in less than 12 feet of water?

It will be six weeks to two months before we'll be walleye-chasing in runoff conditions again, depending on how the rest of this winter shakes out, of course.

Between now and then, the smart money lies in targeting fish in deep water wintering holes with a striking presentation instead of a feeding presentation.

Contact: Peck's Pool 9 Guide Service by phone, (563) 544-4611, or e-mail, tedpeck@acegroup.cc. Guide Jimmie Oberfoell (pools 11,12 and 13) can be reached at (563) 599-1043. Contact Rudy Morgan and the folks at R & R Sports at (563) 243-4896 (pools 13-16).

WAPSIPINICON RIVER

The Wapsi is a pure joy to fish. The IDNR has been stocking walleyes in this scenic river since the mid-1980s. This, and the fact that the Wapsipinicon is in close proximity to a fair segment of Iowa's population, results in more pressure per surface acre than any other river in Iowa, including the Mississippi.

Walleyes in the Wapsi and Iowa's other inland rivers that hold these fish are prone to migrating substantial distances in late autumn in search of suitable over-winter habitat.

Radio tracking studies in recent years show the cold-water epicenter for Wapsi walleyes is in deeper holes around Independence. One of the favorite community spots is the "dredge hole," where anglers experienced good success through the ice last winter.

The winter of 2007-08 was a curveball when it came to predicting both fish and wildlife patterns this year, because this past winter was so severe. A hardwater option may be available again this year, but IDNR veteran fisheries manager Bill Kalishek said that chances are better that the wintering holes on the Wapsi won't freeze up enough to avoid "safe" travel for more than a couple of weeks.

"I refuse to walk on the ice of any Iowa river other than backwaters of the Mississippi," Kalishek said. "The safety is just too unpredictable." The biologist added: "Fishing really starts picking up here and on other inland rivers when some runoff and warmer water temperatures push fish out of wintering areas and into more diverse habitats."

TURKEY RIVER

The Turkey River in northeast Iowa hasn't been stocked for as many years as the Wapsipinicon. "Anglers are still trying to figure out walleye patterns on the Turkey," Kalishek said, citing seasonal migration as a hurdle in dialing in fish behavior.

"We know that walleyes, which spend the summer downstream from the dam at Elkader, find their way downstream to the Mississippi for the winter," he said. "They don't seem to have much difficulty negotiating the lowhead dam at Fairmont or another dam upstream at Cresco. The best advice is to probe this river's deeper holes."

Last winter anglers with great knowledge of this river had success on walleyes through the ice, working Swedish Pimples tipped with a minnow head and small jigging Rapalas just off the bottom in some of the deeper holes where there was very little current.

The IDNR stocks approximately 51,000 walleyes in the Turkey River every year. According to Kalishek, this fishery produces several fish pushing 10 pounds, with many 7- to 8-pounders caught every spring.

CEDAR RIVER

Like the Turkey and Upper Iowa, the walleye population in the Cedar River and one of its major tributaries, Shell Rock River, is virtually untapped. Tailwaters of the Nashua dam are popular community spots every spring.

There is good fishing once this river opens up below the Mitchell dam north of Osage and in the tailwaters of the dam at Charles City. "You could find walleyes working the riffles and deeper holes just about anywhere between Nashua and the Minnesota border," Kalishek said, "but to find them you have to go looking for them. Anglers who consistently catch walleyes here are pretty tight-lipped about their success."

Walleyes are swimming somewhere below dams at Marble Rock, Green and Clarksville on the Shell Rock River -- virtually anywhere from Marble Rock to where the river dumps into the Cedar River near Waterloo, said Kalishek.

The IDNR stocks about 61,000 walleye fingerlings from Mississippi River broodstock in the Mitchell and Floyd county waters of the Cedar annually. "The Cedar is a place to look for numbers more than size," he said, "but an honest 10-pounder is always possible."

UPPER IOWA RIVER

A big pool below the upper dam at Decorah is a popular spot for finding walleyes, smallmouth bass and other species on this northeast Iowa river virtually year 'round. There is radio-tracking evidence that walleyes in the lower reaches of the upper Iowa migrate back downstream into the Mississippi River each fall. Perhaps this is why the lower end of Minnesota Slough is so productive just prior to freeze up in December.

For more information on fishing Iowa's inland walleye rivers, contact Bill Kalishek at (563) 382-8324.

STORM LAKE

This 3,000-acre Buena Vista County lake is seeing positive changes owing to an ongoing dredging operation that should continue for several more years. Storm is a shallow lake, with considerable siltation. Dredging is creating vertical break­lines in the new 5- to 7-foot channel.

"Local anglers call it 'the abyss,'" IDNR fisheries manager Lannie Miller said. "There really isn't much structure here -- just a steep vertical breakline."

For the past two winters there has been enough ice on Storm to attract cautious hardwater anglers. A favorite tactic is simply dropping a minnow under a small bobber into the new channel and waiting for a bite while working a minnow head on a Swedish Pimple on another line.

Storm is fed by Powell Creek. The area near the inlet and marina on the southwest side of the lake is a popular cold-water spot. Storm also has three islands, two of which are fading away as dredging progresses. The big island, which remains near mid-lake, is a good place to target once ice leaves the lake.

Shortly after ice-out, Storm's adult walleye population tends to move towards two main spawning areas, a rocky reef in front of Buena Vista University on the north side and rocky rubble substrata along much of the eastern shoreline.

"Storm Lake's walleye population is stable with representation of at least eight year-classes of fish present," Miller said. He noted a slot limit that has been in effect here since

2006 is having the "desired effect," with female walleyes now averaging a half-inch longer than before the slot went into effect.

Under the slot restriction, all fish measuring 17-22 inches are protected with a three fish total bag allowed. Miller said fish up to 30 inches are present in the fishery.

The solid nature of Storm's walleye population should help take some pressure off of nearby Blackhawk Lake. Miller said two of this lake's five year-classes suffered a "massive die-off" last winter that "virtually eliminated 10- to 14-inch walleyes in Blackhawk Lake." Cause for the fish kill has not been determined. The limit on Blackhawk is still three fish with a minimum length of 15 inches. But numbers of small walleyes, which almost pestered anglers a couple of years ago, are no longer present.

For more information on fishing Storm and an update on walleye fishing in Blackhawk Lake, contact IDNR fisheries biologist Lannie Miller at (712) 657-2638.

LAKE RATHBUN

This Appanoose County fishery is by far Iowa's best walleye lake, sprawling across 11,000 acres in the southeastern part of the state. Action is typically better during warmer months with anglers working the irregular bottom contours and drifting the main lake basin.

Rathbun rarely freezes -- at least to the point where it is safe to travel on ice -- due to its location south of Interstate 80. During the winter months, fish are fairly dormant. But if you use electronics and can find them sulking over the main lake basin, you just might wake them up!

For more information on fishing Lake Rathbun, contact the information center at (641) 647-2464.

LAKE SUGEMA

This 574-acre Van Buren County lake is certainly worth a look as we ease into 2009, according to IDNR biologist Mark Flammang. Sugema receives annual stockings of the same whopping 8-inch fingerlings that make Lake Rathbun such a tremendous walleye factory.

Flammang believes the abundance of 14- to 19-inch walleyes that represent the two dominant year-classes here "will see a lot of increased pressure in 2009 as folks continue to figure the water out." For more information on Sugema, contact the Rathbun fish hatchery at (641) 647-2406.

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