A "family fishing vacation" means different things to different families. For one family it means family members start fishing at 6 a.m. and don't come off the water until well after dark. For others, a family fishing vacation involves sleeping late, then a day filled with bursts of fishing, swimming, boating, napping, shopping and picnicking.
Families in Iowa can enjoy both kinds of vacation. From isolated rental cabins offered by the DNR to the storied vacation destination of the Iowa Great Lakes, there's a fishing vacation available in Iowa for the interests of any family.
STATE AND COUNTY PARK RENTAL CABINS
There are a good number of rental cabins available at state and county parks around Iowa. Many are full-featured and comparable with any modern resort. Administered through the Iowa DNR or county conservation boards, many require a one-week stay, making them perfect bases for a family vacation involving not only fishing but hiking, biking, shopping in nearby towns and lots of lounging.
For example, cabins at Upper and Lower Pine lakes offer a unique, middle-of-nowhere feel within minutes of small town amenities in nearby Eldora. Four recently remodeled stone-and-timber cabins nestled into the trees along the Iowa River in Pine Lake State Park provide access not only to largemouth bass and panfish in the lakes, but also smallmouth bass and walleye fishing in rocky areas of that river.
Cabins at Prairie Rose State Park near Harlan in western Iowa give families access to the burgeoning bass, bluegill, catfish and crappie populations in that park's newly renovated lake. Kids simply want to catch fish, regardless of size, and the 1- to 2-pound bass that now dominate that lake are eager to please.
Lake Wapello has 12 warm-weather cabins and one year-round cabin that provide easy access to that lake's famed population of lunker largemouth bass. Mark Flammang, DNR district fisheries
management biologist, said there is a consistent population of 3- to 5-pound bass in Wapello, with enough bass above 6 pounds to keep every cast interesting.
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Cabins at Iowa's parks are true get-aways, often distant from big cities and therefore favorable to a slower-paced vacation. All parks have hiking trails, many have bicycle trails, and all are short drives from small towns that feature unique shops unavailable in larger cities.
Once famed as a "crappie factory," Lake Rathbun has in the past decade suffered flooding that dimmed its reputation. In some cases the problem was simply erratic water levels that kept anglers from developing productive patterns, but fisheries biologist Flammang noted that crappie, walleye and white bass numbers have been below optimum.
"I think we're finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel at Rathbun," he said. "We seemed to turn a corner with the crappies in 2015. We saw a ton of 9- to 10-inchers last year, so we expect an outstanding population of 9- to 11-inchers this summer."
Walleyes have been down for a couple years, but things are looking up, Flammang advised.
"We've had good success in recent years with our walleye stocking program and expect a lot of fish in the 14-inch range this year," he noted. "Those should reach 15 to 16 inches in 2017, so we're at the beginning of good things with walleyes at Rathbun."
White bass and hybrid striped bass are bright spots for family fishing at the big lake. For unknown reasons, white bass populations declined around 2005 and stayed low for several years. Around 2010 the whites began a recovery, and their population and average size has surged in recent years. A program of stocking hybrid striped bass began in 2013. That initial stocking is now in the 15- to 16-inch range.
"Whites and hybrids are a tremendous opportunity at Rathbun," noted Flammang. "They travel in schools, so if you catch one you're on the verge of catching a bunch, and they put up a good fight. If you handle them correctly, they're good eating. The secrets are to never put them on a stringer or in a live well — always put them right on ice — and when you dress them make sure you remove any dark meat. Do that and they'll taste great."
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Twenty-eight rental cottages, along with 105 guest rooms and suites in the main lodge, are options at Honey Creek Resort on Rathbun, a state-owned complex on the lake's north shore. Nearby Centerville and Albia offer a variety of dining options, from fast food to gourmet, along with an interesting blend of craft and antique stores.
The Mississippi River along our east coast is Iowa's largest body of water, and our largest recreational opportunity. Visitors enjoy boating, swimming, riverboat cruises, river festivals, camping in parks, camping on sandbars, and always fishing, fishing and more fishing.
The key for vacationing anglers is to fully comprehend the variety of species available in the Mississippi River. Many tournament largemouth bass anglers consider the Mississippi to offer some of the best bassin' in Iowa. Smallmouth bass are also well represented, to the point where in recent years some competitors in bass tournaments won with catches of nothing but smallmouths.
The state-record yellow perch came from the Mississippi River in northeast Iowa, crappies and bluegills are easy pickings in backwaters, and channel catfish are nearly a sure thing for any angler who knows how to bait-up with Sonny's, Doc's, Catfish Charlie or Dubuque's own Cat Tracker dipbait.
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River towns like Keokuk, Davenport and Dubuque offer a unique blend of river history and modern conveniences, from upscale hotels and water parks to antique shops, along with miles and miles of riverfront parks.
Clear Lake has been a family vacation icon in northern Iowa since the early 1900s. Easy access off Interstate 35 now makes it a great weekend destination, and the local vacation industry has expanded on that opportunity.
"There's something going on every weekend, all summer," said Libbey Patton, director of tourism for the Clear Lake Chamber of Commerce. "We list everything on our website at www.clearlakeiowa.com. We have live bands in the park at the east end of the lake, concerts at the Surf Ballroom, sailing regattas, fishing derbies and our beaches were rated as the best in the Midwest several years ago."
Anglers can choose from a variety of species in Clear Lake. Efforts by the DNR and other agencies have improved water quality, so game species are flourishing. Walleyes are resurgent on the lake's rock reefs along the eastern and northern shorelines. Channel catfish approaching 10 pounds often surprise anglers fishing for walleyes with minnows from docks at night. Trophy muskellunge longer than 40 inches lurk in the weedbeds along the north shore. Feisty, tasty yellow bass are a mainstay for anglers wading in the spring off The Island on the south shoreline.
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Nearby Mason City is the big brother to the lakeside town of Clear Lake and offers large-scale shopping, restaurants and a variety of non-lake oriented activities.
THE IOWA GREAT LAKES
The Iowa Great Lakes in northwest Iowa have for more than a century been "Vacation Central" for families from across the Midwest. The combination of resorts, lakes, parks and hundreds of family-oriented activities sometimes overshadows some of the best fishing in Iowa for a variety of species.
"The Walleye Opener Weekend in early May sort of kicks off fishing up here," said Thane Johnson, the owner of Kabele's Trading Post, www.kabeles.com. "The best walleye fishing is from late May through the Fourth of July, then again in the fall. Guys in boats do great, but on Big Spirit Lake you can sit on almost any dock in the evening with a lighted bobber over a leech and catch nice walleyes. Guys who wade do really well, too, casting paddletail jigs or twistertails."
For walleyes, Big Spirit probably has the easiest access, noted Johnson. "If you're fishing from shore, there are public docks on the south shore near the pump house, and on the southeast shore at Sunset Park," Johnson said. "There are public docks on the west side at Templar Park and Marble Beach. The Buffalo Run shoreline is good in the spring, and the highway grade on the north side has good access, too. We saw a lot of 14-inch walleyes from Big Spirit in 2015, so 2016 should be really good."
Yellow perch have been on a downward trend in recent years at the Iowa Great Lakes, but Johnson is optimistic for 2016.
"Perch really came back in 2015, probably the best perch fishing since 2010," he said. "We saw lots of 9- and 10-inchers last fall, so I'm really expecting strong catches this summer."
As for where to catch perch, "Last summer they seemed to hang off Templar Lagoon," advised Johnson. "When they were there it was fantastic fishing. East Okoboji was good for perch, too, just about anywhere in the main bay, from docks or from boats. The Narrows between the two bays was good for perch last fall. West Okoboji is really good for perch, if you can find a time when the recreational boat traffic will let you fish the reefs and dropoffs in the bays, especially toward the south end."
Perhaps the hottest species in East and West Okoboji in recent years has been yellow bass. Technically an invasive species, yellow bass moved into a void left by a die-off of native white bass.
"Traditionally, there was an annual bullhead bite on The Grade on the north side of Big Spirit each spring when guys would fill 5-gallon buckets with bullheads," said Johnson. "That bite has faded a little, though there was a hot streak at Little Spirit Lake last spring. What's hot now, and stays hot all summer, fall and through the winter, is yellow bass. When you hit a school of yellows it's almost impossible not to catch fish.
East (Okoboji) has maybe been a little better than West, mostly because there's less recreational boat traffic. You can tell where the yellows are biting by where the boats are, or we can tell you here at the bait shop."
Families willing to trade numbers-of-fish for size-of-fish have plenty of trophy opportunities at the Iowa Great Lakes. There are large populations of world-class smallmouth bass up to 6 pounds in Big Spirit and West Okoboji. Northern pike up to 36 inches are common in East Okoboji, West Okoboji and Big Spirit. And each spring the DNR nets for their hatcheries brood muskellunge that have measured up to 54 inches — then releases those fish back into Big Spirit and West Okoboji.
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The Iowa Great Lakes Region provides a full menu of vacation activities, from novelty shops and taco stands to championship golf courses and elegant dining. There is something for every taste and budget somewhere in northern Dickinson County. Whether it's a weekend getaway to a state park cabin, a fishing trip on the Mississippi or a family-friendly week among the varied attractions at the Iowa Great Lakes, Iowa has what your family is looking for.