Iowa offers plenty of great fishing waters, and most anglers have their favorite spots to cast for trophies. But with temperatures warming up and the school year winding down, this is the perfect time to focus on a different kind of destination: the best locations for a family fishing trip. The goal this month is to find waters where your kids can actually catch fish, and perhaps enjoy some fun diversions along the way. Here are a few places where you can make some memories.
Trying to figure out a way to entertain the entire family during this year’s vacation? Iowa has destinations statewide that provide accommodations, activities and fishing opportunities to entertain family members of all ages.
IOWA’S GREAT LAKES
The IGL are almost a “gimme” when it comes to family vacations in Iowa. Numerous hotels and rentals provide housing in a range of prices, with amenities that range from solitude on a dock at sunset to luxury suites and water parks. Golf courses, bike trails, boat rentals and the venerated Arnolds Park amusement complex provide entertainment for all ages and interests.
And then there’s fishing. Recent changes in the region’s fish populations have created some of the best fishing in decades.
In 2012 the extensive white bass population at the Iowa Great Lakes experienced a sudden and near-total die-off. About the same time, yellow bass appeared in the system. The loss of white bass as a fishing option was quickly replaced by easy-to-catch, feisty and delicious yellow bass.
The replacement of white bass with yellow bass has apparently benefitted largemouth and smallmouth bass populations at the IGL. Fisheries biologists explain that while white bass were direct competitors with young largemouth and smallmouth bass for small minnows, yellow bass feed more on invertebrates and small wigglies in the water. Largemouth and smallmouth bass populations, which were already strong in the lakes, have exploded in both numbers and size because of reduced competition for food.
IGL fishing guide John Grosvenor has capitalized on the addition of yellow bass and the improvements in largemouth and smallmouth bass fishing.
“White bass used to be my go-to species for clients when other species weren’t biting,” he said. “Yellow bass are so easy to catch, so fun to catch, and so good to eat that they’re a target species all by themselves for some of my clients. As far as largemouth and smallmouth bass, I’ve put some of the biggest largemouth and smallmouths in my boat in the past year or two that I’ve ever seen from the Iowa Great Lakes. The walleyes and northern pike are the same way — fishing has been exceptional up here in the past few years.”
Add yellow perch to the list of angling options at the Iowa Great Lakes. Kabele’s Trading Post reported last fall a phenomenal bite for jumbo perch from both Big Spirit and West Okoboji. With nearly every species posting record catches, and a wide variety of family entertainments rimming the lakes, the Iowa Great Lakes are always a consideration for a family fishing vacation.
Along The Way
Located on the shore of West Okoboji in Arnolds Park, the historic Arnolds Park Amusement Park offers enough rides, games and other activities to keep the family entertained for hours.
Storm Lake is a split-level option for a family fishing vacation. The 3,000-acre lake is renowned for its walleye and channel catfishing, and has a significant population of white bass. Boat rentals are available at various businesses around the lake, and camping is available in state parks.
Along The Way
The King’s Pointe waterpark and resort is located on the lake’s northeast corner. In the evening, concerts and cultural activities associated with Buena Vista University in the nearby town of Storm Lake can add a unique twist to family activities.
DES MOINES AREA
While residents of the Des Moines metropolitan area often plan their vacations outside that region, Iowans from the far corners of the state often target Des Moines and its suburbs as a prime place for a family vacation. Adventureland, a nationally recognized amusement park in Altoona, is a gotta-go for families. Public swimming pools in Des Moines, Ankeny and West Des Moines feature waterpark-like slides, pools and water novelties on-par with the best commercial parks. Des Moines’ burgeoning East Village has nationally recognized boutiques, cafes and coffee shops.
Fishing opportunities abound, though they are scattered throughout the metro area and often overlooked. Ankeny has a series of ponds and small lakes associated with city parks that are stocked and managed to provide fishing. Yes, they are known as bluegill ponds and surrounded by houses and urban hubbub. But expert anglers have learned that all those bluegills feed a strong population of largemouth bass and sometimes behemoth channel catfish, along with an array of flathead catfish, walleye, northern pike and other “bonus” species that were illegally but successfully stocked by well-intentioned anglers.
Saylorville Lake is the elephant in the room when it comes to fishing near Des Moines. The big flood control reservoir is fickle, but local anglers say it can be a channel catfish factory, a sure-thing for white bass, and an overlooked opportunity for 4- to 5-pound largemouth bass.
Big Creek Lake, near Polk City north of Des Moines, has been pumping out bluegills in recent years, but is also a haven for an overlooked population of largemouth bass. Lance Baker, a pro-tournament bass angler, said the secret is to look for bass where the average angler doesn’t.
“There are 6- and close to 7-pound bass in Big Creek, in fair numbers, but they’re a tough bite,” he said. “They’re all offshore, and you have to fish them like a TVA lake down south. You’re fishing ledges and dropoffs and humps out in the middle. You have to work at it, and you won’t catch many, but when you do they’ll be worth the effort.”
Along The Way
The Adventureland Amusement Park in Altoona features more than 100 rides, shows and attractions.
MISSISSIPPI RIVER HOUSE BOAT RENTALS
Northeast Iowa offers a unique opportunity to families that truly want to “get away” on a vacation. Rent a houseboat and cruise the Mississippi River.
“It’s not for everyone, because it’s a somewhat of a working vacation,” said Sue Stirn, the owner of S&S Houseboat Rentals at Lansing, Ia. “It’s not like sitting poolside at the Hilton. Someone has to run the boat, someone has to do the cooking. People misunderstand and think they can dock at a town every night to eat out and have something to do. This is a rural stretch of river. It’s a long way between towns. There’s no wi-fi or cell phone for long distances. That can be good or bad, depending on how connected you have to be to be happy.”
The Mississippi River offers its own unique itinerary of entertainments. Sight-seeing, wildlife-watching, swimming off sandbars, sunbathing — if it’s water-related, it’s available at some point along the Mississippi. Some families bring kayaks and canoes, their own speedboat or watercraft, and use the houseboat as a “mother ship” for their activities on the river.
Fishing is an obvious option, and opportunities are excellent. Catfishing is as easy as tossing stinkbait into a logjam on the downstream end of an island. Walleyes frequent the upper faces and tips of wingdams and respond favorably to jigs tipped with minnows. Largemouth bass lurk in the shallow backwaters, famed for their topwater bite once weed growth develops in midsummer. Smallmouth bass favor any rocky habitat, from riprapped breakwaters to the mouths of coolwater streams that empty into the big river.
“We see a lot of family groups, mom, dad, the kids, grandma and grandpa, or two families. It’s a great vacation, as long as you understand what a houseboating vacation involves,” Stirn said.
Dubuque and Decorah provide lodging and dining and make excellent bases from which to enjoy the region’s rugged bluffs, coolwater streams and rivers.
Canoeing or kayaking down the cool, clear waters of the Upper Iowa, Yellow, Upper Cedar and other rivers provide spectacular sightseeing opportunities and excellent fishing for smallmouth bass and walleyes. Canoe and kayak rentals are available in Decorah and other riverside towns. Occasional, easily navigable stretches of white water provide thrills for non-anglers, and focal points for those who recognize that the pools below those runs are prime places to cast jigs, spoons and crankbaits for smallies and walleyes. Trout anglers can explore dozens of cool water streams regularly stocked with trout by the DNR in northeastern counties.
Along The Way
Aside from the fun of spending a day canoeing or kayaking with the family down a river, the region offers the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium in Dubuque.
In addition, the Fenelon Place Elevator, aka, the Fourth Street Elevator, is a quick sidetrip for families in Dubuque. It’s the world’s shortest, steepest railway. A one-minute ride up the railway takes visitors to a panoramic view of the Mississippi River and three states. Cable Car Square, the neighborhood at the bottom, offers boutiques and coffee shops.
HIGHWAY 34 VACATION
Maybe you don’t want to be pinned down in one spot for your family’s vacation. Consider a roadtrip along Highway 34 across southern Iowa, staying in a different town each night, sampling fishing opportunities and family activities along the way.
Viking Lake is just south of Highway 34 east of Stanton in southwest Iowa. A renovation a decade ago revitalized that lake and turned it into a local hotspot for largemouth bass and crappies. Viking Lake is known for its steep shorelines, perfect for jigging suspended crappies from shoreline brushpiles.
Farther east on Highway 34, Green Valley Lake is just north of Creston, and noted for consistent largemouth bass fishing. Target brushpiles added to the lake during a renovation in the past 10 years. Just east of Creston, Three Mile Lake is under renovation so fishing isn’t an option in 2017. But several all-weather rental cabins provide a unique housing opportunity for anglers fishing at nearby Green Valley Lake or Twelve Mile Lake.
In south central Iowa, Highway 34 passes near another vacation opportunity near Osceola. West Lake, northwest of that town, has for decades been a popular lake with bass anglers, and in recent years provided steadily improving crappie fishing. Along with fishing, West Lake is also the anchorage for Lakeside Casino and Hotel. At one time, Iowa gambling laws required the barge-based casino to make a daily tour of the lake. It’s now permanently anchored on the northeast corner of the lake, and a popular gaming spot — as well as a prime place for anglers to pitch for bass and crappies around its moorings.
South of Albia along Highway 34, Lake Rathbun is Iowa’s largest lake, with equally large opportunities for family vacation activities. Angling-wise, Rathbun has long been famed as a crappie lake, a consistent producer of catfish and legendary for an odd walleye bite in shallow bays during midday on some of July’s hottest days. It’s a big lake, and it may take some searching to find fish, but local anglers say some species is usually on a bite somewhere on Rathbun.
Along The Way
Honey Creek Resort on the lake’s north shore offers a main lodge, separate cabins, a golf course and all sorts of water-related entertainment. Boat rentals are available in the marina in the lake’s Buck Creek Arm.
Fish are biting somewhere in Iowa every day, and there also are a multitude of entertainment options statewide that don’t include a fishing rod. Whether your family members are diehard anglers looking for nonstop fishing from dawn to dusk, or casual anglers who want to mix a little fishing with a lot of relaxing, there’s a destination in Iowa that will provide the perfect vacation.