Looking ahead to the coming year’s fishing opportunities, the things that make Iowa “boring” actually help make it easier to find and catch fish. Some anglers get frustrated with the similarity of our lakes and rivers. Much of the Raccoon River looks like the Des Moines River, which looks like the Iowa River. And the shorelines of Coralville, Red Rock, Saylorville and Rathbun reservoirs have miles and miles of similarities. All those similarities are actually advantages that make it easier for anglers to catch more fish.
You see, if channel catfish are on an ice-out feeding frenzy at Coralville, the channel cats at similar reservoirs around Iowa are probably on the same pattern. And if crappies are on the spawning beds at Lake Rathbun, it’s time for the folks at Don Williams Lake to target that lake’s spawning areas — though maybe a few days to a week later to allow for that lake being farther north. So along with this Fishing Calendar being a site-specific fishing guide, it’s a state-wide guide to when, where and how to catch fish from lakes and rivers similar to the ones cited in the story.
With that in mind, here are the examples of the best places to catch a variety of species of fish throughout the coming year. If you can’t get to the specific fishery we’ve pointed out, look for similar conditions in a river or lake near you and cash in on all the good fishing that Iowa has to offer, 12 months a year.
JANUARY – Big Spirit Lake Yellow Perch
John Grosvenor, professional fishing guide, said anglers at Big Spirit Lake in far northwest Iowa will put jumbo nice perch on the ice this winter.
“There are a lot of nice 11- to 12-inch perch in Big Spirit this winter,” he said. “The schools of perch just wander around the main basin, so the easiest way for casual anglers to find fish is to just follow the clusters of ice huts. There are guys that fish almost every day and stay on top of the fish, so you can generally catch fish if you follow the crowd.”
Other Options: During the winter, bluegills on the backwaters of the Mississippi River migrate to the deepest backwaters, making dredged backwaters such as Bussey Lake above Lock and Dam 10 prime locations to drill holes. At Big Creek Lake north of Des Moines, anglers had above-average success catching walleyes last spring, summer and fall, so prospects are good for walleyes through the ice over old roadbeds and drop-offs in the main basin.
FEBRUARY – Put-and-Take Trout Lakes
Nearly two dozen small lakes and ponds near or in urban areas around Iowa are stocked in late fall or early winter to provide through-the-ice opportunities to catch trout in areas of the state where trout aren’t otherwise available. The specific lakes are listed on the DNR’s website, along with schedules of when the lakes are stocked. Nearly any Iowan is within an hour’s drive of a mid-winter urban put-and-take trout fishing opportunity, from Ottumwa to Mason City, Sioux City to Davenport.
Other Options: Grosvenor and his clients have been on a tear in recent winters, piling mega-bluegills on the ice at crystal clear West Lake Okoboji from freeze-up till ice-out. In southern Iowa’s farm ponds and small city reservoirs, largemouth bass in the lakes’ deeper holes can often be jigged into biting to provide extra excitement beyond the normal catches of bluegills and crappies.
MARCH – Flood Control Reservoirs Channel Catfish
It takes fortitude to stand on a windblown south-facing shoreline when the temperatures are barely above freezing, but the opportunity to catch dozens of 1- to 5-pound channel catfish feeding in shallow bays on winter-killed baitfish makes the discomfort worth the effort for many anglers. The discomfort level is increased by their bait of choice —soured commercial shad, or chunks of rancid winter-killed shad collected from the shoreline. Catfish will be right along the shoreline, often in as little as 2 feet of water at Coralville, Red Rock, Rathbun and Saylorville reservoirs.
Other Options: Ice is usually off our southern farm ponds by early March, and sow bass sunbathing along south-facing shorelines often respond to a slow jig-and-pig or rubber worm presentation. On the Mississippi River, walleyes and sauger cluster below dams as part of their spring run, and savvy anglers follow.
APRIL – Clear Lake Yellow Bass
For decades anglers have made the pilgrimage each spring to Clear Lake to fill buckets and baskets with feisty, delectable yellow bass. The rocky shoreline around “The Island” on the south shore has always been a prime place to wade or cast from shore small jigs and catch dozens of yellows in a day’s fishing. In recent years, anglers fishing from boats have scored well for yellow bass along the edges of the dredged cuts in the Little Lake basin on the west end of Clear Lake.
Other Options: White bass make a spring run up the Des Moines, Iowa and Raccoon rivers. Anglers casting white twistertails or similar jigs below dams can catch dozens of whites in an hour’s time. Bullhead numbers are down at northwest Iowa’s Lost Island Lake, but size is up, so “yellow belly” enthusiasts are happy with what they catch from the road grade along the lake’s southwest shore.
MAY – Don Williams Lake Crappies
Black crappie numbers were strong in the spring and summer of 2016 at Don Williams Lake, north of Odgen in Boone County. Fish the steep shorelines in the southern half of the lake. Look for that lake’s crappies suspended near structure in 10 to 15 feet of water.
Other Options: The DNR’s fishing reports showed excellent bluegill fishing at Hawthorn Lake in southeast Iowa during all of 2016, so prospects are good for equal or better fishing in 2017. For springtime channel catfish, Matt Davis, owner of West Des Moines-based Whisker Seeker Tackle Company, last spring called Blue Heron Lake in Raccoon River Park in West Des Moines a “catfish factory” for 2- to 5-pound cats that feed aggressively in May as they prepare for their spawn in June.
JUNE – Hawthorn Lake Largemouth Bass
Regional fisheries biologist Mark Flammang is pleased with angler success for bass at Hawthorn Lake in Mahaska County. Early in the spring, bass stalk bluegills and crappies spawning in the shallows, then move into those areas for their own spawn in mid-spring. DNR studies of the stomach contents of largemouth bass in southern Iowa lakes during summer months show that crayfish are a primary food source, making rocky, riprapped areas primary summertime targets for both bass and anglers.
Other Options: Smallmouth bass up to 5 pounds at West Lake Okoboji are concentrated over rocky points during the spawn, and aggressively take just about anything that anglers throw at them. Walleyes at Big Creek Lake bit well throughout the summer of 2016, and prospects are good that catches will continue this summer.
JULY – Des Moines River Flathead Catfish
The Des Moines River between Saylorville Dam and downtown Des Moines is an urban honey hole for “flats.” While most flathead enthusiasts favor live baits, professional catfishing guide Johnny Coleman, of Des Moines, catches plenty of flatheads with fresh cut bait. “It has to be absolutely fresh and really bloody, but they’ll take it as fast as any live bait,” he said.
Other Options: Fishing guide Grosvenor on the Iowa Great Lakes has found yellow bass to be the go-to fish for family fishing outings during summer months, providing not only lots of action from dozens of feisty fish per hour, but tasty meals afterwards. For just plain fun, a growing number of Iowa anglers are putting aside their biases against rough fish and targeting 2- to 10-pound carp that are common in small rivers and creeks across Iowa to enjoy battles on par with any smallmouth or largemouth bass.
AUGUST – Saylorville Lake Channel Catfish
Fishing guide Coleman said that late summer channel catfish at Saylorville and Red Rock are almost a sure thing.
“Once the cats get into their summer pattern where I can drift on flats in 10 to 15 feet of water, I’m not surprised to have clients catch (and release) 20 or 30 channel cats per trip that average 5 to 10 pounds each. The secret is to figure out how deep they are on a specific day and to use fresh cut bait.”
Other Options: White bass at Red Rock, Rathbun, Saylorville, Coralville and other large lakes feed aggressively on schools of shad during the dog days of summer and respond well to chromed Little Cleo spoons, white twistertails and shad-colored topwater lures. A surprising population of smallmouth bass that lurk near riprapped shorelines and wingdikes are an overlooked secret in the Missouri River in northwest Iowa, thanks to clear, cooler water released from upriver dams in Nebraska and South Dakota.
SEPTEMBER – Little River Lake Walleyes
Little River was renovated around three years ago, and walleye populations have swelled thanks to the refurbished lake, though it’s taken anglers the past year or two to figure out where the lake’s walleyes are lurking. The face of the dam has proven reliable, as have the rocked fishing jetties adjacent to the dam as well as submerged rock mounds in the main basin.
Other Options: DNR netting surveys at Big Spirit Lake have caught and released muskies in excess of 50 inches, tantalizing muskie hunters with the prospects of the fish-of-a-lifetime when the big fish are feeding aggressively in preparation for winter. On the Missouri River from Onawa to the Missouri border, blue catfish put on the feedbag as the weather cools. Our state record, from that stretch of river, is more than 100 pounds.
OCTOBER – Northeast Stream Trout
Northeast Iowa’s cool-water trout streams are stocked well into fall, and plenty of carryover fish are available through the winter, according to DNR fisheries tech Theresa Shay.
“North and South Bear, Coldwater, Paint and Little Paint, Sny Magill and Bloody Run (creeks and streams) all have good populations of trout all the way through winter,” she noted. “Fall and into winter is a good time to use streamers or minnow-imitating flies and lures. Trout are cold-water fish, and may actually be more active the cooler the weather gets.”
Other Options: Greg Gelwicks, DNR fisheries biologist, has noted a unique phenomenon on sunny autumn afternoons in smaller Iowa rivers, where channel catfish congregate in significant numbers below rock riffles, presumably feeding in preparation for the coming winter. Lost Grove Lake in far eastern Iowa is a newer lake where crappies are just hitting their stride, with a strong population of 8- to 9-inch crappies interspersed with enough 10- to 12-inchers to keep things interesting.
NOVEMBER – Raccoon River Walleyes
Ben Dodd, fisheries biologist for central Iowa, has heard reports of 7, 8 and even 9-pound walleyes taken from the three forks of the Raccoon River in recent Novembers. Action is best near rock riffles or low-head dams if the river is at steady flow and relatively clear on cloudy days. One angler swears that the best fishing is, “when I have to wear my Carhartts to be comfortable.”
Other Options: It is scientific fact that flathead catfish migrate to wintering holes where they lie dormant once water temperatures fall below 40 degrees, but on sunny afternoons while the water temperatures are in the 50s, flatheads loitering near those wintering holes wander around and feed on slow moving jigs and cut baits. “Wiper” hybrid bass that have been stocked in Saylorville for decades feed heavily in late autumn.
DECEMBER – Stocked Trout Lakes
The DNR begins stocking around two dozen small lakes and ponds near larger urban areas in late fall to provide anglers all across Iowa the opportunity to catch trout throughout the winter. Trout are stocked as far south as the ponds in Greater Ottumwa Park in Ottumwa, as well as near Council Bluffs, Sioux City, Mason City, Des Moines, Ames, Davenport, Dubuque and other cities.
Other Options: “First ice” is the best ice at West Okoboji when it comes to ice-fishing, and bluegills are the easiest species to find. And over at Clear Lake, yellow bass anglers take advantage of the first ice as it forms in the Little Lake area.