Whether your family’s idea of the perfect fishing trip includes amusement parks, luxury accommodations and fine dining, or focuses on camping and a more back-to-nature approach, Iowa has plenty of options for all of you.
IOWA GREAT LAKES
The combination of amusement parks, water parks, boat rentals, sandy beaches and a variety of evening entertainments draws families to the Iowa Great Lakes year after year. In recent years phenomenal fishing has enhanced the attraction for families who consider fishing an essential part of any family outing.
A perfect storm of circumstances has created an unprecedented multi-species fishing boom at the Lakes. A decade ago, yellow bass appeared in West Lake Okoboji. A few years later, the lake’s indigenous white bass population experienced a massive, natural die-off. With reduced competition for food, the yellow bass population exploded.
Yellow bass tend to top out at 9- to 10-inches, but make up what they lack in sheer size with a fierce fight on the hook and culinary excellence in the frying pan. Nobody told the yellow bass at the Iowa Great Lakes they were supposed to stop growing when they reached 10 inches, so it’s not uncommon for anglers to land 11- and even 12-inchers. Yellow bass have become a favorite target of families in search of fast fishing action and fine eating.
About the same time yellow bass were taking off at the Iowa Great Lakes, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources instituted a 25-fish per day limit on panfish. That took pressure off the already strong population of bluegills in the Lakes. The result has been a steady supply of 9-inch, 10-inch and even larger bluegills, especially from West Lake Okoboji.
The bluegills’ big cousin, largemouth bass, also responded to the smorgasbord of forage fish. John Grosvenor, professional fishing guide and owner of JTG Expeditions phone: 712-330-5815 ; online at FishOkoboji.com), said the number and average size of largemouth bass seem to increase each summer.
“If I’ve got a client who wants to catch the biggest largemouths possible, I can usually put them on one or more 18-inchers, and I’m not surprised by 20-inchers,” he said. “You’re looking at bass that easily goes around 6 pounds.”
Other species are also on a roll at the Iowa Great Lakes. Big Spirit Lake and West Lake Okoboji have long been known for their strong populations of smallmouth bass, and Grosvenor’s clients routinely catch 18- to 20-inchers. There’s a dwindling, but still significant, year-class of jumbo yellow perch that stretch to12-inches. Northern pike, formerly a bonus species while fishing for other game species, have become common enough and large enough to merit pike-focused fishing trips.
Along The Way: Arnolds Park is an historic amusement park on the south shore of West Lake Okoboji. You find public beaches on West Okoboji’s west shore and Big Spirit’s south and northwest shore. Several marinas at the Lakes offer speedboat, pontoon boat, kayak and paddle board rentals.
RIVERS RUN THROUGH IT
Iowa’s rivers provide a number of family vacation options that include fishing. In northeast Iowa several dams have been renovated to create whitewater stretches, which provide both water recreation and fishing opportunities.
The Elkader White Water Park in Elkader features a whitewater area where rock and rubble from the former dam were re-shaped to create a water attraction that entertains kayakers, canoeists and paddleboard enthusiasts. The tumult of the whitewater feature attracts chunky walleyes and smallmouth bass for which the Turkey River is famed.
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“They improved the shoreline access when they built the whitewater feature, and there are always anglers there taking advantage of the opportunity,” says Jennifer K. Cowsert with the City of Elkader. “There’s a handicap-accessible fishing dock, and a handicap-accessible access to the white water area.”
Along the Way: Canoes and kayak rentals are available at Turkey River Rentals in Elkader. The DNR’s Big Springs Fish Hatchery isn’t far away, and features a specially stocked pond that’s “kids only,” to help kids catch their first trout.
In Delaware County, a dam on the Maquoketa River in Manchester was de-constructed, creating the Manchester White Water Park. The Park offers six “drop features” across 800 feet of whitewater, ranging from beginner-simple to expert-entertaining. Anglers enjoy improved fishing in those areas due to the variety of fish-friendly structures.
Along the Way: Families can rent canoes and kayaks at The Watershed, or kayaks and tubes at River Rec & More in Manchester. Parents can relax at the Franklin Street Brewing Company, right on the river, or grab fixings at the Fareway grocery store or A Bushel and a Peck for a picnic under the gazebo on the bank of the river.
Des Moines River
In central Iowa, Seven Oaks Recreation offers canoe, kayak and tube trips on the Des Moines River, west of Boone. General manager Joel Bryan says serious anglers find excellent fishing on that stretch of river.
“We have a lot of people bring their fishing gear,” he says. “Once we put you on the river, you have five or six hours to get to the take-out point. If you want to take your time and fish every hole along the way, you can get in a lot of fishing. There are tons of channel catfish in there, monster flatheads, and I’ve caught walleyes up to 8 pounds.”
All the Seven Oaks Recreation float trips begin at the old Boone Water Works dam, which has been de-constructed into a whitewater area that is in itself a fishing hotspot. A 1/4-mile below the former dam the river swings in a big bend, locally known is Tilley’s Hole.
“It’s really, really deep at Tilley’s,” Bryan says. “It’s famous for walleyes and big catfish. The Kate Shelley High Bridge (once the highest and longest railroad trestle bridge in the nation) is downstream from Tilley’s, and the stretch between Tilley’s and the bridge is some of the best river fishing in the area.”
Seven Oaks Recreation’s Float Trip No. 1 is an 8-mile float that generally takes two to four hours and ends at the boat ramp just north of the Highway 30 Bridge west of Boone. Trip No. 2 is a day-long trip that ends at the boat ramp on Highway E57, west of the town of Luther. Bryan says both trips travel remote portions of the Des Moines River.
“All our trips are on parts of the river managed by the Army Corps of Engineers, above Saylorville Reservoir,” he says. “You won’t see any houses, no cornfields — it’s pretty much the way the river was 200 years ago. There are usually at least a couple bald-eagle nests along the way, and lots of wildlife. Saturdays are our busiest day, with more of a party atmosphere, but if you want to have the river all to yourself and really concentrate on fishing, during the week you may not see another person.”
Along the Way: Seven Oaks Recreation offers a tent campground at their headquarters at Ski Hill, west of Boone on Highway 30. Full-feature campgrounds are available a few miles away at Ledges State Park or Don Williams Lake.
Lower Des Moines River
Farther downstream on the Des Moines River in southeast Iowa, historic Bentonsport offers a variety of options for family vacations. The area was settled more than 150 years ago and is famed for maintaining a historic atmosphere. Catfishing for channel cats and flatheads is excellent on that slow-flowing stretch of river.
Along the Way: “Paddle, Pedal and More” in Bentonsport offers canoe, kayak, tube, and large raft rentals for families that want to literally vacation on the water. “Rent a Horse” in nearby Farmington offers rentals of riding horses and mules, with the opportunity to ride the trails in massive Shimek State Forest. Several bed and breakfasts, along with the famed 170-year-old “Mason House Inn,” provide a break from traditional chain-motel housing.
White Rock Conservancy
The 5,500-acre Whiterock Conservancy non-profit land trust is based on land once owned by the Garst Family near Coon Rapids in west central Iowa. Twelve fishing ponds and small lakes are open to the public free of charge. All ponds are stocked with largemouth bass and bluegills, and most hold channel catfish.
The ponds in the Garst Farm District of the Conservancy were recently renovated and stocked with channel catfish, black crappies, walleyes, northern pike and yellow perch. All the ponds/lakes are walk-ins, though the Conservancy has a rental utility task vehicle (UTV) available. Many of the fishing opportunities have mowed perimeters, and some have fishing jetties for improved fishing access.
Seven miles of the Middle Raccoon River flow through the Conservancy, providing both angling and float-trip opportunities. Guests can rent canoes or kayaks, or bring their own watercraft, put in at one of two boat ramps in Coon Rapids, and take out at the River Campground at the downstream end of the Conservancy. A more adventurous float trip starts at Coon Rapids and ends of dozens of miles downstream at Springbrook State Park.
While many anglers day-trip to the pond- and the river-fishing opportunities at Whiterock, families often take advantage of its multiple overnight accommodations.
“We have three campgrounds,” says Barbra Jotzke-Torrier, director of Development and Communications. “One will accommodate RVs and has a shower house and electrical hookups. There’s also the Star Field Campground for tents, located in one of the darkest parts of Iowa (minimal artificial lighting, excellent for stargazing.) It has a shower house, but no electrical hookups. The River Campground is for tents and RVs, has a solar shower and a hydrant for water, but no electrical hookups.”
The Conservancy also offers a Bed and Breakfast stay, several rental cottages, and a farmhouse great for family reunions.
“The farmhouse is a five-bedroom house,” says Jotzke-Torrier, “good for big groups of people. We also have the River Cabin, which is pretty isolated. It’s a walk-in deal, though we can arrange to have a rental UTV to help people get there. There’s a small pond with good fishing in the back yard of that cabin, no running water, no electricity, and you have to carry in your drinking water, but there is a solar shower and outhouse.”
Along with fishing and float-trip opportunities, the Conservancy offers more than 40 miles of trails that wind through restored prairies, oak savannas, and forested terrain. Mountain bikers enjoy 16 miles of single-track trails. Equestrians have 6 miles of horse trails, and there are 12 miles of double-track trails open to mountain bikes, horses, hikers and folks using the rented UTV to access ponds, cabins and other features.
“If you’re looking for an active vacation, you can aggressively fish every pond, mountain bike, jog on the trails or float and fish the river,” says Jotzke-Torrier. “If you want a laid-back vacation, you can enjoy the scenery, look at the stars at night, fish a little during the day and just relax. It’s surprising how much fun kids have when you turn them loose at a place like Whiterock.”
Along the Way: Maps detailing the locations of ponds, the species of fish available in each pond, and accommodation information are available online at WhiteRockConservancy.org. There are convenience stores, a grocery store, and restaurants in nearby Coon Rapids and Bayard. Carroll, the nearest large town, is 24 miles away.
If your family favors amusement parks, non-stop action and nighttime entertainment, consider the Iowa Great Lakes. If your interest is in a single- or multi-day getaway floating down a river, there are multiple locations in northeast, central and southeast Iowa where you can escape. And if you want an interactive vacation away from the hustle and bustle of traditional vacation hotspots, Whiterock Conservancy in western Iowa is a hidden gem among Iowa’s myriad options for family vacations.