Midwinter fishing in Iowa ranges from hot ice-fishing locales to open-water trout.
It’s midwinter, when many of Iowa’s anglers flop up the footrest on their recliner and wear out their TV’s remote control surfing between fishing shows, wishing they could be fishing instead of sitting indoors. The good news is that there are plenty of fishing opportunities for anglers willing to break free from the clutches of their recliner.
They could be part of the crowds who populate communities of ice-fishing shacks and tents at the Iowa Great Lakes, Clear Lake and other traditional ice-fishing hotspots. For something different from traditional ice-fishing for crappies, bluegills and walleyes, they could drill holes in more than two dozen small lakes or ponds associated with urban areas around Iowa that have been stocked with trout for the winter by the Iowa DNR.
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And for some fishing that’s really different and challenging, they could find areas of open water below dams on rivers and cast for walleyes, or head to northeast Iowa and fish for trout in streams that freeze only on the coldest days of the year.
There’s plenty of fishing available to Iowans willing to brave a little chilly weather. What follows is an overview of this winter’s best fishing opportunities.
LAKE ICE FISHING
Iowa’s most famed ice-fishing opportunities are at the Iowa Great Lakes, Clear Lake and other large natural lakes in the northwest quarter of the state.
Reports from anglers last summer indicated especially strong populations of bluegills in West Lake Okoboji at the Iowa Great Lakes. Good summer fishing for bluegills usually translates into good ice-fishing for bluegills the following winter. Anglers reported exceptional catches of 9- to 10-inch bluegills from West Okoboji last summer, so prospects for this winter’s ice-fishing are excellent.
Look for West Okoboji’s mid-winter bluegills associated with the edges of last summer’s weedbeds in Millers Bay, Emerson Bay and other shallow areas associated with rock bars or dropoffs into the lake’s deeper middle portion. Kabele’s Trading Post on East Lake Okoboji in the town of Spirit Lake and Oh Shucks Bait and Tackle near Milford do a good job of keeping track of where the best bluegill bite is. They also know which baits get results.
Many ice-anglers in that region favor “spikes” (small maggots) over waxworms because it’s harder for fish to steal several small spikes threaded on a hook compared to one fatter, juicier waxie. Several guides at West Okoboji enjoy success using flavored Berkley PowerBait Ice Action Waxies and Berkley PowerBait Ice Swordtail plastic baits.
Northern pike, often huge northern pike, are a potential bonus for panfish anglers at the Iowa Great Lakes. Every winter the internet blooms with photos of anglers hefting 30-inch-and-larger pike they caught while panfishing. It’s always worthwhile to set out a tip-up baited for pike while jigging for panfish, and to be prepared for a battle if a hungry pike decides to gulp down a bluegill you’re reeling in.
In north-central Iowa, yellow bass at Clear Lake draw crowds of ice-anglers each winter. Thanks to extensive work by the DNR in the lake’s watershed, water clarity has improved and summertime aquatic vegetation has expanded. Panfish populations have exploded due to increased habitat and additional feeding opportunities in the vegetation. Yellow bass at Clear Lake should average 8 or 10 inches, with enough jumbo 11-inchers to keep things interesting.
Crappies have also responded to improved water clarity at Clear Lake. Last summer, anglers commonly reported 10-and 11-inch crappies, with a few whoppers that stretched to 14 inches. Look for crappies blended in with yellow bass, especially along the dredge cuts in the Little Lake area at the west end of the main lake.
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Those dredged cuts and weedbeds in the Little Lake portion at the west end of Clear Lake are a traditional starting point for many ice-anglers. By midwinter, anglers have often pinpointed other hotspots for yellows and crappies out in the main lake. The easiest way to find panfish, and the lake’s expanding population of walleyes, on a given day, is to look where portable ice shelters and ice shacks are clustered.
That “follow the crowd” strategy works for bluegills on West Okoboji, perch on Big Spirit and yellow bass at Clear Lake, as well as at Lost Island Lake, Crystal Lake, Rice Lake and other natural lakes in the northern third of the state. DNR fishing reports reported good catches of yellow bass at Lost Island last winter and through last summer. Crystal Lake and Rice Lake, near Clear Lake, both have respectable populations of yellow perch, with a few that stretch to 14 inches. Never overlook smaller lakes in northern Iowa, especially if you’re not into the communal style of ice-fishing common on the more heavily fished larger lakes.
The novelty of catching trout through the ice at ponds or small lakes convenient to urban areas around Iowa has worn off. After more than two decades of stocking two dozen fisheries near Des Moines, Council Bluffs, Sioux City, Mason City, Davenport and other urban areas, local angler response has evolved from “Cool — I caught a trout!” to “When are the stocking dates? I want my share of those trout.” It’s not a sure thing to catch trout from one of the urban ponds, but for at least a few days after the hungry, pen-raised trout are added, chances are good they’ll eagerly take any of Berkley’s PowerBaits for trout.
There are many theories related to catching trout stocked in the urban ponds. Some anglers believe the pen-raised trout stay at the same depth as the ponds in which they were raised, so those anglers never fish deeper than 8 feet. Others swear that stocked trout are habituated by flowing water in the “raceways” at the rearing facilities to constant movement, and drill their holes to intercept schools of trout slowly circulating around the perimeters of urban ponds. DNR workers have noted that trout cluster for several days near the stocking location at each pond, and many anglers make a point of fishing near the hole cut in the ice where the fish were released.
Purists may be dismayed by the crowds that often gather when the DNR truck arrives to stock trout in a particular lake, but for many anglers the chance to catch trout trumps those concerns.
WALLEYES BELOW DAMS
For decades, a few fanatics have fished for walleyes below dams on the Mississippi River throughout the winter. They sometimes move snow and chop ice at boat ramps to get their boats in the water, and they use specialized gear and tackle to deal with freezing temperatures. They are somewhat secretive, don’t talk a lot about their success rates, and have declined repeated efforts to get specific information about their strategies. But they must be catching either lots of walleyes, big walleyes, or lots of big walleyes, to put up with fishing under such miserable conditions.
The same reluctance to discuss fishing success is displayed by a few hardcore walleye anglers below Saylorville and Red Rock dams in central Iowa. These anglers cast from shore into the open, swirling waters below the spillways on those dams, and often carry fish back to their vehicles. Conversations are brief, probably because they don’t want to spill the beans on a really good walleye bite. Or, they want to get into their truck as quickly as possible to restore feeling to their frozen extremities.
The common denominator of mid-winter open-water walleye fishing on the Mississippi and Des Moines rivers seems to be extremely slow presentation of very light jigs tipped with minnows, Berkley PowerBait or Berkley “Gulp!” minnows. Mid-winter walleyes feed as they develop eggs for spawning soon after ice-out, but they don’t feed aggressively. Pick-ups are delicate. Bites are tentative. Six-pound-test braided line, 1/16- to 1/8-ounce jig heads and light-action rods are an advantage. Anglers spend a lot of time de-icing ferrules on their rods, and reels sometimes get bundled under an armpit to thaw them out. Some of the guys use handwarmers in their pockets. Others use small charcoal heaters to provide warmth to hands and tackle.
It’s not easy fishing. Often not fun. But the potential to pull a limit of eaters from a river in February is enough to encourage these die-hards to endure discomfort in return for a stringer of walleyes.
OPEN WATER TROUT
A more common open water fishing opportunity is to go after trout in the trout streams of northeast Iowa. The streams were stocked all last spring and summer, sometimes heavily, and DNR surveys indicate strong populations of both stocked and native trout awaiting anglers willing to meet the challenges of wintertime fishing.
Those challenges include more than just cold temperatures. Many of the parking areas associated with access points to our trout streams are not cleared of snow in the winter. It’s going to take more walking to reach favored stretches of stream. But once the access issue is conquered, it’s back to the age-old challenge of outwitting trout. That means deciphering what they want to eat on a given day. Flycasters can try to match midge hatches that occur on sunny days throughout the winter. Streamers that imitate minnows are always an option. Spincasting anglers can throw Mepps spinners, experiment with small jigs, or try small, minnow-profile crankbaits.
One of the biggest challenges of wintertime trout fishing comes with simply trying to stay out of sight. In the summer, anglers can duck behind streamside bushes or clumps of grass. But in the winter, foliage is at a premium, so stealth becomes a priority. But those hardy anglers who accept the challenge of catching trout in midwinter report the experience is worth any frustrations. To be in or near the chuckling waters of a trout stream on a calm, sunny mid-winter day, with sparkling fresh snow lining the banks and brilliant blue sky overhead is worth any extra work necessary to experience it.
That’s what it comes down to. It takes extra effort to fish in the winter, whether it’s from a fishing shack on a frozen lake or standing in a snowdrift beside a trout stream. But the returns far exceed those efforts: The camaraderie of sharing beverages, brats and fishing stories among friends in an ice shack. The splendid solitude of fishing a small natural lake overlooked by the multitudes of anglers clustered at larger waters. The annual opportunity for you, and especially your kids, to catch hungry trout through the ice of an urban pond only miles from your home.
Toss in the challenge of catching walleyes from the open water of spillways where nobody else even considers fishing in winter, or the fairyland scenery of a snow-rimmed trout stream, and it’s worth whatever effort it takes to roust yourself and maybe a few buddies to head out and do some fishing, rather than sit and daydream about it.
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