Where is the best place to fish for crappies in Iowa in 2005? It all depends on what you consider a good day of crappie fishing.
Some crappie anglers aren’t happy unless they take home a fish basket full of crappies — even if the catch consists of nothing but little 7-inchers that yield silver dollar-sized fillets. Others consider it a great day if they bring home only a dozen crappies — as long as those fish are superslabs so big that they won’t fit sideways in a 5-gallon bucket.
With those extremes in mind, here’s a run-down of our best crappie lakes. Once you decide which sort of crappie fishing makes you happy, and there’ll be a crappie lake in Iowa waiting for you.
West Lake Okoboji, in far northwest Iowa, has a strong run of crappies from ice-out through the spawn in the canals and harbors at the northwest end of the lake. On the west side of the lake, another series of canals running around the backside of Gull Point State Park and connecting Emersons Bay with Millers Bay, is a prime location for spawning crappies. Most of the canal fishing is available only from boats, because much of the land in those areas is private property.
Shorebound anglers in western Iowa will have better luck in the southwest corner of the state. A number of small lakes, especially in Adair County, posted impressive numbers for crappie populations in recent surveys conducted by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.
Mormon Trail Lake is a 35-acre county conservation board lake located southeast of Bridgewater. Mark Boucher, IDNR fisheries technician, called Mormon Trail a sleeper for crappies.
“There’s a real strong year-class of 8- to 10-inch crappies in there,” Boucher said. “It had a bad reputation a couple years ago, but we did some research and found out that we had too many grass carp in the lake. The grass carp had wiped out all the vegetation, and there was no place for young fish to hide from predators.” The IDNR acted to reduce the number of grass carp in Mormon Trail, plant life reappeared, and crappie numbers exploded.
Local anglers report that the face of the dam is the hotspot for crappies during the spawn, along with areas around rock fishing jetties. Shallow water in the far east end also attracts crappies during the spawn, especially around brushpiles that have been placed in that area.
Meadow Lake, north of Greenfield, also draws Boucher’s attention when he wants to catch crappies, although he admits that it’s a tough lake to figure out. “When we’re electrofishing at Meadow Lake, we park on top of any of the brushpiles and roll up tons of crappies,” he reported. “There are a lot of 10- and 12-inch crappies in there. The problem is that it’s either hot or cold when you’re fishing with a rod and reel, and I have never been able to figure out why. It’s a good lake to check out for a half-hour — and if they’re biting, stay and clobber them. But if they’re biting slow, move on to another lake, because when they’re off at Meadow Lake, they’re really off.”
If Meadow Lake is in one of it’s off moods, Boucher suggests that anglers head a few miles down the road to Greenfield Lake, at the southwest corner of the town of Greenfield. Surveys showed a strong year-class of 8-inch crappies in Greenfield Lake last year, with a secondary year-class of 12- to 14-inch slabs. Anglers will catch them off the dam and along the shallow bay on the east side, south of the dam, during the spawn. Unmarked cedar brushpiles have been added to the lake. Those brushpiles hold crappies and provide anglers good fishing throughout the year.
Littlefield Lake, north of Anita and Interstate 80, near County Road F58, is a 70-acre lake that Boucher listed as his top crappie lake for 2005.
“There were two year classes when we surveyed it – one in the 8- to 10-inch range and another up around 12 inches,” he said. “The size and numbers of crappies in Littlefield really surprised us. During the spawn, the dam and fishing jetties are good spots. It’s a really good lake to catch crappies after the spawn, too. Guys do really, really well drifting the main lake, just working a jig and minnow under a boat.”
Black Hawk Lake, in Sac County, got rave reviews for crappies from fisheries biologist Lannie Miller. “Black Hawk was tremendous for crappies last fall, and it should stay fantastic through this year,” he said. “There’s a huge year class of 8- to 9-inchers, with a big secondary class in the 10- to 12-inch range.”
After ice-out, anglers will find Black Hawk’s crappies in the Town Bay, on the northwest end of the 925-acre lake. Shore-anglers and boaters alike will be clustered around the handicapped-accessible pier and the “stone pier” in the bay.
“Shore-fishing is actually better than boat fishing during the spawn,” said Miller. “The hot lure setup seems to be a salt and pepper mini-jig tipped with a waxworm or a Berkley Crappie Nibble.”
While Miller was enthusiastic about spring crappie fishing at Black Hawk Lake, he warned anglers that they should “get ’em while they can. Once the spawn is finished and crappies move out into the main lake, they’re really tough to catch. They’re out there, but there’s a good population of shad, and the crappies aren’t interested in anything anglers throw at them through the summer.”
Big Creek Lake and Lake Ahquabi, north and south of Des Moines, have tantalized central Iowa’s anglers for the past decade. Both lakes were drawn down and renovated in the 1990s, and have the potential to be hot, hot, hot for crappies.
“The crappies in both those lakes are there — they’ve just hung up one size below what anglers would like to see,” said Andy Moore, IDNR regional fisheries supervisor. “Last year they were in the 8-inch range — big enough to keep — and we’re hoping they’ll move on up to the 9- to 10-inch range that anglers like. There’s a good population of them in the lake, but there’s so
much habitat that there’s no single hotspot for them. We hear of anglers catching them early, after ice-out, in the Lost Lake area at the end of the channel down by the dam. As the water warms they start catching crappies out of the brushpiles and from the jetties in the bay where the handicapped-accessible pier is.”
The story at Lake Ahquabi parallels Big Creek’s: Renovation spread a large year-class of crappies over hundreds of new of brushpiles. Populations are strong, but sizes have tended toward the 8-inch range.
Look for crappies spawning in trees fallen into the water along the west shoreline, in the stakebeds beneath the fishing house, and in Hooper Lake, a small lake/large pond across Pershing Road south of Lake Ahquabi.
Red Rock Lake continues to satisfy a handful of crappie anglers, but appears to stymie everybody else. A core of local experts will annually fill their ice chests with monstrous 16- to 18-inch Red Rock slabs each spring, while nearly everybody else struggles to catch a few midsized crappies.
“Never overlook Red Rock,” said Moore, “because it has a strong population of huge crappies. It’s a tough lake to fish, because the water level is so up and down, but if it’s high during the spawn, and there’s flooded brush and weeds in the backs of coves and bays, you can absolutely clobber monster crappies at Red Rock.
“The Whitebreast Area is one of the better spots, but you just have to shop around, do some prospecting, to find out exactly where they are. It may take some work, but if you do, the crappies you catch will make your eyes bug out.”
Anglers in north-central Iowa can find a strong population of 8- to 9-inch crappies at Beeds Lake, near Hampton, and at Upper and Lower Pine Lake, near Eldora. “There’s lots of timber around the shoreline of Beeds Lake,” said fisheries biologist Jim Wahl, “so fallen timber is a prime spot for crappies in the spring at that lake. But I’d say the fishing jetties are the best places to catch crappies during the spawn at Beeds. For some reason they really like the rocks at that lake for spawning.
“Upper and Lower Pine lakes are my two other picks for crappies this year,” he continued. “In our surveys, we saw more crappies in the upper lake, but larger fish in the lower lake. There are some 12- to 14-inch crappies in both lakes, but it would be tough to fill a fish basket with them. They catch some crappies off the jetties at both lakes during the spawn, but fallen timber around the shoreline is the hottest place for crappies in the spring.”
Coralville Lake is like Red Rock Lake, in that both are large U.S. Army Corps of Engineers flood-control reservoirs with erratic water levels that are simultaneously the cause of both exceptional crappie populations and challenging fishing conditions.
“About every three years, water levels are such that weeds get started along the shoreline in late summer, then those weeds are flooded during the spawn the following spring,” said Paul Sleeper, IDNR fisheries biologist. “The young crappies have all sorts of invertebrates to feed on in that flooded vegetation, and a good place to hide from predators. The result is a huge year-class of crappies that move through the system, and we’re in the middle of that situation again this year.”
Sleeper reports that 12- to 13-inch crappies will be common at Coralville this year, with a significant year-class that stretches to 16 inches. He notes that early-season scouting can pay off there. “The Corps pulls the lake down early in the year, and a lot of brushpiles that we’ve added are visible along the shoreline,” he said. “Later, during the spawn, they bring the water level up, and those brushpiles flood. If you’ve marked those brushpiles, you’ve got a good place to look for crappies.”
Lake McBride, adjacent to Coralville Lake, is slowly recovering from a major rehabilitation project. Its crappie population is still expanding to fill the hundreds of new brushpiles and rocked areas that were added during the rehabilitation.
“There’s a good year class of crappies in the 10- to 11-inch range, and another coming up in the 7- to 8-inch range that’s looking really, really strong,” said Sleeper. “Guys were sort of discouraged last year at McBride about the crappie fishing, but I think it was a combination of weekly cold fronts and having the crappies scattered across so much new habitat. There are a lot of nice crappies in there. Give us a spring with decent weather patterns and a little time to figure out where they’re holding, and I think anglers will be happy with what they take out of Lake McBride.”
No discussion of Iowa’s best crappie fishing lakes is complete without mention of Lake Rathbun. Rathbun will again be one of our state’s best spots for crappies, after a couple relatively down years. “Things are slowly coming back after a disappointing period a couple years ago,” said Bruce Ellison, IDNR fisheries technician at Rathbun. “Of course, what was ‘disappointing’ at Rathbun would have been good crappie fishing at most other lakes in Iowa, so we have to keep things in perspective.”
The dominant year-class of crappies at Rathbun in 2005 will range from 8 to 10 inches, with residual year classes up to 14 inches.
Local anglers have Rathbun pretty well figured out when it comes to finding crappies. Fish Crappie Cove and the Buck Creek arm during the spawn; then, drift the main lake off the Island View area in midsummer to find pods of crappies following roving schools of shad.
“I’d say 2005 will be a good year at Rathbun,” said Ellison. “Rathbun is always going to be one of our top lakes for crappies, even if it’s having an off year.”
Rathbun may be one of Iowa’s top lakes for crappies in 2005, but Lake Odessa may earn the title of the best lake for crappies once all the fish are filleted at the end of the season. Odessa is a 2,000-acre maze of flooded backwaters adjacent to the Mississippi River near Wapello. Endless narrow sloughs, channels and cuts connect dozens of ponds and small lakes. Its design as a waterfowl refuge makes it nirvana for crappies and the anglers who pursue them.
“They raise and lower the water level to help waterfowl,” explained Vance Polton, IDNR fisheries technician. “They lower it in the summer and fall, and all sorts of vegetation gets started along the shorelines. Then they raise it in the spring, and it provides tremendous spawning and nursery habitat for crappies.”
According to Polton, several year-classes of crappies
have flourished at Odessa in recent years. “We saw strong year-classes all the way up to 16 to 18 inches in our fall surveys,” he said. “The fish are huge — fat and thick. The biggest challenge is finding and catching them.”
Polton explained that the myriad channels and cuts that make up Lake Odessa provide almost too many hiding spots of crappies. “The local bait shops try to keep track of where they are,” he said, “but there are a few spots you can sort of count on.
“After ice-out, they often open the inlet tubes on the upper end to flush out the system, and crappies are attracted to the flow of water. They’ll really stack up in that area prior to the spawn. During the spawn they’re everywhere. I know guys that drift down the middle of those narrow chutes and use long poles to dip jigs and minnows into the brush and timber on both sides of the channels, and they clobber crappies.
“Actually, fall is maybe the best time to catch crappies at Odessa. There isn’t a lot of really deep water in the system, and most of the crappies migrate to the deepest areas for the winter. The area near Sand Run is one of the deeper areas, and they haul a lot of fish out of there in October when the crappies start to move into that area.”
So, in the end, Lake Odessa gets the nod as Iowa’s “best” crappie lake this year. Exceptional populations of huge crappies in a large body of water that can support many visits by lots of anglers make Odessa the place to visit if you crave crappies in 2005.
That doesn’t mean that Lake Black Hawk, Littlefield Lake, Beeds Lake, Big Creek Lake, Lake Rathbun and Coralville Lake won’t provide excellent crappie fishing throughout the year. After all, the topic was Iowa’s best crappie lakes for 2005 — and those lakes will be great this year!