Crappies are by far one of the most sought after sportfish throughout the region, and Iowa crappie fishing in March can be some of the most productive.
As the month rolls on, and into April, crappies will move to shallower haunts and the fishing will heat up.
ICE OR OPEN WATER
Northern reaches of Iowa will have average daytime highs in the mid 30s falling to the upper 20s to 30 degrees for lows. Much of the area lakes in the northern region of Iowa will have thick ice that will remain solid through March. Early in March the average daily high in Central Iowa is around 40 degrees, with nighttime temperatures falling back down into the 30s. Late March, at least in central Iowa, you may be looking at more open water than anything. Southern Iowa will have daytime temps ranging up to almost 50 degrees. Ice in this part of the state should be considered unsafe, if you can even find it.
There are a number of factors that can affect the March crappie bite, but typically some of the most common things to consider are weather, water clarity, structure, remaining weed beds and the topographical lay of the land below the surface of the water. These fish will pattern the same, whether you’re standing above them on 6 to 7 inches of ice, sitting in a boat or from the bank. Live bait and plastics are the tools you need to keep in mind. You can continue to use wax worms or spikes (maggot larvae). And if you can find them in red even better. Red or orange is also a great color to use with a small jig under a bobber in open water. Minnows, especially in late March, will be a go-to bait.
Home to the Iowa Great Lakes, this area is known for producing some really decent crappie fishing. Many of the area’s lakes will be iced over in early March, and if you venture out for some late-ice crappie fishing keep safety in mind. Though temperatures will remain cool and ice will, for the most part, be consistent throughout much of Northern Iowa, there is never such a thing as “safe ice.” Sudden warm streaks will weaken the ice and in some cases may make it completely unsafe to fish. Remember to always tell someone where you’re going and when you plan on returning. Take a fishing partner along and always carry safety equipment with you such as the Clam Emergency Throw Rope. The throw rope easily deploys and is 50 feet in length, allowing you to safely assist an angler that may have fallen through the ice without putting you or others in dangers of falling in as well.
West Lake Okoboji
This lake covers approximately 3,847 acres and is located in Dickinson County. The cities of Arnold Park, Okoboji, West Okoboji and Wahpeton sit on its shores. The gin clear water and the chance to fish for slab crappies and bull bluegills are a huge draw.
“Fishing in West Lake Okoboji continues to improve each year,” said Iowa Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Biologist Mike Hawkins. “What’s really improved our crappie populations in this region are the healthy weed beds we are seeing. These are great nurseries for the fry of the year and also provide safety from predators.”
Nearly all fish food is attracted to weed beds. The rooted submerged plants are the preferred habitat. Also, floating weed beds can be fertile. As a result fish are found in close proximity to these weeds. The best places to fish are just above submerged plants, adjacent and in between them. Both food and shelter is offered in these places.
Cerro Gordo County is the home of Clear Lake, covering 3,684 acres with a maximum depth of 19 feet. The town of Clear Lake hosts anglers from all over the state throughout the year.
“Clear Lake crappie fishing has been phenomenal,” reported Clear Lake Bait & Tackle Inc. owner Kevan Paul. “This last spring was great, and the fishing continues to improve as does the water clarity with the dredging that’s been going on.”
The dredging has boosted the weed growth in the lake, and not only is the crappie fishing improving but bluegills and perch are benefiting as well.
“We’re seeing crappie in the 10- to 12-inch range on average, especially those we are targeting in the basin,” added Paul. “There are quite a few crappie in weed beds and as well and canals, but they tend to be a bit smaller.”
Paul noted that next year’s crappie season will be as good if not better than this year’s. Clear Lake is definitely a lake that you should have on your list for 2017 as you plan your crappie fishing outings.
Red Rock Reservoir
There is no doubt that one of the most popular crappie destinations in this part of the State is Red Rock Reservoir. This great reservoir, approximately 15,520 acres in size, is located in Marion County north of Knoxville.
“Red Rock had a good crappie fishing in the spring of 2016,” reported Iowa Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Biologist Ben Dodd.
Anglers were treated to a warming trend in March of 2016, with daytime highs reaching the upper 50s to a high of 74 toward the middle of the month. Warming water will move crappies shallow as they prepare for the coming spawn. Great areas to target include standing timber in shallow water with a dropoff close by. Crappies will stage off the dropoff, move in and out of the shallows as they search for potential spawning beds and feed on minnows. Cold fronts will push these fish back in to deeper areas of the lake, so keep an eye on changing weather patterns.
“Red Rock can be tough fishing because of the conditions and water levels,” continued Dodd. “This lake is a flood control reservoir, however when the conditions are right, the crappie fishing can be fantastic.”
Big Creek Lake
Another notable crappie fishing destination is the ever-popular Big Creek Lake, covering approximately 814 acres and located in Polk County just north of Polk City. This lake is a very popular crappie destination throughout the ice-fishing season as well as the spring spawn. Big Creek offers anglers a chance at catching good numbers of fish. However, some sorting will be necessary. Both black and white crappies are present in this lake, and surveys from 2013 sampled crappies ranging from 8 to 11 inches in size.
Don Williams Lake
Dodd also noted that crappies are abundant at Don Williams Lake. But these fish are a bit short, and some sorting is needed. These fish will continue to grow though, and watch for them to reach harvestable size in 2017. Don Williams Lake is located in Boone County north of Ogden. The lake has a maximum depth of approximately 41 feet.
“The biggest thing anglers need to remember when it comes to crappie, is that their populations are often cyclic,” added the biologist. “Do your research, find the lakes with good numbers and size and travel to them. Don’t spend a lot of time fishing lakes that are in the valley of the cycle.”
The largest body of water in the southern part of the state is by far Rathbun Reservoir, covering more than 11,000 acres, with a max depth of about 50 feet. Located in Appanoose County northwest of Centerville, Rathbun offers some of the most productive fishing in the State of Iowa.
“As expected, the 2016 crappie season on Rathbun was much improved,” said Iowa Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Biologist Mark Flammang. “We’ve had tremendous numbers of crappies in recent years, perhaps some of the highest densities in recent decades. However, as is always the case, fish have to be small before they can be big, and growth had actually been a little slow.”
Many of the fish in the lake are from the 2010 year-class but grew very well in 2015. The 2016 season yielded some of the largest crappies in many years.
“Anglers harvested quite a few limits of fish, and sizes in excess of 11 inches were common,” added the biologist. He also noted that the numbers at Rathbun have remained high since the recent flood years but that large crappies have increased since 2015.
Lake Sugema had excellent fishing for 2016 and is worth keeping an eye on for the 2017 crappie season. Covering 574 acres, with maximum depth of 34 feet, this lake is located in Van Buren County and is southwest of Keosauqua.
“This lake was excellent for crappie, and fish in the 9- to 11-inch range were common,” noted Flammang.
Another lake to keep an eye on and was the subject of a recent lake restoration project is Hawthorn Lake.
“Crappie fishing should be quite good in 2017,” reported Flammang. The lake is located in Mahaska County and is 182 acres in size, with a max depth of 28 feet. “There is an abundance of 8- to 10-inch crappie, and anglers should enjoy some great trips, especially in early spring,” Flammang advised.
TIPS, TACTICS & TACKLE
So we know where to look for crappies, now let’s discuss equipment and tactics anglers can use to help fill those creels.
Maps and electronics can be some of the best tools you can use as you set out to find March crappies. Whether you’ve fished a particular body of water or not, doing some pre-fish scouting with a good topographical map will help you narrow your search as you head out. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources website is a valuable resource for lake information. There you’ll find details about specific bodies of water as well as downloadable and printable maps.
For crappies, light line, medium-light or ultra-light rod and reel combinations and small jigs are going to be the preferred equipment. If you’re on the ice, short 26- to 28-inch ice rods will do the job very well.
For open water, the same light line and rod weight will do the trick. You can find rods in 5- to 7-foot lengths. The longer rods are a bit easier to cast when you’re using light tackle but can be a challenge in tight quarters.
There are some specialty crappie rods that will reach out to 12 feet! These are great for “placing” your bait exactly where you want it. Using the same jigs and plastics with these longer rods will net some pretty good results for you. A minnow or a wax worm under a bobber will also help fill your limit this year. March crappie action can be phenomenal at times, and fish can be aggressive. Cold fronts will shut these fish down, though.
As we see warmer weather and ice begins to leave area lakes, look for areas where melting ice and snow is flowing in to the lake. This turbidity in the water will attract smaller minnows and insects to feed on the incoming sources of food carried by the water. Crappies will follow the baitfish in to these areas, especially as the water warms. Look for creek channels with dropoffs to deeper water. These will be staging areas as the crappies prepare for the spawn.