Here are your best bets for bass fishing in Iowa in 2014.
The lakes offer a solid fishery for smallmouth bass as well as an underrated largemouth population. “We’ve really seen some fantastic bass fishing in the past few years for both largemouth and smallmouth,” Hawkins said.East and West Okoboji and Spirit Lakes, a.k.a. the Iowa Great Lakes, in Dickinson County, offer a combined 11,366 acres of aquatic diversity. “We have over 40 species of fish in the Iowa Great Lakes,” noted Biologist Mike Hawkins.
West Okoboji is a steady producer, Hawkins said. “There’s excellent size structure on the smallmouth, with the bulk ranging from 14 to 19 inches. There are largemouth up to 22 inches, with large numbers in the 14- to 19-inch range and lots of smaller ones as well.”
“The West Okoboji bite is definitely strong,” said Clear Lake guide Kevan Paul (www.paulsfishingguide.com), who frequents the Iowa Great Lakes. Paul fishes leaches under slip-bobbers over rocky habitat in early spring, catching multiple species. Crankbaits or jigs worked over rockpiles are also effective.
Paul said most large points hold fish, particularly Ranger’s Point. “When the fish start spawning, you can go there and catch fish any day of the week.”
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Both Hawkins and Paul noted the canals in the Crescent Beach area attract panfish and largemouth as the weather warms. “Bluegills go in there to spawn, and the largemouth go in there to spawn and eat other fish,” Paul said.
Big Spirit Lake bass fishing has come on in the last 20 years, Hawkins noted. “It’s probably my favorite for smallmouth fishing in the spring.”
The lakes are a popular tourist destination and feature multiple boat ramps, fishing jetties, public accesses, campgrounds, bait shops, marinas, resorts and other amenities in the town of Spirit Lake and surrounding smaller communities.
Hawkins noted major wetland restorations in the Sandpiper Cove area should help to improve water quality on West Okoboji. “Habitat and water quality are the keys to good bass fisheries.”
The Iowa Great Lakes hold yellow bass (native to Iowa but not the lakes) along with invasive zebra mussels and Asian carp. DNR seeks cooperation from anglers to minimizing the spread of these and other potential pests among Iowa’s fisheries.
Biologists encourage anglers to “clean, drain and dry” their boats when traveling between bodies of water. It is illegal to place water, fish or plant materials from one Iowa water body into another, and anglers are encouraged to buy live bait locally whenever possible.
Brushy Creek Lake, a 690-acre impoundment in Webster County near Lehigh, has a consistently strong largemouth bass fishery and is a favorite among tournament anglers, according to Biologist Ben Wallace.
“The bite picks up a little later because the water takes some time to warm up,” Wallace said. “By June every weekend is filled up with bass tournaments.”
Wallace said there is an abundance of 14 to 18-inch bass with some ranging from 18-20 and a few 20-plus. “There’s no shortage of legal fish.”
Islands, rockpiles, old roadbeds and flooded timber all provide fish habitat. “It can be kind of a daunting lake to fish for the first time because there is so much Curly leaf pondweed (an invasive that anglers should avoid spreading) establishes early in the spring and forms a distinct weedline. Wallace suggests fishing this edge where it intersects with timber or submerged structure.
There are three boat ramps, although Wallace noted gravel roads to the north ramp discourage some anglers. Ten fishing jetties and two causeways provide access for shore anglers. Some require hiking. Shore access elsewhere can be challenging due to the steep and undeveloped terrain. “It’s about as rugged as you get in NW Iowa.”
There are campgrounds on the lake and bait shops in the nearby towns of Lehigh and Duncombe. The larger communities of Webster City and Fort Dodge offer lodging and amenities.
Honorable mention: Crystal Lake, Hancock County.
With over 300 river-miles and countless oxbows, chutes and backwater sloughs, the Mississippi River offers numerous angling options. Recent habitat improvements have made the 700-acre Capoli Slough five miles south of Lansing in Allamakee County an obvious choice.
Natural islands in many areas gradually eroded away after the lock and dam system was built in 1937, exposing backwaters to wind and wave action. Resulting sedimentation decreased depth, reduced water quality and impaired vegetative growth.
Through the Upper Mississippi River Restoration-Environmental Management Program, key partners including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Iowa and Wisconsin DNRs have worked to restore this lost habitat.
An ongoing project at Capoli Slough involves dredging silted-in backwaters, rebuilding 11 eroded islands using dredged material, and reinforcing the islands and river channel with rocks and vegetation.
The rocky habitat is attracting smallmouth bass and bass enthusiasts, according to Biologist Karen Osterkamp. “We see bass in there already,” she noted last fall. “The anglers are already using it.”
Deeper and cleaner backwaters with emergent vegetation should attract largemouth and panfish this spring and summer, Osterkamp noted. “The protection those islands are already providing is amazing. We’ve already seen some emergent vegetation coming back.”
The final phase of the project is ongoing, Osterkamp added. Anglers should be alert for dredging barges and other construction equipment.
The Lansing Village Creek boat ramp offers the best Iowa access, while Heytmans’ Landing to the south is adequate for small boats. There are two marinas in the area and multiple lodging options.
The project lies on the Wisconsin side of the river near Ferryville in Crawford County. Iowa and Wisconsin share license reciprocity for waters within the river channel.
While most of the Cedar River offers quality smallmouth fishing, Biologist Bill Kalishek especially recommends the stretch between the Mitchell Dam (in the city and county of Mitchell) and the city of Nashua in Floyd County.
“Most of the water coming in is fairly clean,” Kalishek said. “There is aquatic vegetation, which is unusual for Iowa’s interior rivers. It’s another good indication of water quality and a positive sign for that stretch of the Cedar River.”
Clean water coupled with abundant rocky substrate allows smallmouth to thrive. Kalishek said 8- to 14-inch fish predominate, with a good population of 16- to 18-inchers and some exceeding 20. Most inhabit rocky areas adjacent to deeper pools and below dams.
The river will accommodate canoes and small boats at normal spring levels, with numerous accesses available. Shore anglers enjoy good access at the Mitchell Dam, along the Cedar River Greenbelt trail between Mitchell and Hwy 9, along the trail from Spring Park to the city of Osage, and below the dam in Nashua.
Removal of a small dam to build a whitewater park in Charles City has improved fishing, Kalishek added. The project restored fish access and improved habitat along a stretch of the Cedar through downtown, while enhanced shoreline access has attracted anglers.
“Fisherman are the people who use that stretch the most,” Kalishek said.
There are numerous campgrounds along the Cedar, with a variety of lodging options and services in the communities of Osage and Charles City.
Honorable mention: Wapsipinicon River, Buchanan and Linn Counties
Some of the highest largemouth bass densities you’ll ever find in the wild” await anglers at Twelve Mile Creek Lake near Creston in Union County, according to Biologist Gary Sobotka. “They’re healthy in terms of numbers and body condition.”
The 635-acre impoundment was degraded just a decade ago. Common carp impaired water quality while overpopulated and stunted yellow bass decimated other species. DNR drew down the lake in 2005, eliminated existing fish and restocked with panfish, bass, walleye and catfish. The renovation also included shoreline stabilization and habitat-improvement projects.
The panfish and bass responded with strong reproduction and phenomenal growth, Sobotka said. “I don’t know where you’d go to find a better fishing lake.”
Sobotka said there is a dominant class of largemouth in the 16- to 18-inch range, although 20-inch-plus fish weighing 6 to 7 pounds are not uncommon. The large predators keep bluegill in check, preventing overpopulation and increasing growth rates.
The lake features significant flooded timber. There are three concrete boat ramps, although only the one near Hwy 34 offers paved access. Several fishing jetties added during the renovation include adjacent gravel benches, which provide spawning habitat for bluegill and bass.
Fish utilizing these beds from late April to mid-June “are usually pretty aggressive, so (shore) anglers can catch them,” Sobotka explained. “Boat anglers use them as well.”
There are no campgrounds and few other amenities on the lake. Creston, four miles to the east, has a variety of offerings.
So far there have been no more carp or yellow bass found, although Sobotka notes yellow bass infestations at nearby lakes represent a threat. “We do not want to see them show up in the lake again.” He encourages anglers never to move fish between lakes and to contact their regional management biologist if they would like to see new species introduced to their favorite water.
Viking Lake in Montgomery County near Stanton is only 136 acres, but biologist Bryan Hayes says it offers big angling opportunities. Renovated in 2006, “the fishery has really taken off since then.”
The renovation served primarily to remove yellow bass, although DNR also added brushpiles and rocky structure. Twenty-four ponds were created in the watershed to retain sediment and absorb nutrients, resulting in good water clarity and vegetative growth.
Most largemouth bass last spring and summer ranged from 13-18 inches. Some could push 20 inches by this spring. “Our catch rates at Viking have been as good as we see anywhere,” Hayes said. “People have been really pleased.”
Points dropping into the creek channel of the steep-sided lake offer excellent fish-holding structure, as do heavy beds of coontail and pondweed. There are two boat ramps, one with paved access, and several fishing jetties.
The popular state park campground offers a variety of amenities, including a concessionaire with a bait shop and restaurant. “You can get pie and ice cream and minnows all in one location,” Hayes said.
Honorable mention: Lake Anita, Cass County.
You don’t have to cast a whole lot to get some action” at 264-acre Lake Belva Deer in Keokuk County near Sigourney, according to Biologist Chad Dolan. “The catch rate is pretty high.”
Structure on the impoundment includes flooded timber, rockpiles, earthen fish mounds, sunken roadways and trenches, brushpiles and even reefs made from discarded voting machines. “It has a lot of habitat conducive to bass and lots of panfish species,” Dolan said. “The water clarity is excellent and there is a diverse aquatic vegetation community.”
The clear water can make fish a bit wary, Dolan cautioned. “If you can see them, they can see you. They may spook from larger, heavy baits. Be stealthy.” Dolan suggests casting plastic worms or using fly-fishing tackle for subtle presentations.
Anglers can expect plenty of 13- to 16-inch largemouth with the possibility of a 20-incher. Bluegill up to 10 inches and red ear sunfish up to 12 inches and 1 1/2 pounds are not uncommon.
There are two boat ramps with hard-surface road access, three fishing jetties, several floating docks, a campground and rental cabins along with a beach and picnic area. Several local businesses offer bait and a limited selection of tackle.
Lake Wapello in Davis County near Drakesville is a catch-and-release-only largemouth fishery offering ample opportunity to catch.
Renovated in 2009 due to gizzard shad infestation, the 289-acre impoundment would ordinarily be a few years away from peaking. While most renovated lakes are restocked with fingerlings, Wapello received about 1,100 12- to 22-inch adult bass from another impaired lake.
The excellent spawning success those fish enjoyed overshadowed population increases from traditional restocking. “Instead of waiting years for that renovation to take off, we had it all in one pop,” said Biologist Mark Flammang.
The renovation also incorporated shoreline stabilization, pond creation and wetland restoration. The clearer water produced an excellent vegetative response to supplement existing structural habitat.
Flammang noted lotus beds feature durable stems offering bass habitat early in the spring before new growth is noted. The lake also contains brittle niad, another invasive anglers should avoid spreading.
Wapello offers outstanding bluegill angling and an up-and-coming crappie population. “That lake really is at the top of its game right now,” Flammang said.
There are several fishing jetties, two piers (one universally accessible) and two boat ramps. The state park includes a “family friendly” campground, swimming beach, restaurant and bait shop. The lake is surrounded by mature oak-hickory forest with hiking trails.
Honorable mention: Humeston Reservoir, Wayne County.
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