If you like to catch bass — largemouth or smallmouth — you're going to like Iowa's bass prospects for 2017. Changes in water quality and shifts in fish populations have made our good bass fishing even better.
Water quality has improved in numerous lakes around Iowa in the past decade as the DNR, farmers and other stakeholders altered watersheds to improve water clarity in Black Hawk Lake, Little River Lake, Prairie Rose Lake and other lakes around the state. Improved water clarity has improved sunlight penetration into those lakes' waters, encouraging growth of vegetation. Aquatic vegetation may be a frustration for recreational boaters, but it is a boon to fish and fishing.
"Vegetation is good for fish populations, especially panfish, and panfish are a major food source for bass," noted Ben Wallace, DNR fisheries management biologist based at Black Hawk Lake in northwest Iowa. "More vegetation means more panfish and forage fish, which can translate into more, larger, better-fed bass."
Shifts in fish populations are also a factor in the size and number of bass in Iowa's lakes. Doug Burns, professional fishing guide at the Iowa Great Lakes, said a die-off of white bass in East and West Lake Okoboji in late 2012 translated into improved fishing for largemouth and smallmouth bass in 2016.
"The white bass were direct competitors for food with largemouth and smallmouths," said Burns. "The largemouths and smallmouths now have those forage fish all to themselves. Both the largemouths and smallmouths are like footballs, they're so well fed. Last year we caught an 18-inch largemouth that weighed 4 1/2 pounds. With so much food available, you'd think it would be hard to get them to bite, but they not only bite, they bite aggressively. They just about rip the rod out of your hands."
With so many improvements in Iowa's bass waters, enhanced by tweaks to fish populations provided by Mother Nature, there are literally hundreds of prime places to chase bass in Iowa this year. We have room to cite only a few of the top spots, but those examples offer tips on how to score bass from almost any water in Iowa.
DOCKS AND WEEDS
Early in the season, before weedlines develop, Burns said shallower lakes in the Great Lakes chain warm faster and offer good early season bass opportunities. He begins to flip lures under the docks in Upper Gar Lake shortly after ice-out, and targets any deadfall trees he finds in that shallower lake. Shallow canals along the western edge of West Okoboji also draw his early season attention.
"It's mostly dock-flippin' in the canals, and you can do really well pre-spawn," he advised. "There's also a unique topwater bite in the canals. Pre-spawn I throw a lot of poppers. Post-spawn, walkers seem to work a little better."
West Okoboji's deep waters warm slowly, so Burns often tours his clients along dock-rimmed shorelines in bays during the spring. Bays warm up earlier than main shorelines, so he focuses on those warmer waters.
"Early in the year, before the weedlines develop, it's dock fishing," he said. "You need to be good at accurately flipping a jig under docks. If you're not accurate, throw a Senko or Wacky Worm, something that falls slowly and flutters on the drop. With them, there's less problem with people getting mad at you for smacking their boat with a big, heavy jig."
Post-spawn, Burns said weedlines at the Iowa Great Lakes, and especially in West Lake Okoboji, are his favorite target when seeking both largemouth and smallmouth bass.
"If I fish down a weedline until I catch one or two bass, then put the Spot Lock on my Minn Kota, look at the bottom with my Humminbird, there's inevitably some sort of change in bottom structure associated with the edge of the weeds in that area," he said. "Maybe it's just a few rocks. There have been weedlines that have produced for me for years, and when I got side-imaging (sonar) I was able to see that there were some rocks, or a small point, or maybe a flat associated with that part of the weedline that made it attractive to fish."
There are endless weedlines in West Okoboji, but Burns has several that have been especially productive for him.
"There's a weedline on the north side of Gull Point that's traditionally good for bass," he said. "There's a weedline up in North Bay that's consistent, and what I call the Banana Bar in Miller's Bay is a good spot. If you look at a topo map of that area, there's a bar shaped roughly like a banana that runs from Hiawatha Point out into Miller's Bay, with a series of little rises with saddles between them that has some good weed lines."
Lance Baker is a Bass Pro-sponsored tournament angler based in central Iowa, currently ranked 19th in the world on the co-angler side of the FLW tour after only three years. Two lakes in Iowa are standouts, he noted.
"Brushy Creek kicks out a lot of bass," he said, "and Hawthorn is absolutely phenomenal right now."
Brushy Creek Lake is a 690-acre lake in Webster County, east of Lehigh, that is locally famous for its depth (75 feet near the dam) and its hundreds of acres of flooded timber. Baker takes both those features into consideration when stalking the lake's largemouth bass.
"You have to remember that in the summer, Brushy has a thermocline, probably around 13 to 15 feet deep," he advised. "There's no point fishing deeper than the thermocline. You can fish in 35 feet of water, but the fish will be on structure that sticks up and is shallower than 15 feet. The other thing is the acres and acres of standing timber. It's pretty intimidating, trying to decide where to fish in all that wood. But if you look out across all those trees, you can see the old creek channels. Fish the edges of those old channels, and any side channels that go up into the trees.
"Fishing around those trees, you want a slow-falling lure," said Baker. "Maybe a Senko or jig with a big chunk of trailer, so it falls slowly. At Brushy, it really helps to have electronics and know how to use them, so you can figure out if they're suspended high in the trees, or closer to the bottom or even out in the open suspended under a bunch of bluegills."
Hawthorn Lake is a smaller lake, only 182 acres, in Mahaska County south of Barnes City. Baker is enthusiastic about that lake's bass potential because, "It has something for everybody.
"If you like to fish deep, there's deep structure with lots of bass," he said. "If you like to fish shallow, there are weeds and riprap and humps and some standing timber. The bass aren't huge, top out around 4 or 5 pounds, but there are tons of 2- to 3-pounders in there. The cool thing about that lake is that you can drop your trolling motor at the boat ramp, make a big circuit of the lake, and you just about can't not catch bass if you're willing to experiment a little and see what they want."
For anglers in search of the biggest possible bass from Iowa's waters, Baker gives a nod to a heavily fished lake not commonly known for big bass.
"If you know what you're doing and are willing to put in the time, Big Creek (Lake, north of Des Moines), has been producing 6- and almost 7-pounders," said Baker. "But it's all an offshore bite, on mid-lake structure, so you have to know what you're doing to find and catch them. There's a thermocline in summer around 12 to 13 feet, so it's not deep fishing, but it's definitely out where fewer anglers are pressuring the big fish. Mostly over the old roadbeds, ledges and dropoffs in the central third of the lake."
And, Baker reluctantly admits that one of his favorite local spots for recreational bass fishing is just over the hill from Big Creek.
"Saylorville (Lake on the Des Moines River north of Des Moines) is one of those places us bass guys don't like to talk about," he laughed. "There are nice bass in there. They're tough to find because all the structure has been flooded out, but if you fish it like Big Creek, fish offshore over ledges and dropoffs, you can handle 4- or 5-pound bass pretty consistently. If you want to catch the biggest bass in Iowa lakes, it's pretty much going to be on an offshore bite, away from the areas where fish are under a lot of pressure."
Anglers have plenty of opportunities to catch smallmouths across Iowa, though those opportunities are scattered and sometimes in surprising places.
Both West Lake Okoboji and Big Spirit Lake are renowned for their trophy-caliber smallmouth bass.
"Smallmouths at Big Spirit were off a little in the past few years, numbers-wise, but I caught a lot of 10- to 13-inchers last year, so I think the numbers are there for some great fishing in the next few years," said fishing guide Burns. "On West Okoboji they're around weedlines associated with rocks. On Spirit, we've lost a lot of weed lines in the past few years for unknown reasons, and the smallmouths have become a little more dock-oriented.
"Lure-wise, spring and fall smallmouth fishing on both lakes is predominantly jerkbaits, hairjigs, and Rippin Raps," said Burns. "Tube jigs and shaky worms are good summer tactics. Natural colors — green pumpkin, watermelon — are my favorite colors. A little chartreuse or orange is a good thing, because the bluegills the bass are feeding on have those patches of bright color, and sometimes the bass seem to trigger on those flashes of color."
Smallmouth hunters in other waters across Iowa generally have to focus on rivers to find smallies. The cool-water streams and rivers of northeast Iowa — the upper reaches of the Cedar, Upper Iowa, Yellow, Wapsipinicon and the Maquoketa rivers — are renowned smallmouth fisheries. Bass tournaments on the Mississippi River have been won by anglers toting bags full of hefty smallmouths taken from wing dikes and riprapped shorelines of that big river in northeast Iowa. But there are also significant smallmouth fisheries in central Iowa for anglers willing to protect fragile fisheries in that region.
The relatively cool, clear waters that pass through Saylorville Dam and Red Rock Dam on the Des Moines River have supported for several decades populations of smallmouth bass. Smallmouths up to 4 pounds have been frequently reported below Saylorville downstream through downtown Des Moines, and for up to 10 miles below Red Rock.
Tributaries of the Des Moines River that have their mouths in the smallmouth-friendly stretches below the dams often support smallmouths far upstream. Smallies have been caught from Beaver Creek near Perry in Dallas County, more than 20 miles upstream from its mouth on the Des Moines River below Saylorville.
All three forks of the Raccoon River in central Iowa support reproducing populations of smallmouths. The South and Middle forks of the 'Coon have rock bars and riffles in Dallas County with small, resident populations of smallmouths up to 3 pounds. The muddier lower reaches of the North Fork of the 'Coon holds few smallmouths, but its upper end in Greene through Sac counties can produce 2- to 3-pound smallmouths at low head dams at Jefferson, Scranton and other locations.
Yes, the Iowa Great Lakes, Brushy Creek Lake, and Hawthorn Lake are go-to-spots for largemouth bass in 2017. West Okoboji, Big Spirit, rivers in the northeast part of the state, and a few unique spots in central Iowa are reliable places to target smallmouths. But there are plenty of lakes and rivers within minutes of where you live that have similar weedlines, dropoffs, humps, ledges and standing timber that hold equal numbers of potentially big bass. Whether you travel to known hotspots or find your own, Iowa's bass are waiting.