JANUARY - Bluegills: West Lake Okoboji
"The bite for huge bluegills and yellow bass (at West Okoboji) was nonstop all summer," said professional fishing guide John Grosvenor, who offers frequent fishing reports on his "Lake Okoboji Fishing" Facebook page. "So the ice- fishing for bluegills and yellows should be off the charts this winter. It's nothing to catch 10- to 11-inch bluegills. And those aren't just occasional big ones. Some days, they'll average 10 inches."
Grosvenor said it's not hard to find panfish at West Okoboji because there are die-hard ice-anglers on the ice every day, tracking the movement of the fish.
Other Options: Mississippi River Backwater Panfish: Sunfish Lake and other dredged backwaters provide consistent ice-fishing action. Don Williams Lake Crappies: Crappies averaged 9 to 10 inches in this Boone County lake last summer.
FEBRUARY - Yellow Bass: Clear Lake
For decades, yellow bass have been as reliable as the sunrise for ice-anglers at Clear Lake. So reliable that up to 7,000 yellow bass have been taken during the annual one-day Yellow Bass Bonanza ice-fishing tournament in February.
"Any of the tungsten jigs work good (for yellow bass,) gold works good, and we sell a lot of the fluorescent glow-head jigs made locally by Ventura Tackle Company," said Dave Van Syoc at Clear Lake Bait & Tackle. "The west end, in the Little Lake area, is usually good for yellows. We've got a couple guides working out of this shop that are on the ice every day, so we've usually got a good idea of where the fish are and what lures are working best."
Other Options: Belva Deer Lake Bluegills: This lake southwest of Iowa City near Sigourney was hot for panfish all summer, and should stay good through the ice this winter. Trout In Urban Ponds: Some spots in metropolitan areas are stocked with trout to provide unique trout fishing opportunities through the ice all winter.
MARCH - Channel Catfish: Coralville Lake
Coralville, Saylorville, Red Rock and any other lake with a large population of gizzard shad can be channel catfish hotspots immediately after ice-out. The carcasses of winter-killed shad drift with the wind into shallow bays. Channel cats follow and feed for several weeks after ice-out.
"The ice-out bite for 1- to 5-pound channel cats at Coralville is so easy that I get bored," said Ken Miller, expert catfisherman. "I actually start looking forward to summer fishing, when I have to work a little harder to catch the big 5- to 15-pounders by slow-trolling out in the lake."
Other Options: Southern Farm Pond Bass: Sow largemouth bass sunbathe over dark mud bottoms in farm ponds on sunny days immediately after ice-out. Big Spirit Lake Yellow Perch: "Last ice" is traditionally the best ice-fishing for yellow perch that currently average 10 inches at the Iowa Great Lakes.
APRIL - Walleyes: Little River Lake
Little River Lake in southern Iowa near Leon has for decades been known as a reliable lake for healthy walleyes. A recent renovation only improved the lake's reputation.
"We added a lot of rock fields and shoreline riprap during the renovation, and the guys have been real happy with the walleyes they're seeing," said Andy Jansen, DNR fisheries biologist. "There is a 12- to 15-inch year-class of walleyes in there that's really strong, and another year-class of fish that are 17 to more than 20 inches that's really good. Guys do good trolling jigs with a twistertail, or a Lindy Rig with live bait."
Other Options: Inland Rivers, White Bass: Fish below dams, tossing white twistertail jigs, or jigs and minnows. Big Spirit Lake Yellow Bullheads: It's a tradition for bullhead fanatics to make their annual pilgrimage to the north grade at Big Spirit Lake.
MAY - Walleyes: Iowa Great Lakes
The first weekend of May is the annual walleye opener at the Iowa Great Lakes. More than 2,000 anglers entered last spring's walleye tournament.
Tagged walleyes are released before the tournament. Lucky anglers who catch a tagged fish can win significant prizes.
"One guy won $35,000 dollars for catching a specially tagged walleye," said Thane Johnson, owner of Kabele's Trading Post on East Lake Okoboji. Anglers can monitor conditions and get daily fishing reports at the Iowa Great Lakes on "Kabele's Trading Post & Lodge" Facebook page.
Other Options: Red Rock Crappies: Huge 14- to 16-inch slabs come from the waters of Red Rock Lake. Rainbow Trout, Northeast Streams: Trout regularly stocked in northeast Iowa's trout streams provide reliable fishing each spring.
JUNE - Largemouth Bass: Lake Wapello
Lake Wapello, near Drakesville in southeast Iowa, has had problems with gizzard shad that required several renovations. The lake's latest incarnation was jump-started by re-stocking with full-grown bass.
"It worked out that as Wapello was refilling (after its latest renovation), we were drawing down some other lakes, so we transferred more than 1,200 bass over 15 inches long bass into Wapello," said Mark Flammang, DNR fisheries biologist. "There was phenomenal bass fishing right away. The bass really key on all the brush piles we added. One of the best spots is a big brush pile straight out from the campground. The face of the dam, and the riprapped fishing jetties, can also be good because bass really like crawdads that live in the rocks."
Other Options: West Okoboji Smallmouth Bass: Fishing guide Grosvenor says the smallmouth bite in recent years has been "fantastic, consistent and borderline incredible." Des Moines River Flathead Catfish: Flatheads feed aggressively prior to their spawn in June.
JULY - Channel Catfish: Lake Red Rock
Guide Johnny Coleman's "Flats N Cats Guide Service" Facebook page routinely shows the results of slow-trolling for channel cats at Lake Red Rock in Marion County southeast of Des Moines.
"I've had days when my clients put 50 (channel catfish) in the boat at Red Rock," said Coleman. "In the summer we slow-troll fresh cut bait above the Highway 14 bridge. The secret is to use really fresh cut bait that's still alive when you cut it and to troll slow, maybe half a mile an hour to no more than 1 mile an hour. The same thing works at Saylorville."
Other Options: Lake Rathbun White Bass: Troll lipless, shad-colored crankbaits along windward shorelines to catch whites when nothing else will bite. Big Creek Lake Walleyes: Flip jigs and/or crankbaits along weed edges in 2 to 4 feet of water on the shoreline south of the swimming beach.
AUGUST - Yellow Bass: West Lake Okoboji
Weeds have improved yellow bass fishing at the Iowa Great Lakes.
"Curly leaf pond weed is a problem in some ways but a blessing in others," says Kabele's Trading Post owner Johnson. "It starts growing under the ice, goes crazy in the spring, then dies off and is ugly and smelly for a while in summer. But it provides incredible habitat for panfish. The yellow bass and bluegill populations have absolutely exploded. The yellow bass are huge. We had one last summer that measured 13 inches and weighed enough to be a new state record."
Other Options: Gray's Lake (in Des Moines) Carp: Use dough bait on a hair rig to find out why carp are considered trophy fish in Great Britain. Urban Pond Panfish and More: Many urban ponds hold "bonus" largemouth bass, northern pike, walleye and especially catfish that grow to impressive size.
SEPTEMBER - Missouri River Blue Catfish
September is one of the best times to target Iowa's largest catfish species. The problem is, they aren't widely distributed. Blue catfish are found in Iowa only in the Mississippi River north to Davenport, in the Missouri River to Onawa, and for short distances upstream in tributaries of those rivers. There's also an experimental stocking of blue cats at Three Mile Lake.
Other Options: Small River Channel Catfish: Channel cats cluster and feed below rock riffles on small rivers on bright, sunny fall days. Big Creek Lake Muskies: Find 30- to 40-inch muskies in the mid-portion of Big Creek Lake north of Des Moines.
OCTOBER - Walleyes: Black Hawk Lake
Walleyes have roared back after Black Hawk was renovated several years ago. Rock reefs and riprapped shorelines are obvious spots for walleyes, but the edges of weedbeds are always worth investigating. If water is flowing over the outflow on the east end of the lake, current will attract walleyes to that area.
"We had an absolutely phenomenal bite at Black Hawk for much of the year (in 2017)," said DNR fisheries biologist Ben Wallace. "It was probably the hottest walleye lake in my territory."
Other Options: Yellow River Smallmouth Bass: Northeast Iowa's small rivers provide excellent action for smallies into fall. Missouri River Flatheads: Anchor large live baits such as suckers, chubs, or even small carp in deep holes with moderate current.
NOVEMBER - Crappies: Clear Lake
Recent improvements in Clear Lake's watershed, along with efforts to control rough fish, have bolstered the lake's crappie population.
"Crappies are coming back pretty strong," said Dave Van Syoc, at Clear Lake Bait & Tackle. "Last spring it wasn't unusual to catch 11- to 14-inchers. They're hard to find in the summer because they spread out in the main lake, but in the spring during the spawn they're in the shallows and easy to catch. Then in the fall they school up and move into the dredged cuts in the Little Lake area, and guys do real well for them through the ice."
Other Options: Raccoon River Walleyes: Reports of late fall walleyes that weigh 8 or 9 pounds increase each fall as more anglers learn of the opportunity. Urban Trout Lakes: In late November, the DNR stocks specified lakes in urban areas to provide trout fishing where trout aren't normally available.
DECEMBER - Yellow Perch: Iowa Great Lakes
First-ice is traditionally prime time to focus on yellow perch at Big Spirit Lake and West Lake Okoboji. The bite usually starts in large, shallow bays .
"Right now, on Big Spirit, we're seeing a lot of 11- to 12-inch perch," said Thane Johnson. "West Lake (Okoboji) has good numbers and decent size, too. Perch have been on a down-cycle for the past few years, but the numbers are coming back, and the size is there."
Other Options: Lake Belva Deer Bluegills: If ice thickness allows, this lake southwest of Iowa City has the potential for anglers to put a lot of bluegills on the ice. Northeast Iowa Trout Streams: There are plenty of trout left over from regular stocking last spring and summer.