Some of Iowa's waters have surprised anglers and biologists alike over recent years with quality output. However, as certain lakes get good and pump out large numbers of big fish, other lakes are not as productive and their popularity temporarily wanes. In this article we will discuss Iowa's top five lakes based on the last two years and where we feel the best fishing will be in 2012.
For example, Three-Mile Lake, in Union County, has been the state's top largemouth lake for a lot of years. It would take a low- to mid-20-pound bag of five fish to even be in the running during a tournament. The overall production of that lake has declined pretty seriously over the past two years and many anglers speculate as to why. Yellow bass have been recently discovered there and will carry a portion of the blame, but pressure will stunt a fishery as fast as any other factor. There are tournaments nearly every weekend from May through September.
What's interesting is Webster County's Brushy Creek was once the state's most popular bass fishing lake and went through a similar phase of low productivity. However, with lowered productivity came lower angler interest and in turn that strongly reduced the amount of fishing pressure. During the 2011 season, Brushy Creek bounced back and was incredible. One could attribute the success anglers experienced last year on that lake to reduced pressure, but there were also several year-classes of bass that came on strong.
So, what can we deduce from the phases lakes like Brushy and Three-Mile have recently experienced? Stocked fish in man-made systems can and do experience general population ups and downs. Quality fishing does exist on our lakes and 2011 was a fine example of how some of some of Iowa's lakes really turned on. Much of the same is in store for Iowa anglers during 2012.
"Personally, Brushy Creek is at the top of my list," says Iowa Bass Pro Shops Pro Staffer Lance Baker. "What really makes me appreciate Brushy Creek is the number of keeper bass (15 inches) that are available there. During the 2011 tournament season, my partner and I won one event on Brushy and placed in the top three in another, and each time it took over 20 pounds between five fish to win.
"Brushy Creek is not a large lake," the Co-Founder of the Iowa Premier Bass Tournament Series continues. "In 2009, Brushy Creek was nearly a complete waste of time. Half of the tournament field would not weigh a fish and 12-15 pounds would be a top-end bag. That has dramatically changed and there are more fish in that 6- to 7-pound range being caught now than ever before."
Brushy Creek is located in Webster County, about 15 minutes southeast of Fort Dodge. Baker believes that Brushy intimidates anglers initially because of the overall depth combined with the incredible amount of standing timber that exists in this lake. The "beat the bank" mentality can produce results here, but the guys that get offshore and fish the submerged structure are the anglers that will put more and bigger fish in their boat.
"The biggest fish are going to come from two primary locations," Baker explains. "The creek channel swings and deep-water structure like rockpiles, roadbeds and bridges are excellent fish-holding structure. Creek channel swings are where the former creek bottoms take a 90-degree or greater turn. The influx of freshwater and oxygen attract every species of fish. Mix that with vertical structure and you will find good numbers of big fish."
Because there is such an abundance of standing timber, isolating fish-holding structure can be difficult. Baker says to look for something that is just a little bit different, such as a blow-down, or rocks mixed with trees, steep breaks and cedar trees. Brushy Creek can be a difficult lake to fish, but once you have the pattern figured out, it can produce some of the finest bass fishing Iowa has to offer.
Big Creek Lake is located just outside of Polk City in Polk County. The lake is not large, and lacks the kind of traditional structure that dominates many of Iowa's fisheries. However, don't let that sway your judgment on the quality of fishing that exists here. Some very hefty fish have been sampled on this lake and it is a reasonable expectation to encounter fish in the 4- to 5-pound range (or even bigger) regularly.
"Big Creek is a whole different animal," Baker continues. "Since they restructured the length limit to an 18-inch minimum, the number of larger fish has grown exponentially. There is a very strong year-class of 15-inch fish that will keep any bass angler happy for extended amounts of time. My big fish average is over 6 pounds, but I have seen fish top 7-8 pounds.
"To me, this lake fishes much like an Okoboji or Big Spirit," he explains. "The big fish-holding spots are mostly out in the 15-20 foot range, especially for smallmouth. Don't overlook quality structure in shallower water during early June. These fish will hold on deep-water structure like sunken brushpiles, creek channel swings and rock humps. A quality set of electronics are essential to locating this kind of structure and keeping your bait in that strike zone as long as possible."
There is a portion of the lake called "Lost Lake," which is a canal-like feature that concentrates the lake down to a bottleneck before it hits the spillway, where it then drops into Saylorville. During the month of June, Baker feels this section of Big Creek can be dynamite and hold good numbers of large fish if there is grass growing along the edges. Without the vegetation, he says it won't be as productive.
"The bluegill population at Big Creek is outstanding," says Boone Area Iowa DNR Fisheries Technician Ben Dodd. "I highly suggest anglers target these fish as they do average near that coveted 10-inch mark. However, with quality 'gill populations, the bass also thrive. In June, the bluegills will be primarily shallow, and in turn this pattern will attract the bass. Because of the abundance of these fish, a minnow- or bluegill-mimicking presentation could be very productive.
"Big Creek has great potential to be one of our state's top bass fisheries, but for years we struggled to keep our stocking efforts up because fish were going over the spillway into Saylorville," Dodd continues. "We are testing a fish barrier system in front of the spillway in hopes that it will increase the amount of fish we maintain in Big Creek. All species will benefit: muskies, walleye, large and smallmouth bass, crappies, and 'gills. Big Creek is a work in progress, but I am excited about the future and what we will have here in a couple of years. As far as the bass fishing is concerned, I expect Big Creek to be as good this year, if not better, than in years past."
"Saylorville is an up and down fishery," Baker says. "I feel Saylorville has the numbers of quality fish to be one of Iowa's top bass fisheries. In 2010, when the pool level was so high, the bass had an opportunity to take advantage of that flooded vegetation as spawning habitat. When we were back in the flooded coves during an Iowa Premier Bass tournament, my partner and I saw thousands and thousands of bass fry. I really believe we will see a very strong year-class come out of that spawning season.
"That lake fishes a lot like a river," he says. "Most anglers identify the rocky structure as a key element to contacting the better fish. Locating and fishing the off-shore structure like channel swings, submerged brush piles, jetties, old roadbeds, bridge pylons and anything current-breaking or attracting structural elements are where anglers need to spend their time. However, because the water levels do often fluctuate, some quality fish-holding structure can change from year to year. This is the kind of lake that takes some intensive scouting, but good numbers of quality fish do exist here; I can promise that."
Both Baker and Dodd feel the top-end fish anglers can expect to encounter are in the 4- to 5-pound range. "The primary forage base is shad," Dodd explains. "After a couple harsh winters, the shad population has struggled, but with last year's higher pool levels, then dropping to a more stable level, I expect the largemouth to continue to be abundant. Stable water conditions on a reservoir like Saylorville typically mean excellent fishing."
"In my opinion, West Okoboji is the best lake in the state for multi-species bass fishing," Lance Baker suggests. "When it comes to the smallie fishing, Okoboji is one of the premier smallmouth destinations available. The clear and deep water mixed with abundant vegetation creates the perfect combination for quality (15-inch minimum length) populations of fat smallies."
"Its not uncommon to see bass tournaments won with 20-25 pounds between five smallmouth bass!" he continues. "The available structure is very diverse. There is literally something for every kind of angler here: docks, canals, deep water, grass edges, big rock piles and sunken humps. The canals provide excellent bass fishing in June every year, but it begins to taper off as June wanes on. To be successful on Iowa's Great Lakes, you have to have an open mind and you must be willing to experiment with different baits near a variety of structural elements."
He also thinks to be successful on West O. an angler must fish the early morning or late evening hours to take full advantage of the fishery and avoid the often excessive pleasure boating traffic. Lighter finesse-style lines and rigging are essential. If you start catching the pike the bass are not that far behind and they are typically very fat. The primary forage base in West O. is perch, bluegills, and especially crawfish. Baker suggests matching the hatch with downsized hair jigs, drop-shot rigs and crankbaits keeping craw, 'gill, and perch representations tied on at all times.
Located in Appanoose County, Lake Rathbun surprised bass anglers in a big way during the 2011 season. If you love to bass fish and are interested in catching good numbers of big fish (15-inch minimum), Rathbun needs to be on your 2012 largemouth bass hit list. What's even more interesting, nearly every tournament on the lake during 2011 was the same way. The big fish are going on Rathbun.
"During an IPB (Iowa Premier Bass) Tournament that had over 30 boats, it took almost 25 pounds to win!" Baker exclaims. "Rathbun is a shad-based lake with minimal amounts of pressure and it's a big lake offering plenty of room for anglers to get out and find their own spots. The major difference in the Rathbun fishery when compared to Iowa's other bass lakes is its ability to consistently have successful spawns, and ample cover where the fish can find the cover they need to protect their young and sustain their populations. There are so many good spots that the best advice I can give you is if it looks good, fish it."
Baker prefers the subsurface structure like old roadbeds and bridge pilings, creek channel swings, shoreline brush and sunken brushpiles, and rock are absolutely key here. With your electronics, identify quality fish-holding structure, set up a milk route and experiment. The great thing about a big lake like Rathbun is if the conditions are stable, you will find fish on the same pattern across the entire lake.
IOWA TACKLE TRENDS
The Iowa Bass Pro Shops Pro Staffer has found that downsized bait presentations produce the best results. If he had to pick four baits that he could fish in every situation in everyone of these lakes, they would be as follows: shakyhead jig with a floating worm; a low-profile, ¼-ounce hair jig tipped with a craw imitation trailer; a whacky-rigged Senko and a square-billed crankbait. The colors are important, but he has found natural colors to be the best in most situations.
"Lighter tackle is essential to fishing these types of baits," Baker continues. "I fish with spinning gear loaded with 10-pound test or lighter far more than I do baitcasting equipment. I firmly believe in today's advancing age of larger profile presentations, the smaller baits get overlooked and can be the most productive baits you can throw. Don't let the 'go big or go home' mentality sway you wrong; 1/8-ounce jigs tipped with a four-inch worm will catch big fish!"
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The bass fishing awaiting Iowans during the 2012 fishing season is something that should not be overlooked. These five lakes are what we feel will be the most productive this summer, but don't neglect Iowa's other fisheries either. Take some time to keep your boat and lines wet this summer and take advantage of Iowa's bass fishing. Big fish are waiting.