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Oasis on the Plains: Year-Round Fishing at Iowa's Great Lakes

The Midwest Great Lakes offer excellent angling for a variety of species, including some of the finest bluegills in the Midwest.

Oasis on the Plains: Year-Round Fishing at Iowa's Great Lakes

(Top left) Slip bobber rigs baited with redworms, waxworms or maggots work great for big West Okoboji bluegills. (Bottom left) When the walleye fishing slows on Spirit Lake in late summer, anglers shift focus to the lake’s equally tasty yellow perch, which often school up in the main basin. (Right) Invasive yellow bass, once thought to spell doom for the Iowa Great Lakes, have become an enjoyable species to target. (Photos: Shutterstock, courtesy of John Grosvenor, courtesy of Travis Peterson)

When most Midwesterners hear "Great Lakes," they think of Huron, Erie or Michigan. When Iowans hear those words, they think of Spirit, West Okoboji, Minnewashta, and Upper and Lower Gar. Iowa’s so-called "Great Lakes," Spirit Lake and her five interconnected sister waters, provide an absolute treasure trove of outdoor recreational opportunities throughout the year. In winter, ice fishing is incredibly popular, with intrepid, warmly dressed anglers descending upon the lakes from all over the Midwest in search of walleyes, northern pike and other species. Come summer, though, the lakes are alive with pleasure boats, water skiers and personal watercraft enthusiasts.

Despite the increase in non-angling-related boat traffic, there are still plenty of fishing opportunities. In fact, as the Hawkeye State heats up in mid- and late summer, so does the fishing. And, with six waters to choose from, you can find elbow room somewhere with excellent action.

Some anglers tend to favor one waterbody over another. Local fishing guide John Grosvenor certainly has his go-to.

"[West Okoboji] is probably one of the most diverse fisheries you’ll ever see," Grosvenor says without a bit of hesitation. "And the fish aren’t that hard to catch. It’s a well-kept secret here in the upper Midwest because it’s in Iowa. People think of the 10,000 lakes to the north of us in Minnesota when they think fishing, and Iowa just doesn’t come to many folks’ minds when they’re considering a fishing destination."

Now in his 23rd year of professional guiding, Grosvenor has had plenty of time to form his opinions. He’s consistently found West Okoboji to be his favorite of the chain, mainly because it’s a very deep, clear lake with lots of underwater structure. Even so, all of Iowa’s Great Lakes offer something for anglers to enjoy in late summer.

fishing on West Okoboji, Iowa
Spirit and West Okoboji are big, natural lakes with an array of species. Okoboji, especially, has lots of deep underwater structure. (Photo courtesy of Vacation Okoboji)
WEST OKOBOJI ’GILLS

As with other Iowa Great Lakes, West Okoboji is by no means a one-trick pony when it comes to species variety. Grosvenor says it’s not uncommon for his clients to catch seven different species during a single four-hour trip on this lake, especially when fishing live bait under bobbers. Targets include largemouth and smallmouth bass, walleyes, pike and muskies, freshwater drum, three different kinds of sunfish (bluegills, green sunfish and pumpkinseeds), crappies, yellow perch and yellow bass.

"Yellow bass," the guide says, "are an invasive species that have been in West Okoboji for about a decade. Everybody thought they were going to be the end of the fishery when they got in here, but it’s only gotten better. They’re a good-eating fish, and very fun to catch."


However, bluegills garner the lion’s share of Grosvenor’s attention during the late-summer months. And these aren’t stunted farm-pond bluegills, either. "Our bluegills right now are second to none," he says. "I’ve been doing this a long time, and this is the best crop of bluegills I can ever remember."

He notes the lake’s size benchmark is a solid 10-inch fish. He estimates he boated 20 of them in 2022, plus three 11-inchers, matching the number of 11-inch ’gills he’d caught in the prior two-plus decades.




According to the guide, catching good ’gills on West Okoboji isn’t exactly rocket science. He suggests that modern electronics make finding schools of fish—even deep-water August fish—much less daunting than it might have been in the past. Although West Okoboji (Iowa’s deepest natural lake) has a maximum depth of almost 140 feet and averages a healthy 38 feet, you’ll want to target water in the 15- to 20-foot range.

Grosvenor suggests rigging an inline egg sinker and swivel under a slip bobber and finishing the presentation with a redworm, though he says waxworms or maggots work just fine, too. While that’s all fairly standard for a bluegill rig, the leader he uses—10- to 15-pound fluorocarbon—is anything but.

"I have people say, ‘What? How can you do that?!’" the guide says. "The fish don’t care in the summertime; they’re not picky. We do catch a lot of other fish while we’re fishing for these panfish, and I hate to see that look on someone’s face when they lose a big fish because of a cut line."

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SPIRIT LAKE MIXED BAG

With an average depth just shy of 16 feet and a surface area of around 5,600 acres, Big Spirit Lake (not to be confused with Little Spirit Lake to the northwest) sits to the north and east of West Okoboji. Like both West and East Okoboji, it too offers an array of species, though perhaps most notably walleyes and yellow perch. However, given the Hawkeye State’s typical hot, humid summertime weather and high water temperatures, Spirit’s walleyes are anything but easy this time of year.

"Walleyes on Spirit get really hard to catch in August," Grosvenor admits. "She does have a very good walleye population, but she’s a bit like any other Midwestern ‘bowl’ lake, [with] the walleyes getting really tough in the warm water of late summer."

Coincidentally, now is when many anglers switch gears, focusing on the walleye’s smaller, albeit just as good-eating cousin, the yellow perch. Grosvenor says Spirit Lake is well known for its yellow perch fishery but mentions that populations do cycle.

"[A few] years ago, we had an incredible year-class of 9- to 12-inch perch," he says. "Now we have an amazing year-class of 7- to 8-inchers. Another couple of years and we should have plenty of keepers, but you can still find some nice 9- to 12-inchers."

The guide adds that anglers must still work for them, and that a two-person daily limit of perch (50 fish) is rare now. Speaking of limits, the daily walleye limit on all Iowa Great Lakes is currently three fish, with a possession limit of six. Also, the lakes have a 19- to 25-inch "must release" slot limit, and only one walleye over 25 inches is allowed each day.

Boaters can find launch facilities on all four sides of Spirit. However, Grosvenor prefers using the ramp at Templar Park in the southwest corner, which is protected from the wind.

THE "LITTLE" GREAT LAKES

Tiny in comparison to East and West Okoboji and Spirit, Upper Gar (36 acres) and Lower Gar (251 acres) cater to panfish fanatics. Both harbor good populations of black and white crappies, bluegills and yellow bass, along with bullheads and channel cats.

Minnewashta falls between the Gar lakes geographically and in size (118 surface acres), but it’s just a little deeper than both, with a maximum depth of 15 feet compared to 7 feet for Lower Gar and 8 feet for Upper Gar. Like her larger sisters, Minnewashta supports good numbers of predator (walleyes, pike, largemouths and smallmouths) and prey (various sunfish, yellow perch, yellow bass and crappies) species.

KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
  • Planning a trip to the Iowa Great Lakes
Iowa’s Great Lakes
The area around Iowa’s Great Lakes offers plenty of places to eat. Lodging options range from campgrounds and cottages to high-end resorts. (Photo courtesy of Vacation Okoboji)

One great thing about the entire Iowa Great Lakes area is the almost infinite list of things to do. This includes the fishing, of course, but there are also plenty of lodging, dining and entertainment options. If considering venturing into this wonderful part of the Hawkeye State, first check out Vacation Okoboji (vacationokoboji.com), an all-encompassing guide to anything you might like to see or do. Here, visitors can find an in-depth history of Iowa’s Great Lakes region and a comprehensive list of lodging options that includes everything from primitive camping at several state parks to more modern accommodations at many resorts, cottages and cabins.

Hungry? Head to Betsy’s Diner (Spirit Lake) and step back into the 1950s with a good old fashioned burger, fries and chocolate shake. Vacation Okoboji lists eight guide services to choose from, including Grosvenor’s well-reviewed JTG Expeditions (712-330-5815; fishokoboji.com).

Need tackle and bait? Kabele’s Trading Post & Lodge (712-336-1512; kabeles.com) has been serving anglers in the Spirit Lake region since 1968. Today it features an inventory to rival any other sporting goods store on the planet. If Thane and Tanya Johnson don’t have it, you probably don’t need it.

And don’t forget to check out the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (iowadnr.gov), the state’s resource for everything outdoors, including licenses, fishing regulations, fishing reports and a series of fantastic "Where To Fish" maps that cover, among others, all of the Iowa Great Lakes.

  • This article was featured in the Midwest edition of August 2023's Game & Fish Magazine. Click to subscribe.

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