Who says that finding great bassing requires long, wearying road trips? We'll show you a few spots with fantastic fishing -- and they're right in your backyard! (April 2006)
It's a warm spring day, and you have a strong need to chase largemouth bass. If you live in the Des Moines urban area, you can be catching bucketmouths within an hour of leaving home at dozens of lakes scattered around central and south-central Iowa. Here are six of the best hotspots for bass, according to fisheries biologists and top local bass anglers, and how and when to fish them.
WEST LAKE OSCEOLA
West Lake Osceola is almost a sure thing for largemouth bass. An easy 30-minute drive down Interstate 35 gets you to West Lake (as it's commonly called), which is on the northwest corner of Osceola, visible on the west side of the interstate.
"West Lake is a gem," said Gary Sobotka, Iowa Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist. "It's got bass in a wide range of sizes, and it's got a lot of different habitat that makes it interesting to fish. It's a great place to go to catch bass."
Semi-pro tournament bass angler Brandon Kuehl of West Des Moines agrees. "You'll see bass from 1 to 6 pounds, with a lot of them in the 2- to 4-pound range," said Kuehl. "West Lake is a 'no-wake' lake, and a lot of guys don't have the patience to cruise to the far end. The farther you get from the boat ramp, the less pressure the bass have seen. But you can take bass just about anywhere on the lake if you do it right."
West Lake is roughly U-shaped, with its ends pointing north and its midsection oriented east-west. That east-west midsection has a lot of minor points and small coves that face south, and those features draw Kuehl's attention in the spring.
"That south-facing shoreline warms up first, and the bass move up onto those shallow points and back into those sheltered south-facing coves," he said. "If they're just starting to move up, they'll stay in the 10- to 12-foot range until there's some warm water, then they'll move into 2 to 6 feet of water.
"If I'm fishing points, I let the wind tell me which way to fish. They tend to face into the wind and wave action, so if the wind is blowing into a point, I cast parallel to the point and bring it from deep water up onto the point. If the wind is blowing across the point, I'll cast into the wind, at a right angle to the point, and bring it up onto the point from the side."
Because West Lake gets so much fishing pressure, Kuehl advocates a slower strategy. "If you're going to fish the shoreline of any lake that gets as much pressure as West Lake, slow down and use a finesse approach," he suggested. "Depending on the time of year, maybe a jig and pig, maybe a plastic worm, maybe a suspending crankbait. I've had really good luck in heavily fished lakes throwing a suspending crankbait, working it really slow and letting it sit before I twitch it. The slower presentation is something the bass along shorelines don't see a lot.
"Fish off the other side of the boat. There's a lot of bass, generally bigger bass, on deeper structure that doesn't get fished as heavily as shoreline structure. If you work the dropoffs from points, old roadbeds, old creek channels or any submerged brushpiles in 6 to 12 feet of water, you'll be surprised at the number of bass -- bigger bass -- you're going to find."
IDNR district fisheries supervisor Dick McWilliams says that "serious" bass anglers often overlook Lake Ahquabi, south of Indianola on Highway 69 and only 15 minutes from Des Moines.
"Ahquabi is an older lake, and kind of got a bad reputation in the early '90s for stunted bluegills and bass, so a lot of guys gave up on it," he said. "We renovated it in the late '90s, drew it down, added a lot of shoreline structure, and it's got a nice population of bass in it now."
Pressure from catch-'em-and-keep-'em anglers crops off Ahquabi's bass population as soon as they reach the legal "keeper limit" of 18 inches, but there are plenty of sublegal largemouths left.
"It's a fun lake to fish," said Kuehl. "A lot of times, you can go down there with a Texas-rigged worm or spinner bait and catch bass on almost every cast in places. You'll get a lot of ''pounders' -- not real big, but feisty, and fun to catch. It's a good lake to take kids fishing, to introduce them to bass fishing, because there's a good chance they'll see a lot of action."
The north side of the shallower northeast arm has a number of south-facing fishing jetties that attract largemouths on sunny spring days. At midlake, felled trees and brushpiles along the west shoreline make good midsummer targets for bass hunters.
McWilliams also suggested that anglers at Ahquabi consider fishing Hooper Lake, a 60-acre silt pond in the watershed above Ahquabi. Hooper doesn't have the visible habitat of Ahquabi, but has a summer weedline, a maximum depth of 24 feet, and has been producing nice 1- to 6-pound bass in recent years.
Hooper Lake is across Pershing Road, due south of Ahquabi, with a boat ramp on its northeast corner.
BADGER CREEK LAKE
Gary Sobotka, the fisheries biologist who manages Badger Creek Lake, was initially hesitant to recommend the lake. "It isn't as good as it used to be," he observed, "but that doesn't mean it can't be a really good place to fish for bass -- it's just not 'great' like guys were used to a couple years ago."
Badger Creek, 13 miles west of Des Moines' city limits and a few miles south of Highway F90 between Booneville and Van Meter, is a good place for diligent anglers.
"There's a good population of bass in there, some of them up in the 6- to 7-pound range," said Sobotka. "The problem is that the lake can get really muddy, and muddy water means tough fishing. The guys who do well for bass at Badger Creek are the guys who are willing to work a little for them."
Kuehl, the West Des Moines tournament angler, recommended fishing Badger Creek either shallow or deep. "Don't waste a lot of time fishing the middepths," he said. "Shallow fish get a lot of pressure, because people think you have to fish a muddy lake shallow. Actually, there are a lot of unpressured bass at Badger Creek in 6 to 12 feet of water. I like to fish the deep water off the dam, and there's some deep water off the main point where the lake turns back to the west."
Badger Creek is also a great place to use a technique that Kuehl rarely gets to use. "We can't troll in tournaments, so I don't do it very often, even when I'm pre-fishing or fishing for fun," he said. "But that big flat on the east side of the
lake, north of the east boat ramp, is a prime place to troll. There are old fencelines and trees and stumps scattered in that area. Trolling a crankbait would be a great way to cover that big area and find those scattered fish."
The IDNR's Sobotka agrees. "When we electrofish that flat for our surveys, one stump may not have any bass, but the next stump will have a half-dozen or more bass clustered around it. They use that flat a lot, but it's hard to predict where they'll be on a given day."
Shore-anglers have good access to bass at Badger Creek. All the fishing jetties at the lake were sited so that their tips are in 10 to 12 feet of water, with brushpiles within casting distance.
"If you want to know the bass potential off those jetties, just watch how us tournament guys always work those areas during tournaments," said a chuckling Kuehl. "If we work a spot, it's because we're pretty sure it's a good place for bass."
BIG CREEK LAKE
McWilliams and Kuehl both hesitated before recommending Big Creek Lake, 20 minutes north of Des Moines, as a primo bass lake, but both eventually felt obliged to put it on the list.
"There are tons of bass in that lake in our surveys, a few of them pretty big," said McWilliams. "The problem is that they can be darned hard to catch, and they're averaging a little on the small size, in the 1- to 2-pound range. The size problem may be related to the number of game fish we've put in that lake."
Big Creek was due for a complete renovation in the late '90s as a result of severe overpopulation among the lake's complement of gizzard shad. Fortunately, a nearly 100 percent winterkill of shad saved the day.
"We still put a ton of teeth in that lake to keep any shad that survived the winterkill from getting ahead of us again," McWilliams noted. "We put in walleyes, northern pike, wiper bass, muskies, largemouth bass -- I'm sort of thinking that there are so many predators in there that it's keeping the bass from developing to their full potential."
Kuehl acknowledged that bassin' at Big Creek can be a challenge, but proposed some effective strategies. "When they're shallow, the points at the south end are good places to start," he said. "I'd use a Carolina rig with a worm, or a crankbait to work those points. In the spring, I like the north shore of the northwest arm. It's kind of south-facing, and there are brushpiles in 6 to 7 feet of water in that area that hold a lot of bass."
Kuehl's take was true to his deeper-is-better philosophy at Big Creek. "Big Creek is so clear," he remarked, "and gets so much pressure, that I have better luck fishing deep brushpiles, or structure like the old roadbeds. Because of the pressure, I stay away from rattlin' baits, and because of the water clarity I use darker lures. The bass have been trained to avoid noisy, fast-moving, gaudy-colored lures; subtle, slow-moving, dark-colored lures seem to work better. Crawdad colors work good up there, too."
Crawdad colors should work well in any of the lakes we're featuring. IDNR fisheries research biologist Chris Larson did a survey of bass in southern Iowa lakes to determine their diets by pumping their stomachs. Spring, summer and fall, the most common food found in the stomachs of Iowa largemouths was crawdads.
"We expected to find a lot of small bluegills, and we found a fair number, along with some other baitfish," said Larson. "But the predominant thing we found was crawdads. That makes me want to make sure I've got plenty of crawdad-colored lures in my tackle box, because that's what our bass are used to eating."
LAKE RED ROCK
Biologists and anglers agreed unanimously that Lake Red Rock, 20 minutes southeast of Des Moines, is a tough, tough lake to fish for bass -- but well worth the effort when everything clicks.
"When conditions are right and (anglers) can find them, there's tremendous bass fishing in Red Rock," said McWilliams. "There was a bass tournament a couple years ago where they absolutely hammered bass --surprised the heck out of me."
Local guide Jeff Rowland -- www. whitebreastadventures.com, (641) 947-2261 -- said, "I'll bet that tournament was during a long dry spell. The biologist is right: There are times when you can't find a bass at Red Rock. But if conditions are right, it's a tremendous lake for bass."
The "right" conditions for bass fishing at Red Rock, according to Rowland, are independent of pool level, but strongly related to water clarity. "Even if you've had dry weather for a couple weeks in northern Iowa," he said, "and good water coming down the river through Des Moines, a couple big thunderstorms in Lucas or Warren County can muddy the whole lake up via the North, South and Middle rivers, and you'd think there wasn't a largemouth bass anywhere in the lake.
"But if you catch a couple weeks of good weather and the lake clears up, there are places where you can get on bass that will equal just about any other lake in the state."
Rowland shared three of his best spots on Red Rock for bass. "The old Highway 14 roadbed roughly parallels the east side of the Mile Long Bridge," he noted. "When conditions are right, I use my sonar and marker buoys to find and mark the edges of that old roadbed, then I work it all the way across the lake. Sometimes they're up on top, sometimes they're down in the old ditches, and the north end is generally better than the south end."
Rowland recommended a black and purple jig and pig for probing the old roadbed, with Berkley "Gulp" rubber worms a close second.
"During the spawn, another good spot is the rocky face of the northern end of the dam," Rowland continued. "The bass really stack up on that end, right along the rocks. Throw a worm right up on the rocks and bring it back out, and you'll probably get a bass. The only problem is that a lot of guys know about that spot, and it can get crowded there on weekends in June."
A small, protected cove near the ranger station at Elk Rock State Park is Rowland's third suggestion for Red Rock's largemouths. "That's about the only place there are stumps or logs left in the whole lake," he explained. "Just don't get so focused on the visible structure that you overlook the stuff that has fallen over and is under the surface where you can't see it. Believe me, the bass know it's there, and use it a lot."
A final tip to help find Red Rock's numerous but elusive largemouths: Troll white crankbaits between hotspots.
"White, white, white," insisted Rowland. "The bass are feeding on shad at Red Rock, and that's what they're looking for. Everybody else zooms from spot to spot when they're fishing for bass, but I just troll from spot to spot, making sure I pass over all the little bumps and rises and dropoffs I know about, and I pick up a lot of bass that other guys fly right past."
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So that's our list of six go
od bass lakes within a 60-minute drive of Des Moines. Whether you're looking for a relaxing hour or two of fishing after work, or a weekend on the water, good fishing is only minutes away from anglers in central Iowa.