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Think Small For Big Iowa Bass

Think Small For Big Iowa Bass

Big water doesn't always translate into big bass. Here's a handful of small Iowa waters with big-time trophy bass potential! (April 2009)

A review of state-record largemouth bass around the Midwest reveals that bigger isn't always better when it comes to prime waters for bucketmouths. Iowa's state-record bass, a 10-pounder, came from 100-acre Lake Fisher, near Bloomfield in southeast Iowa. Nebraska's biggest bass topped the scales at 10 pounds, 11 ounces, and came from a sandpit. Illinois' state-record largemouth, a hulking 13-pounder, came from an abandoned stone quarry.

Discreet small ponds and lakes with healthy populations of shad, bluegills and crappies can often house a respectable number of monster largemouth bass.

Those three state records underscore the belief that while large lakes may indeed produce trophy fish, record-breaking largemouths often come from smaller waters. Why? There's no single answer, but a number of factors favor the production of mega-bass in smaller lakes.

Fishing pressure is a constant drag on predator species such as bass because there are simply fewer large fish than small fish in any body of water. If there are millions of shad in a generic 1,000-acre lake, there are hundreds of thousands of bluegills and crappies and thousands of largemouth bass. That's just the way predator/prey populations work.

Of those thousands of largemouths, a large percentage are yearlings or younger, a smaller percentage are 2- to 4-pounders and an even smaller percentage are trophy-caliber fish. Since everybody wants to catch a trophy, those largest fish are under a lot of pressure. Even if the majority of trophy bass anglers practice catch-and-release in that 1,000-acre lake, there may be only one or two trophies per 100 surface acres at any given time.

Now envision a 20- to 30-acre lake that's been around for 50 years, a lake that disappeared long ago from the "Fishing Hotspots" reports. It's a great place to camp on the weekends because the kids can catch buckets full of palm-sized bluegills and sunfish by fishing the edges of extensive weed beds or off the riprapped face of the dam. Ask at a local bait shop about the little lake's fishing potential, and it gets a lukewarm reply: "Decent bluegills, a few crappies and an occasional bass."

That's the sort of fishing report that should make the hair on the back of the neck of a die-hard bucketmouth hunter stand on end. All the elements are in place in that small lake to allow largemouths to live long, easy lives, dining on abundant panfish and unmolested by knowledgeable anglers. Their greatest threat is during their young-and-dumb years, when bass often fall prey to local catch-and-keep anglers who ignore minimum size restrictions and defiantly take home all the eager-to-please 1- and 2-pound bass prone to gulp whatever baits and lures pass within reach.


The few bass in that small lake that avoid catch-and-keep anglers can grow to a size and wariness that eventually makes them nearly immune to the paltry offerings of casual anglers. These kings -- and especially queens -- of small lakes live a life of luxury. Food is only a gulp away. Stunted bluegills throng beneath the weedbeds, and big bass soon learn that it's quicker to fill their stomach with a couple quick lunges at a passing school of 5-inch bluegills than to spend an hour chasing enough 2-inch baitfish to satisfy their appetite.

There generally aren't a lot of mega-bass in small lakes. Depending on the size of the lake and other factors, there may be as few as two or three, maybe as many as a couple dozen. But when compared on a "per acre" basis, the density of mega-bass in small lakes may be actually greater than large lakes. And that means anglers who know how, when and where to fish in those small, overlooked lakes have to cover fewer acres to put their lures in front of trophy-caliber fish.

It's not easy to get fisheries biologists to talk about the mega-bass potential of smaller lakes in their territories. As one fisheries biologist noted, "I had a real nice, little bass lake in my territory and mentioned it a couple years ago in an interview for a fishing story. The next time we surveyed the lake, the bass were pretty much gone. It was a small lake that didn't get a lot of attention from (law) enforcement, and folks had moved in, ignored the length limits, and cleaned all the bass out of that lake.

"That's the problem with bass in small lakes," he said. "They're at the top of the food chain, so there are never as many of them as there are panfish and bait fish. 'Catch-'em-and-keep-'em' anglers can really wipe out bass in a small lake."

As a result, biologists and avid bass anglers alike promote "catch-and-release" tactics during all fishing ventures -- and especially on small waters that are more susceptible to population reduction.

Remember: Chances are slim that you'll catch a mega-bass on any single trip to these lakes or ponds. There aren't a lot of monster bass in any of these lakes, but they have the right conditions to produce state-record-threatening largemouths and have proved their potential during IDNR electro-fishing surveys.

So, with catch-and-release imprinted in your minds, here's a list of some of the best places to catch a trophy bass in Iowa this year:

Fisheries biologist Ben Dodd said his crew electro-sampled, "numerous" bass that weighed more than 5 pounds during survey work in 2008 at Summerset Park, and specifically at the southernmost of the renovated strip mine ponds, midway between Des Moines and Indianola off U.S. Route 69.

"It's the same pond we stock with trout for a winter fishery each fall and winter," said Dodd. "There's a boat ramp, so guys can get a small boat in there. Shore access is so-so. It's an old strip mine, so some of the banks are pretty rugged. We seemed to roll more of the bigger ones along the south side of the area, where it's riprapped, but they're scattered around wherever there's brushpiles or where beavers have dropped a tree into the water."

Dodd's second small-water pick for big bass is passed by thousands of commuters each day. The pond on the southeast corner of Des Moines Area Community College, on the south edge of Ankeny, impressed Dodd with its strong balance between species.

"That's probably one of the best-balanced lakes or ponds we've ever sampled," he said. "There are phenomenal numbers of nice bluegills, lots of catfish, and we sampled quite a few bass up to 18 inches last time we were there. With that good balance of species, decent water quality and other factors, if anglers practice catch-and-release, some of those bass coul

d develop into real lunkers in a year or so."

DMACC Pond tends to develop a strong weedline during warm weather, which contributes to the quality of fishing by providing sanctuary for newly spawned fish and food supplies for older fish. Structure in the basin is limited to a few aged and therefore deteriorated brushpiles, and at least one old car in the upper half of the lake. At one time, the automotive classes stripped a car, placed it on the ice and sold tickets to DMACC students guessing the day on which the car would break through the thawing ice. Complaints about the unsightly appearance of a stripped car sitting on the otherwise scenic lake ended that fundraising endeavor but provided at least one long-lasting piece of submerged fish habitat in the lake.

Dodd said the strong weedlines at DMACC Pond are ideal for his favorite bass strategy.

"I'll pull a buzzbait along a weedline, or work a popper near structure," he said. "Younger bass are real suckers for topwater (baits), and there's something about that presentation around sunset that incites the big boys to hit too. If I could only fish small lakes one way, one time of day, it would be topwaters at sunset."

Cities and towns in the lower third of Iowa used to depend on city reservoirs for their municipal water supplies because of difficulty finding adequate water from drilled wells. In recent years, the trend has been away from individual reservoirs that supply a single city. Instead, rural water associations build large reservoirs (Twelve Mile Lake and Three Mile Lake are good examples) that serve multiple cities and towns from a single source.

But the old city reservoirs are still in place, often just outside the city limits of towns like Albia, Chariton, Corning and dozens of other communities in southern Iowa. Those impoundments range in size from a few acres to several hundred acres, and often offer bassin' opportunities disproportionate to their size.

"Albia has two city reservoirs, and Chariton has a couple. There are a lot of little ponds and small lakes that get overlooked down here," said Bruce Ellison, IDNR fisheries technician in southeast Iowa. "Both the reservoirs at Albia have bass, but the lower one has more and larger bass. We rolled up some nice ones in our last survey. The upper reservoir at Albia has a gravel boat ramp. The lower one doesn't, but there's a grassy area where some guys slide in canoes or two-man bass boats.

"For the big bass in that lower reservoir, I'd work the face of the dam and the cedar tree piles that are marked with buoys. The dam is riprapped. Stomach studies done on bass by some of the research biologists out of our Cold Springs office have shown that crawdads are the number one food source for largemouth bass in southern Iowa, spring, summer and fall. If bass have been proved to feed heavily on crawdads, it only makes sense to fish around riprap and rocks, where there tend to be more crawdads."

Ellison noted that the two city reservoirs near Chariton, Lake Morris and Lake Ellis, are often viewed as panfish lakes, though both harbor overlooked populations of bass.

"Neither of them will be a Lake Sugema or West Lake (Osceola) where there will be lots of bass tournaments," he said. "But there are bass in both of them. (Lake) Morris is still used as a water reservoir, so it gets treated with copper sulfate to control weed growth, which actually diminishes the fishing potential because aquatic weeds benefit fish in a lot of ways. I'd fish the dam at Morris, and work the weedlines and standing timber in Lake Ellis if I was after big bass. You might have to sort through a lot of small bass, but eventually, you may annoy one of the big boys in there enough to get it to hit your lure."

Ellison said bass anglers willing to hike might find overlooked lunkers in small ponds scattered throughout Shimek State Forest's units. Several ponds in the Shimek's units near Farmington were stocked with bass and bluegills many years ago. Because they are walk-in only and difficult to access with sampling gear, Shimek's ponds "pretty much take care of themselves," said Ellison.

"We don't have any data from recent surveys, but we hear of some really nice bass coming out of those ponds on occasion," he said. "They don't get a lot of use, so the bass have a chance to grow pretty much unmolested."

Sometimes lunker bass in Iowa come from places that don't look like lunker bass hotspots. In northeast Iowa, the Martin's Lake area of Sweet Marsh Wildlife Management Area looks more like waterfowl habitat than a prime place to hook a lunker largemouth. But local bass aficionados have learned that looks can be deceiving.

"It's tough fishing because the only really deep area is where they dredged up dirt to build containment dikes," said fisheries biologist Dan Kirby. "A lot of it is flooded cattails with small openings. But there are some darned nice bass in there. Our surveys showed 20-inchers, and we've heard of even larger bass being caught from that area. The trick is to find them, because they move around. There are times when they use the deep-water area along the dike, and there are times when they're back in the cattails and potholes. It takes a lot of patience, and topwater lures are an obvious choice, but there are some big bass in there if you can find them and get them to bite."

The natural lakes of north-central and northwest Iowa don't favor largemouth bass for a variety of reasons, though changing conditions in recent years have contributed to an increase in size and number of largemouths at the Iowa Great Lakes. It will take a few years to see if the changes in dissolved nutrients and slightly warmer climate allows largemouths to continue to expand in population and size in West Okoboji and Big Spirit lakes. In the meantime, a small lake on the outskirts of Fort Dodge, in north-central Iowa, harbors big bass for those willing to earn their attention.

"Badger Lake, right on the outskirts of Fort Dodge, isn't much more than 45 acres, but it has some nice bass," said Lannie Miller, IDNR fisheries biologist. "There's a gravel boat ramp, but it has an electric-only motor restriction. It gets a lot of fishing pressure, but most of the pressure is on panfish. I don't think a lot of guys really work it for bass.

"It's a tough lake to fish," said Miller. "Not like most Iowa lakes, with shallow water around the shoreline where you kind of instinctively know where to cast for bass. Badger has pretty steep dropoffs along its shorelines, so the bass hold in different places than guys are used to. There's some standing timber that's pretty obvious to cast around, but other than that, you've got to work dropoffs and breaklines to find them. It might be worth the effort, though. Last time we sampled that lake, we rolled up quite a few 5-pounders, and more than a few bass that were in the 7-pound range."

None of the ponds or small lakes we've mentioned are probably worth a long drive and more than half of day's effort. But they exemplify the sort of small, out-of-the-way fishing venue similar to some gravel pit, city

reservoir or small county conservation board lake not far from where you live. Ask around, and when you hear something like, "lots of little bluegills, just a few bass," the hair on the back of your neck should start to rise.

Some evening this summer, load up on patience and spend some time flipping a topwater along weedlines at that little panfish pond. Drag a rubber worm through the deepest hole. Work a crawdad crankbait over riprapped areas. Don't expect to catch bass the first trip, or every trip. But don't be surprised some evening this summer to finally cross paths with one of the two or three mega-bass that have lived long, undisturbed lives of luxury in that lake -- until they met you.

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