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Iowa's Pre-Spawn Bass Opportunities

Iowa's Pre-Spawn Bass Opportunities

Bucketmouths will be on a rampage across the Hawkeye State before the end of April. Here's a look at hotspots and strategies that will make savvy largemouths look like April fools. (April 2010)

Spring is finally smiling on the Hawkeye State, and there are largemouth bass within an hour's drive of any Iowa homestead eager to offer an opportunity for you to return the grin.

Water temperature is key to locating active bass at this time of year. In lakes subject to ice cover, bass will increase their activity when temperatures reach 43 degrees.
–  Photo by Ted Peck.

Water temperature is a major key to both bass location and activity levels this time of year. If a waterbody does not get covered with ice for at least three weeks, bass activity picks up when water temperatures warm to about 55 degrees. In lakes subject to ice cover, there is a brief window of opportunity to catch bass in shallow water when temperatures reach just 43 degrees.

It takes several sunny days with moderate temperatures at night to warm the watery world of bass to a point where your casting efforts may produce something besides well-washed lures.

Bassers in the southern part of the state may stick their first bucketmouth of 2010 by mid-March. But consistent success usually doesn't happen until about the first week in April. In northern counties, April 20 typically provides the first opportunity for a cell phone photo of you posing with a bigmouth other than your mother-in-law.

Of course, it's tough to realize the benchmark of consistent success unless you've spent a few days out there eliminating unproductive water first. The calendar should never be an excuse not to fish. This does not apply to a host of other activities under the general category of chores.

A sunny afternoon is the best time to go bass fishing this time of year, targeting the warmest water available in your favorite fishin' hole. The north and northwest shorelines of most lakes get more exposure from April sunshine. Dark bottoms absorb more warmth than a sandy bottom. Influx from a small stream -- or even a drainage tube -- can add nutrients, a source of forage and even warmer water to the picture.


Smaller lakes tend to warm faster than larger ones given similar habitat parameters, with ponds warming even faster than small lakes. Iowa has more than 80,000 ponds, and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources estimates another 1,000 ponds are added to this total every year.

Most of our ponds are located in the southern half of the state, where both topography and soil composition are better suited for pond construction. Iowa pond management has been a template for other states for decades.

The IDNR pond formula centers on introducing a finny biomass of largemouth bass, bluegills and channel catfish and stresses a harvest of 4 pounds of bluegills for every pound of bass.

Almost all Iowa farm ponds are located on private property, where you'll need permission before fishing. But the IDNR stocks about 600 acres of ponds across the state with public access. Log onto the IDNR Web site -- -- for more information on public pond locations.

Although ponds come in a variety of sizes and configurations, most have the topography of a soup bowl, with one or two deeper basins surrounded by much shallower water along the shoreline.

During the cold-water period in both ponds and lakes that don't freeze over, bass tend to locate in deeper water, where water temperatures are generally more stable. In the spring, as waters warm, bass begin to move shallower, staging along the first deepwater breakout from shallower water.

Cold-blooded creatures living in a cold environment will locate where they can survive by expending the least amount of effort. This is why you'll often find pre-spawn bass "stacked" in a fairly tight area like a steep breakline off a main-lake point, especially one with woody cover nearby.

Lake Sugema in Van Buren County southwest of Keosaugua has textbook spring bass cover with hundreds of acres of standing timber. Outstanding habitat and implementation of a slot limit protecting 12- to 18-inch bass are two reasons why this lake rebounded from a massive bass kill several years ago to become "the best bass lake in the eight counties I manage," according to IDNR fisheries biologist Mark Flammang.

"We're seeing a slow but steady improvement in bass size due to the slot restriction in Sugema," Flammang said. "The population is very healthy, with a large number of 15- to 18-inch fish in the system. Bass numbers of these 'almost legal' fish are excellent, bordering on almost amazing."

The stair-step design of the Sugema dam epitomizes the concept of a steep breakline. If bass aren't holding in the almost emergent curlyleaf pond weed that extends from the dam face out to a 5-foot breakline, then you're almost sure to find them just beyond the weeds prowling slightly deeper water.

Most of the standing timber in Sugema is located on the west end, where the dark bottom warms quickly. It doesn't take long for the fertile soil of this dark bottom to produce heavy weed growth, rendering this part of the lake virtually unfishable. But between now and then, a considerable portion of Sugema's bassy biomass is cruising here, soaking up rays and looking for a fight.

Our entire eastern border is Iowa's biggest largemouth bass fishery, with almost the entire bass population of the Mississippi River still in backwater over-winter areas through the month of April.

Most of the clients I guide on Pool 9 this time of year come to the river looking for walleyes. Marion's Gary Wendt is a notable exception.

"Fishing swim jigs for largemouths is one of my favorite things to do," Wendt said, "and there is no better place in the state than the backwaters of Pool 9 in April and into May."

IDNR winter surveys on the Mississippi indicate bass and panfish seek out areas with little or no current flow to save energy. Rising water from ice-out expands the surface area of these backwaters, pushing fish to relocate in areas that will likely be dry ground by the end of June.

Exact bass location is not as predictable in the dynamic environment of a big-river system like the Mississippi. When ice leaves the Mississippi, bass are on the move looking for both food and the warmest available water.

This can

change on a daily or even hourly basis, with huge numbers of fish often congregating in a very small area -- like the water around a single stump.

Although Saylorville Reservoir in Polk County doesn't have a current factor like you'll find on the Mississippi, it is subject to significant changes in water level, which also impact fish movement and activity.

IDNR fisheries biologist Ben Dodd says there are at least two good year-classes of largemouths over 18 inches long cruising these 5,400 acres. "Bass in Saylorville tend to top out at about 4-5 pounds," Dodd said "We have received reports from anglers of 25-50 bass in a single afternoon during the pre-spawn period. These reports are often when the reservoir is at relatively high pool levels, which concentrates the fish."

According to Dodd, there are two different habitats where you're likely to find bass congregated when Saylorville is belly full. Shoreline rocks are one bass magnet.

If you're hooking up with bass but they are all shy of the 15-inch minimum length in place on this reservoir, try a slow, steady retrieve with a crankbait that runs a little deeper. The suspending deep Rattlin' Rogue is a good choice.

Coves in Saylorville tend to warm faster than the main-lake basin. According to Dodd, when reservoir levels in these coves are "high enough to flood the willows," bass fishing can be excellent. Flipping small open areas in the wood with plastics like the Sweet Beaver rigged weedless can be very productive under these conditions.

Stealth is extremely important when approaching bass in shallow, cold water. The key is to pitch the plastic close to the wood without bumping it. A slow presentation works best. A 1/16-ounce bullet sinker ahead of a 4/0 straight shank hook will greatly increase your hooking percentage.

Lake Geode in Henry and Des Moines counties is a great place to fish if you're looking for action. IDNR fisheries manager Chad Dolan said the dominant year-class of largemouth in this 178-acre lake is just short of 15 inches.

The best action for Geode's bass is had from a boat, with essentially the only shore access along the dam or at the boat ramp. A great deal of this little lake's rocky shoreline drops quickly away into about 10 feet of water, making it the ideal place to fish a twin-tailed hula grub like the Chomper on a 1/8-ounce jighead using high-visibility line to detect fish inhaling this bait as it drops.

It takes about three sunny days with high temperatures in the 60s to goad fish up on shallow flats about 4-5 feet deep adjacent to the deep water. Pitch a clown pattern Husky Jerk over the submergent weeds of these flats. Twitch it twice, and then let it hover for a full minute before imparting a third twitch. If bass are shallow, you'll know it within three or four casts.

Twitchin' the wood is also a solid tactic on sprawling Lake Odessa in Louisa County. Biologist Dolan said "good numbers of largemouth bass up to 20 inches" were sampled by technicians in a survey last autumn.

"Lake Odessa's bass are very robust due to the plentiful and diverse forage base found in this lake," Dodd said. "Early spring typically produces the best bass fishing. Once young-of-the-year baitfish are part of the biomass, the bigger bass get too fat and lazy to chase down lures."

Lake Belva Deer is a popular bass fishing destination for anglers living close to Keokuk County. These 264 acres are exceptionally clear with a greater fish carrying capacity than most lakes of this size due to diverse habitat, which includes lots of submerged wood, rockpiles and weedbeds.

Dodd said the most recent fisheries survey only captured bass up to 16 inches long. However, local anglers report catching bass over 20 inches long here every spring.

"Although electro-shocking gives the IDNR a good idea of fish population demographics in a lake, the big gals apparently see us coming in a clear lake like Belva Deer," Dodd said. "Sometimes data goes in the opposite direction. Last year, we sampled a 20-inch largemouth on little 18-acre Pollmiller Lake in Lee County. Most of the bass in Pollmiller are shy of the 15-inch minimum. I guess you never know what's hiding in the shadow of a stump until you look under it."

Besides offering a place to hide, wood absorbs considerable heat. From ice-out until water temperatures reach about 60 degrees, seeking the warmest available water is a major factor in bass location.

In the April 2008 issue of Iowa Game & Fish magazine, I wrote an article titled "Five Degrees Of Opportunity," which details radical tactics for spring bass when water temperatures warm to 43-48 degrees right after ice-out.

Essentially, this tactic involves using lipless vibrating crankbaits like the Rat-L-Trap retrieved at a fairly fast pace to trigger largemouth strikes. Regardless of water clarity, the best color is orange crawdad.

This small, brief window usually opens in north and northwest bays with dark bottoms, wood and weeds because the north shore gets more exposure from early April sun.

Conventional wisdom also says that small bass slide up from deeper water to cruise the shallows first, with bigger female fish hanging just a little deeper off the first breakline.

This is absolutely true once waters warm to 48 degrees after ice-out. Why, then, does this Rat-L-Trap pattern produce some of the biggest bass of the year for me?

IDNR surveys done in the winter indicate a large percentage of bass live in less than 10 feet of water under the ice. I believe that when this icy lid disappears, it takes a few days for fish to slide deeper because some survival mechanism kicks in as metabolism increases with warming water.

When water warms beyond 48 degrees, the window slams shut and tactics change to slow-rolling spinnerbaits along the bottom, twitching a suspending stick bait and allowing it to hang dead in the water over structure like wood or breaking out the short-profile plastics like a swim jig or the tried-and-true jig-n-pig in much deeper water.

Essentially there are two migrations between ice-out and spawning time. The first is from shallow to deep water when the ice goes out, the second from deeper water to building nests in sometimes extremely shallow water with the little "buck" bass leading the way.

The southern two tiers of Iowa counties are right on the cusp for ice formation.

If ice doesn't lock up the lake for at least several weeks, there probably won't be a migration to shallow water during winter months.

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