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Iowa Bass -- Big Or By The Numbers?

Iowa Bass -- Big Or By The Numbers?

Whether anglers want to catch large fish or numbers this month, there's likely an excellent lake nearby to satisfy the angling urge.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

Some largemouth bass anglers are purists who'll fish all day to boat one or two 6-pound-or-larger mega-bass. Others prefer numbers to size, and look for lakes that allow them to catch and release dozens of feisty 1- to 2-pound fish in a day.

Iowa has lakes that meet the needs of both groups. Some lakes harbor a low population of largemouths, but those few fish tend to fall into the trophy-of-a-lifetime category. It might take hundreds of casts to cross paths with the loners in those lakes, but anglers will hit the jackpot when they finally do set the hook in one of these behemoth fish.

Other lakes in Iowa, however, harbor large populations of aggressive but small bass that can entertain you cast after cast. Several lakes offer the sort of fishing that leaves arms tired from reeling in tail-dancing "pounders," and cheeks sore from grinning.


Ironically, two of our best lakes for lots of small, aggressive bass are also two of our best bets for bass that will test your tackle. Green Valley Lake, near Creston, and Lake Wapello, near Drakesville, have been designated "lunker lakes" by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, with special restrictions designed to allow bass to grow to maximum size.

All largemouth bass fishing at Lake Wapello is catch-and-immediate-release. Green Valley Lake has a 22-inch minimum-length limit that allows angler to keep any bass larger than 22 inches.

Many anglers predicted (and hoped) that such extreme regulations would allow large numbers of bass in those lakes to grow to phenomenal size. After nearly a decade under the special regulations, results are mixed.


"The special regulations didn't create huge bass, or stockpile huge bass, like some people predicted," said Gary Sobotka, IDNR fisheries biologist in charge of Green Valley. "Bass at Green Valley still top out at around 20 to 21 inches. That's just sort of the biological limit for bass in Iowa, with our genetics and our short growing season."

That's not to say that a rare bass won't exceed 20 to 21 inches in Green Valley or elsewhere in the state. The state record for largemouth bass is 10 pounds, 12 ounces; it was caught by Patricia Zaerr back in 1984 from Lake Fisher in Davis County.

"I've seen a 24-inch largemouth that went 9.4 pounds come out of Green Valley," said Sobotka. "It was a female, in June, after the spawn. If it had been during the spawn when she was full of eggs, she would have been a threat to the state record. But if genetics and nutrition are right, Green Valley or Lake Wapello are two places where a bass with superior genetics would have a chance to live long enough to achieve maximum size."

Lake Wapello has even more stringent regs than Green Valley's, but the results of 100 per cent catch-and-release for largemouths have been the same. Wapello bass top out around 20 to 21 inches, with a few larger fish occasionally delighting anglers. While the lake's largest largemouths are generally mixed with small- and medium-sized bass in shallow waters during the spawn, midsummer finds a subtle segregation of sizes.

"During the warmer months, the deep-water structures at Wapello seem to hold more of the bigger fish," said Bruce Ellison, IDNR fisheries technician. "There are some big lily-pad fields at Wapello, and guys who work the edges of those weeds catch a lot of 15- to 18-inch bass, which is an average-sized fish for that lake. But the guys who go out and find some of the pallet structures and trenches in 8 to 10 feet of water seem to catch bigger bass."


Ellison says that those intent on catching only Iowa's biggest bass have options other than the lunker lakes. "Rathbun is so big, and the largemouth bass-type habitat is so scattered, that they tend to get some size to them," he noted. "If you can find bass habitat like a tree in the water or some flooded brush, there's a chance there's a 5- or 6-pound bass in there. There aren't many, for a lake of its size, but the bass that are in there tend to be larger than average."

Fisheries technician and avid angler Vance Polton says that Lake Darling, near Brighton in southeast Iowa, is another lake noted for bigger-than-average largemouths. "We usually see 3 or 4 bass of 20 inches or longer every time we survey the lake, and that's just a sample of the overall population," he said. "There are some really nice bass in Wapello."

Polton reports that an overpopulation of gizzard shad several years ago created a large population of bass longer than 18 inches. "When we had the shad problem, the medium- to larger-sized bass fed very well on those shad, but the shad competed directly with younger bass for food," he said. "So there's a population of pretty nice big bass in Darling, but not a whole bunch of smaller fish."

The cloudy water at Lake Darling benefits anglers who use bright and/or noisy lures, Polton says. "Chartreuse, yellow or white are good, and rattles and BBs help fish find the lures in the cloudy water," he said. "Rebel Crawdad lures with rattles are really good around (riprap.) Each time we sample near rocky areas at Lake Darling, we roll up a lot of bass, and you can see all sorts of odd bulges and angles in their bellies from where they've been feeding on crawdads."

Bass anglers in north central Iowa are well aware of Brushy Creek Lake's bass potential and have applied heavy fishing pressure in recent years. Lannie Miller, IDNR fisheries biologist in charge of the lake located southeast of Fort Dodge, says that in recent surveys, every bass sampled had hook marks in its mouth.

"Brushy Creek has tremendous pressure from weekend as well as tournament bass anglers," he asserted. "There were 67 bass tournaments on that lake in 2004 alone. But the tournament anglers are fanatical about catch-and-release, and a lot of weekend anglers are really into catch-and-release, so the bass populations have stood up well to the pressure."

Miller has seen bass as large as 7 pounds come out of Brushy Creek, but most bass at the lake peak out near 6 pounds and 20 to 21 inches. Seven pounds is a big bass for a lake no older than Brushy Creek, but, Miller explains, any large bass currently in Brushy Creek are refugees from farm ponds that predated the lake's formation.

"Those pond bass thought they'd died and gone to heaven when the lake filled and they all of a sudden had hundreds of acres of fresh habitat and almost unlimited forage fish to feed on, " he said with a chuckle.

Miller advises anglers in search of big bass at Brushy Creek to think like walleye anglers and stay alert for bass suspended near trees in deep water.

"Brushy Creek isn't like any other Iowa lake," he said. "It's deep, with steep shorelines and very few shallow flats or edges. There are naturally bass associated with shorelines and any shallow habitat, but in our surveys, we've noticed quite a few bass in places we aren't used to seeing bass in Iowa.

"They're suspending in the standing timber at 10, 15, maybe 20 feet, in 30 or 40 feet of water. Not as many anglers know to look for them out there, so they don't get as much pressure, and consequently tend to be a little bigger than bass that hang out in traditional shallow habitat."


What about anglers who prefer to catch lots of small- to medium-sized bass in a day of fishing? Plenty of options are available for them as well.

Coincidentally, two of the best places to catch lots of smaller bass are the same places anglers target for big bass: Green Valley Lake and Lake Wapello. "What we're finding out in the lunker lakes is that if you let a bass population fully express itself, you end up with a population of fish that looks like a pyramid," said fisheries biologist Sobotka. "A large population of smaller fish at the bottom, tapering up to a smaller population of medium-sized fish in the middle, with a few really big bass at the top of the population pyramid.

"So what we're seeing at the lunker lakes is not only a nice population of bass that have grown as large as they can grow in Iowa, but a really large population of healthy bass in the 1- to 4-pound range."

Green Valley was rehabilitated about the same time it was designated a lunker lake. Much of the added fish habitat is still visible above the surface. The cedar tree piles and rockpiles have proven to be prime locations to find bass of all sizes.

"Some of the deep-water structures hold larger bass after the spawn," noted Sobotka. "During the spawn, there are submerged stakebeds in the shallower areas that really attract bass. All the structures are marked on lake maps you can get at our Mt. Ayr offices or at most of the bait shops in the area."

At Lake Wapello, anglers interested in wrestling with lots of small- to mid-sized bass can focus on the edges of the lakes lily pad fields once they form. Topwater lures, fished on the pads or along the edges, or floater-diver crankbaits can be deadly for young bass.

The IDNR's Polton suggests Lake Geode as another lake in southeast Iowa for anglers interested in catching lots of bass per day. "Most bass at Geode are less than 15 inches and average 1 to 2 pounds," he remarked. "But there are lots of them. When we electro-survey lakes we generally expect to collect 80 to 100 bass per hour -- at Geode, it's more like 110 to 120 bass per hour. The guy manning the collection net has to work fast to keep up with all the bass we roll up at Geode."

According to Polton, anglers visiting Geode need to be very aware of the consequences of the lake's above-average water clarity. In the spring and fall, visibility often exceeds 10 to 12 feet. Even during midsummer algae blooms, clarity rarely drops below 6 or 7 feet.

"I tell people that the bass at Geode laugh and stick their tongues out at bright-colored lures or lures on heavy lines," said Polton. "They're pretty educated. I use light lines, low-visibility lines, and dark- or natural-colored lures when I fish that lake."

A second secret to catching Geode's bass is to note the taper of the shoreline, especially in midsummer. Some of the lake's edges are as abrupt below the waterline as they are above the waterline.

"Big bass go deep in warm weather, but at Geode, that deep water might only be 8 or 10 feet from shore," said Polton. "There's a unique situation on some of Geode's shorelines where there's a narrow, shallow edge right at the waterline with a band of water weeds; then it drops right off into 8 or 10 feet of water. Those big bass love to rise up along that drop off and patrol the edge of those weeds. You have to be careful because they're spooky in the clear water, but it's a great place to catch bass all summer if you work it right."


In central Iowa, Big Creek Lake and Lake Ahquabi, respectively north and south of Des Moines, have been pumping out large numbers of medium-size bass in recent years. But not for all anglers.

"There are some guys who are really annoyed at Big Creek because they can't seem to catch bass up there," said Rick Motzko, owner of the Tackle Shack -- (515) 243-5438 -- on Army Post Road in south Des Moines. "Other guys are really happy with the bass they've been catching. The difference seems to be in whether the guys are just throwing lures at the water or if they're actually fishing."

Motzko has observed that anglers who practice their art catch lots of 15-inch bass at Big Creek. "They're thick in the lake," he noted, "but there will never be a big population of legal bass at that lake because it's so close to Des Moines. As soon as anything gets legal-sized, it goes home with somebody."

According to Motzko, a cadre of expert anglers will be seen catching and releasing a steady stream of Big Creek largemouth that often exceed 6 pounds. "There are some big bass in there in some of the deeper structure that the average guy doesn't know about," he said. "There are some real honeyholes up there, but the guys who know where they are pretty tight-lipped about them."

Lake Ahquabi too registers strongly on Motzko's bass-production radar. "Just fish the shoreline all around Ahquabi," he said. "Lots of 12- to 14-inch bass, especially along the shoreline near the camping area. And if you've got a boat, never overlook Hooper Lake, or Hooper Pond, or whatever you want to call it. It's just across the road south of Ahquabi, and it's got a lot of nice bass in it, too."

A final possible trip for bassers in the metropolitan Des Moines area is to flip a lure into either Gray's Lake or the ponds in Waterworks Park.

"I've seen 3-pound bass come out of Gray's Lake, and I've seen 3-pound bass come out of the ponds at Waterworks," said Motzko. "At Gray's Lake, I'd fish the pilings around the pedestrian bridge and the docks, and any other structure you can find. At Waterworks, you have to pick and choose which pond you fish. All those ponds are connected by underground tubes, so the fish can move around. There are some that have more trees and brushy structure than others, so there are more bass in those ponds."

It's unlikely that the state-record bass will come from Gray's Lake or Waterworks, but all are worth a try, said Motzko.

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