Largemouth anglers enjoy a variety of great options in the western part of the Hawkeye State. Here's a look at the best of the best in June bass fishing.
Iowa anglers Bill Anderson Sr. and Bill Anderson Jr. measure an Iowa largemouth before releasing it to live another day.
Photo Dan Anderson
So: What kind of largemouth bass fishing are you looking for? Want to catch lots of aggressive 1- to 2-pounders? Looking for an opportunity to land that fish of a lifetime, that real wallhanger? Or maybe you just want a quick after-work fishing trip -- a chance to battle a few bass and forget the hassles at work?
Name the kind of bass fishing that turns your crank, and western Iowa will have a lake to fit your needs. The area bounded by Interstate 35 on the east and the Missouri River on the west offers a wide spectrum of bass-catching possibilities.
Big Creek Lake, north of Des Moines, has frustrated some bass chasers in recent years. "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 on Army Post Road in Des Moines, (515) 243-5438. "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."
The secret to catching bass at Big Creek is the myriad of submerged brushpiles that line the lake's shoreline and freckle the bottoms of its bays. The lake was drawn down and renovated in the early 1990s, and hundreds of brushpiles were added. Anglers who locate and then intelligently fish those brushpiles report that it's easy to catch and release dozens of sub-legal 1- to 3-pounders per day. Keeper bass at Big Creek must meet the lake's special 18-inch minimum-length limit, and according to Motzko, quite a few meet that standard.
"I know guys who regularly catch and release 5-, 6-, even 7-pounders at Big Creek," he said. "The big ones seem to associate with small, out-of-the-way brushpiles or rockpiles or humps.
"It's just like hunting for trophy deer -- the biggest ones live in places where they don't get taken by the average hunter or fisherman."
A submerged roadbed roughly parallels the east shoreline at Big Creek's midsection, with relatively shallow water on its east side and a dropoff to deeper water along its west side. Brushpiles line the surface of that old roadbed, and the proximity to both shallow and deep water attracts a lot of bass. Weedbeds and cattail marshes along the east side of the lake, just south of the beach, are also prime hunting grounds for midsized bass.
As for Big Creek's hidden population of trophy bass: Numerous small humps and depressions, the remnants of several small gravel pits that were there prior to the lake's construction, are submerged north of the beach and boat-rental area. Those bottom irregularities are poorly illustrated on most contour maps, but bass know them well. Anglers who locate those hard-to-find habitats often do very well with Big Creek's biggest bass.
Brushy Creek Lake, southwest of Webster City, is another lake that's been yielding up lots of midsized bass to catch-and-release anglers. Fishing pressure has been heavy since the lake came online around the turn of the century. Scrupulous adherence to the catch-and-release regime has helped the fishery actually improve with age.
"Ninety percent of our bass anglers are catch-and-release, and that's what's keeping Brushy Creek so good for bass," said Lannie Miller, Iowa Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist. "Our bass anglers have really bought into catch-and-release, and understand how important that strategy is to good bass fishing.
"Bass are the top predators in our lakes, and necessary to keep bluegills, crappies and other forage fish in check. If you take out too many bass, the panfish overpopulate, and those overpopulated panfish compete with young bass for food, so it's tough to regain enough bass to get ahead of the panfish."
Miller noted that in recent surveys at Brushy Creek, almost every bass had hook scars. A study conducted at Big Creek Lake in the 1980s indicating that the average bass there was caught and released four times during its lifetime is, in his view, relevant to Brushy Creek and any other Iowa lake subject to heavy fishing pressure.
"The best way to keep bass fishing good in a lake is to release as many bass as possible," he said. "Our regulations are designed to permit anglers to keep a few bass without harming the overall population. But the more bass that anglers return to the lake, the healthier all the fish populations in the lake seem to be."
Green Valley Lake, near Creston in southwest Iowa, is an outstanding example of that philosophy in practice. Green Valley was designated a "Lunker Lake" in the mid-1990s. A minimum-length limit of 22 inches was instituted to allow bass to achieve maximum size.
"A lot of anglers assumed that the bass at Green Valley would keep growing and growing, until we had a lake full of 10-pounders," said Gary Sobotka, the IDNR fisheries biologist who manages Green Valley. "They didn't understand that it's normal for bass to have 30 to 40 percent mortality per year, not counting fish caught and kept by anglers.
"Even if anglers never keep any bass, you end up with a population of fish that's shaped like a pyramid: lots and lots of 1- to 2-pound bass, not so many 3- to 5-pounders, and very few bass that live long enough to reach 7 pounds or larger. That's a normal distribution -- and that's what we see at Green Valley.
"In general, it's tough to get a bass in Iowa to grow beyond 21 inches," he continued. "Most of the bass at Green Valley top out at 21 to 22 inches, but I've seen at least one female that measured 24 inches and weighed 9.4 pounds. There are nice bass in there, but anglers shouldn't assume that they'll all be monsters just because of the 22-inch minimum length."
During a drawdown for renovations several years ago, a considerable number of brushpiles, rockpiles and stakebeds were put into Green Valley. Some of the brushpiles are still visible above the surface; rockpiles tend to be at middepth, along with a few submerged brushpiles, and it's those middepth patches of habitat that attract midsummer bass. The numerous stakebeds are especially dense along the west shore of the west arm, and bass patrol them nearly year 'round.
The exact locations of artificial habitat at Green Valley are marked on contour maps available at local bait shops and the IDNR Web site,
www.iowadnr.com. Navigate through the "Fish and Fishing" page to the "Where to Fish" link. Select the "Southwest Region" and then locate Green Valley Lake on the list that appears. Once at the Green Valley site, you can download a detailed contour map of the lake.
Andy Moore, regional fisheries supervisor for southwest Iowa, has noticed that bass use habitat differently throughout the year. "There are strong patterns," he observed. "Spring and fall, when the water is cool, we find bass around riprap and rocks a lot. Once the water warms, they seem to prefer brushpiles, as long as the brushpiles are above any thermocline that develops in hot weather."
According to Moore, studies show that no matter what habitat they use, Iowa's bass have a "sweet tooth" for crayfish. "We've been doing some stomach-sampling of bass," he reported, "and have been surprised that crayfish have been the number one food we've found in bass' stomachs. Small bluegills were the second-most common thing we found in their stomachs. That tells me that anglers who use crawdad-type lures are giving bass what they are used to feeding on and always looking for."
Three Mile Lake, due east of Creston, is another Iowa lake renowned for bass fishing. It's maturing, its large forests of standing timber slowing decaying and falling into the water. But just because the timber's no longer visible doesn't mean that it doesn't provide extensive bass habitat.
"We drew down Lake of Three Fires last summer, and there were still lots of stumps and logs all over the bottom of that lake," said fisheries supervisor Moore. "Three Fires was built back in the 1930s. The small twigs and branches rot away, but the main logs and stumps seem to last forever."
A lot of bass clubs avail themselves of the quality of Three Mile's angling and hold tournaments there, so the Union County Conservation Board is building a special weigh-in station to improve the prospects for survival among bass caught and weighed for bass tournaments at the lake. "It will have tanks with oxygenated running water on a raised platform so spectators can see the weigh-in," said John Tapkin, the board's director. "Weigh-ins draw big crowds. The bass clubs do a great job of keeping as many bass alive as possible, and this weigh-in station will help them do an even better job."
TWO UNHERALDED LAKES
Saddled for years with a reputation for stunted crappies and bullheads, Prairie Rose Lake, near Harlan in Shelby County, is unfamiliar to many bass anglers. An effort to reduce the number of bullheads unexpectedly benefited the lake's long-suffering bass population.
"We put a bunch of big flathead catfish in Prairie Rose to try and do something about the millions of little bullheads that were in there," said Moore. "The flatheads really cleaned up the bullheads. That helped the water quality, and also reduced the competition the young crappies and bluegills had for food. When the panfish took off and started to grow, so did the bass.
"In our most recent surveys, we saw a lot of bass around 14- to 16-inches in Prairie Rose. There were quite a few up around 19 inches, too. The lake's reputation kept a lot of bass tournaments off it, so there hasn't been much pressure on the bass there. Plus, it's kind of a plain-looking lake -- not a lot of structure -- so you have to work to find the limited structure that's in there. But I'd definitely put it on my list of places to catch bass in western Iowa this year."
Another western Iowa lake that hasn't usually been thought of as a bass venue now offers an unusual bassing opportunity. Lake Manawa, near Council Bluffs, has been stocked with wiper bass three out of the last four years. A hatchery cross between ocean striped bass and white bass -- and thus mostly sterile and incapable of reproducing -- the wiper grows incredibly fast, and fights like few other freshwater fish.
"The wipers in Manawa range from 7 to 22 inches," offered Moore. "The 22-inchers are up around 5 to 6 pounds, and anglers are starting to focus on them. They are a pelagic species, which means they stay out in the middle and feed on schools of shad or other forage fish. Sometimes they'll herd shad up against a shoreline, and that lets shore-fishermen get a chance at them.
"For the first year or two, guys thought they were catching white bass. White bass top out at around 2 pounds, so anything bigger than that is probably a wiper. Plus, once you catch a wiper, you'll recognize them as soon as you set the hook: They are real fighters. As the wipers at Manawa get up around 10 pounds, there are going to be guys with broken poles and stripped-out reels -- because big wipers are tough on tackle."
Sometimes anglers aren't in the mood or don't have time for a full day at a major bass lake. Western Iowa offers these anglers several options.
At Mile Hill Lake, not far from the town of Glenwood, the water quality is such that the bottom is often visible 10 to 12 feet beneath the surface. A thick mat of submerged vegetation covers the bottom in some parts of the small lake, and according to Moore, that's where they found bass during recent surveys.
"We'd shock an area, and the bass would float up out of that submerged vegetation," he said. "We saw a lot of 12- to 14-inch bass in Mile Hill, and quite a few up to 16 inches. It's a real pretty little lake, steep-sided, so there aren't a lot of shallows like guys are used to fishing. It would be a great lake to hit some night after work when you just want to relax and catch a few bass for fun."
Another small lake that holds great promise for after-hours entertainment is Meadow Lake, just north of Greenfield in Adair County. A well-prepared angler ready to take advantage of June's long days could leave Des Moines after work, zip out Interstate 80 and down Highway 25, fish Meadow Lake for an hour or so, and be back home before 10 p.m.
"Meadow Lake is a nice lake -- lots of brushpiles and stuff -- and has a good population of bass from 12 to 16 inches," Moore noted. "It's an easy lake to cover in an hour or so. The odd thing about Meadow is that it has a reputation for being either really hot or really cold. If you go on a day when they're biting on every cast, don't assume it will always be that way. On the other hand, if you get skunked your first time at Meadow Lake, don't give up on it. It could be the exact opposite the next time you try it."
A third easy-access lake that barely fits the definition of a "western Iowa lake" is West Lake Osceola. An easy half-hour south of Des Moines' city limits, it's visible on the west side of Interstate 35 just northwest of Osceola.
"West Lake Osceola is just a great bass lake, year after year," said fisheries biologist Gary Sobotka. "Lots of football-shaped bass in the 14- to 18-inch range."
Look for bass all along the shoreline at West. Pay special attention to the submerged dam of an old farm pond in the arm just west of the dam. The main points on the lake's north shore are prime hangouts for largemouths all summer. Shallow bays and
coves at the far west end don't get as much fishing pressure because it's a long, slow ride at the mandated no-wake speeds, but concentrations of bass in those locations can make the trip worthwhile.
And there you have it. Whether they're looking for a weekend of intense bass-chasing or an evening after work spent playing with a few bass, Hawkeye anglers will find that their various bassing requirements can be more than adequately addressed by one or another of the lakes plentifully dotting the landscape of western Iowa.