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Bronzebacks Of The Iowa Great Lakes

Bronzebacks Of The Iowa Great Lakes

Few rivers or lakes in Iowa -- and perhaps the entire country -- can rival the smallmouth bass fishing found on the waters of the Iowa Great Lakes. (June 2009)

Northwest Iowa guide John Grosvenor shows off a trophy smallmouth bass caught in West Lake Okoboji. Grosvenor says the smallmouth population here is on the upswing, and the average fish size is trending upward.
Photo courtesy of Dan Anderson.

The world-famous Berkley tackle company is based nearly at the geographic center of the Iowa Great Lakes.

Professional anglers and the hosts of big-time television fishing shows frequently visit Berkley's headquarters for business reasons. Those well-traveled anglers often hit the waters of nearby West Lake Okoboji or Big Spirit Lake to experiment with Berkley tackle or simply have fun while they're in the area. Mike Hawkins, an Iowa Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist based at Spirit Lake, says those jaded professionals often leave the area truly impressed.

"I've been told some well-known professional anglers and TV personalities made return trips to fish for smallmouth bass because they were so impressed with the size and numbers of smallmouths they caught on their first visit," said Hawkins. "There aren't many lakes in the Midwest that can do better for size and numbers of smallmouths than what we've got here."

If professional anglers who can fish anywhere in the United States choose to travel to northwest Iowa to fish for smallmouths, the fishing must be exceptional.

All indicators agree. The current state-record smallmouth bass -- a 7-pound, 12-ounce, 22 3/4-inch trophy specimen -- came from West Okoboji, and smallmouths from West Okoboji and Big Spirit Lake figure prominently in the IDNR's annual Big Fish Awards.

Hawkins has personally experienced the region's potential. While a thin, post-spawn 22-incher from West Okoboji is his longest smallmouth to date, his heaviest smallmouth was a 19 1/2-inch bronzeback he caught off Cottonwood Point on Big Spirit Lake. That fish tipped the scales at nearly 5 1/2 pounds before it went back into the lake.


Hawkins' said his catch-and-release policy when fishing for smallmouths at the Iowa Great Lakes mirrors other anglers in the area. "Our creel surveys show almost 90 percent catch-and-release for legal smallmouths in this region (minimum legal size is 15 inches)," he said.

"That's exceptional. Our anglers have really bought into the concept, and I believe that the high catch-and-release rate is one reason we have such a strong population of legal- and larger-size fish."

John Grosvenor is a professional fishing guide (712-330-5815, on West Lake Okoboji and is very familiar with the lake's smallmouth potential. "We catch a lot of smallmouths up to 19 1/2 inches," he said. "I'm not surprised by 20-inchers anymore, and last year I had clients put three smallmouths bigger than 21 inches in the boat."

Grosvenor focuses on rocks when searching for smallmouths in West Okoboji. He acknowledged that Pillsbury Point, Fort Dodge Point, Gull Point and other major rocky points are prime spots for smallmouths, but he said, "Everybody else knows that, too. They are great places to fish, but between the fishing pressure and all the recreational boat traffic zooming around those areas, I prefer to fish other places."

Many of those less-known smallmouth hotspots are found on Fishing Hotspots maps. "Look in the big bays for the areas marked with an 'R' for 'rockpiles,' " said Grosvenor. "There are rockpiles scattered around Miller's Bay, in Emerson Bay and in places where fewer people fish, and there's less recreational boat traffic. If you can find rocks in West Okoboji, you'll probably find smallmouths."

At the north end of the lake, Grosvenor often finds smallmouths associated with a rocky bar that runs nearly north-south in the middle of the bay.

"That rock bar gets clumps of weeds growing on it during the summer, and that makes it doubly good for smallmouths," he said. "Rocks for the smallmouths, weeds for the baitfish the smallmouths feed on -- it's a great spot."

A rocky shoreline on West Okoboji's southeast shoreline, from Pillsbury Point to Lime Kiln Point, is another prime area for smallmouths.

"That shoreline is rocky from the waterline all the way out to 25 feet deep," said Grosvenor. "They tend to be bigger rocks, bigger than cobblestones, with patches of weeds scattered here and there. It's a great area for smallmouths."

While long, rocky shorelines suggest trolling with crankbaits, Grosvenor prefers a more targeted approach for smallmouths.

"I'm a slip-bobber guy," he said. "I put a leech or chub or spot-tailed shiner under a slip-bobber, with the bobber set to keep the bait about 2 feet above the structure I'm fishing. If I'm working a weedbed associated with rocks, I'll keep it two feet above the top of the weeds. If you put the leech right on the top of the weeds, it makes the leech hard to see from 10 or 15 feet away. Okoboji is so clear that the smallmouths feed mostly by sight, so keeping the bait out of the weeds and up where they can see it really helps."

Grosvenor uses chubs or minnows from spring through mid-June, and then switches to leeches for warm weather. He hooks his leech through the skin in the middle of its back rather than through the end of the body.

"That lets the leech lay out flat in the water, really natural," he said. "Plus I'm using big leeches, so hooking them in the middle improves my chance of getting the fish if it only takes half the leech."

Drop-shot rigs and tube jigs are also part of Grosvenor's arsenal. "Berkley's 5-inch Gulp! Alive leeches are absolutely awesome on a drop-shot rig," he said. "Tube jigs can be great when you're casting to a shallow point or shoreline. Another thing that can be good with tube jigs is a dock. If there are some docks close to rocks, maybe with some nearby weeds, there's probably going to be smallmouths in the area, and tube jigs are a great way to find them."

One area where Grosvenor won't fish for smallmouths in West Okoboji is in rocky areas deeper than 20 feet. Improved water clarity in recent years has encouraged weed growth to develop to depths of 30 feet in some areas.

Even though smallmouths associate with those deep weedbeds, Grosvenor leaves them alone.

"I'm convinced that you can't pull a fish up from more than

25 feet and get it to live after you release it," he said. "Studies have shown that even if you 'fizz it' (or use a special hypodermic needle to puncture a fish's swim bladder, which over-inflates when fish are rapidly pulled from deep water), most of the fish die in the next day or so. So, I don't fish in more than 20 feet of water. With all the smallmouths we have in 20 feet or less of water on West Okoboji, there's no need to fish any deeper."

Remember that one of fisheries biologist Mike Hawkins' largest smallmouths came from Big Spirit Lake. When we asked Willie Wackerbarth, a local fishing legend, about the smallmouth potential in Iowa's largest natural lake, he was silent for a long moment.

"I do OK," he eventually admitted, then chuckled. "I've already got enough guys following my boat around. I'm almost afraid to admit how good we do for smallmouths sometimes. I'm mostly a walleye guy, and only fish for smallmouths early, before the walleyes get going, but we handle a lot of smallmouths."

Wackerbarth is 100-percent catch-and-release for Big Spirit's smallmouths. "I feed 'em, exercise 'em, then put 'em back," he said.

His tactics and techniques are simple, low-tech and effective. He uses a 6-foot, medium-heavy-action spinning outfit spooled with 6-pound-test monofilament to work dark-colored hair jigs tipped with minnows over Big Spirit's rocky points, reefs and rockpiles.

He likes the medium-heavy action to help him detect slow bites when the water is cold or smallmouths are sluggish after a cold front.

"Sometimes, especially early in the year, their bites are like you've snagged a wet sock," he said. "More of a resistance or weight than an actual hit. You've got to be ready to set the hook anytime anything feels different."

Wackerbarth targets smallmouths from ice-out through mid-June, and has found black hair jigs to be the most productive color.

"I have no idea why black is so good early in the year," he said. "I just know that's the best color."

His other secret to smallmouth success is to "never swim the minnow. With walleyes, you want to keep a steady retrieve so your jig and minnow swims just off the bottom. With smallmouths, you never want to use a steady retrieve.

"Have you ever watched a crawdad move over a rocky bottom? They dart and hop from spot to spot. That's the retrieve you want to use for smallmouths. You'll get hung up in the rocks a lot, but you've got to make that jig and minnow skip and hop over the bottom, never a steady retrieve."

The eastern and northern sides of Big Spirit are Wackerbarth's favorite stalking grounds for smallmouths. Big Stony Point, Little Stony Point, the rock reefs off Reed's Run and other well-known rocky features all harbor smallmouth bass. The lake's western shore has fewer rocky features, the most notable being a rocky area associated with the Little Spirit Lake area.

That doesn't mean there aren't smallmouths all up and down that long western shoreline, however.

"I've noticed that where there aren't any real rocks, smallmouths will associate with gravel, or even sand-topped humps," Wackerbarth said.

"And I've noticed that when smallmouths are up on those gravel humps, they're really aggressive. If I catch one off the top of a gravel hump, I almost fasten my seatbelt, because I can just about guarantee there are going to be more, and they're going to be in a real aggressive mood."

Asked if there were less-known rockpiles and rocky features, Wackerbarth hesitated, and then acknowledged, "There are some small spots a lot of guys don't know about that can be pretty good. All I'll say is, if you can find a small rockpile or bar that nobody else knows about, you're gonna catch smallmouths."

Wackerbarth offered a couple of suggestions to help anglers take advantage of Big Spirit's abundant smallmouth population.

"Smallmouths are always around rocks," he said, "but you'll catch more smallmouths if you pay attention to where the baitfish are on those rocks. No use casting to any rocks where there aren't any baitfish, because there won't be any smallmouths.

"The other thing is, smallmouths are spooky. I've seen schools of 20 or more smallmouths at Big Spirit, and they'll be gone in a second if you splash an anchor or make a bunch of noise.

"I figure once I catch three, four, maybe five smallmouths out of a spot, that's it for that spot because the rest of them will have spooked. I don't waste time working the same spot after they quit biting. It's not because they turned off; it's because they're gone."

Now retired, Wackerbarth spent decades working as a fisheries technician for the IDNR on the Iowa Great Lakes.

He said that smallmouth fishing is currently the best he's ever seen.

"I'm seeing more smallmouths, and bigger smallmouths, than I've ever seen up here," he said. "I had one day when I caught four smallmouths over 20 inches . . . as fast as I could unhook and cast back out."

Wackerbarth's final smallmouth tip for Big Spirit Lake is to watch the wind: "That lake is only 25 feet deep at its deepest, so it doesn't take much wind to make it rough. I've noticed that on those rare days when there's no wind and the lake is calm, the smallmouths really go on a bite. If I get to the lake and see it glassy smooth, I just about can't get my boat in the water fast enough, because those are the days when you're absolutely gonna clobber the smallmouths."

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