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Bassin' Saylorville Lake

Bassin' Saylorville Lakee
This month we take an in-depth look at the largemouths swimming one of Iowa's largest reservoirs. (August 2006)


Saylorville Lake's bass angling is coming of age.

Saylorville is an impoundment on the Des Moines River covering 5,400 acres. Conveniently located just north of Des Moines, it provides great bassing opportunities close to home for a lot of Hawkeye state anglers.

"We have a good population of largemouths on Saylorville," said Craig Lauritson, an Iowa Department of Natural Resources fisheries management technician with the Boone Fish Management Office. "The IDNR stocks largemouth bass periodically and there's good natural reproduction. We see lots of 10- to 12-inch bass when we do fish population surveys and 3- to 6-pounders with some frequency."

According to Lauritson, bass angling in Saylorville is a bit different than fishing Iowa's natural lakes. The difference lies in the type of structure available to the bass and the predominantly shad forage base.

The cover choices for bass in Saylorville are ever-changing, said Lauritson. This can present some obvious challenges to bass anglers who may be used to casting to traditional bass cover like lily pads and submerged vegetation. Saylorville offers a lot of soft bottom and rocks, and if you're going to catch largemouths here, rocks are the name of the game. Fluctuating water levels prevent submerged vegetation from becoming established and most of the old woody cover is long gone.

According to Lauritson, this week the rock structure might be eight feet deep and next week it could be twenty feet deep. The water levels fluctuate drastically and the bass will keep moving to find their preferred structure and depth."

At normal pool the cover is in a predictable place. When flooding occurs the water spreads out into shoreline cover that isn't normally submerged, moving the bass up from their normal haunts. If the lake is drawn down or the year is abnormally dry, rocky points where largemouths hang out become exposed and windblown. As the water rises to normal levels again bass move back to the locations they'd abandoned just several days earlier.

This can keep the best bass anglers guessing.

"The anglers who have success have learned how to fish the points, ledges and riprap," said Scott Rolfes, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' natural resource manager for Saylorville Reservoir. "I've caught quite a few bass working the sandy points while wading in the areas near the beaches or casting to the nearby rocks. We also have rock breakwaters armored with big riprap rocks and these are good largemouth spots and easy to locate. These breakwaters form harbors around the Cherry Glen boat access area on the east side of the lake and the Lake View boat launch on the west side."

Other hotspots recommended by Rolfes include the old river channels and cuts where they wind close to the shoreline. Deep-water access close to shoreline rocks can also be a bass magnet.

Local angler Steve Pair has spent a lot of time on Saylorville and caught more than his share of largemouth bass.

"The bass are getting bigger out there," said the Polk City bass man. "I've caught most of my bass by casting to the rocks and then getting hit about six to eight feet out, sometimes in about fourteen feet of water."

Productive spots for Pair have included the inside edges of the two large breakwater jetties, especially where the jetty dips a bit near the Cherry Glen access. Tossing a crankbait up to this hotspot has put several fish in the boat for Pair.

"In the dog days of summer and into the fall, these jetties are the place to be," said Pair.

Another spot he found accidentally. Pair believes it's a pile of flooded cement parking abutments but he can't be sure. The spot is located about a hundred yards north of the southeast cove, known locally as Party Cove, up near the shoreline and toward Cherry Glen.

"I can feel the cement with the crankbait," commented Pair.

This submerged pile holds lots of bass where there aren't many other features.

The southeast side of the reservoir has plenty of rock cover to cast to and is worth giving a try, said Pair. He has had little success out in the open water away from the shoreline. These bass are hugging the rocks.

When the water is high Pair recommends fishing the submerged road at the face of the dam. It floods and bass move up onto the roadbed. It's a high percentage spot.

"I also do pretty good near the dam when the water is high," said Pair.

Saylorville has historically been a crankbait lake but exploring other options can be productive.

"Remember that the bass this time of the year will be feeding off the young-of-the-year shad, so try a No. 7 Rapala Shad Rap," said Rolfes.

"Some guys also use soft plastic Sassy Shads on a jighead. You should try to mimic the shad. When largemouths are feeding in the riprap they're usually chasing crawfish so you'll want to be using crankbaits that imitate the crawfish."

Pair has had good success with white baits due to the sediment in the water. Bass also hit citrus-shad or similar bluegill color patterns.

Jerkbaits, black-and-blue jigs, red shad plastic worms, or red or crawfish-colored baits round out his bass-busting arsenal.

Dick McWilliams is the district fisheries biologist with the Boone Fish Management office and is at the forefront of fish management activities on Saylorville.

"We do see some good-sized largemouth bass in the 3- to 5-pound range but most are in the 10- to 17-inch range," said McWilliams. "Saylorville definitely has a fishable population of largemouth bass, and a good population, but the lake is pretty turbid most of the year, and I think the turbidity impacts both the fish and the angling success," said McWilliams.

The biologist admits that other reservoirs can have larger populations of largemouths. The numbers of Saylorville bass are bolstered with stockings by the IDNR and the resulting population of bass is a good fishery with plenty of quality fish.


ng exceptionally hot, dry weather, anglers won't have to worry about Saylorville stratifying. The water has movement from the Des Moines River, and is windswept, so a thermocline doesn't usually develop.

The river water is turbid when it first enters the reservoir and clears up the closer it gets to the dam. Sediment settles as the water moves downstream to the dam and the water clarity improves.

Six boat ramps serve boaters on Saylorville but the most popular are Sandpiper and Oak Grove. The Sandpiper boat ramp is the primary access to the lake and has good shoreline access for about a mile on the east side of the lake. Oak Grove is also located on the east side and is close to the marina. A large parking lot is available.

Boat ramps on the east side of Saylorville Reservoir, including the Saylorville Marina, Sandpiper and Cherry Glen ramps, are accessible from highway 415. Ramps on the west side include Jester Park, Lincoln and Lake View ramps and are accessible from Beaver Drive. Access points are well-marked with large brown highway signs.

The lake has no horsepower restrictions on motors or length restrictions on the bass.

Most anglers have switched gears and begun targeting the white bass in the reservoir by midsummer. These anglers can be missing out on some great largemouth action. Fish a bit deeper during the summer heat but keep targeting the same type of cover. By continuing to seek largemouths when many anglers have given up you just might tangle with a 5- or 6-pounder.

Tackle and information can be found at Polk City Bait & Tackle, 301 Walnut, Polk City, (515) 984-6711, or Johnston Bait & Tackle, 6148 Merle Hay Road, Johnston, (515) 254-1976.

The Big Creek State Park borders the lake on the northeast corner and the Lewis A. Jester County Park abuts the lake on the northeastern shoreline. The Jester Park ramp has ample room to get out and stretch your legs. Polk City borders the lake's northern shoreline.

For additional information contact the Boone Fish Management Station at (515) 432-2823 or the Corps office at (515) 276-4656.

Tourism information is available from the Greater Des Moines Convention and Visitors' Bureau at 1-800-451-2625

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