Warming temperatures, aggressive largemouths: Hawkeye bass chasers have a lot to be thankful for each April.
By Larry Brown
For those who don't ice-fish, or who just plain prefer open-water angling, April is pretty much the start of things here in Iowa. Trout fishing can be great up in the scenic northeast comer, and the crappies will be getting started down south this month as well.
But for those who favor fighting over filleting and would just as soon play catch and release as fill the freezer, the fish they've been waiting for is the largemouth bass. And April sees the start of good bass fishing in the Hawkeye State, too.
We're going to focus on the eastern half of the state in this article - basically, everything east of Interstate 35. And, as you'll soon see, that region has no shortage of excellent possibilities for anglers who want to tangle with some spring bass.
Our guide for this trip around the Hawkeye State will be none other than the Iowa Department of Natural Resources' Fisheries Bureau chief, Marion Conover (whose observations will be augmented by input from some other IDNR sources). No one knows our fisheries resources any better.
LAKE RATHBUN FOR BASS? At 11,000 acres, giant Lake Rathbun, located in south central Iowa near Centerville, is one of the state's quartet of large flood-control reservoirs. It's always been noted as a favorite by crappie anglers, but what about the bass fishing?
"We've observed a surge in numbers of both bluegills and largemouths in Rathbun, which means the habitat is very favorable for both," confirmed Conover.
The author hefts a chunky eastern Iowa largemouth. April is the breakout month for Hawkeye State bass fishing; there's no better time for targeting a lunker. Photo courtesy of Larry Brown
As with any of our flood control reservoirs, water quality is extremely important. You don't want to head down to Rathbun with the expectation of doing well on bass if the water is extremely turbid.
Conover told us that the Honey Creek arm generally has good water quality, and it's one of the best spots in the lake for largemouths. He suggests trying the small coves in the Honey Creek arm, as well as the Buck Creek arm, Crappie Cove, and the area above Bridgeview.
"You'll catch bass of all sizes at Rathbun," said Conover. "In particular, there will be a lot of fish in the two to three pound range. Tops will probably be about 6 to 7 pounds."
Standard bass regulations apply at Rathbun. The minimum legal length limit is 12 inches, and the daily catch and possession limits are three and six, respectively.
TWO SPECIAL-REGS LAKES Three-hundred-acre Lake Wapello, in Davis County, is one place you can expect to catch quite a few bass over the 12-inch minimum. Why? Well, the fishing is strictly catch and release here. You can't keep any bass of any size at Wapello.
"While you'll catch a lot of fish longer than 12 inches at Wapello, you shouldn't expect any real trophies," explained Conover. "We renovated that lake about six or seven years ago, and the fish simply haven't grown that large yet. Tops would probably be about 6 pounds."
IDNR district fisheries supervisor Steve Waters says that the lake has especially good numbers of fish in the 12- to 17-inch range.
When the IDNR renovated the lake, they also did quite a bit of work on the watershed as well. The result is excellent water clarity, which promoted more weed growth. Some of the best bass fishing at Wapello will be over, in, or along the outside edge of the weedbeds.
Another lake that has made an excellent comeback in recent years is Hawthorn. It's a 170-acre lake near Barnes City in Mahaska County. And while Hawthorn is not a catch-and-release-only lake, it does have a unique regulation. There is a "slot limit," which requires that anglers release all bass between 12 and 16 inches. Fish above or below that slot limit may be kept. Steve Waters points out that because of that slot limit, there are lots of "slot" fish to be caught at Hawthorn.
"We did a renovation at Hawthorn to get rid of the shad. You get too many of them in a lake and the angling goes downhill," explained Conover.
Hawthorn gets its name from a popular species of tree found in the area. The trees were left standing when the lake was flooded, and most of them are still visible. For larger fish in particular, Conover recommends fishing around that flooded timber. Steve Waters says anglers should expect to catch fish up to 22 inches or so at Hawthorn.
Other good areas to try are along the riprap shoreline, although for the most part these will yield smaller fish.
A DIFFERENT KIND OF BASS Now let's head north, to the Iowa City-Cedar Rapids area. Hawkeye State anglers who live here are quite lucky, because they're close to some very good and certainly unique bass fishing.
Eight-hundred-acre Lake Macbride, near Solon in Johnson County, is a one-of-a-kind body of water in Iowa. It's the only place you can catch spotted (or Kentucky) bass. "Spots" are often described as being sort of halfway between a largemouth and a smallmouth. As far as where to catch them and angling tactics are concerned, they tend to lean more to the smallmouth side of things.
This is another lake where the IDNR has done a fair amount of relatively recent renovation work. Marion Conover pointed out that when the lake was drawn down, they found a lot of stumps where trees were cut down prior to the initial flooding. These stump areas - along with underwater humps both with and without rocks - are good places to try for bass. Of course, you'll need a depthfinder to locate them.
Fishing along the shoreline can also be quite productive. Macbride is home to an IDNR fisheries station, and the crew there has felled quite a few trees, simply dropping them into the water along the shore. This has provided additional habitat for the fish.
Part of the IDNR renovation also included putting riprap along miles of Macbride shoreline. The spotted bass - like their smallmouth cousins - seem to relate well to rocky and riprap areas. Finally, the renovation also included deepening a number of coves in the lake. These are also top spots to try for bass.
Conover believes that the improvements made Macbride, along with better water quality, add up to a lake that i
s really coming on strong.
There are no special regulations at Macbride, but anglers who wish to keep some bass should note that the daily catch and possession limits of three and six apply to all species of bass combined, not each species individually.
Steve Waters says that while there will be fish of all sizes in Macbride, anglers should expect to catch good numbers in the 2- to 4-pound range. Don't expect the spotted bass to be extremely large. If you get one around 3 pounds, that's a very large spot.
THINK PLEASANT THOUGHTS A special regulation lake in the same part of the state is Pleasant Creek, near Palo in Linn County. On this 400-acre body of water, the minimum legal length is 18 inches, which means there are lots of nice fish with which to tangle.
Conover said that Pleasant Creek is one lake where you don't need to worry about water clarity. Even after a rain, it will stay quite clear. "The watershed for Pleasant Creek is small, which gives it a real advantage in water quality," he said.
Even with the 18-inch limit, there are legal fish in Pleasant Creek. Both Conover and Steve Waters confirm that the lake has bass that will hit the 8-pound mark. Nevertheless, with the special length limit, you're going to have to release far more bass than you'll be able to keep. But releasing lots of 17-inch bass is not something that's likely to bother most Hawkeye State bass anglers.
Just as at Wapello, good water clarity promotes weed growth on Pleasant Creek. Fishing the weedbeds and weedlines will provide some of the best bass action.
OTHER EASTERN IOWA POSSIBILITIES Most of the lakes we've listed are on the larger end of the scale by Iowa standards. However, there are several smaller lakes in the southeast part of the state that also have excellent largemouth fishing. (Northeast Iowa does not have nearly as much to offer for largemouth anglers, except the Mississippi River, which we'll cover shortly.)
Lake Keomah, near Oskaloosa in Mahaska County (84 acres), has lots of bass up to 18 inches. It's not far from Hawthorn, and if you want to hit two spots in a day or a weekend, those would be a great pair to try.
Diamond Lake (98 acres), just north of Montezuma in Poweshiek County, is another good bet with lots of 2- to 4-pound fish. It features a number of fishing jetties for shoreline anglers.
Lake Iowa (86 acres) in Iowa County has lots of bass of various sizes. Each of these three lakes, because they're under 100 acres in size, is restricted to electric motors only.
In far southeast Iowa's Van Buren County, 570 acre Lake Sugema is another lake with a unique slot limit (like Hawthorn), but at Sugema, the slot is 12 to 18 inches. As a result, it's an excellent catch and release fishery for good-sized bass.
TINY TROPHY WATERS If you're looking for a real trophy fish, there's no doubt that your best chance will come on even smaller bodies of water than those we've mentioned so far. Your best bet is to fish southeast Iowa's farm ponds. Pretty much everywhere south of I-80 you'll find ponds on private land that have some real lunkers.
And if you're interested in keeping enough bass for a meal, there is no length limit on fish from farm ponds - although the standard daily catch and possession limits still apply.
April is an excellent month to fish farm ponds. There will not be enough weed growth to hinder fishing from shore. Of course, hip boots, waders, a belly boat or even a small johnboat will work very well, too - depending upon the size of the pond and what's along the shoreline. If there are lots of trees, you'll need to do something to get away from them in order to fish effectively.
Because of their small size, farm ponds are the first bodies of water to warm up, which means the fish will be active in ponds sooner than anywhere else.
Watch the weather. If you have about three warm days in a row and you know of a local pond that's a bass hotspot, you'll want to be fishing on that third day. The same holds true for the lakes mentioned earlier. Warming water will be critical to good bass action in April.
On ponds, as well as the lakes we've discussed, surface baits are always a good bet early in the spring. The shallow water warms quicker, so most of the bass will not be very deep.
Year after year, Iowa farm ponds produce the majority of the bigmouths entered in the IDNR's Big Fish Awards program. The minimum size required to enter is 22 inches or 7 pounds - which is indeed a big bass by Hawkeye State standards. So, if you're after something in that category, you won't want to pass up the ponds.
THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER Any discussion of eastern Iowa bass fishing would be incomplete if we left out the Big River. For largemouths, it's by far the best bet for anglers in northeast Iowa. In fact, all the way down the state's eastern border, the Mississippi provides excellent bass action.
Marion Conover points out that the Mississippi hosts lots of bass tournaments. There's plenty of room on the river for a lot of anglers to spread out, but there are also plenty of fish.
There are actually two bass fisheries on the Mississippi: largemouth and smallmouth. Since we're including the river in this article, we'll cover them both.
On the Mississippi, largemouth bass are largely fish of the backwaters. They also relate very closely to any kind of structure. This can be a stump, a log or any kind of vegetation. The fish can also be found in extremely shallow water. In part, this is due to the fact that the water in the river is never going to be crystal clear. Thus, they feel more secure in the shallows than they might in clearer water.
Obviously, surface baits are going to be pretty effective on these fish, but spinnerbaits and plastic worms work well also.
Above Clinton or so, you're also likely to catch smallmouth in the Big River. However, you won't find them in the same places as their largemouth cousins. The smallies will be found off wing dams and along shoreline riprap. In other words, they'll be more or less in the flow of things rather than in the quiet backwaters.
Pretty much the same formula prevails for Mississippi smallies as it does for them on any other river. Fish the rocks - that's where you'll find the smallies.
On the Mississippi, you're talking quantity more than quality when it comes to bass of either species. A fish over 4 pounds is really big here. However, you can make up in numbers what you lose in size. The IDNR experts will tell you that as far as quantity goes, the river is the state's best bass fishery.
The Mississippi does have a couple of special bass regulations you should know about before launching your boat. There's a 14-inch minimum-length limit, and the daily catch and possession limits are five and ten, respectively. Again, the limits apply to both species in combination.
That's the story on eastern Iowa bass. Good weather is here. Don't miss out!
Discover even more in our monthly magazine,
and have it delivered to your door!
Subscribe to Iowa Game & Fish