If you live near eastern Iowa, you're blessed with some marvelous largemouth fishing from the standpoint of both quantity and quality. Our experts pick the best locations and recommend the best techniques.
By Ed Harp
Steve Waters, Southeastern Region fisheries supervisor for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, displays boundless enthusiasm for eastern Iowa largemouth bass fishing. Although most of the lakes in the southeastern area are small - between 100 and 300 acres - they produce big largemouths.
HAWTHORN LAKE When asked about his best picks for spring, Waters first mentioned Hawthorn Lake. Of this 172-acre impoundment in the middle of a Fish and Wildlife Area one mile south of Barnes City he asserted, "There is nothing better in the state."
Waters believes that Hawthorn has some of the best structure in Iowa. It offers wood, holes, channels, rock and some vegetation for anglers pursuing their favorite game fish. Along with that are four artificial fishing jetties built by the IDNR to provide additional angling opportunities. The jetties hold fish year 'round, spring included.
An aeration system was installed to improve fishing still further. It provides added oxygen and cover for the forage, which, of course, benefits the largemouths as well. This system has directly and tangibly benefited the survival and growth rates of the bass.
Waters reports also that anglers are encountering excellent populations of largemouth bass in the 16-inch size range and over. Bass to 19 inches have been reported by a few. The population of smaller fish - 12 to 16 inches in length - is huge, according to these anglers.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
Electrofishing results confirm what these anglers are reporting. Waters notes that the results of recent studies show a superior population of largemouths in this small southeastern Iowa impoundment. "The fish have good color, are fat, slick and obviously healthy," he said. "They have that good-fish bass smell to them."
In the spring, relatively clear water helps anglers at this lake. After ice-out, when other bodies of water are murky to downright muddy, Hawthorn stays fishable. This clear water helps not only fish but, by increasing their lure choices, anglers also. Instead of the usual jig-and-pig combinations, or perhaps a big spinnerbait, anglers can select something different - something the fish may not have seen before.
Smart springtime choices for this impoundment include small crankbaits, tubes or lizards. During especially warm periods, small topwater baits will work well, poppers and buzzbaits being especially popular. Natural colors are most anglers' first choice.
Two boat ramps provide convenient access to Hawthorn Lake. Note that while lake regulations enforce no horsepower restriction, a no-wake rule is in force, meaning: Launch anything you want - just go slow.
LAKE WAPELLO Waters also strongly recommends Lake Wapello, a 280-acre impoundment seven miles west of Drakesville. Restored in 1992, Wapello is a "test" lake for the IDNR. The lake first saw its water drained to the substrate and was then refurbished to be more fish-friendly - especially for largemouths. Extensive cover was sunk in the lake, including a substantial number of fish-habitat structures; riprap was placed along much of the shoreline. Shallow-water habitat adequate for reproductive success was created or refurbished.
To make certain that the fish would able to use these improvements for a long period of time, sediment basins were built. Sediment basins work by slowing the water entering the impoundment, which, as it slows, drops the suspended solids it is carrying; the sediment thus fills the basins instead of the lake, and only clear water enters. It's a simple concept, yet a very effective one. Sediment basins will extend the life of a body of water for many, many years.
After its restoration, Lake Wapello was stocked by the IDNR with a variety of fish species. Included in the mix: largemouth bass. The agency has taken great care in preserving and promoting these fish. The lake is subject to a no-kill rule that applies to all largemouths regardless of size, so catch-and-release is the order of the day. (A word to the wise: This regulation is strictly enforced, so don't even think about keeping one of their bass!)
The no-kill regulation is an experiment. Can a largemouth bass fishery be created that will yield large numbers of ordinary-sized fish while at the same time fostering a few trophies? The answer at this early date seems to be "yes." Reports from a wide variety of anglers, supported by scientific data, indicate both high catch rates for run-of-the-mill largemouths and the occasional appearance of specimens weighing up to 5 pounds.
Like Hawthorn, Wapello has no horsepower restrictions, but a no-wake speed regulation does apply. The lake offers two boat ramps, one universally accessible pier and three fishing jetties. The state park has a number of cabins for rent at the lake, and there's a full service restaurant for your convenience. It's a wonderful area for visits and vacations - and, always, for chasing largemouth bass.
"BORROW LAKES" Anglers uninterested in numbers but avid for largemouths of a bigger average size might want to look north towards the "borrow lakes" - those bodies of water made by construction crews who created the pits by removing fill dirt, sand, gravel and/or rock in the process of building major projects (most particularly the Interstate Highway System).
Borrow lakes vary in size. Hawkeye anglers are fortunate in that theirs are quite large - often 100 acres, or even more. A typical borrow lake will have steep, sometimes nearly vertical sides, and are generally devoid of structure. The ones in northern Iowa are no exception to this general configuration.
The steep sides create a serious reproduction problem. Fish need shallow water in which to build their nests and lay their eggs, and these lakes do not offer such areas. As a result, they have very poor reproductive cycles, which keeps the population low. A lack of shallow water also inhibits vegetation - another problem for the fry, which need a place to hide from big fish.
On the positive side, however, these lakes' water is usually clear, owing to minimal drainage areas and sand bottoms. The water also tends to be infertile, or nearly so, which results in poor reproduction and growth not only for the bass but also for the forage. This further contributes to a low population.
But those largemouths that do survive in borrow lakes o
ften grow to gigantic sizes. Borrow lakes, and clear, infertile lakes in general, tend to grow few but very large fish. For the trophy hunter, that's just about perfect.
The lack of structure is yet another issue. It both helps and hurts the fishing. On the one hand, a lack of structure provides few areas for survival, there being few places for little fish to hide from big fish; on the other, what structure there is tends to concentrate the bass, who only have so many choices, and that limits the amount of water you've got to search. If you find structure or cover, you can usually take a bass or two from it.
The IDNR is trying to upgrade the structure in these lakes, doing something each year to improve the situation. In some cases they build artificial structure and place it in the lakes; in others, they do simpler things such as dragging trees into the lakes. Over time, these small steps matter. It all adds up to improved fishing.
Bryan Hayes, Iowa fisheries management biologist, reports that electrofishing results are encouraging on the borrow lakes. While the populations are not dense - his word - big fish swim in these waters. The typical size for largemouth bass is from 18 to 21 inches, but, Hayes reports, one largemouth weighing 8 pounds was seen during an electrofishing excursion.
A wide range of baits will get the job done in these waters. The most popular are crankbaits, jigs and blade baits. Natural colors are the most effective for crankbaits. If you fish with jigs, select small sizes and those that are tied with hair. The soft, subtle movement of hair seems to have a positive effect on the bite. As for blade baits, smaller sizes in silver seem to work best.
Hayes recommends George Wyth, Brinker Lake, Mitchell Lake and South Prairie for your early-spring trips. There are others, many others, however. A complete list can be obtained from the IDNR Web site. For directions and conditions, call (563) 927-3276. Hayes emphasizes that these lakes are not for numbers anglers; they're for trophy hunters.
VOLGA LAKE For those anglers wanting fish in quantity, Hayes recommends 130-acre Volga Lake, which lies three miles north of Fayette.
While it does not surrender fish of the size seen in the borrow lakes, this body of water is rated by Hayes as one of the best in the state. Anglers are likely to hook not only high numbers of largemouth bass but also any number of other species, including bluegills, crappies and channel cats.
The water quality at Volga is excellent, and the habitat suffices for a strong population of fish. The lake is similar in many respects to those in the southeast portion of the state, and should be fished in much the same way.
MISSISSIPPI RIVER No discussion of largemouth bass fishing in eastern Iowa would be complete without considering the Mississippi River. There's a lot of water here - the Mississippi runs the entire eastern length of the state. Countless launch ramps dot its banks, many of which are open year 'round for anglers wishing to fish the very early-spring season.
According to Waters, not a lot of giants taken are from the river, but the population is good and the angling opportunities excellent. Fish over 5 pounds are not common, but they are possible.
Anglers willing to spend some time on the Mississippi's waters will be afforded almost any type of structure or cover they can imagine or want. Like most major rivers used for shipping and commercial purposes, it has a well-defined channel. The twists and turns along the way will be used by the prespawn largemouths as staging areas. Careful work with your electronics and a few marker buoys will help you identify these spots.
One can also find sand, gravel and rock areas along her path - miles and miles of it. Some will be artificial riprap; others are deposits from Mother Nature. Either way, they provide high-grade largemouth angling.
Of course, the Mississippi also supports large and expansive weedbeds and vegetation. Depending upon the severity of the winter, some may still be green, or just beginning to emerge in time for early-spring largemouths. If you can find such a spot, the fishing is usually fast and furious.
A conversation with Bob Heath, longtime Mississippi River bass angler is illustrative. He confirms what Waters says about the river: Largemouth bass numbers are great - but, that said, he agrees that specimens above 5 pounds are not common.
Heath is especially impressed with how the fishing has improved over the years. "I didn't fish the river for several years," said the Hawkeye angler, "but then came back to it. I couldn't believe how much better the fishing was."
Some of this can be attributed to the effectiveness of the environmental standards and the higher quality of water in our rivers in recent years, but part of it can be explained by the zebra mussels infesting our river systems. While that infestation is not without problems, there's no doubt that the alien bivalves have helped to clear the water, which, of course, helps sight-feeding game fish. The drastic decline of their population in the last couple of years may or may not have an impact on angling. Only time will tell.
Springtime anglers on the Mississippi should think shallow, according to Heath. Offering a general description of the Mississippi in April and May, he said, "In spring, the water is generally high and the fish will follow the water. At times you can catch them in 6 inches of water. You wonder how their dorsal fins stay wet."
His preference for general angling on the river is a jig-and-pig, or perhaps a spinnerbait. He readily admits, however, that a wide range of other baits will fill your livewell. The waters of the Mississippi tend to be dark and stained, especially in the spring. Therefore, dark colors are the norm.
In most years, lily pads stay alive and green through the winter, and can thus be useful sites in early spring. They can be effectively fished in a variety of ways. Some anglers (Heath's one) throw shallow-running crankbaits through them. Others work spinnerbaits. Plastic jerkbaits can be very effective, too. Throw them on the pad and then hop them into the water.
Heath further advises anglers wishing to be successful not to ignore rock. There's a lot of rock in and along the Mississippi, some of it deposited by Mother Nature, some by humans. Fish it all. Depending on depth and water conditions, lures ranging from spinnerbaits to jigs and blade baits can be effective.
He also recommends that anglers fish along the many wing dams in the river. In fact, he says, it's one of the first sorts of place that he tries in early spring. They can be fished efficiently with crankbaits, soft-plastic jerkbaits or jig and pig combinations. (An added benefit to fishing the wing dams are the many walleyes and smallmouths you'll encounter there.)
Another interesting pattern suggest
ed by Heath involves fishing the rock areas at the base of channel markers. Not every angler knows about these or has considered fishing them. The Iowa angler points out that the rock bases under the markers hold fish, especially largemouth bass, and he advises fishing them with blade baits or jig-and-pig combinations. On occasion, crankbaits will produce in these locations.
Depending on the weather, a top-water bite will develop sometime in late April or early May. Heath opines that topwater action doesn't get "right" until the water temperature reaches 55 to 60 degrees. To be fair, other anglers would put the beginning water temperature closer to the 50-degree mark. Regardless, the topwater bite on the Mississippi can be wild for a time. Baits ranging from the old classics like the Jitterbug and Zara Spook to poppers, prop baits and buzzbaits can all fool some quality fish.
As for topwater color selection, follow the usual rules: light for clear water or light conditions, dark colors for dark water or dark skies and natural colors almost anytime. And don't be afraid to throw topwater plugs in thin water. You can't fish too shallow in a river system.
As with most rivers, the Mississippi can be subject to rapidly changing conditions in the spring. Rain will swell the river to capacity or beyond in a matter of hours. At other times, however, the water will remain stable and clear for a week or even longer. You must learn to adapt.
Always pay attention to conditions. They change quickly. If you're going to be a successful angler, you must change with them.
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