Is cabin fever beginning to set in? If so, try some early smallmouth bassin' in the Hawkeye State's best western waters.
By Ed Harp
Early-spring smallmouth fishing in western Iowa can be a rewarding experience. In fact, thanks in large measure to the efforts of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, it just keeps getting better.
SPIRIT LAKE Most anglers and fisheries professionals list Spirit Lake as the premier smallmouth destination in the state. According to professional fisheries technician Jim Berquist, it's not only the best Iowa has to offer, but also one of the best destinations in the Midwest.
At normal pool, Spirit Lake - the largest natural lake in Iowa - covers more than 5,600 acres in the northwest corner of the state near the Dickinson County town of Spirit Lake. And it's home to some very fine smallmouth bass.
Asked about its smallmouth fishing, Berquist described the lake as "tremendous." Not just a fisheries technician, he's also an avid smallmouth angler, and he recommends that you begin your early-season smallmouth angling immediately after ice-out - in his words, "as soon as you can get out there."
He suggests checking out rockpiles, or any rocky areas generally, for early-season smallies. These spots are relatively easy to locate because of the clarity of the water at this time of the year. The best strategy is to cruise the area with your electric motor and look for them, as they can be seen from the boat.
Most of the early-season bronzebacks are caught on jigheads and minnows. Fathead minnows are readily available; shiners will work, if you can find them. Smaller sizes usually produce the most bites.
Quality smallmouths are available at several Iowa lakes and rivers -- and spring's a great time to catch them. Photo by Ed Harp
Berquist likes bright colors on his jigheads. Chartreuse is his first choice immediately after ice-out. He does admit, however, that almost any bright color will do the job.
He emphasizes that anglers need to work their baits slowly at this time of year. The water is still cold - very cold, in some years - so the fish will be lethargic, and won't chase fast-moving lures no matter how good they may look to you. The favored technique involves hopping the jig-and-minnow combination along the rocks, pausing long enough at times to allow the minnow to struggle on the hook.
As the season progresses, the grass will begin to grow. No time of the year is better for quality smallmouth, according to the Hawkeye scientist and angler. As the grass begins to sprout, he suggests, target those areas combining emergent grasses and rock. "These areas draw smallmouth like a magnet," Berquist said. "You can catch them all day long."
"Them" means several smallies over 15 inches, and maybe an 18- or 19-incher as a kicker for the day. "It isn't unusual for anglers to catch a dozen fish a day this size," noted Berquist.
When fishing emergent grasses and rock, he switches from his jig-and-minnow combination to crankbaits and even, on occasion, to topwater plugs. Again, however, he emphasizes that anglers should keep their presentations slow.
Favorite topwater selections include minnow twitch baits. He selects those that float high at rest and wobble on a fairly slow retrieve. Natural colors are the choice of most anglers.
Light tackle will suffice at this time of year. Many anglers opt for spinning equipment. Eight and 10-pound-test lines are the norm for these clear-water conditions.
WEST OKOBOJI Berquist also points to West Okoboji, in the same general area of the state, as a fine early-season smallmouth selection. "West O" (as it is known) covers nearly 4,000 acres at normal pool and is the second-largest natural lake in the state.
West O and Spirit Lake are part of the same chain, and so are similar in terms of structure and cover, although West O is much deeper. They fish "about the same," says the Iowa fisheries technician, by which he means that anglers at West O who expect to be successful in the early spring on should target the same type of area - those featuring rock and emergent weed growth. They should also throw the same lures and use the same techniques.
BRUSHY CREEK LAKE Moving south, but still on the western side of the state, we find 700-acre Brushy Creek Lake. According to IDNR fisheries biologist Lannie Miller, Brushy Creek Lake supports a superb smallmouth bass fishery.
Despite - or perhaps because of - the lake's small size, the IDNR has gone to great lengths to build a quality fishery. At the time of its construction (it was impounded in 1998), biologists were consulted and their opinions and ideas considered and implemented. As a consequence, the lake has abundant structure both natural and artificial.
At impoundment, lots of rockpiles lay in its basin; they were allowed to remain. Many of these natural rockpiles are sited along the old roadbeds, while others were built by the IDNR and placed, free-standing, in various locations throughout the lake basin. These rockpiles are one of the keys to fishing this lake.
Careful use of electronics will help you pinpoint their whereabouts. They can be fished successfully with live bait early in the year; leeches and crayfish are the favored baits. The most popular rig for fishing them is a Carolina rig. Tightlining ranks a close second. Use as light a weight as you can get away with for your Carolina rig and just a couple of BB-size split shot with your tightline rig.
Approximately half of this lake contains standing timber. (At first that sounds like largemouth structure, but Miller points out that smallies like it just as well.) Several techniques and baits will foster success in the timber. Spinnerbaits are, of course, always a popular choice for this type of cover, but don't forget crankbaits. Throw models with long plastic lips for maximum success, as they will avoid most hangups.
Because of all the structure in Brushy Creek Lake, smallmouths there can be hard to pattern. According to the IDNR, however, that's a minor drawback, compared to a poor fish population. Most anglers would agree. After all, "You can't catch 'em if they ain't there, no matter what you use!"
MISSOURI RIVER Want a sleeper location? Consider the Missouri River. According to Miller, the Missouri River has "really come on," in the last couple of years. As e
vidence of that he points out, with obvious pride, that a friend of his caught a 19.5-inch smallmouth from the river last fall.
Miller points anglers towards the deeper pools below the wing dams for spring smallmouths on this river. The most popular technique is live-bait fishing with fathead minnows or shiners. Some prefer fishing their minnows or shiners on jigheads; others prefer to "pull" them on slip rigs.
Fishing them on jigheads is simple. Impale the minnow on the hook through the lips with his back up. And don't kill the minnow! It'll work best if it's alive.
SLIP RIGS FOR EARLY-SEASON SMALLIES To build a successful slip rig, start with a large float, perhaps an inch or more in diameter and at least 2 inches long. The best models work by using a tie string for the stop, which is affixed to your line. Below that, place a bead. The bead will stop when it hits the tie; the float will stop when it hits the bead.
Run your line through the float to a simple barrel swivel. From the lower ring of the swivel run a leader down to a thin wire hook. Set your tie stop at a length 3 or 4 inches short of the water depth. This will allow your bait to suspend just off the bottom.
The swivel is very important with this rig; without it, line twist would be a big problem. The bait will twist the line as it swims around, and the weight will twist the line as it's pulled through the water.
Thin wire hooks are popular, because they penetrate with minimal pressure. The better designs have their barb close to the point. A quality hook of this design will hold a scrappy smallmouth. It'll also bend enough to free it from a snag should you encounter one. (If you're not snagging occasionally, move - you're in the wrong place.)
"Pulling" this rig involves nothing more than drifting with the current or the wind, or trolling with your electric motor. Keep your bait just a few inches above the bottom. Most anglers pull with the current, as opposed to against the current. This is a more natural presentation.
Pulling shiners is every bit as effective in lakes and reservoirs as it is in rivers. It's one of the most effective techniques ever devised for smallmouth fishing, bar none. Learn to do it and you'll catch more fish.
If you want to catch early-season smallmouths, all you need to do is choose a venue, select a bait or two, sharpen your hooks, respool your reels and head for the water.
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