There's no better place at which to target Hawkeye State brown bass in 2003 than at Iowa's Great Lakes. Here's what you need to know to load the boat.
By Dan Anderson
"The next state record smallmouth bass will come from Big Spirit Lake or West Lake Okoboji."
Doug Burns - 1-877-397-5641 - is a fishing guide at the Iowa Great Lakes, and he makes that prediction on the basis of reports of record-worthy smallmouths recently caught and released from those waters.
Need an example? Well, Mike Heller and Rob Rousch were trolling for walleyes in Anglers Bay not too long ago and caught a smallie that measured a solid 23 1/2 inches!
In comparison, the current 7-pound, 12-ounce state-record smallmouth measured just 22 3/4 inches. That fish came from West Lake Okoboji more than 10 years ago, in 1990, which speaks to the consistency of smallmouth bass fishing at the Iowa Great Lakes. Smallmouth fishing at the Iowa Great Lakes has been good-to-excellent for the past two decades, leaning heavily toward "excellent" in the past three years.
Photo by Tom Evans
"I guided for five years on Lake of the Woods," said Burns, "and I've fished for smallies from Mille Lac all the way over to Lake Erie. The Iowa Great Lakes rate with the best smallmouth lakes in the country. There are some decent smallmouths in East Okoboji, Minnewashta and Upper Gar lakes, but they're nothing compared to the size and number of smallmouths you can catch from West Okoboji and Big Spirit.
"In the past few years, my personal best was a 20 1/2-incher," he said. "My wife caught a 21 1/2-incher, and a friend caught a 22 1/4-inch smallie while trolling for walleyes in a tournament. It's not hard to catch a wall-hanger up here."
Jim Christianson, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources' fisheries supervisor for northwest Iowa, agrees with Burns' assessment. "If anglers know what they're doing and where to look, it's not unusual for them to catch and release an average of 15 to 20 smallmouths per day, from ice out to freeze up," he said. "I know some real smallmouth experts who go out right after ice-out, while there's still ice floating around on the lake. They work a jig and a minnow over some of the rockpiles, and catch and release 30 or 40 smallies a day."
Knowing when and where to catch Iowa's Great Lakes' smallies is the key to success. Here's a roundup of the best places, times and tactics.
BIG SPIRIT LAKE "Right now, Big Spirit is probably the better lake if you're looking for big smallmouths," said Christianson. "West Lake (Okoboji) might have more numbers, but they tend to be a little smaller."
Christianson sends smallmouth seekers on Big Spirit to the lake's numerous rock points, rockpiles and rock reefs. He especially likes two submerged reefs that parallel the lake's east shoreline near the mouth of a small creek called Reeds Run.
"One of the reefs is shallow and one is out in deeper water," he said. "You'll have to experiment to figure out which reef the smallies are using on any given day. I'd work those reefs with a jig, or troll them all the way up to Red Nose Point. After that, you've got to look at Big and Little Stoney Points if you're looking for smallies."
Big Stoney Point ends as a rock bar running northwest from the opening to Big Spirit's northeast lobe and hooking back due north to meet a matching rock bar coming south from Cottonwood Point, on the lake's north shore. The result: a rock sill nearly bridging the mouth to the lake's northeast lobe. At midpoint the rocky bar lies in 20 feet of water but rises to within a few feet of the surface near the north and south shorelines.
Big Stoney Point features shallow water along its southwestern side. The cobbled bottom in that area runs from 4 to 8 feet deep. After the rock bar hooks north, it drops off quickly from 10 to 15 feet along its top to 20 feet along the base of its western edge. The east side of Big Stoney Point's rock bar drops off relatively quickly into 10 feet of water, merging into a mud-bottomed bay
While rock reefs and submerged rock bars off points are the domain of anglers with boats, shore-bound anglers in search of smallmouths at Big Spirit have several options. Shore-anglers can often find smallmouths within casting distance of shore off Big or Little Stoney points, or by wading shallow areas near the old footbridge on the lake's north shore. Years ago a foot bridge spanned the mouth to the bay on the west side of Mini-wakan State Park.
"The area around the old footbridge is especially good for smallmouths if the lake is high and there's a current moving through the mouth of the bay," said Christianson.
Fishing guide Burns agrees. "There's a mixture of sand and rocks in that area that attracts them during the spawn," he said. "It's a good place to wade early in the morning or late in the day if there's a little chop on the water, and especially if the wind is blowing into that bay and creating a little current."
Shore-anglers can also wade or cast for smallies along the west shoreline of Big Spirit, from the inlet near Templar Park north to the campground at Marble Beach. "It's not a premier area for smallmouths, but there are a lot of boulders along that shore, and they patrol that whole area," said Burns. "It's the sort of area where you throw a crankbait or jig and Berkley Power Grub and fish fast to cover lots of area. If you catch one smallie, you stop and work that area real hard."
Burns explained that smallmouths are "pack hunters," and that each pack tends to hold fish of similar size. "A buddy and I were fishing off Pike's Point at the north end of West Okoboji one time and caught six smallmouths in 20 minutes, and they all averaged 4 to 5 pounds. If you catch one nice smallmouth, get your lure back in the water right away and find the rest of the pack before they wander away."
While many smallmouth anglers concentrate on rocks in Big Spirit Lake, Burns has had good success probing the edges of submerged weedbeds. "I'll always check out the deep-water side of weedbeds for smallmouths," he said. "You've got to look at the weeds in Angler's Bay once they start to show up. I'll also check out weedbeds off Buffalo Run, and down around Templar Park."
Angler's Bay is a V-shaped bay on the north side of the northeast lobe of Big Spirit. Buffalo Run is on the lake's northwest shoreline, near the outlet to East Hotte's Lake. Templar Park is on the southwest side of Big Spirit, the only major point on that shoreline.
"West Lake (Okoboji) had a strong population of smallmouths just under the legal limit (15 inches) in 2002," said fisheries supervisor Christianson. "They should be an inch or so bigger this year and still have good numbers. This should be an excellent, excellent year for smallmouths at West Okoboji.
"Actually, I don't think that the size limit is a big deal to most of our smallmouth anglers," he continued. "Creel surveys at the Iowa Great Lakes show our anglers are more than 90 per cent catch and release for smallmouths, even if they're legal size. That willingness to put them back is probably a big factor in what keeps the smallmouth fishing at Okoboji and Big Spirit so good year in and year out."
Doug Burns noted that his clients are eager to return smallmouths to grow and fight again. "There are plenty of perch and bluegills and walleyes in the lakes, if they want to take home fish to eat," he said. "But if they just want to fish for fun, you can't beat smallmouths in West Okoboji in June."
Burns said a number of factors combine to make June a prime time to chase smallmouths on West Okoboji. "The fish are spawning, so they're focused on shallow areas of sand with scattered rocks," he said. "Plus, submerged weedbeds are starting to develop. You don't normally think of weedbeds when you think of smallmouths, but those weedbeds attract forage fish, and where there are forage fish, there will be smallmouths."
Burns' favorite rocky area for spawning smallmouths in West Okoboji starts at Gull Point, on the lake's west shore due west of the town of Arnold's Park, and wraps around to Hiawatha Point at the south entrance to Miller's Bay.
"Hiawatha Point gets overlooked because it's not a major point," he noted, "but there's something about it that really attracts smallmouths, even though it doesn't look like much on the surface."
Burns likes to throw a topwater lure - either Berkley's Frenzy Walker or Frenzy Popper - over rocky points just after dawn or just before sunset. "I like to work rocky points early and late in the day, then switch to weedbeds or deep rocks during the middle of the day," he said. "The early and late bite on the rocky points are my favorite because I throw the topwater lures. Having a smallmouth bust a topwater is about as good as it gets."
Presentation is the key to Burns' success with topwaters. "The trick with the Frenzy Walker is to 'walk the dog' and turn the reel handle just a little as you twitch the rod, but keep the twitches real short, maybe 2 to 6 inches. The whole goal is to move the lure as much side-to-side as forward. You want to give it lots of side-to-side movement without forward movement because that keeps it over the fish as long as possible."
Smallmouths are famous for being curious, impetuous fish prone to investigate anything out of the ordinary that crosses their path. The longer a lure is in their vicinity, the greater the chance they'll give in to the temptation to do something about it.
After the early-morning topwater bite fades, Burns moves to weedbeds or deep rockpiles and reefs. He rigs with a tube jig or leeches on a floating rig. "Vegetation shows up earlier in Big Spirit, but it eventually comes on at West Okoboji too," he said. "If you can find (the weedbeds) they can be great places to vertical-jig a Power Tube."
The best weedbeds adjoin rockpiles or rocky points. Though Burns has many of West Okoboji's weedbeds marked on his GPS unit, he has to use his depthfinder to pinpoint them. "Some of the weedbeds aren't much bigger than my boat," he said. "But if you find them, they attract forage fish, which attracts smallmouths from a large area around each weedbed.
"Most summers, the weedbeds on Okoboji are as deep as 30 feet," he said, "but last year the deep sides of the weedbeds were only in the 21- to 24-foot range. However deep they are, I've had real, real good success drop-shotting along the deep water side of those weedbeds."
Drop-shot rigs are simple to rig and deadly to fish in clear, deep-water situations. A weight is tied to the end of the line; then a Palomar knot is used to tie a long-shanked Aberdeen hook directly to the line a foot or more above the weight.
"You tie the hook so it sticks straight out from the main line," said Burns. "Then put a Berkley Power Minnow or other good rubber artificial on the hook. The big mistake a lot of people make with a drop shot rig is that they work it too much, try to jig it up and down. You need to keep the rod still, and just tickle the line with your finger.
"It doesn't take much action to make that bait dance, the way it's rigged hanging sideways off that tight line," said Burns. "Experiment in clear water, and you'll see that just a little twitching gives the worm better action that a lot of jigging."
Burns says that drop-shotting can also be deadly for smallies associated with West Okoboji's deep rockpiles. "I firmly believe there are some smallies that prefer to live in deep water, and other smallies that prefer to live in shallow water," he said. "Just like some people like to live in the city and other people prefer to live in the country. Knowing that, I make sure I fish both areas on days when the fish are biting. If smallmouths in shallow water are biting, conditions are right so that the ones that live out on those rockpiles down to 30 or 40 feet will be on a bite, too."
Burns noted that exploring water deeper than 40 feet in West Okoboji hasn't proved useful for smallmouths. "I've taken walleyes as deep as 70 feet from West Okoboji, but never pulled a smallmouth from anything deeper than 50 feet."
Earlier, we listed a number of potential state-record smallmouths caught by Burns and his friends. Trolling was a theme that ran through that list of lunkers. Trolling covers a lot of water fast, and targets active, aggressive fish. Burns likes to combine trolling with casting to locate and then to pinpoint smallmouths.
"I'll troll a No. 5 or No. 7 Shad Rap or Berkley Frenzy crankbait through shallow water to find them," he said. "When I get one, I stop and wait till I see some surface activity before I cast just beyond the boil. You can fan-cast the area and maybe get some action, but it's better to wait to see a boil and then cast to it. It takes a lot of patience to just sit there, but you're going to catch more fish per cast if you have the patience to do it that way."
Burns encouraged smallmouth anglers to stay mobile and flexible during June.
"During some of the month they're spawning, so they'll be scattered across sandy flats scattered with rocks and boulders," he said. "But they seem to cluster their nests in certain areas, so if you find one, you can probably work that area and get some more before you move on.
Later on, once they're done spawning, you'll find them off the rocky points early in the morning and again just before sunset," he said. "During the day, I'd work the deep rockpiles and the edges of weedbeds.
The key to catching smallmouths at the Iowa Great Lakes is to move around till you find them. Offer them a variety of lures and presentations until you figure out what they want on any particular day.
"Do it right, and it's not hard to average 20 to 30 smallmouths in a day," he concluded. "I'd put that up against just about any smallmouth lake or river in the United States."
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