Eastern Iowa's Bucketmouth Bonanza
October 04, 2010
Late spring and summer in eastern Iowa mean largemouth fishing to those in the know. Try these hotspots for more bass action when the weather turns warm.
Lake Sugema's water was glassy-smooth as Dave Novak and I threaded my canoe through a maze of thorny branches. As the sun dropped toward the horizon, we hoped that the lake's famed bluegills would cooperate.
The canoe squeezed through a tangled mass of honey locust thorns and entered a brush-surrounded watery clearing; about the size of an average house, it was one of the bassiest-looking places imaginable. Thoughts of bluegills disappeared as I flipped a jointed minnow plug across the clearing. The floating lure fell just short of brush on the far side, and I let it float for a while before gently twitching it.
With the delicacy of a ballet dancer, a bass quietly inhaled the plug. There was no violent strike; I didn't even feel a tug. But I saw the lure disappear beneath the surface, and I set the hook. The bass took off for the safety of the locust branches, but fortunately, my rod had just enough heft to turn it. Minutes later, Dave and I admired a beautiful post-spawn Iowa bass. About 18 inches long, the fish was in outstanding health, and even without the roe inside, it seemed fat and heavy for its length. As I watched it slowly fin away from the canoe, I vowed to return in a year and try for it again. Sugema's fertile water supports a massive forage base, and the fish might weigh over 4 pounds by then.
Perhaps it was my Sugema bass that Cedar Rapids bass angler Vance Gordon found two years later, when he won a bass tournament there with a five-fish limit weighing 27 pounds. "Sugema has many lunker bass," he told me.
Although Lake Sugema, near Keosauqua, is an outstanding bassing lake, it's hardly alone. Eastern Iowa boasts hundreds of places for an angler to catch husky bass both this month and throughout the summer.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
PLEASANT CREEK LAKE Pleasant Creek Lake, near Palo in Linn County, remains an enduring bass factory. Although anglers pound the popular lake, it offers tremendous bass fishing for many reasons.
This unusual lake was built as a cooperative effort between the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and Alliant Energy. The utility needed emergency cooling water for the nearby Duane Arnold nuclear power plant and paid for dam construction. Pleasant Creek Lake has a drainage so small that it was necessary to pump water from the nearby Cedar River to fill it. Because it has little water moving through, and because its watershed is almost entirely grass or forest, it doesn't suffer from the heavy run-off and high nutrient loads that commonly afflict most other Iowa lakes. Its very steady water level and abundant cover allow fish both to spawn successfully and to grow fast. With more than 400 acres of clear, cover-filled water, Pleasant Creek can handle the extremely heavy fishing pressure it gets and keep turning out quite a few large fish amid the abundant largemouth population that it fosters.
"Pleasant Creek is unusual," explained Vance Gordon, "in that it seems to have two distinct bass populations. One group of fish hugs the shoreline, especially along the dam, where they can be reached by hundreds of shore-anglers; they get caught and released frequently and look pretty beat up. But just out of casting range for bank-anglers is a dropoff, and another group of bass hang out there. They don't get caught as often as the inshore fish and look great."
"Pleasant Creek bass see plenty of lures and baits," observed Steve Krotz, fishing manager at the Cedar Rapids Fin and Feather Store. "They get lots of aerobic exercise. And, I think, some of the biggest fish are lure-shy. But it's still a great place to fish."
CORALVILLE RESERVOIR Coralville Reservoir, between Cedar Rapids and Iowa City, is the largest inland body of water in eastern Iowa. Created by damming the mucky Iowa River, the reservoir is muddy, and loaded with nutrients; its water level can fluctuate widely. Maybe because it's so large, windy, and often covered with speedboats, it isn't fished as heavily as are smaller lakes. It can be downright intimidating to a novice angler, but experienced bass anglers know that Coralville boasts excellent bassing. The fish may run a bit smaller than they do in clearer lakes, but they're plentiful, and there's a good chance of landing a lunker here.
Finding the reservoir's bass would be much more of a challenge if it weren't for a predictable tendency among the fish: Largemouths love cover, their favorite variety being a fallen log or submerged stump. Much of Coralville's water is devoid of cover, so prudent anglers learn where the wood and rocks are and fish those areas. IDNR fisheries biologist Paul Sleeper and his crew have pulled hundreds of treetops into the reservoir - and most of them now hold fish. Coralville also boasts an uncommon eastern Iowa bass structure: rock. Crumbly limestone bluffs dip down into the water, and bass often lurk around the boulders.
One part of Coralville that looks seductively like it might be outstanding bass habitat is the tree-studded water upstream of the Interstate 380 and Highway 965 bridges, but it's simply too shallow and muddy for good bassing. Far better fishing is found near structure farther downstream, where nearby water is deeper.
LAKE MACBRIDE Lake Macbride and Coralville are literally only a matter of feet apart, but few waters could be more different from one another than are these two. Where Coralville is massive and murky, Macbride is much smaller - and it feels like it, too, with its 812 acres split up in to two big arms and many small coves. Its water tends to be fairly clear and its level constant; fish cover is plentiful and easily found. Excellent trails follow portions of the lake, giving those without boats access to rewarding fishing.
During the past two winters the IDNR has lowered Macbride to repair trails, create fish habitat, and stabilize banks by adding thousands of tons of riprap. Although the lake was low last summer, the bassing was outstanding. By June of this year, water will likely have inundated new cover, and fishing could be even better.
Macbride offers anglers something that can be found in no other Iowa water: spotted ("Kentucky") bass. Native to Southern states, spots look much like largemouths but act more like smallmouths. According to retired IDNR fishery biologist Bob Middendorf, the IDNR attempted to establish populations of spotted bass in several Iowa locations in the early 1970s. The agency had several large breeders in a hatchery, and it stocked fingerlings in many lakes. The effort failed - but paradoxically, when the project was abandoned and the breeders were dumped i
nto Lake Macbride, the discarded fish surprised everyone by thriving. Perhaps the spots' unlooked-for success resulted from their love of rocks and the crawfish that live in and around them - but whatever the reason, today about half of the black bass in Macbride are spots; the rest are largemouths.
"This is probably the most northern lake in the country with a large population of spotted bass," Middendorf noted. "A few anglers target them, but most people catch them when fishing for largemouths."
Many anglers can't tell the two species apart, but it's not difficult to distinguish them: Spots have a very distinct black stripe along their sides, spots on their belly, and teeth on their tongue; largemouths have a less distinct stripe and lack the spots and tongue teeth. "Spotted bass are very sporty and jump much more frequently than largemouths," Middendorf commented.
Spots are slower-growing than are largemouths and tend to be a little smaller. A lunker spot from Lake Macbride will be in the 3 1/2-pound range, but most fish are closer to 12 or 13 inches long. Any Macbride bass over 15 inches is likely a largemouth, and 5- to 6-pound largemouths are fairly common in the lake. This year all lake fish will experience a growth spurt stimulated by new nutrients in circulation following the drawdown.
SMALL WATERS FOR SUMMER BASS Sugema, Coralville and Macbride are all large lakes, with space enough and cover to foster lunker bass despite heavy fishing pressure. In general, big bass tend to be hard to come by at smaller public lakes, but these do have plenty of bass on offer.
A number of county conservation boards have built small- to medium-sized lakes that are open to public fishing and promise worthwhile catches. Diamond Lake, near Montezuma, is one of the best. At just under 100 acres, this lake is scenic and loaded with structure, has high water quality, and offers great fishing. Only electric motors are permitted. "Diamond also offers very good panfish angling and great shore access," said biologist Paul Sleeper. Bass anglers should bring plenty of lures, as live minnows are prohibited as bait.
Benton County's 45-acre Hannen Lake, near Blairstown, offers noteworthy small-water fishing. "It has lots of bass that tend toward the smaller size," said Sleeper, "but once in a while a lunker is pulled out." Casey Lake, south of Waterloo in Tama County, is about 10 acres larger than Hannen; though heavily fished, it remains an outstanding bass and panfish lake.
For an angler interested in catching a massive bass, the best bet by far will be to locate a lightly fished private pond, thousands of which are tucked into the countryside, especially in hilly terrain. Bear in mind, however, that they're not all farm ponds; In the 1990s, many urban Iowans wanted to live in the country but be close to their urban jobs, and so bought property just outside Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and other large towns. Many built large houses on extensive acreage and, often enough, added ponds for aesthetics; one trend in designing housing developments has seen ponds created to function as a center around which new units are clustered.
Obviously, permission is needed to fish these private waters, but that's hardly impossible. I've met a number of pond owners through business contacts and can now enjoy pond-fishing near my home in Cedar Rapids. One of my largest Iowa bass came from a pond less than a half-acre in size; near the city and adjoining a monstrous new house, it hardly ever gets fished.
More suburban (even urban) Iowan ponds come into being each year, and they often host some very serviceable fishing; for the most part lightly fished, many of them contain big bass. Again, just make sure to have obtained permission before you toss a lure out.
A greatly overlooked Iowa largemouth opportunity can be found in rivers. For several years smallmouth numbers have been increasing in the Mississippi River and many interior rivers. They're perfectly adapted to rivers -which largemouths aren't, as they dislike current. But if you find a shallow river backwater with woody structure, you've probably found good largemouth fishing. "Mississippi River backwaters are awesome!" exclaimed tournament angler Gordon.
High-quality river fishing isn't confined to the Mississippi. Many of Iowa's smaller interior rivers have backwaters. They're frequently quite small, but they're rarely fished, and so harbor big bass. Bigmouths sometimes turn up in some pretty unlikely river locations. A few years ago I was fishing for walleyes where Indian Creek flows into the Cedar River near Cedar Rapids and noticed a couple of boys tossing worms under a nearby railroad bridge. Bridge pilings had created a tiny pocket of slack water, and sure enough, a 3-pound largemouth attacked one of the kids' baits and was soon on the bank. Largemouth bass might only occupy a tiny fraction of a percent of a river's water, but an astute angler can locate likely bass spots and fish them.
TACTICS FOR SUMMER SUCCESS Early June can be challenging for bass anglers. In a normal year, fishing gets tough in the immediate post-spawn period. "That usually starts around Memorial Day and lasts for a couple of weeks," said Gordon. "Last year it lasted longer because of the unusually cool spring. But by mid-June bass fry have hatched and sometimes dart at a spinnerbait. When I see them, I know large bass will begin biting with enthusiasm."
Also, by mid-June bass have long forgotten spawning and are concentrating their energy on eating. They're ferocious predators, and virtually any living creature that they can fit into their mouths is fair game; even hapless mice and small birds that fall into the water may be quickly devoured. And frogs, crayfish and grasshoppers are delicacies few bass can resist. But the bulk of a large largemouth's diet consists of shad, bluegills, small crappies and young bass.
Owing to both their varied diet and their aggressiveness, bass really aren't hard to catch: Flip a lure that looks remotely like bass food into the right spot at the right time, and the odds favor its being promptly attacked by a hungry fish.
After largemouths recover from the spawn and embark on their summer of gluttony, a wide variety of lures and baits will work just fine. "I like spinnerbaits in late June," Gordon offered. "If I'm fishing clear water, I generally use white or silver. If the water's dark, I tend to use darker colored spinnerbaits."
My favorite way to fish for summer largemouths is with poppers and other surface plugs. Sometimes big bass will quietly slurp down the lure, but often they'll hit with fury, sending spray into the air as they attack the lure. The best time to fish poppers is on a still evening as the sun sinks below the horizon. Ironically, daytime anglers are heading for the boat ramp just as the fish begin to feed on the surface. I'm a traditionalist who still loves the old poppers and noisemakers that I started fishing for bass with in the mid-1960s - and they're as good today as they were back then. Floating minnow-type baits work great, but so do many other plugs that vaguely resemble an animal or fish struggling on the surface. Bass will bite through th
e night, and night-fishing is becoming increasingly popular. "Sometimes Pleasant Creek is crawling with boats after midnight," reported Steve Krotz.
Often eliciting violent strikes, buzzbaits are surface lures that do good service during hot, windy, sunny days. I cast the buzzer toward shore and never let it sink. I retrieve the lure rapidly, letting it buzz across the waves sending spray everywhere. Although buzzbaits don't seem to mimic any living prey, they are amazingly effective.
Plenty of other lures work well on summer bass. Vance Gordon thinks that crankbaits are a little less effective in late June than at other times of the year, but sometimes they bring fast action. Plastic worms always seem to get results.
Cedar Rapids' Steve Krotz is an avid flyfisherman. He enjoys outstanding success by casting Woolly Buggers toward shore and slowly retrieving them. Catching a big bass on a light fly rod is a thrill few anglers will forget.
I generally avoid using live bait when bass fishing, but night crawlers, minnows and crawfish are admittedly quite deadly. Some of the biggest bass I've caught in Pleasant Creek came when I was fishing with worms for bluegills.
Macbride's spotted bass are formidable predators, too, although their diet is a little more restricted than is a largemouth's. Spots are crawfish specialists, and the lures most irresistible to them are those mimicking the small crustaceans; fish these in rocky areas.
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Summer officially begins at the solstice, during the third week of June. By then bass will be entering their summer feeding frenzy - so there's absolutely no better time to be seeking lunker bucketmouths at one of Iowa's premier lakes!
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