Regardless of where you live in the Hawkeye State, the Mississippi River may be your best eastern largemouth bass water.
By Ed Harp
Any lake, reservoir or river system expecting to be named the best largemouth bass water in its state must meet several requirements. It must produce both high numbers of largemouths and good-sized largemouths, and offer enough acreage to meet changing environmental conditions.
The Mississippi River meets those standards for Iowa anglers.
The Mississippi runs along the east side of Iowa. The Iowa portion begins in the north at Pool No. 9 and flows downstream to Pool No. 19 at the south end of the state. All along its path, the Mississippi provides diverse habitat and excellent largemouth bass fishing opportunities.
This section of the mighty Mississippi flows more than 300 miles and is publicly accessible all along its path. Inexperienced anglers will find to their relief that the river's marked in river miles. These mile-points will help you orient yourself on the river. At the northern end of the state, the mile markers start at approximately Mile Marker 672. It's located in the upper portion of Pool No. 9.
At the southern end of the state, the Mile Marker is 363. Therefore, as you read a map, the mileage will get smaller as you travel downstream, south. Not every mile is marked on the river itself, but some are. Watch for mile markers on the shoreline as you travel along the water.
A "pool" is defined as the stretch of water from a dam, upstream to the next dam. For instance, Pool No. 13 is formed by Dam No. 13 and extends upstream to Dam No. 12.
The Iowa Department of Natural Resources has developed an excellent set of maps for Hawkeye anglers. They have posted on the Internet a complete set of them for each and every mile of the Mississippi that borders Iowa.
The maps are organized by pool. Once you access a pool, it's further divided into sections for additional detail. Various facilities are marked on the maps, including launch ramps, fuel access, food, and emergency facilities such as police departments and medical providers. Locations for bait and lodging are also displayed. The maps can be accessed at www.iowadnr.com/fish/fishing/miss/missriv.html.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
AN EXPERT'S HOTSPOTS
According to Ken Warren - (319) 721-0152 - an active Iowa tournament angler with the American Bass Anglers, one of the better pools on the Mississippi River is No. 13, located about halfway between No. 9 and No. 19. While it's not an especially long stretch of water, it's one of the best.
Warren describes this pool of the river as consisting of many backwaters that provide almost limitless habitat for largemouths. According to him, once you work your way into the backwaters, you enter another world. "It's nothing but ducks, birds, snakes, wild animals and solitude. You can almost run the whole pool in the backwaters. You hardly need to go to the channel," said the Iowa bass angler.
He suggests that anglers wanting fast action in June and July begin their search in Spring Lake. This is a lake that bordered the river some years ago. It was enclosed by dikes and surrounded by Mississippi backwater. Over the years, the dikes deteriorated, and there is now direct access into Spring Lake from the river. This makes it a prime spot. A map of the area can be accessed from the Pool No. 13 map, sections No. 4 and No. 5.
The upper Mississippi River has experienced a serious lack of winter habitat for many, many years. Pool No. 13 and Spring Lake are no exception. Over the years, largemouths have had a hard time surviving the winter. Much of the water is no more than 2 feet deep. There are few deep-water wintering spots for the fish.
The few that did exist were well known to ice-anglers, many of whom didn't practice catch-and-release. As a consequence, hardwater anglers scoring heavy catches of bass during the winter from these areas seriously depleted the largemouth bass population.
With this problem in mind, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredged channels throughout the area. Most of these channels are between 4 feet and 8 feet deep. While that may not sound like much to some anglers, it's enough to help the fish survive the winter, giving them a place to go when it gets cold. This relatively simple improvement to the habitat has made a huge difference. It also provides structure for anglers to fish in the summertime.
One of the most popular patterns in the Spring Lake area is to fish the shallow waterweeds and lily pads along these channel breaks. A wide variety of lures will be successful.
One of the most effective, and consequently most popular, is a common tube. According to Warren, there are a number of local favorites. They may be different in some respects but they all have one thing in common: dark colors.
The universally favored black-and-blue combination is always popular, as are various shades of purple and green. Interestingly, for something different, many anglers are successfully throwing white tubes. Warren theorizes that white may be effective because it resembles shad and, perhaps, because of its high visibility in the dingy waters of this river.
This dingy, dark water can be fished with tubes rigged either Texas-style or on a Carolina rig. When fished Texas-style, they're for the most part hopped along the outside edge of the weeds. Most anglers keep them as close to the channel edge as possible.
When fished on a Carolina rig, they're generally dragged along in the channel itself. The tube is allowed to float, bump and bang onto the sides of the channel that the angler's fishing. A number of devices or tricks have been developed to help the tube float along off the bottom. One common local technique is to insert Styrofoam into the tube to make it buoyant. Another is to insert air into the plastic by means of a syringe and needle.
From time to time, especially when the fish are active, bass anglers find success with spinnerbaits. Several styles and designs are popular, but Warren believes that blade choice is what really matters. He prefers a Colorado blade for most of his work because of the hard thump it creates on the retrieve. This is especially important in dingy water, opines the river angler. Yet, he also likes the rapid spin and flash of a willow-leaf blade.
Warren has found a design he believes takes advantage of the best features from both blades. It's a spinnerbait that combines both blades in an u
nusual fashion. This bait has a willow-leaf blade on the shaft and a Colorado blade on the swivel. He believes that this takes advantage of the hard thump of the Colorado and the rapid spin and flash of the willow-leaf. "It's an unusual combination - one the fish haven't seen before - and it takes advantage of the best features of both blades," he said.
Colors vary by angler but most opt for white, chartreuse or a bright color of some sort under Mississippi River conditions. One-quarter- to 1/2-ounce sizes are the most effective and, consequently, the most popular. A wide variety of retrieves has proven successful. Slow-rolling is popular, as is a lift-and-drop action.
That said, however, burning these baits just under the surface is rapidly gaining in popularity. Some anglers are replacing the skirt with a grub to help lift the bait and keep it just below the surface. Burning is especially popular for use among the lily pads that flourish in this area of the Mississippi. With a little practice, anglers can weave their spinnerbait among the pads with nary a hangup. The strikes are reflexive and explosive.
Other river anglers take advantage of these shallow-water predators with topwater action. The venerable buzzbait is one of the best. Learn to retrieve this bait with the tie loop in an upward position and you'll eliminate nearly all snags and hangups. In a little while it'll seem natural to just pull this bait up and over the leaves of the pads while anticipating the eruption that's sure to come.
Other topwater choices include plastic frogs and rats of one sort or another. Most anglers find success throwing these baits on top of lily pads or matted grass. After it's landed, permit the bait to sit quietly for a few moments and then, gently, allow it to tumble off into the water. If that doesn't work, try hopping the plastic on top of the pad. Shake your rod tip up and down so that the lure bounces on top of the pad. Keep the bait on the pad, however; don't allow it to fall into the water. After several minutes of this - yes, several minutes, not moments - allow your bait to slide into the water. Quiver it a time or two and then swim it towards the next pad. Go slow! Haste makes waste with this style of angling. You can't fish this technique too slowly.
Warren cautions anglers not to overlook the clear, running water spots in this backwater area. He points out that throughout these backwater areas are places where clear water runs into the main water area. This clear water tends to be cool and highly oxygenated. That makes for good fishing.
His lure choices remain about the same - tubes and spinnerbaits - but his colors change. He likes brown for his tubes and chartreuse for his spinnerbaits. He also tends to downsize his baits for fishing clear-water areas. Warren points out that the bass can see better in clear water. And, as is typical of most river anglers, he believes that smaller baits will catch more fish.
Another backwater area favored by Warren is Brown's Lake - both the upper and lower sections. Both are located on Pool No. 13. The appropriate structure, configuration and fishing tactics are about the same here as at Spring Lake.
Brown's Lake is a catch-and-release area: You can catch all the largemouths you want, but you can't leave with them. They must be released immediately. As a consequence, this water receives much less pressure than do other areas along the Mississippi; tournament anglers leave it alone, which should be good news for recreational anglers and those wanting to sharpen their skills with practice.
Warren suggests that anglers wanting to fish the main river should work the riprap along the main channel; there are miles and miles of it. He reports good success throwing a Texas-rigged plastic crayfish in and among the rocks. He recommends picking the bait up off the bottom and allowing the current and waves to float the bait around. His philosophy: Try to mimic a natural crayfish in trouble.
Warren especially encourages anglers to fish the riprap when barge traffic's heavy and pleasure boats are out in full force. This is one technique that will take advantage of what's generally considered to be a drawback. Why? He believes that the wave action created by such activities stirs up the crayfish and washes them out of their hiding places. He summarizes the matter this way: "Seems like the more waves there are, the more fish I catch." He cautions anglers that heavy abrasion-resistant line is a must under these circumstances. The rocks are sharp, and those combined with waves and current will quickly destroy soft line.
Warren selects bigger plastics, brighter colors and heavier weights when fishing the waves. The water's turbid, and the fish aren't able to see very well. On top of that, the waves generate a lot of noise under the water. Give the bass all the help you can.
At the southern end of the state, along Pool No. 18, is the huge slough that is Lake Odessa. Depending upon water conditions, Odessa ranges between 2,000 and 3,000 acres in size. It's one of the truly fine largemouth bass fishing areas in Iowa. A map of the area can be accessed from Pool No. 18, Section No. 1.
In some respects, Odessa is similar to Spring Lake. At one time it was an isolated lake surrounded by dikes. Time and high water took their toll. Finally, the dikes wore down such that the lake's now accessible from the main river.
The lake is known for its vast and thick stumpfields, as well for as the numerous laydowns that strew its shoreline. According to Iowa fisheries biologist Don Kline, the lake has a high - very high - population of largemouths between 14 and 16 inches in length. Bigger largemouths - up to 19 inches - have been reported by local anglers, however.
Odessa is very shallow. The main lake is no more than 6 or 8 feet deep, and many areas are less than 2 feet deep. The deepest water in the area is at the levee, and it's only 10 to 12 feet deep. If you're boating on Odessa, be very careful: Its shallow water and stumps have claimed any number of lower units and fiberglass hulls over the years.
Standard shallow-water bassing tactics will work here. Throw spinnerbaits in and along the wood. Flip and pitch jigs and plastics along and into the laydowns. Be precise. These fish hold tight to cover, so several presentations from different angles are recommended.
Early and late in the day, throw buzzbaits, poppers and walking sticks. Anything with a white belly should suffice.
A locally popular technique involves flipping and pitching crankbaits. Work with something small and brightly colored. Allow the bait to land gently on the water and then pull it through the wood. Highly buoyant crankbaits will work best under these conditions. When you encounter a log or other woody obstruction, allow the bait to float up and over it.
For those anglers wanting access to Odessa without having to navigate the main river, there are a couple of good ramps
. One's located on the main lake and another at Sand Run.
The entire length of the Mississippi River as it borders Iowa is loaded with lakes, sloughs, bays and backwater areas. They're all different, and yet they all have some things in common: They're shallow and weedy with lots of wood.
They may fish a little differently from time to time, but the tactics described here by Ken Warren will work on most of them, most of the time. Explore your local pool, learn to navigate and fish it. The largemouths will come your way.
Most of your bass will weigh between a pound and 2 pounds. A few will go 3 pounds or a little better. On occasion you'll boat a 4- or 5-pound bass; that's a realistic expectation here.
Keep in mind, however, that the current state record is 10 pounds, 14 ounces. A new record is well within reach. It'll come from somewhere. Why not the Mississippi?
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