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Top Spots For Iowa Slabs

Top Spots For Iowa Slabs

March: prime time for Hawkeye State crappie fishing. Which waterways have the best prospects for hot action this spring? (March 2006)

Red Rock Lake's slabs are big but tough to catch. Jake Vande Noord got one! Photo courtesy of Curt Harvey.

Crappie fishing in Iowa in 2006 promises to be just as good -- or just as bad -- as it was in 2005. That means another great year of papermouth action for those who fish in the right places at the right times, and another lousy year for those who don't.

Last year, Lake Rathbun and Lake Black Hawk were two of the best places in Iowa for catching crappies, while Lake Red Rock, which for years produced consistent catches of serious barn doors, fell on its face. Will Rathbun and Black Hawk continue to satisfy anglers in 2006? Will Red Rock return, or spend another year annoying anglers who seek its legendary slabs?

Weather and water conditions will be the deciding factors. Even the best crappie lake can go "cold" after a strong front afflicts the fish with lockjaw. The secret lies in knowing which of our lakes hold the strongest populations of fish, so that when Mother Nature smiles, we can be sure that we're fishing at the venues with the most potential.

What follows is a regional look at some of Iowa's best crappie fishing opportunities for 2006.


Lake Rathbun, in southern Iowa near Centerville, is arguably Iowa's most famous crappie fishery, a variety of factors having combined to warrant its bearing the nickname "Iowa's crappie factory."

A large impoundment, Rathbun is fed by relatively small rivers -- the two forks of the Chariton River -- and so, unlike many of our smaller artificial lakes with outsized watersheds, isn't susceptible to flushes of muddy water after spring rains. The lake also contains a population of gizzard shad to provide optimum nutrition for crappies. Another factor that favors Rathbun's crappies is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' program for lowering the water level in the fall and raising it in the spring, thus creating shoreline vegetation that's flooded during and after the spawn. The submerged vegetation provides food and protection for fingerling crappies and allows them to grow into the 9- to 12-inchers for which the lake is famous.


Bruce Ellison, an Iowa Department of Natural Resources fisheries technician based at Rathbun, acknowledges that while crappie fishing at the lake suffered a lull several years ago, IDNR netting and creel surveys conducted in 2005 indicate that papermouth populations have recovered.

"Crappie fishing was good for 9- to 10-inchers last year, and it should be as good or maybe better this year," he said. "We've got a couple of strong year-classes moving through the system, so things look promising for the next two or three years."

Pre-spawn finds crappies staging near deep-water dropoffs at the mouths of Crappie Cove, Honey Creek and Buck Creek. During the spawn, shallow waters in the backs of those well-known spawning areas teem with the fish.

After the spawn, Rathbun's crappies move out into the main lake and spend the summer feeding on roaming schools of gizzard shad. Ellison says that more and more crappie anglers are taking cues from walleye and white bass anglers who "complain" of catching slab crappies while trolling for 'eyes and whites.

"Trolling small crankbaits over the flats off Islandview or Southfork has been producing some of our larger crappies during the summer," he remarked. "A lot of people have also done real well through the summer just drifting with the wind in those areas, bouncing a jig and minnow over the bottom."

Anglers who do without boats, or who prefer to fish from boats in smaller waters, have crappie-catching options not far from Lake Rathbun. Ellison pointed to Lake Miami, just northwest of Albia, has a solid population of 9- to 10-inch crappies. The riprapped face of the dam and shallow coves on each side of the lake are focal points for crappies and anglers during the spawn. During the summer, drifting works well.

"I've heard good things about guys drifting the middle of the lake over the old channel in midsummer," he reported. "They put a split shot about 12 inches above a lip-hooked minnow, or a jig-and-minnow, and do really well for crappies at Miami."

Lake Keomah, east of Oskaloosa, also gets good reviews. According to Ellison, the face of the dam and brushy structure placed beneath and around the handicapped-accessible fishing pier are prime spots here for 8- to 10-inch crappies.

Seymour Reservoir is a small lake that also showed promise in last year's IDNR surveys. The fishing at this diminutive city reservoir has benefited from having a brushpile sunk in it to provide fish habitat.

"There's shoreline access to some riprapped areas that are good during the spawn," said Ellison, "and when we electrosurveyed the lake last year we saw a lot of 8- to 9-inch crappies around the brushpile. They aren't huge -- but there was a nice population of them for a small lake."


There was some question as to whether Lake Red Rock should appear in a piece on crappie hotspots for 2006. Anglers who chased crappies at this big flood-control reservoir were uniformly disappointed, often borderline disgusted, at how the formerly hot crappie lake failed to get it done in 2005. But €¦

"All the crappies that didn't get caught in 2005 are still there, and are a couple inches bigger for 2006," observed IDNR Southwest Region fisheries supervisor Andy Moore. "When you talk about crappies in Iowa, you've got to talk about Red Rock, because it can produce good catches of really big fish up in the 12- to 14-inch range. But it's a tough lake to fish, totally hot or cold -- and you never know which way it's going to be."

A guide who focuses on Red Rock, Pleasantville's Curt Harvey -- (515) 848-3882 freely admits that 2005 was a tough year to catch crappies there. "They'd come in and just start to develop a pattern during the spawn," he recalled recently, "or, later in the year, they'd start to work certain areas of the lake. Then the weather would change, or a heavy rain up north would raise the lake, and they'd turn off, and I'd have to start all over again. We could almost always catch a few fish, but we never really got on them and stayed on them because of the weather and water conditions."

Harvey's heard the tales about 16-, 17-, even 18-inch slabs wrested from Red Rock. What does he believe about such monsters? "Possible -- just not common," he opined. "Last year, as tough as it was, I caught 10 that were over 14 (inches) when I was trolling, and a dozen

that were solid 13-inchers. The strange thing about Red Rock is that we rarely catch crappies less than 9 inches -- those are 'small' for me. It's just the nature of the lake to catch larger crappies -- when we catch any at all."

If the weather gods favor Lake Red Rock this year, Harvey will start searching for slab crappies in the back of Marina Cove soon after ice-out. Riprapped shoreline, shallow water in the back of bays, and structure related to the marina attract crappies to that area early in the season.

Later, when other anglers flock to the Whitebreast Arm to exploit those of its numerous nooks and crannies that hold spawning crappies, Harvey will motor quietly beneath the short bridge on Highway 14 north of the entrance to Elk Rock State Park and fish the mouth of Teeter Creek.

"Whitebreast is great for crappies in the spring, but I don't like crowds," he said. "I'll probably create crowds in my favorite spots by even mentioning it in a magazine story, but the riprap under that bridge, and the mouth of that creek, are two of my best spots for crappies in the spring."

This summer Harvey plans to fine-tune his strategies for trolling for crappies as they roam Red Rock's flats. "Trolling targets the largest crappies," he noted, "but it's tricky. Last year I slowed my troll to 1 to 1 1/2 miles per hour, compared to 2 miles per hour when I troll for whites (bass). I had my best luck pulling black and silver Rapala Shad Raps 75 to 100 feet behind the boat, so they were running 6 to 8 feet deep. We didn't catch tons of crappies doing that, but the ones we caught averaged 13 to 14 inches."

Ultimately, Harvey believes that weather will be the key to whether Red Rock is hot or cold for crappies in 2006. "In a perfect world," he said, "we'd get a week of 60- to 70-degree sunny days the first part of May, the crappies would move in to spawn, and we could absolutely clobber them. Give me decent weather and a steady pool -- I don't care if the pool is high or low, as long as it's steady -- and there are a lot of crappies left over from last year that I intend to put in my boat this year."


Shore-anglers in northwest Iowa have a unique opportunity to outfish anglers in boats during a window of opportunity after ice-out at Black Hawk Lake, in Sac County.

"There's a period from ice-out until just before the spawn when you can absolutely clobber crappies at Black Hawk from shore," said Lannie Miller, the IDNR biologist based at that lake. "The crappies move into Town Bay" -- on the lake's northwest shore, adjacent to the town of Lakeview -- "and they catch them by the bucketful off the handicap-accessible pier and the west stone pier. Guys with boats pull up close and fish the same area, but because of the way we put brush and habitat under the handicap pier and around the stone pier, it actually seems to be better if you fish from shore."

Oddly, the crappie bite at Black Hawk declines in Town Bay during the actual spawn, though fish are still caught in that area, as well in other shallow waters around the edge of the lake. After that, Black Hawk's crappies disappear until fall.

"They go out in the middle and feed on shad," stated Miller, "and nobody has much luck catching them. They'll pick up a few drifting around the dredged areas, but there's just not much of a summer bite for crappies at Black Hawk. Fall, however, is a different deal."

Miller says that once water temperatures cool, Black Hawk's 9- to 10-inch crappies, along with a smattering of 12- to 13-inchers, congregate around the inlet bridge on the lake's western edge. "Minnows and shad migrate from the marshes into the lake as the water cools, and those crappies are in that area taking advantage of all the food," he explained. "It's a real good crappie bite that doesn't get as much attention as the spring bite."

Several smaller lakes in western and northwest Iowa also offer crappie-catchers opportunities for filling a fish basket with papermouths. Crawford Creek Lake, near Denison, fared well in IDNR surveys last year, with a strong year-class of 9-inchers. While the arm on the southwest end of the dam is prime crappie territory during the spring spawn, local crappie catchers do well during the summer by anchoring and vertical-jigging over several stakebeds in the lake.

"You'll have to get a map from the attendant," said Miller. "We had buoys marking the submerged structure, but somebody keeps removing them -- probably so they'll have the fishing all to themselves."

Brown's Lake, near Salix in northwest Iowa, also has good potential for crappies this year. Surveys showed crappies ranging from 9 to 11 inches in late 2005. Brushy habitat along the eastern shoreline draws crappies in during the spawn. Drift-fishing over deeper waters in the lake's southwest quarter has proved profitable during the summer months.

Prairie Rose Lake, in western Iowa near Harlan, offers quantity rather than size to anglers who travel to this somewhat remote lake.

"Crappies at Prairie Rose aren't big, but there are lots of them," said Andy Moore, the IDNR regional fisheries supervisor. "If you're willing to clean 7- to 8-inch crappies, you can catch a ton of them there."

The face of the dam and several coves along the south shore are favored spawning areas in the spring. Anglers pick up crappies during the summer from brushpiles scattered around the lake's perimeter and adjacent to the lake's fishing jetties.


Northeast Iowa doesn't contain as many lakes as does southern Iowa, but anglers in that region can still catch their share of crappies. Lake Delhi, a long, narrow impoundment on the Maquoketa River southwest of the town of Delhi, is a "different" sort of crappie fishery.

"Crappies run 9 to 10 inches at Delhi," reported Bryan Hayes, the IDNR fisheries biologist in that region. "There aren't many bays or coves, so you don't have distinct places to look for them when they spawn. Look for them in any brushy downfalls along shallow shorelines, or riprapped areas. In the summer, guys do well drifting over the old channel, or flipping jigs along vertical rock walls along the shoreline."

Another "different" crappie opportunity in northeast Iowa is Sweet Marsh, Segment B, which is managed as a waterfowl marsh. A dredged portion of the marsh is up to 8 feet deep, and crappies spawn along the shallow edges of that deeper section.

"Guys fish right along, or in, the cattails that rim the dredged portion," said Hayes. "There aren't huge numbers of crappies there, but the ones you catch will be in the 10-inch-or-larger range."

Volga Lake, in Fayette County, is a final possibility for crappies in northeast Iowa. The geology of the region made it necessary when the lake was built to line the basin with impermeable clay, so that it could hold water at all. For many years, the clay inhibited the growth of underwater vegetation necessary for food, shelter and spawning habitat for fish. Though the IDNR sank brushpiles and stakebed

s to offset the lack of vegetation, the fishing was disappointing in the early years.

Slowly over time, underwater vegetation has developed at Volga Lake, and the crappie fishing there is now rated as "good." Expect crappies in the 7- to 9-inch range there this summer, with a few 10-inchers thrown in to add interest.

Look for those crappies in spawning areas along the face of the dam as well as in shallows and bays along the south shore of the west arm of the lake. In midsummer, vertical-jig over structure.

* * *

Ultimately, the quality of crappie fishing at Volga Lake and other lakes in Iowa is directly related to weather and water conditions. If Mother Nature gives us consistent weather during the spawn, and favorable weather during midsummer, Lake Rathbun, Lake Red Rock, Lake Black Hawk, Prairie Rose Lake and dozens of other lakes are poised to produce plenty of thick crappies for those anglers who know when, where and how to take advantage of them.

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