Tired of fishing the same crappie waters every year? Look no farther: We've compiled a roster of the Iowa lakes most likely to make you slab-happy in 2008. (March 2008).
Photo by Keith Sutton.
No real "secrets" are involved in catching spring crappies: Of that much Curt Harvey's certain.
Seasoned by more than six decades of crappie fishing, Harvey has concluded that, come spring, big slabs impelled by romance will inevitably move into the shallows. Almost as inevitably, that's where anglers will find them.
But even the best crappie lakes have cyclical crappie populations, and anglers like Harvey have learned to take this into account. Crappie numbers peak and drop with few solid explanations, though fisheries biologists suggest that weather, water conditions and available forage all affect spawning success.
The bottom line is that even excellent crappie waters go through a few years of relatively low yields and then bounce back with good year-classes of fish. The trick lies in knowing which lakes are on the upswing -- and going back every year to your own traditional early-spring honeyhole may not be the best way of getting that done, Harvey observed.
"Old spots may be great," he counseled, "but don't spend too much time fishing down memory lane -- or you may not put many crappie fillets into the frying pan."
Here's a look at where the crappie action should be hot in the Hawkeye State this year.
LAKE RED ROCK
Harvey hangs out his guide shingle at this 19,000-acre Marion County lake. He puts a lot of crappies in the boat here -- though not without effort.
Red Rock can be a tough lake to figure out, he acknowledged. During and immediately after the spawn, Red Rock's bays and coves tend to offer fast-action shoreline fishing, but there aren't any guarantees. Fluctuating water levels can present problems, and areas producing lots of crappies one day can be dead the next. Fish the cover and remain flexible if you want to stay on top of the slabs.
"Lure selection for crappies (at Red Rock) can be as high-tech as your wallet will allow," said Harvey. "In the last decade, crappie equipment has mushroomed in the marketplace, but it's still hard to beat a gold hook and minnow presentation. This is doubly so in muddy or stained water, and you can tweak this setup by having the liveliest minnows available."
Red Rock's nine ramps can handle fishing boats of most sizes. For more information, contact the IDNR's Boone Fish Management Unit at (515) 432-2823.
LAKE OF THREE FIRES
Lake of Three Fires has recently been renovated, and its crappies are growing fast as a result. According to IDNR fisheries biologist Gary Sobotka, crappies in the 8-inch range last fall will be much larger by the time anglers start to tangle with them this spring.
"The fish are growing extremely fast," he reported, "and the population is at or above keeper-size and will only improve. By the summer, this crappie population will be as good as anyone could expect."
Three Fires' crappie numbers have been fairly steady for a few years now. To keep things hopping, biologists have provided additional cover by dropping several new fish structures in the lake.
Three Fires covers 93 acres in Taylor County. The entire lake, its average depth just 9 feet, is subject to a no-wake restriction.
Two ramps, both on the eastern side of the lake in Lake of Three Fires State Park, provide access to the water. For more information, contact the IDNR's Mt. Ayr office at (641) 464-3108.
Sobotka gives high marks to this crappie lake as well. Icaria has plenty of growing slabs that should keep anglers busy this spring. "Icaria has had several new fish attractors added that should be ideal for panfish," he said. "The fish are keeper-size and growing."
These fish attractors act as excellent crappie cover. The IDNR has placed several groupings of cedar trees to create massive brush piles along the shoreline, near the fishing jetties and under the fishing pier.
Spawning crappies can be taken in the shallow bays near emergent vegetation in Lake Icaria. Drop a minnow under a bobber or use small jigs tipped with minnows or tubes.
Lake Icaria covers 670 acres in Adams County. The shoreline is more than 17 miles long and anglers will find depths averaging between 10 and 12 feet. Boat launch ramps are located off Kale Road on both the northern and southern shorelines, 160th Road on the northeast corner of the lake and Lake Icaria Road at the northeastern end.
Contact the Mt. Ayr office for more information at (641) 464-3108.
One of Harvey's top crappie picks is Rathbun Lake, where thousands of crappies are caught every year. "Rathbun is the No. 1 crappie producer year in and year out," he stated, "though fluctuations in the water level determine how good the fishing will be from one year to the next."
Big spawning crappies are most often found in shallow water here, but post-spawn fish tend to move out into deeper water. Harvey recalls a walleye fishing trip on Rathbun that turned into a crappie-fest.
"The walleyes were in 3 feet of water on a large point and we were trolling small crankbaits for them," he said. "On one of our trolling passes we ran over water that was 20 feet deep in order to turn around to make another pass for the walleyes. We began to catch big crappies over this deep water and had found a school of 12- to 14-inch slabs that were suspended in 6 feet of water over the 20-foot depths."
Rathbun offers plenty of fish attractors, bays, shallow stretches and good bedding areas. The lake covers 11,000 acres in Appanoose County. Call the IDNR's Rathbun Fish Management Unit at (641) 647-2406 for more information.
Ingham Lake in Emmet County is one of fisheries biologist Jim Berquist's top crappie picks for this year. "Anglers fishing the shallow water habitat during April and May will see an upswing in the crappie fishery as black crappies nearing the 10-inch mark will be caught," he predicted. "The expected good growth of the crappie population through the summer months will provide us with a banner year."
Jigging along the sunken wood on t
he lake's west side can prove effective for crappie anglers, and emergent vegetation on the north end should produce prime spawning and feeding grounds as the water warms.
Best-bet baits at Ingham in the springtime are small crappie minnows fished under a float or 1/32-ounce crappie jigs on light 4-pound-test line.
Ingham averages about 6 feet deep and drops to just 12 feet at its deepest points. Boat ramps are on the north side of the lake off Road B and on the southern side off 230th Road.
Its area 377 acres, Ingham Lake is six miles east of Wallingford in Emmet County. Call the Mt. Ayr Fisheries Unit for more information at (641) 464-3108.
IOWA GREAT LAKES
"There's some great spring crappie fishing on Big Spirit Lake," said longtime panfish guide Jim McDonnell. "They start biting just before the ice goes out and continue for several weeks after ice-out."
Harvey recommended targeting Templars lagoon boat ramp and the area called "the Grade," both of which are key spots on this good-sized body of water. The bulrushes in the Hales Slough area can also hold slabs, especially during the spawn.
West Okoboji is another lake in the chain that offers up some great spring fishing. "This is a good lake just before ice-out," said McDonnell, "and then continues to produce nice crappies in the canal system between Emerson Bay and Miller's Bay."
Most of the lakes in the interconnected Iowa Great Lakes system have boat launches. Habitat is widely varied, so anglers can find cooler, deep water and warm shallows throughout the lakes; the smaller waters tend to be more fertile.
The Iowa Great Lakes lie about 45 minutes from Emmetsburg in Dickinson County. For more information, contact the Spirit Lake Fish Hatchery at (712) 336-1840.
"Storm Lake in Buena Vista County has a good crappie bite in most years," said McDonnell. "The marina and boat ramp on the southwest corner of the lake is a top spot."
Most of the prime crappie angling on Storm Lake can be had either by wading or by fishing from shore, McDonnell advised.
"Make sure you select the right rod, reel or cane pole for the job," he suggested. "Longer rods and weighted bobbers will allow you to cast your lure farther out, while shorter rods should be reserved for tight quarters."
Storm Lake, bordered by the town bearing its name, covers 3,097 acres in Buena Vista County and has a maximum depth of about 12 feet.
Conveniently spread out to accommodate arriving anglers, four ramps -- in Casino Bay, and off state Route 7, Sunrise Park Road and Mallard Road -- serve those fishing at Storm Lake. Contact the Black Hawk Fish Management Unit at (712) 657-2638 for more information.
LOWER PINE LAKE
The 2006 fishery survey at Lower Pine Lake indicated strong populations of 7 1/2- and 8 1/2-inch fish weighing about a quarter-pound and good numbers of 10-inchers tipping the scales at a half-pound, according to central Iowa fisheries biologist James Wahl.
"During the spring, fish around downed trees along the shoreline and the recently riprapped shoreline east of the boat ramp," he said. "Crappies utilize these areas heavily during the spawning season in May."
A stakebed along Route 118 often gives shore-anglers access to some nice slabs. Brushpiles on the south end of the lake and the rock jetty located northwest of the dam also offer prime angling opportunities for crappies.
Once summer arrives, the lake stratifies, and anglers have to drift-fish throughout the main-lake basin. Most of the fishing's in water 4 to 6 feet deep. The lake reaches 10 feet on the southwest end of the island.
A concrete boat ramp is available to anglers, as well as a trail system around much of the lake that offers access for shore-fishing. The ramp is off Route 118 on the southwest end of the lake.
In Hardin County's Pine Lake State Park, Lower Pine Lake covers only 50 acres but should produce nice catches this spring. For more information, contact the Clear Lake Fish Management Unit at (641) 357-3517.
"In my district in northeastern Iowa, the lakes are either river impoundments above low-head dams or borrow lakes created when material was mined out of the floodplain," said IDNR fisheries biologist Brian Hayes. "By nature, fishing these waters is different than fishing the artificial impoundments that provide good crappie opportunities in the southern part of the state."
Northeastern Iowa's river impoundments are prone to a lot of flushing flows and sediment accumulation that interferes with fish populations, said Hayes. Impounding the Maquoketa River near Delhi in Delaware County, 448-acre Lake Delhi (also known as "Hartwick Lake") is the beneficiary of an 18-month period of low flow in the river dating back to 2005. With a more stable environment in place now, the crappies have responded with successful year-classes, and the fishing is improving.
Lake Delhi crappies are likely to stage near stumpfields and sandbars. Spring fishing can be best at the bridge pilings at the 220th Street causeway. The average depth is about 8 feet.
The ramp at Turtle Creek Park is off 257th Street on the south side of the lake. Additional information can be obtained from the Manchester Fish Hatchery, (563) 927-3276.
"The best crappie fishing in the borrow lakes in the Cedar Falls and Waterloo area is in Brinker Lake," said Hayes. "These crappies were running from 9 to 10 inches in 2006."
Brinker isn't known primarily for its crappie fishing, but anglers can enjoy it while it's hot. A good year-class has worked its way into the mix, making this little lake a good spot for dipping a minnow this spring.
Look for shallow water and any available shoreline cover. The lake is generally steep-sided and deep, without any vegetation and almost an exclusively sand substrate. It certainly doesn't look like conventional crappie water, but right now it's productive.
Water clarity is usually good later on in the summer at Brinker Lake, and anglers can take advantage of it by fishing for suspended crappies over deep water.
Anglers often struggle with the fear of "fishing out" a smaller lake; in reality, that's tough to accomplish. A single female crappie is capable of producing from 20,000 to 60,000 eggs at a time. A particularly fertile female can produce upwards of a 100,000 eggs at a time. If only the smallest fraction of eggs are successfully fertilized, hatch and survive, a single pair of crappies can repopulate a small lake by themselves.
For more information, contact
the Manchester Trout Hatchery at (563) 927-3276.
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The Iowa Department of Natural Resources' Web site, www.iowandnr.com is a good source for lake information and maps. Call Curt Harvey at (515) 848-3882, or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org Jim McDonnell can be reached at The Fishing Professor's Guide Service at (712) 933-5532 or at email@example.com. For trip-planning assistance, contact the Iowa Tourism Office at 1-888-472-6035.