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Iowa Crappies Uncovered

Iowa Crappies Uncovered

What are the crappie prospects for your part of the Hawkeye State this spring? Find out in our annual statewide slab forecast. (March 2009)

High water levels in the 2008 spring were expected to improve the crappie prospects for the 2009 season on waters across Iowa.


The scrubby woods shouted "quail" as Dave Novak and I slowly worked our way through a brushy tangle surrounded by picked bean fields. Best of all, it was a public hunting area that we had to ourselves on a gorgeous fall afternoon.

After cresting a low rise, we were greeted by an unexpected sight. Tucked down in a ravine sat a fishy-looking pond. We hadn't seen a quail, so fishing gear beckoned from the pickup. A half-hour later, we'd traded shotguns for rods and were casting into a pond brand new to us. When fishing unknown water, I often start with a small Mepps spinner, a lure that suckers nearly all fish species.

A few cranks into my second cast, a heavy fish socked the lure and streaked for the pond's far bank. It was too heavy for a bluegill, but it didn't fight like a bass. As I gradually worked it toward me, I was greeted by another surprise. A monstrous crappie, probably the biggest I'd caught in Iowa, flashed its speckled, yellowish flank in the sun. Dave ran over, and soon we were admiring the 15-inch slab. Anticipating excellent fishing, we cast for a half-hour, with only a few small bluegills and bass to show for it. No more slabs.

Walleye and catfish anglers will argue that their favored species is the best eating of Iowa's many fish. To me, they don't hold a candle to fresh crappie filets, and that evening my wife and I dined on the husky fish.

Then, a nagging thought entered my mind. It was an awfully big crappie. I couldn't remember ever getting a better one in four decades of fishing, and I wondered if we'd just eaten a trophy. Within minutes I was on the phone to Iowa's premier crappie master, Bob Middendorf. A retired Iowa Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist, Bob spends many of his days targeting crappies on Lake Macbride and Coralville Reservoir. It's a safe bet that no other living Iowan has handled as many crappies as Bob.

When I told him I had landed a 15-incher, his enthusiasm penetrated the phone line. "Bring that fish down right away. We need to get it weighed and measured. I haven't seen many crappies that big," he remarked. Then I sheepishly told him how good the fish tasted!

A few weeks later, Dave and I fished Middendorf's home turf. We pulled a stringer of decent crappies from a brushpile sunk in Coralville Reservoir. All were respectable, but none were remotely the size of the pond monster.

Crappies are fickle. They can be a snap to find, or frustratingly difficult to find. Once located, they may bite like a batch of starving football players or sulk with lockjaw. A lake may seem filled with hungry fish one year and devoid of them a few years later. Sometimes they're stunted and razor thin, while a year or two later the same lake's fish are chunky.

Dave and I experienced two extremes of Hawkeye State crappie angling: a small pond with but one fish and a massive reservoir with an abundance of smaller fish. Both waters produced impressive catches and were typical of their habitat.

Ponds usually provide poor and inconsistent crappie fishing. Enthusiastic landowners often stock crappies in their pond, only to watch them quickly be gobbled up by voracious largemouths or spawn to stunted abundance. Thousands of razor thin crappies fill too many Iowa ponds. But ponds can yield an occasional monster, as happened to me. It's no accident that I caught only one crappie that fall afternoon. Bass had probably devoured nearly all other crappies, leaving only a few to enjoy little competition and grow to extreme size.

Rathbun Lake
While ponds are unlikely crappie producers, big reservoirs are fairly reliable. Iowa's massive Rathbun Lake is renowned throughout the Midwest as a crappie factory, and Coralville, Red Rock and Saylorville also yield good catches. All the reservoirs were impacted by high water and flooding last spring, which will impact fishing the next few years.

Biologist Randy Schultz is one of the state's foremost crappie experts. He's stationed near Rathbun Lake and readily admits that crappies are one of the most difficult sportfishes to manage. "Erratic recruitment is typical," Schultz explained. "It's what creates the boom-and-bust cycle that many anglers are aware of. In Rathbun, juvenile abundance is directly related to the amount of water stored above the conservation pool from April through August. It takes two to four years for a tiny crappie to reach catchable size, so spawning success is a good way to predict future fishing success. Turbidity impacts crappie spawning. So do temperature, substrate firmness and wind. There's a strong correlation between numbers and water clarity, and that's related to how the land is managed in the watershed."

Coralville Lake
Massive 2008 floods may give crappie angling a real boost in a couple of years. "The short-term positive impact of last summer's flooding was excellent spawning success of crappies, largemouth bass and white bass in the big flood-control reservoirs," said IDNR fishery biologist Paul Sleeper. "Coralville is loaded with young-of-the-year crappies. If we have a dry spring with relatively little runoff, fishing should be tremendous in 2009. There are excellent numbers of 7- to 9-inch fish, with good numbers in the 11- to 14-inch range."

Although the flood news is good in the short term, Sleeper is concerned about the negative long-term impacts. "There was a lot of siltation that covered up habitat and reduced water clarity," he said.

Lake Macbride
Coralville is immediately adjacent to Lake Macbride, long known as one of eastern Iowa's best crappie holes. "There are strong year-classes reaching catchable size in Lake Macbride with lots of crappies in the 8- to 10-inch range," he reported. "Fish a year older are ranging from 11 to 12 inches."

Enthusiastic crappie angler Steve Krotz agrees: "Macbride is coming on. It's a strong upswing with many small fish reaching catchable size."

Sleeper shared a crappie-angling tip: "Backwaters of the Cedar, Wapsipinicon and Maquoketa rivers offer outstanding fishing. The fish move to backwaters in mid-May to spawn."

Few anglers even realize that Iowa's interior rivers host populations of crappies, but if an angler finds the right spot he's treated to fast action. A well-known backwater is below the partially broken dam in Palisades-Kepler State Park near Mt. Vernon.

Although few anglers fish interior rivers, the giant Mississippi is a popular destination, and biologist Scott Gritters keeps track of the river's fish populations.

"Crappie fishing in the big river wasn't the best in 2008," Gritters admitted. "Overall, they have been in a slightly declining trend for the past 18 years, and our 2006 and 2007 netting counts were the lowest during that time period. Still, crappies are a fickle fish capable of very rapid rebounds. I believe the long-term downward trend is due to sedimentation that's destroying backwaters."

Mississippi River crappies range from 9 to 13 inches and average right around 10.5 inches. "The biggest ones I see are right at 16 inches," continued Gritters.

According to Gritters, crappies are in every Mississippi River pool bordering Iowa. Sometimes they are abundant but hard to find. He suggested fishing backwaters near brushpiles in the clearest water that can be found. "Often the best spring fishing is in shallow water from 1 to 3 feet deep," he said.

When asked which pools look best in 2009, Gritters named his favorites: "I suggest the New Albin area of Pool 9. Fish the edges of sloughs or at the mouths of backwaters." He reminded anglers that this pool is near the Minnesota border, and anglers going north will cross the state line. "Anyone venturing upriver should buy a Minnesota license," he said.

For Pool 10, Gritters suggests the sloughs and backwaters around the Sny Magill boat ramp. He recommends Johnson Slough, Wyalusing Slough and the Methodist and Norwegian backwaters. In Pool 11 he recommends the Guttenberg area. "Some good fishing will be over near the Wisconsin side, especially Swift and Dead sloughs," he said.

Extreme northeast Iowa is outstanding trout country, but options are limited for crappie anglers. "Crappies in my corner of Iowa are only so-so. Two lakes -- Hendricks and Meyer -- have decent fish but not in high density," he said.

The picture improves in north-central Iowa. Biologist Steve Grummer, stationed in Clear Lake, suggests that anglers try Smith Lake in Kossuth County. "It's really coming on following a renovation in 2001. Lots of fish are in the 8- to 11-inch range.

He also suggests Beeds Lake in Franklin County, which has plenty of 6- to 9-inchers, and Briggs Woods and Little Wall lakes in Hamilton County. Most Little Wall fish are small, but there are some bigger ones.

Relatively new biologist Chad Dolan is located at Lake Darling in southeast Iowa. His hotspot for monstrous slabs is Lake Odessa in Louisa County. "It's known for producing crappies from 11 to 19 inches," he said. Odessa is actually a Mississippi River backwater and is a maze of islands and waterways. It may offer the best odds for a truly large crappie.

Dolan urged anglers to give Lake Belva Deer in Keokuk County a try. "It's a new lake that filled in 2003 and has fish in the 10- to 12-inch range. The lake has abundant flooded timber that's great for crappies. It is also excellent for very large bluegills and redear sunfish," he said.

Dolan feels 174-acre Geode Lake might be worth a try. It has quality crappies and excellent populations of bluegills and redears.

Normally, Lake Darling, near Brighton, has 267 acres of water and plenty of crappies, but a massive leak is draining 4.5 million gallons of water through the spillway every day. The lake will be waterless until repairs are completed and restocking takes place in 2010.

Small lakes don't usually support reliable crappie fishing, but there are exceptions. "Lake Chatfield in Lee County is a sleeper," Dolan advised. "It has lots of crappies in the 8- to 12-inch range with some bigger ones and is a great location for anglers who prefer small bodies of water," Dolan said. Another lesser-known lake with crappie potential is Lake-of-the-Hills in Scott County.

In Iowa's south-central and southwest regions, biologist Gary Sobotka has a long list of favorite crappie lakes that will yield plenty of 9-inchers in 2009. "Most have fish over 10 inches," he said. His list includes lakes Three Fires, Three Mile, Twelve Mile, Icaria, Grade, Windmill and Criss Cove. The Old Corning Reservoir, Binder Reservoir and Q Pond also look good.

Finally, crappies are abundant in the Great Lakes area of northwest Iowa. The region's big and small lakes and numerous sloughs and marshes all offer good fishing potential.

No body of water should be ignored as a possible place to catch a stringer of crappies. Ponds, river backwaters and small lakes probably offer the greatest opportunity for landing a lunker but also are the most likely places to get skunked. Larger lakes and flood-control reservoirs are most likely to yield consistent catches, but finding fish in these large waters can be difficult.

Fortunately, there are a few predictable crappie habits. They love brush. Although crappies winter in deeper water that often lacks structure, during most of the year they will be in brush. That's a tremendous advantage to an angler. A vast reservoir, like Coralville, contains little brush or wood, but stacks of crappies flock around the rare brushpile. Sometimes brush can be seen poking above the surfaced, but often it is submerged. A good electronic fish finder can help spot these hidden magnets.

"Although crappies love brush, many anglers make a big mistake. They let their boat bump the branches. That's guaranteed to scare away fish or at least keep them from biting for a while," said experienced angler Dan Johnston. He advice to anglers is that they approach brush quietly and slowly and stop a few feet away from the pile. A long pole helps anglers stay a distance from the brush yet still drop their jig or minnow down into the maze of branches where fish lurk.

Many Iowa fish species are solitary. A largemouth bass, for example, may stake out territory under or near a stump. It won't tolerate neighbors. In contrast, crappies are social fish that are almost always in schools. Find one and you've found more.

"Crappie anglers should consider using very light hooks that bend when they're caught in brush. The only downside of this is that occasionally a northern or bass will bite, and sometimes the hook will straighten out in the mouth of a lunker," said biologist Schultz.

Crappie experts are divided on the best bait or lures. Crappie master and biologist Bob Middendorf sticks with jigs of various colors. Other anglers prefer minnows.

There's no doubt that live bait is extremely effective, but when crappies are hungry, jigs are just as effective, eliminating the need to stop at the bait shop on the way to the lake.

"Many novice crappie anglers make a fatal error. Take a look at the position of a crappie's eyes. They are high on its head. Crappies look up and rise to feed and strike a lure. Inexperienced anglers

often drop their bait or jig to the bottom and fish low. Keeping the bait higher will usually be more effective," he said.

A few years ago Johnston taught me a crappie technique that has become my favorite.

"I pitch a small jig outward from the boat and reel in slack line. I let the jig slowly descend in an arc without attempting to give it any action," he said. "It's a dynamite technique, and I often let my jig slowly arc downward parallel to brush. If there are crappies around, odds are they'll attack."

Iowa is fortunate to have two species of crappie. Black crappies are most common in clear, cool water. White crappies are more common in murky, sediment-laden water and have a slightly more southern range. In Iowa, whites and blacks intermingle, and sometimes both species are caught in the same spot. They are easy to tell apart. Black crappies have distinct, randomly spaced black markings on yellowish flanks. In contrast, black markings on white crappies tend to be in bars. Only rarely do both species hybridize.

Iowa crappie anglers should check the fishing regulations before wetting a line in 2009. Traditionally there has been no bag limit, but that may have changed. As this is being written, the IDNR is considering a 25-fish-per-day limit on crappies and bluegills caught from public waters. It does not apply to fish caught in private lakes and ponds.

Crappies live in nearly every Iowa body of water. They are fickle and can be hard to find, but the effort's well worth it. Few other fish are as fun to catch or as tasty on the table.

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