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Hawkeye State Slab Selection

Hawkeye State Slab Selection

Iowa's premier crappie authorities rank the lakes they deem best for bringing home a stringer of slabs this year. (April 2010)

In the March edition of Iowa Game & Fish magazine, the annual crappie forecast raised the question, "Of all those possibilities, which is the single, best place to fish for crappies in Iowa this year?"

Lake Rathbun is considered by many to be the premier crappie fishery in the state this year, but other waters including Lake Miami, the Mississippi River and the Iowa Great Lakes are expected to produce as well.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt

We polled a variety of experts, including crappie tournament anglers, bait shop owners and folks who work for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. A number of lakes were mentioned as good prospects for crappies this year, and eventually a few names floated to the top. Here are where some of Iowa's most knowledgeable crappie catchers will be fishing this year, including their picks for Iowa's top crappie lake:

Joe Larschied, IDNR chief of fisheries, formerly stationed in northwest Iowa and now based in Des Moines: "Big Creek Lake is so close that I've always got to consider it when I'm looking for crappies. But if I could be there at the right time, I think I'd go to the Iowa Great Lakes and hit Big Spirit Lake or West Okoboji Lake either right after ice-out or during the spawn. Those are big lakes where two times (each) spring all the crappies are clustered in relatively small areas, and you can absolutely hammer them.

"At Big Spirit right after ice-out, they'll be shallow, off the North Grade or in Templar Lagoon. At West Okoboji, they'll be in the canals on the west side of the lake. They move back into those same areas again later, during the spawn. If you can be in those spots at the right times, it's phenomenal fishing. But the rest of the year, they move out into deep water, and you'll have a tough, tough time finding and catching them."

Cory Batterson, crappie tournament angler: "If I'm looking for numbers (of crappies), I'd definitely say Lake Rathbun. A friend and I fished down there one day last October and caught (and released) over 200 crappies."

Batterson acknowledged that crappie fishing on Lake Rathbun has experienced a downturn in recent years. Flooding kept water levels high and murky in 2008. In 2009, heavy rains in late winter fell on partially thawed farm fields above Rathbun and fed a huge load of silt into the lake. Consistent rains through spring and summer kept the big lake high and turbid most of last year.


"The high water and all the turbidity kept (the crappies) mixed up most of last year," said Batterson. "It's been two years since they were in all the brushpiles and structure where we normally find them. But late last year, the lake settled down and we found them in all the regular places."

Mark Flammang, IDNR fisheries management biologist in southeast Iowa: "My office is at the Rathbun Hatchery, so Rathbun is really convenient for me, but that lake is coming off a couple tough years. It's going to be good crappie fishing, but not the kind of fishing people were used to enjoying four or five years ago. However, it's important to remember: what guys consider only 'good' crappie fishing at Rathbun would be considered excellent crappie fishing at most other lakes in Iowa."

While Rathbun's crappie potential is always a consideration, Flammang admitted that another, smaller lake will be the focus of his crappie catching efforts this year. "Lake Miami is only seven miles from my house, so it's tough to ignore," he said. "I've never seen a lake produce crappies like Miami does. We actually have to periodically lower it to get crappie numbers under control to keep them from stunting."

In 2009, 220-acre Lake Miami was drawn down 6 feet as part of the IDNR's crappie management policy for that lake. Flammang said lowering the lake concentrates crappies and forage fish in a smaller area. Big crappies flourish; forage fish and small crappies are reduced. When the lake is refilled this spring, Flammang predicted explosive growth of the remaining crappies when the lake is refilled this spring.

"There will be excellent fishing for 10-inch crappies this year," he said. "In the spring, I have my best luck along the face of the dam. But my best time to catch crappies at Miami is the fall. My daughter and I go out and catch a southerly wind and drift a minnow under a bobber down the gut of the lake. It's almost a sure thing."

Mark Mussman, crappie tournament angler, professional fishing guide on the Mississippi River (635-212-0944): "For crappies, the Mississippi River system is good when it's good, but bad when it's bad. There are some tremendous crappies in the Mississippi. My personal best was a 3-pounder, but I admit that one was a once-in-a-lifetime fish. Last fall, they were averaging 10 to 11 inches and the numbers were good, so this year should be as good or better."

Mussman catches his crappies from brushpiles and stakebeds he has strategically placed in deeper backwaters. He targets backwaters 6 to 15 feet deep, vertically fishing jigs he pours himself using wide-gap hooks, loaded with 2-inch tube jigs. "I'll use any color as long as it's chartreuse," he joked. "Black with chartreuse, yellow with chartreuse -- I don't care, as long as there's chartreuse on it."

While Mussman lives within sight of the Mississippi at Camanche, he often travels west to catch crappies. "If you're asking for my absolute favorite crappie lake, it's hard not to say Rathbun," he said. "Give it one more year, let that population of 9-inchers get up to 10 or 11 inches, and people are going to be really, really happy with Rathbun."

Gary Sobotka, IDNR fisheries biologist, south-central Iowa: "We've got three lakes down here coming off major renovations that are on the brink of greatness," he said. "Three Mile Lake, Twelve Mile Lake and Lake Icaria were all drawn down, their fish populations were renovated, and tons of shoreline and submerged structure were added. All the lakes have populations of big crappies from the initial restockings that run 12 inches and larger, but the majority of crappies will be in the 9-inch range this year. That might seem a tad small, but they are thick. I mean really thick. You'll get as much meat from those 9-inchers as from a 10-incher from other lakes."

Sobotka recommended anglers ply flooded timber and brushpiles for crappies during the spawn at Twelve Mile, Three Mile and Lake Icaria.

So, we've had experts recommend lakes from Rathbun in the southeast to Big Spirit on the Iowa/Minnesota border in northwest Iowa. We've noted good reports from the endless backwaters of the Mississippi River all along our eastern border. Small lakes

like Lake Miami and Big Creek received favorable forecasts.

With all those possibilities in mind, it looks like Iowa's top pick for crappies in 2010 is . . . Lake Rathbun. The lake may be down from what anglers expect, but it's still our Crappie King.

"Rathbun is the one," said Mussman. "Other lakes have hot days or weeks, but week in and week out, year 'round, Lake Rathbun will be the place for crappies this year."

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