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Iowa Family Bluegill Trips

Iowa Family Bluegill Trips

Bluegills are plentiful in May and a blast to catch for kids and parents alike. Here are a few Hawkeye destinations that promise fishing fun for the whole family. (May 2006)

I don't remember the first fish I ever caught, but my father, Henry Patterson, does.

"It was a tiny bluegill," he likes to tell me. "You were about 5 or 6 years old when I took you fishing. You were thrilled with the fish."

Over a quarter of a century later, I took my own son and daughter to Iowa's Lake Macbride, where they caught their first fish, once again bluegills, and they were as thrilled as their father and grandfather were when they landed their first fish.

Ask any angler what kind of fish was his first, and almost always you'll hear "Bluegill!" These interesting and tasty fish are incredibly common, live in a variety of watery habitats, bite throughout the warm months, and are easy to catch. They're a great way to get kids hooked on fishing, and present numerous opportunities for family bonding.

My friend Bruce Matthews, president of the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation said it well when he recently remarked: "There's no better way to ensure a lifetime of family connection than introducing kids to fishing. Fishing and the stories it creates becomes the glue that binds families and friends together."

Ask people who love to fish how they got started, and they'll almost always say that when they were children, they were taken by their dad, grandpa, uncle, neighbor or some other adult. Fishing is a great family activity, and it's one that every parent should share with his or her spouse and children.


Cedar Rapids angling instructor Jeff Moore has taught many youngsters how to fish. "Four or 5 years old is a good age for simple gear. For fly-fishing, I prefer working with kids at least 8 years old," he said.

This is a great time for an angler to mentor a child, and Iowa is an ideal place to do it. Our state has hundreds of ponds, lakes, streams, and rivers where an adult and child can enjoy time together catching fish.

Iowa Game & Fish always includes articles on the very best places to go to catch abundant and large bass, catfish, crappies, trout, walleyes and other species. This article is different: It seeks to encourage families to go fishing together, and especially to take children to places where they're likely to catch bluegills. These usually aren't places to catch big fish; they are family places.

It's not important that a 5- or 6-year-old kid catch a lunker on a first fishing outing -- what's important is that he or she catches a fish. To a youngster, a 5-inch bluegill is a thrilling trophy, and a memory that will last a lifetime. That memory won't be just of the fish. Like my father with his memory of his grandfather, the child will remember the adult who took the time to take him fishing.

The ideal place to take a kid fishing is a lake or pond brimming with bluegills, green sunfish, bullheads, or even carp. The place should be close to home -- to avoid a long, boring drive -- have easy water access, and have plenty of other diversions, just in case the fish aren't biting. A pond in a city park fits the bill just fine; so do many of Iowa's state and county park lakes.

Iowa is crammed with great locations for families to fish. I'm including only a smattering of places in this article, because ideal lakes and ponds are far too numerous to list in one place.

To find a family fishing spot close to home, call the director of your city's park department, the local county conservation board office, or an Iowa Department of Natural Resources fishery biologist. The phone numbers of biologists are listed in the fishing regulations booklet distributed free wherever licenses are sold. County conservation board and city park phone numbers are in telephone books. Many have Web sites, too -- but don't count on any printed directory or Internet source to list all of the small public ponds that are often the best places to take kids fishing.

As a general rule, nearly any of Iowa's state parks are great family fishing destinations. So are many county parks. Most have ponds or lakes with easy access, lots of bluegills, campgrounds, ball fields, picnic areas, boat ramps, and other amenities. Some have concessions where bait can be bought or boats rented.

Listed below are just a few of the dozens of great places near Iowa's urban areas or highways to take the family and young children bluegill fishing this year?


IDNR fishery chief Marion Conover recommends Lake Manawa near Council Bluffs as an outstanding family fishery. It is a good-sized lake, but the IDNR has installed an accessible fishing pier and several jetties that make access simple. It's located in a pleasant state park that has plenty of other activities should the bluegills stop biting.

Biologist Lannie Miller suggests Creek Lake in Sioux City. "It's near where lots of people live and has many good sized bluegills, yellow perch, crappies, bass, and bullheads," he said.

About 30 miles east of Sioux City is a small lake in Little Sioux County Park. The park has a campground, playground, and lake with smallish bass and bluegills. It is a great place for a family to camp, fish, and just plain spend a few days together.

Miller also recommends Kennedy Park Lake about two miles north of Fort Dodge. "The Webster County Conservation Board does a great job mowing the bank, and there are lots of areas to fish from shore," he said. "It's especially good for bluegills and crappies in May and June, and is a great place to take a family and young children."


Des Moines families are fortunate, as there are many excellent family fishing lakes inside city limits. IDNR fishery chief Conover recommends Water Works Park Lake, Easter Lake, Grays Lake, and Ft. Des Moines Pond in Des Moines and Blue Heron Lake in West Des Moines.

"Water Works Park Ponds are particularly good and are loaded with bluegills, crappies, bullheads and crappies," said Conover. "The banks are gradual and mowed. I can't think of a better place for families."


Like Des Moines, the Waterloo area has abundant family fishing areas in and near the urban area. The IDNR recommends George Wyth Lake, Alice Wyth, and North and South Prairie Lakes.


IDNR biologist Paul Sleeper's territory includes these two large eastern Iowa cities.

"Cedar Lake in downtown Cedar Rapids is crammed with bluegills, and a trail goes all the way around it," he said. "It is a great place to take a family fishing, but the fish are contaminated with chlordane. This is a catch-and-release fishery, but a fun place for kids. Iowa City has many small ponds in city parks."

Lake Macbride in Johnson County is midway between the two cities. The IDNR renovated the lake a few years ago and added thousands of tons of riprap. They made fishing jetties and improved access. The lake is loaded with bluegills that hug the jetties and shore and are easy to catch

According to Sleeper, Kent Park, located a few miles west of Iowa City, is also a great family fishing location in a county park that has many other attractions. He also suggests Hannen Lake, near Blairstown, and Diamond Lake, on the edge of Montezuma.


IDNR fishery biologist Steve Waters is based at Lake Darling State Park near Brighton. His territory includes a huge swath of southern Iowa, a part of the state loaded with ponds and public lakes.

Some of his favorite fishing holes for family outings include City Park Pond on the north side of Mount Pleasant, three old water-supply lakes on the east side of Fairfield, two ponds at the Muscatine County Conservation Board headquarters inside city limits, West Park Lakes just west of Davenport, and ponds in the towns of Albia, Cantril, Farmington, Corydon, Seymour, Humeston, Centerville, and several others.

Several IDNR biologists recommend the Ottumwa lagoons in the southwest part of town.


Many years ago, my wife and I were traveling home from Minneapolis. Our kids had been in the car too long and were squirrelly and bickering. We were near Forest City and drove the few miles east to Pilot Knob State Park. Within a few minutes we had the kids rods rigged, and our daughter and son spent a half-hour catching bluegills in the park's small lake. They also ran around and worked off some energy. When we resumed our car trip, they had settled down and were much more pleasant.

It's a good idea to put the kids' fishing gear in the car on trips. Many of Iowa's good family lakes are close to major highways, and fishing at one of these is a great diversion from the road. Probably the very best example is Kounty Pond near Brandon in Buchanan County. The lake, a borrow pit created when Interstate 380 was constructed about 20 years ago, is about a minute's drive from the exit to the pond, and the water teems with smallish bluegills. Only a few miles further south on the interstate in Benton County is Polk Township Lake, also an old borrow pit.

One of the state's newest roadside lakes is Don Murphy, just east of Cedar Rapids. It was created when the Iowa Department of Transportation needed fill to widen Highway 13, and so scooped out what's now a 13-acre lake managed by the Cedar Rapids Parks Department. It's a great family lake within a 60-second drive of the main highway.

Matt Schrantz, owner of the Cedar Rapids GOT Outdoors store, offered a tip for people looking for a good family place to fish. "Most quality outdoor stores and bait shops offer much more than tackle," he said. "My staff will show a parent or child how to use simple fishing gear, and we'll suggest public places nearby where they can enjoy a day of fishing."

Schrantz and all the IDNR biologists have one concern to pass along to any man considering taking a son fishing: "Don't ignore girls or wives", they say. Often daughters enjoy fishing as much as sons do, and more and more women are fishing.

"Our records show that about 25 percent of licenses are sold to women," said Conover.

While teaching my son and daughter how to fish, I made a few mistakes and learned much in dealing with children. Here are a few pointers from my experience that are echoed by fishing experts:

  • Leave adult fishing gear at home. This is a time to help children learn the sport. It's hard; the lake is tempting, and there may be bass working the surface. But this is not an outing for Dad to catch a big fish; it's a time for being together with a child and for that boy or girl to catch a few bluegills. It's usually a full-time job baiting hooks, untangling line, and enjoying the day.

  • Have plenty of options for other activities. Children have short attention spans. Even normally cooperative bluegills may not be biting. It's helpful to have along a Frisbee or ball to play with if the fishing is slow. Rather than bore a child, shift activities, and try fishing later on when they may be biting.

  • Bring plenty of snacks and beverages.

  • Let children explore the wonders of nature at the fishing site. Turtles, frogs, water snakes, birds, dead fish, waves, and just about anything else that might be encountered at a pond or lake will invariably fascinate children. They are part of the fishing experience. Leave plenty of time for kids to enjoy and learn the ecology of the lake.

  • Keep equipment simple. An easy-to-use spincast outfit sized to fit young hands costs under $15. Add some simple hooks, bobbers, and a dozen worms, and you've gotten a child equipped for under 20 bucks!

  • Help children understand conservation. This is an ideal time for kids to learn how to gently hold a fish, remove the hook, and return it to the water. It's also a good time for children to learn that fish are excellent food. Be sure to show them how to clean and cook their catch. Scales, intestines, and other parts of the fish intrigue young folks. It's a great time for them to receive a lesson on fish anatomy.

  • Don't push it. "The best age for introducing kids to fishing is any age where they show an interest," said Conover. Pushing children into fishing before they are interested may turn them away from the sport for life.

  • Don't forget that adults need a fishing license, although children don't. However the IDNR has a free fishing weekend that will be held on June 2-4 this year. "Iowa residents don't need a license to fish on those days," said Conover. It's a great time to go fishing. The weather is usually pleasant, bluegills will be biting, and a fishing license isn't required.

    Unfortunately, not all of Iowa's children have an adult mentor to take them fishing. Biologist Conover helped set up an aquatic education program that targets children.

    "It's called Fish Iowa, and we partner with local organizations and businesses to put on fishing clinics," he said. "Every year we partner with Hy Vee and Big Brothers-Big Sisters at Water Works Park in Des Moines. Over 10,000 kids and family members fish at that one day event." As warm weather approaches bluegills will enter shallow water to spawn. There is no better time to go fishing, and the very best fishing experience is one shared with family members. This is the year to create fond family memories while introducing children to a hobby that will last a lifetime.

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