Iowa's Best Bets for Bluegills

Inch for inch and pound for pound, no fish in all of the Hawkeye State may put up a better fight than the mighty bluegill on the end of a light-action rod-and-reel combo.

By Rich Patterson

Dave Novak and I each clipped a few minutes off quitting time, left work, and headed south from our Cedar Rapids homes. We'd planned to spend the evening fishing for bluegills in one of Shimek State Forest's many ponds.

Lying a few miles north of the Missouri border, the ponds are tucked into some of Iowa's most gorgeous wild areas, so we knew we'd enjoy the scenery. But we also hoped that we'd tie into some of the best bluegill angling in Iowa - and we weren't disappointed.

I gently paddled the canoe along the face of the earthen dam as Dave dropped a small garden worm down about a dozen feet. Within minutes his ultralight rod arched as a husky fish tested the 2-pound-test mono. Gradually, Dave worked the lunker bluegill up to the net; it was a genuine 10-incher. Before darkness forced us in to set up our tent and build a campfire at a nearby campground, we caught a half-dozen more of those that evening.

Iowans are fortunate in that bluegills are likely the most widely distributed fish in the state. Although they're not common in big flood-control reservoirs or murky rivers, they do live there. On the other end of the scale of abundance, they're truly plentiful in the legions of Hawkeye farm ponds and in the state's many public lakes and ponds. Bottom line: Finding productive bluegill waters isn't difficult.

According to Iowa Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist Steve Waters (for whom bluegills are all-time favorite fishes), the key to finding outstanding bluegill fishing is locating good water quality. "Iowa's very best bluegill lakes tend to have small watersheds relative to lake size," he explained. "They have steep banks and not a lot of row crops in their drainage. All this tends to keep silt out of the water and makes for great bluegill fishing." Many of the newer IDNR lakes were built in vegetated basins with silt ponds upstream to catch nutrients, thus creating optimal fishing conditions for many species of panfish and game fish.

The Shimek SF pond fits Waters' model with impressive exactitude. Its small drainage is entirely forested, and its water is as clear as you can find in Iowa - clear enough, actually, to make its picky 'gills a bit line-shy. Accordingly, Dave's nearly invisible 2-pound-test line outfishes heavier line.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

Waters believes that well-considered management methods are also important for fostering topnotch bluegill fishing. "We don't stock bluegills willy-nilly into a new lake," he said, "but have learned that we need to stock 500 to 1,000 fish per acre for best results. Deviating much from this stocking rate can lead to poor bluegill populations and fishing."

Another key factor that tends to produce good bluegill fishing is an adequate supply of predators - which, in Iowa, usually means largemouth bass. Although it might seem strange that a bluegill population's health depends in great part on having some of its members eaten from time to time by lots of bigger fish, the tasty panfish usually spawn so many offspring that they need their ranks thinned in order to let the survivors grow more freely.

A good example is Lake Wapello. Several years ago the IDNR renovated the lake, installed sediment basins and instituted a no-kill regulation on bass. "This no-kill regulation has helped create a wonderful bluegill fishery in the lake," said Waters.

All things being equal, bluegills tend to do best in smaller bodies of water that have lots of shoreline; farm ponds are ideal. But there are exceptions to the small-lake rule - like, for instance, giant Lake Okoboji in northwest Iowa, which has fine water quality and a huge stretch of shoreline and thus provides noteworthy bluegill fishing, even though it's really big.

If you're looking for great bluegill fishing, avoid Iowa's large flood-control reservoirs. "Big reservoirs like Rathbun are windswept." Waters said. "Waves often destroy bluegill nests, and the water is usually turbid. Also, reservoirs experience great fluctuations in water levels. None of these factors are good for bluegills, so you just don't find many in these big lakes."

With the exception of some significant Mississippi River backwaters, big rivers also have limited appeal for bluegills. They shun current, and Iowa's rivers generally lack backwaters that have water clear enough to be attractive to them.

There's one final factor to consider when predicting whether a given lake will be a great bluegill producer. Bluegills and gizzard shad don't get along well, probably because shad forage on the same microscopic animals that bluegills relish. Shad are cyclical, and often a lake's bluegill population will cycle depending on shad abundance. When shad are numerous, bluegills are rare. "I'd hang my hat on shad as the reason why bluegill fishing fluctuates at Pleasant Creek Lake and Lake Macbride," said Waters.

Carp also have an effect on bluegills, as they churn up mud and create intolerable conditions for the panfish. "Red Haw Lake had great bluegill angling because of its good water quality and large bass population," Waters noted, "but carp got the upper hand and damaged the environment for both bass and 'gills."

Iowa has so many tremendous bluegill waters that it's impossible to list them all. Any angler familiar with the conditions that bluegills favor can find a great fishing place close to home: Simply stick to clear-water ponds and lakes with few carp or shad and abundant bass, and having extensive shorelines, and bluegills will be there. IDNR fisheries biologists, the indispensable source of up-to-date fishing information, have so many promising bluegill waters under their supervision that it's difficult for them to narrow any recommendations down to the very best fishing in their quadrants; they'll probably respond instead with a long list of public lakes and ponds. A few of their favorites follow.

From his base at Lake Darling, the IDNR's Steve Waters predicts that the best fishing in his territory this year will be at: Diamond Lake in Poweshiek County; Lake Geode in Henry County; Iowa Lake in Iowa County; Lake Sugema in Van Buren County; Lake Wapello in Davis County; Hannen Lake in Benton County; Lake Miami in Mahaska County; and Kent Park Lake in Johnson County. All these lakes have plenty of keeper-sized bluegills. Several are in county parks and tend to be small and easy to fish from either shore or a small boat.

Probably one of the most productive bluegill lakes

in Waters' region is Lake Sugema. Here, the IDNR has constructed several jetties and an accessible pier to accommodate bank-anglers. A small boat helps reach thousands of very serviceable bluegill fishing spots on this relatively new lake. Much of its water is clogged with drowned trees and brush, so I've found canoes to be ideal for squeezing through all the wood to reach bluegill honeyholes.

On the north side of Sugema are two silt ponds - Piper's Pond and Lake Miss - that also hold solid bluegill populations.

The Shimek SF ponds, each about 5 acres, are also in Waters' area. One has a new pier that helps anglers with disabilities reach the fishing. Bank-anglers can fish all the ponds from the dam, but a small boat will help get to fish in thick cover along the brushy shorelines. Bluegills in these ponds tend to be a little fickle, but grow to lunker size.

Lake Macbride in Johnson County is a sleeper bluegill lake. Several years ago it was in decline as a consequence of turbid water and a high shad population. A few years ago, a massive lake renovation project added silt traps, improving the water quality greatly and suppressing the shad population markedly. The bluegills immediately responded.

Most of Macbride's anglers fish in coves along a walking trail that extends from the swimming beach to the dam. Last year, I found far better fishing in the north arm of the lake and caught many impressive bluegills from reedy areas near shore. Jetties give bank-anglers access, but I prefer fishing from my rowboat or canoe. Although the north arm is productive, few people fish it. Bank-anglers also do well fishing off the causeway on the south arm.

"Although Lake Macbride is one of Eastern Iowa's better known fishing lakes, it's a real bluegill sleeper," said Steve Krotz, fishing manager at the Cedar Rapids Fin and Feather Store. "The fish are coming on strong, and it should be very productive this year." Krotz also feels that the small lakes in county parks will yield very well this year.

Southwest Iowa fisheries biologist Andy Moore has a list of 10 lakes that he feels will make some hot bluegill fishing available this year. All have respectable numbers of 7- to 9-inch fish, and some a few lunkers.

Atop his list is 114-acre Lake Ahquabi, in Warren County south of Indianola. Renovated a few years ago, the lake's coming along fabulously. It lies in a state park and offers ease of access for both bank-anglers and boaters. Jetties put bank-anglers close to large numbers of bluegills; Moore recommends working small jigs and crawlers along the face of jetties for top-flight action.

Anglers who like larger lakes will find great bluegill fishing in Big Creek Lake, north of Des Moines in Polk County. This 905-acre artificial lake in a large state park offers plenty of bank-fishing opportunities, boat ramps and many more amenities. Moore claims that most bluegills will run between 7 to 9 inches. He suggests fishing the old roadbeds, jetties, and shallow points.

Another small lake in a state park was recently renovated but will offer good 'gill fishing this year: Springbrook Lake in Guthrie County. The 16-acre lake set in a timbered valley is both pleasant and profitable to fish.

Rounding out Moore's list of top spots this year are: Three Mile Lake in Union County; Meadow and Greenfield lakes in Adair County; Viking Lake in Montgomery County; Badger Creek Lake in Madison County; Beaver Lake in Dallas County; and Hooper Lake in Warren County. The biologist says that some 10-inchers lurk in this last lake.

The massive Spirit/Okoboji complex of lakes and marshes dominates northwest Iowa. It's an angler's mecca, and bluegills are found in nearly all ponds and lakes in the area. West Okoboji, full of that clear water that bluegills love, also has hundreds of private boat docks sticking out from shore - and bluegills love lounging around dock pilings. They are easiest to fish for from a boat, but West Okoboji and the nearby connected lakes have dozens of public places from which bank-anglers can catch bluegills. The big lake hosts plenty of big 'gills. The Okoboji area is one of Iowa's premier tourist fishing areas, and restaurants, motels and campgrounds abound.

Okoboji's bluegills have a reputation for being fickle, and big waves sometimes make fishing a challenge. A spot that'll work for you on windy days is the canal that goes behind Gull Point. A few years back, on a day when the wind made fishing on the main lake nearly impossible, I fished it from a kayak and had a rewarding outing.

The wooded hills and steep valleys of northeast Iowa are best known for trout, but plenty of worthwhile bluegill fishing can be found in the region. Biologist Dave Moeller, based in Manchester, has his own long list of his favorite bluegill hotspots in the region for this year. Topping that list: Casey Lake.

Lying in Hickory Hills Park, north of Dysart in the northern part of Tama County, Casey covers about 55 acres and is easy for bank-anglers to fish. Casey is something of a sleeper lake that has been producing very solid bass and bluegill fishing for several years. Moeller claims that most Casey bluegills run from 7 to 8 inches, with some larger ones turning up now and again.

South Prairie Lake, on the south edge of Cedar Falls in Black Hawk County, is close to the top of Moeller's list. Shoreline access is easy around the entire lake.

Meyers Lake, in Black Hawk County near Evansdale, has plenty of 6- to 7-inchers. It was restocked in 2001 following a winterkill, and the bluegills are plump and growing fast.

For anglers wishing to walk in, Plainfield Lake, in Bremer County on the edge of Plainfield, is a good choice. A relatively new borrow pit, it has plenty of 7-inchers. Biologist Moore claims that Volga Lake in Fayette County, north of the town of Fayette, is a consistent producer of bluegills in the 6- to 8-inch range. Lake Hendricks in Howard County is also a good bet. He recommends fishing along the deep edge of vegetation.

The hilly terrain of northeast Iowa has encouraged the construction of hundreds of ponds, some as small as a quarter-acre in area; although most are on private land, many are on public property. Often the biggest bluegills come from the smallest ponds, and anglers finding ponds on public land shouldn't hesitate to give them a try.

Savvy bluegill anglers realize that the tasty panfish doesn't just live out in the country. It thrives in Iowa cities and towns. Many new housing developments in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, Des Moines, Ames and other fast-growing cities have built ponds for stormwater run-off. Many of these little potholes are so small that few people think to fish them, but some hold big bluegills. Tiny urban waters are great unknown fishing resources and shouldn't be overlooked.

Although bluegills are considered one o

f the easiest fish to catch, that's not always true. Like any fish, 'gills can get lockjaw, but it's unusual. In May, the plentiful panfish are in the shallows of lakes and ponds spawning in a few feet of water. This puts them close to shore (and bank-anglers) while they're in an aggressive and hungry mood. Often Iowa anglers have only themselves to blame for not catching a mess.

Probably the biggest mistake novice bluegill anglers make is to use tackle that's way too heavy for these relatively small fish with tiny mouths, so think small and light for the best fishing. A small, lively garden worm on a small hook will outfish a big night crawler on a catfish hook. Bluegills can be very line- and pressure-sensitive. Fish nibbling on a worm suspended below a bobber the size of a golf ball feel the resistance and often leave; a bobber the diameter of a nickel will usually produce better fishing. And it's generally best to forget putting split shot near the hook. Instead, let the worm gently descend. Sometimes just letting the bait slowly fall to the bottom will be more appropriate than will suspending it beneath a bobber.

Although worms are the classic bluegill bait, the fish love grasshoppers and crickets, too. Tiny jigs work well, especially if the hook is tipped with a mealworm or tiny piece of night crawler. In recent years I've had great success using a tiny crankbait that mimics a grasshopper. It casts well on ultralight gear and floats, and usually, a fish attacks it seconds after it hits the water.

May is probably the best month of the year to bring home a stringer of tasty bluegills - and anglers living in all parts of Iowa have plenty of promising prospects among the waters near their homes for them to enjoy some outstanding fishing.

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