October 04, 2010
Every month of the year, fine fishing opportunities can be found throughout Iowa. We've sorted through the prospects and picked the best of the best. (February 2006)
What do you want from fishing this year? A 100-pound blue catfish? Nine-pound walleyes or 6-pound smallmouths? Maybe you're looking for volume rather than size -- a 5-gallon bucket of bullheads, or a fish basket crammed with crappies.
Whatever your angling interests, Iowa can give you what you want in 2006. If you're looking for "big," the Missouri River has produced century-class blue cats in recent years. Little River Lake in southern Iowa has an overlooked population of wallhanger walleyes, some reported in excess of 9 pounds. Iowa Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologists say that West Lake Okoboji holds a number of 8-pound-class smallmouth bass that would shatter the state record.
If you're in search of numbers rather than size, bullhead specialists know that the legendary North Grade at Big Spirit Lake is virtually a sure thing for a bucketful of bullheads in April. In southern Iowa, the word is out that Lake Rathbun is back as Iowa's crappie-catching capital.
Yup -- whatever you're looking for, Iowa probably has it some place, some time this year. Here's an overview, to make sure you don't miss a single opportunity.
Big Creek Lake Bluegills
Big Creek Lake, north of Polk City, will see lots of bluegills on its ice this winter. "Lakes that are in a 'hot' cycle in the warm months tend to stay hot through the following winter," said Andy Moore, IDNR southwest regional fisheries supervisor. "Big Creek was good for bluegills all last summer, so it should stay good this winter. We've seen no sign of gizzard shad in the lake since the big winter kill several years ago, and the bluegills have done very well without the competition from the shad."
Crappies in small impoundments in southern Iowa provide ice-fishing for local anglers when our larger southern lakes are slow to freeze. Criss Cove, southwest of Winterset, Littlefield Lake, southeast of Exira, and Lake Miami, northwest of Albia, all showed strong populations of 9- to 10-inch crappies in recent IDNR surveys. Fish near submerged brushpiles or dropoffs into old creek channels. Midwinter crappies seem to be most active in late afternoon or early evening, or on cloudy days.
Saylorville Lake Walleyes
Walleyes bite in open water below dams on Iowa's rivers throughout the winter. Look for hardy bands of anglers tossing white twistertails and minnows below Coralville, Red Rock, Saylorville and any of the Mississippi River dams.
"It helps if you're a little bit crazy," said Donnie Mick, a Des Moines angler who fishes below Saylorville Dam. "We may not catch as many as during the summer, but the ones we catch seem to be bigger -- 3, 4 and 5 pounds."
Iowa Great Lakes Yellow Perch
Yellow perch at the Iowa Great Lakes are in the waning phases of their characteristic multiyear cycle, which means fewer fish per trip -- but fish that'll tend to be jumbo-category perch. Look for perch in conventional spots on West Lake Okoboji in or near Miller's Bay, Emerson Bay, or wherever clumps of ice fishing shacks indicate that fish are biting.
Trout fishing is good on trout streams that stay ice-free in northeast Iowa during all but the coldest weeks of winter. Spring-fed streams actually see insect hatches on warm winter days. Fly-fishing is an option throughout the winter, but most winter anglers favor spincasting outfits rigged with small spinners, jigs or commercial trout bait. If solitude is your goal, midwinter trout fishing is your answer.
Northern pike patrol Iowa's natural lakes throughout the winter. Anglers fishing for perch at Trumbull, Ingham and other natural northern lakes often rig tip-ups with large suckers or chubs to entice pike patrolling through perch and bluegill feeding grounds. Use wire leaders and be prepared to land mega-pike -- IDNR surveys at Trumbull and other lakes produced 10- to 15-pound northerns last summer.
Banner Lakes Trout
Ice-out in central Iowa came in late February last year, providing central Iowa's anglers with a unique open-water trout fishing opportunity during March at the newly renovated Banner Lakes at Summerset Park, between Des Moines and Indianola off Highway 69.
Ten- to 12-inch rainbow trout are annually stocked in mid-October, at Thanksgiving, in midwinter and again just after ice-out to provide central Iowa anglers an additional cold-weather ice fishing option.
"We had a really good response last winter," said Don Bonneau, IDNR fisheries research supervisor. "A lot of people caught a lot of trout. A lot of people fish through the ice for them, but we do the last stocking after ice-out so people can open-water fish for them."
Lake Rathbun Channel Catfish
Channel catfish go on a fabled feeding spree just after ice-out in lakes populated with gizzard shad. Shad are notoriously susceptible to winterkill, and their carcasses drift with the wind into shallow bays as waters warm. Look for days with a strong southerly wind; then, fish shallow bays on the north sides of lakes. For bait, use the rottenest, nastiest soured shad or cut shad you can find (or can stand to be around). Use disposable surgical gloves to keep the soap-resistant juices off your skin when baiting hooks.
Farm Pond Largemouths
Lethargic largemouth bass in southern Iowa farm ponds begin to patrol shallow, mud-bottomed, south-facing shorelines on warm sunny days in March. Fish a jig-and-pig, rubber worm, or live night crawler slowly on the bottom to entice them.
Big Spirit Lake Bullheads
Warm weather will attract Big Spirit Lake's legendary bullheads to the inlets to marshes on the lake's north shoreline. The best place to catch a 5-gallon bucket full of croaking yellow-bellies is along the south side of the North Grade. Clear Lake's Ventura Marsh is also a hotspot.
Des Moines River White Bass
In about three out of five years (depending on weather conditions), a window of opportunity for white bass on the Des Moines and Iowa rivers opens up between ice-out and spring rains, when rivers run relatively low and clear. Whites make a run upstream and congregate below dams at Scott Street in Des Moines and Fraser Dam north of Boone on the Des Moines River, and the downtown dams in Iowa City and Cedar Rapids. White twistertails are the hot lure.
Lake Rathbun Crappies
Crappies in the southern two tiers of counties are hot the last week of A
pril as their spawn approaches. Lake Sugema, Lake Rathbun and Three Mile Lake all pick up the pace for crappies long before the rest of the state's lakes.
Lake Odessa Crappie
Mother's Day weekend is historically the peak for the crappie spawn in Iowa, and the easiest time to catch slabs is when they're concentrated over spawning beds in shallow bays. If water is flowing into the inlet at Lake Odessa, in southeast Iowa, 14- to 16-inch crappies will be worth the long walk from the parking lot before and after the spawn.
Meadow Lake Largemouths
Small ponds and lakes have yet to "moss up" around their edges in May, making them prime targets for largemouth bass anglers who fish from shore. Bass will be spawning in shallow bays. Work the edges of Meadow Lake, near Greenfield, or spend an afternoon at Lake Ahquabi, south of Indianola. Lake Anita, on the south edge of Anita, will produce its first crop of 1- to 2-pound bass after a recent renovation.
Lake Ahquabi Bluegills
Bluegills are also on their spawning beds in May. Those of us who learned to fish with a big hook and a wad of night crawlers will reexamine our prejudices toward bluegills as a "kids' fish" if we use ultralight tackle, tiny hooks and small pieces of worm or waxworms. Be prepared to grin -- a lot.
Big Spirit Lake Muskellunge
You either get the attraction of fishing for muskies or you don't. If you're one of the ones who do, West Okoboji and Big Spirit Lake in northwest Iowa are hotspots for muskies when they go on their fall bite. Don't overlook muskie fishing at Three Mile Lake, in southern Iowa, or at Big Creek, in central Iowa. Both lakes have produced strong numbers of muskies in recent IDNR surveys, quite a few as large at 50 inches.
Upper Iowa River Smallmouths
Smallmouth bass anglers know that smallies in our northeastern rivers get extra hungry as water temperatures cool. The Upper Iowa, Yellow, upper Cedar and upper Wapsipinicon all hold strong populations of smallmouths. Fish below rock bars and along rocky ledges; a night crawler single-hooked through the collar is hard to beat.
Cedar River Walleyes
Walleyes in Iowa's rivers also go on the bite as waters cool. Intensive stocking programs by the IDNR have produced strong populations in many rivers. Nine-pound walleyes have been taken from the Cedar River in downtown Waterloo and the Wapsipinicon has been equally good in recent years.
Lake Rathbun Crappie
If you have a boat and know where to fish, catches of crappies during October at Lake Rathbun, Three Mile Lake and other crappie hotspots often exceed those made during the spawn. Fish deep dropoffs, creek channels, or brushpiles in 10 to 15 feet of water for crappies congregating for winter.
Mississippi River Bluegills
Bluegills in the Mississippi River spend the summer scattered in shallow backwaters, but migrate to wintering holes for the cold season. Find a dredged backwater in late October with 10 feet of water, such as Brown's Lake, and you'll find all the bluegills you care to carry home.
Missouri River Blue Catfish
Blue catfish in the Missouri River seem to like cooler water, and feed aggressively into early winter. Fish the deepest holes with huge chunks or slabs of cut bait. Expect blues up to 40, 50, even 70 pounds.
Des Moines River Wipers
Wipers -- artificial crossbreeds of white and striped bass -- are famous for early morning feeding frenzies below Saylorville Dam. A cadre of dedicated wiper fanatics will congregate at the spillway almost every morning in hopes of tangling with wipers that can get up to 20 pounds.
Three Mile Lake Walleyes
Walleyes in Three Mile Lake, Little River Lake and other southern reservoirs congregate in deep-water wintering holes. Target submerged bridges on old roadbeds or the cuts where bridges once stood on those roadbeds.
Northeastern Stream Trout
Trout like cool and cold, so late fall is the same as summer to them in our spring-fed northeastern trout streams. Combine a fall turkey hunt in Yellow River State Forest or other northeastern timbers with an afternoon trout fishing expedition to put a variety of food on your Thanksgiving table.
Briggs Woods Bluegills
First ice is best ice for bluegills at small artificial lakes sprinkled across Iowa. Briggs Woods, near Webster City, Pine Lake near Eldora, and Lake Montezuma, near Montezuma, all are great places to drill holes over submerged brushpiles as soon as the ice is safe.
Banner Lakes Rainbow Trout
Rainbow trout are stocked in late fall and early winter to provide "put-and-take" fishing at Blue Pit near Mason City, Heritage Pond at Dubuque, North Prairie Lake near Cedar Falls, and Banner Lake, south of Des Moines. Most trout are 10 to 12 inches, but a few lunker brood trout that weigh more than 5 pounds are included in every stocking.
Littlefield Lake Crappie
Small lakes freeze more quickly than larger lakes, allowing crappie anglers to start ice fishing at Casey Lake, near Tama, and Littlefield Lake, near Exira. Both lakes had strong populations of 8- to 10-inch crappies in recent IDNR surveys.