Whether you prefer panfish or walleyes, great ice-fishing opportunities are never far away in Iowa. Let's look at those destinations that promise the very finest fishing this winter.
What's Iowa's top ice-fishing opportunity for the winter of 2010-2011? The list of contenders is long.
Ice anglers at Big Spirit Lake in northwest Iowa set records for the numbers of yellow perch and walleyes caught last winter and continued that trend throughout open-water fishing this summer. So prospects are excellent for this winter.
The backwaters of the Mississippi River in northeast Iowa have produced three state record yellow perch in recent years and filled anglers' buckets with thick bluegills and crappies.
Ice anglers at Big Creek Lake near Des Moines put thousands of panfish on that lake's ice last winter, while anglers at Storm Lake in northwest Iowa set records for the number and size of walleyes they pulled through the ice.
It's time to go ice fishing in Iowa, and readers want to know the best places to drill holes. Here are the nominees for Iowa's top pick for ice anglers this winter:
THE IOWA GREAT LAKES
Iowa Department of Natural Resources fisheries management biologist Mike Hawkins said Big Spirit Lake is riding high on a multi-species fishing boom.
"For various reasons, Big Spirit is THE fishing hotspot right now," he said. "Yellow perch have been on a roll for the past year or two, and they should continue to be great this winter. Bluegill and crappie numbers are strong in Big Spirit. Walleyes are looking real good, too. We had the best harvest of walleyes from Big Spirit last spring since 1964. They caught walleyes all summer, and that's a good indicator ice fishing will be good this winter."
Yellow perch aficionados have enjoyed the boom of perch fishing in recent years at Big Spirit and have been waiting for the "bust" that seems to inevitably follow any "boom" in perch numbers. Hawkins said unknown factors have disrupted that traditional cycle.
"We're seeing a trend at Big Spirit that we've never documented before," he said. "We're seeing year after year of big year-classes of yellow perch. Last spring there were clouds of young perch in the lake. All those young perch are fueling phenomenal growth of not only predator species like walleyes, smallmouth bass and northern pike, but the older yellow perch are like little footballs from feeding on the young perch. Just about every species in the lake is going gangbusters."
Ice fishing at East and West Okoboji lakes would be headline news if they weren't in the shadow of nearby Big Spirit Lake. Hawkins said ice anglers reported "excellent" catches of 8-inch bluegills and 10-inch crappies from both lakes last winter.
"The numbers might not be what people are used to from those lakes, but the quality and size is exceptional," he said. "They generally catch them in the shallow bays — Emersons Bay, Millers Bay, Smiths Bay, the Triboji area — but last year they were deeper. Bluegills especially seem to be deeper than normal, in 15 to 20 feet of water. We don't know if that will continue this winter, but...if they're not biting where you'd normally find them, move deeper till you find them."
Ice anglers at Clear Lake in north central Iowa have two targets: yellow bass and walleyes. Both species are doing well in the big natural lake thanks to a major renovation project.
"The dredging project, along with water quality management efforts around the lake, is really paying off," said Scott Grummer, DNR fisheries management biologist. "Yellow bass populations have been strong here for the past several years and walleye numbers and sizes are good and keep getting better."
Grummer reported the dominant year-class of yellow bass should average 9 inches this winter, with enough 11-inchers from a fading year-class to keep things interesting any time a spring bobber begins to bounce. He noted the dredging project has changed traditional movements of yellow bass beneath the ice.
"It used to be the yellow bass bite started at the west end at freeze-up, then slowly migrated across the lake so they were near the Island at ice-out," said Grummer. "Last year we noticed the yellow bass stayed more toward the west end, around the dredged area, all winter. There were 100 permanent ice-fishing shelters in that area during the peak ice fishing season. On good days I'd say an angler who knew what he was doing could bring home 20 to 25 yellow bass per trip. Best time is just after first ice and again just before ice out."
Grummer noted the magic depth for yellow bass at Clear Lake seems to be 8 to 12 feet. While bottoms of dredge cuts drop to 15 feet in many places, yellow bass in those areas hover along the edges of the cuts, between those magical depths of 8 to 12 feet.
"(Yellow bass) are usually close to the bottom," said Grummer. "I want my waxworm within 6 inches of the mud. I've noticed some guys unconsciously keep tightening their reels an inch or two, or they raise the tip of their rods when they rest their arm on their leg. Either way, they're accidentally raising their baits till they're a foot or more off the bottom, and that's too high when you're fishing for yellow bass through the ice."
Walleyes provide Clear Lake's second ice angling opportunity, and Grummer said last winter's walleyes have grown to keeper size.
"Last winter they caught a ton of sub-legal walleyes," he said. (All "keeper" walleyes must be at least 14 inches at Clear Lake; daily limit per angler is three walleyes; anglers can keep only one walleye per trip over 22 inches.)
"Growth rates looked real good last summer, so I expect the guys to see a lot of 13- to 15-inch walleyes this winter. The walleyes are in the same areas as the yellow bass, feeding on the small bass. Use a bigger minnow and you've got a good chance to catch some nice walleyes."
While Clear Lake has motel and restaurant facilities open year-round to accommodate ice anglers visiting from Des Moines and other urban areas, local anglers in north central Iowa often focus on smaller lakes. Grummer said. Crystal Lake, in Hancock County, has a growing population of 7- to 8-inch bluegills, courtesy of a major renovation project several years ago. He also reported Rice Lake, near Lake Mills, has a good early-ice bite for yellow perch and a significant population of crappies as well.
Big Spirit Lake, the Iowa Great Lakes and the backwaters of the Mississippi River all serve up excellent opportunities for catching yellow perch through the ice. Photo by Ron Sinfelt.
Fisheries Biologist Ben Wallace pointed to Storm Lake in northwest Iowa, when asked about the best ice fishing opportunity in his territory.
"Storm Lake was really hot for walleyes last winter, and everything indicates their numbers and size will be just as good or better this winter," he said. "Access was a problem last winter. Storm Lake formed more than 25 inches of good, solid ice, but thick snow cover and slush on top of the ice made it tough for people to walk or drive on the ice like they normally do, so it was tough ice fishing."
Wallace said DNR survey work last spring indicated a strong year-class of walleyes waiting for anglers this winter. "We saw tremendous numbers of 12- to 14-inch walleyes last spring," he said. "They should be up around 15 to 16 inches this winter." (All walleyes 17 to 22 inches from Storm Lake must be immediately released; only one walleye over 22 inches may be kept; daily limit is 3 legal walleyes.)
Hotspots for walleyes at Storm Lake last winter were associated with an ongoing dredging project. "The dredge cuts aren't just trenches," said Wallace. "They leave all sorts of bumps and humps and cuts that fish like. The magic depth on the big flats or around the dredge cuts is 9 to 10 feet. Even if the dredge cut is 15 feet, the walleyes will be in that 9- to 10-foot range.
"Storm Lake is definitely a destination location if you're after walleyes through the ice," said Wallace. "The only thing that keeps it from being up there with the Iowa Great Lakes is that there aren't a lot of other species available. There are yellow perch, but not a real big population. But if you're after walleyes, you've got to consider Storm Lake."
Kevin Burkett of Perry is blessed with a job (and wife) that allow him to go ice fishing almost every day throughout the winter. He and his friends will drill holes through the ice all across Iowa, from Greenfield Lake in Adair County up to Clear Lake, but Burkett is most optimistic about prospects at Big Creek Lake, north of Des Moines, this winter.
"Good crappie, good bluegills, decent walleyes," he said. "We're even starting to see a few yellow perch. The perch are few and far between, but they're 12 inchers."
Bluegills and crappies are Burkett's primary targets at Big Creek. His focus is usually the east side of the lake south of the beach, often off the Ensign Picnic Area.
"I'm looking for brushpiles in 18 to 22 feet of water," he said. "There are a couple old roadbeds in that area bluegills like, and there's a spot along the east side the old boys call, 'The Gravel Pit' that can be really good."
Burkett targets Big Creek's population of 8- to 9-inch bluegills, "along with a few 10-inchers," using waxworms on jigs tied to 4-pound-test Trilene XL line and simple ice rods with spring bobbers. When fishing brushpiles, he prefers to dangle his bait alongside the pile rather than over it. "For some reason, they seem to be able to see baits off to the side better than baits you dangle over the top," he said.
Timing is key to catching panfish at Big Creek, especially crappies. "If you fish that lake between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., you'll probably never see a crappie," he said. "Early morning and late afternoon are the times to fish. We'll fish bluegills off the east side first, then as it gets closer to dark we move up into that big open area just south of the beach. For some reason crappies roam that flat just before and after dark."
The only exception to Burkett's early morning/late afternoon ice fishing strategy on Iowa lakes occurred a couple years ago on Badger Creek (Lake), near Van Meter. "The water in Badger that winter was really stained. There was a lot of snow on the ice, and the only time you could catch fish was during the middle of the day," he said. "We decided the visibility was so poor the only time the fish could see well enough to feed aggressively was during the middle of sunny days."
THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER
We're talking generically about the backwaters of the Mississippi River along Iowa's eastern border, and specifically about backwaters from Davenport north. DNR Fisheries Biologist Kevin Hanson said the big river's backwaters offer record-quality fishing.
"A new state record yellow perch (15 inches long; 2 pounds, 6 ounces) came out of a backwater up here last winter," he said. "That fish broke a three-way tie for largest perch, and two of the perch in the three-way-tie also came from Pool 10. None of those perch surprised us. In our surveys we've seen excellent populations of really big, thick perch for the past few years."
Capitalizing on the Mississippi River's backwater bonanza through the ice requires an understanding of fish behavior and backwater topography.
"Backwaters provide incredible spawning and nursery habitat for fish, but they're so shallow that fish can't overwinter in many of them," said Hanson. "Most of the fish migrate to overwintering areas that have 5- to 10-feet of water and enough current to keep the water oxygenated. Some of the best overwintering areas are places where we've done habitat restoration projects. Dredged areas at Brown's Lake, Bussey Lake and other backwaters are some of our best ice-fishing areas because many of the fish from all those thousands and thousands of acres of backwaters move into them during the winter."
Hanson said bluegills in Iowa's backwaters are still rebounding from the tough winter of 2008. Numbers are good, but sizes tend toward 7 to 8 inches, with a few "survivor" 8- or 9-inch bluegills roaming the river. Crappies weren't hit as hard that winter. Their numbers and sizes are strong.
"We saw a lot of 10- to 12-inch crappies last winter," said Hanson. "That year-class is still going good, and they'll be in the 13-inch range this winter.
While all species of panfish migrate to deeper backwaters to overwinter, Hanson noted some species favor certain backwaters over others.
"Jack Oak Island on Pool 11 below Cassville always has a higher proportion of crappies than other backwaters," he said. "We don't know what it is about those backwaters that makes crappies favor them, but anglers and bait shops have a good idea of which (backwaters) are hotspots for bluegills and which ones favor crappies."
One of the largest challenges for ice anglers on Mississippi River backwaters is access. Flowing sloughs and river currents make it risky to use snowmobiles and ATVs to access remote areas. Kirk Hansen, a DNR fisheries biologist at Bellevue, suggested ice anglers consider urban ice fishing opportunities.
"Marinas often are dredged so they have the deeper water fish are looking for in winter," he said. "
If you find a marina off the main channel that has some current to keep the water oxygenated, you can park in a public area and walk on the ice into the marina and have good fishing. The marina property and docks are private property, but the ice and water is public access."
THE WINNER IS . . .
There's never a guarantee when it comes to ice fishing, but the top pick for Iowa ice anglers this year will probably be the backwaters of the Mississippi River. Other lakes offer strong populations of one or two species, but no other ice angling opportunity offers so many species, often concentrated in known wintering areas. Anglers who target dredged areas in Mississippi River backwaters, such as Bussey Lake, Mud Lake and Sunfish Lake, as well as marinas and other deep-water wintering areas, may well enjoy the best ice fishing in the state.