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Scratch That Winter Itch

Scratch That Winter Itch

Iowa's panfish offer plenty of opportunities for midwinter ice-fishing -- but to be successful, you have to prepare. (January 2006)

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

It's cold and snowy, and the wind is howling in ways that only Jack London could describe. No matter: You've got the itch -- the itch to do some fishing. And it's got to be scratched, no matter what!

Well, there's plenty of opportunity in Iowa for midwinter fishing -- ice-fishing -- but to be successful, you need to prepare.


Your first consideration should be the ice itself. Most anglers opine that you should never venture out on hard water unless there are at least 4 inches of solid ice; that's the minimum. There are those who will travel on ice as thin as 2 inches, but that's a risk -- a high risk -- and one not worth taking. Ice capable of supporting sheds, vehicles and motorized equipment is much thicker. In many cases 12 inches or more of clear, solid ice are recommended.

No matter how thick, all ice is dangerous. For that reason, Iowa's midwinter anglers should always be cautious on ice. Test each and every section before venturing out on it. Many experienced ice-anglers carry a spud and probe the ice in front of them as they move along.

Ice-fishermen should be especially careful around areas where ice over the current varies in thickness and strength. Some of it may be thick and hard, but just a few inches away, it could be paper-thin.

Finally -- you've heard this before -- never fish alone. Little things when you're with friends can become big things when you're alone. Consider setting up your rig well away from your partner or group when on the ice. That way, one of you will be able to help the other should the ice give way.



After safety comes equipment. Specialty ice-fishing rods are best. Light-action models by and large, most of them measure 24 to 30 inches long. In most cases, a tiny open-face spinning reel spooled with 2- or 4-pound-test line is about right. You might want to consider purchasing one of the lines engineered especially for cold weather use. They'll remain flexible under the coldest of conditions.

Of course, you'll need something to cut through the ice, and you have a number of choices among tools. A good-quality motorized auger will run you around $100; hand augers go for $20 to $30. Either way, invest in a second set of blades. Sharp blades make a world of difference when the temperature's below freezing.

Finally, dress in warm, well-insulated layers of clothing -- and you're good to go!

Now that's the basics, but, if you want to go upscale, you may want to build or purchase a shelter. Your choices are limitless: You can spend less than $100 for a simple one or purchase a Neiman Marcus model for several thousand dollars. Along with your shelter, you may want to invest in a portable depthfinder. Some models are made specifically for ice-fishing.


If you live in the northwest corner of Iowa, one of your top choices for midwinter fishing should be West Okoboji Lake. This 3,800-acre natural lake is in Dickinson County on the northwest edge of Arnold's Park.

"West O" (as the locals call it) contains several species of fish that bite well under the ice. Even better, it's known as a big-fish lake, and ice-fishing here may get you a big crappie, a big walleye or even a big smallmouth. It's best known, however, for its trophy-size bluegills.

If you want to catch a few, try fishing any of the four bays on the lake: Triboji, Emerson, Miller's or Smith. They've all given up their share of big fish. Begin by searching out spots in which the weeds are growing up into the ice. Once you find a good-looking area, search for holes in the weed growth.

As long as the vegetation is green, give those holes a lot of time and attention; that's where the fish will be found (on most days, anyway). If the vegetation is brown, or starting to turn that way, concentrate on deep-water locations away from the growth. No one really knows why green growth attracts fish to the holes and brown doesn't, but there are theories. One of the most logical is that green vegetation produces oxygen and holds the fish. Brown, dying vegetation, on the other hand, saps the oxygen from the water and drives the fish away.

No matter where you're fishing for big bluegills, give the "new" horizontal jigs a try. They're becoming more and more popular every year and for good reason: They catch fish! Basic colors work just fine. Gold is the universal standard, but on some days, orange and chartreuse can be more effective. Many anglers tip their jigs with maggots or wax worms; at times that'll help.

If you're looking for crappies, walleyes and the occasional smallmouth, move out into the lake, where the water is deeper, the breaks are sharper, and there's more cover. Basically, you'll want to fish the same spots you fished when the water was liquid and the breeze warm. Fish these areas with large minnows and small spoons or vertical jigs and spinners. Work your baits slowly and carefully around the area. Remember that ice-fishing isn't much different from summertime fishing, at least in one respect: The fish don't eat all the time. Most days the bite will be best in the early morning and late evening, or on cloudy, overcast days.

And there's a reason for that. West O is a clear-water lake during the winter. Visibility extends to 20 feet or more. Consider the size of hole that you're drilling into the ice. A 12-incher is nice, as it allows you to see what's going on under the ice and gives you plenty of room to work -- but it also lets the fish see what's going on above the ice. Sometimes smaller is better.

A couple of other hotspots can be found in northwest Iowa. One is Spirit Lake in Dickinson County, about a mile north of the town of Spirit Lake. According to Iowa Department of Natural Resources fisheries technician Jim Berquist, this 5,600-acre lake is a real treasure trove for big bluegills and crappies. He recommends that you target the Angler's Bay area of the lake with tiny jigs, spoons, minnows, and hooks baited with maggots and wax worms.

Berquist also points anglers toward Silver Lake, on the west edge of Lake Park in Dickinson County. Silver Lake's 1,000 acres are renowned for producing good walleyes under the ice. "They (anglers) should fish the deepest water, down in the southwest corner of the lake€¦. That's where most of the good ones are caught," he said.

Bait and lures are not especially important on this one. The 'eyes will hit small jigs tipped with a

minnow's head, small spoons or a simple minnow and hook; nothing fancy here.

No matter the venue you choose to fish, give small chrome spoons a try. Local anglers favor the Kastmaster. "I've got one about 1/8-ounce size that I painted black with fingernail polish €¦ It's all I use," Berquist said with enthusiasm.

For complete up-to-the-minute information on West O, Spirit Lake or Silver Lake, call the IDNR's Northwest Management Region office at (712) 336-1840, or check the Internet at, where you'll find topographic maps of these lakes (and others) available online.

If you're looking for something new, try fishing for yellow bass at Clear Lake. This Cerro Gordo County lake just east of Ventura and west of Interstate 35 offers near-perfect habitat for them. It's big -- more than 3,600 acres -- and holds plenty of deep water. Clear Lake features a lot of open water that spreads over hundreds of acres of soft muck, which is exactly what yellow bass need for high numbers, big schools and fast growth.

If you've never fished for yellow bass or fried up a mess of these feisty panfish, you're in for a treat! Many anglers think they're trash fish, and that's too bad, because in the right waters and under the right circumstances, yellow bass can be tasty. And Clear Lake provides the right waters and the right circumstances. In fact, the lake's habitat is so good that yellow bass here grow to 10 inches long in only four years.

Most seek yellow bass near the bottom, where these fish feed. Successful local anglers typically use small ice flies, tiny hair jigs, wax worms or small red earthworms for bait. They like bright, flashy colors. At times, a glowing fluorescent bead on the line directly above your hook will provoke interest from timid fish.

There's so much open water and muck bottom on this lake that picking a "best" spot or two is impossible. Download a topographical map from and pick your own. That said, remember that there are no secret spots in ice-fishing. If you're having trouble locating fish, look for groups of other anglers or old frozen-over holes drilled into the ice last weekend.

Jim Wahl, fisheries biologist for the IDNR, reports that last winter the yellow-bass fishing was fantastic. "It slowed down some during the summer, but there'll still be plenty of fish for our anglers this winter (2005)," he says.

For up-to-the-minute information on fishing conditions on Clear Lake, contact the IDNR's Northeast Management Region office at (563) 927-3276 or check the Internet at

Way over on the east side of the state is the Mississippi River. You might not think of Old Man River when considering ice-fishing venues, -- but you should! There's some great fishing for those who are careful and do their homework.

Before we talk about specific pools and spots, however, Scott Gritters, IDNR fisheries biologist for pools 9, 10 and 11, wants to remind anglers to be careful. "The ice can be treacherous," he warned. "Be wary of current, obstructions under the ice and anywhere the river water has dropped after the ice formed. And never -- not ever -- fish the backwaters alone, not for any reason."

The traditional locations in Pool 9 have been good for years, and this year, the situation doesn't look as if it'll be any different. Cordwood Lake, Fish Lake, New Albin Lake, Lancing Lake, Shore Slough, Conway Lake, Catfish Lake and Zoll Lake all produce their share of big, fat 'gills.

In Pool 10, the best spots remain historical hotspots: Harper's Ferry, Lower Joyce Lake (just north of Harper's Ferry), Mud Hen Lake, Marquette and McGregor lakes (just above Guttenburg) and, of course, Bussey Lake.

Fish these spots with the usual collection of wintertime lures and baits. That'll include small jigs, tiny spoons, minnows, wax worms and maybe a maggot or two. Present your offering around any wood, rock or vegetation you can locate.

Along with the bluegills don't be surprised if you get into a mess of crappies. Surviving winter on the river is tough for a fish, and there are only so many places a fish can live. Under such conditions, they all tend to huddle up together.

Pool 11 hasn't been known for hardwater fishing, but that's about to change. Gritters reports that the IDNR has nearly completed two major renovation projects that will change the face of ice-fishing in the area. They are officially called "Habitat Rehabilitation and Enhancement Projects," and what they mean to us anglers is a lot more fishing opportunity in the pool!

The first renovation project is called Sunfish Lake. It's on the Wisconsin side of the river, near Dubuque. Don't worry: That's not a problem for Iowa anglers. Gritters advises that sunfish can be legally fished by Iowa anglers as long as they hold a valid Iowa resident license.

This one covers a couple of hundred acres, including more than 16 acres dredged to an average depth of 6 to 8 feet. That might not sound very deep, but consider that the fish don't have very many options in Pool 11. Most of the backwaters are silted, and many are useless. (No doubt they appreciate the dredging if not the anglers.) The second, Mud Lake, is about the same size and has been similarly dredged. It's on the Iowa side in the same general area.

Both of these lakes have been restored with a view to improving the fishing, especially during the winter. Care has been taken not only to offer plenty of safe, oxygenated water but also to remove anything that contributes to water flow in the area. It seems that many panfish -- bluegills, in particular -- don't like moving water in the winter.

And because winter habitat is so very scarce on the Mississippi, Gritters adds, these renovated lakes will pull fish in from thousands of acres of river water. "As the water temperature drops into the 50s, and especially when it gets into the 40s, it'll be a mad rush," he said. "They (the fish) will all want in!"

Both places are expected to offer fine bluegill and crappie fishing. Fish that measure from 6 and 8 inches should be the norm. And because the river is a multispecies environment, anglers can expect to catch high numbers of yellow perch, pumpkinseed, green sunfish, warmouth and even a few northern pike.

Up-to-the-minute fishing information on Pools 9, 10 and 11 is yours by contacting the IDNR's Northeast Region management office at (563) 927-3276, or check the Internet at

Now, if you want to try something really unusual and unique -- and have a hoot doing it -- give the put-and-take trout fishing a try this January. The IDNR has a great program going in three of their northeastern lakes.

Blue Pit, a 14-acre lake in Cerro Gordo County, on the southwest edge of Mason City, is the biggest body of wate

r in the program. Southeast a way, in Dubuque County just north of the city of Dubuque, is 10-acre Heritage Pond. And last, but by no means least, is North Prairie Lake. Also 10 acres big, it's east of Heritage Pond and south of Blue Pit in Black Hawk County on the southwest edge of Cedar Falls.

Each of these lakes is stocked with approximately 1,500 trout three times during the winter. The last stocking will be around the middle or latter part of January. Plan your trip accordingly.

Fisheries biologist Jim Wahl of the IDNR reports that the fishing is fairly easy when the trout are first released. After that it gets tougher. "They can still catch 'em though," he said, recommending that anglers fish between 4 and 8 feet below the ice with small jigs, spoons, bright tubes, or wax worms and maggots. "Far too many anglers fish near the bottom. That's not where you're going to catch them €¦ Keep your bait up."

For complete information on the program, the stocking schedule and the fishing conditions at Blue Pit, contact the IDNR's Northwest Management Region at (712) 336-1840. For Heritage Pond and North Prairie Lake, contact the Northeast Management Region at (563) 927-3276. You can also get information on all three from the Internet at

Now you know where to fish, what to fish with and what kind of fish you're most likely to catch. All excuses have evaporated into the cold winter air. What are you waiting for?

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