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The Hawkeye State's Hardwater Highways

The Hawkeye State's Hardwater Highways

Tap Iowa's interstate network this winter to make the most of our ice-fishing. Where do the big roads lead — and what can you catch when you get there? (January 2008).

Photo by Jim Barta.

Thanks to the interstate highway system, anglers in Iowa have many midwinter fishing options, no matter what Ol' Man Winter throws at us.

Let's say this winter follows the mild pattern of the past two winters, leaving many of our central and southern lakes ice-free until mid-January. A little windshield time can whisk anglers from southern and central Iowa up Interstate 35 into northern Iowa to find solid ice in which to drill holes and satisfy their ice-fishing addiction.

Or maybe Mother Nature will opt to smack us with weeks of frigid weather, and armors with a foot or more of solid ice even our southern-most lakes. A "hard" winter will see anglers fanning out via the interstate system across the middle and southern sections of the state to explore ice-fishing options in the dozens of county conservation board and state-owned lakes freckling the lower half of our state map.

No matter how warm or cold it gets during an unpredictable Midwestern winter, plenty of ice-fishing is available somewhere in Iowa for anglers willing to dedicate a bit of windshield time to finding fish.


Interstate 80 and Interstate 35 meet at what locals call "the Mixmaster" on the west side of Des Moines. The junction of these two major arteries provides options in every compass direction for anglers searching for a midwinter fishing trip.


Anglers who head north from the Mixmaster are only two hours from the walleyes and yellow perch of Clear Lake, in north-central Iowa. "There is the potential for some really good fishing for walleyes through the ice at Clear Lake this winter," said Iowa Department of Natural Resources fisheries technician Scott Grummer. "It all depends on weather and ice conditions."

Walleye fishing in the 2007 spring raised expectations that Clear Lake was on the verge of a walleye boom; reports heralded excellent catches of walleyes averaging 17 inches through mid-June. But then the walleyes turned off, and anglers wondered what happened to their high hopes.

"The good news for this winter's ice-fishing is that the year-class of walleyes that had everybody so excited last spring is still there," said Grummer. "It's a large year-class, so there's the potential for some excellent fishing. Looking back, we think what happened last spring was that there was an above-average hatch of forage fish. Once the young-of-the-year fish like bullheads and yellow bass started to develop, the walleyes had so much to eat that they weren't interested in anything anglers put in front of them, so walleye fishing really dropped off after mid-June."

Grummer noted that the flush of forage fish at Clear Lake not only sated the appetite of larger walleyes but also sped the growth of a second year-class of walleyes. A substantial cohort of walleyes that were sublegal last spring — measuring 14-inches or less — will have grown to legal lengths by this winter.

"So there's the potential for two year-classes of walleye this winter, through the ice," he said. "It all depends on ice conditions, and whether anglers can get out there and find them."

Finding Clear Lake's walleyes is a midwinter challenge. Grummer noted that walleyes in that lake aren't necessarily associated with reefs, weedbeds and other traditional walleye habitats. "There are always some walleyes around reefs and weedbeds during the winter, but a lot of them seem to be roaming the big mudflats, following schools of yellow perch," he said. "A huge mudflat in 13 feet of water is as good for walleyes through the ice up here as a reef or weedbed in 8 feet of water."

Local anglers have taken note of the mobile behavior of Clear Lake's walleyes, and altered their angling strategies correspondingly. Pop-up ice tents and windbreaks are now as common as traditional stationary ice-houses. Flasher-type sonar units help anglers locate schools of baitfish and attending predators through the ice, thus reducing the need for hit-or-miss drilling of holes in the ice.

"Walleyes aren't a sure thing through the ice at Clear Lake, but they're always a possibility," said Grummer. "If you find them, you can have a really great day. If not, there's always yellow bass."

Yellow bass are nearly a year-round mainstay at Clear Lake. According to Grummer, two year-classes of yellow bass swimming the lake are drawing the interest of ice anglers this winter. A phenomenal year-class that has provided excellent angling for several years is waning. The remnants provide large individual yellow bass, though numbers are declining.

A second year-class that was "nuisance-sized" last spring and summer gained enough size through the summer and fall to begin to earn keeper status with yellow bass aficionados.

"That second year class should be up around 7 1/2 inches this winter," said Grummer. "That's getting to a size where guys are willing to clean them, because they are really good eating, even if they're a bit small."

Deeper, muck-bottomed areas near "the Island" on the south shore of Clear Lake, along with deeper mud-bottomed areas from the island westward to Dodge's Point, are favorite haunts of yellow bass and ice anglers who seek them.


Interstate 80 westbound from Des Moines is the quickest route to a milk run of small lakes that traditionally provide good midwinter angling possibilities. An hour's drive west to the state Route 25 exit leads anglers to Meadow Lake, Lake Greenfield and several other opportunities in Adair County.

"They're probably better for bluegills than crappies, but there are nice crappies in all those lakes in Adair County," said Darcy Cashatt, IDNR fisheries biologist. Cashatt pointed specifically to Lake Greenfield, Mormon Trail Lake and Meadow Lake for their bluegill potential. IDNR surveys showed good populations of 8- to 9-inch bluegills, with scattered "humpbacks" that exceeded 9 inches.

"From what I've seen and heard, Meadow (Lake) has the largest bluegills and (Lake) Greenfield has the best numbers," said Cashatt. "At Meadow you can see brushpiles sticking out of the ice, and the deepwater areas beside those brushpiles would be good places to drill holes."

None of the Adair County lakes are larger than 100 acres, making them easy to cover in a day's ice-fishing. Local anglers stay on top of where the b

luegills are biting; visitors need only look for ice honeycombed with holes drilled by other anglers to find the best place to dangle a wax worm.


If Mother Nature smacks us with solid cold spell and our southern Iowa lakes freeze early and deep, West Lake Osceola is worth the short hour's drive south of Des Moines on I-35. Visible on the west side of the interstate and marked by the huge neon sign advertising the gambling casino on its north shore, West Lake Osceola is one of Iowa's most consistent summertime lakes for bass, bluegills and crappies.

Good fishing in the summer usually translates into good fishing in the winter. Ice anglers at "West Lake" can expect to find success if they drill holes over the submerged dam and basin of a pre-existing farm pond in the arm of the lake west of the dam. A ring of deadfall trees and an old shoreline and ledge mark the former perimeter of the lake. The lake's normal pool depth was increased more than a decade ago, and the submerged trees and dropoffs along that old shoreline near deepwater areas often are productive.

Another option south of Des Moines isn't technically adjacent to either I-80 or I-35 but is worth an ice-fishing effort. The south lake at Banner Lakes at Summerset State Park, between Des Moines and Indianola along U.S. Route 69, is stocked with trout each fall, winter and spring to provide a put-and-take trout fishery in an area where trout otherwise are never found.

The IDNR for many years stocked trout each fall at Blue Pit, Heritage Pond and North Prairie Lake in northeastern and north-central Iowa. Anglers enjoyed the opportunities, so the IDNR expanded its put-and-take trout stocking program to include not only Banner Lakes south of Des Moines but also East and West lakes in Big Lake Park and Lake Sauganash in Council Bluffs, Bacon Creek Lake near Sioux City and Lake of the Hills in West Lake Park in Davenport.

Angler response to the trout stocked in Davenport's Lake of the Hills was, in the words of Don Kline, IDNR fisheries biologist, "great." He continued: "We initially planned to stock them in open water in November, through the ice in midwinter and again just after ice-out in the spring, to provide late fall, winter and early spring trout fishing opportunities. But last year was so open that we ended up stocking them into open water all three times."

The hatchery-raised trout were extremely "angler-friendly," according to Kline. "They caught them on just about anything that was small enough to get in the trout's mouths," he said, chuckling. "There were guys fly-casting when the lakes weren't frozen, and they caught fish. Other guys used commercial trout bait, salmon eggs, even kernels of sweet corn. They were easy to catch, and people had a lot of fun."

Kline said that in the days following stocking, the trout clustered close to the boat ramp where they were released. They eventually dispersed into the lake, but Kline noted that they were easily patterned.

"(Trout) tend to move around the perimeter of the lake," said Kline. "Inside corners, like where a fishing jetty meets the bank, seem to be a choke point that concentrates them. The secret to catching them seems to be to focus on those choke points, but be mobile. If you don't catch them from one spot, you can either move till you find them, or just sit there and wait for them to move back into that area."

Kline said the average size of the trout stocked in the urban lakes and ponds is around 10 to 12 inches. A few brood trout added to each stocking add spice to each lake's potential.


If threatening weather or the shortened days of midwinter deters metropolitan anglers from undertaking a road trip to find fish, there are plenty of nearby waters that are good places to drill a hole and drown a wax worm.

Lake Ahquabi, south of Indianola, holds a strong population of bluegills in the 8- to 9-inch range. The lake was renovated nearly a decade ago, with shoreline improvements and brushpiles added. Ice anglers traditionally do well probing the deepest parts of the lake off the face of the dam for bluegills.

Lake Ahquabi also offers ice-anglers a unique "fish house." The structure, built over brushpiles placed in deeper water and accessible from shore, provides a focal point of holes drilled in midwinter.

Anglers who explore Lake Ahquabi should also consider poking a few holes in Hooper Pond Lake, a large silt retention pond southwest of Lake Ahquabi. Hooper Pond Lake has the depth to support a year-round fishery, and offers all the fishing opportunities provided by Lake Ahquabi, on a smaller scale.

While the Ahquabi/Hooper complex offers good bluegill potential, Easter Lake, on the southeast corner of Des Moines' city limits, is more of a crappie lake. Anglers pulled consistent catches of 9-inch crappies from Easter Lake during 2007's warm weather. There's good reason to expect similar catches this winter.

Look for Easter Lake's crappies off the face of the dam and near deep-water brushpiles. Here, as at any other metro-area lake offering worthwhile ice-fishing, finding fish is often merely a matter of noting where the most holes are drilled in the ice, and adding your fresh ice hole to the collection if the others have all refrozen.

A dozen miles to the north of Des Moines, Big Creek Lake has historically provided good ice-fishing. Anglers pulled good catches of both bluegills and crappies from Big Creek Lake last summer. Reports indicate crappies averaged 9 to 10 inches, while bluegills were in the 8- to 9-inch range.

Early ice finds many anglers drilling holes in the

Lost Lake arm of Big Creek, at the end of the long spillway channel leading to Saylorville Lake. That isolated area, protected by trees and high shorelines, is also more pleasant on windy days when northwest winds can make Big Creek's main lake uncomfortable to fish.

On the main lake, anglers do well over the submerged creek channels just above the dam, all the way up to the large bays at midlake. Several submerged roadbeds run along the east side of the midsection of the lake and cross the lake's upper portions, providing dropoffs into deep water that hold fish throughout the winter. The IDNR placed brushpiles in several of the deeper parts of the lake. Find those brushpiles and you'll find both bluegills and crappies.

Walleyes are also an option at Big Creek Lake, though few anglers target them specifically through the winter. Rock piles and dropoffs into old gravel pits in the upper half seem to be the best places to find Big Creek's winter walleyes, but few anglers have been able to put together reliable patterns. Some anglers keep trying to figure out Big Creek's walleyes, and for good reason. While most walleyes from that lake average close to the 15-inch minimum-length limit, 8-, 9- and even 10-pounders were reported last spring and summer.

Bill Dearden of Polk City Bait and Tackle - (515) 984-6711; in Polk City just south of Big Creek Lake - stay

s on top of the best places to catch bluegills, crappies and walleyes in the lake. He has a cadre of customers who fish the lake nearly every day, 12 months a year, and he has a reputation for honestly reporting when and where the fish are - or aren't - biting.

If really nasty weather and treacherous roads make intrastate travel risky, a number of small urban ponds in Urbandale, Ankeny and other suburbs offer close-to-home panfishing. In particular, the city of Ankeny has a policy of building water-retention ponds deep enough to support fish in public areas and new subdivisions. Ponds near the fire station and the new aquatic center hold enough bluegills and crappies to merit a visit.

So it doesn't matter if you've only got a couple of hours to kill on a Sunday afternoon, or need a weekend getaway to shake off the midwinter doldrums. At plenty of places both near to and far from Iowa's major metropolitan areas, the ice-fishing will be excellent this winter. How far you'll drive - well, that's up to you.

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