Iowa's Perennial Panfish Opportunities

Escape the indoors for some ice-fishing action at these four discreet panfish factories! (January 2009)

The drawbacks of wintering in Iowa -- wind-chill indexes, blizzards, frostbit fingers -- are virtually beyond debate. Be that as it may, there's an upside to winter's arrival in Iowa that few Southerners -- and a substantial complement of Northerners who refuse to leave the heated comfort of their homes -- ever experience.

Want high-end ice-fishing for crappies and bluegills? You needn't focus on Iowa's heavyweight waters. Obscure but worthy lakes exist statewide.
Photo by Billy Linder/Windigo Images.

How about the glories of a dead-calm winter morning, of walking across a frozen lake through silence so thick that you can hear the hiss of snowflakes falling? How about sitting expectantly over a hole drilled in the ice, black water stark against the white ice? How about reeling wriggling panfish after panfish from that hole, until you call it a day and trudge back across the ice toward a meal of fresh, flaky fillets?

"It's tough to beat ice-fishing," says George Caggiano, a retired school administrator from Webster City. "I keep a log, and I actually ice-fish more than I fish during open-water season. Last year, we had safe ice for 110 days, and I went fishing 54 times.

Caggiano has a long list of reasons for his enjoyment of ice-fishing. "It's so peaceful out there," he says. "A lot of times when I go out on Briggs Woods (Lake, southeast of Webster City), I'm the only person around. If you're dressed appropriately, the cold isn't a problem, and it's really a pretty time of year to be out of doors.

"On top of that, ice-fishing is so much easier than summer fishing," says Caggiano. "In the summer you've got to mess with a boat, worry about whether you're anchored or tied in the right spot, worry about the fish moving in or out of spots because they're so mobile and scattered in warm water. In the winter, you just walk out, drill a hole and start fishing. Once you find fish, the work is finished and you just sit and catch fish. Fish are more concentrated under the ice, and stay in the same spot for days, maybe weeks. There are times at Briggs Woods (when) I'll fish the same couple of holes for three weeks at a time and still be on top of fish every time I go out."

But the aesthetics of winter and the logistical advantages provided by reduced fish mobility are secondary to Caggiano's primary reason for his enthusiasm towards ice-angling: "I catch more fish during the winter!" he says. "Between catching more fish, and how much I enjoy the opportunity to get outside during the winter, ice-fishing is addictive. If somebody has any interest at all in fishing, if they'd take time to go ice-fishing with someone who can show them the basics, there's a good chance the beginner will get hooked. It's just a great way to be out of doors, fish and have a good time in the winter."

There are dozens of small or medium-sized lakes scattered around Iowa that provide good fishing for anglers who, like Caggiano, understand the benefits and opportunities provided by a thick layer of ice. Other, larger lakes may produce irregular hot streaks for ice-fishing that might last a day or a week before shutting off, and there are lakes that for unknown reasons never turn on during the winter and aren't worth drilling a single hole through their ice.

But Briggs Woods, Yellow Smoke Lake, Lake Iowa, Hickory Grove Lake and a handful of other Iowa lakes are almost sure things for ice-anglers during an average Iowa winter. They won't provide the absolute best ice-fishing in the state on a given weekend, but by the end of a winter they'll have put as many -- if not more -- fish on the ice as the state's better-known ice-angling destinations.

Briggs Woods Lake is a 60-acre lake that has benefited from extensive renovation work by the Webster County Conservation Board and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. Caggiano, a conservation board member, says that a silt dike installed to help improve water clarity, along with additional brushpiles, stakebeds and other submerged structure, have enhanced the lake's already consistent panfish potential.

"Bluegills are doing really well right now," he said. "There are a lot of 8 1/2- to 10-inch bluegills in the lake, along with a nice mix of smaller sizes coming up. As far as crappies, there aren't tons of them in the lake, but you can catch 8- to 12-inchers mixed in with the bluegills."

Caggiano recommends several ice-fishing hotspots around the lake. His first choice for drilling holes is due east of the campground. A dropoff along the west shore into 15 to 20 feet of water has a series of logpiles and other submerged structure that consistently hold fish through the winter.

A submerged mound in the middle of the lake southeast of the point below the campground is another midwinter spot where Caggiano frequently drills holes in the ice. The mound comes to within 5 feet of the surface, with dropoffs into 15 feet of water off its east edge.

"There used to be weedbeds along that dropoff in the summer, and the fish would hang in the remnants of those weedbeds through the winter," he says. "The weedbeds died off when we had the lake drawn down for the renovation and hadn't recovered as of last winter. We put some brushpiles and other structure in that area, so there is still good ice-fishing, but it will be even better if the weedbeds redevelop."

The main bay west of the south boat ramp is another place frequented by Caggiano during ice-fishing outings. Dropoffs along the western shoreline feature stakebeds and other submerged structure that consistently hold fish throughout the winter. He noted that structures in 15 to 18 feet of water seem most productive.

"Under the ice, 12 to 20 feet is the depth," he says. "If you find any structure in Briggs Woods that is in that range, especially around 15 feet, you're going to find fish. It's almost a sure thing."

Typical ice-angling baits work well at Briggs Woods. Small minnows are the hot ticket for crappies. Waxworms attract both bluegills and smaller crappies. Caggiano prefers spikes (fly maggots) and wigglers (mayfly nymphs) that he mail orders because "they aren't available around here, and they just seem to outfish waxies for some reason." Ice-fishing tackle and baits are available at a year-round bait shop in the nearby town of Duncombe.

Yellow Smoke Lake is a hidden gem in western Iowa. Lance Nelson, director of the Crawford County Conservation Board, said the lake is often overlooked by ice-anglers.

"I don't know why, but there's just not much i

ce-fishing pressure," said Nelson. "That's why, when I noticed some guys hitting the lake pretty regular last winter, I went out to see how they were doing. The number and quality of panfish they had on the ice surprised me. That got me interested, so I went out myself the next few days and caught a lot of nice fish."

Nelson notes that 3/4-pound bluegills were common at Yellow Smoke last winter and expects that trend to continue. The conservation board has worked diligently to improve and maintain the panfish populations in the lake. The north shoreline was riprapped to help control shoreline erosion. Several winters ago, truckloads of sand were spread on the ice over shallow areas of the lake, so when the ice melted, the sand settled to the bottom to create spawning beds for panfish. At the lake's inlet, a silt sill was constructed to help control incoming silt. All the efforts improved panfish populations and enhanced water quality.

"In 2005, Yellow Smoke was rated as the top lake for water quality in the state," said Nelson. "It beat out Lake Okoboji and other lakes that are known for being clean and clear."

A limited population of slab crappies swims Yellow Smoke's clear waters. Nelson said that while anglers at Yellow Smoke traditionally don't fill buckets with crappies, any random crappies taken along with bluegills are definite prizes.

"I'm not surprised with 12- and 13-inch crappies from the lake," he said. "There are enough to keep you on your toes, but they're scattered."

Finding panfish at Yellow Smoke is simple. Ice-anglers should ignore the lake's deepest water (40 feet near the dam) and shallowest water (the northern third) and focus on the magical depth fish all across Iowa seem to favor beneath the ice: 15 feet.

"There are some old trees that stick through the ice in 12 to 18 feet of water," said Nelson. "Fish around those trees in 15 feet of water and you'll probably find fish. You might have to drill a few holes to figure out which trees they're using, but once you find them, they're so concentrated in a small area that the fishing can be really good."

Steve Lekwa, Story County Conservation Board director, says that structure is the key to catching panfish through the ice at Hickory Grove Lake, three miles south of Colo in Story County.

"Some of our workers borrowed an underwater fish camera and spent time checking out various places under the ice in the lake," he says. "One thing they noticed right away is that if there isn't some sort of structure -- brushpiles, stakebeds (or) rockpiles -- there aren't any fish. They also noticed that most of the panfish were in 12 to 18 feet of water. So at Hickory Grove, if you find structure in around 15 feet of water, you've found a good place to ice-fish."

Of the various types of structure placed in Hickory Grove, Lekwa's co-workers noticed that panfish seemed to prefer pallet piles; stakebeds and "young" brushpiles also attracted bluegills and crappies.

"The one thing they really noticed is that a lot of the older brushpiles have disintegrated and almost disappeared," says Lekwa. "About all that's left (are) a few main trunks and big limbs. That taught me that I probably shouldn't waste much time on old brushpiles that were hotspots five or 10 years ago, unless those piles have had fresh material added to them."

Bluegills are currently in the mid-range of angler acceptability, while some crappies at Hickory Grove are well into the "highly desired" range. Bluegills average 7 to 8 inches, with occasional larger fish. Lekwa said crappies range from 7 inches up to a year-class that averages 10 to 12 inches.

"There are quite a few in that 10- to 12-inch range," he says. "But for some reason, they're scattered around all the structure in the lake. It's tough to catch only crappies. Those occasional big crappies will be frosting on the bluegills you'll catch, because they're all mixed together."

Lekwa recommends anglers drill holes off the south tip of the lake's island, where pallet piles in 10 to 15 feet of water consistently produce panfish throughout the winter.

"Other than that, there's a whole string of good spots that run in a line southeast of the island, following the 15-foot contour of the old creek valley," he said. "Work that 15-foot contour, and if you find any structure, you're probably going to find fish."

Anglers can stock up on waxies and minnows at several local bait shops before heading to Hickory Grove. Cook's Grocery -- known locally as "Chub's" -- in Nevada carries ice-fishing bait and tackle, as does the gun shop on the west edge of State Center.

Lake Iowa, in east-central Iowa in Iowa County, is another lake reaping benefits of a renovation that added structure.

"We added a lot of brushpiles to the lake back in 2005," says park ranger Mike Bode. "We put them at various depths and added stakebeds at various depths, too. One of the best spots for ice-fishing has been below the Nature Center. There's a blue bench along the shore, and if you go roughly straight out from that bench there's a dropoff where there's 8 feet of water only 20 or so feet from shore. The panfish hang around that dropoff and

Even better are random areas of structure scattered around the lake. The secret is to find a brushpile or stakebed in the 12- to 18-foot depth that fish in Iowa favor during winter months. Bode says that by mid-January it's not hard to identify the location of those specific hotspots at Lake Iowa. Simply look for clusters of holes drilled in the ice.

"You can tell where the good spots are during a particular winter," he says. "We've got some guys who are really serious about panfishing. There's a group of guys from Cedar Rapids, and a few from Waterloo, (who) are regulars down here."

Bluegills at Lake Iowa should average 7 to 9 inches this winter. The crappie population in the lake is not overwhelming, though a fair number of 8- to 10-inch fish are mixed with the strong population of bluegills. Redear sunfish offer anglers a third panfish option.

"The IDNR is always impressed by the size and number of redears in the lake," said Bode. "The anglers don't catch a lot through the ice, but the ones they catch are big -- generally larger than 10 inches."

Redears feed on snails and small crustaceans. Anglers who want to target those feisty panfish should fish tight to the bottom and use dark-colored baits.

Whether targeting redears or conventional bluegills and crappies, anglers will have to bring their own baits to Lake Iowa. No nearby bait shops are open through the winter.

There are a few tips and tricks that can make ice-fishing Iowa's small lakes easier.

"The best thing I ever bought for ice-fishing was a battery-powered ice auger

," said Caggiano. "No smelly fuel leaking in the truck or on the ice. No jerking on a starter rope. Just keep the battery charged, push the button and you can quietly drill 40 or 50 holes through 12 inches of ice on a single charge.

Caggiano's second tip to improve catch rates through the ice is to use the lightest line possible.

"I never use anything more than 2-pound-test mono," he said. "Lots of times I use 1-pound-test. I use mono designed specifically for ice-fishing, because it's extremely limp. Beyond that, the trick is to use a spring bobber on the end of your ice rod, or the smallest, most weight-neutral bobber you can find. Sometimes panfish will really pop a bait under the ice, but most of the time the only warning you get is the slack going out of the line, a twitch on the end of the spring bobber or the float bobber maybe bobbing 1/4- to 1/2-inch on the surface.

"You may have a lot of false hooksets, but checking for a fish at even the slightest hint of a bite is the best way to put lots of fish on the ice."

Get Your Fish On.

Plan your next fishing and boating adventure here.

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