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Great Lakes, Great Ice-Fishing

Great Lakes, Great Ice-Fishing

The Iowa Great Lakes -- Spirit, West Okoboji and East Okoboji -- are home to a variety of species that make for memorable ice-fishing. (February 2007)

Photo by Mike Gnatkowski.

For over a century anglers have been targeting Iowa's Great Lakes for the great fishing these lakes offer. Most of the ice-fishing takes place on Spirit and West Okoboji lakes, but fish can still occasionally be taken on the rest of the lakes.

The Iowa Great Lakes are a series of interconnected waters of widely varying sizes and with differing habitat. East Okoboji, Upper and Lower Gar and Minnewashta lakes can produce when conditions are right, but the majority of anglers are sticking to Spirit and West Okoboji, the two largest lakes in the system.

Ice-fishing the Iowa Great Lakes can put fish in your bucket and a smile on your face. Here are a few things you'll need to know to make it one of the best hardwater trips you'll take this year.


With over 16 miles of shoreline, its average depth 17 feet and its maximum about 23, this largest of the state's largest natural lakes -- it covers 5,684 acres -- is at the top of the chain.

"Without a question, Spirit Lake should be a lot of fun to ice fish this year," said Jim Christianson, a fisheries biologist with the Spirit Lake Fish Hatchery. Both on and off duty, Christianson knows the Great Lakes backwards and forwards, being an avid ice-angler in his own right.

"The 2001 year-class of walleyes are in the 14- to 16-inch range," he reported, "with some up to 17 inches. We've had some record harvests recently, and if we get 10,000 walleyes out of Spirit Lake annually we're doing pretty well. By June and July of last year we'd already harvested 12,000."


Christianson recommends targeting the rockpiles on the bottom of the lake; walleyes will move in on these to chase minnows with a Rapala Jig-N-Rap. The bait is lifted and then circles back around until it comes to rest horizontally. This trick works well in water from 10 to 22 feet deep. According to the biologist, the fish will be close to some breaklines, transition areas or the rockpiles, and fishing is best in the early morning and late evening. He added that the lake also has a respectable northern pike population.

"We've seen it increase over the years," he said, "and at the same time have seen the harvest rate decrease. People just don't seem to be out there fishing for them like they used to be. There's been some 10- to 12-pounders caught this year, but most will be in the 4- to 6-pound range."

Spirit Lake is also guide Ryan Hale's top pick among the Great Lakes for all-around ice-fishing opportunities. "The last couple of years I've been finding the crappies on Spirit Lake," he said, speaking to what's no small accomplishment. "In late February I've had success in Angler's Bay and the Grade Area in about 5 feet of water or less. They're roaming and looking for food. Look for cattail fields and reeds protruding up through the ice, drill some holes on the outside of the weeds -- and get ready!"

Ice-fishing the Iowa Great Lakes can put fish in your bucket and a smile on your face.

Crappies love minnows, offered Hale. Ice-anglers sometimes try using hooks that are way too big for both the crappies and the bait. Use a plain No. 10 or No. 12 hook with a minnow hooked between the dorsal fin and the tail. The minnow should be able to swim freely and will stay alive if not hooked deeply. "This drives the crappies nuts," said the guide. Small jigs tipped with Lindy Techni Glow products also work well.

Walleyes too are high on Hale's list, and are a priority for clients. "Anglers tend to get to get too technical when it comes to walleye fishing," he said. "Just target them at dawn and at dusk in shallow water from 6 to 10 feet deep. Shallow fish are actively feeding so try jigging spoons like Glow Devils, Angel Eyes and Buck Shot Rattle Spoons. I have good luck tipping jigs with minnow heads and wax worms. Larger baits mean larger walleyes, and my biggest was around 8 pounds."

Walleyes on the feed bag will take all sorts of jigs, Hale pointed out; a small jigging spoon will work as well. The guide also uses swimming jigs like Rapala Swim Shads and Salmo Chubby Darters, which lift easily and then swim erratically as they glide back down on slack line. The Salmo is Hale's favorite.

Perch also draw plenty of ice-anglers. "Spirit Lake's perch are roamers," said Hale. "They'll school up and move around in the main basin, which doesn't have a lot of structure. Drill some holes and use a Vexilar flasher until you find fish; then, set up. Count on the perch moving away from your hole after you catch three or four fish, but they'll usually be back in about half an hour. If they haven't come back in about an hour, it's time to move. A lot of guys figure out which way the school is going and try to stay out in front of it, which works -- but these guys drill a lot of holes, and are pretty serious about it."

Perch fall to jigging spoons tipped with wax worms or wrigglers, minnows lightly hooked, or just minnow heads.

Pockets of slightly deeper water will be found near the Big Stoney Point west of the public boat launch off state Highway 327 and straight off Buffalo Run on state Highway 276 on the west side of the lake that harbor walleyes when they're deep.

Public access sites are off state Highway 327 near Big Stoney Point, the Mini-Wakan State Park on the north side of the lake, near Marble Beach on the west side and the Orleans Beach area off state Highway 276 to the south.


"It's definitely West Okoboji for bluegills in the winter," said Christianson. "Last year there were 8- to 10-inch 'gills, and this winter it'll be the same. There is a strong year class, and when we get larger fish, we usually get fewer of them. Not so with these bluegills."

Christianson recommended trying Emerson and Miller's bays for these monster-sized 'gills. Smith's and North bays won't be quite as good this season in his opinion, especially considering the heavy snowmobile traffic and surface fishing pressure that the former receives.

"You're sight-fishing for bluegills on this lake due to the water clarity," he said. "Or better yet, use an underwater camera that will let you see the fish moving around down there. Bluegills in this clear water can be really finicky, so the challenge is in coaxing them to bite. Use 2- to 4-pound line and very small baits. The fish will be in 12 feet of water or less."

Ice-anglers sometimes try using hooks that are way too big for both the crappies and the bait, observed guide Ryan Hale.

Hale has found the nice sizes and numbers of bluegills to his liking, too. "Most people who come to West Okoboji are here for the bluegills, and they can be huge," he pointed out. "These fish will be shallow. If you find vertical green weeds, the bluegills will be passing under your hole. West Okoboji supports green vegetation all winter long, and it's the vertical stuff you'll want to fish."

According to Hale, when sight-fishing -- not an applicable concept at many lakes in the winter, he noted -- is used here in conjunction with his electronics, success is much easier. He combines the Vexilar flasher -- which lets you know you're onto some fish -- with an Aqua View underwater camera -- which lets you know what kind of fish they are. The camera will also let you see how the fish are reacting to your bait. If they're not taking it, you can experiment with colors and sizes until you find what they want. This tactic works on walleyes, bluegills, crappies and perch alike.

Relying solely on sight-fishing eventually puts a crick in the neck, said Hale. With a flasher, an ice-angler can sit back and relax until something starts happening down there. "I won't ice-fish without electronics," he asserted, "because without them you're just drilling holes and shooting in the dark.

"These West Okoboji bluegills humble a lot of people. When they get lockjaw, they're tough to catch. One problem I see is that a lot of people use line that is way too heavy. If the fish see it, they swim away. Use a 2-pound test fluorocarbon line that is virtually invisible. It's also light enough that when a bluegill picks up the bait it won't feel the weight of the line. If it feels water resistance on the line, he'll spit it out."

A vicious hookset on thin line can result in a breakoff when tangling with a 9- or 10-inch bluegill. When the bait is sucked in, just give it a gentle lift, and make sure the fish has all of the bait in its mouth; if it doesn't, you'll just pull it back out.

Hale's favorite bluegill baits are the Genz Worm and Genz Fat Boys in size 10 tipped with wax worms or wrigglers, Ratfinkees and Ratsos.

If the bluegill bite suddenly falls off, the problem may be that a big pike or a muskie has moved in. West Okoboji has a decent northern pike population along with a few muskies, according to Christianson.

"The bays are the big northern pike draws," said Hale. "Set up on the weedlines with tip-ups and large minnows and chubs. Pike will generally make two runs, the first where they hammer the bait. After a short distance pike slow down to work the bait around in their mouths, and then they'll take off again. Now it's time to set the hook."

Hale cautions anglers to remember that tip-ups count as a line. He also cautions against using steel leaders, which are impossible to conceal in West Okoboji's crystal-clear water. "I like Vanish leader material that is a fluorocarbon line that the northerns can't see," he offered. "The visibility is sometimes from 15 to 20 feet down in the winter. I'll use an 80- to 100-pound-test line. We catch 10 hammer-handles on a trip easy, but there are 36- to 40-inch pike down there as well. My group took a 48-inch muskie through the ice last year."

Yellow perch too are available in good numbers -- but Hale doesn't expect a banner year.

"When we have a good bluegill population, the perch are usually down, and vice versa," said Christianson. "That's just the way it works. We'll be harvesting some perch, but it won't be a gangbuster year like we've had. In previous years we've seen 60,000 perch come off the lake in a single year and as many as 120,000 in one year. This year the total numbers will probably be down."

Perch will be found most generally in water from 10 to 18 feet deep, said Christianson. At least that's where he connects with them.

West Okoboji Lake covers 3,847 acres and reaches nearly 140 feet deep in the middle of the lower basin. Access is from the public ramps off Emerson Road on the northwest corner of the lake and off War Eagle Road on the east side.


The smaller lakes on the chain can be lumped together. They'll at times produce some highly serviceable ice-fishing but not as consistently as do Spirit and West Okoboji.

Small and somewhat neglected, Minnewashta Lake can yield up a fair number of bluegills, but usually plays second fiddle to one of the larger bodies of water. That vegetation is sparse hurts the panfishing -- but if an angler hits it right, an occasional nice catch of bluegills can be taken.

Fisheries biologist Jim Christianson warns anglers to be careful on treacherous ice. Conditions vary a lot on the lakes in the chain and can present a deceptive sense of security. Safety first.

Depths go to over 16 feet. Minnewashta, tucked in between Upper and Lower Gar lakes, has a surface area of 126 acres. Public access is at the ramp on the west shoreline west of the Orr Bridge on Sandy Lane.

At East Okoboji, the third-largest lake in the chain at well over 1,800 acres, walleyes and perch are the name of the game. The former, stocked by the millions, are taken in shallow water during the morning and evening hours.

Access is from the ramp at the northern tip of the lake off Pioneer Beach Road, from the Interstate 71 area, and from both sides of the channel between West and East Okoboji lakes. The first of these two ramps is off Gordon Road; the second, off Linden Street in Arnold's Park.

Depths go down to over 20 feet with an average depth of 10 feet.

Upper Gar will occasionally pump out some nice-sized 'gills. This shallow lake may not hold bluegills in any great numbers, but it can give up some nice ones. Check for green weedbeds in this little 37-acre lake.

Upper Gar lies between East Okoboji and Minnewashta lakes and serves as a waterway between them during warmer weather. The lake reaches 5 feet deep at the deepest. Public access is off Hinshaw Road on the south side of the lake.

Lower Gar doesn't have much vegetation, and isn't much of a fishery. A flurry of activity for bluegills occasionally takes place, but not that often. Lower Gar Lake lies south of Minnewashta Lake and covers 273 acres. Much of the lake is only 3 feet deep. A public boat ramp offers access on the north side of Minnewashta Lake, but it's quite a haul from Lower Gar.

Minnewashta and the Gar lakes are shallower and warm up earlier in the spring than the deeper lakes on the chain. The ice isn't as safe as the winter wanes, and there are some early open-water opportunities.

Winter access to the Great Lakes is from the public parks and recre

ation areas, where anglers can walk out to the ice. Snow is seldom pushed off the ramps, and parking can be tough.

Christianson warns anglers to be careful on treacherous ice. Conditions vary a lot on the lakes in the chain and can present a deceptive sense of security. Safety first.

The Iowa Great Lakes lie about 45 minutes from Emmetsburg in Dickinson County. Special regulations are in effect for walleyes on Spirit, West and East Okoboji lakes.

For more information contact the IDNR Spirit Lake Fish Hatchery at (712) 336-1840.

Ryan Hale's Guide Service and resort can be reached at either (712) 441-5334 or (712) 446-3604. Year-round accommodations and guide services are available.

Contact Vacation Okoboji at 1-800-270-2574 for tourism information, or visit online at Ice-fishing tackle and gear are available at Binning Outdoors, (712) 213-4868, in Storm Lake.

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