Good fishing is available year-round in the Hawkeye State. Here's how to find it.
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What are you looking for during fishing trips in Iowa this year? Buckets full of yellow perch pulled through a hole in the ice? They're waiting for you at Big Spirit Lake right now. Maybe you're a warm-weather angler looking for a livewell full of thick panfish. We'll send you to backwaters of the mighty Mississippi River in May. You say you're a trophy angler in search of a record-size muskie or blue catfish? Let us direct you to either the Iowa Great Lakes where Iowa DNR technicians have netted and released "multiple" 50-pound muskies in recent years, or the Missouri River where the current state record blue cat, a 101-pounder, was caught.
No matter what "rings your bell" as an angler, it's waiting for you in Iowa during 2011. To help you capitalize on all our angling opportunities, here's a month-by-month breakdown of the best places and times to catch fish in Iowa:
Yellow Perch - Big Spirit Lake
Yellow perch populations at Big Spirit are on an unrivaled high. Mike Hawkins, DNR fisheries management biologist for the Iowa Great Lakes region, said last summer's strong harvest should continue through the winter. "This is the highest perch harvest we've recorded in decades," said Hawkins. "There are strong year-classes coming up, which goes against the boom-and-bust cycle that's traditional at the Iowa Great Lakes. It looks like good perch fishing should stay around for a while."
Yellow bass at Clear Lake in north central Iowa are also riding a population surge this winter. Look for them in association with the dredge cuts in the "Little Lake" portion of Clear Lake. During the winter in the Mississippi River along eastern Iowa, panfish concentrate in the few deep holes hidden amidst thousands of acres of shallow backwaters. Find a dredged or natural backwater with 8 feet of water in January and you'll find crappies and bluegills.
Trout - Put-And-Take Ponds
The Iowa DNR stocks ponds and small lakes across central and northern Iowa throughout the winter with trout to provide anglers a chance to catch that cool-water species in parts of the state where trout normally aren't found. Anglers can fish for trout through the ice at Blue Pit near Mason City, Heritage Pond near Dubuque, Lake Sauganash and Big Lake near Council Bluffs, North Prairie Lake near Cedar Falls, Lake of the Hills near Davenport, Bacon Creek Lake near Sioux City, Banner Lake (at Summerset Park) near Des Moines, and another small lake near Des Moines that had not been decided as this went to press.
Saugeyes make a run below Coralville Dam in eastern Iowa and congregate in the open water below that dam in February and can provide strong fishing for anglers willing to brave the cold. At Storm Lake in northwest Iowa, walleye populations are high. Ice fishing has been good in recent years when ice conditions permit anglers to reach the dredged portions of the lake.
Largemouth Bass - Farm Ponds
Big bass in farm ponds respond to warm sunny afternoons soon after ice-out. They lounge along south-facing shorelines to enjoy warm sunshine after a long, cold winter. Anglers can take early lunkers by working a live crawler or soft plastic worm along the bottom. Jig-and-pigs work well, too. Never overlook buzzing a crankbait through the area; sometimes those big bass react aggressively to the sudden challenge.
Northern pike in our natural lakes across northern Iowa spawn immediately after ice out and are susceptible to dead chubs or crankbaits offered to them along weedlines and dropoffs. Another ice-out opportunity found in many Iowa lakes is epitomized by an annual channel catfish bite at Lake Blackhawk in northwest Iowa, where channel cats gorge for a couple weeks immediately after ice-out on winter-killed shad blown against the windward shoreline.
Bullheads - Twelve Mile Lake
Northern Iowa's natural lakes are the traditional meccas for bullhead fishing in Iowa, but Twelve Mile and Three Mile lakes in southern Iowa have produced lots of yellow-bellies in recent years. Check with local bait shops to identify the best bullhead area in a specific lake. Nightcrawler sales power profits in most baitshops, and few species sell more nightcrawlers than bullheads.
White bass make spawning runs on the Des Moines, Cedar, Iowa and other major rivers in Iowa, especially rivers with large reservoirs on them. Look for whites at low-head dams and other choke-points. Walleyes on interior rivers also make runs after ice-out. Anglers can clobber big walleyes clustered below riffles and rock bars associated with holes on the Des Moines, Raccoon, Cedar, Iowa and other interior rivers.
Crappies - Mississippi River Backwaters
Spring fishing on the Mississippi is dependent on water levels in the big river, but crappie fishing can be outstanding if anglers locate spawning areas in backwaters. Crappie populations and average size have grown in recent years, so anglers who target traditional spawning areas in backwaters are looking at some of the best crappie potential in Iowa.
Small, well-managed lakes such as Diamond Lake in east central Iowa are bluegill factories each spring. Locate a shallow, sand-bottomed bay with a weedline and you'll find the "elephant tracks" of bluegill beds pocketing the bottom. At Clear Lake, yellow bass are the diminutive stars of the lake's fishery during May. Fish around "The Island" on the south shore to fill a stringer with these small, feisty -- and tasty -- bass.
Flathead Catfish - Interior Rivers
Anglers who wait till traditional catfishing season in late summer miss the best time to catch large numbers of big flatheads. Flatheads are loners. The only time you'll find more than one big flathead in close proximity to another is during the spawn. Fish in areas with lots of cavities -- riprap shorelines, big log jams -- that provide them spawning habitat.
Anglers at Big Spirit Lake are enjoying spectacular fishing for multiple species, and smallmouth bass are part of the possibilities. Look for smallies in association with rock bars and reefs, and especially if you can find an isolated rock bar in the midst of a big submerged weedbed. (Hint: that tiny, obscure, red-hot smallmouth hotspot exists toward the northeast end of the lake.)
Farm ponds begin to moss over in June, making them tough to fish, but provide tremendous largemouth bass fishing for anglers willing to battle the weeds. Use a belly boat to work the deep-water side of weeds, or sneak a topwater lure over weeds.
Bluegills - Beaver Lake
Bluegills at Beaver Lake in west central Iowa have been on a binge since 2009 and the bite continues in 2011 for anglers who focus on the manmade structure at mid-lake off the boat ramp, or who cast from mid-lake fishing jetties. A bit of nightcrawler or full waxworm on a jig is plenty of bait for bluegills up to 3/4 pound.
Carp are slowly earning respect among anglers for the fight they provide. Gray's Lake in downtown Des Moines is home to what DNR biologists call "phenomenal"-sized carp. Elsewhere in Iowa during the summer, channel catfish are often overlooked in farm ponds. Dale Myers of Redfield, Iowa, reports, "Sometimes it's in late June, sometimes it's in early July, but there's a week or two when (channel cats) are in the shallows where water flows into ponds, and we catch them left and right."
White Bass - Saylorville Reservoir
DNR fisheries management biologist Ben Dodd once literally surrended to white bass at Saylorville Lake. "We hit a bunch of whites near the west end of the Mile Long Bridge and caught them as fast as we could bring them in, and I eventually just plain got tired and had to quit," he laughed. If Saylorville is at normal pool in August anglers can troll or drift the big flat off Sandpiper Beach. Higher water levels attract white bass to the base of the spillway where Big Creek Lake empties into Saylorville northwest of Polk City.
The dog days of August are when traditional catfish anglers focus on channel catfish in holes in Iowa's interior rivers and large streams. It's as simple as a hook and a nightcrawler drifted into any hole deeper than 3 feet. Trout in our cool-water streams in northeast Iowa bite steadily throughout the summer on a variety of fly-and spincasting offerings.
Blue Catfish - Missouri River
Iowa's fishery for blue catfish is limited to the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, but what a fishery the Missouri River has become! The state record for blue catfish has steadily climbed in recent years to slightly more than 100 pounds, and all the recent record-holders were caught from the Missouri River. A new world record 130-pound blue cat was caught last year from the Missouri River in Missouri so, since blue cats are wanderers and known to swim hundreds of miles, maybe the next world-record blue catfish is already finning its way along our western boundary.
Anglers who specialize in catching trophy flathead catfish have learned in the past decade that flatheads feed heavily and aggressively as waters cool in September. Low river levels make it easier to pinpoint prime flathead holes in the Des Moines, Raccoon, Iowa, Cedar and lower Skunk rivers. Muskies also go on a bite at Big Spirit Lake as waters cool. Workers with the DNR report handling during netting work "multiple" muskies from Big Spirit that exceeded 50 inches. Intentionally vague, they direct interested anglers toward, "weedbeds on the southeast side of the lake."
Walleyes - Inland Rivers
The walleye bite that begins when river water temperatures cool in mid-September hits full force in October, just before walleyes begin their annual migration to deep-water wintering holes. Find rock bars or ledges in the Des Moines, Raccoon, Iowa, Wapsipinicon, Shell Rock or other interior rivers and you'll probably find walleyes in October. Reports of 7- to 9-pound walleyes from rivers across Iowa in October are not uncommon each fall.
Many crappie anglers say October is actually the best time of year to catch crappies in Iowa. Crappies at Big Creek Lake, Rathbun Lake and other crappie hotspots reliably frequent flats and ledges in 10 to 15 feet of water, and feed aggressively as water temperatures cool. Wiper bass, an artificial hybrid cross between white and ocean striped bass, grow to 20 pounds, are fierce fighters and traditionally feed heavily during October in the spillways below Saylorville, Red Rock and Coralville reservoirs.
Walleyes - Cedar River
This is where it gets tricky for walleye anglers. In October, walleyes are still in their summer ranges in rivers across Iowa. But in November, water temperatures and other factors send walleyes on migration to specific wintering holes. Anglers who fish in summertime walleye haunts during November will go home empty-handed. Anglers who find and fish wintering holes will enjoy outstanding walleye fishing. Look for deep holes with gentle currents that provide oxygenation, and structure that allows walleyes to rest out of the current.
Panfish in the backwaters of the Mississippi River also migrate to specific wintering holes during November. Dredged backwaters like Brown's Lake are prime panfish wintering holes. While colder weather sends Iowa's warm-water species scurrying for wintering holes, trout in northeast Iowa's cool-water streams happily savor the chill of late autumn and early winter by feeding aggressively, to the benefit of anglers willing to wade ice-rimmed streams.
Yellow Perch - Big Spirit Lake
We end the year where we started, fishing for yellow perch through the ice at Big Spirit Lake. The phenomenal boom in all fish species in Big Spirit shows little sign of weakening. "They're all going great guns up here," said DNR Fisheries Biologist Mike Hawkins. "Walleyes, smallmouths, muskies, northern pike, and especially yellow perch. The early-ice bite for yellow perch is maybe the best bite of the year."
First ice also coincides with the first stockings by the DNR of trout into our put-and-take trout lakes across Iowa, providing anglers near Des Moines, Council Bluffs, Sioux City, Davenport, Mason City and Dubuque opportunity to catch trout during the winter. And anglers at Storm Lake keep their fingers crossed for the first hard, clear ice of winter so they can tip-toe across it to the edges of the lake's dredged channels and drill holes for a strong population of walleyes up to 5 pounds.