Good fishing is where you find it, and in May in Iowa, you find it everywhere.
May is the best and easiest month to catch fish in Iowa. Crappies spawn in May, which concentrates those delectable swimming fillets in shallow water where they are easily accessible to both boat and shore anglers. Walleyes are coming off their spring spawning run, and in May they regain their appetites and feed heavily to rebuild strength and weight lost during the spawn. White bass and bullheads make runs that concentrate them in known locations during May. Largemouth bass and bluegills, which spawn in June, feed heavily during May to prepare for the stresses of spawning.
So, with almost every species of fish in Iowa recovering from its spawn, spawning, or preparing for its spawn, the question isn't if any fish will be biting on a day in May; the question is which fish will be biting and where they'll be biting. With help from a variety of anglers, fisheries biologists and professional fishing guides, here's a list of the best places to go fishing in Iowa in May.
The Iowa Great Lakes
Pick any week or weekend in May and the Iowa Great Lakes probably have a hot bite for one or more species of fish.
"The first weekend in May is always the walleye opener on West Okoboji, East Okoboji and Big Spirit (lakes)," explains professional fishing guide John Grosvenor (www.fishokoboji.com, 712-330-5815). Walleye fishing is closed on West Lake Okoboji, Big Spirit and East Okoboji lakes each year from February 15 through the Friday before the Saturday closest to May 1. "A lot of people forget that there is a continuous open season for walleyes on the lakes peripheral to those three lakes. You can catch and keep walleyes all year from Minnewashta, Upper Gar, Lower Gar and the other lakes up here. Some of the best early walleye fishing is on choke points between the lakes. You can do real well for walleyes at the walking bridge between Minnewashta and Lower Gar, and around the bridge between East Lake (Okoboji) and Upper Gar."
Grosvenor says cool water temps and recovery from the April spawn often keep walleyes sluggish in early May. He likes to fish primary rocky points and rock piles with live bait under a bobber ("Something you can leave dangling right in front of their faces.") in early May. He notes that northern pike frequent those same haunts.
"Some days you have to clear the northern pike out of an area before you can get to the walleyes," he chuckles. "They're more aggressive than the walleyes and you catch them first. Most of them are little "hammer-handles," but it doesn't surprise me to pull up a 5- or 10-pounder that time of year."
As waters warm, Grosvenor focuses on night-trolling. He likes shad-bodied #5-sized crankbaits and favors Berkley's FlickerShad because it costs less than Shad Raps and other traditional shad-bodied crankbaits.
"Some nights they're so shallow that we have to be careful not to hit the tips of our fishing rods on the ends of docks," he says. "Other nights I have to get out over 12 or 14 feet of water. One thing I've noticed is that if you can find some cloudy water, that's often where you find walleyes that time of year. West Okoboji is so clear in the spring that if we have a couple days of south wind, I'll head toward the north end where the wave action churns up the water a bit. I don't know if walleyes like the darker water, or if they're up there feeding on baitfish attracted to invertebrates in the churned up bottom, but if I find murky water I'll usually find walleyes."
Another place where murky water produces fish for anglers is at the north end of Big Spirit Lake. Yellow-bellied bullheads flock into a bay on the north side of that lake, and for decades it has been a Midwestern tradition for anglers to park along the fabled "North Grade" and fill 5-gallon buckets with beady-eyed, croaking bullheads.
"People come from Nebraska, South Dakota, Minnesota and all across Iowa to fish the North Grade for bullheads," says Grosvenor. "There's no challenge to it, but if you like to catch a lot of fish, the North Grade is the place to be for bullheads in early May."
Another hotspot for "meat anglers" at the Iowa Great Lakes in May is the north end of East Lake Okoboji. A spillway/channel/creek flows from Big Spirit into East Okoboji, and the current attracts a variety of fish and anglers. At various times each spring bullheads, yellow perch, white bass and other species virtually clog the flowage.
"Last spring there was a time when perch were packed in there," Grosvenor says. "People were standing shoulder to shoulder, catching them. I've had good luck fishing from my boat around the delta that's at the mouth of that channel. White bass, walleyes, and other predators lay along the edge. Some people don't like fishing in the crowds in that area, but if you just want to catch fish, it's a good place to go."
While Grosvenor's clients often request walleyes, smallmouths or crappies on their guided trips, they often become converts to white bass fishing. Large populations of 14- to 16-inch white bass offer explosive action.
"People seem to lose interest in waiting for walleyes after they've been through a school of white bass," chuckles Grosvenor. "In May, I have good luck for them in East Lake (Okoboji). I like to throw hair jigs, but Rockeroos and RoadRunners work well, too. Fish the ends of the Highway 9 bridge, rocky shorelines, or the mouth of the spillway from Big Spirit. When you find them, they're an absolute blast to catch."
Grosvenor reluctantly encourages anglers at the Iowa Great Lakes to consider fishing at more than just the "Big Three." "I hate to give away some of my hotspots, but Upper Gar, Lower Gar, Minnewashta and some of the other lakes can actually be better fishing early in the season than the three main lakes, especially West Lake (Okoboji)," he says. "West is so deep it warms up slowly, and warm water is the key to catching fish early in the year. Those smaller, warmer lakes are some of my early season crappie-catching secrets."
The Mighty Mississippi River
Shallow waters that warm faster than adjacent waters are also the key to crappies along the entire eastern border of Iowa. The Mississippi River and its myriad backwaters offer some of the best crappie fishing in the Midwest -- along with exceptional walleye, bluegill, bass and catfish fishing.
Fishing guide and tournament crappie angler Mark Mussman of Camanche, Iowa (563-212-0944) says crappies traditionally spawn in backwaters around the third week in May.
"It depends on water temperature," he explains. "At 58 to
62 degrees the males move onto the spawning beds. When it gets into the mid-70s the females are up there dumping eggs, and it's lights-out fishing. If I see air temperatures in the 70s during the days and the 50s at night, I'm fishing for crappies during the day."
Mussman looks for spawning crappies along steep shorelines in backwaters. His theory is that fluctuating river levels move crappies vertically up and down banks as they attempt to stay in "shallow" water to spawn. On a slow-sloping shoreline, a 1-foot change in depth might force crappies to move 10 or 20 feet horizontally. A 1-foot rise in the river along a steeper shoreline might move crappies only a couple feet sideways.
"Most of the backwaters are only 4- to 6-feet deep," he says, "so a steep shoreline helps concentrate them during the spawn. I slip in there and use a 10-foot B&M long-rod to dip a tube jig right on their nose."
Many anglers like to use minnows to catch spawning crappies, but Mussman considers them, "too slow. I'll use minnows when a cold front is making for a tough bite and I need something absolutely irresistible. If you're using minnows and they're slamming them as soon as they hit the water, switch to tube jigs. Jigs save time and you'll put more fish in the boat when they're biting that well."
Mussman directs crappie anglers to several areas of the Mississippi along Iowa's eastern border. On Pool 13 he cites Lower Lake Sabula, Dead Lake, Barge Lake, Pin Oaks Lake and Spring Lake as prime crappie holes. On Pool 14 he favors Rock Creek, Willow Lake, Jacob's Cove, the spillway at Clinton, and Beaver Lake as some of his primary places to pull crappies.
Mussman says anglers will be happy with the crappies they boat from the Mississippi this year. "I predict they'll average 10- to 11-inches. You'll see a lot of 12- and 13-inchers. Crappies are looking really good this year on the Mississippi."
Another species looking good on the big river this year is walleyes. Mussman says the walleye bite is traditionally good in early May and gets better as the month progresses.
"They're coming off the spawn in April and really start going in the middle of May, headed toward some of the best fishing of the year in June," claims Mussman. "The river level is a major factor, of course, but as soon as I can start fishing wingdams, I'm dropping a jig and a leech and catching walleyes."
If changing river levels make fishing wingdams questionable, Mussman ties on a crankbait and explores any rocky structure associated with currents in backwaters or running sloughs. River levels control where in the river walleyes are found; water temperature dictates their activity level.
"When the water temperature hits 76 degrees, that's the magic number for walleyes," says Mussman. "When the water is 76 degrees, if you can find any rock in the river, you'll catch walleyes."
Bluegills and largemouth bass also thrive in the Mississippi's backwaters. Mussman said anglers who find crappie spawning beds have also found hotspots for bluegills and bass.
"They all spawn in the same general places, relative to river level," Mussman says. "Crappies go first, then bluegills, then bass. If water levels hold steady through May you can stay on those spots and hammer fish all spring long."
Iowa's Southern Two Tiers
Iowa's southern two tiers of counties have a string of fishing opportunities that blossom in May. From Lake Geode in Henry County to Viking Lake in Montgomery County, more than a dozen well-managed lakes offer anglers exceptional crappie, walleye and even bullhead fishing.
DNR fisheries biologists are watching Lake Sugema in Van Buren County this spring to see if a winter-experiment to rid the lake of gizzard shad worked. DNR fisheries biologist Mark Flammang said last fall that plans were to lightly treat the lake with a de-oxygenating chemical last winter to stress and kill shad without harming more resilient gamefish.
"Sugema is really coming on as a walleye and crappie lake," says Flammang. "If we can get rid of the shad I predict really good fishing this year and for the next few years."
Farther west, 12-Mile Lake, near Afton, drew good reviews from Don Scott of Murray. Scott formerly ran a local bait shop, and says walleyes at 12 Mile averaged 12- to 21-inches in 2010. "They caught them off the face of the dam, around the fishing jetties, anyplace there was rock," he says. "Yellow seemed to be the color that worked best for jigs, along with reds and whites."
Yellow was also the color preferred by crappies at 12 Mile Lake last year, according to Scott. "They caught a lot of them during the spawn off the ends of the dam, where they moved in and out of the coves where they spawned," he says. "Mother's Day weekend is traditionally the peak down here for the crappie spawn. Another lake that did well for crappies last year was Nine Eagles. It gets overlooked, but the guys who went there caught some nice crappies."
Scott isn't ashamed to admit he's a fan of bullheads. "I'm an old catfisherman, so me and bullheads get along just fine," he explains. He didn't have time to personally experience the phenomenon last year, but noted reports of exceptional catches of large, 1- to 2-pound bullheads from the upper end of 12-Mile Lake. "The guys I talked to said they were nice ones, as long as you got them before the water warmed up too much," he said.
Scott says he and other catfishing anglers have learned to fish for channel cats off the fishing jetties near the cabins at 12 Mile Lake. At Little River Lake, near Leon in Decatur County, he sends catfish hunters to "a spot down by the bait house that's good -- just ask the guys at the bait house and they'll point it out."
Local bait shops are also good places to learn where fish are biting in May on Big Creek Lake in Polk County (bluegills, crappies), Rathbun Lake in Appanoose County (crappies, walleyes), Clear Lake in Cerro Gordo County (yellow bass, walleyes) and Storm Lake in Buena Vista County (walleyes, catfish). In fact, just about any lake in Iowa will produce fish on a sunny day in May -- and often on a cloudy one. It's Iowa's best month for fishing.