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The Best Of Des Moines River Walleyes

The Best Of Des Moines River Walleyes

Central Iowa's dominant river is simply terrific for anglers wanting to catch 'eyes this spring. And the section of river near the capital city is one of the best areas.

Photo by Ted Peck

Anglers looking to catch a few walleyes this month should look no farther than the Des Moines River, Iowa's longest interior river. Its meandering waters offer some of the best walleye fishing in the state, and what's more, some of its best walleye waters are near the city of Des Moines.

Dick McWilliams, Iowa Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist in charge of the area, recommends that anglers target the long stretch of water southeast of the city during periods of high water.

Now, he's not talking about mud and soup -- fishing for any species can be tough under those conditions. He's referring to rising water in May and June. "As the water rises, the fish begin to move," he explained. "They get active."

River 'eyes are a little different from their impoundment brethren. Just like all other fish that live in our rivers, Des Moines River walleyes have a preference for shallow water. Sometimes that means water so shallow that you wonder how it can cover their backs. (In some cases, it doesn't.)

Because of this movement into shallow water, different lures and rigs are needed to catch these fish. Sure, you can catch a few with night crawlers on a harness, but there are better options. Hard baits, especially jerkbaits and crankbaits, are the choice for savvy anglers. These baits have proven successful along the 60-mile stretch of river from the Scott Avenue Dam in downtown Des Moines on downstream to the Red Rock Reservoir Dam, southwest of Pella.

Many anglers prefer large jerkbaits -- those in the 5- to 7-inch range --because the lures match the hatch along the river. (Any organism that survived the winter is going to have at least one year of growth under its belt.)

Anglers' preferences vary when it comes to the style and design of baits. The most popular choices are thin, long-bodied lures with a medium to wide wobble. The wider wobble allows for a harder thump in the water. This makes it easier for the fish to find and zero in on the lure. A few anglers use rattles for the same reason. After all, most anglers will agree that, even under the best of conditions, Des Moines River water can hardly be called "clear."


Toss jerkbaits having a silver or gray body and either a blue or black back when the water is only slightly stained. If the water has some color to it, however, go with a color that offers more visibility, including chartreuse, clown and a variety of greens, reds and pinks. Again, the idea is to help the fish find the lure.

For the best results, throw the lures on medium baitcasting or spinning tackle using the lightest line that you feel comfortable using. Whatever the choice, go with a line that's abrasion-resistant.

Many anglers are now using leaders made from the newer fluorocarbon lines. Most offer low stretch and are nearly invisible. Fluorocarbon nicks easily, so check the line often and replace whenever necessary.


When fishing the river, anglers would do well to fish along the outside edges of channel bends or breaks that are situated near spawning flats. After spawning, the better fish move off the flats and stage at the first drop. In a river that's almost always a channel break.

Spawning flats are easily identified, too -- typically, expansive areas having a hard bottom composed of pea gravel, sand or chunk rock. Such areas may be found near a dam, feeder creek, inflow or exposed rocky point.

Though most of these locations will be on the outside swing of the channel, a few will be found in cuts, sloughs and other backwater areas. In many cases the best spawning areas will be in areas having 2 to 10 feet of water and are along the northeastern shore, which receives prolonged periods of sunshine.

Active fish are most often encountered along the front edge of the bend. When the fish are neutral, or aren't actively feeding, try the back edge.

Cast your lure into the current, and as soon as it lands on the water, crank it down to its maximum running depth as fast and as hard as possible. Once there, twitch it along, moving the lure no more than a foot at a time, with long pauses in between twitches.


Anglers living close to Lake Red Rock -- a huge impoundment on the Des Moines River -- should definitely give it a try this month for walleyes. The location will fish a bit differently than the river does, though. Once again, you can fish with a night crawler and harness if you want, but there are quite a few other methods that will produce.

First, look for spawning flats off the main channel. Target the same places you would in the river. Keep in mind, however, that the water is likely to be a little warmer and a little clearer in the lake.

Crankbaits are top choices as baits. Select small, buoyant shad-imitating lures that run several feet in depth and have a tight wiggle. Balsa-wood baits work well.

If the bite is tough, or if there is a lot of water to cover, consider trolling. It's easy to do and allows for precise lure control.

Tailrace waters are another excellent choice for early-season walleyes. The current typically found in these areas presents a host of problems for jerkbaits and crankbaits, so casting spoons will be a better choice. Select silver spoons having a tear drop shape and weigh 3/4 ounce to 1 ounce. Big, sharp high-quality hooks on the spoons are a must. These lures will be used under tough conditions, and you'll need every advantage you can get. Medium baitcasting tackle is the minimum for fishing the spoons, though medium-heavy tackle and line, such as 14-pound-test, represent a better option.

When fishing tailrace waters or spillways, select tiny eddies as the prime targets for presenting lures. Formed by obstructions from rock, wood or some other object, eddies are often where the bigger walleyes are found.

Allow your spoon to drop to the bottom and then work it with sharp jerks toward the surface. Once it gets to the surface, allow it to drop back down and repeat the process until you're out of the spot or you're hung -- a frequent occurrence if you're fishing correctly.

There's no way to avoid hangups if you want to catch big fish. The only thing to do is to buy lots of spoons and learn to accept their loss as a p

art of the fishing experience.

Another effective tailrace technique for May and June walleyes is to fish jigs with either a minnow or a small piece of night crawler attached. The best way to do this is to allow the jig to tumble along through the swirls and seams in the current. If it stops suddenly or your line twitches, set the hook. You'll catch a lot of keeper 'eyes this way; you'll also lose a ton of jigs.

Access is no problem to either the Des Moines River or Lake Red Rock. Check the IDNR Web site at, or call (641) 464-3108 for details.

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