Iowa has a much-deserved reputation for high-quality walleye fishing -- and a number of destinations in the southern portion of the state make it easy to see why that's so.
Photo by Tom Evans
The time has come for walleye anglers in Iowa to be honest. When they make their annual pilgrimage to northern Iowa's natural lakes, or the 10,000 lakes of Minnesota, do they head north simply because that's where they find good walleye fishing? Or do they head north simply because they want to get away from it all, like the household chores, the job, the cornfields? Either way, going north isn't just a convenient thing to do -- it's a smart choice.
If their goal is simply to catch walleyes, they really don't have to head north. Several lakes south of Interstate 80 in southern Iowa offer walleye fishing on par with the best northerly lakes.
"I've fished walleye tournaments in over a dozen states," said Des Moines angler Mike Heller, "and there aren't many lakes in Minnesota, Wisconsin or the Dakotas, even Canada, that can beat the walleye fishing in Rathbun, Little River and, especially, the pool below Davenport on the Mississippi River.
"On Rathbun, it's reasonable to expect to catch your limit just about every time you fish there, and I've caught as many as 50 in a day. As far as the Mississippi below Davenport, it's got a lot of lakes in Minnesota and Canada beat for size and numbers; I caught a 34-incher in downtown Davenport, and the overall population of walleyes is really, really strong."
As an alternative for anglers interested in catching fish rather than spending their time driving north, Heller and several other walleye fanatics offered a run-down on how, when and where to catch walleyes in the bottom half of Iowa:
A guide at Lake Rathbun, Ron Boylan of Moravia -- (641) 724-3501 -- says that unlike their cousins up north, who favor cloudy, rainy weather, walleyes at Rathbun like things bright and sunny.
"Clear blue skies in June and July in the middle of the afternoon is some of the best walleye fishing of the year at Rathbun," said Boylan, who riffled through his fishing journal to find random examples of his midsummer success at Rathbun. "Last year on the 10th of July, I caught 24 walleyes €¦ on the 20th I caught 16. Those were just average days. They bite like that right through the end of July."
Boylan's preference is to cast 1/4-ounce chartreuse auger-tail jigs tipped with 2- to 2 1/2-inch minnows over shallow points and humps. Fowler's Point, where the Ham Creek and Honey Creek arms meet the main lake, has the features that walleyes seek out. An old creek channel swings near the point, and packs of walleyes prey on schools of shad that frequent the abrupt changes in bottom contour. Midlake humps dotted with rockpiles (often marked with buoys) and an old rock quarry on the big flat near the Island View area are also prime hunting grounds.
"One of the keys is to keep moving," said Boylan. "I'll fish a spot for 10 or 15 minutes, then move on. I'm after feeding fish -- fish that are aggressive. And after 10 or 15 minutes, you've taken the aggressive fish from an area, and it's better to move on, rather than sit and wait for other fish to get hungry."
Sometimes Boylan casts crankbaits to points and humps. He favors Wally Divers, Reef Runners and Rapala Shad Raps, all in shad or crawdad colors. He occasionally trolls to locate walleyes. The bluff shoreline from Ranger Point to Ballard Point, he reports, is one of his most productive areas to drag crankbaits for walleyes.
While trolling is second or third choice for Boylan, it's the first choice for Heller. "Rathbun has trolling written all over it," he said. "It has got big, wide flats with 5 to 10 feet of water, underwater humps, big long points -- it's a great lake to troll."
Heller trolls Rapala Shad Raps in shad colors -- white/black, chrome, chrome/black -- and uses Bombers in similar colors. "I always work the windward shore, and up to a point, the windier it is, the better," he said. "The more waves there are, the shallower they will be. But if it gets too windy, it's hard to control the boat when you're working that close to shore or really shallow areas."
Another walleye tournament angler who frequents Lake Rathbun, Joel Shaw of Fairfield likes to pull Wally Divers, Reef Runners and crawdad-colored crankbaits at Rathbun. "I troll crankbaits to find fish on the big flats at Island View, Southfork, maybe Rolling Cove," he offered. "Rolling Cove is good when the water level in that area is around 8 to 16 feet. It's not as good if the lake is high and there's 26 feet of water over it.
"Everybody is used to fishing up north along breaklines and dropoffs in 8, 10 or 12 feet of water," said Shaw. "At Rathbun, you have to think shallow for walleyes in the summer. There are times when you'll take them in only 2 feet of water on a bright, sunny day. It's an odd pattern, but it makes for great walleye fishing in midsummer."
LITTLE RIVER LAKE
Shaw calls Little River Lake, near Leon in far south-central Iowa, one of the state's best-kept secrets for walleyes. "It's only an hour from Des Moines, just a few miles east of Interstate 35 (on Highway 2), but it seems to be under everybody's radar when it comes to walleyes," he said. "We've caught 8- and 9-pounders there during tournaments, and there's a nice population of 2- to 4-pounders. In fact, bass guys complain that during bass tournaments, they waste a lot of time catching walleyes when they want to be catching bass."
Walleye anglers should take a cue from those frustrated bass anglers. While there are plenty of walleyes on Little River's traditional walleye structure -- riprap jetties, the face of the dam, rock piles on major points -- some of the biggest walleyes lurk in areas usually associated with largemouth bass.
"They're in the standing timber in deep water," said Shaw. "Look for trees in 8 to 25 feet of water. The walleyes will be right in close to the trunk of the tree, or close to major branches out away from the trunk. Guys do real well jigging right down in the trees or casting a stick bait past the tree and working it back at a certain depth."
According to Shaw, shore-anglers too have a good chance at Little River's walleyes, because the fish move shallow during low-light conditions. Jigs, spinners or crankbaits cast from the face of the dam, or from the jetties early in the morning, late in the day, or just after dark, can be very productive.
"Don't overlook just hanging a minnow, or leech or night crawlers under a bobber, either," he said. "A walleye will rarely turn down a chance to take
a live bait. That's a great way to fish from shore at Little River."
MISSISSIPPI RIVER'S POOL 16
Heller, the walleye tournament angler from Des Moines, is almost reverent when he talks about the walleye potential of the Mississippi River downstream from Davenport.
"The next Iowa state-record walleye is going to come from that area," he offered by way of prediction. "There are some huge fish in that pool. And the number of 'eaters' is phenomenal."
While many walleye hunters on the big river focus on areas immediately below the locks and dams, Heller and Robbie Roush, his tournament partner, troll areas littered with rock along the bottom, mussel beds, or along riprap shorelines.
"Look for 6 to 12 feet of water along railroad grades, or other riprap shorelines," he suggested. "If you see a lot of whitish-looking small rocks on the shore when the river is low, they're actually clam shells, and clam beds are really good places to troll."
Trolling downriver at up to 4 mph allows Heller and Roush to get their crankbaits down to the bottom more easily than when they back-troll slowly upstream against the current. Heller warns that while getting on the bottom over clam beds is deadly for walleyes, it can be expensive.
"We've had days when we've lost 50 crankbaits getting them cut off on the clamshells," he said. "Zebra mussels are really bad for that. But most of the time, if you use floating crankbaits, they'll eventually pop up to the surface. You can usually recover most of the ones that get cut off." For trolling the pair mainly fish Rapala baits -- Originals Floating Minnow, Shad Raps, Fat Raps.
Heller says that, ultimately, no matter what lure he uses in Lake Rathbun, Little River Lake, or the Mississippi River below Davenport, the potential for walleyes is as good as or better than in many others of the northern lakes he has fished.
So how about it, walleye anglers? If it's walleyes you want, there's no need to point your vehicle north. Iowa has plenty of quality walleye fishing -- and some of the best spots are south of Interstate 80.