It's no secret that Iowa's Big Creek Lake brims with small and midsized walleyes, but few anglers know where -- and how -- to catch the big boys. Starting today, the secret's out. (July 2008)
IDNR surveys at Big Creek Lake, northwest of Des Moines, have turned up walleyes weighing more than 11 pounds.
Photo by Mike Bleech.
It's interesting to see the reaction that you get if you talk about fishing for walleyes at Big Creek Lake in northern Polk County. Many anglers shake their heads and mutter, "Lots of walleyes . . . if you like small walleyes."
But a few tight-lipped walleye experts quietly slide their boats in and out of Big Creek, doing their best not to attract any attention. Ben Dodd, an Iowa Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist who manages the lake's fisheries, reported that his annual surveys parallel the few stories he's been able to pry from those local sages.
"We've seen walleyes up to 11 pounds in our surveys at Big Creek," said Dodd, "and there are a few guys who catch those big ones. They're pretty tight-lipped, but from what I've been able to get out of them, they're not fishing in the usual walleye places, and they're not using traditional walleye jigs and minnows."
Urbandale taxidermist and guide Lawayne Luers concedes that he regularly encounters larger-than-legal walleyes at Big Creek. "My personal best so far was a 9-pound, 28-incher that we caught and released," he said. "There are plenty of legal ones in there, but the trick is to find them and catch their interest."
SO MANY -- SO SMALL?
With most interested parties in agreement that Big Creek has a large population of walleyes of varying sizes, the obvious question is: Why has the majority of the walleye population stayed just below legal limits for so many years?
Dodd is nearing the end of a three-year research project designed to answer that very question. "We've been gill-netting in the spring to monitor age and growth of walleyes and muskies in Big Creek," he said. "We see a lot of 11- to 14-inch walleyes in our nets, but not a lot of 15- to 17-inchers. We always see some real pigs in our nets, up in the 9- to 11-pound range, but the majority of walleyes at Big Creek are sub-legal."
In Luers' view, the phenomenal crappie fishing enjoyed at Big Creek in recent years is a factor in keeping more walleyes from achieving lunker distinction. "I think that at a certain size, walleyes and crappies compete for the same food base," he observed. "And there is a huge -- almost unbelievable -- population of crappies in Big Creek right now. If anglers really work on the crappies, or if Mother Nature does something to maybe mellow the crappie population just a little, we might see an explosion of nice walleyes in there."
"QUALITY TIME" COUNTS
Luers is quick to note that plenty of "nice" walleyes already swim Big Creek -- it just takes a little patience and experience to find them.
"If," he said, "you go out to Big Creek in the summertime and fish a couple hours before dark -- zip around the lake and fish a half-dozen spots for 15 minutes each and are loading up as the sun sets -- you're not going to catch the big ones. You don't have to spend hours and hours out there, but you've got to spend quality time -- fishing the right places at the right times in the right ways."
In a nutshell: Luers meets with his best success with Big Creek's midsummer walleyes by fishing deep-water edges in the evenings or just after sunset. He isn't averse to trolling. "I've had good luck trolling the weedlines up at the north end, using crankbaits like a No. 5 Shad Rap," he said. "I'll also troll the big open bays, slow-trolling at less than two miles per hour, trying to get my lure down so it digs into the bottom occasionally.
"The problem at Big Creek is that they've put in so many submerged brushpiles and structures along the shorelines and on underwater humps that you have to be real careful where you troll."
Luers' preferred method for landing lunker walleyes is to jig vertically in several deepwater locations in the lake, the face of the dam being a favorite starting spot. He works parallel to the dam, starting in 5 feet of water, and moves deeper by increments of 5 feet, patrolling back and forth along the face of the dam as he works toward the lake's deepest water.
"There's always a concern about a thermocline in the middle of summer, but I seem to catch walleyes -- big ones -- right off the bottom of the south end of the lake," he said. "I think the lake narrows down so much before water moves out the channel to Lost Lake and then over the spillway into Saylorville (Lake) that there's enough current to keep a thermocline from forming in that part of the lake."
Luers selects jigging rigs on the basis of depth. From 5 to 25 feet, he uses 6- to 8-pound monofilament line tied to a 1/8-ounce orange or chartreuse jighead tipped with one of three options: a red, white and blue Berkley "Captain America" twistertail, a 3- to 4-inch, tailhooked river chub, or a 6-inch-long Zoom Lizard in a watermelon hue with red flakes. But when working deeper than 25 feet, he switches to thinner-diameter 8- to 14-pound-test Fireline and heavier 1/4- to 3/8-ounce jigheads to help keep his line vertical. He also switches to white/pink jigheads. "Different colors for different depths make a difference," he said.
Luers feels that a big-bait-big-fish strategy helps discourage crappies and small walleyes and makes his rigs more attractive to larger walleyes at Big Creek. "Something that also helps at Big Creek when you're using minnows is to tailhook them," he said. "Tailhooked minnows are more active -- seem to put more vibration in the water compared to lip-hooked minnows.
"Vertical jigging along the dam or along deep ledges really works. I'm lifting (the jigs) from 8 to 16 inches, straight up and down. They seem to take it on the drop, so it's important to keep a tight line on the drop."
When he tips his jigs with the 6- or 9-inch Zoom Lizards, Luers uses Northland stand-up jigheads, as he likes the way the big Lizards work on the stand-up jigheads. "The head of the Lizard sticks out at an angle from the jighead," he said. "Then, the body droops down, so you get nice action on the lift and again on the drop. One thing when I'm using the 9-inch Lizard in real deep water is that I often use a stinger hook fastened to the jig hook. It's not embedded or connected to the Lizard body -- but about half the walleyes that take that rig get caught on that stinger hook."
FISHING ON THE EDGE
Luers prefers to look deep for larger walleyes when he's jigging vertically at Big Creek. He pointed to the f
ace of the dam, the steep shoreline southwest of the handicapped fishing pier, deep water north of the handicapped fishing pier and a deep area between the two boat ramps on the west side of Big Creek's main body as appropriate sites for this method.
The common element linking those spots is that the bottom -- at 25 to 30 feet -- rises up to a ledge or distinct edge at around 15 feet. Luers finds larger walleyes scattered randomly around deep-water basins at Big Creek, but sees more of them associated with the upper edge of the first rise out of deep water.
"North of the handicapped fishing pier there's some 35-foot water that stairsteps to 25 feet, then shallows to 20 feet at a pretty steep angle," he said. "Eventually there's a slow rise to a bunch of cedar-tree piles in 16 feet of water. I start deep and work my way up those rises. I never find the walleyes actually in or around the cedar trees; they're always between the deepest water and that shallower structure.
Luers' final comments about walleye fishing at Big Creek should give those who fish from shore cause for optimism. "On the west side, the fishing jetty near the south boat ramp is within casting distance of 35 feet of water," he said. "You can cast out into deep water and work a rig back to shore, and do real well for big walleyes.
"That's a great place to fish along the bottom using 6- to 8-pound mono with a 1/2-ounce bell sinker tied 8 inches above a swivel tied to a 24-inch long mono leader. Put a 6/0 Gamakatsu circle hook baited with a 2 1/2-inch minnow on the end of the leader. If you want a bigger bait, go to a 2/0 Gamakatsu circle hook and a 4-inch river chub" -- tailhooked, of course.
"Another good spot for shore fishing is around the swimming beach and marina after sunset. (Walleyes) move in real shallow in that area after dark, to the point where if you're fishing more than 35 feet from shore, you're fishing too deep.
"If you rig with a tailhooked large minnow 5 or 6 feet below a lighted bobber, and fish that area after dark, you've got a real good chance of catching some of the bigger walleyes at Big Creek."