Iowa Walleyes: A State of the State Address

Want to know where to go for Hawkeye State walleyes this year? Look no further. Our experts have all the answers right here.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

By Dan Anderson

Dr. Ken Budke of Cedar Falls is a walleye fishing fanatic who bucks local tradition. "Other guys go to Minnesota when they want to catch big walleyes or a lot of walleyes," he said. "When I go up north, I fish strictly for crappies. I stay in Iowa if I want to catch walleyes, because I think the fishing is just as good or better here."

What fuels Budke's enthusiasm for local walleye fishing? Past performance. There's a 10.2-pound walleye on his wall - a 31-inch specimen from the Cedar River - and he reverently recalls a small pool below a rock bar on the Cedar that produced five 2-pounders in 20 minutes.

"There are three rivers within 30 miles of Cedar Falls/Waterloo that I'd rate as excellent for walleyes," said Budke. "The Cedar, the Shell Rock and the Wapsipinicon are great rivers for walleyes, but not many people know about what they have to offer."

The walleye potential of Iowa's inland rivers is one of our state's best-kept angling secrets - probably because for many years there wasn't much potential. Natural reproduction of walleyes in our inland rivers was inconsequential, so for many years the Iowa Department of Natural Resources stocked walleye fry to boost walleye numbers. Those stockings resulted in only a nominal population of walleyes. Research conducted by the IDNR in the late 1980s indicated that the annual stockings would be much more successful if they stocked fingerlings rather than fry.

"We now stock 2-inch fingerlings at rates based on the size of a river's watershed," said Bryan Hayes, fisheries management biologist in northeast Iowa. "On a big river like the Cedar, we stock 1,000 2-inch walleyes per running mile of river. On the Shell Rock, it's more like 600 2-inchers per mile."

Growth rates for the fingerling walleyes stocked each spring have been phenomenal. Many of the stocked walleyes measure 7 inches by fall of their first year in the rivers.

"There's currently about triple the number of walleyes in the rivers up here as there were prior to 2000," reported Hayes. "We had excellent conditions in the spring of 2000, and again in 2001, so we've got two big year-classes moving up through the system. In 2003 we saw a lot of fish from the 2001 stocking that already measured 15 to 16 inches."

The rapid growth of the walleye population in the Cedar, Shell Rock and Wapsipinicon rivers is the main reason Dr. Budke panfishes in Minnesota and walleye-fishes in Iowa. In his view, it takes a different mindset, different equipment and different strategies to capitalize on the walleye potential of Iowa's inland rivers.

"The current standard for a walleye boat on lakes in the upper Midwest is a 20-foot Lund with a 200-hp motor and a 9.9 kicker (motor)," he said. "I use a 14-foot flatbottom with a 9.9 (motor) and an electric trolling motor for my river fishing. A lot of the boat ramps on the rivers are gravel, sand or maybe just mud, and you'll never get a big boat in and out. Plus, by midsummer the rivers are so low you've got to have a boat you can pull over sand and rock bars if you want to get to the good holes."

Getting to the good holes is the key to walleye success on Iowa's inland rivers. Anglers who limit themselves to the tailwaters of dams have success during the spring when walleyes migrate upstream and cluster below dams, but miss out when walleyes disperse downstream as waters warm.

Budke likes to explore remote stretches of the Cedar or Shell Rock, in search of rock bars, rock ledges or riprap. "Sometimes the best spots are little rock bars or a limestone ledge in a long stretch of mud or sandy bottom," he said. "All the walleyes in that stretch will be associated with that rocky structure."

Certain sandbars also draw the attention of walleyes - and Budke. "Some sandbars have abrupt dropoffs on their downstream ends," he explained, "almost like vertical walls. I've seen walleyes work upstream and trap minnows against that wall. If you drift a night crawler and a split shot over that dropoff, a lot of times there's a walleye waiting for it."

Walleye anglers who won't leave their garages without tackle boxes full of jigs and crankbaits would feel naked if restricted to Budke's tackle selection. "Ninety-five percent of the time, all I use is a long-shanked Eagle Claw hook and a night crawler with a split shot pinched on above it. I look for rocky structure where there's enough current to create a backcurrent or eddy so there's a 'seam,' and I drift my night crawler into that seam.

"Walleyes are lazy fish," chuckled Budke. "They're going to be just out of the current, but close enough so they can take advantage of any food that's drifting on the current."

He noted that the upstream edge of root balls of big trees lying in the current is another popular spot with riverine walleyes. "Study the current, and you'll notice there's usually about a 2-foot cushion of slack water on the upstream side of those big root balls. You'll lose a lot of hooks fishing those spots, but walleyes love that little pocket of slack water with the current going by on all sides."

Budke forgoes his beloved night crawlers for a brief period each fall. For a week or two in late October into nearly November, he tail-hooks 5- or 6-inch shiners and fishes them "in all the usual spots," as he puts it.

"That's what I caught my 10-pounder on," he said. "In the fall, they're feeding very aggressively. That's the best time of year to catch a big walleye, and the bigger the bait, the more likely it will be a big walleye. Most guys lip-hook their minnows, but I prefer to tail-hook them - they last longer and wiggle more than lip-hooked minnows."

While Budke focuses his attention on rivers in northeast Iowa, anglers in central, north-central and northwest Iowa have plenty of riverine walleyes to chase. All three forks of the Raccoon River in central Iowa are aggressively stocked by the IDNR each year, and the Des Moines River has become a significant walleye fishery from Lake Red Rock upstream to Estherville and beyond.

In the spring, dams - on the Des Moines at Boone, Fraser and Fort Dodge; on the forks of the Raccoon River at Adel, Panora and Redfield - are focal points for walleyes. Late in the summer, wading or canoeing between rock bars or gravel bars will be a great way to access walleyes in remote areas overlooke

d by many anglers on those rivers.

Iowa's rivers aren't the only fisheries heavily stocked with walleyes by the IDNR. Many of our larger lakes harbor significant populations of walleyes. Lake Rathbun, for example, historically has such a large population of walleyes that the IDNR nets broodstock from that lake each spring. Some of the walleyes they handle (and later release) are whoppers.

"We get quite a few 10-pounders in our gill nets every spring when we net at Rathbun," said Mark Flammang, fisheries management biologist at Rathbun. "We've handled some 12- or 13-pounders, too. There are some big walleyes in that lake. The funny thing is that, even though we see quite a few big walleyes every year in our gill nets, those big fish rarely show up in our creel surveys or at the local bait shops.

"The best bet (for Rathbun's biggest walleyes) is to focus on them during the spawn when they're concentrated in a smaller area," Flammang continued. "The area near the dam is where we set most of our nets, and where we tend to see the biggest fish. After the spawn, when they disperse all over the lake, those 10-pounders are mixed in with walleyes of all sizes, but they just don't get caught as often. Maybe they're spookier, or maybe they feed on forage fish that are larger than the minnows and leeches that anglers traditionally use for walleyes."

Some anglers have been disappointed with Lake Rathbun's walleye production in recent years, and Flammang concedes that Rathbun's walleye fishing is recovering from a downturn.

"What we think happened was that during the end of that nasty winter we had in 2000-2001, there was a lot of snowmelt and early-spring rains that filled and kept the reservoir high," he explained. "The (U.S. Army) Corps (of Engineers) had to keep the gates open during a time when a lot of the lake's walleyes were clustered near the dam for the spawn. We believe we lost a lot of walleyes through the dam that year, and it's taken several years to get things built back up again."

The good news for 2004 is that aggressive stocking in recent years has rebuilt Rathbun's walleye population. Eighty thousand 7-inch walleyes were stocked each fall, and 33 million fry were added each spring.

"We saw a real upswing in walleye numbers in 2003," said Flammang. "We saw a lot of 14- to 19-inch walleyes last year. The local diehards who have been suffering through a couple of off-years are really enthused about the numbers and quality of walleyes they saw in Rathbun in 2003, and what that means for 2004."

Flammang is also upbeat about the prospects for walleye fishing at Lake Sugema, in far southeast Iowa. Sugema was originally stocked with saugeyes when it was impounded in the early 1990s, but those hybrid crosses of saugers and walleyes never performed up to expectations.

"We started stocking fingerling walleyes in Sugema in 1997, and they really took off," said Flammang. "We had real good success from the 2000 year-class, which is now in the 14- to 19-inch range, and younger year-classes are coming on strong."

Much of the timber in Sugema's basin was left standing when it was impounded, making it a difficult lake to troll. Most anglers jig or cast crankbaits to find walleyes in standing timber near dropoffs or rock jetties. A few anglers hint there is a "secret" spot for walleyes along the lake's north shore. Flammang chuckled when asked about the rumored hotspot.

"I was hoping we could sort of keep that quiet," he grinned. "Let's just say that along the north shore, when the lake was built, there were some intakes for a rural water system installed, and they put a big area of sand and gravel around those intakes. Any walleye angler knows what that means."

Lake Sugema isn't the only Iowa walleye lake that obliges anglers to fish close to wood if they're to catch walleyes. Walleyes at Brushy Creek Lake, southeast of Fort Dodge, impress fishery biologists but confound anglers.

"Brushy Creek is weird for walleyes, because they're so strongly associated with wood in that lake," said Lannie Miller, the IDNR fisheries biologist who oversees the lake. "It's a steep-sided, deep lake that averages around 24 feet deep with lots of standing timber. I've ice-fished it and caught walleyes tight against trees in 10 to 15 feet of water. In the summer, we've electrofished them in 8 feet of water, right in the middle of a bunch of standing timber."

Anglers willing to decipher where and how to catch walleyes at Brushy Creek will be happy with the results. Stocked each year since 1998, the first year-class has already reached 8 pounds.

"The average length in 2003 was around 20 inches, and they were as fat as footballs," said Miller. "Another odd thing about Brushy Creek is that you won't catch a lot of small walleyes. We stock 6- to 7-inch fingerlings, and the growth rates are so good that they shoot right up to decent size in just a year or so."

Miller also manages North Twin Lake, near Rockwell City, and has added it to his list of good places to find walleyes in 2004. North Twin is a shallow natural lake that was known for its bullheads, carp and water-skiing for many years.

"We've always stocked walleyes in North Twin, but saw very few of them in our surveys," said Miller. "Over the years, crappies were sporadic and bluegills were nonexistent. Then, about four or five years ago, some anchored vegetation got started in North Twin at about the same time there was a carp and gizzard shad winterkill. Now we're seeing lots of 9-inch bluegills, 13-inch crappies, 10-inch yellow bass and a pretty good population of big walleyes. I'd say the average walleye in 2003 was 17 to 19 inches, with quite a few up to 9 pounds."

Miller also recommends Storm Lake to anglers in search of hefty walleyes. He suggested that anglers fish jigs along rocky shores early in the year, during the spawn. In May and June, he said, trolling is the hot ticket to a limit of walleyes from Storm Lake.

"(Walleyes) are out in the middle of the lake, following schools of shad, so they're never in one place for long," said Miller. "The guys have been doing real well trolling No. 5 silver-and-blue Shad Raps on planer boards. Long-tine trolling seems to be the second-best way to catch them in the summer."

Walleye anglers at Clear Lake in north-central Iowa near Mason City will have to recalibrate their expectations from "phenomenal" to merely "excellent" for the 2004 fishing season. "It's going to be pretty good walleye fishing," said fisheries management biologist Jim Wahl, "but that will probably seem down compared to the unbelievable fishing we had in the mid-'90s. We're pretty much back to average for Clear Lake - which is pretty darn good."

Walleyes at Clear Lake averaged 17 to 18 inches in 2002, slightly smaller in 2003. According to Wahl, the decrease in average size was a good sign. "That means another, younger year-class is entering the scene, and temporarily reduced the average size overall," he

observed. "Ultimately, it means that walleye fishing will stay good over the long run."

Wahl notes that walleyes up to 9 or 10 pounds are present in Clear Lake, but that conventional walleye tackle and tactics may not target them. "Big walleyes live right in among all the smaller walleyes, so it's not a matter of looking for them in other places," he said. "The trick is to be there with the right bait when they decide to eat. Smaller walleyes are growing fast and eat a lot of small forage. Big walleyes may eat only once a week, and eat an 8- or 10-inch yellow bass when they do eat. Being there with the right bait whenever they get hungry is the trick to catching really big walleyes."

That's good advice, whether you drive 6 to 8 hours to get to northern Minnesota or Canada, or just 30 minutes to get to one of Iowa's walleye-filled rivers or lakes.

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