Whether you prefer reservoirs or moving water, May is a great time to target 'eyes in Central Iowa. Try these hotspots for more action this month.
By Dan Anderson
Years from now, walleye anglers in central Iowa will recall 2003, nod knowingly, and say, "That was a great year for walleyes." Given favorable weather patterns, all the elements are in place to create one of the best years in memory for walleye fishing in central Iowa.
A new lake has roared onto the scene, producing more and larger walleyes than fisheries biologists dreamed possible. An old lake has been born again, thanks to a fluke of nature and hard work by local anglers and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. Another old lake is resurgent with a population of lunker walleyes, and local rivers are producing daily limits of walleyes for anglers who know the tricks for finding and catching 'eyes from moving water.
BIG CREEK BONANZA By now, central Iowa anglers are aware of how Big Creek Lake, near Polk City, has rebounded from an overpopulation of gizzard shad. Shad populations were so high by late 2000 that the IDNR decided to drain the lake and start over.
Local anglers and businessmen protested that this process would wipe out fishing and fishing-related business for three to four years. After a series of public meetings, the IDNR agreed to begin a program of aggressively stocking game fish in an attempt to reduce the shad population rather than drain and kill.
But before the stocking program could get underway, Mother Nature stepped in and clobbered the shad population at Big Creek with a massive winter kill during the winter of 2000-01. Random IDNR surveys in the fall of 2001 were unable to find a single shad in the lake.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
"It's inconceivable that every shad in the lake died, so we went ahead with our plans to super-stock predator species to stay ahead of any shad population that redevelops," said Marion Conover, IDNR Chief of Fisheries. "We've been adding thousands of extra walleyes and bass and wiper bass, along with extra catfish and muskellunge, and we instituted length and possession limits to help maintain a large population of predator species."
Along with more-stringent possession and length limits for largemouth bass and wiper bass, walleye regulations at Big Creek were tightened. The minimum length of a legal walleye is now 15 inches. The daily possession limit for walleyes is three, with no more than one walleye longer than 20 inches.
The program of super stocking predators and tightening possession regulations was added to a lake that was nearing maturity after a major renovation in the early 1990s. Big Creek had been drawn down and millions of dollars invested in adding rockpiles, anchoring brushpiles and bulldozing humps and trenches on the lake's floor. Silt dams were added to the upper end of the lake to reduce siltation, and miles of shoreline were riprapped to control shoreline erosion.
It took several years for the new habitat to mature. Brush and rockpiles eventually acquired a layer of moss and algae; this supports microscopic critters attractive to the small fish that, in turn, attract game species. About the time the habitat was ripe to support optimized populations of fish, the great shad winterkill and subsequent game fish super-stocking jump-started angling opportunities that may eventually outshine Big Creek's glory days in the early 1980s.
"(Walleye anglers) caught a bazillion sub-legal walleyes out of Big Creek last year," said Cory Batterson, a semi-pro walleye tournament angler from Pleasant Hill. "Plus, some of the holdover walleyes from before they started the super-stocking were legal last year, so you usually had something to take home.
"This year a lot of those stocked fish will be legal," he predicted. "It's going to be something to see."
Walleyes aren't hard to find at Big Creek - if you know where to look. A number of old roadbeds snake across the lake's bottom, and the IDNR added rockpiles to many of those roadbeds during the lake's renovation. Combine the roadbeds' rapid change in depth with the availability of rocky habitat, and they become prime targets for walleye hunters.
One of the best roadbeds initially runs northwest from the boat ramp nearest the handicapped accessible pier, then angles north at midlake to meet and parallel the east shoreline. Where it angles north, it is met by another roadbed that runs due east from the west shoreline.
The stretch of roadbed that parallels the east shoreline is especially attractive to walleyes because the lake bottom drops off rapidly on its west side. Walleyes and other game fish lurk along that rise and wait for schools of baitfish to move up into shallower water.
Another roadbed shoots east to west across the middle of Big Creek. On the east shoreline, the old roadway is barely visible in the grass from the north of the loop road to the first large picnic area north of the handicapped accessible fishing pier. That roadbed emerges from the lake's west side at the main point that guards the mouth of the northwest arm.
A third roadbed crosses that northwest arm of the lake. Follow Northwest 100th Street and you can see across the arm to where the roadbed emerges on the other side. A slight current from water moving into that arm, coupled with rockpiles stacked on the submerged roadbed, attract walleyes from that entire arm of the lake.
Rockpiles scattered off the sandy point west of the swimming beach have also attracted a lot of walleyes. The rockpiles are strung along a break where the bottom drops down to 20 feet. Anglers do well trolling over the rockpiles or along the edge of the dropoff into deeper water.
Other rockpiles are scattered around the lake, off main points and along dropoffs into the old creek channel. Topographic maps are available at the IDNR's Web site at www. state.ia.us/fish, or at Bill Dearden's Polk City Bait and Tackle in downtown Polk City.
BOOM AT BRUSHY CREEK Brushy Creek Lake was impounded in 1998, and walleyes were first stocked in the fall of that year. The 700-acre lake, which is five miles east of Lehigh and about an hour and a half northwest of Des Moines, promises exceptional walleye angling in 2003.
"As soon as there was enough water to support them after we closed the gates, we started adding 4-inch fingerling walleyes," said Lannie Miller, the IDNR fisheries biologist in charge of that new lake. "The next year, in the fall of 1999, we had reliable reports of guys catching 15- and 16-inch walleyes. T
he growth rate was phenomenal - from 4 inches to 15 inches in one year is unheard of. And they kept growing fast. In 2000, we were seeing 21- and 22-inch walleyes. I know that for a fact because I caught some of them myself. The walleyes in that lake have grown unbelievably fast."
That initial stocking has plenty of company. The IDNR has added 10,000 6-inch fingerlings each fall since the stocking in 1998. Studies showed that 6-inch fingerlings have better survival than the 4-inchers originally stocked in the lake
Miller said that anglers haven't applied a lot of pressure to walleyes at Brushy Creek so far. The extreme topography of the lake is going to make it a challenge for anglers locked into fishing traditional shallow Iowa walleye lakes.
"Brushy Creek is deep," said Miller, "and it drops off fast. There are only one or two shallow points in the lake, and they would be considered steep dropoffs in most Iowa lakes. But we put a lot of humps covered with rockpiles in the lake, and the walleyes are really associating with those changes in depth.
"I think anglers are going to have to change the way they fish for walleyes when they fish Brushy Creek," Miller continued. "For example, a couple of winters ago, I was ice fishing for walleyes and caught four walleyes that averaged 20 inches that were suspended at 25 feet in 45 feet of water. That's unheard of in Iowa - walleyes suspending like that. We're used to them hugging the bottom on points or along dropoffs.
"But these walleyes were associated with standing timber in that deep water. I'm assuming they were following baitfish. I think the trick at Brushy Creek will be to find baitfish, and the walleyes will be in that neighborhood."
Anglers who visit Brushy Creek for the first time may be intimidated by the amount of cover in the lake. Few trees were removed prior to impoundment, and the twisted, rugged shoreline is nonstop nooks and crannies. Miller recommended anglers get a topographic map from a local baitshop or from the IDNR's Web site, and use it to pinpoint a few places that have been identified as walleye favorites.
The riprapped face of the dam always holds a few walleyes, especially in conjunction with a large hump just north of the west end of the dam. A submerged roadbed runs nearly the entire length of the west side of the lake, emerging at the north boat ramp.
"We piled rocks all along the shoulders of that road before the lake filled," said Miller. "You could troll the whole length of that roadbed and probably be on walleyes the whole length of the lake."
Other east-west roads crawl down into the lake and intersect that north-south roadbed. One road bisects the lake about a mile north of the dam. Another crosses the lake about a quarter mile south of the north boat ramp.
Miller warned that walleye anglers may also have to adapt to Brushy Creek's exceptionally clear water. Cloudy days, early morning, evening or night bites may be the rule.
"Some guys I know who fish it a lot for walleyes told me that during one period last summer, the walleye bite started around 10 or 11 p.m. and ran until 2 in the morning," said Miller. "With the water as clear as it is, it looks like sunny days are going to be a challenge at Brushy Creek."
Once anglers figure out where and when to catch Brushy Creek's walleyes, they should be more than satisfied with the results.
"The walleyes are fat, thick and healthy," said Miller. "You're going to see a lot of 5-, 6- and 7-pound walleyes come out of that lake this year."
WALLEYES LURKING AT LITTLE RIVER Little River Lake lies just east of Interstate 35 near Leon, about an hour and a half south of Des Moines. The lake enjoyed tremendous walleye fishing when it was impounded in the 1980s, but fell into shadow when Twelve Mile and Three Mile Lakes came on line and offered "new lake" fishing during the 1990s.
"Everybody heads to Twelve Mile and Three Mile, but I actually prefer Little River for walleyes," said Cory Batterson, a tournament angler from Pleasant Hill. "Little River has bigger walleyes. They'll average 21 to 22 inches, and I've heard of quite a few 8-pounders coming out of there in the past year."
Batterson recommends anglers search all the usual suspects when searching for walleyes at Little River.
"It's hard to beat the face of the dam during the spawn," he said. "There's also a point up by the north campground that's good." That point, on the north side of the inlet north of the campground, has rocks and dropoffs that hold walleyes throughout the year.
A submerged roadbed that runs from the northeast boat ramp to the west shore of the lake is another good spot to drift or troll for walleyes. The dropoffs on the side of the old roadbed, coupled with rockpiles and additional fish habitat, make it a natural feeding area for walleyes cruising the north-south axis of the old creek channel.
Another submerged roadbed runs east-west through the middle of the lake, just north of the big arm that runs off the east side of the lake. Look for walleyes around rockpiles the IDNR placed on the road before the lake was filled, and especially around the cut where the old creek channel bisects the submerged roadbed.
RIVERINE WALLEYES Many central Iowa walleye anglers are so focused on teasing walleyes from lakes that they overlook sizable populations of walleyes lurking in nearby rivers. The IDNR has for many years stocked fingerling walleyes in the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers, and the result is a surprisingly large population of 'eyes that's frequently ignored.
"You've just about got to fish the dams to find them, but the fishing can be good if you know when and how to do it," said Todd Ross of Minburn. "The dam (on the North Fork of the Raccoon River) at Adel can be good. So can the dams (on the Middle Fork of the Raccoon River) at Redfield and Panora.
"On the Des Moines River, the Fraser Dam is good, and so is the Waterworks Dam northwest of Boone," he added. "The secret is to fish downstream from the dam and cast upstream as much as you can. If you cast downstream and pull it back against the flow, your jig or spinner is pulled up off the bottom by the current as you retrieve it, no matter how slow you reel it in.
"If you wade and cast directly upstream, or stand on the shore and cast as close to upstream as you can, you can keep that jig or spinner just ticking along the bottom, depending on how fast you reel," explained Ross. "The walleyes are lying on the bottom, and you'll catch a lot more if you keep that lure right down in front of them, rather than zipping past over their heads."
While most anglers wise to the walleye potential of Iowa rivers target them when the fish congregate below dams during pre-spawn migrations, Ross said that it's worth checking those loca
tions well into summer.
"I've limited out in July below the dam at Panora," he said. (Note: The daily possession limit on interior rivers is five walleyes; there is no length limit.) "I just put on some sneakers and cut-off blue jeans so I can wade in, tie on a No. 2 Mepps and cast up toward the dam.
"It seems like a rise and fall in the river triggers the walleyes to move up," he noted. "If the river has been steady for a while, then we get some rains and it runs high for a couple of days, then goes back to running steady. That's a good time to check for walleyes below the dams."
With half a dozen dams and three lakes within an easy drive from Des Moines, there's plenty of walleye action awaiting Iowa anglers this year. Anglers who take advantage of the unique circumstances and situations that brought Brushy Creek, Big Creek and Little River to simultaneously be at the peak of their walleye cycles will be able to recall this year fondly, and say, "Yep, 2003 - that was a great year for walleyes."
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