Central Iowa Walleyes

The 'eyes have it in these waters during the month of May. Get in on the action -- first with a rod and reel, and later with a knife and fork!

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

By Dan Anderson

When it comes to catching their preferred quarry, Des Moines-area walleye fanatics' choice of water will depend on how much time they want to spend in the car. Anglers can motor just a few minutes and target lunker walleyes in the Des Moines River as it flows through urban Des Moines. They can drive a half-hour or less and capitalize on the flush of walleyes crowding Big Creek Lake, north of Des Moines. Or they can trek less than two hours to catch limits of fat and sassy walleyes at Brushy Creek Lake, near Fort Dodge, or at Little River, Three Mile or Twelve Mile lakes in south central Iowa.

There are very few days in the year that don't see anglers casting jigs for walleyes below the Scott Street Dam just south of downtown Des Moines on the Des Moines River. The same goes for the spillway below Saylorville Dam, north of Des Moines. Those areas, separated by about 13 miles of river, are two of the most reliable places to catch walleyes in central Iowa.

Hmmm ... if those two areas are prime for walleyes, wouldn't it make sense that the river between those hotspots would be killer for walleyes, too?

Definitely! "Some of my favorite spots to fish for walleyes in the Des Moines River are between the Interstate 80 bridge and Saylorville Dam," said Cory Batterson, a Des Moines-area semi-pro walleye tournament angler. "In late summer it can be tough to get a full-size boat up and down the river below Cottonwood Access, but there are a half dozen really nice holes in that area."

Batterson noted that one of the deepest holes in the river is ordinarily behind the big gravel pits on the north side of the Interstate. "Depending on how much water is coming out of the dam, it'll drop down to 20, maybe 30 feet in that hole," he said. "When we can get the boat up and down the river, we do real well slow-trolling a No. 5 or No. 7 Rapala Shad Rap along the sides of the sandbars that drop into those holes."

In late 2003, Batterson purchased a special shallow-draft boat, the better to explore the river. "From the Birdland Marina (just north of downtown Des Moines) up to the Interstate, there's some good walleye fishing, if you can just get to it," he said. "There are riprapped areas, some nice holes, some dropoffs. And there aren't very many people fishing them for walleyes."

According to Batterson, the Des Moines River below the Scott Street Dam also harbors lots of lunker walleyes. Walleyes work up the river from Red Rock Lake, and the stretch of river from the power plant north of Avon upstream to the Des Moines water treatment plant, has long been a closely guarded secret among a select core of walleye fanatics. Troll shad-type crankbaits along the sides or upper lips of holes in that stretch of river to find walleyes that range up to 10 pounds.

There's a bit of a mystery afoot at Big Creek Lake, about a half-hour north of Des Moines.

Fisheries biologists and anglers agree that the lake is brimming with walleyes - enough walleyes that anglers routinely had days in 2003 that saw them catch and release upwards of 50 fish per day. But Big Creek has a 15-inch minimum-length limit on walleyes, and for some reason, the majority of the lake's walleyes have "hung up" just shy of that minimum.

"Some of them started reaching legal size in late 2003, so maybe by summer of 2004 the bulk of that year-class will be legal," said Bill Dearden, owner of Polk City Bait and Tackle. "Once they reach legal size, the fishing will be phenomenal. The nice thing is the length limits will keep guys from going in and clobbering them, so the good fishing should last for a couple of years."

Anglers at Big Creek can keep only three walleyes per day; the minimum length, as noted, must be 15 inches. Anglers can keep only one walleye larger than 20 inches.

Batterson concedes that most walleyes at Big Creek are in the 15-inch range, but notes that there are enough 20-inch-plus fish to keep things interesting.

"Last fall some of the guys who knew what they were doing started picking up some really nice walleyes at Big Creek," he said. "They took more than a few 7- and 8-pounders out of there just before it froze up. I expect we'll catch a lot of just-legal fish this year, but there are enough of those big ones mixed in to keep things really interesting."

Shoreline renovation in the early 1990s added hundreds of submerged brushpiles to Big Creek's shoreline, submerged roadbeds and points. Those brushpiles devour trolled crankbaits, so Batterson uses a bottom-bouncer to probe for walleyes.

"The main point on the west side of the swimming beach is sand bottom with a bunch of rockpiles scattered up and down it," said Batterson. "That was a really good place to work a bottom-bouncer with a jig and a crawler or leech last year. Another good spot was the main point west of the handicapped accessible pier. You had to feel your way along the edges of the brushpiles, but the dropoffs in that area were really good, too."

Batterson points out that the submerged roadbed in the northwest arm of Big Creek is also dotted with submerged rockpiles, as is a large hump in the main arm of the lake north of the marina. "But we never got up to those areas much last year," he noted. "I'd take my kids, and we had a ball catching and releasing those sub-legal walleyes down in the main lake. Once we found them, you just about couldn't get one kid's line unhooked before another kid had one on."

Anglers chasing walleyes at Big Creek should always check conditions at nearby Saylorville Lake. Saylorville generally has a population of hefty walleyes in the 5- to 7-pound range, but they are notoriously difficult to find.

"High water is the best time to find walleyes at Saylorville," said Batterson. "When it's high enough to flood the paved parking lots, those are the places to be. For whatever the reason, walleyes love to cruise those parking lots when they've got a couple of feet of water on them."

Saylorville's walleyes also cluster around flooded jetties during periods of high water. Several years ago Batterson scored a number of sizeable 'eyes by fishing around the rocked jetty at Cherry Glen Campground. "There was about 10 feet of water on top of the jetty, but we found the walleyes along the base of the jetty, in about 20 feet of water," he recalled. "There aren't a lot of rocks in Saylorville, so when those rocked areas flood,

they really attract walleyes."

Brushy Creek Lake, southeast of Fort Dodge, is a new lake that has rapidly built a reputation for chunky walleyes.

"Walleyes are averaging around 20 inches at Brushy Creek," said Lannie Miller, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist in charge of the lake, "but they are a fat 20 inches. Growth rates have been spectacular. The first walleyes were stocked in '98, but we've heard of quite a few 8-pounders, and a couple 9-pounders."

Brushy Creek, like Three Mile and Twelve Mile lakes in south central Iowa, was built with minimal removal of existing trees and vegetation. The resulting jungle of submerged timber has forced anglers to develop new strategies for scoring on walleyes from the lake.

"Most of the walleyes at Brushy Creek are going to come from vertical-jigging right in the trees," said Batterson. "Another good strategy is to get a map and figure out where the rockpiles are. They put a lot of rockpiles on humps and along old roadbeds before they filled the lake, and the walleyes are really using those piles."

Walleye anglers adept at coaxing walleyes from shallow points on other Iowa lakes will be challenged by Brushy Creek's severe topography. The lake is steep-sided, with an average depth of 24 feet. What passes for a "point" at Brushy Creek would be classified a "dropoff" in many Iowa lakes.

"Those points are still changes in water depth, so walleyes will still associate with them," said Batterson. "Work the timber on or right beside those points, and you'll probably find walleyes."

Central Iowa walleye hunters willing to scoot down Interstate 35 for an hour can find prime walleye potential at three lakes in south-central Iowa - Little River, Three Mile and Twelve Mile - that offer fishing worth a little travel time.

Dave Nichols, a semi-pro walleye tournament angler from Cedar Rapids, often makes the trip to take advantage of the good fishing. "I'm especially partial to the walleye fishing at Little River," he said. "The water quality is good. And it's a little lake with big-lake structure. A lot of lakes in Iowa have points, but no big dropoffs, or they have rockpiles, but not much of a creek channel. Little River has all those features. You can fish rockpiles, dropoffs, creek channels and points - all in one lake."

Creel surveys and IDNR netting surveys at Little River show walleyes in a broad range of sizes from pesky "cigars" to elusive whoppers stretching beyond 10 pounds. The average length is in the 15- to 22-inch range.

Nichols and Batterson both like to fish points at Little River, but they differ on how they fish those tapering structures. Both like jigs or spinners rigged on bottom-bouncers, but Nichols tends to fish points lengthwise, casting shallow and pulling toward deeper water in parallel casts that work down the sides of the point.

"The fish will tell you what sort of action to use," he said. "I experiment with dragging it down the point, bouncing it down the point - I just try different approaches until they tell me what they want."

Batterson prefers to cast across points and pull bottom-bouncers rigged with spinners from deep water up across the point and down the other side. He uses his electric motor to move his boat up and down the point with the object of systematically finding the depth that walleyes favor on any given day.

Nichols is easy to please when it comes to the color of the jigs he rigs on his bottom-bouncers. "I'll fish any color, as long as it's chartreuse," he said with a chuckle. "Sure, I'll use white or other colors - but chartreuse is my go-to color. "

May is transition time for the live baits that Nichols uses on his bottom bouncers. In early May he uses only minnows; in mid-May he alternates between minnows and night crawlers; by the last week of May he's using only night crawlers or leeches to tip his jigs.

Nichols also tosses crankbaits in late spring. "It's a pattern that not many guys know about, but it can be killer for really big walleyes," he said. "I look for places with standing timber in about 10 to 15 feet of water, close to some sort of dropoff, and then I drag No. 5 or No. 7 Shad Raps or small Wally Divers just over the tops of that timber. You're going to lose some tackle, but there are some huge walleyes suspended in the timber at that time of year. They just float up out of the brush and hammer those crankbaits."

Nichols bases his crankbait size and action on water clarity. "If the water isn't very clear, you've got to help them hear or feel your lure," he explained, "so I go with a rattling bait with a wider wiggle, to displace more water and make more vibration. In clear water, I'll use more of a finesse crankbait, with a tighter wiggle and no rattle. Color-wise, shad-colored is almost universal, and white is usually pretty good, too, because those colors best match the forage fish walleyes are used to feeding on in Iowa."

Nichols notes that while walleyes in Little River, Three Mile and Twelve Mile are usually associated with wood in those heavily timbered lakes, the 'eyes relate to timber differently than do largemouth bass. "Guys are used to bass being really tight to the wood, and they have to knock the wood to get them," he said. "Walleyes will be around the wood more than against it. They might be 10 or 15 feet out, suspended. The big thing is that they move in and out. I think walleyes are 'herders' that force baitfish up against wood and structure to catch them. You have to fish all around wood in those lakes to find where the walleyes are at any given time."

"Herding" behavior may explain why walleyes are often associated with submerged roadbeds at Little River, Three Mile and Twelve Mile, as well as at Big Creek and Brushy Creek. The steep dropoffs associated with roadbeds and their ditches are prime hunting grounds for hungry walleyes. They herd forage fish up against the embankments and chow down as the smaller fish mill around in panic against the dropoff or try to escape over the top. Even anglers lacking topo maps or sonar units can target old roadbeds if they study the shorelines of those lakes and look for the telltale signs of old roadbeds slipped under the water.

Nichols likes to slow-troll a bottom-bouncer parallel to those submerged roadbeds to locate walleyes. "If I'm by myself, I'll rig one bottom bouncer on a planer board to run out to the side, and run my other rod right behind the boat," he said. "That way I can figure out if they're off to the sides of the roadbed, or up on top. Once I find them, I'll work back and forth. I don't stop and jig in one spot, because walleyes on roadbeds seem to be real mobile, constantly moving. If you sit and jig, they can get away from you."

Nichols fishes exclusively from a boat, but he's of the opinion that shore-anglers can connect with central Iowa's walleyes if they plan their fis

hing - and are patient.

"At most lakes in Iowa, there are rocked fishing jetties that were designed to bring fish in close to shore," he said. "They're located near deep water, there's usually some sort of brushpiles nearby to attract forage fish, and the faces of the jetties are rocked all the way down to the bottom. It's a perfect place for walleyes, especially at night when they move in close to shore.

"Personally, I think all walleye fishing is better at night, whether you're on shore or in a boat. Walleyes aren't allergic to sunlight, but their big eyes give them an advantage in low-light conditions, so they're more-efficient predators.

"But don't let sunshine keep you from fishing for walleyes whenever you get the chance," Nichols concluded, his voice twinkling. "If you're in the right place at the right time with right bait, they'll bite."

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