Northeast Iowa's Walleye Secret

Nope -- there's not a single solitary place in northeast Iowa that's great for catching walleyes. There are dozens!

By Dan Anderson

Wanna know a secret? Anglers from other states are traveling to the upper right corner of our state to take advantage of the region's surprising walleye fishing.

"I've heard of several instances where non-resident anglers have come to the area to fish for walleyes," said Brian Hayes, fisheries management biologist for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. "That's a little unusual, but not surprising, considering the effort we've made to improve walleye fishing in this area. Because we can't have many lakes in this region, we've emphasized improving walleye fishing in the rivers."


Porous rock formations that underlie the northeast corner of Iowa literally won't hold water, so the DNR has had difficulty building lakes in that corner of the state. The few artificial lakes that have been constructed north of Interstate 80 and east of Interstate 35 tend to be small. While walleyes were originally stocked in many of those lakes, the DNR has changed its management philosophy and no longer stocks walleyes in lakes smaller than 500 acres.

That doesn't mean there aren't significant numbers of residual, reproducing walleyes left over in some lakes in the region.

"Pleasant Creek Lake (near Palo) has some big walleyes," said Mike Hesse, owner of Hank's Bait Shop (319-234-0711) in Waterloo. "A kid took a 13-pound, 6-ouncer out of there nine years ago, and I've heard of a lot of 9-pound-plus fish coming out of there in recent years."

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

Pleasant Creek falls below the DNR's 500-acre minimum stocking size, so the lake's current walleye population depends on natural reproduction. Paul Sleeper, DNR biologist in charge of that lake, hesitates to tout the lake's walleye potential.

"There are decent numbers of walleyes in that lake, and some nice-sized fish," Sleeper said. "The forage base is shad, and there is definitely enough shad in there to support the walleye population. I hate to point it out for walleyes and draw too much attention to it, since we can't stock it, but guys who know what they're doing take some really nice fish from that lake."

Local experts use several approaches to target Pleasant Creek's walleyes. Some troll crankbaits along the old creek channel, especially where the lake's two forks meet. The creek channel gets deeper and wider from there to the dam, and hungry walleyes often patrol the dropoffs and adjacent areas.

Submerged weedbeds are another favorite haunt of Pleasant Creek walleyes. Fishing over or along weeds is a snaggy challenge, but worth the effort.

"Work a long crankbait like a Rapala or a Bomber just over the tops of the weeds, or along the edges," suggested bait shop owner Hesse. "Especially where the weedline forms an inside corner. Another good trick is to jig a night crawler or leech below a slip bobber, so the jig just tickles the tops of the weeds."

Biologist Sleeper suggested that northeastern Iowa anglers who want to fish for walleyes might find a trip to Lake McBride, in east-central Iowa, worthwhile.

"The walleyes in McBride have really started to come on since we renovated it a couple of years back," Sleeper said. "Before the renovation, there were lots of shad, but little structure, and the walleyes stayed out in the middle and wandered around following the shad. We added a lot of rocky structure, built some humps and reefs, and the walleyes are really using those structures. It makes it a lot easier for anglers to find them."

Cattail beds in the upper end of McBride's north arm are a late-night hotspot for midsummer walleyes.

"After dark, the walleyes work the edges of those cattails," Sleeper said. "Guys go out at night, sneak in there and do really well."

Bait shop owner Hesse said the hottest new tackle tip for Pleasant Creek, Lake McBride or any other walleye water, is fluorocarbon line.

"The stuff is absolutely invisible underwater," he said. "I was ice-fishing one time and had two poles rigged with identical baits in holes 5 feet apart. The only difference was that one pole had 4-pound monofilament, and the other had 4-pound mono with a 30-inch leader of Gamma Technologies' 'Froghair' brand fluorocarbon line. I kept switching holes to keep things equal, but in five hours, the mono caught five fish and the fluorocarbon caught 135 fish!

"I watched them on my Vexilar," he continued. "They'd float up and look at the plain mono, then drift back down. With the fluorocarbon, they'd just swim up and bite - no hesitation. When you're fishing for spooky fish like walleyes, fluorocarbon line is definitely the way to go."

Hesse noted that most anglers use fluorocarbon leaders rather than spool their entire reel with the somewhat stiff line. 'The earlier generations of fluorocarbon line are so stiff that they tend to spring off open-face reels," he said. "The newer stuff, like Froghair, is more limp, but it's so expensive that it's more economical to just use it for leaders."


While Pleasant Creek harbors a significant and sizeable population of "residual" walleyes, and Lake McBride is on the rebound, the best walleye fishing in northeast Iowa is in the region's rivers. The Cedar, Wapsipinicon, Maquoketa, Shell Rock and Turkey rivers all get high marks for walleyes from both anglers and biologists.

"The Wapsi has so many good spots for walleyes that it's hard to pinpoint just one," said Greg Simmons, an avid walleye angler and DNR fisheries technician based at Manchester. "My personal best from the rivers up here measured 30 inches and weighed right at 10 pounds."

Simmons said a common mistake anglers make when fishing for walleyes in rivers is fishing too deep. "It doesn't take a lot of water to hold walleyes in these smaller rivers," he said. "If I had my choice to fish either a 15-foot hole or a 5-foot hole, I'd fish the 5-foot hole. Deep holes seem to attract inactive walleyes. Walleyes in shallow holes tend to be more active and easier to catch."

Simmons looks for holes 4 to 6 feet deep on the downstream side of rock riffles or rock bars. He anchors or wades just below the break, and casts a 1/16- to 1/8-ounce jig upstream and bounces it back to him.

"Bringing it back with the current always produces better than casting across or at a sh

arp angle to the current," he said. "It seems to be a more natural presentation."

Simmons likes to tip jigs with either a night crawler or twistertail. Chartreuse is his favorite color, but a friend uses only black jigs with equal success. On larger holes, Simmons often uses a crankbait to locate fish before he switches to jigs to work a hotspot.

"You can cover a lot of water and find fish with a natural-colored Rapala or Bomber," Simmons said. "But once you find them, you'll catch more of the fish in a hole with a jig because it's more precise."

Mike Hesse said his local walleye-chasing customers are well aware of the potential of northeast Iowa's rivers. One customer who uses a kayak to work the rivers' holes during summer when water levels are low reported taking 21 walleyes from one hole in 22 casts, using a crankbait.

"He said he could have caught more, but got bored with the scenery in that hole and moved on to the next one," Hesse said. "The biggest problem we have in the rivers is that people keep the small walleyes, rather than releasing them to get some size on them. The biologists say that the walleyes in the rivers can grow 6 inches a year for the first few years. If guys would just put those 10- or 11-inch walleyes back, they'd catch more 16- to 18-inch walleyes next year. There are enough walleyes in the rivers up here that nobody needs to keep small walleyes in order to have a meal."


Brian Hayes, DNR fisheries management biologist, said that the next few years should be exceptionally good for walleyes in the Cedar, Shell Rock, Wapsipinicon, Maquoketa and Turkey rivers. "Stocked walleyes do better in years when river levels are relatively low and stable," said Hayes. "We were seeing excellent response to our stocking in the late '90s, so we increased our stocking rates in 2000. Since then, we've had favorable water levels and no major floods. The 2000 to 2003 year-classes are doing particularly good - especially the 2001 class. Our surveys showed a lot of walleyes in the 18-inch range last year in the rivers, and they're growing fast."

So it's safe to say that there isn't a single good place to catch walleyes in northeast Iowa. According to anglers, bait shops and DNR fisheries personnel, there are dozens of good places to catch walleyes in northeast Iowa. Get yourself on one or more of them this summer!

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