February 02, 2016
By Dan Anderson
Iowa offers great fishing opportunities every month of the year, in every corner of the state, for a variety of species. It's just a matter of knowing when and where to fish to optimize your catch rate for whatever species is most apt to bite on that given day.
To improve your odds, here's an overview of the best places to fish from now through December. Consider this your statewide Iowa fishing schedule, a comprehensive calendar of the best times and places to catch fish around the Hawkeye State.
The neat thing about fishing in Iowa is that in many cases, if spawning crappies are biting around the marina at Coralville Reservoir in eastern Iowa in early May, they're also probably biting in Marina Bay at Saylorville Lake in central Iowa.
And if channel catfish are taking stinkbait in the lower Skunk River in July, they're probably be equally aggressive toward a gob dipbait lobbed beside a logjam on the Little Sioux River in northwest Iowa.
If you can't get to the specific lakes or rivers noted as hotspots at various times of year, look for similar situations in waters near you in order to cash in on the best fishing of the year in your own backyard.
West Lake Okoboji Bluegills
Finding and catching monster bluegills is approaching cult-status among an expanding cadre of anglers, and West Lake Okoboji in northwest Iowa has developed a national reputation for the hump-backed bull bluegills those aficionados crave.
So it's no surprise that ice-anglers have been delighted with the bluegills they've pulled through West Lake's ice during recent winters. The edges of last year's weedbeds in Emerson Bay, Miller's Bay and other traditional ice-fishing hotspots are prime places to dangle a teeny wax worm and tempt bluegills that can stretch to 11 or 12 inches.
Don't assume big 'gills require big baits. Okoboji's bluegills feed "small" in the winter and seem to favor pieces of wax worms over full-size waxies.
Other Options: Small lakes and ponds in selected urban areas across Iowa are regularly stocked with trout by the DNR to provide trout fishing throughout the winter. On the Mississippi River in eastern Iowa, anglers catch walleyes in spillways below dams any time there is open water.
Big Spirit Lake Yellow Perch
The traditional perch cycle is approaching a peak in both size and numbers. Anglers reported strong numbers of "keeper" perch last summer at Big Spirit, which translates to hot ice-fishing for perch this winter.
Professional fishing guide John Grosvenor said that, while clusters of ice-fishing huts indicate where perch are biting, he tends to catch bigger perch by fishing on the edges of those ice-fishing "communities."
Other Options: Ankeny, north of Des Moines, is an example of a suburb that actively stocks fish in small ponds in public areas and parks to provide sometimes-excellent ice- fishing opportunities.
Bluegills are most common, crappies can go on a bite, and a few tight-lipped ice anglers have confessed to doing "okay" for walleyes in ponds near Ankeny's Prairie Ridge Sports Complex. On the Des Moines, Raccoon and Iowa rivers, spillways below dams provide open water walleye fishing for anglers on sunny, relatively "warm" winter days.
Coralville Lake Channel Catfish
Ice is usually off Coralville Lake by mid-March, and it's a tradition among anglers in east central Iowa to load up on channel catfish as they feed aggressively on winter-killed shad that drift into shallows near Mehaffey Bridge. Fish on warm sunny afternoons using chunks of commercial "soured shad," or pick up winter-killed carcasses and use them for bait.
Other Options: Small farm ponds in southern Iowa warm up fast after ice-out, and largemouth bass often are aggressively hungry on sunny afternoons. In rivers, northern pike spawn right after ice-out in backwaters and sloughs, and are easy, aggressive targets for anglers looking for an early spring battle.
Clear Lake Yellow Bass
The shallows around "The Island" on the south side of Clear Lake are the traditional hotspot for springtime yellow bass, but the edges of the dredge cuts in the Little Lake portion at the west end of the main lake have produced strong catches in recent springs. One-sixteenth-ounce white or yellow jigs and twister tails are the go-to lures for yellow bass in the shallows.
Other Options: White bass make a run in April on the Des Moines and other inland rivers, congregating below dams where it's not uncommon to catch 30 or more in a couple hours of fishing using 1/8- to-1/4-ounce white twister-tailed jigs.
At Lost Island Lake in northwest Iowa a large population of bullheads averaging a pound or more cluster near the "little lake" outlet, along the road grade.
Take Pit Crappies
"Take pits" excavated during the construction of highway overpasses are often public property, usually stocked with panfish, and frequently overlooked as hotbeds for crappies spawning along their shallow edges. If you see vehicles parked near a take-pit in early May, crappies are usually the reason.
Other Options: Largemouth bass are hungry, aggressive and in shallow water associated with standing timber or fishing jetties at Badger Creek Lake 20 minutes southwest of West Des Moines as their spawn approaches, making them easy targets for both shore and boat anglers.
At Lake Rathbun in late May, channel catfish move close to riprapped shorelines to spawn, and attack nightcrawlers or other baits floated under a bobber along those rocks.
Largemouths at Prairie Rose Lake
A year or more after completion of a major renovation, the largemouth bass in Prairie Rose Lake southeast of Harlan in western Iowa are at that super-aggressive 1- to 2-pound size that clobber anything they can get in their mouth. Fishing near spawning beds or near visible brushpiles almost guarantees dozens of catches and releases per hour.
Other Options: Smallmouth bass have been on a binge at Big Spirit Lake in northwest Iowa for several years thanks to dramatically improving water quality, to the point where 18-inch fish are "yawners."
On the Mississippi River, flathead catfish spawning in the nooks and crannies of logjams and riprapped banks viciously attack cut baits or large live baits floated past their nests.
Walleyes at Center Lake
Center Lake is often overlooked due to its proximity to the other Iowa Great Lakes, but not by local anglers in search of walleyes. Last summer the DNR's weekly fishing reports chronicled strong walleye fishing at Center Lake throughout the summer. Troll the deepwater edges of weedbeds along shallow shorelines with crankbaits around sunset for a limit of walleyes.
Other Options: In northeast Iowa, weekly stockings of catchable trout in our cool-water streams provide strong fishing throughout the summer. At Lost Grove Lake, eastern Iowa's newest lake, the bluegill population is booming thanks to the normal "new lake bonanza" that traditionally develops during the first five years after a new impoundment's first stocking of fish.
Channel Catfish at Red Rock Lake
Rated the top lake for mid-summer channel catfish by many tournament anglers, the secret at Red Rock is to drift fresh cut shad along the edges of the old river channel above the Highway 14 bridge at no less than one half mile per hour and no more than 1 mile per hour.
A productive recent trend is to use a pegged float, or a Whisker Seeker floating catfish rig, to lift chunks of cut shad 6 inches to a foot off the bottom rather than dragging the bait across the mud when slow-trolling. Do it right and 5- to 15-pound channel cats will bite throughout the hottest, brightest summer days.
Other Options: Storm Lake, Saylorville Lake, Red Rock Lake — August is prime time to catch buckets full of white bass by slow trolling shad-bodied crankbaits along the edges of flats, or watching for diving gulls that signal a white bass feeding frenzy.
At West Lake Okoboji, Clear Lake and other natural lakes in northern Iowa, jigging over a school of yellow bass is the key to fish-on-every-cast fun.
Upper Iowa River Smallmouths
DNR fisheries technician Chris Larson has many excellent cool water rivers in which to chase smallmouth bass in northeast Iowa, but often chooses the Upper Iowa River in September.
His secret weapons for smallmouth success are a kayak that gives him maneuverable access to remote stretches of the river, and two rods rigged with specific rigs. One rod carries an amber-colored Mr. Twister jig, and the other rod is loaded with a shad-bodied crankbait.
"One or the other of those two basic setups will generally catch smallmouths on any given day," said Larson. "If the smallmouths don't bite, then the walleyes usually will. It's a win-win deal on the Upper Iowa."
Other Options: At the Iowa Great Lakes, muskies up to 50 inches start to feed with the first break in summer temperatures and cruise the edges of weedbeds throughout September.
Walleyes at Brushy Creek Lake southeast of Fort Dodge also respond to cooler water temperatures and reward anglers who work shallow breaklines associated with standing timber.
Trout in Northeastern Streams
Late-season insect hatches, left-over fish from a summer's worth of stockings, the bright colors of changing leaves — October is the month to target trout in our northeastern cool-water streams.
Dry flies, nymphs, spinners, or plain ol' nightcrawlers — anything catches trout in October. Late-season trout used to feeding on young-of-the-year minnows also have a weak spot for small floating Rapalas that can be pulled down to the precise depth where trout lurk in a specific hole.
Other Options: Crappies at Rock Creek Lake near Newton in central Iowa traditionally bite well throughout summer and continue well into fall. Look for them congregating along dropoffs and shelves near deeper water where they'll eventually spend the winter.
Waters in the Des Moines River below Saylorville and Red Rock dams run relatively clear, and strong populations of smallmouth bass have developed for 5 to 10 miles below those dams, but continued strength of those populations are dependent on catch-and-release fishing.
Raccoon River Walleyes
Walleyes congregate below low-head dams in Greene and Guthrie counties on the forks of the Raccoon River as water temperatures plunge in mid-November. If you have to wear coveralls to be comfortable, the walleyes are probably biting somewhere on the Raccoon.
Anglers willing to walk through public areas, or canoe between access points, can find surprising numbers of rock bars or ledges that hold walleyes on the three forks of the Raccoon River — especially on the Middle 'Coon downstream from Panora, in Guthrie County.
Other Options: Flathead catfish in the Des Moines River migrate to wintering holes in November, but they don't settle into those holes until after Thanksgiving. They'll mill near those holes and eagerly bite cutbaits or even large swim-body jigs through late November. The DNR begins stocking put-and-take urban ponds with trout around Thanksgiving to kick off that winter fishing opportunity.
Trout in Urban Lakes and Ponds
First solid ice gives anglers access to one or more early-winter stockings of trout in small lakes near urban areas. If ice is slow to develop, anglers do well fishing from shore immediately after stockings in the small urban ponds because the hatchery-raised trout initially tend to stay near shallow shorelines.
Once the ponds freeze over, experienced anglers drill a series of holes, then literally follow schools of trout as they move around under the ice. Stocking dates are posted on the DNR website to let anglers now when hungry fish will be added throughout the winter.
Other Options: Studies have shown that panfish in the Mississippi River system migrate to specific areas in backwaters that provide adequate depth, temperature, current and oxygen levels.
Local ice-anglers and baitshops know those spots, making early-ice fishing trips some of the most productive of the winter.
At Clear Lake, anglers have learned to drill holes over the edges of dredge cuts in the Little Lake area to catch piles of yellow bass even though there is still open water in the main lake.