March 20, 2018
Some of the best Iowa bass fishing can be found at these locations.
The names of certain lakes in Iowa come up frequently among largemouth bass anglers: West Lake Okoboji, Lake Belva Deer and Lake Anita, to name a few. Amateur bass anglers often make the mistake of thinking they have to travel to those "name" lakes to catch lots of bass, big bass, or lots of big bass.
Just because a local lake isn't one the bass hotspots on the lips of tournament bass anglers doesn't mean it won't produce big bass.
Follow tips about how to catch deep-water bass from Lake Okoboji, and you'll catch more deep-structure bass from Little River Lake, in south central Iowa. Use clear-water tactics that catch bass from Lake Belva Deer and you'll cash in on the spooky bass lurking in Deep Lakes near Muscatine.
Strategies and techniques that work on our best bass lakes can unlock the secrets to more and bigger bass from local fishing holes.
BASS SHALLOW, BASS DEEP
The Iowa Great Lakes of northwest Iowa have everything a largemouth bass could dream of: shallow canals, docks, sheltered bays, rocky points and endless weedlines — both shallow and deep — they're all available at West Lake Okoboji, East Lake Okoboji, Big Spirit and other lakes in the region. The smorgasbord of habitat makes those lakes ideal teaching tools on how to find and catch bass from just about any other lake in Iowa that has similar features.
"West Okoboji is without a doubt one of the healthiest and most productive fisheries in the Midwest right now, for everything from bluegills and yellow bass up through bass and northern pike," said professional fishing guide and tournament angler Doug Burns, owner of The Iowa Guide Service. "The bass are going gangbusters because of all the forage that's available. The average largemouth is running around 14- to 18-inches in West Okoboji, with plenty of 19- to 21-inchers. A 21-incher up here is going to weigh around 6 pounds, and be as fat as a football."
Burns targets canals in early spring at West Okoboji, transitions to docks pre-spawn, and eagerly awaits the post-spawn, mid-summer development of weedbeds in deep water.
"One of the misconceptions about fishing canals and shallow areas is that bass move back to the main lake when a cold front moves through," said Burns. "They stay in the canals, just move to deeper areas. It may be only a foot or two deeper than the rest of the canal, but that's where they go until the cold front passes."
On nearby Big Spirit Lake, which is a relatively shallow dish bowl, Burns finds largemouths up to 5 or 6 pounds associated with docks or the lake's large areas of bullrushes.
"They're always shallow in Big Spirit, in 5 or 6 feet or less of water, but the whole lake is shallow," he said. "There's no real structure out in the middle to hold them. But on West Okoboji there's deep-water structure that the bass really use. There are always some bass around docks and shallow structure in any lake, but my bread and butter spots in mid-summer through early fall at West Okoboji are the weedbeds out in 20- to 25 feet of water."
While other anglers obstinately cast to shoreline structure that gets flailed all day long on weekends, Burns targets deep weedlines to catch large bass overlooked by other anglers.
"Lots of bass guys have to have a target when they're casting," he said. "They want a dead tree, or a dock, or a brushpile they can see and aim at. They freak out when I take them to a weedline in deep water. I tell them their target is down rather than sideways, and we catch bass."
His go-to lures are a jig-and-pig, or Texas-rigged plastics like a Chiggercraw, Berkley's Pit Boss or beaver-tailed baits.
"For sheer numbers of bass, nothing beats a 7-inch Power Worm on a jighead," he said. "Pull that along a weed edge or over a rock pile and you will catch bass. The weedlines in North Bay, Miller's Bay and Emerson Bay (at West Okoboji) are good year after year for bass. There are humps out in the middle of Miller and Emerson (bays) that have weeds growing on them, that you don't want to ignore."
While weedlines are the gold standard for Burns and his clients, he's constantly scanning the lake's surface for his favorite kind of bass bite. He said any time the lake goes flat, bluegills begin to dimple the surface out in open water.
Burns encourages anglers to explore other lakes across Iowa for the large bass that lurk in deeper habitat.
"I used to hammer largemouths at Little River (in southern Iowa, near Leon,)" he said. "They came off deep humps and rock piles in the main lake, using jigs and crankbaits. Everybody was catching 1- to 2-pounders along the shoreline, but I was catching 4- and 5-pounders off deep structure."
That's not to say shallow waters don't harbor bass in Iowa's lakes. Burns said East Lake Okoboji provides tournament anglers the larger bass those anglers seek, but that local conditions make it tough for casual anglers to enjoy similar success. Zebra mussels have heavily colonized that lake, and its water is unusually clear as a result of their filter feeding.
"There are nice bass in East Okoboji, but the water is so clear that they're way, way back under the docks," he said. "Those docks are covered with zebra mussels, and it's tough to pull them out without cutting your line. The tournament guys know how to flip all the way under the docks, use extra heavy line, and rip them out as soon as they get a bite."
CURLY POND LEAF, FRIEND OR FOE?
East Okoboji, like growing numbers of other lakes across Iowa, is heavily infested with curly pond leaf, an invasive water weed that is cursed by boaters and those with shoreline cottages. It's almost impenetrable along shorelines in spring through early summer, then dies off to leave shorelines "open" through late summer and fall. Burns acknowledges the weed creates challenges for anglers, but takes an optimistic view about its effects on fish populations.
"The vegetation is helping the fishery, but it's definitely not helping the fishing," he said. "It's tremendous cover for young fish that helps them transition to the big fish we like to catch. But it can be a challenge to fish."
In southeast Iowa, curly pond leaf is a seasonal challenge for bass anglers at Lake Belva Deer, near Sigourney. DNR fisheries biologist Chad Dolan saw good numbers of bass up to 20 inches in that lake last year.
"From spring through summer, the lake is pretty well rimmed with curly pond leaf all the way out to 8 feet deep," said Dolan. "The guys who know what they're doing fish the edge of that weedline and do real well. The big bass cruise the edges of those weeds looking for a meal. Another good spot when it's weedy is over any rock piles in the weeds. The weeds don't grow from the rocks, so there are pockets of open water in the weeds. Those are great places to drop a jig — if you can get to them."
Dolan listed Lake Darling, near Brighton, and Big Hollow Lake, near Mediapolis, as other lakes in his southeast Iowa territory blessed with bigger bass. He said largemouths at Lake Darling top out just shy of 20 inches, with a large population of 18-inchers. Bass at Big Hollow run slightly smaller, topping out around 16 to 17 inches.
"At Big Hollow, you've got to pay attention to the steep shorelines," he said. "In places they drop to 15 feet deep within 10 feet of shore. There's not a lot of shallow shorelines, so during the spawn, if you find the shallow spots, you're going to find most of the lake's bass in there spawning."
Dolan said anglers face a similar challenge at Deep Lakes, a series of interconnected former sand/gravel pits on the edge of Muscatine. The steep-edged pits have not only minimal shallow spawning habitat, but are blessed/cursed with exceptionally clear water.
"It's like those lakes are surrounded by a huge sand filter," he said. "Because of that, there's not the nutrients in the water we normally see in lakes around Iowa. That's why the bass tend to be a little lighter weight for their length than, say, in Lake Belva Deer. Belva Deer also has better-than-normal water clarity so you have to be a little more careful there than in a muddier lake. But the fertility is good enough so those bass are just like footballs."
Unique circumstances can sometimes influence the size of bass caught from different parts of a single lake.
"Lost Grove Lake, in Scott County near Princeton, is a newer lake with lots of smaller bass," he said. "Lots of fish in the 12- to 13-inch range, especially in the main basin of the lake. The main basin was first stocked in 2012. But in 2006 we put bass in the pool that formed above the causeway while the main lake was still under construction. We've noticed in our sampling that those original bass are a little larger, but they've stayed in the area above the causeway even though the two parts of the lake are now connected. If you want to catch lots of bass, fish the shoreline and brushy structure in the main basin. If you want to catch bass a pound or two bigger, though not as many, fish above the causeway."
Fishing Tips from the Pros
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Gary Coffman of Earlham competes in MidIowa Bassmasters and Iowa Bass Nation tournaments, and agrees that the ability to transfer strategies and tactics between similar lakes produces bass.
"The clear water tactics that work on West Okoboji work well on Lake Anita (in west central Iowa)," he said. "Anita has a lot of nice bass, but the water is clear enough you need to stay off from where you're fishing to keep from spooking them. Another thing at Anita is the grass. There are acres and acres of grass, and there are always bass in that grass. Punching a jig down through that grass, or working a frog across the top is really effective at Anita or any other lake with a lot of vegetation."
Many casual bass anglers in Iowa are stymied when our lakes develop mid-summer algae blooms.
"It doesn't bother the bass at all," he said. "It's annoying to anglers to have it all over their boat and lines and lures, but I just ignore it. Hawthorn Lake (near Barnes City, in southeast Iowa) is a great little bass lake that usually slimes up in the summer. Just toss out a jig, pull a crankbait, and fish the structure like any other lake. If the slime is really thick, fish it with a topwater, like you'd fish duckweed on a Mississippi River backwater. Ignore the slime, fish it like it's a cloudy-water lake, and you'll catch bass."
There are plenty of bass waiting to be caught from Iowa's lakes. Target bass in overlooked local lakes using tactics borrowed from our famous bass lakes, and you may be surprised how close you live to a bass bonanza.