Iowa's weather in recent years has been hard on humans but just about perfect for largemouth bass. For several years we've seen heavy rains in the springtime and dry spells during the summers.
That meant our lakes and reservoirs were high and often flooded during the bass spawn and provided excellent spawning and nursery habitat. Then things dried out and many lakes actually fell below normal pool during late summers.
Adult and juvenile bass grew fat and sassy feeding on large populations of forage fish spawned during high water conditions.
The result is that Iowa's bass anglers have the potential for a break-out year for bass fishing in 2015. Traditional bass hotspots such as Lake Wapello, Brushy Creek Lake and the backwaters of the Mississippi River are primed to produce another year of excellent angling.
And thanks to the weird weather in recent years, along with hard work by the Iowa DNR, Hawthorn Lake, Lake Blackhawk and other lakes with fast-growing populations of bass are drawing the attention of amateur and semi-pro anglers alike.
Davis County's Lake Wapello is managed by the Iowa DNR as a "lunker lake," with no-kill regulations that require all bass be returned to the water immediately after catching. The goal is to allow the lake's largemouths to live as long as possible and attain maximum size.
Management-wise, that strategy has pluses and minuses. Allowing fish to attain maximum body size obviously enhances the chances of some of the fish to reach impressive dimensions, but also risks throwing off-kilter the balance of young game fish, mature game fish, and forage fish. The DNR's ongoing monitoring and analysis of the lake's no-kill regulations were complicated when a private individual not only once, but twice, illegally stocked gizzard shad into the lake. The lake had been renovated to remove the shad in 2008, and had to be renovated again in 2009 after shad were re-introduced. The up-side of the expensive double-renovation was that the final re-stocking coincided with the beginning of renovation projects on several other lakes in southern Iowa.
"It worked out that as (Lake Wapello) was refilling, we were de-populating some other lakes," Iowa DNR Fisheries Management Biologist Mark Flammang said. "We transferred full-grown, 12- to 22-inch bass from 12-Mile Lake and Hawthorn Lake and put them in Wapello. That lake had more than 1,200 bass over 15 inches added to it the first year it refilled. A lot of people stayed away for a year or two, thinking it would take awhile for the fish to build up after the renovation, but there was phenomenal bass fishing in Wapello right away."
Aside from jump-starting Wapello's fishing opportunities, the large population of adult bass got off a strong spawn their first two years in the renovated lake. DNR surveys indicate Wapello's bass population has remained strong.
"We (electro-) sampled the lake last fall to evaluate an experimental stocking of hybrid bass, and we rolled up all sorts of big largemouths all over the lake during the survey," said Flammang. "There are lots of bass in that lake, and there are lots of big bass in that lake."
Shorelines that were riprapped, and brushpiles that were added during the renovation of Lake Wapello have become favorite hangouts for both the lake's bass and bass anglers. One of the best, seasonal spots for bass is easily spotted from shore.
"In early spring the bass seem to key on deep brush piles," Flammang noted. "One of the best spots that time of year is straight out from the campground. There's a huge pile of cedar trees, maybe 500 or 600 trees in total, and bass really hang around that area. A few of the branches still stick up above the surface, so it's not hard to find that spot."
Artificial reefs and riprapped shorelines are also hotspots for bass at Hawthorn, located in Mahaska County. Renovation of the lake was completed in 2010, and it has become a bass factory since it refilled.
"The bass at Hawthorn really took off," Flammang said. "Two years after the restocking, people were catching 40 or 50 of those young, aggressive 14-inch bass in a couple hours. Those year-classes are now up around 20 inches, and I hear of people consistently handling 20 or 30 bass even in a mediocre day's fishing."
Several locations in the lake have proven to be consistently productive for bass. The "East Grade," the riprapped shoreline along a gravel road that runs along the lake's east border, is a popular target for bass anglers, though Flammang is puzzled by its productivity.
"That grade has always been good for bass, even before the renovation," he said. "When the lake was drawn down I gave that area a hard look, and couldn't see anything that should have made it especially attractive to bass. But it's still one of the best spots in the lake. Bass will be where bass want to be, I guess."
Flammang said the north shoreline adjacent to that grade also produces bass throughout the year. Six fishing jetties added during the renovation have proved to be excellent locations for shore anglers to land bass, thanks to their riprapped borders and adjacent brushpiles.
Anglers travel from across the Midwest to fish for bass in the backwaters of the Mississippi River along Iowa's east coast, and for good reason. The shallow, weedy, brush-strewn backwaters are everything a bass could ask for — zillions of minnows, frogs and insects teeming in an endless maze of slow-moving river water.
Iowa DNR surveys and the results from dozens of bass tournaments in recent years agree: largemouth bass from the backwaters have trended slightly larger in recent years. River bass have traditionally averaged a size smaller than their land-locked cousins, but the average size of bass in recent tournaments has often exceeded 4 pounds. There may not be a state-record largemouth bass in the Mississippi's backwaters, but few waters in Iowa can brag of more bass per mile than the big river.
That sheer size is the disadvantage and advantage bass anglers must deal with on the Mississippi. To say that a certain place on a certain backwater or slough is the best place to catch bass ignores the realities of fishing for bass on a river. Water levels rise and fall daily. Logjams come and go. Weedbeds move from year to year.
The trick to catching bass on the Mississippi is not so much "where" to fish as "what" to fish. Successful anglers read the waters and look for slow currents that slide alongside shoreline vegetation or brushpiles. Backwaters are shallow, often less than 4 feet, so stealth is an advantage. Long, stealthy casts to bass lurking in structure are often more productive than short casts. Once emergent vegetation develops, topwater lures are not only deadly, but perhaps the most fun way to catch bass.
Brown's Lake, south of Belleview, is an example for bass fishing all up and down the river. That dredged backwater provides consistent bass fishing throughout the year for anglers who know how to react to changes in water levels. If the river is low, bass will be on the edges of dredge cuts and susceptible to jigs, crankbaits and spinner baits. If the river is high they'll be in weedbeds or flooded shoreline habitat. Plastics like worms and especially surface frogs can be deadly.
Brushy Creek Lake
Northern Iowa is better known for walleyes and perch, but Brushy Creek Lake, southeast of Fort Dodge in north central Iowa, straddles the line not only geographically but fish-wise. The lake's 690 acres of water supports a strong population of walleyes and yellow perch and a significant population of hefty largemouth bass.
The lake was designed as a fishing lake when it was built in the late 1990s. Trees were cleared only from the basin immediately above the dam. The main lake and its myriad creek arms were left forested, resulting in acres of stick-ups and deadfalls.
"The fun thing about Brushy Creek, and the intimidating thing about Brushy Creek, is all the timber," said Ben Wallace, DNR fisheries management biologist. "Bass love woody structure, and that lake is full of it. You can catch bass just about anywhere in the lake."
Serious bass anglers look for transition zones, and Brushy Creek has plenty of those bass magnets. Old creek channels meander through the maze of standing timber. Tributary creek channels snake between steep-sided bluffs on either side of the lake, creating points and fingers that hold bass on their ridges or sides, depending on the mood of the fish on a given day. A few islands and several submerged mounds provide topographic changes that attract and hold bass.
"There's so much structure in the lake that they're just about everywhere," Wallace said. "But early in the year, when warm water is flowing in from the main creek and the tributary creeks, guys seem to do well in the upper end or in the back ends of the creek arms. Later on, once vegetation starts to develop, I see a lot of guys working the edges of the weedbeds, especially where the edge of a weedbed encounters a dropoff, a point or some other kind of structure. Bass love places where different kinds of habitat intersect."
Many bass anglers focus on spawning areas during the spawn. Wallace said it's both easy and hard to key on those areas at Brushy Creek.
"The lake is steep-sided without a lot of shallow areas," he said. "So there's no big, obvious spawning area for bass or panfish. But they're going to spawn somewhere, so if you find the few shallow, smooth bottom areas in the lake, those are going to be busy places during the spawn."
Many anglers simply explore and experiment to decipher Brushy Creek's habitat, and for many that's the fun part of bass fishing. Other anglers prefer a more structured approach, and for them the DNR offers fishing maps.
"You can go to the DNR website, look up Brushy Creek Lake, and there are maps that have GPS coordinates for a lot of the artificial brush piles, the rock piles and the old road beds," Wallace advised. "The old road beds have cuts where the bridges used to be, and those are great places to fish. The maps also show the contours, so they can really help figure out the better places to fish."
Black Hawk Lake
Iowa water skiers, walleye anglers and bullhead aficionados have long been familiar with this lake in Sac County in west central Iowa. A recent renovation may bring it to the attention of bass anglers this year and especially in years to come.
"I'm really excited about the bass prospects at Black Hawk," Wallace said. "Bass numbers are looking really good in our surveys."
A shallow, natural, mud-bottom lake, Blackhawk suffered from clouded waters related to an overpopulation of common carp and problems with siltation from its watershed. A recent renovation project to control water quality coming into the lake, and a kill-off to eradicate rough fish, has produced rapid results.
"The water quality is dramatically improved, and the bass are growing fast as a result," Wallace noted. "There are tons of 12- to 14-inch bass in there now. We stocked a few 18- to 20-inchers to spawn and help jumpstart things, but they are few and far between."
The shallow, dishpan lake has little natural or artificial structure because artificial brushpiles or rock piles large enough to benefit fish would risk damage to recreational boat traffic. The lack of habitat means anglers can target the lake's shoreline and be confident they're casting to the majority of the lake's bass population.
"When there's not much structure, any structure looks good to bass," Wallace said. "The shoreline around Ice House Point has been producing a lot of bass. It's armored with riprap, and that shoreline drops off into fairly deep water for Black Hawk, so it's got some things going on that probably look good to bass. Beyond that, I'd work the docks, weedlines and any deadfalls you can find around the edges. You won't find many bass out in the middle because it's just a big dishpan."
Whether fishing the edges of dishpan lakes such as Black Hawk or deciphering the endless backwaters of the Mississippi River, thanks to several years of weird weather and hard work by the Iowa DNR anglers have plenty of places to seek largemouth bass this season. The challenge is not to find a lake with bass; it's to decide which bass-filled lake in which to fish.