March 17, 2016
By Dan Anderson
No matter where you are in Iowa as you read this, you're within half an hour of good bass fishing. You may be near the endless bassin' opportunities in the Mississippi River along our east coast. Maybe you're closer to the burgeoning bass population at Little River Lake in southern Iowa. In northwest Iowa there are literally tons of bass waiting at the Iowa Great Lakes if you can squeeze a lure between the recreational boats, while in central Iowa you have the option of working weedlines in one of our most un-pressured lakes near an urban area — Lake Ahquabi.
Located six miles south of Indianola, just west of Highway 69, Ahquabi was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. The 115-acre lake has been renovated several times, most recently in the mid '90s, when shoreline riprap and underwater fish habitat were added, along with improvements to the lake's watershed to improve water quality.
"There are really, really nice bass in Ahquabi," said Iowa DNR Biometrician Jeff Kopaska, who compiles the stats from DNR fish surveys. "Lots of bass in the 2- to 4-pound range. The water is clear enough so that some nice weedlines have developed. Those are prime places to target bass," he advised.
"Serious bass anglers sometimes bypass the area around the fish house (a special handicap-accessible fishing pier with a roof for all-weather fishing) and assume it's only good for bluegills," Kopaska noted. "The reason there are lots of bluegills is because that area is packed with submerged structure. Wherever there are bluegills and structure, there will be bass. Add in the attraction of people catching small bluegills and tossing them back, which provides a population of wounded bluegills, and there are often big bass in that area."
Forty miles south of Lake Ahquabi, near the town of Leon, is another renovated lake with a booming population of bass. Little River Lake's 780 acres were rehabilitated in recent years, with the addition of miles of riprapped shoreline, submerged mounds and dozens of submerged brushpiles.
Lee Huey, member of the Ames Anglers fishing club, was pleased with the success his group enjoyed at Little River last summer.
"We had our best luck fishing over the brushpiles," said Huey. "I had good luck with a wacky rig. In fact, I do so well with a wacky rig that it's almost the only thing I use any more. I use a Yamamoto 5-inch Senko worm in red shad laminate. I know some guys like to switch around between a lot of lures, but I've found that I can catch just as many bass by just using that one rig around brush piles."
Bass populations in several other recently renovated lakes around Iowa are worthy of one or more trips this year. In western Iowa, Prairie Rose Lake, a 218-acre lake near Harlan, had a strong population of 1- to 2-pound bass in surveys taken by the DNR last fall. Farther north, Black Hawk Lake, a 957-acre natural lake near Lake View, was for decades a bullhead, catfish and walleye lake, but recent renovations have improved water quality and habitat so that bass are now on the fishing menu.
"Black Hawk is coming back fast, with bass in the 1- to 2-pound range," said Kopaska. "We're seeing improved water quality, resulting in more weedbeds. Look for pockets of open water in the weeds (to find bass). The shoreline along Ice House Point is a great place to start."
Due north of Black Hawk Lake, at the Iowa Great Lakes, largemouth bass are an often overlooked segment of the smorgasbord of fishing opportunities, especially at Lake West Okoboji. While green bass aren't as numerous in West Okoboji as yellow bass and bluegills, members of that species in that lake tend to be large.
"We had a tournament at West Okoboji last fall, and there were some impressive bass," said Rich Baldwin, past president of Iowa Bass Anglers fishing club. "Boat traffic is the big challenge up there. Between the recreational boaters and the other anglers going after perch and yellow bass and other species, it's tough to fish where you want to fish, the way you want to fish. But if you can work the weedlines in Emerson Bay or Millers Bay, there are 4- to 6-pound bass in there."
It's not fair to talk about "bass" at the Iowa Great Lakes without mentioning the renowned population of smallmouth bass in West Okoboji and especially in Big Spirit lakes. Fishing guide John Grosvenor routinely posts photos of 3- to 5- pound smallies from West Okoboji on his facebook page (facebook.com/lakeokobojifishing), and representatives with Berkley Tackle Company, which is based in Spirit Lake, Iowa, said the smallmouth bass in Big Spirit Lake are on par with anything they encounter during tackle and lure testing on Lake Erie or other famed smallmouth waters.
The Mississippi River along Iowa's eastern border is another dual threat for bass. Pools 9 and 10 bordering northeast Iowa harbor not only strong populations of largemouths, but significant populations of smallmouths. In fact, it's not unusual for anglers at bass tournaments on those pools to win tournaments with nothing but smallmouths.
"I used to host a (bass) tournament out of Marquette," said Jeff Barkhoff of Coralville, Iowa, a fishing representative at Scheels Sporting Goods in Iowa City and veteran bass angler. "The last year I was part of it, the winner won with 19 pounds of smallmouths."
Baldwin, with Iowa Bass Anglers, said any of the Mississippi's pools along eastern and northeast Iowa are good for bass, but he is especially fond of Methodist Slough and Wyalusing Slough, both near Clayton in far northeast Iowa.
"Depending on the time of year, different baits in different places catch bass on the Mississippi," he said. "I throw a lot of creature-style baits, especially Big Bite Baits. They imitate crawfish, and crawfish are a major food source for bass in the Mississippi. In the summer it's a blast to go back in the lily pads and cast a topwater Fighting Frog. Later in the year I'll use a wacky-rigged Senko and fish woody structure."
Eastern Iowa has other attractions for bass hunters. Barkhoff said weekly tournaments on Lake Macbride, north of Iowa City, prove there are good numbers of nice-size largemouths in that 940-acre lake limited to 10 horsepower at 5 mph from the Friday before Memorial Day through Labor Day. DNR electrofishing surveys last year turned up largemouths that that topped 5 pounds.
"I have to admit Macbride usually kicks my butt," said Barkhoff. "I catch bass, good numbers, nice size, but never enough to win anything at the weekly tournaments. One thing I've noticed, the bass at Macbride are usually shallow, rarely deep. Once a thermocline sets up, there's no use fishing any deeper than 10, maybe 12 feet, even though the water is really clear and you'd think you have to fish deep to find bass."
Coralville Lake, a large variable-size flood control reservoir next door to Lake Macbride, rates well on Barkhoff's list of favorite bassin' holes, even though some other anglers disagree.
"People think I'm nuts, but I catch bass on Coralville and have a ball," he said. "In the spring, if the water level stays reasonably low you can do really well fishing the known structure. In the fall, when the water is really clear, I can clobber them by fishing along the rock walls. When I fished there last fall, I was handing my rod to my kids so they could land the fish on just about every other cast. The secret is to fish right against the rock wall — anything more than a foot from the rock is a wasted cast."
Two lakes due south of Iowa City rate well on DNR surveys for bass. Vance Polton, DNR fisheries technician, said 178-acre Big Hollow Lake and 264-acre Belva Deer Lake both hold strong populations of healthy bass.
"Big Hollow is a relatively new lake, and the bass are in the 18- to 19-inch range, topping out around 5 pounds," said Polton. "There are lots (of bass) in the 15-inch range. The thing about Big Hollow is that even though there's lots of standing timber, you can't just go bang around and expect to catch bass. The water is really clear, so you have to kind of sneak up on them."
Clear water and standing timber are also part of the challenge of catching bass at Belva Deer Lake, near Sigourney.
"It's a 264-acre lake, and 112 acres is standing timber, some of it pretty thick," said Polton. "There were ponds in the area before the bigger lake was impounded, so it was pre-stocked and has some bigger bass. There are 6- to 8-pound bass in there. One thing we've learned, when we electrofish and survey in the spring, we head for the upper end beyond the trees where it used to be pasture ground. Before the lake filled, we put mounds in that area. The tops come up to 6 feet, in 13 or 14 feet of water. The tops are rocked, and the water quality is such that weedbeds develop in those areas, and those are the places we find bass pre-spawn."
For anglers willing to work for a chance at their bass, Polton suggests public ponds associated with Lake Darling State Park, near Brighton. When Lake Darling was renovated within the past decade, more than 25 ponds were built on public land to help control water quality in the main lake.
"Some of those ponds are a mile or more from parking lots, so you have to be willing to walk," said Polton. "When we de-populated the main lake, we transferred some of the full-size bass to the ponds. There are nice bass in those ponds for people willing to do some walking."
For anglers looking for the fattest bass possible, Polton recommends Lake Odessa, a massive backwater complex on the Mississippi River along southeast Iowa.
"They're tough to catch because there is a huge population of shad and other forage fish, so they're never really hungry," said Polton. When we rate the condition of bass in our surveys our goal for bass in our area is a "relative weight" number of 93 to 95. At Belva Deer, the bass usually are in the 102 to 106. But at Odessa the bass are consistently in the 130 to 140 range. They're footballs."
No discussion about bass fishing in Iowa is complete without mention of Brushy Creek Lake, 690 acres of bass heaven near Fort Dodge.
"Brushy Creek has everything to be a phenomenal bass lake," said Barkhoff. "It's 65 feet deep in places, it has bluffs, it has islands, it has springs, it has bays, it has flats, it has old creek channels and it has acres and acres and acres of standing timber. There are almost too many features, and that makes it hard to figure out a pattern." Barkhoff noted that his friend won a post-spawn tournament last year by pulling white spinnerbaits alongside laydowns.
"I was fan-casting over the same structure and catching a few bass, but he did really well with those spinnerbaits," he continued. "The bass wouldn't come up for my lure, but they would slide out and hammer his when he pulled it tight alongside a laydown."
That tournament at Brushy Creek highlights the challenge for bass anglers across Iowa. There are plenty of bass in most of our lakes. The issue is figuring out where those bass are on a given day and what lure or presentation will make them want to eat. Like we said at the outset — as you read this, you're probably within a half hour of good bass fishing. Whether or not there is good bass "catching" from those waters is dependent on your skills as an angler.