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Iowa Crappie Fishing Outlook 2018

Iowa crappie fishing
Crappie fishing offers an exciting opportunity for anglers of all skill levels. (Shutterstock image)

Iowa crappie fishing action is heating up, and these are among the best waters statewide.

Crappie will soon begin to move to shallower haunts, and the fishing will heat up.

Anglers statewide will have some great opportunities to pursue this popular species, and we've highlighted a few of the better destinations here. If you are seeking slabs this spring, put these waters on your list. 


Northern reaches of Iowa will have average daytime highs in the mid 30s falling to the upper 20s to 30 degrees for lows. Much of the area lakes in the northern region of Iowa will have thick ice over two and a half feet, which will remain solid through March.

Early in March, the average daily high in Central Iowa is around 40 degrees, with nighttime temperatures falling back down into the 30s.

Late March, at least in the central part of the state, you may be looking at more open water than anything. Southern Iowa will have daytime temps ranging up to almost 50 degrees. Ice in this part of the state should be considered unsafe, if you can even find it. 

There are many factors that can affect the March crappie bite, but some of the most common things to consider are weather, water clarity, structure, remaining weed beds and the topographical lay of the land below the surface of the water.

These fish will pattern the same, whether you're standing above them on the ice, sitting in a boat or fishing from the bank. Live bait and plastics are the things you need to keep in mind.

You can continue to use waxworms or spikes (maggot larvae), and if you can find them in red, even better. Red or orange is also a great color to use with a small jig under a bobber in open water. Minnows, especially in late March, will be a go-to bait.


Home to the Iowa Great Lakes, or IGL's as they are commonly known, this area is known for producing some really good crappie fishing. Many of the area's lake will be iced over in early March.

And if you venture out for some late-ice crappie fishing, keep safety in mind. Though temperatures will remain cool and ice will, for the most part, be consistent throughout much of Northern Iowa, there is never such a thing as "safe ice." Sudden warm streaks will weaken the ice and may make it completely unsafe to fish.

Remember to always tell someone where you're going and when you plan on returning. Take a fishing partner along and always carry safety equipment with you such as the Clam Emergency Throw Rope. The rope easily deploys and is 50 feet in length, allowing you to safely assist an angler that may have fallen through the ice without putting you or others in danger of falling in as well.

West Lake Okoboji covers approximately 3,847 acres and is located in Dickinson County. The cities of Arnold Park, Okoboji, West Okoboji and Wahpeton sit on its shores. The gin-clear water and the chance to sight-fish for slab crappie and bull bluegill are a huge draw.

Big Spirit Lake, covering 5,684 acres, is located one mile north of Spirit Lake in Dickinson County. 

"We saw an uptick in black crappie numbers harvested on Big Spirit Lake last spring. I'd expect that trend to continue with another good spring harvest in 2018," reported Iowa Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist Mike Hawkins. "Five Island Lake is probably our sleeper lake. Our fall sampling is showing good population numbers and size for northwest Iowa. We had fish up to 11 inches, with good numbers in the 8- to 10-inch range. There were enough smaller fish to maintain some good fishing for next few years."

Lost Island will begin to see some nicer crappies next year, with multiple year classes showing up since the restoration work in that lake. 

"Although numbers are good, size structure was a bit small this year. Next year they should have better size," added Hawkins. 

Another lake to try in this area is Center Lake. There were good numbers harvested in 2017, and they are showing some good growth and size. That lake has historically been a tough one to get good-sized crappies to grow. "They tend to have erratic recruitment and stunt because of too many fish; however, the current population looks good," noted the biologist. 

Brushy Creek is situated in Webster County, east of Lehigh. Covering 690 acres, with a maximum depth of 75 feet, this fishery offers excellent opportunities for spring crappie. 

"Brushy Creek always has some pretty consistent crappie fishing," noted IDNR fisheries biologist Ben Wallace. "Along with Brushy Creek, I would add Black Hawk Lake and Swan Lake to the list as potential crappie spots for 2018."

Black Hawk Lake reported decent numbers of fish for the 2017 season, with sizes averaging about 10 inches.

"Swan Lake will probably offer fewer crappie than Black Hawk, but they will be larger individuals — 12-plus inches," added Wallace. He also pointed out that Crawford Creek, Oldham, and Southwood ponds have decent populations of crappie and have low angling pressure compared to the larger lakes previously listed. "May not be lights-out fishing, but the quality will be there." 


There is no doubt that one of the most popular crappie destinations in this part of the state is Red Rock Reservoir. This lake, approximately 15,520 acres in size, is located in Marion County north of Knoxville. "This lake has been producing some very nice crappie over the past few years. The size of these fish (10 to 14 inches) is impressive," noted Iowa Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist Ben Dodd. 

In 2017, we had what would be characterized as a pretty normal spring in central Iowa. Temperatures were cool in the beginning of March and continued to rise as the month ended. Warming water will move crappie shallow as they prepare for the coming spawn. Great areas to target are standing timber in shallow water with a drop-off close by. Crappie will stage off the drop-off, move in and out of the shallows as they search for potential spawning beds and feed on minnows. Cold fronts will push these fish back into deeper areas of the lake, so keep an eye on changing weather patterns.

Another notable crappie fishing destination is the ever-popular Big Creek Lake, covering approximately 814 acres and located in Polk County just north of Polk City. This lake is a very popular crappie destination throughout the ice-fishing season as well as the spring spawn. 

"Crappie fishing at Big Creek has been poor for the past six years or so," noted Dodd. "However, fall netting showed several year classes of crappie moving their way up to harvestable size. The larger fish are currently 10 to 12 inches." Big Creek offers anglers a chance at catching good numbers of fish however some sorting will be necessary.

Dodd also recommends Rock Creek Lake located in Jasper County, northeast of Kellogg, as well as Roberts Creek, which is in Marion County northeast of Knoxville. "Both of these lakes have a good abundance of crappie as well," the biologist noted.


The largest body of water in the southern part of the state is by far Rathbun Reservoir, covering over 11,000 acres with a max depth of about 50 feet. Located in Appanoose County northwest of Centerville, Rathbun offers some of the most productive fishing in Iowa. "Rathbun is a perennial favorite, and 2018 will be another example of a good year," noted IDNR fisheries management biologist Mark Flammang. "We have high numbers of 7- to 9-inch fish, but large fish are abundant also. We've had some growth on some larger year classes that have been slow coming around, but they are there now." 

Look for good numbers of 10- to 12-plus-inch fish. Most of the bigger fish come early in the spring; otherwise summer can be good when you find suspended fish.

There are a couple smaller bodies of water in southern Iowa that Flammang noted as crappie destinations in the spring.

"It's a small lake, only about 30 acres, but Williamson Pond in Lucas County is a great crappie destination. The average size is very impressive, and most fish are in the 10- to 12-inch range," noted the biologist. "Wapello in Davis County is coming around, and we are seeing good numbers of 9- to 11-inch crappies out there."


So, we know where to look for these crappie. Now let's talk some of the equipment and tactics to use to help fill those creels. 

Maps and electronics can be some of the best tools you can use as you set out to find March crappie. Whether you've fished a particular body of water or not, doing some pre-fish scouting with a good topographical map will help you narrow your search as you head out.

The Department of Natural Resources website is a one-stop shop for lake information. There you'll find details about specific bodies of water as well as downloadable and printable maps. These may not be as extensive as maps provided by companies like Navionics or Lake Master, but there will be enough information to point you in the right direction. 

For crappie angling, light line, medium-light or ultralight rod and reel combinations and small jigs are going to be the preferred method. 

If you're on the ice, 26- to 28-inch ice rods will do the job very well.

For open water, same light line and rod weight will do the trick. Many anglers prefer rods in 5- to 7-foot lengths. The longer rods are a bit easier to cast when you're using light tackle, but can be a challenge in tight quarters. There are some specialty crappie rods that will reach out to 12 feet! These are great for "placing" your bait exactly where you want it.

Using the same jigs and plastics with these longer rods will net some pretty good results. A minnow or a waxworm under a bobber will also help fill your limit this year. March crappie can be phenomenal at times, and fish can be aggressive. Cold fronts will shut these fish down, however. A rod with a sensitive tip that allows you to see the take is essential.

As we see warmer weather and ice begin to leave area lakes, look for areas where melting ice and snow is flowing into the lake. This turbidity in the water will attract smaller minnows and insects to feed on the incoming sources of food carried by the water. Crappie will follow the bait fish into these areas, especially as the water warms. Look for creek channels with drop-offs to deeper water. These will be staging areas as the crappie prepare for the spawn.

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