Iowa Fishing Hot Spots for May

Iowa Fishing Hot Spots for May
Guide Doug Burns proudly displays a 6-pound, 13-ounce walleye pulled from the Iowa Great Lakes. Photo courtesy of Doug Burns.

Here's the premise: We're going to take vacation for the entire month of May, fish every day somewhere in Iowa, and we're going to catch fish. Lots of fish. Because May is when the stars figuratively align to produce some of the best fishing of the year for almost every species of fish found in Iowa.

So pack your fishing rods, stock up on baits and lures, and let's lay out a schedule of where, when and how to take advantage of 30 days of non-stop fishing in Iowa.


We open our fishing odyssey in the Iowa Great Lakes region on May 1, fishing for Iowa's #1 sure thing: bullheads. Purists may sniff at the slimy, inelegant little fish, but a day (or two) spent reeling in the 1-pound and larger bullheads common along the North Grade at Big Spirit Lake is grin-and-giggle fun. It's as simple as tying on a long-shanked 1/0 hook with enough weight to drag a juicy nightcrawler to the bottom. If you enjoy fried bullheads but are more into "catching" than "cleaning" 100 fish per day, many local baitshops offer cleaning services for reasonable rates. After all, we're on a fishing vacation and cleaning fish — that many fish — is a lot like work.

After a couple days of bullheadin' it's time to target white bass at the north end of East Okoboji Lake. In early May there is generally water moving through the spillway between Big Spirit Lake and the upper end of East Okoboji. That current, in coincidence with their normal spring migratory urges, concentrates thousands of white bass near the mouth of the spillway. Cast a white twistertail through the schools of white bass patrolling the flat adjacent to the mouth of the spillway, or troll a crankbait along the deeper edge of that flat.

The "Walleye Opener" is the first week of May at the Iowa Great Lakes, so we can wrap up our first week of fishing without leaving Dickinson County. Other lakes across Iowa have open season on walleyes, but Big Spirit, East Okoboji and West Okoboji lakes have a closed season on walleyes from February 15 till the opening day in early May; May 5 this year.

"Big Spirit was phenomenal for walleyes last year," says fishing guide Doug Burns (712 209-4286; "The biggest one I had in my boat last year was 7 pounds, 11 ounces, and it really didn't surprise me."

Early in the season Burns targets the entrance to Anglers Bay at the northeast corner of the lake and the Marble Beach area along the western shore for walleyes by trolling spinners tipped with live bait or "Gulp!"-type baits in areas where mud bottom transitions to sand bottom.

Burns also recommends anglers fishing the Iowa Great Lakes in early May take advantage of a "fantastic" bite for trophy-caliber white bass at West Lake Okoboji. "Last year I had clients land more than 30 white bass that would have qualified for the DNR's "Master Angler" certificates," said Burns. "They have to be 18 ¾ inches to be Master Angler-worthy. An 18 3/4-inch white bass is a blast to catch, and even if you don't catch a trophy, you'll catch tons of 1- to 2-pounders."

The clear waters of West Okoboji make catching white bass easy. "You can see the schools on the major points," said Burns. "I was over Hiawatha Point in Miller's Bay one time and started counting white bass I could see, gave up counting and estimated there were 1,000 fish in that particular school. We throw #7 and #10 Rapala X-Raps, and we catch white bite bass till the clients get tired of landing fish."


Lost Island Lake, in Palo Alto County, is another legendary lake for bullheads, but crappies, walleyes and even northern pike opportunities have bloomed in recent years thanks to efforts by the DNR and local authorities to improve the lake's water quality.

Local angler Tony Rydstrom, from Marathon, considers Lost Island his "home lake." "They still catch tons of bullheads off the [road] grade along the southwest corner," he said. "Personally, I like walleyes and in May I'm trolling #7 Deep Diver Shad Raps along the west and especially the south shoreline. There's a little current running from the inlet [in the southeast corner] to the outlet [in the southwest corner], and the walleyes seem to relate to that. I want my Shad Raps banging the bottom. I'll troll a 7-foot Deep Diver in 3 feet of water. I've also done well in early spring casting jigs to the rocks along the shore at the northwest side. Size-wise, my biggest walleye from Lost Island was 27 inches. They'll average 14 to 16 inches."

Rydstrom said as water clarity has improved, so has Lost Island's crappie and northern pike populations. During the crappie spawn (generally around the second week of May), Lost Island's crappies flock to the sandy areas near the beach and "The Tube" in the northeast corner of the lake. Northern pike have also gained numbers and size as water quality has improved. Rydstrom said he boated more northerns while trolling for walleyes last year than he has in the past decade. "My biggest northern last year from Lost Island was 37-inches," he reported.

Rydstrom said anglers should also include Storm Lake on their fishing schedule for May.

"I tend to troll Storm Lake shallow for walleyes, in 5 feet or less of water," he said. "In the spring I like the south side, near the beach and boat ramp, and I like the point and reef off Boy Scout Park on the north side. The dredge cuts are turning into pretty good habitat for walleyes, too. Most guys work them parallel to the cuts, but I like to go across them. I find that the fish down in the bottom of the cuts aren't active, while the ones associated with the edges are more active."

Channel catfish from 2 to 5 pounds are "everywhere" in Storm Lake, according to Rydstrom and frequently caught by anglers trolling crankbaits for walleyes. Serious catfish anglers focus on the windward shore. Local catfishermen know that a south wind pushing waves against riprapped shorelines where the city of Storm Lake traces the northern edge of the lake promises good fishing for those who bait with crawdads cast 10 to 15 feet from shore.

Continuing our fishing vacation in Warren County, south of Des Moines in central Iowa, Lake Ahquabi may be the "name" lake, but a silt-control structure called Hooper Pond/Lake south of the main lake is often better for crappies and bluegills during the spawn. The same applies to Roberts Creek Lake on the north side of Lake Red Rock. The big lake is often high and turbid in the spring, making the warmer, clearer waters of adjacent Roberts Creek Lake the hotter hole for crappies during the spawn.


A trip down I-80 into eastern Iowa takes anglers near Lake McBride, north of Iowa City. May is prime time for shore anglers to catch crappies from fishing jetties, especially in the north arm, by casting jigs or dangling minnows under bobbers. Most of the jetties were designed with deep-water/shallow-water brushpiles within casting distance — it's just a matter of experimentation to find which depth or type of structure near a particular jetty holds crappies on a specific day.

Walleyes in McBride's north arm favor underwater humps covered with riprap and rocks. Some anglers do well vertical jigging over those structures, but local anglers generally favor trolling shad-pattern crankbaits over and alongside those the humps.

Along our eastern border, the Mississippi River and its myriad backwaters, cuts and sloughs offer uncounted opportunities in May for every species of fish native to Iowa. Eric Wright, now game warden in Cedar County, was stationed at Pool 14 on the Mississippi River for a number of years, and still considers that massive fishery a prime place to fish in May.

"I really like trolling for walleyes on the Mississippi," he said. "I love to troll Flicker Shads. In the backwaters, on the tips of wingdams, on the flats between wingdams, around the closing dams at the upper ends of flowing sloughs — anywhere there's current and rocks or riprap. The trick is to keep your crankbait right on the bottom. I use a #7 Flicker Shad tied to Fireline so I can stay in contact with the bottom. If I'm not bumping bottom, I'm not catching walleyes."

Panfish anglers find endless opportunities for spawning bluegills and crappies in the backwaters of the Mississippi River. Backwaters are shallow, often less than 4 feet in depth, so the trick is to cast from a distance to brush and other spawning habitat to avoid spooking the fish.

The number of largemouth bass fishing tournaments held on the Mississippi River in recent years underlines the tremendous bass fishing available in the backwaters. Bass are shallow, in pre-spawning mode, in May. Cast topwater lures to emergent vegetation, or knock wood with a crankbait, and 2- to 4-pound largemouths will respond. So many backwaters, so many bass, so little time '¦


No tour of fishing opportunities in Iowa would be complete without a pass across southern Iowa. Lake Sugema, in Van Buren County, suffered a winter kill on walleyes two winters ago, but the remaining walleyes are fat, and the unaffected crappies, bluegills and bass are fat and numerous. Focus on standing/fallen timber in the lake's multiple arms for crappies, bass and bluegills. Walleyes favor rocky humps and structure in the main lake.

The big news in southeast Iowa in 2012 is that, "Lake Rathbun is back for crappies," according to DNR Fisheries Management Biologist Mark Flammang. "We finally had a better year in 2011; people caught their limits [25 per angler per day] of legitimate, 12- to 15-inch crappies," said Flammang. "We have awesome numbers of fish [spawned during] the 2007 floods, and high waters in 2008, 2009, and 2010 have contributed more fish, to the point where 2012 could remind crappie anglers of, "the good ol' days" when Lake Rathbun was the place for crappies in the Midwest."

To the west of Lake Rathbun, DNR Fisheries Biologist Gary Sobotka said one of the better spots for spawning crappies in his territory is at Twelve Mile Lake, along the lake's west shoreline. Formerly a steep shoreline with flooded trees, during a recent renovation an access road was cut parallel and slightly below the normal waterline so trucks could deliver rock riprap. Now that the lake has refilled, the resulting shoreline provides flooded timber, a shallow shelf, then a drop-off into deep water that attracts and holds crappies throughout the year.

We end our 30 days of fishing across Iowa at Green Valley Lake, just north of Creston in southwest Iowa. Green Valley has been drawn down and under renovation for nearly three years, but fish were stocked and growing throughout that time. The result: "That lake is locked and loaded for great fishing in 2012," says Fisheries Biologist Sobotka. "There are thousands of 1- to 2-pound [largemouth] bass. The bluegills are a little short, 7- to 8-inches, but they're nearly as thick as they are long. Crappies were stocked later, so they're not up to full-speed as far as numbers, but the initial stocking is 10- to 12-inches and worth catching when you find them."

Sobotka said brushpiles within casting distance of fishing jetties, mid-lake humps covered with rock and riprap, and other new structure will be focal points for anglers deciphering fishing hotspots in the "new" lake.

That's a look at 30 days worth of fishing around Iowa. We didn't have time to talk about bass and crappies at Viking Lake in southwest Iowa, the phenomenal catfishing that should follow last year's record-setting floods on the Missouri River, the traditionally great smallmouth bass fishing in the upper Cedar, upper Iowa and Wapsipinicon rivers, or all the trout fishing available in northeast Iowa's trout streams. Thirty days just isn't enough time take advantage of all the great fishing opportunities waiting in Iowa during the month of May.

Get Your Fish On.

Plan your next fishing and boating adventure here.

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