Whether you're looking for a frying pan full of crappies or bluegills, a trophy walleye, or an arm-busting encounter with a monster flathead catfish, Iowa has all those opportunities, and more. Here's a calendar of fishing opportunities to prime your pump for a year's worth of fishing across Iowa.
West Lake Okoboji Bluegills
Professional fishing guide John Grosvenor noted few lakes in Iowa offer better bluegill fishing through the ice than West Lake Okoboji. Grosvenor recommends ice-fishing rods with soft tips and bite indicators. "In the winter, bluegills are feeding on tiny little invertebrates," he said. "They bite soft, so the bite indicators help hook more fish."
Other Options: Trout feed throughout the winter in northeast Iowa's spring-fed trout streams, which stay free flowing, except on the coldest days of winter. On the Mississippi River along eastern Iowa, sauger move up below dams and provide open-water fishing opportunities for those willing to brave the chilling challenges of fishing from boats
Urban Lakes Trout
The Iowa DNR stocks trout several times each winter into a number of lakes across Iowa. The goal is to provide anglers near Des Moines, Mason City, Sioux City, Council Bluffs, Davenport and other selected urban areas the opportunity to catch trout from waters where trout normally aren't found.
Initial stockings occur in November, once waters cool enough to ensure survival of the 10- to 12-inch hatchery-raised trout. The trout lakes are stocked two to three times each winter to maintain their trout populations until waters warm in the spring. For a list of Iowa's urban trout lakes visit www.iowadnr.gov.
Other Options: A few hardy walleye anglers catch walleyes throughout the winter from the open-water spillways below Saylorville Dam, Red Rock Dam and other dams on major rivers. In northern Iowa, ice-anglers using tip-ups baited with suckers pull 10- to 15-pound northern pike from the Iowa Great Lakes as well as back channels and running sloughs on the Mississippi River.
Iowa Great Lakes Northern Pike
Grosvenor said as winter wanes in northern Iowa, northern pike become aggressive ahead of their spawn. He uses tip-ups to target pike associated with weedbeds."We can put pike on the ice almost any day," he said. "My biggest last winter was a 34-incher."
Other Options: Ice often goes off farm ponds and small lakes in southern Iowa in March, and sow largemouth bass often sunbathe and feed along south-facing mud-bottom shorelines on sunny afternoons. On the Mississippi River, sauger are still below dams, and large walleyes often join them as winter fades into early spring and their spawn approaches.
Major Rivers White Bass
There is often a period of low, relatively-clear water flow in Iowa's rivers just after ice-out but before spring rains raise and muddy their waters. This time coincides with the annual white bass "run," on the Des Moines, Iowa, Cedar and other rivers in Iowa.
"I grew up fishing the white bass run on the lower Des Moines River," said fishing guide Rod Woten. "You can catch a lot of fish, they fight hard and it's a ton of fun. I like to cast a jig with a chartreuse Mr. Twister across the current and bring it back to me. The jig weight depends on the current. I want it just ticking along the bottom."
Other Options: Regular stocking of catchable-size trout begins in northeast Iowa's trout streams the first week of April. Bullhead fishing along the north grade at Big Spirit Lake at the Iowa Great Lakes has been producing in recent years yellow-bellies averaging 1 pound.
Lake Rathbun Crappies
Lake Rathbun has long been Iowa's premier crappie lake, though its reputation has been tarnished by tough fishing in the past decade.
"If you're fishing for crappies at Rathbun in the places where you caught them 20 or 30 years ago, you may be disappointed," said fisheries biologist Mark Flammang. "The lake has changed, and some of the old structure from the original impoundment has disintegrated. The guys who have worked to find the new hotspots have been very happy with the size and numbers of crappies Rathbun has to offer."
Other Options: Smallmouth bass at the Iowa Great Lakes and northeast Iowa's rock-bottomed rivers feed aggressively as they prepare for their spawn in June. On the Mississippi River, DNR fisheries technician Kirk Hansen said largemouth bass fishing on the big river has been excellent in recent years, with bass at local tournament weigh-ins often averaging 5 pounds.
Artificial Lakes Channel Catfish
Radio telemetry studies of tagged channel catfish show that the majority of tagged fish from an entire lake often concentrate in specific areas during their spawn in June. Floating a chunk of cut bait, a leech, or dragging a crankbait along a rocky shoreline during the spawn can produce arm-ripping bites from 5- to 10-pound channel cats. Riprapped approaches to the "Mile Long" bridges at both Saylorville and Red Rock lakes are famous for catfishing action during the spawn, as are riprapped areas associated with Mehaffey Bridge at Coralville Lake.
Other Options: Bluegills spawn in early June and aggressively protect their nests in shallow water, making them easy to take on light spinning tackle or fly rods. Largemouth bass spawn in Iowa's uncounted farm ponds in June, making them easy picking for clients who take advantage of fishing guide Woten's unique guided "Belly boat trips" that target farm pond bass.
Clear Lake Yellow Bass
Yellow bass have long been a spring favorite for anglers at Clear Lake in north central Iowa, but their arrival during the last decade to the Iowa Great Lakes brought mixed reviews.
"We didn't want them," said DNR fisheries management biologist Mike Hawkins. "But they got into the lakes, and we're trying to stay optimistic. A unique thing here is that the yellow bass crossbred with the native white bass, and the result is a larger fish. If you catch a yellow bass bigger than 10 or 11 inches, it's probably a crossbreed."
Iowa Great Lakes fishing guide Grosvenor said yellow bass have become favorites with clients who just want to catch fish. "When you're on a school, it's non-stop action for fish that are a blast to catch and really good to eat," he said.
Other Options: Flathead catfish spawn in early July, and it's one of the few times each year when normally solitary flatheads are grouped near spawning structure of riprap, logjams and "hole-y" habitat. In central Iowa, relatively cool and clear flow from the Saylorville and Red Rock dams on the Des Moines River supports for a dozen or more miles below those dams a "secret" population of smallmouth bass weighing up to 5 pounds.
Saylorville Lake Carp
European anglers prize carp, consider them a catch-and-release species, and hold high-paying tournaments to catch them. Fishing guide Woten has guided Europeans vacationing in Iowa and picked up some of their respect and techniques for catching carp.
"I use European tactics with hair rigs, different approaches from what Americans use," he said. "If you just plain want to have fun catching fish, never overlook carp."
Other Options: Wiper bass are a hybrid of white bass and ocean striped bass stocked in Red Rock, Saylorville and Big Creek lakes as well as Lake Manawa and selected other lakes around Iowa for anglers who target areas where shad are "busting" the surface, indicating a wiper feeding frenzy. Channel catfish are often relegated to deeper holes in Iowa's rivers as water levels fall in late summer, making them prime targets for anglers who wade or canoe to those isolated holes.
Mississippi River Flathead Catfish
DNR fisheries technician Kirk Hansen said it's not unusual for him to catch several 15-pound and larger flathead catfish with rod and reel during an evening's fishing on the Mississippi River, and routinely handles 40-pound and larger flatheads when he and co-workers survey the river.
"The flathead population is really healthy in the Mississippi right now," he said. "We fish on the top ends of brush piles, and use live bluegills for bait. I'd use bullheads, because flatheads really go for them, but they're harder to find."
Other Options: Early September, before waters begin to cool, is prime time to target muskies around Iowa. In recent years the DNR netted and released muskies from East Lake Okoboji that weighed up to 49 pounds. Walleyes at Brushy Creek Lake southeast of Fort Dodge also go on a bite after the first major drop in water temperature.
Inland River Walleyes
Late October, after the first cold snap of autumn, triggers both walleyes and walleye anglers to congregate near riffles, rock bars, rock ledges and dams on the Des Moines, Iowa, Raccoon and other large rivers. Flows are usually lower, water is relatively clear, and river walleyes up to 8 pounds readily take hammerhead jigs, twister tails and other traditional walleye lures.
Walleyes in lakes also respond to cooler temperatures. Anglers who wade along shallow points on Big Spirit and the other Iowa Great Lakes score nice walleyes each fall, while other anglers in boats do well pulling crankbaits near rock reefs adjacent to shallow waters.
Other Options: In early October crappies begin to school-up and move toward wintering areas as temperatures cool in Lake Anita, Three Mile Lake and other southern reservoirs. The magic depth seems to be 15 feet. In northeast Iowa's cold-water streams, trout don't mind cooler weather, and the DNR continues stocking catchable fish through October.
Big Spirit Lake Yellow Perch
Perch are on the downside of their traditional "perch cycle," but fisheries biologist Hawkins said there are still plenty of perch to be caught, and signs of hope for the future.
"We use a 500-foot-long seine net in the same places at the same times each year to get an idea of the various fish populations in the Iowa Great Lakes," he said. "In the 2014 survey there were really strong numbers of yearling yellow perch in Big Spirit. That may be an indicator that things are going to get better in the next few years. Until then, there are still nice perch in the system, just not as many as there were a few years ago."
Other Options: Walleyes in Iowa's rivers continue to feed aggressively until freeze-up, and savvy anglers work riffles and rock bars in those rivers, even if they have to wear insulated coveralls. And the DNR begins stocking put-and-take trout into lakes near urban areas around the state in late November.
Northeast Iowa StreamTrout
Theresa Shay, DNR fisheries technician in northeast Iowa, said winter trout fishing is unlike any other time of year.
"You have the streams more to yourself," she said. "You don't have to fight through weeds or deal with bugs, but the trout are there and feed all through the winter. Since the spring-fed water rarely dips below 40 or 50 degrees during the winter, the waters in our trout streams are often actually warmer than the ambient air temperature during winter months."
Streamers work well to catch trout used to feeding on small minnows. Wooly Boogers and Muddler Minnows are the go-to favorites for many winter trout anglers in Iowa's streams.
Other Options: Fishing guide Woten is impressed with the quality of bluegill fishing at Big Creek Lake.
"It consistently produces lots of nice bluegills through the ice," he said. Farther north, Woten likes to fish for yellow bass in dredged areas of the Little Lake portion of Clear Lake, where 8- to 9-inch yellow bass are common.