May 20, 2020
The current coronavirus pandemic has greatly affected many aspects of day-to-day life. Traditional gathering places and sporting events have temporarily shuttered, and words like “quarantine” and “social distancing” have entered into common vocabulary.
Something that hasn’t changed is that fishing still offers a fun and rewarding escape, and the coming summer months offer some of the best of it all year. Thankfully, the Midwest is blessed with countless angling opportunities. Below is a look at eight particularly great fisheries this summer.
MISSISSIPPI RIVER MIXED BAG
Many know the legendary Mississippi as a deep, brooding river in America’s heartland. However, its upper reaches offer swift, clear water…and unforgettable fishing, particularly on the stretch from Brainerd to Minneapolis in Minnesota.
“The Mississippi River is just fantastic,” says Cory Schmidt, veteran angler and writer for In-Fisherman magazine. “They catch walleye of 10, 12 and even 15 pounds in the Minneapolis pool despite its heavy catch-and-release-only pressure. And the smallmouth fishing is best from Monticello on up.”
The topwater bite can be gripping at times, so be ready with smaller walking baits, chuggers and perhaps the old reliable Heddon Tiny Torpedo.
Rocks are plentiful, so be careful with lower units. Navigate cautiously, preferably in a craft tailored to river fishing.
The river has more favorable surprises, too.
“What’s really changed is the channel catfish fishing,” Schmidt says. “The population has exploded up to Brainerd and beyond without any adverse effect on walleye and smallmouth numbers. You can catch dozens of catfish a day, most in the five- to 15-pound range, especially below the dams.”
KENTUCKY LAKE/LAKE BARKLEY CRAPPIES
Doug Wynn of Crappie-Gills-N-More (270-703-7600) believes in big-boy techniques for big crappies. Trolling for magnum crappies with crankbaits is his specialty.
“We caught a spawned-out crappie that weighed 2 pounds, 15 ounces in May,” Wynn says. “These crappies are hungry and aggressive. We put a lot of big fish in the boat.”
Wynn “pulls crankbaits” for crappies on this storied Tennessee River reservoir from post-spawn through the summer. But crappies are only part of his catch on a normal day. Sauger, white bass, largemouth bass and catfish—channel and blue cats with an occasional flathead up to 20 pounds or more—get into the mix as well.
“Lots of folks are surprised catfish will hit a crankbait, but they do…and we catch a lot of them,” Wynn says.
LAKE ERIE WALLEYES
The western basin of Lake Erie has ranked among the world’s best walleye fisheries for decades, but its current walleye population might be its most impressive yet.
“Walleye fishing in Lake Erie is as good as it’s ever been, with a walleye population now estimated between 100 million and 160 million fish,” says Capt. Ross Robertson of Bigwater Guide Service (419-283-7069).
Robertson’s photo and video gallery provides evidence this is more than a “numbers” fishery, with plenty of double-digit fish crossing his gunwale annually, along with the many “eater” walleye in the 17- to 23-inch range.
Trolling elongated minnow-style hardbaits takes lots of fish. Key areas include Sandusky Bay, Port Clinton, Oak Harbor and Cleveland. Walleye schools tend to migrate eastward through the summer.
And, yes, you’ll find a plentiful smallmouth bass population as well, especially among the islands in Erie’s western basin.
ROCK RIVER CATFISH
The Rock River is home to hefty channel and flathead catfish throughout its 155-mile run to the Mississippi River through northwest Illinois.
“But I really don’t have to travel far,” says Rob Ebany, a catfish specialist who makes his home in Rockton, Illinois, just north of the city of Rockford.
Ebany has caught flatheads to 55 pounds in the river. One boat mate captured a 60 pounder. “The quality of flathead catfish in the river is tough to beat,” he says.
He gets serious about catfish in the spring when water temperatures reach 58 degrees. “But at 64 degrees, they really turn on,” he says.
His primary baits come straight from the river—green sunfish, creek chubs and gizzard shad—generally fished on a Carolina rig with a heavy 2- to 8-ounce sinker.
The big flathead bite slows during the post-spawn period in late June and early July, but it’s “game on” for the rest of the summer. He finds many of his best catfish locations in holes roughly 13 to 14 feet deep with sunken timber providing added cover.
Establish a milk run of high-percentage holes, and don’t be afraid to cover water. “If I spend 15 minutes in the ‘right’ place without a bite, it’s not the right place!” Ebany says.
LAKE TANEYCOMO BROWN TROUT
A little bit river, a little bit lake. At 2,000 acres, Taneycomo is the smallest reservoir on the White River, yet it offers a truly exciting year-round trout fishery.
“I’ve been here for 37 years, and our fishing is the best it has ever been—both in terms of size and quality—due to the constant generation of water the past year and a half,” says Phil Lilley of Lilley’s Landing Resort (417-334-6380).
Most of the action is in Taneycomo’s upper tailwater section, where high water from Table Rock Lake has added a mighty mix of baitfish, including threadfin shad, to an already rich trout menu.
Last season, Taneycomo yielded 34- and 40-pound brown trout, the latter being the fourth largest brown on record. At this writing, Lilley had tracked six browns between 15 and 25 pounds already in the 2020 season.
Marabou jigs are “extremely effective,” notes Lilley, who carries jigs ranging mostly from 1/32- to 1/8-ounce. He often fishes the lighter jigs under a float.
Fly fishermen might arm themselves with San Juan worms, Elk Hair caddis and a mix of terrestrial imitations, scuds and freshwater shrimp patterns.
IOWA GREAT LAKES MIXED BAG
Clear, fertile water and diverse habitat make for outstanding multi-species fishing in northern Iowa.
“I’d compare Spirit Lake and the Okoboji chain to waters on anyone’s top-ten list for the U.S.,” says Mark Sexton, who manages new product design and evaluation for Pure Fishing, which has its testing facility in Spirit Lake. “Fifty-pound musky and 20-pound pike; 10-pound walleye; 12- to 15-inch crappie; big largemouth and smallmouth bass—these lakes have everything. This is a fisherman’s paradise.”
If there’s a downside, it’s the heavy boating traffic the waters receive during summer. Sexton recommends fishing early and late in the day or concentrating on Spirit, which receives a bit less boating pressure.
Walleye should be “phenomenal” this summer on Spirit, which sports an abundance of 17- to 24-inch slot fish that must be released. Smallmouth numbers are excellent, too.
“The waters are getting clearer every year here,” says Sexton. “So, finesse techniques are taking off. Drop-shot and Ned Rig baits such as the Berkley PowerBait Straight Money and Ca$h Out are killers right now. Also try tubes and, for topwater action, the Berkley Choppo.”
LAKE DELAVAN BASS AND BLUEGILLS
Bass and bluegill are the bread-and-butter species of freshwater anglers, and southern Wisconsin pairs them handsomely at Delavan Lake in Walworth County. The mix of sand, gravel, rock and aquatic vegetation plays favorably to the sunfish family.
“Bluegill fishing is consistent here year after year,” says Capt. Steve Everetts owner of Finseekers Guide Service (847-707-1827) “It’s a healthy population that doesn’t fluctuate much.”
Much of the summer ’gill game plays out with bluegill in deeper water, often suspended.
A strong bass population, protected by an 18-inch size limit, came on strong again last fall after a slow 2018 season.
“I’m very optimistic that summer 2020 will be a very good bass season for both size and numbers,” Everetts says.
With good depth and varied habitat, Delavan fish respond to a wide range of baits and techniques. Bring jigs, stickworms, crankbaits and other power-fishing tools when the bite is aggressive. But finesse techniques shine, too, and just might tilt odds in your favor on any given day. Topwater fishing can be outstanding, especially with hollow-bodied frogs.
At 774 acres, Webster is not a big lake. Still, as the state’s premier musky water, it has a reputation to maintain. And that it does, producing muskellunge in good numbers and sizable dimensions season after season.
Other lakes in Kosciusko County have built strong musky populations, too, in recent decades. The list includes Tippecanoe and James lakes to the west and the Barbee Chain of lakes.
With a mix of prime habitat and structure, a full array of musky baits come into play. Bucktails take their share of fish. Try working drop-offs and grass edges and flats with crankbaits, glide baits and Musky Innovations Bull Dawgs, too.