Pass On the Passion for Iowa Panfish

Iowa panfish
As June rolls in, we look forward to chasing bluegills, one of our smaller summertime fishing targets. (Shutterstock image)

Take someone fishing, young or old, and introduce them to the fast and furious fun in catching Iowa panfish.

No doubt panfish are some of the most popular sportfish we chase in Iowa. These great little fighters bring hours of laughter, enjoyment and sport to young and old fishermen alike. For many, their first fish caught was a bluegill or crappie that may have filled their young hand. There's nothing quite like seeing that line pull tight and, no matter the size, that first fish is one that lives on for a lifetime.

As June rolls in, we've put the spring spawns of large game fish behind us, and we look forward to sitting on docks, shorelines, and boats chasing our smaller summertime quarry. Among the most sought panfish are bluegills, crappie and yellow perch. The state record for bluegills is a whopping 3-pound, 2-ounce specimen that measured 12.88 inches long. This amazing fish was caught by Phil Algreen in 1986 at a farm pond in Madison County. Crappie come in two varieties — the black crappie and the white crappie.

The record black crappie was caught by Dale Klein in 2013 on Three Mile Lake and measured 18 inches, with a weight of 3 pounds, 14 ounces. For the white crappie, Ted Trowbridge in 1981 caught a really nice one — the state record, at 4 pounds, 9 ounces from Green Castle Lake. And the state record for yellow perch is held by Travis Peterson, who, while fishing in 2012 in a pool of the Mississippi River, caught a 2-pound, 7-ounce perch that measured 16 inches long.

All across Iowa, you'll find bodies of water that may be as small as an acre or two all the way up to some of our largest lakes and reservoirs such as Red Rock Lake, The Iowa Great Lakes and Lake Rathbun, down in the south part to the state. June weather in Iowa will deliver average highs in the low to mid-80s. We'll see the cooler weather in the mornings with lows averaging between 55 and 63 degrees. Take advantage of the time of year, and discover, regardless of their size, that Iowa has some very good destinations for catching feisty panfish '¦ and a lot of them!


"Red Rock Reservoir will top central Iowa's crappie destinations," declares fisheries biologist Ben Dodd of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. Red Rock Reservoir, one of the largest impoundments in the state, has a max depth of 44 feet and covers 15,250 acres in Marion County. Red Rock annually produces good crappie fishing and should continue to impress anglers in 2018. 

Beaver Lake and Jacob Krumm Nature Preserve Lake are two small area fisheries that hold potential for good crappie and bluegill fishing. Beaver Lake is located 1 1/2 miles north of Dexter and covers 34 acres. Jacob Krumm Lake is located in Jasper County, 6 miles southeast of Kellogg. Both lakes feature good shoreline access, with fishing jetties and piers accessible to disabled anglers. Lake Ahquabi is another crappie and bluegill destination that you'll want to add to your go-to list. Located 5 miles southwest of Indianola, Ahquabi has a maximum depth of 17.5 feet and covers 114 acres.


The Iowa Great Lakes (or IGLs, as they are commonly known) are summertime destinations for Iowans from all across the state. This group of natural glacial lakes in Dickinson County includes the Okoboji Chain of Lakes, which come highly recommended by state fisheries officials.

"West Okoboji Lake has a large year-class of bluegills currently (measuring) around 8 1/2 to 9 inches," says IDNR fisheries biologist Mike Hawkins. of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. He also points to East Okoboji Lake, where he says some of the best panfish recruitment has taken place in recent history, mainly because of clearer water and more aquatic plants. In fact, it appears panfish numbers have surged through the entire lower chain of lakes because of improved habitat.

East Okoboji Lake covers 1,835 acres. West Okoboji Lake covers 3,847 acres.

Lake Pahoja in Lyon County has been producing some great quality bluegills since its renovation and restocking in 2013. Located 4 miles south and 2 miles west of Larchwood, this lake is 65 acres in size and has a maximum depth of 27 feet. 


"Crappie are always king at Lake Rathbun," says IDNR fisheries biologist Mark Flammang. "As is usually the case, the abundance of crappie is high again for 2018. (Crappie population) size structure has improved in recent years; still, anglers will sort some smaller fish. Fish between 9 and 12 inches are common. The peak of spawning can range anywhere from the second week in May to the first week in June, depending on the weather and water levels."

Lake Rathbun has been known as a crappie hotspot since the early '70s. The population can vary annually, depending on how high the water levels reached approximately four years previous. High water in May and June leads to high rates of crappie production, which results in good fishing years later. Anglers have harvested as many as 500,000 crappies from Lake Rathbun in some years. "Keep in mind, fish have to be small before they can be big, so sometimes you have to sort (your catch), but that's good news for the future," Flammang says.


Lake Rathbun anglers can still catch a lot of crappies near shore in June, but as the weather warms, successful anglers tend to target larger fish deeper, often drift-fishing. There are even a few anglers who have discovered trolling very small crankbaits through suspended crappies is a great way to catch some of the largest fish of the year.

Lake Rathbun is located in Appanoose County, 8 miles northwest of Centerville. It covers 11,000 acres and has a maximum depth of 50 feet.

In Lucas County, there is a bit of a crappie sleeper in Williamson Pond. This small, 35-acre lake lies relatively secluded, east of the town of Williamson.

"Williamson Pond has been producing outstanding crappie, bluegill, and redear sunfish (fishing) action in recent years," Flammang says. "In fact, the new state-record redear sunfish (2.13 pounds) came from Williamson Pond last summer. It's only 35 acres big, but the lake can produce some great fish."

Some of the best bluegill angling in south-central Iowa often takes place at Red Haw State Park Lake. "Consistently, this lake produces great catches of 9-inch bluegills and even larger redear sunfish," Flammang confirms. Red Haw Lake is located in Lucas County, 1 mile east of Chariton. It covers 76 acres, with a maximum depth of 76 feet.


The Black Hawk Fisheries Management District of the IDNR oversees 12 counties worth of recreational fisheries in west-central Iowa.

"Black Hawk Lake is going to be a great spot for bluegill fishing in 2018," says state fisheries biologist Ben Wallace. "Crappie fishing will be decent, and perch (fishing) will provide a bonus. The lake was chemically renovated in late 2012 and restocked. The panfish populations have now reached a point where their numbers and size are providing excellent fishing."

Black Hawk Lake, located in Sac County, on the east edge of Lake View, covers 729 acres with a maximum depth of 15 feet. It's reported that 2016 was a record year for harvest of bluegills, here, but the 2017 harvest blew that one out of the water. "They're not huge," Wallace reports, "but average around 8 inches (long), and they are thick and chunky fish."

Crappie fishing at Black Hawk Lake can be good, too, and the fish are averaging about 11 1/2 inches long. However, by June the crappie reportedly are tough to find. The highest harvest of crappie on Black Hawk occurs in April.

"The first part of June anglers should be able to find male bluegills guarding nests, literally anywhere around the lake," Wallace points out. "In the latter part of June, anglers would do well to target the few rock piles that are in the lake and fish along the steeper shores of Ice House Point. A small 1/32-ounce black hair jig, with a little piece of bait, is always a sure thing for 'gills that time of year."

Look to Yellow Smoke Lake in Denison for a challenging panfish bite. The water is extremely clear, and its easy to spook fish, but the bluegills anglers keep there commonly exceed 10 inches long. Indeed, the lake holds more of a quality-over-quantity bluegill fishery. In other words, a good day of fishing would yield 6 to 8 of those jumbo bluegills, and you may land redears as long as 12 inches or more as a bonus!


Northeast Iowa holds some amazing fishing in the Mississippi River basin for channel catfish, smallmouth bass, trout and walleye. And while the area is not known for quality panfish fishing, the IDNR continues to work on improving its bluegill and crappie fisheries.

"We are keeping an eye on Lake Delhi because it may be worth a try for bluegills, black crappies and largemouth bass during this year or next, with 2019 being the better bet," advises IDNR fisheries biologist Dan Kirby. Lake Delhi was renovated in 2015 and panfish were restocked in 2016. In Iowa, Kirby says, it usually takes about three to four years to produce a nice bluegill and about four to five years for a nice black crappie if growth rates are good. Growth is typically good to excellent in "new" ponds, lakes or reservoirs, he adds.

Lake Delhi, also known as Silver Lake, is located on the southeast edge of Delhi. It covers 34 acres and has a maximum depth of 18.2 feet. A hard-surfaced boat ramp makes boat access good. 


The IDNR and its fisheries management team continually work to improve Iowa's fisheries. It's not a one-sided task, though. It takes anglers from across the state to help manage these fisheries. Remember: Iowa fishing regulations impose a daily limit of 25 fish for bluegills and crappies. Limit your catch, don't catch your limit. The creel limit for yellow perch is 25 fish daily and a 50-fish possession limit. 

You can also help protect our waters from aquatic invasive species. In fact, it's the law: 

CLEAN any plants, animals, or mud from your boat and equipment before leaving a waterbody. 

DRAIN water from all equipment (motor, live well, bilge, transom well) before leaving a waterbody. Drain plugs must be removed at the water access and remain open during transport. 

DRY anything that comes into contact with water (boats, trailers, equipment, boots, clothing, dogs). Before transporting to another waterbody either: Spray your boat and trailer with hot, high-pressure water; or dry your boat and equipment for at least five days. Never release plants, fish, or animals into a waterbody unless they came out of that waterbody.

Panfish will bring you and your family hours of angling enjoyment. Take someone fishing, young or old, and introduce them to the sport. The fishing resources we hold and share in Iowa are everyone's responsibility. Pass it on. You'll be glad you did. 

Tight lines, all!

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