The Iowa Great Lakes – Now That’s A Bold Moniker

So what makes them great? Could it be the bass fishing? Well both Spirit Lake and West Okoboji have been on the Bassmasters Top 100 list of bass lakes in the past few years. Is it The Great Walleye Weekend? Possibly. During this annual tournament held the first weekend of May anglers fish for a chance of catching one of 10 tagged walleye worth $35,000. There’s also fantastic panfish opportunities with bluegills stretching to 10+ inches and slab crappies, mostly black but some white crappie also. There’s also Arnold’s Park, one of the oldest amusement parks west of the Mississippi. Resorts on these beautiful glacial lake shores have been drawing people to the area since the late 1800s. Of course it’s all of these things combined that put the greatness in the Iowa Great Lakes but for this article I will focus on the fishing available.

Bass Fishing

The bass fishing starts as soon as the ice goes out with smallmouth bass as the main target. Rock points are the key to finding both the largest smallies and the biggest congregations of fish. The best spots have direct access to deep water and the bigger the boulders on an area the better. Often, especially on West Okoboji, these same holding places will have largemouth bass as well. And do not be surprised by pike, muskie, or walleye. My first choice of lures is always a suspending jerkbait, like the Berkley Cutter 110 and the XRap #10. Work these lures in a series of jerks, twitches, and pauses, looking for the proper cadence to provoke a strike. The basic rule of thumb is the colder the water the longer the pause and smaller the jerks. As the water warms increase the action on the lure. Hair jigs fished just fast enough to keep them swimming above the rocks, even occasionally bumping the rocks, are a good option especially on days with no wind.

When the water starts to warm into the low 50s the smallmouth begin to think about spawning and shallower water comes into play. Males start looking for prime nesting areas and females will cruise the shallows in search of good feeding opportunities before they spawn. Swimming 3-5” Berkley Power grubs covers water fast and triggers bites from these cruising fish. Once the smallmouth start to bed, tubes are a good choice along with a Swim Senko, and a Havoc Flat Dawg. All of these hopped along on a jig in the 1/8th to 1/4 oz. size appeal to pre-spawn and spawning bass. The bites are usually subtle, as in the jig just feels heavy almost like it is swimming through molasses instead of water. I tell my guide clients, if it might be a bite, set the hook. Fishing is not baseball, you get as many swings as you want. On clear, calm days when the smallies are tight on the beds sight fishing is possible. This happens sometime in late May to early June. A bright colored tube like white or chartreuse makes it easy for the angler to see a bass pick up his bait. This visual is vital as these fish aren’t eating the bait, they just pick it up and carry it off of the bed before spitting it out. Seeing the bite and setting the hook at the right time provides excitement and good results.

The largemouth fishing, though good in the spring, really kicks into high gear after the spawn. By then the weeds on West Okoboji have reached a significant growth and a strong weed line has developed. Points and turns within the weed line become apparent and these are great places for largemouth bass to lay in ambush of bluegill, their prime food source on Okoboji. There are many lures that will entice these predators but I usually start with a skirted jig, 1/4 to 1/4 oz. in weight, tipped with a Berkley Chigger Craw in the 3 or 4 inch size. Position your boat a short cast outside the weed edge, then make a long cast into the weeds and work the jig back to the boat, all the way to back to the boat. Many times anglers will reel in and make another cast once they stop feeling the jig contacting weeds. This is a major mistake as bluegill will often hold just outside the weeds slightly suspended 1-2 foot off the bottom. The biggest bass many times can be found out chasing these suspended fish. If this is the case then I switch to crankbaits and/or swim jigs tipped with a boot tail bait like the Havoc Grass pig. Cast these baits parallel to the weed edge. I like to put a series of pauses in the retrieve with these baits. With the crainkbait the pause allows the bait to rise slowly triggering a strike from a following bass. With the swim jig it’s just the opposite, the jig will sink slowly and most of the time that is when the strike will come.

One more thing on bass fishing. When the bluegill spawn is happening, in around 68-72º water temps, both the smallmouth and largemouth move into feed on these spawners. This is topwater time. I like a walking bait like The Strike King Sexy Dawg or a Zara Spook for this. A popping plug is sometimes better. This is a lowlight, low wind situation so get out there at sunrise or sunset. Cloud cover can extend the bite to all day.

Walleye Fishing

Doug Burns with a WalleyeThe Iowa Great Lakes are the only lakes in Iowa to have a closed season. Opener is the first full weekend of May and this is when The Great Walleye Weekend happens and what a tradition it is. This year marks the 35th year that people have been traveling to this fishing destination just south of the Minnesota border to join family and friends in trying to catch one of the tagged walleye. There is also a prize for the heaviest stringer, all fish must be under 17 inches, of three walleye weighed in. To help insure that the great walleye fishing remains that way there is a slot limit on the Great Lakes, any walleye between 17-22 inches must be immediately released. In an anglers 3 fish limit, one walleye may be over 22 inches.

Opener often means very clear water on these glacial lakes which means that fishing after dark is very popular. Waders stand shoulder to shoulder, float tube next to float tube, as they cast current areas, along points, and in necked down areas between the lakes. Some folks swear by jigs tipped with Ripple Shads or Impulse Minnows, while others like a nice live bait fixed beneath a slip float. The view from a boat looks like fireflies are on the water as nearly every dock has anglers casting lighted bobbers out.

Boat anglers also get in on the night bite with most slow trolling stick baits like #9 & 11 Floating Rapalas or Smithwick Rogues. I personally like a Reef Runner Ripstick which has a big wobble and is easy for a walleye to find after dark. Over the past ten years Berkley Flicker Shads have become popular amongst the trolling crowd. But trolling isn’t the only option for boat anglers. Many will anchor up on rock piles or newly grown weed beds and use the same tactics employed by shore anglers.

Please come visit The Iowa Great Lakes area and find out just what will make it great for you.

Doug Burns has owned & operated The Iowa Guide service since 1999. Call 712-209-4286. or Follow on Facebook @ The Iowa Guide service.

About The Author

Doug Burns

M. Doug Burns started his fishing career in 1986 as a dock boy at Sunset Lodge on famed Lake of the Woods. Doug quickly worked his way up to guide by fishing whenever he had the chance and producing good results consistently. He started the Iowa Guide service in central Iowa in 1994 then moved to the Iowa Great Lakes in 1999 where he now spends 150 plus days a year on the water. Doug is a proven tournament angler, winning four times and qualifying for 6 national championships including two RCL and one In-Fisherman PWT Championship. Doug has published one book, "Twelve Days in Walleye Heaven" and over a one hundred fishing articles in various national and regional publications. He is a sought after seminar speaker as well.