By Steve Weisman
Each year as mid-November comes in northwest Iowa, ice fishermen begin to anxiously anticipate safe early ice. This year ice has come much earlier than in recent years, and with the cold temperatures that infiltrated northwest Iowa the first week of December we are in line for some excellent ice conditions. Let’s take a look at the many fishing opportunities in this part of the state.
When anglers think of fishing in northwest Iowa, the Iowa Great Lakes chain of lakes is a prominent choice. West Okoboi, East Okoboji, Upper Gar, Minnewashta, Lower Gar and Big Spirit Lake provide a wide range of fishing opportunities. In addition to covering this group of lakes, we will also look at several other bodies of water within 50 miles of “the area” that offer good fishing.
When it comes to walleyes, Big Spirit seems to be the “go to” destination. For the past few winters, ice fishermen have capitalized on the excellent walleye fishery. Each year more and more of the keeper size fish have gone into the 17-22 inch slot size limit. As a result, the quality of fish caught has been exceptional, but the numbers of sub-17 inch fish has slipped. The 2007-year class was the system’s last big year class, but according to Iowa DNR fisheries biologist Mike Hawkins, there are back to back year classes coming. “Both the 2010 and 2011 year classes have good numbers with the 2010 year class approaching 14 inches and the 2011 year class 12-13 inches. Anglers should have good numbers of harvest sized fish this winter.” Of course, much of this growth data comes from the tagging that occurs during the gillnetting process. The tagging helps biologists analyze population dynamics as the fish are caught and re-caught over the years.
Hawkins is quick to mention both East and West Okoboji when it comes to walleye fishing, although West Okoboji gets most of the attention. “Walleye numbers are good on both of these lakes.” At the same time, Hawkins says there are five other lakes within 45 minutes or less of the Iowa Great Lakes that have excellent walleye populations. All have had good walleye fishing during the winter, but each holds its own “secrets” for the best success.
Silver Lake (near Ayrshire) receives regular DNR walleye stocking with the most recent being 7,000 six-inch fish in 2013. “Last winter was fairly consistent, and commercial fishermen saw good numbers of fish during their seining. Silver holds a good population of 14+ inch walleyes and 20+ inch walleyes,” says Hawkins.
Lost Island (near Ruthven) has been the focal point of a huge lake renovation project with water clarity greatly improving as a result of the renovation. “Walleye fishing was good last winter for all sizes of fish ranging from 13-14 inchers up to mid-20 inch fish,” notes Hawkins. Over a million fry are stocked along with several thousand 6-7 inch fish.
Five Island (near Emmetsburg) contains a good walleye population. The DNR stocks this lake with approximately 15,000 six-inch fish each year. Hawkins sees this one as a real sleeper with mostly local anglers fishing for walleyes through the ice.
Tuttle Lake (near Dolliver) is a border lake with the state of Minnesota taking care of the stocking. Signs of a winterkill occurred after ice out last spring, but commercial fishermen recently netted the lake and caught good numbers of walleyes. For the past few years, anglers have come from significant distances to fish walleyes during the summer (with great success of 20+ inch fish), but again mostly local anglers target Tuttle Lake walleyes during the winter.
Silver Lake (near Lake Park) is one of those shallow lakes that seems to either be hot or cold. The DNR stocks 1.5 million fry yearly along with approximately 16,000 six-inch fish. Recruitment is enhanced by the larger size fish.
Historically, Big Spirit Lake has been known for its jumbo perch. However, perch are also a short-lived fish and are cyclical in nature. The biologists at the Spirit Lake Hatchery keep annual angler creel statistics, which better tell what happens on a yearly basis. Boom years have been 1985, 1988, 1989, 1994, 1997, 1998, 2002, 2008, 2009, and 2010. We’ve been in a decline since 2010 and there is no large year class coming through the system yet.
According to Hawkins the up and down cycle is “predictable with what we’ve seen ever since angler harvest has been tracked in the 1950s,” says Hawkins. Each year when the DNR checks the lake for young-of-the-year fish, they will find lots of first year perch. However, that does not mean that this is the next big year class.
Hawkins does say anglers might want to shift their sight toward East and West Okoboji. “When we pulled our nets this year, both lakes had tremendous numbers of one year old perch in them.” This past fall anglers caught some nice 10-12 inch perch on West Okoboji. In years past, perch were often caught in deep water over 30 feet along with schools of yellow bass. Minnewashta can also offer good perch fishing.
Elk Lake (near Ruthven) was excellent for perch last winter. “There were a lot of 8-10 inch perch taken last winter,” says Hawkins. “Elk could be good. The key is if those fish last winter were a single year class or not.”
In visiting with Eric Anderson, Emmet County Conservation Director, two lakes that could be good this winter are Iowa Lake and High Lake. This past summer was good for 7-9 inch perch, along with some crappies at Iowa Lake. Anderson thinks High Lake could really be a dark horse, so to speak. Last winter the few anglers that fished it caught a lot of 5-6 inch perch. With any luck, they should be in the 8 inch range this winter.
Mention bluegills and the bays of West Okoboji come to mind. According to Hawkins, the bluegill fishery remains strong and size quality should continue to be good. For most anglers, the waters on these bays is often so clear that anglers can see the fish and spend the time sightfishing.
Big Spirit also has a population of bluegills with some truly trophy fish available. They, along with some huge crappies, are most often found in the Grade area, Anglers Bay and Hales Slough.
Upper Gar and Minnewashta also hold populations of bluegills and perch. Size is not as good as on West and Spirit.
Northern pike populations are excellent in both West Okoboji and Big Spirit, but the pike is really an untapped resource. “Anglers just don’t seem to target northern pike.” Certainly, some anglers will fish for bluegills in the weeds and place a chub down a hole in case a pike might take the offering. However, they are often the secondary fish the anglers are targeting.