Just because Iowa is on the southern edge of the ice belt, doesn’t mean we can’t take advantage of early ice. Obviously “early” is a relative term here since we usually lag behind our Minnesota brethren by a couple of weeks when it comes to setting foot on the ice. A good rule of thumb, however, is that the further north you travel, the sooner you will find fishable ice. That being said, there are certain lakes in Iowa that, for one reason or another, always seem to be some of the first ones to ice up. Some of these lakes typically ice up early enough that sometimes we can be walking on water at nearly the same time as those further north…or even BEFORE in some rare instances!
Iowa Great Lakes
The whole Iowa Great Lakes area seems to have its own micro-climate that, on average, makes it the first area in the state to ice up, and the last to ice out. The sheer makeup of the lakes in this system also contributes greatly to this. West Okoboji’s shallow weedy bays cool more quickly than the main lake and are often some of the first places ice anglers are able to fish. Emerson Bay, Miller’s Bay, Smith’s Bay and Brown’s Bay are perfect examples of this and it’s a safe bet that at least one of those bays will host the first ice fishing of the new season every year.
Two of the more popular spots on neighboring Spirit Lake are Angler’s Bay and Templar Park. These areas are also relatively shallow, so they cool quickly, and are sheltered so they are protected from wave-making winds as freezing begins. In either case, there are a variety of species for the hardwater angler to chase, so regardless of conditions at the time of ice up, anglers can usually find some type of fish willing to bite.
Storm Lake is also in that northwest corner of the state that seems to enjoy its own micro-climate. Storm Lake is a relatively shallow bowl-shaped lake, so like the IGL’s, water cools fairly quickly and freezes sooner. The one detriment to Storm Lake’s ice-up is the wind. Being a fairly exposed shallow lake it is very susceptible to the prairie winds that agitate the water and slow the freezing process, or halts it altogether. Most anglers that set foot on Storm Lake early ice are chasing the walleyes that call its depths home.
While not quite in that Northwest Iowa micro-climate region like Storm Lake and the IGL’s, Clear Lake is still far enough north that it ices up fairly early. In fact, my first trip on the ice two seasons ago was on Clear Lake a day or two BEFORE Thanksgiving! Anyone that ice fishes in Iowa regularly knows that getting on the ice before turkey-day is a good EARLY start to the season. Clear Lake is more similar to Storm Lake than it is any of the IGL’s. It’s a relatively shallow (seeing a pattern here?) bowl-shaped lake that is fairly open and exposed to the prevailing winds. The one thing Clear Lake has over Storm Lake is its diversity of species. Historically, Clear Lake has been known for walleyes and yellow bass. Both can be very cyclical with the yellows tending to be slightly less so. A few years ago, the small lake, often called “Little Clear” was dredged and significant efforts were made to improve the water quality. As a result, crappie fishing in the past couple of seasons has gone from virtually non-existent to definitely worth the effort. Any angler that is willing to put some time in and drill enough holes can be rewarded with a nice limit of 10, 11 or even 12 inch crappies. Also making a strong resurgence, while still lagging behind the crappie fishery, is the yellow perch fishery on Clear Lake. Oh, and as far as the yellow bass and walleye fishing, it appears they both are definitely on the upswing. The size of yellow bass I’ve seen coming out of Clear Lake this spring and summer has me salivating at the thought of getting on top of a school of them once the water stiffens up! One last little temptation for you to come fish Clear Lake at early ice…You just never know when you might tie into one of the big white bass that roam its waters. These fish might not make the best table fare, but what they lack in flavor, they more than make up for in fight. They hit like a ton of bricks and a three or four pound whitey on light panfish tackle is a battle you won’t soon forget!
Big Creek Lake
Again, “early” is a relative term here. Big Creek usually isn’t fishable at the same time as lakes like Clear, Storm, Okoboji or Spirit are, but for Central Iowa it’s usually the first lake in the area that is walkable. Unlike the other lakes covered so far, Big Creek is relatively deep. It does have its shallow areas in a few coves etc., and those areas are often the first to ice up. What Big Creek does have in its favor is the fact that, like most reservoirs, it sits down in its own valley and is protected from the wind. One of the perennial early ice spots on Big Creek is an area called Lost Lake. Lost Lake is basically a large pool at the top of the Spillway into Saylorville Lake. The channel leading to the main lake is deep and isn’t some place you would think of as icing up early, but the steep ravine that Lost Lake sits in protects the water and allows it to freeze relatively quickly.
Central Iowa angles are always anxious to get out on Big Creek early ice because it offers healthy specimens of several different species. Crappie and bluegills are what Big Creek is best known for and both can be big at times…especially the bluegills. Eight inch bluegills are not uncommon, and on a good year nines and 10’s can be caught. Crappies tend to be more cyclical, but on good years 10’s and 11’s are not uncommon. Over the years, Big Creek has received extensive stockings of fingerling walleye and it is really beginning to pay off. For the past five or six years, I’ve seen more keeper walleyes come out of Big Creek in a year than the previous year. With as many fingerling walleye that have been stocked into Big Creek, I only see that trend continuing and ACCELERATING! Big Creek anglers might also be delighted to tie into a few jumbo yellow perch, a feisty smallmouth or two, hard fighting white bass or dandy largemouth bass.
Eastern Iowa ice anglers are near some prime early ice fishing on their side of the state courtesy of the Mississippi River. Backwater areas such as O’Leary’s, Bussey Lake, Spring Lake, Shore Slough and DeSoto Bay are shallow and relatively protected, so they ice up early and can make for great early ice opportunities. Access is usually the biggest issue with these backwater hotspots because parking may be limited and you may be in for a decent hike to get to the ice. The key word with fishing any backwater is SHALLOW…sometimes only as deep as two or three feet of water. Because of this, fish will be easily spooked and stealth is a must. One effective tactic is to drill all your holes, leave the area long enough to let things settle down and then sneak back in to those pre-drilled holes to fish them.
Iowa is blessed with thousands of farm ponds within its borders, and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention those as prime Iowa early ice spots. Many of these are hardly fished and may be your best chance at a trophy fish. Sometimes all it takes is a knock on a landowner’s door to receive permission to fish a pond that receives little, if any, fishing pressure. Because most of these ponds are relatively small bodies of water, they tend to freeze quicker than larger lakes in the surrounding area. This means a farm pond might be an angler’s best bet for setting foot on early ice. Some farm ponds are relatively shallow and some are relatively deep; one of the great things about farm ponds is the great variety available to Iowa ice anglers. Obviously a shallower pond will freeze quicker than a deeper one, but a sheltered pond will also freeze quicker than one that sits in the open exposed to wind. Typical farm pond species are bluegills, crappie, largemouth bass and catfish, and as I mentioned before, a farm pond is a great place to get a shot at a trophy specimen of any of these species. There are plenty of farm ponds in the state that go beyond the bass, bluegill, catfish stocking scheme by also offering green sunfish, hybrid sunfish, shell crackers, perch, walleye and flathead catfish. It is a real treat when you can gain exclusive access to a pond stocked with some of these “bonus” fish.
Because of the variability of early ice, safety should always be the first thing on your mind anytime you venture onto first ice. Later in the season, there is enough ice (on the average) that even if you find a thin spot, it’s still thick enough to support your weight. With early ice, we just don’t have the luxury of that wiggle room. At early ice, thin spots may only be fractions of an inch thick, so I can’t over-emphasize enough how important safety is at this time of year. The first rule is always go with a buddy. That buddy can go for help if you need it, or even render help if they can do so without putting themselves at risk. At the very least, let someone know where you’re going and when you expect to be back. Second rule is to always wear a life vest at early ice! Very few thin ice deaths are attributed to hypothermia. More often than not the victim will drown before hypothermia even enters into the equation. If you can keep yourself afloat, you buy valuable time to self-rescue or allow other rescuers to find and extract you. Picks are an essential piece of early ice gear. They allow you to pull yourself back up onto the slippery surface of the ice. Trying to do so wearing heavy water-logged clothing with wet arms is an exercise in futility. Every angler should always carry at least 50 feet of rope as well. This allows them to provide rescue without putting themselves at risk. Last but certainly not least, carry and know how to use an ice chisel. This allows you to check the ice as you walk. If the chisel goes through, stop immediately, turn around and go back the way you came. Stopping to drill test holes every few feet with an auger accomplishes the same thing, but just isn’t as efficient.