Farm Ponds at their Finest
By Kent Boucher
Fishing in Iowa is a diverse experience. Two heavyweight rivers set the borders on the East and West banks where 100 pound flatheads and extraterrestrial looking paddlefish wait for willing anglers. Flowing in stark contrast to those monstrous border waters are the pristine cold water creeks of the driftless northeast where native brook trout lurk ready to reward a perfectly dropped dry fly. More distinct yet is the cluster of Iowa’s few glacial lakes scratched into the northwest corner of the state where walleye, perch and Muskie can be pursued. But unless you live in one of these regions of the state you will find some of the best fishing on much smaller waters- farm ponds.
The deep topsoil of the converted prairie has been easily manipulated by bulldozers and backhoes over the past century to dig out countless farm ponds stocked with largemouth bass, crappie, and bluegill. From late spring through early fall, you will be hard pressed to find a more reliable fishing hole for filling a stringer, and the most reliable fish to catch are bluegill.
As water temps begin to warm in the late spring, bluegill establish their nests and the spawn is soon to follow. This time of the year can provide some of the best opportunities for catching a mess of gills. If your aim is to catch enough to invite the neighbors over for a fish fry, nothing can beat the effectiveness of a couple dozen night crawlers, but be sure to use hooks that have bends similar in size to the diameter of a keeper sized bluegill mouth. This will help prevent hooking a million tiny competitors and also stave off the time wasting chore of digging swallowed hooks out the throat of every other fish you land. If you are seeking a more exciting day on the muddy banks, lures like beetle spins, inline spinners, and small crankbaits on an ultralight rod and reel, or even landing a few dry flies with a fly rod in late summer can add some additional sport to each catch. During the earliest days of the spawn, fish can be located in almost all shallow water around the pond, but as the water temps rise throughout the summer you will be better off flipping your bait into shady pockets around underwater structures such as sunken trees, or brush piles.
During their spawn crappie can be hauled in with regularity on live bait in shallow water, like bluegill. During this time of the year small ponds have not yet had a major algal bloom so the water typically has greater visibility meaning that fish can be discouraged from approaching your bait if they detect your fishing line. Consider using line with lower visibility such as fluorocarbon to disguise your fish catching intentions. As spring gives way to summer crappie will move into cooler, deeper water where small jigs and flashy spinners imitating small bait fish around habitat structures will pay off. Shadier portions of the pond typically provide better opportunities during the summer as well and can help you narrow down your options when you look for a good place to cast. When targeting crappie it’s a good practice to use soft hook sets as you can easily tear through their mouths with an aggressive jerk of the line.
One of the greatest benefits of fishing farm ponds is that nearly all of the water can be accessed from shore. This convenience certainly makes fishing on farm ponds much more accessible than nearly any other body of water, but that does not mean anglers should totally rule out the thought of using some kind of boat, kayak or canoe. Fishing is an art of angles, and being able to approach fish from the water instead of the shore can provide access to fish habitat that would be otherwise unreachable from the shore. This is especially beneficial when you are planning to fish with a bobber and worms for bluegills or jig for crappies.
Spending a day catching panfish in a farm pond can be a lot of fun, but there really isn’t anything quite like catching bass. Largemouth are warm water sight predators, and when the weather warms through May, they become much more active as the water temperature climbs. Of course live bait is effective for landing farm pond bass, but the clear waters of spring provide a unique opportunity to take advantage of the lack of weeds and algae by using lures that would normally become hopelessly tangled in vegetation during the summer months. Spinnerbaits, rattle traps, shallow diving crankbaits, and wacky rigged plastic worms can be used with much more effectiveness in the absence of these snagging hazards. Although the water is warming, and the fish are becoming more active they will remain a bit more lethargic than they will be during mid-summer. The best way to compensate for this difference in activity level is by arming your spinner baits with trailer hooks and slowing your cranking speed during early May to help ensure that you won’t miss any hits from the fish. Bass will also be spending a significant amount of time in the shallows during late spring so position yourself in a way that allows you to make long casts that run the length of the shoreline to pull your lure in front of more fish.
As insects, frogs and algae begin to make their summer appearance top water baits such as weedless frogs and poppers will become incredibly effective on farm ponds. If the pond you are fishing has ample space, try to switch up where you are casting every 5 casts so you don’t spook the fish with this invasive fishing strategy. If you hit a dry spell with your normal popping technique, try cranking the bait across the surface of the water as fast as you can to draw a territorial strike from an agitated bass. Because fishing with top water tackle places incredible strain on fishing line, it is best to use braided line so you don’t lose a heavy fish to a line break. Braided line will also give you the confidence to cast into denser habitat cover without fearing the loss of a five dollar lure every time your lure snags on a twig or lily pad.
Farm ponds will never receive the attention that large glacial lakes and major rivers do, and that’s how it should be. The beauty of farm ponds is that they are a subtle aspect of the Iowa landscape, tucked away in old cow pastures and along field edges where nearly anyone can access the one of a kind fishing opportunities these ponds have to offer. As the weather warms this spring be sure to make plans to seek out permission to wet a line on some of your local waters.