Fishing West Okoboji

By Steve Weisman

One of the reasons for my moving to Estherville back in 1978 was its location to the Iowa Great Lakes. I was intrigued by the diversity that these lakes offer. No matter the time of year, there always seems to be something biting, especially this summer season where it seems that multiple species of fish are ready to bite. For nearly 45 years, I’ve learned the ins and outs of these lakes. I’m going to breakdown the different lakes, as well as the fishing opportunity available. I will also share with you my favorite lake and how to fish it.

Break Down of the Iowa Great Lakes
Big Spirit Lake is a great walleye fishery; it has an excellent population of yellow perch, strong smallmouth and largemouth bass numbers. The lake also has a growing population of northern pike as well as some of the best bullhead fishing in northwest Iowa, and a resurgence of crappies and bluegills. This lake offers a lot of diversity, especially compared to some of the lakes in the southern portion of the state. East Okoboji has strong numbers of bluegills, crappies, largemouth and smallmouth bass, northern pike, catfish and a booming population of yellow bass. West Okoboji is known for its quality bluegill and crappie fishing and its world class largemouth/smallmouth opportunities. Together, these lakes offer endless opportunities for Iowa fishermen all year round.

West Okoboji, an Exceptional Iowa Experience
In my opinion West Okoboji is the most unique lake in the Iowa Great Lakes. West Okoboji is the glacial lake with a maximum depth of 136 feet. Rocky shorelines and points, submerged rock piles and classic weed beds/weed lines of a mix of coontail and cabbage. It also has incredible water clarity that helps bring weed bed growth by August into 20 feet of water. Of all the lakes, I especially like the clear water, structure options and weedbeds/weedlines that West Okoboji has to offer in the summer. By mid-June the weedbeds/weedlines are emerging and the bluegills and crappies are moving out to the shade of the weeds, and with them come the largemouth and smallmouth bass (and, yes, the walleyes). With its many bays, West Okoboji is loaded with different weedy areas. Over the years, I’ve been able to place icons on my Hummingbird locator weedbeds/weedlines that have produced good fish. For those new to the lake, having a good mapping system will help eliminate a lot of water.

So, there are lots of species to target on West Okoboji, but let’s take a look at the world class largemouth and smallmouth fishery. To get beyond the basics, I’ve enlisted the help of Doug Burns, owner of the Iowa Guide Service, who has been guiding on the Iowa Great Lakes since 1999. A long tournament walleye angler, Burns not only targets walleyes, but also the largemouth/smallmouth bass and panfish. However, chasing bass on West Okoboji in the summer has become a real passion.

World Class Bass Fishery
“When the weather allows, I’m usually on the water every day of the week during the open water season. I’ll catch fish from ice out into summer on all of our Iowa Great Lakes, but West Okoboji is my favorite lake during the height of summer. The structure, the water clarity and the emergent weeds make it great for a variety of fish, but it is truly a world class largemouth and smallmouth bass fishery.”

Burns finds it a great lake for his clients, both experienced and novice. “For this type of summer bass fishing, we don’t have to worry about flipping and casting around docks and hoists. Instead, both largemouth and smallmouth bass have moved out away from the docks and are relating to the emergent weedbeds and weedlines.”

For Burns, it’s about both quantity and quality. “On good days, we’ll have 20-30 fish days with a mix of two pounders up to five pounders. I get frustrated, and think it’s a slow bite, when we might only catch 8-10 bass in that 1-3 ½ pound range and no big ones. Yet, most of my clients are excited we caught that many.”

A rule to remember: it’s all about the bluegills on West Okoboji. “A lot of bluegills have moved out to the weeds for both protection and food, feeding on aquatic insects and zooplankton. The bass are foraging on those 1” to 4” bluegills, but they aren’t afraid to tackle bigger bluegills. A few years back, I saw a big smallmouth floundering on the top of the water, so I went over with my net. It was about a 21 incher and, it had an 8” bluegill wedged in its mouth. I took out the bluegill, and they both swam away!”

The emergent weeds (look for coontail and cabbage beds) begin in the early summer in around 10 feet of water, and by late summer, the weeds can be growing in up to 20-22 feet of water. Burns says, “I know the docks will hold fish all year, but I find it easier to fish the weeds, and I think I can locate more and bigger fish in the weeds.”

Where to Fish
After over 20 years guiding, Burns knows the bays, the weeds and the general areas where he has caught the most bass. Of course, there can be some subtle changes from year to year and, yes, even day to day. “You really have to adjust with the conditions. Some days the fish are located in the weeds on big, long flats. There are several of these locations where the weeds grow out along the flat and then just end. At the same time, there are other spots where the weedbed goes along an area, say in 20 feet of water, and then drops off on the outside to 30-40 feet deep. I’ve also found that the smallmouth bass seem to like weeds that contain a good growth of cabbage.”

Strong winds, like the ones Iowa experienced this past spring, is not conducive to good bass fishing. If it is windy, then Burns will fish the calm side of the lake. The fact that West Okoboji has lots of bays for anglers to work means that there is always a calm area someplace on the lake. Calm is good, but a slight ripple can help break up the mirror glass visibility of the clear water.

As mentioned earlier, each day is different, so Burns will experiment to see what the bass are looking for. Using his Minn Kota trolling motor, he will begin working the weeds, casting plain ballhead ¼-ounce jigs tipped with plastics like a 10” Power Worm, an 8” Berkley Kingtail or a 6” Strike King Shim E Stick swimming them over the top of the emergent weeds. Green pumpkin and watermelon are colors to mimic that of bluegills. Heavier skirted bass jigs in the 3/8th to ½-ounce range tipped with plastics with multiple appendages for more action, such as the 5” Pit Boss, the 4” Chigger Craw and the 5” Rib Shad, work below the weed canopy. Bringing the bait back with hops and pops triggers a strike.

During the casts, Burns looks for the telltale strike. Once a strike occurs, he will use his Spot-Lock to anchor the boat. When the bass are on the bite, it’s possible to pull several – maybe even 10 – out of that area. Then it’s time to move on.

When fishing like this, Burns is always looking around, because sometimes schools of bluegills will be feeding on insects and zooplankton, suspended out away off the edge of the weedbed. When this happens, Burns will be looking for bluegill fins dimpling the water’s surface or listening for slight popping sounds. This is usually followed by a big boil and splash from a bass inhaling a bluegill. Burns will quickly turn to a surface bait up to 5” in length like a Berkley Frenzy, Bullet Pop or a Choppo. By keeping with school of bluegills, there will most likely be more strikes.

As a walleye angler, Burns has found that these weed areas are also home to walleyes. With a chuckle, Burns says, “Since I’ve become a bass fisherman, I’ve learned more about walleye habits. For one thing, they aren’t always the finesse fish that I used to think they were years ago. They will aggressively strike these plastics when I am fishing for bass.”

Panfish Opportunities
During guided trips, Burns finds that many of his clients want to target both bass and panfish. The good news is that the panfish are right there too. The bigger bluegills are often at the bottom of the school of actively feeding suspended smaller bluegills or down near the bottom in the open pockets of the weeds. Straight lining or slip bobbering with a tungsten ice fishing jig or a larger jig like a Shucks Jigger Minnow tipped with wax worms silver wigglers or a Belgian worm. If smaller fish bother/steal the bait, go with a smaller leech.

Give it a Shot
The nice thing is this type of fishing can be definitely action packed. Bluegills over 9”, crappies over 12”, bass over 20” and walleyes over 20”. If you want a quick tutorial, contact Burns at (712) 209-4286. It’ll cut the learning curve way down, and with the added knowledge of this type of fishing, you can then convert it over to your own fishing success. As he says on his Facebook page, “I cater to the serious angler, the family on vacation, and love to work with the complete novice looking to catch their first fish!”