Even though most Iowans don’t realize it, Iowa is on the doorstep to the ice belt. It’s hard to say that we’re the center of the ice belt, but head anywhere in a northerly direction out of the state and you’re going to run into world-class ice fishing destinations. After traveling to fish in the NAIFC for several seasons and traveling the ice belt every winter attending trade shows, doing in-store appearances and presenting seminars, I have to admit that Iowa is a pretty convenient hub from which to base my seasonal voyages. You don’t have to work in the ice fishing industry, however to take advantage of Iowa’s front row seat to the hardwater season. For anyone willing to put in a little windshield time and follow the compass north, world class ice fishing can be as close as an hour or two away. In all of my years of traveling the states that surround Iowa, the destinations below are the ones that made my list of world-class fisheries.
The Iowa Great Lakes Region – One of the ice belt’s world-class fisheries lies right within our own borders. Probably the two most famous lakes in the region of Northwest Iowa commonly referred to, as the Iowa Great Lakes are Spirit Lake and West Okoboji Lake. There are several other lakes that make up this “IGL” region, including East Okoboji Lake, Little Spirit Lake, Upper Gar, Lower Gar, Minnewashka, Center Lake and Silver Lake.
West Okoboji is world famous for its giant bluegills and gin-clear water, while Spirit Lake is better known for its walleye and perch populations…although you can catch dandy bluegills in Spirit and the perch and walleyes in Okoboji can be as good they get. If bluegills, perch or walleyes aren’t your thing, how about musky, pike, smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, crappie, yellow bass or white bass? You have a good shot at a trophy-sized specimen of any of these species through the ice in the Iowa Great Lakes region.
Sandhill Lakes and Valentine National Wildlife Refuge – This area in the sandhills of Nebraska may well be one of the best-kept secrets of all in regards to ice fishing. These small shallow lakes are leftovers from the last glacial retreat. They are very fertile and fertile lakes mean giant fish! Best known for their bluegill, bass, perch and pike populations, and the fact that the world record bluegill through the ice came from Pelican Lake in Valentine should tell you something. In all honesty, 1.5-pound bluegills are not that uncommon and even ones approaching 2 pounds are not unheard of.
Probably one of the biggest reasons that Valentine is such a well-kept secret is that access can be a challenge at times. Since gas motors are restricted in the refuge, access is on foot only and all holes must be drilled by hand. Many anglers aren’t willing, or able, to put this kind of effort forth, which is unfortunate because the rewards can be well worth it.
Glacial Lakes Region – Without a doubt, the most famous lake of this region is Waubay Lake, but the list of other lakes within this region is well over 100 names. Other popular lakes in the area are Bitter Lake, Enemy Swim, Punished Woman Lake, Roy Lake and Lake Thompson. With so many lakes within a short drive of each other, the chances that you won’t find a lake where something is biting are almost non-existent.
Like many other glacial prairie lakes, the predominant species in this region are walleye, pike and perch. All three species bring ice anglers by the truckload to the area every winter. For me, it’s always about the perch. Like Valentine, these lakes are very fertile…typically being absolutely loaded with freshwater shrimp. The perch, and walleyes to some extent, gorge themselves on the shrimp, which give them growth rates unrivaled anywhere else in the ice belt. A Glacial Lakes jumbo perch is a true trophy! In addition to those three species, the glacial lakes region is also well known for healthy populations of smallmouth bass, crappies, largemouth bass and white bass.
Devils Lake – Devils Lake is probably one of the most famous hardwater destinations in all of the ice belt, and with good reason. Originally known as a jumbo perch destination, the perch went through a downswing several years ago, but as that was happening, the walleye and pike action really began to heat up on Devils Lake. While the perch fishing has almost returned to the levels of a decade ago, the walleye and pike fishing continues to be dynamite. Devils Lake is BIG water and continually getting bigger. With no natural outlet, during average or wet years, the water has nowhere to go, so the lake’s level is continually on the rise. In fact, it’s not at all uncommon to see silos, barns and abandoned farmhouses partially submerged in areas that used to be dry land a few years ago. It gives the whole area a surreal, almost lunar feel. Like the Glacial Lakes region, the perch in Devils Lake enjoy a diet of freshwater shrimp and their girth reflects it!
It seems only natural that the land of 10,000 lakes would have the most number of entries. Truthfully, I had trouble narrowing the list down to the choices that I did because there are so many world-class fisheries in the state.
Mille Lacs Lake – This is probably the lake I’ve had the longest relationship with in the state of Minnesota. A year without at least one trip to Mille Lacs is an incomplete year in my book. Over the years “The Pond” has had its ups and downs, but it always seems that when one species is down, the other is up. Probably the two “bread and butter” species on Mille Lacs are jumbo perch and walleyes. Until the last couple of years, jumbo perch were going strong on the lake. Now that the perch are definitely in a down cycle, the walleye seem to be picking up the slack.
Walleye and perch aren’t the only game in town on Mille Lacs though. Smallmouth bass and musky also have a dedicated following on the lake, and for good reason, as trophy-sized specimens of each are caught often enough to make it a destination lake for both.
After last year’s NAIFC Championship on Mille Lacs, I am also a true believer in the quality of panfish that Mille Lacs can produce. I won’t say much more than that, but for those of you that are interested, take a look at the bag weights and big fish weights in last year’s results to get a feel for what I’m talking about. And keep in mind, those weights are all panfish, folks!!!
The other species that I can’t fail to mention when talking about Mille Lacs is tulibee. These oily, silvery whitefish are a ball to catch and taste pretty good when smoked. More often than not, we catch tulibee when we’re perch fishing. Any suspended marks that show up when you’re fishing the bottom for perch are probably tulibee. Although they are typically light biters, once they are hooked they put up a pretty good fight. Unfortunately, tulibee numbers, like perch numbers, are in a down swing, so I look forward to the day when they bounce back.
Leech Lake – Like most lakes in Minnesota, perch and walleye are the name of the game on Leech Lake. Fortunately, it seems that while Mille Lacs can be very cyclical when it comes to perch and walleye populations, Leech seems to be much more consistent. While not quite as good for perch as a hot year at Mille Lacs, the consistency of the bite and size of the perch will definitely keep me coming back. Like Mille Lacs, Leech also has good populations of tulibee and pike.
Lake of the Woods – For the past couple of season “LOTW” seemed to be THE lake in Minnesota for walleyes. While it appears that things have slowed considerably, there is definitely still enough action to make LOTW a destination lake for walleye aficionados.
Lake of the Woods is as big as it gets in terms of big water, stretching across the border well into Canada. Because of this, I highly recommend a guide if you’ve never been there before. This also means that fishing on Lake of the Woods can be considered “extreme” at times. LONG trips onto the lake to fishing hotspots is so common that many resorts provide transportation for their customers to and from these spots in covered tracked vehicles called Bombardiers.
Chequamegon Bay – To fish on Lake Superior is an amazing experience and this is my favorite place to do it. As if the sheer thrill of fishing on Lake Superior wasn’t enough, the variety of species and a shot at trophy fish of certain species seals the deal for me.
Smallmouth bass is one of the bay’s claims to fame, and they can be monsters! By midwinter they have usually settled into a very predictable pattern in the shipping channel in front of Ashland, Wisconsin and smallmouth addicts flock there for the chance to catch multiple 20-inch fish. Anglers in the bay also have a good chance at catching walleye, perch, crappie, whitefish, smelt, musky, pike, brown trout, steelhead, brook trout, splake, lake trout, burbot, lake sturgeon, herring, Coho salmon and Chinook salmon. WOW! What a list of options. In the spring as things begin to thaw, the steelhead, browns and brook trout begin to their spawning migrations to the mouths of Lake Superior tributaries as the first trickle of spring melt begin to flow into the lake. One of the favorite pastimes of the locals is to target these migrating fish in the shallow mouths of these tributaries with sacks of fresh spawn suspended below a tip-up. I cannot even begin to tell you what a rush it is to battle a 10-pound brown trout with no rod or reel in the equation!
Apostle Islands – Actually situated on the northwest tip of Chequamegon Bay, the species of choice in the Apostle Islands is lake trout. The Apostle Islands are unlike any other lake trout water you’ve ever fished before, however, because typical depths are in the 150 to 300 foot range. It is a true experience fishing in amongst these large islands. Viewed from the Duluth harbor, the Apostle Islands look like small little bumps on the horizon, but in reality they are huge masses that are often hard to distinguish from the mainland when you’re amongst them. The channels of water between the islands look like narrow canals on a map, but in reality they are as big as large lakes.
Because the Apostle islands are such big water and the ice on Lake Superior can change in minutes this is one place I would encourage you to never go without a guide. Only someone that’s out there every day, like most of the guides up there are, can stay up to date with the constantly changing ice conditions. Despite these precautions, lake trout fishing in the Apostle Islands is something every true ice-fishing devotee should try. The fish can be super-aggressive and 20+ pound fish are not unheard of. Even the 30-minute snowmobile ride from the town of Bayfield, Wisconsin to the Apostle Islands is an adventure and just one more element that adds to the excitement of the trip.
Worlds of Adventure
Obviously, there are a lot more quality fisheries that are all very accessible from Iowa. I barely even scratched the surface in Wisconsin and didn’t even get started on Illinois, but these are the ones that I have been to myself and have found them to be world class ice fishing destinations. Obviously your criteria for “world class” may vary from mine, but this list is a great place to start. Don’t let the fact that Iowa is on the southern fringes of the ice belt discourage you from venturing out and exploring these hardwater destinations…or discovering some of your own. Get out there and start punching some holes!!!