Iowa Great Lakes Grand Slam: Part I

By Steve Weisman

In baseball terms, a grand slam is the greatest hit of all, and a second grand slam in a two-day period is even more incredible. Many hitters never hit one in their career, let alone two in a two-day period.

Now let’s take the grand slam idea to the fishing world, where in my mind a grand slam would be catching four different species of fish. Obviously, a second grand slam would be catching an additional four different species of fish.

Here’s my challenge: catching two grand slams over the course of two days on the Iowa Great Lakes (Big Spirit Lake and the Okoboji chain of lakes). Yep, I think it is possible. Certainly, weather is a big factor, so you should tip the odds in your favor, and I think time of the year is also an important factor. I really think it would be fun to take on this challenge and see what you can come up with.

These are the species I am thinking of: walleye, northern pike/musky, largemouth bass/smallmouth bass, bluegill, crappie, perch, yellow bass, bullhead and channel catfish. I have combined bass and northern/musky into one category each, but you could actually go for all 11 if you wanted. Of course, you could even add freshwater drum (sheephead), if you want to and make it a dozen.

Now, while it wouldn’t be exactly like baseball with four runners coming across the plate, connecting on four different species of fish (or more) each day would be satisfying. Of course, I want to put the odds in favor of the angler and pick a week where all 11 species of fish will be actively biting. Under this scenario, you can pick any two-day period of any week during the open water season. For me, though, I am picking the month of June. Oh, and I want to add even a little more intrigue. This will be a two-part series with the first accessing these fish from shore or docks and the second from a boat.

Big Spirit
Some might think that doing this from shore or a dock can be pretty difficult. However, having fished these lakes for nearly 40 years, I know it can be done. One of the best places to catch a lot of these fish is the Grade at the north end of Big Spirit Lake. A major reason for this is the flow of water coming into the Grade from the north. It is a huge watershed, and moving water attracts fish. Throughout the open water season, anglers come to the Grade to fish. From April through June anglers will fish from the bank on the south side of the road, parking their cars off the edge of the road. Probably the prime area is where the water rushes into the Grade from the north. Anglers will stand over the opening and fish there, or they will line up along the shoreline to the east. Just off to the west side of the flowing water is a huge handicap accessible fishing pier. This affords anglers plenty of access.

These are the fish I have either caught there or witnessed other anglers catching: walleye (often over the slot), northern pike, musky, largemouth bass, perch, bluegills, crappies and bullhead. Now those are a lot of options. The Grade is prime bullhead territory. Just put a juicy nightcrawler on a hook with a slip sinker to help cast it out, and let it sit on the bottom. While doing this, anglers will often cast with a tiny jig suspended by a bobber about 2-3 feet below the surface. Tip the jig with silver wigglers, wax worms, Belgium worms or tiny plastics. You can expect to catch bluegills, crappies and perch on this presentation. Using a tiny minnow will also work well for crappies.

Anglers often work the cement pillars that hold the entire pier above the water. Some will use the bobber method, while others will straight line jig the entire water column beginning at the bottom and working their way up. A pattern usually emerges as to where the panfish are located: inside, outside or side of a particular column. Sometimes the panfish will be outside and away from the pier; at other times, they are inside the pier.

Fishing on the east side of the pier and casting out into the moving water coming in from the north puts anglers into the walleye territory. Anglers will use hair jigs, stick baits (Thundersticks and Rapalas) and twisters. Some will even use jigging raps.

By June, weed growth becomes part of the equation at the Grade. The weed growth provides protection for baitfish, which then brings more predator fish in search of an easy meal. Largemouth bass and northern pike will frequent the area. Casting spinnerbaits, weedless frogs or surface lures will take both bass and pike.

Big Spirit has long been known for excellent evening, night and pre-dawn fishing. This becomes the world of the wader fisherman. Areas such as the Foot Bridge directly south of the Grade, Buffalo Run, Marble Beach and Templar Park on the west side of the lake, the bar between Trickle’s Slough and Anglers Bay (the willow row) and Sandbar Beach on the east end of the lake, Sunset Beach on the southeast corner and the Pump House on the south end are all areas where wader fishermen have success casting stickbaits, jigs and plastics. Anglers will also likely run into northern pike, largemouth bass and smallmouth bass in these areas.

At the same time, walleye fishing is excellent in the evening for slip bobber fishing from public docks and if you have access, private docks all around the lake. Tipping the hook with a minnow, spottail shiner or a leech are all good options.
Look at all of the fish options available on a given day.

Shore and dock fishing options also abound on the Okoboji chain (East Okoboji, Upper Gar, Minnewashta, Lower Gar and West Okoboji). Running water and current again attract fish. That begins at the very north end of East Okoboji, where water coming out of Big Spirit enters East Okoboji. Once the water leaves Big Spirit, it runs through a narrow channel past the hatchery and then out into East Okoboji. Again, wader fishermen target this area for walleyes and yellow bass. Bridge areas are accessible from the bank beginning with the HWY 9 Bridge, then to Upper Gar, Lake Minnewashta and Lower Gar.

An often overlooked fish on the Okobojis is the channel catfish. East Okoboji has an excellent population of catfish, especially the upper part of the lake from the narrows north to the Hatchery. Fishing before dark and after dark using cut bait on the bottom works the best. The Elinor Bedell State Park on the east side of the lake offers anglers foot access to the lake.

The trestle, a wood structure at the west end of East Okoboji just before entering West Okoboji, is perfect fish habitat. A series of wood pilings and catwalk areas attract a wide range of fish: bluegills, crappies, yellow bass, perch, largemouth bass and walleyes. There is also a good chance of catching freshwater drum (sheephead). The water is usually clear enough that anglers can see suspended crappies and bluegills under the walkways. Again, some anglers will use a jig and a bobber, while others will straight line. I prefer straight lining when I am fishing the suspended fish, because I can present the bait right in front of the fish. When I am fishing the big posts supporting the walkway, I will use a bobber and experiment with depth until I find active fish.

Public fishing piers at the north end of East Okoboji, docks on the southwest side of Upper Gar in the park, public docks on Lake Minnewashta are all excellent places to catch bluegills, crappies, yellow bass and largemouth bass. Plus, you never know when a bullhead, catfish or northern pike will grab the offering.

The bridge area from East Okoboji into West Okoboji is another excellent place to catch fish. Both panfish and largemouth bass can be caught during the day, while it is an excellent walleye area after dark.

West Okoboji has several canal areas that hold excellent populations of bluegills, crappies, largemouth bass and northern pike. Turtle Lake is located east of Crescent Beach on the west side of the lake, and the south side can be accessed from shore. Although panfish and bass are located along shore and around the docks, the best bite is found by casting out toward the middle of the lake. However, there are limited parking areas. The north side is private property. To the north of that is Millers Bay canal. However, this, too, is private, so you have to know a landowner or access via a boat.

The same holds true for the Harbor at the northwest end of the lake. It is all private property, so accessible only by boat. At the far northwest area is the Triboji boat access area. This circular area is ringed with docks that are accessible to the public and offer excellent fishing opportunities. Again, work the docks and also cast out away from the docks.

The final option from shore includes wader fishing and dock fishing similar to that off Big Spirit. Access, though, is more limited than Big Spirit. However, Emerson Bay State Recreation area and Gull Point State Park on the southwest part of the lake offer good access to potential fishing areas, as does Triboji boat ramp/swimming beach on the northwest corner, Pikes Point on the northeast side of the lake and Terrace Park Beach on the south end of the lake.

So, there you have it. Lots of fishing opportunities from both shore and docks. It’s definitely a possibility to catch a minimum of eight species of fish in two days of fishing. Since the lakes are all in close proximity, a game plan can be drawn up that will afford anglers the option of fishing several areas in the same day with chances of catching your own grand slam.

How about this? Can you do it in a day?