Iowa Ice Hot Spots for Crappie

By Ben Leal

At the time of this writing Iowa was experiencing one of the warmest winters that I’ve seen in the sixteen plus years of living here. Southern and Central Iowa ponds, lakes, and reservoirs are all ice free. Northern Iowa is starting to see some skim ice, but fluctuating temperatures ranging from below freezing on up to the 50 degree mark make for difficult ice making conditions. And what ice there is, by no means is considered safe.

So what does that all mean for ice anglers? One thing’s for sure, it will not be your typical winter pattern that we’ve seen in the past. This will be one of those rare occasions where you can really look for fish in areas that you normally do well in during open water. Why? Lakes have been pretty much ice free through December. What ice there is, it’s clear. Weed beds that normally die off by now are still green and will hold fish. Find the weed beds you’ll find the forage that crappie feed on. Whether it’s minnows or small aquatic insects, these areas will attract fish.

Changing Conditions
As February rolls into March Iowa weather patterns will begin to change and for the first couple of weeks we’ll still be dealing with ice for the most part. If I know one thing it is that weather is unpredictable and there are years where we see unseasonably warm weather with ice leaving most of the lakes early or possibly not freezing at all. This may be one of those years as we continue to deal with the now infamous “El Nino” affect. We may also see an extended period of cold weather as well keeping lakes locked up with ice, so the key here for any angler is be prepared to change with the conditions.

Northern Iowa
There is no doubt that West Okoboji Lake is a very popular ice fishing destination for anglers throughout Iowa. This lake covers approximately 3,847 acres and is located in Dickinson County. The cities of Arnold Park, Okoboji, West Okoboji and Wahpeton sit on its shores. The gin clear water and the chance to site fish for slab crappie and bull bluegill are a huge draw.

“For the most part we’ll find ice here in Northwest Iowa well into March”, said Kevan Paul, owner and operator of Kevan Paul’s Guide Service. “Crappie can be really good here, especially if you can find good healthy weed beds”. There are a number of factors that can affect the crappie bite, but typically some of the most common things to consider are weather, water clarity, structure, remaining weed beds, and the topographical lay of the land below the surface of the water.

“Brushy Creek located in Webster County, 5 miles east of Lehigh, provided good crappie fishing as it always has”, noted Iowa Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Biologist Ben Wallace. The panfish population is strong at Brushy Creek and anglers should continue to expect good fishing there for the foreseeable future.

Central Iowa
Bear Lake is an area where good crappie were found in 2015. This small 34 acre lake is located in Dallas County and is one and a half miles from Dexter, and has a max depth of about 40 feet.

“Crappie are abundant at Don Williams Lake, however these fish are a bit short and some sorting is needed”, said Iowa Department of Natural Resource Fisheries Biologist Ben Dodd. “These fish will continue to grow though and watch for them to reach harvestable size in 2017”. Don Williams Lake is located in Boone County and is 5 miles north of Ogden with a max depth of approximately 41 feet.

Another notable crappie fishing destination is the ever popular Big Creek Lake, covering approximately 814 acres and located in Polk County just 2 miles north of Polk City, IA. This lake is a very popular crappie destination throughout the ice fishing season as well as the spring spawn. Big Creek offers anglers a chance at catching good numbers of fish. Both black and white crappie are present in this lake and surveys from 2013 sampled crappie ranging from 8 to 11 inches in size.

“The biggest thing anglers need to remember when it comes to crappie, is that their populations are often cyclic”, noted Dodd. “Do your research, find the lakes with good numbers and size and travel to them. Don’t spend a lot of time fishing lakes that are in the valley of the cycle”.

Southern Iowa
The largest body of water in the Southern part of the State is by far Rathbun Reservoir, covering over 11,000 acres with a max depth of about 50 feet. Located in Appanoose County, 8 miles northwest of Centerville, Rathbun offers some of the most productive fishing in the State of Iowa.

“This was a year of contrasts at Rathbun”, said Iowa Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Biologist Mark Flammang. “The lake is at a near all time high for crappie abundance right now, and many quality size fish are available. I’ve been telling folks that they would be sorting this year and they were.”

Lake Sugema had great crappie angling this spring and produced many fish in the 9 to 10 inch range. For anglers that were willing to try something off the beaten path, Williamson Pond and Humeston Reservoir produced some quality crappies as well.

“Crappie fishing in Swan Lake seemed to be really picking up, however we experienced a substantial fish kill the summer of 2015, and it’s unclear how that will affect the fishing there in the near term, say 2-3 years.” Hopes are high that Swan Lake will rebound from the fish kill. Prior to the kill anglers were experiencing high numbers of fish, though it was tough to find anything over 8.5 inches. Swan Lake is located in Johnson County and is about 30 acres in size.

Ice conditions in Southern Iowa will be iffy this time of year. It’s important for anglers to research existing ice conditions, which holds true for any ice fishing destination you choose, north or south. Always tell someone where you are going and when you plan to return. Take along a fishing partner and be prepared for the unexpected. Have safety equipment close at hand and always remember that there is no such thing as safe ice!

Tips, Tactics, and Tackle
Maps and electronics can be some of the best tools you can use as you set out to find March crappie. Whether you’ve fished a particular body of water or not, doing some pre-fish scouting with a good topographical map will help you narrow your search as you head out. The Department of Natural Resources website is a one stop shop for lake information, There you’ll find details about specific bodies of water as well as downloadable and printable maps. These may not be as extensive as maps provided by companies like Navionics or Lake Master, but there will be enough information to point you in the right direction.

Electronics such as the Vexilar FL28, the MarCum LX-7 Color LCD Sonar, and the Humminbird Ice 35 Flasher will all aid in locating active fish. Some of the newer open water fish finders can also be modified for use during ice fishing and are a great asset if you have GPS built in to them.
For crappie light line, medium light to ultra light rod and reel combinations and small jigs are going to be the preferred method of chasing after these fish. If you’re on the ice, short 26 to 28 inch ice rods will do the job very well. Rods such as the Wright & McGill ® Tony Roach Power Ice Panfish Rod, Ultra Light come with a balanced blank and a very soft sensitive tip. March crappie can be phenomenal at times and fish can be aggressive. Cold fronts will shut these fish down however and a rod with a sensitive tip that allows you to see the take is essential. Line in the 2 to 6 pound range will work however most ice anglers will max out at 4 pounds.

A recent trend in ice fishing and one that will improve your chances for shy fish is the use of level wind reels. Clam Outdoors improved on the level wind reel a bit with the Genz 200 Ice Spooler Reel. This reel has a longer reel foot allowing an angler to get a more efficient grip and detecting bites more effectively. These reels also reduce line twist resulting in baits spinning as they are lowered into the water, which can spell disaster for finicky fish…especially in the clear waters in West Okoboji Lake.

Plastics have become a greater part of the arsenal that ice and open water anglers keep on hand as they chase these popular fish. If crappie have already begun their transition to their late winter/early spring staging areas, there’s a good chance they could be right there with the bluegills that have been there most of the winter, snacking on burrowing insects that inhabit that particular bottom type. For these fish, go with a smaller plastic on a small tungsten jig. Something like a MicroNuggie, Skimpie or Wedgee, all from Little Atom, or any of the Lindy Techni-Glo Tails on a 3 or 4mm Fiskas Woflram jig.

As we see warmer weather and ice begin to leave area lakes, look for areas where melting ice and snow is flowing in to the lake. This turbidity in the water will attract smaller minnows and insects to feed on the incoming sources of food carried by the water. Crappie will follow the bait fish in to these areas, especially as the water warms. Look for creek channels with drop offs to deeper water. These will be staging areas as the crappie prepare for the spawn.

Take Care of Iowa’s Waters
The key to quality angling in Iowa is water quality. Research shows that angling is best where water quality (clarity) is greatest. Anytime we talk about the importance of improving water quality in Iowa, it’s not just idle chatter. It’s important to Iowa’s drinking water, to boating, wildlife and it’s very important to sustaining quality angling. Iowa’s outdoor recreational recourses are here for everyone’s use. It’s up to every Iowa outdoor enthusiast to be responsible stewards so that future generations can enjoy Iowa’s natural resources. Tight Lines!