By Ben Leal

November of 2019 will be remembered by the sudden blast of cold that blew into the State early in the month…Anglers across Iowa, especially those in the central portions of the state were talking about being on the ice by Thanksgiving. As I sit and hammer out this article for February crappie, we’re finally seeing lakes and ponds ice over and visions of tight lines dancing in our heads.

February, unlike November, is historically cold. Average temps range from 9 degrees to 39 degrees, zone across different regions of the state. In the central part of the state, averages are a cold 19°F to 36°F. Sioux City in the west along interstate 29 averages 15°F to 35°F, while Cedar Rapids in the east along the interstate 380 sees day temperatures above freezing with the average in the 18°F to 36°F range.

Changing Conditions
As February draws to a close we’ll begin to see warming temperatures and changing ice conditions. The northern reaches of the state we’ll likely see ice remain on lakes and ponds into March. Central and Southern Iowa may be a bit different and we could see ice leave area fisheries early. Ice safety should always be your number one concern during the entire ice fishing season, however, keeping a keen eye on conditions will help you decide your location choices.

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 are a huge draw.

Big Spirit Lake is also a draw to anglers in the area and can be a productive crappie destination. Covering 5,684 acres, also located in Dickenson County, one mile north of Spirit Lake, has a maximum depth of 24 feet.

“Big Spirit and West Okoboji Lake are going to be my most consistent crappie lakes by far”, said Iowa DNR Fisheries Biologist Mike Hawkins. “They certainly exist in other lakes, with occasional monsters being caught, but consistent/healthy recruitment in some of those areas is a challenge without good water quality.”
The crappie population has had a bit of a rebound on Spirit Lake. Unsure of how angling will be, Hawkins indicated that there are some nice fish in there. “Late season is probably the best time to target these fish”, he adds. A lake that’s worth mentioning in this area of the state is Ingham Lake. Numbers are high, but some culling will need to be done due to size.

In the northwest central part of the state, Black Hawk Lake is another spot to watch. “The crappie population has been coming on pretty good and anglers did well this fall right until freeze up”, noted Iowa DNR Fisheries Biologist Ben Wallace. “There are a lot of smaller crappies, but anglers putting in the time can expect to take home a good mess of 10-inch fish.” Anglers were using crappie minnows and the Berkley crappie nibbles for bait.

Use caution in February as the ice can get a little sketchy later in the month depending on the year.  “My one tip for Black Hawk would be to resist the urge to join the ice shack colonies”, recommends Wallace.  “The entire lake is fairly shallow and I think a lot of disturbance on the ice can drive fish out of an area.  Don’t be afraid to go out searching for fish and explore different water.”

Central Iowa
“Lakes in our district here in central Iowa are Hooper Area Pond, Ahquabi Lake, and Don Williams”, notes Iowa DNR Fisheries Biologist Ben Dodd. “Late ice in February can be a tough fish.  I like back hooking minnows (missing the spine), so they can still swim aggressively.  Then just let the minnow do the work.”

Hooper Area Pond is located in Warren County and is a rather small fishery covering 33.8 acres. This small impoundment is located 6 miles southwest of Indianola and has a maximum depth of 23 feet. Areas to target here are on the opposite side of the boat ramp where sunken timber exists. If the ice is clear enough you can pour some water on the surface of the ice, place your transducer on it and locate fish without punching holes. Once you find em, poke a hole in the ice and bring them topside.

Lake Ahquabi, also in Warren County is a bit bigger than Hooper at 114 acres with a maximum depth of 17.5 feet. Popular fishing areas at this lake are towards the dam. Keep an eye out for open water though, this is a popular wintering area for geese, and they can keep portions of the lake ice-free.

Last but certainly not least is Don Williams Lake. Located 5 miles north of Ogden in Boone County, this lake covers 151 acres. With a maximum depth of almost 42 feet, this lake offers anglers easy access and quite a few options for chasing after big crappie. You can find a downloadable fishing structure and lake map on the Iowa DNR website. Look under the “Where to Fish” area on the fishing page.

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.

“Crappie abundance is high right now and we are seeing a greater portion of the fish at 10 inches or larger than we have in several years”, noted Iowa DNR Fisheries Management Biologist Mark Flammang. “Anglers are still going to capture many 8 and 9 inch fish but based on our fall sampling I would expect to see a greater proportion of 10+ inch fish than last year.”

Crappie fishing on Rathbun in the winter has changed in the last 30 years. Most anglers don’t go to the upper end of the lake as they historically did. The habitat up there has changed due to the age of the reservoir. Anglers are typically seeking drop-offs and other structure in the lower part of the lake, in particular in Honey Creek and Buck Creek.

“I might also suggest Morris Lake in Lucas County.  Crappie abundance is very high and quality is very good”, adds Flammang. “I’d expect most fish to be in the 9 to 12-inch range this year. The lake gets rather shallow in the upper end, so anglers may have to search for a while to find the fish in the lower end (which is actually north in the case of this lake).”

Tips, Tactics & Tackle
Maps and electronics can be some of the best tools you can use as you set out to find February 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. http://www.iowadnr.gov/Fishing.aspx. 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 into 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. Short 26 to 28-inch ice rods will do the job very well.

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 continues to improve on the level wind reel with the Gravity and Gravity Elite Reel. This reel has a longer reel foot allowing an angler to get a more efficient grip and detecting bites more effectively. It has an adjustable drag that makes it comfortable, versatile and easy to operate. 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 ice anglers’ arsenal, keeping them 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.

Live bait options are the aforementioned minnows, which are truly crappie candy, but also wax worms as well as spikes (maggots) both in red and natural colors work well.

Take Care of Iowa’s Water
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, 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!