Iowa Sportsman Fishing Trip: Lake Rathbun

By Clayton Will

However you say it; Rathbun Lake or Lake Rathbun, it’s a must see Iowa Family Fishing Trip Destination.

At 11,000 acres Lake Rathbun is easily Iowa’s largest body of water not called a river or stream. Nestled in Appanoose County Lake Rathbun is a popular spot for outdoor enthusiasts year round, but often gets touted as a premier fishing destination during the warm months.

Fed by the Chariton River the construction of Rathbun Dam and Reservoir was authorized by the Flood Control Act of 1954. Construction of the dam and embankment began in September 1964. The dam itself is rolled earth fill construction and is 10,129 feet long, 30 feet wide at the top, and rises 100 feet above the streambed. Operation as a multi-purpose unit began November 1969 and the top of multi-purpose pool was reached on October 10, 1970. Rathbun Lake was dedicated July 31, 1971 with President Richard Nixon being the keynote speaker. *

Rathbun has excellent water quality and ample fishing opportunities for a variety of species. Early spring Crappie can be caught in the fingers of the lake. Check out areas with south facing shorelines that will warm the soonest. Here you’ll find the crappies will be very shallow in the water column and more dispersed around the shoreline than during the summer. Soon after the first rains of spring Crappie will stage outside their spawning areas signaling a new year of open water fishing. Many of these fish can be cast to from shore. We typically use 1/64 to 1/32 ounce jigs under a bobber. Utilize a water bobber or lead weighted bobber for longer casts. My choice of lures for stained water, as many of our reservoirs can be in spring, would be something with vibration and flash. Live minnows fit that description. Use behind a tube jig or tip them with a silver spinner blade and red/yellow or black/green tube jig. You want to be throwing something with contrasting colors which is especially true for Crappie.

We’ve all heard the old adage that “Crappies are on the beds when the lilac leaves are the size of squirrels’ ears.” Okay maybe all of us haven’t heard that saying. Even thought there might be some validity in it, water temperature is the real key. Once the water temperature has reached their magic spawning number, between 58 and 64 degrees, look for gravel mixed clay banks that crappie prefer for spawning. Many spawning beds will be within inches of the bank while others can be five or six feet deep. Downed trees that have fallen into the water in addition to gravel/clay banks are excellent because it provides added cover and we all know how Crappies relate to wood. Once the right tree is found, anchor up, you can limit right there without moving.

Fishing Crappies in summer is a bit different. Crappies can tend to school in a tower of fish with the more active fish near the surface. When the Crappies are suspended is a great time to spider rig for them from a boat in the mouths of the fingers and main lake. Slow troll or drift with multiple rods using your electric motor or a kicker motor for directional control if you have some wind. Many times this is called longlining and is used to cover a lot of water using very long rods. These rods are very limber and the dip of the rod tip is your strike indicator or you can have preset depths under a slip bobber to cover more of the water column. Crappies can be finicky and will drop a bait quickly if there is too much pressure. Purchasing a license to fish with a third rod, per angler, is a real plus for this method of fishing. You can put out three, six, or nine rods depending on how many people are fishing.

Channel Catfish in Iowa are the most sought after species of fish and the Rathbun Hatchery is a main reason why we have a steady supply to catch. While some natural spawning occurs in rivers, very little successful spawning is done in Iowa lakes. So most of the fish we catch come out of the Rathbun hatchery as it is the only hatchery rearing catfish in Iowa. Starting in April the IDNR moves the several hundred brood stock they keep year around to the holding ponds. There they will spawn in cream cans once the water temperature reaches 70 degrees. The 100’s of thousands of eggs that hatch will be stocked as fry, with some being raised until October and released around the state as 7” to 9” fingerlings. It’s a great time to be there and watch the process. There’s an elevated observation platform for an overview of the hatchery. You can walk through on a self-guided tour for the family or make an appointment for large groups.

Fishing for Channel Catfish on Rathbun Lake is a very popular sport. Using stink bait will usually result in catching a quantity of smaller eating fish. If you drift fish cut bait such as shad, which is the major forage fish in the lake, you have a better chance of hooking into some real quality Cats. Using the same methods from shore will also produce fish as Catfish are known for working the edges while feeding. If you cast out too far you may be overshooting the feeding zone.

Millions of Walleye fry are produced locally in the hatchery and some fingerlings are marked on the side with a freeze brand. Netted stock may have a visual implant tag placed in the lower jaw, for recapture identification, that will show up as a blue/green dot. Walleyes can be found around the rock rip/rap year around. There they are feeding on shad or crayfish and easily accessible from shore. Casting Glass Raps, X-Raps or Rattletraps can be very effective. If you are going to pick one time of day to relax and make a few casts, for me that would be the last hour of daylight. Regardless of weather conditions, moon phases, cold fronts, or wives tales there is going to be a feeding window of some significance in the evening.

The Army Corps of Engineers and Iowa DNR along with private businesses have developed one of Iowa’s favorite destinations with Rathbun. Lodging can be found throughout the area at Honey Creek Resort, Buck Creek Cabins, CD’s Motel & Restaurant, Dam Site Depot, and Foxtail Cabins, and Whispering Breezes. There are also over 700 campsites locate around the lake and general vicinity so find a place to stay is never an issue!

Honey Creek Resort sits on a scenic point of land between two large fingers of water. They have many amenities with an indoor water park, meeting facilities, restaurant, boat slips/rentals, bike rentals and miles of multi-use trails, plus an 18 hole golf course. It is a wonderful destination for family get togethers where there is something for everyone in the family to enjoy.

The full service Rathbun Marina locations are at the east end of the lake and the middle of the lake at Southfork. They have all types of boat rentals, slips, a large swimming pool and the “Jon Anderson White” Paddle Wheel Cruise boat for you and the family to take an informative excursion around the lake. Near the Buck Creek Campground is the J & K Dinner Cruise boat with a variety of cruise options. On the South side of the lake, North of the city of Rathbun, is the Island View RV Campground with 190 electric campsites for those of you with trailers or motorhomes that wish to camp in a more remote area.

There are many more things to do and see around the lake for your enjoyment. The 16,000 acres of Wildlife Management Areas are where you can get close to nature. Eagles and Osprey, plus an abundant amount of Wildlife can be seen in the area, so bring along your binoculars, spotting scope, or camera and plan to spend a few days at Iowa’s Ocean!
*Source: Wikipedia 2020