Iowa’s State Record Fish: Part II

By Ben Leal

Last month we took a look at the current State records for perch, walleye, northern pike and muskellunge or musky as they are known. We also noted some areas where an angler might have a chance at landing that next record. With warming waters we’ll start seeing largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, crappie and bluegill begin to transition to shallow spawning haunts. With that move will come the possibility of hauling up a new State record.

Largemouth Bass
This is the point in many of the articles I write where I can provide all of our readers with some of the characteristics of a largemouth bass. But given that this is probably one of the most popular sport fish in the state, I’ll just talk about the current state record. That extra ordinary specimen was caught by Patricia Zaerr from Davenport Iowa. Weighing in at 10 lbs 12 oz., and caught at Lake Fisher in Davis County in 1984, it remains at the top for this species of bass.

The largemouth is a fish of lakes, ponds and quiet river waters where its abundance varies from common to abundant. Distribution of the largemouth bass in Iowa is statewide, mainly because this species has been stocked by the Conservation Commission into nearly every lake, pond and reservoir. It is uncommonly found in the interior rivers, preferring the quiet waters of overflow oxbows and backwaters along these streams. Occurrence is common in the impounded waters of the Mississippi River, especially the sloughs and backwaters. Largemouth bass is the primary predator in many of our lakes, ponds, and quiet rivers, foraging on fish, crayfish, frogs, aquatic and terrestrial insects, and any small living animal or bird which falls in the water. The small sac fry of bass, feed upon microscopic crustaceans. First-food items are supplemented with insects and insect larvae as the fish grows. Largemouth Bass usually start foraging on fish when they are 1 to 2 inches in length.

“For largemouth in my district I’d point to Lake Wapello”, said Iowa Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Management Biologist Mark Flammang. “But that nearly 11 pound mark is also going to be tough to beat.” Lake Wapello isn’t very far from Lake Fisher where the current state record originated and it is an outstanding fishery for big fish. “The biggest fish are often caught just prior to the spawn”, adds the biologist. “Keep in mind a fish can store 20% of weight as eggs, so big females are your best chance at a new state record.

Smallmouth Bass
This species of the sunfish family, in my book, are the feistiest and a scrappy bass that pound for pound offer anglers an unforgettable experience. Its common names include bronzeback, brown bass, brownie, smallie, bronze bass and bareback bass. The current record for this species is 7 lbs, 12 oz, caught in West Okoboji Lake in Dickenson County by angler Rick Gray in September 1990.

The Smallmouth Bass mostly lives in swift flowing, less turbid waters in rivers and smaller streams. Smallmouth Bass are most abundant and widely distributed in the rivers of central and eastern Iowa, but they are occasionally found in impoundments and natural lakes with suitable habitat. They are common to abundant in smaller tributary streams during spawning in late spring and are taken occasionally in the Mississippi. Since impoundment of this stream for navigation, smallmouth numbers have decreased.

Smallmouth Bass spawn in Iowa during the early part of May as water temperatures exceed 60’ F. Preparatory to the spawning ritual, parent spawners move up larger streams, eventually reaching small tributaries where the actual spawning occurs. Male fish build a saucer-shaped nest on the gravel, coarse sand or rock bottom by sweeping its tail over the substrate. The 14 to 25 inch diameter nest is located in quiet water near the shoreline downstream from a boulder or other natural structure that deflects and slows the current force.

“There is a potential for Spirit Lake to yield the next state record smallmouth bass, but definitely West Okoboji Lake”, said IDNR Fisheries Biologist Mike Hawkins. “It’s mostly due to the diversity of habitat in West Lake and the cooler water temps.” West Okoboji Lake covers 3,847 acres and has a maximum depth of 134 feet which help keep waters cooler. “We had fish up to 21 inches in length reported last season”, continued Hawkins. “Angler surveys help us with population estimates. Our staff checks anglers at the docks as well as shore anglers for any information. Smallmouth are rarely harvested so most of our information is voluntary and reported as a released fish.”

There are some really good things that happen early on West Okoboji. Pre-spawn period could possibly yield the next state record caught. “It will likely be a female and she’ll be full of eggs which will help with that size and weight”, added the biologist. “April and early May are peak times for smallmouth at West Okoboji Lake”. If you’d like to take a look at the current record the mount was donated to the Spirit Lake hatchery and is in the lobby. Stop by and take a look!

Crappie
There are two species of crappie in Iowa, the black crappie and the white crappie. The black crappie is a silvery-speckled, deep-bodied, slab-sided sunfish with a large mouth. The upper jaw reaches past the middle of the eye when the mouth is closed. It usually has a dark back with many green or blackish spots irregularly spaced over the sides. There are no distinct vertical bars as in white crappie. The white crappie has a silvery body that shades to green or brown on the back; several (7-9) dark vertical bars on each side and whitish belly; “hump-backed” with 6 spines in the dorsal fin; seldom exceed 2 pounds.

The state record black crappie was caught in 2013 at Three Mile Lake in Union County by angler Dale Klein of Omaha, Nebraska. This amazing fish tipped the scales at 3 lbs, 14 oz, and measured to 18 inches in length. Black crappie are intolerant of turbid waters and are nearly always found in the clearer lakes and streams in Iowa. It is common to abundant in the natural lakes and the backwater sloughs of the upper Mississippi River. It is a common resident in certain eastern Iowa rivers but rare in western streams. Most man-made recreational lakes have black crappie, but their abundance depends upon water clarity. Few lakes have only one crappie species.

The white crappie state record stands at 4 lbs 9 oz and was caught in 1981 by Ted Trowbridge from Marshalltown, Iowa. Mr. Trowbridge caught this amazing specimen on Green Castle Lake located in Marshall County. White crappie tolerate turbid waters far better than black crappie and are more abundant in waters that carry heavy silt loads. It is abundant in all reaches of the Mississippi River. Some of the large interior streams have dense populations of white crappie. Many farm ponds have been stocked with white crappie, but their well-being in these small water bodies is seldom satisfactory.

“I have a few suggestions as to the location of the next record crappie and they are all similar”, add Flammang. “Generally, I’d suggest that the large flood control reservoirs such as Red Rock, Rathbun, Coralville, and Saylorville in that order of likeliness. These are big waters, with diverse habitat and plenty of food.” These flood control reservoirs are most common for white crappie due to the turbidity of the water and siltation. The next black crappie state record will likely come from a smaller interior lake or farm pond. The need for calmer clearer water allows these fish to thrive in some of the smaller lakes we have in Southern Iowa.

Bluegill
The Bluegill is Iowa’s most common and widely distributed member of the sunfish family. It can be found in nearly all waters throughout the state. The Bluegill is extremely abundant in the backwater and sloughs of the Mississippi River. Although it has been documented throughout the Little Sioux River watershed as well as in the Missouri River, the Bluegill is not common in western Iowa streams.

Aside from farm ponds and impoundments, the largest populations of Bluegill are in warm pools and backwaters of low-gradient streams, and particularly in overflow pools along floodplains with some aquatic vegetation or other cover.
The current state record was caught in a farm pond in Madison County back in 1986. This remarkable fish tipped the scale at 3 lbs, 2 oz, and measured to 12.8 inches in length. “For bluegill the easy answer will be another farm pond in southern Iowa”, noted Flammang. “Time and time again we see instances where a perfect storm comes together, usually in a pond that is less than 10 years old, and we catch HUGE fish.”

Bluegill reproduce over a wide period, usually from late May to early August in Iowa, but peak spawning happens in early June. Water temperatures during the spawning season are 70 to 80 degrees.

Bluegill by far offer anglers of all ages some of the most exciting fishing around the state. Many of our “first fish” experiences have been these feisty little fish. There is as much enjoyment out of catching these as it is to see the face of the inexperienced, young and old alike to hook a nice bluegill and bring it to shore. For fly anglers, a small popper on a warm summer day can lead to hours of fun.

Take Care of the Resource
Iowa has some amazing resources for anglers and hunters alike. We can enjoy hours of fishing and hunting easily within a few minutes to a few hours’ drive from our front door. It’s every outdoorsman and woman’s responsibility to take care of the resources we have by teaching our kids stewardship. And the best way is to lead by example. Remember to pack out what you pack in, and even when it’s not yours pick it up any way. Good luck and tight lines all!