Iowa’s Urban Fishing Opportunities

By Ben Leal

I would venture to say that many, if not most, of all anglers out there, hooked their very first fish in a pond. Usually a bluegill or small crappie and, every once in a while, a nice surprise bass will find its way onto your hook. I am a fly-fishing aficionado and love to chase after most warm water species with a flyrod. When my son was younger we had a chance to go to a small urban pond by a library. It was teeming with small bluegill. I tied on a small fly and with every drop my son made we had one of those “trophies” wiggling away on the line. We caught so many fish that we wore the finish off the hook!

What an experience and it’s one that we still talk about with fondness as he now joins me on the boat chasing after bass and northern pike. But back then the fishing was easy it was more “catching” than fishing, and for young’uns, it definitely grabs their attention and plants the fishing seed which, we ultimately hope, turns them into fishing fanatics like Mom and Dad.

Here in Iowa, we’re privileged to have community fishing program that is managed by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. These small urban lakes and ponds are great places to introduce your children, teens, and adults to the joys of feeling that fish stretch your line. These little fisheries are all just a few minutes away where you can enjoy relaxing outdoor fun with friends and family.

The Fish
The Iowa DNR mainly stocks largemouth bass, bluegill, and channel catfish in urban fisheries.

Bluegill – These feisty little fighters are great fun when you’re first learning how to fish or introducing your children to fishing. These fish can also be easily seen during their spawning period which typically begins in May and will continue on to early August. Males build nests in 1 to 4 feet of water along the shoreline, over diverse substrate materials, but sand and gravel are preferred. The nests are saucer-shaped depressions about 1 to 2 feet in diameter. From the shore, the colony of nests look like “elephant tracks”. The aggressive males often build nests, almost touching adjoining nests. It is common to find as many as 50 nests in a 75-foot radius. Most nests are only 2- to 3-inches deep, and the male fish keep them fanned free of silt.

They readily take the hook, especially baited with small pieces of a night crawler or cricket. As I’ve already eluded to, they are also a blast to catch on a flyrod. Light line and a small fly or popper are the ticket. Small spinning gear also with light line work well. Downsizing to 1/16 oz or 1/32 oz jigs will also result in some fun catches. Usually, a while grub or “twister tail” threaded on to the hook will net results.

Largemouth Bass – Atop the food chain, the largemouth bass is one of the most popular sports fish in Iowa. Most of Iowa’s ponds are populated with largemouth bass, and really for two reasons. One is that they provide hours of fun for anglers throughout the year, and second, they help keep the panfish population in check. They primarily feed the young bluegill and crappie along with frogs, crayfish, aquatic insects and other small animal or bird that might fall in the water.

Medium action rods with ten-pound test line work well for these fighters. For anglers that are first starting to explore bass fishing, ponds are a great place to learn. Structure in these small bodies of water can be forgiving and you can walk around and explore as you target largemouth bass. Plastic worms work well and for some excitement, tie on an imitation frog and drag it along the shoreline where weeds, lilies, and patches of grass are present. You’ll be surprised when bass explode on your lure as you’re retrieving it. You’ll miss more bass than you catch, but the excitement of the strike is well worth it, and you’ll get more hookups as you gain experience.

Channel Catfish – For those that would like to slide on a chunk of bait on a hook and let it soak while enjoying some family time, channel catfish offer both great table fare as well as amazing action when the hook is set.

You’ll want to use a pretty stiff rod with ten-pound test line or maybe a bit more. Catfish can and do get big, so horsing one of these in on light line will be difficult. For bait, well the worse it smells the more likely a channel catfish will bite on it. Chicken liver works very well as some of the commercially available stink baits. There’re also folks that will soak hotdog pieces in stink bait, slide it over a hook and send it to the bottom. If you’re planning on a catch and release type of fishing, then a circle hook would be most recommended.

These are specifically designed to allow catfish or other bottom feeders to take the bait and as they swim away it hooks them in the corner of the mouth rather than the potential of having a hook deep in its throat or stomach. Deep hooked fish will eventually die even if released and cutting the hook off and releasing has the same effect.

Where to Go
Honestly, the best source for community fishing locations is the Iowa DNR’s website at However, with the help of Iowa DNR Urban Fishing Biologist Tyler Stubbs, we’ll make some recommendations on where to go as well as providing info on what we as anglers can do to help improve these little gems.

“This spring we changed the name to the Community Fishing Program”, said Iowa Department of Natural Resources Community Fishing Biologist Tyler Stubbs. “The mission of Iowa’s Community Fishing Program is to increase angling participation and opportunities in Iowa’s biggest cities. We are currently focusing on the top 30 cities by total population, and their suburban areas.”

The goal of the program is to increase the quality of angling opportunities and access within Iowa’s densely populated areas. The Iowa DNR is also working with partners to promote fishing as a safe, family-friendly activity and identifying a way to get Iowan’s fishing in urban and suburban areas. “Working with cities to develop sustainable fisheries out of stormwater retention basins is a big part of this program”, continued Stubbs. “As cities continue to grow, they build these basins to manage the increased runoff rate from urban development into storm sewers. Eventually, through various means, fish get into the basin and start to provide an angling opportunity.”

By working with the city, and by getting involved during the design phase, the Iowa DNR can make sure that the proper number and species of fish are stocked as soon as possible. This helps make sure that they are starting off on the right track to achieve a balanced fish population.
These basins were not initially built or designed to be fished due to increased vegetation growth, resulting in fish kills, however, the Iowa DNR has been working with cities willing to offer fishing in these locations to build them more like a farm pond; a fishing friendly design that still maintains stormwater management goals. “Many of these basins are in city parks, and provide great access for families, novice and avid anglers, and kids”, adds the biologist. “Surprising to some anglers, many of these ponds have the potential to produce some rather large bass and bluegill which can make things exciting!”

As everyone knows here in Iowa, we deal with water quality issues in our large impoundments each year and urban fisheries are no exception. Many of these ponds have some water quality issues with excess algae and different invasive species of plants and fish, which is why it is important for anglers to know that it is illegal to transport water and vegetation to these ponds. It is also illegal to stock fish into public waters. “Crappie, Goldfish, Koi, Northern Pike, Flathead Catfish, etc. show up via potential illegal stockings that are well intentioned, but misguided”, noted Stubbs. “They can have a negative effect on fisheries we are trying to develop with Largemouth Bass, Bluegill, and Channel Catfish which could hinder the fishery from reaching its full potential.”

How You Can Help
This program is still in its early stages, but it is starting to gain some traction, especially in the growing suburban areas where many of these basins are being built. So far the Community Fishing Program has assisted cities with the design and/or stocking of 22 new fisheries in 12 different cities with 6 more currently in the design phase for 2019. “We want people to get out and use these places, take a kid and/or someone new to fishing with you, and catch some fish!”, encouraged the biologist. “Don’t be afraid to harvest fish as well, especially Bluegill and Crappie, which have a daily limit of 25 fish each.”

As always leave the pond in better shape than when you arrived. Cities are doing a great job of maintaining these urban fishing areas by keeping them clean. Pack out what you pack in, remove unwanted fishing line and recycle when you can. It’s everyone responsibility to steward the resources we enjoy all across the State to include our urban fishing areas. Should you have any issues or questions regarding the Community Fishing Program contact the Iowa DNR. “We are here to help you have an enjoyable and memorable angling experience close to home”, concluded Stubbs. Tight Lines All!