Plenty to do in the Iowa Great Lakes

By Steve Weisman

Hunting, fishing, snowmobiling, cross country skiing and hiking…how is that for winter activities to do all in the same area? That’s right! The Iowa Great Lakes is truly the destination for the outdoors enthusiast. As a resident of the Iowa Great Lakes area for 40 years, I will be the first to tell you, I love it all. I actually have the best stay-cation you could ever ask for. For those wanting to visit, there are lots of lodging opportunities from which to choose. Let’s take a look at these activities.

Take your pick: pheasant, Canada geese and deer. The good news is Dickinson County has lots of state ground on which to hunt, and when you include the adjoining areas of Emmet, Clay and Palo Alto, we are talking more than 20,000 acres of public hunting ground. The pheasant season runs from Saturday, October 27 through January 10, 2019. Many of these areas are at least 700 to 1,200 acres, and some exceed 3,000 acres, so you had better have a good pheasant dog! Although there is a lot of hunting pressure in the early season, by early to mid-December, the diehard pheasant hunters are the only ones around. It might take extra walking, but with a good hunting dog, you will definitely bag a ringneck or two.

One of the challenging hunting opportunities come mid-December and running through January 12, 2019 is the Canada goose late season. Usually the sloughs are frozen over and only the larger bodies of water remain open. These include East and West Okoboji and Big Spirit Lake in Dickinson County. These big waters can hold thousands of migrating Canadas. Most of the hunting will take place in harvested cornfields. Each morning and late afternoon flocks of geese will leave the water heading for the field. It takes scouting to find these fields and then to locate the landowner for permission to hunt. This takes a lot of work, which means only the most devoted waterfowlers go to this trouble. At the same time, some pass shooting does occur as the geese leave the water. However, it is important to know the boundaries and places to hunt.

As for deer hunting, the late muzzleloader season and the late split archery season both run from December 17 through January 10, 2019. Although deer are frequently associated with forested areas, they are very adaptable and will utilize many different types of habitat as long as the area provides adequate cover. Examples of these types of areas include brushy draws and fence lines, marshes, and grassy areas like those provided by the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Standing corn also provides ideal habitat for part of the year since it provides cover and food during portions of the growth cycle. Although around 1000 deer are harvested in the four-county area each year, the numbers are nothing like counties in the northeast and southcentral parts of the state.

By going to the Iowa DNR website, you can find the public hunting areas in this four-county area. You can also check with the Iowa DNR upland biologists at the Spirit Lake Hatchery at (712) 336-1840. If you don’t have a lot of time for all of the scouting, then you might consider contacting area hunting guides.

Ice fishing
The Iowa Great Lakes, including West Okoboji, East Okoboji, Minnewashta, Upper Gar and Big Spirit Lake, is known for its awesome ice fishing. There have been times when we have been on the ice by Thanksgiving, but the last 3-4 years, safe ice for foot traffic has often been into mid-December. It’s really a progression, with Upper Gar freezing over first, followed by Minnewashta, Big Spirit, East Okoboji and West Okoboji. Bays on Big Spirit, East and West Okoboji will freeze prior to the entire lakes. As for species, the choices are many: bluegills, crappies, yellow bass, perch, walleyes, northern pike and even bass.

Bluegills and perch are probably the most sought after species with the best bluegill locations being on the bays of West Okoboji (Millers, Emerson, North and Smiths) and Anglers Bay and the Grade on Big Spirit.

Perch are most prevalent on Big Spirit with the best bite taking place for schools that are wandering the main basin. A deep water bite (over 40’) takes place on West Okoboji, but anglers are warned that they must keep what they catch, because the perch will die.

Crappies can be found on Minnewashta, East, West and Big Spirit. On Minneswashta and on East, the bite will be a mix of bluegills, crappies and yellow bass. Look for crappies to be in the bays on West and also suspended off of points, while they can be found in Anglers Bay, Hales Slough and the Grade on Big Spirit.

Minnewashta and East Okoboji are known for their yellow bass populations, although the average size is larger on East Okoboji. They are wandering fish, so it’s either wait for the schools to come through or punch the holes and find the fish.

Walleye fishing can be good on East and West Okoboji and Big Spirit. However, Big Spirit is the most popular lake to fish. Early morning, late afternoon and night are prime walleye times. Try the rocky points, underwater bars and rock piles.

For many anglers, northern pike are the bonus fish, while they fish the bays for panfish. Put out a tip-up with a large minnow or chub and look for the flag!

Largemouth bass are prevalent in all of the bays. As I fish for panfish, I find the largemouth are wandering through and often take a liking for my tiny panfish baits, like Clam’s Dingle Drop jig tipped with plastic, silver wiggler or a wax worm. However, fishing with two-pound test makes landing the largemouth bass a challenge.

There are several excellent baitshops in the area: Stan’s Bait and Tackle in Milford, Oh Shucks on HWY 86 on the southeast side of West Okoboji and Kabele’s Trading Post on Hill Avenue on the north side of the town of Spirit Lake. All three provide fish cleaning and all three can offer both fishing suggestions and the ice conditions. Kabele’s does have lodging adjacent to the baitshop.

As with the hunting, hiring a guide for a day can set you up for the rest of your stay. I know the guides, and they all cater to their clients. Good contour or topo maps can help you pinpoint specific areas to target on each lake.

Dickinson County has over 100 miles of trails that crisscross the county. Groomed trails include ditches along primary and secondary roads, and portions of the bike trail. Trails are signed annually by the Dickinson County Snowhawks Club. You can go to their website and click on the link to download a printable trail map. The lakes are all great places to snowmobile. However, each winter there are accidents with snowmobiles breaking through thin ice areas. Stay away from bridges and moving water and be careful of ice heaves. It seems, especially on West Okoboji and Big Spirit that the ice is always changing and moving causing watery areas and new heaves. Again, local baitshops can fill you in about ice conditions.

Cross Country Skiing
Cross-country skiers and snowshoe enthusiasts can use the extensive trails and woodlands at the Dickinson County Nature Center. The multi-use Iowa Great Lakes Trail provides local citizens and visitors a safe place to snowshoe and cross-country ski. The trail winds along rural, community and nature areas in the heart of the Iowa Great Lakes Region, including Spirit Lake, Okoboji, West Okoboji, Arnolds Park, Milford and Lake Park. The “spine” of the system is a 14-mile trail. There are also groomed trails for cross-country skiing at Brooks Golf Course and Marble Lake.

Ice Skating
The lakes, themselves, offer ice skaters with lots of ice to skate on. However, wind during the freeze up making the ice rough and snowdrifts can cause skaters plenty of problems. The Boji Bay Ice Arena offers an indoor alternative. It is located north of the Bedell Family Y in Spirit Lake. There is open skating on Friday and Saturday nights from 7-9:30. The Lakes Area Hockey Association has its own website at