BY BEN LEAL
Ask any number of fresh water anglers what one of the most sought after fish for table fare is and you’ll get a resounding response, “walleye”. Sure, crappie and bluegill will come up in that conversation as well, but walleye by far will always be in that list. The common name, “walleye”, comes from the fact that their eyes, like those of lions, reflect white light. This “eyeshine” is the result of a light-gathering layer in the eyes called the HYPERLINK “http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tapetum_lucidum” \o “Tapetum lucidum”tapetum lucidum, which allows the fish to see well in low-light conditions. Just what you wanted right? A lesson in fish biology…ahh, it gets better. This “eyeshine” allows walleye to see its prey in rather adverse water conditions and most times can be caught when other fish are not as willing to bite. Walleye anglers also know that the ability to see in low light means fishing can extend well into the night.
Iowa harbors some really fantastic walleye fishing destinations. Lakes and rivers alike hold these great game fish. The State record was actually caught in the Des Moines River, in Polk County, September of 1986. This great specimen was caught by Gloria Eoriatti, from Ankeny Iowa and weighed 14 pounds, 8 ounces. Many walleye anglers think the time to hit the waters is during the spring and early summer months, and they would be right. However some of the best walleye fishing is still ahead of us. Check out the Top 5 walleye lakes I listed for a fall fishing excursion to put some eyes in the boat.
SPIRIT LAKE & WEST OKOBOJI LAKE
In the Northeast part of the state the Iowa Great Lakes or IGL’s as they are commonly known, boasts some of the best destinations to chase after walleye.
Chief among these great lakes and one of the top in the State for walleye is Spirit Lake located in Dickinson County one mile north of the town of Spirit Lake. “Fishing for walleye during the spring opener on Spirit Lake can be great fun”, said Kevan Paul of Kevan Paul’s Guide Service. “This is a time for great quality fish, but in all reality great fishing can be experienced in the summer months, and especially the fall months”.
This lake covers a total of 5,684 surface acres and has a maximum depth of 24 feet. The walleye season on Spirit Lake is open from the beginning of May to the following February of each year. Specific start and end dates are published in the annual Iowa Department of Natural Resources Iowa Fishing Regulations prospectus. Also note that there are special restrictions on daily bag limits as well as a slot limit for walleye. Trolling crawler harnesses and crank baits work well in Spirit Lake during the summer and fall. Casting jigs tipped with a leech or minnow into the shallows during the spring spawn will produce positive result, so keep that in mind when you make plans next spring to visit this walleye hot spot.
Dickinson County is also home to West Okoboji Lake totaling 3,847 surface acres and a maximum depth of 134 feet where walleye are in abundance. “This lake is a lot of fun in throughout the entire open water season”, continued Paul, “not only are numbers caught but you can catch some quality big fish here. Fishing at night during the spawn will certainly yield numbers; you’ll catch all the males you want.” West Okoboji Lake also carries the same restrictions and slot limit that Spirit Lake does.
One of the main reasons these walleye fisheries remain so viable is due to the efforts of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Management Team. “We had a great gillnetting season in 2014”, said Iowa Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Research Biologist Jonathan Meerbeek. “Both Spirit Lake and Okoboji lakes walleye catch rates were great. More specifically, the Okoboji’s abundance and size structure of adult walleyes was impressive.” This year the Spirit Lake fish hatchery met its egg quota and many lakes across Iowa were stocked with fry.
These two bodies of water also have a slot limit. All walleye between 17 and 22 inches must be returned to the water immediately and only one fish over 22 inches may be harvested. “The Spirit Lake fishery has had its ups and downs”, continued Meerbeek. “This is entirely common in shallow productive lakes, especially for fish in the Percid family (walleye and perch).” Right now walleye fishing in Spirit Lake is still good to excellent, but anglers will be throwing back more slot fish than putting fish in the livewell. “For walleye harvest to improve, we need a substantial yellow perch year class which all depends on Mother Nature.”
Meerbeek also noted that for the Okoboji’s they have not seen a drastic change in walleye abundance or size structure. The Okoboji’s are much more diverse and the food options are a little broader. Angling success has been relatively steady in that system over the past few years.
Located in Cerro Gordo County this lake totals 3,684 acres and has a maximum depth of 19 feet. “This is a great lake for fall fishing, especially for those that are looking for table fare”, said Paul. “Clear Lake has been great this year! We’ve been dragging a small jig and a leech and doing rather well on that combination.” There is a 14 inch minimum and no more than one walleye longer than 22 inches may be taken per day. Daily bag limits at Clear Lake are a limit of 3 and possession limit of 6.
Clear Lake underwent a dredging project that began in the summer of 2008 and was completed by the fall of 2009. Another vital part of the Clear Lake restoration plan is improving Ventura Marsh. The primary feature of the project is a pumping station that allows for water level control of the marsh to increase vegetation and reduce carp populations. “Clear Lake is on a great rebound”, noted Paul. “With the dredging project that took place several years ago, the water clarity is much better and the fishery has really improved its walleye and Muskie populations.” To read more about the Clear Lake restoration check out Tim Ackarman’s article in this issue.
This lake can be considered a year round lake for taking walleye. “Drifting or dragging a 1/16 to 1/8 ounce jig tipped with your choice of crawler, leech or minnow will put fish in the boat most of the year”, continued the guide. “Crank baits or worm harnesses are best during the heat of the summer and well into the fall.”
Located in Buena Vista County, Storm Lake covers 3,097 acres and has a max depth of 20 feet. This lake also carries the same restrictions as Clear Lake. Storm Lake by far is one of the more popular walleye lakes for shore anglers and those that enjoy wading.
Some of the more popular spots are at Casino Bay, where you can walk down to the inlet and wade out toward the island. Stony Point can be very good as well. Both the inlet on the east side of the lake and on the west where Little Storm Lake comes in can be good. There is a campground on the east side of the lake that has a shallow sandy bay that is very popular with local anglers. Up in the city park on the north side of the lake there is a rock jetty that comes out where you can access the lake. Just west of the city park in College there is an area where there’s an island straight out from shore. To the west it drops of rather quickly but fairly shallow towards the island. Excellent fishing for both boaters and shore anglers alike!
One thing to note for Storm Lake is the continuing dredging project. The current project is operational from April to November annually and includes the operation of a main dredge boat, booster pump, and a silt containment site that returns clear water back to the lake. It is important that boaters remain aware of the dredge operation and remain at least 100 feet away from the dredge, booster pump and dredge piping at all times.
BRUSHY CREEK LAKE
Farther south yet still considered Northeast Iowa, Brushy Creek Lake is a hidden gem among walleye lakes in Iowa. This lake is located in Webster County approximately 5 miles east of Lehigh. Brushy Creek Lake covers 690 acres and has a maximum depth of 75 feet. “Brushy Creek definitely has some really nice walleye in there”, said Iowa Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Biologist Ben Wallace. “Some of the anglers that were out targeting walleye during the spring did rather well, and that success can be expected throughout the fall.”
This year the Iowa DNR did some gillnet surveying for the first time at Brushy Creek. “Our average length for male walleye was 21.7 inches and our average length for was 22.9 inches for female,” said Wallace. “Our largest was 27.3 inches.” There were only 39 fish that were sampled and three out of four nets were used to do the survey. This was a first attempt and had to be coordinated with the gillnet surveys that were taking place at West Okoboji and Storm Lake. “Based on our first try, we know more and will be prepared to conduct surveys next year”, said Wallace. “We’ll use more nets and shorter nets due to the fact that the shoreline drops off so quickly in Brushy Creek.”
Some of the areas to target for spring walleye are along the dam working shallow out to the deeper areas of the lake and also points along the lake that have deeper water off their edges. Along the swim beach where the water is shallow and tapers off gradually is also a good fishing area. Rocky areas that have fish holding features are a good place to target as well. As the weather warms and the weedlines start appearing target outside those weedlines with jigs tipped with a minnow or leech. “Some folks do great using a leech and slip bobber along the edges of the vegetation”, continued the biologist.
Brushy Creek Lake is made for walleye anglers that enjoy chasing after these fish with a jig or crankbait. The lake is full of habitat and not very friendly for those that enjoy trolling. Jigs, jigs tipped with minnows or leeches and baits you can cast and control depth are your best bet.
For anglers in the Southeast part of Iowa Lake Rathbun provides one of the top walleye angling destinations in the State. This reservoir is the second largest lake in Iowa covering 11,000 acres with a maximum dept of 50 ft. “Lake Rathbun is doing well and we have a great 2010 year class of walleye coming on,” said Iowa Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Biologist Mark Flammang. “Our spawning season of 2013 was very good; we have some very large fish in the lake.”
The Lake Rathbun fish hatchery stocks 33 million walleye fry and 80,000 advanced fingerlings that are about 8 to 10 inches in length. Those are stocked every fall. The fry carry the lake throughout the coming years. However when the fry don’t do very well the advanced fingerlings help maintain a good walleye fishery. “Reports have been coming in from anglers this year and walleye fishing has been very good,” continued Flammang.
The fishery doesn’t have a size limit on walleye and according to Flammang there’s no biological reason to do so at this time. “Most anglers are limiting their harvest to 15 inches,” noted the biologist. “We have a large group of 16 to 20 inch fish that are coming up in the fishery which will keep us going here for the next several years”. For more information on fishing at Lake Rathbun, contact the Rathbun Fish Hatchery at 641-647-2406.
A COUPLE MORE OPTOINS
We’ve listed some of the top spots in Iowa for fishing for walleye. There are several other lakes and rivers as well that offer some great opportunities to pursue these fish.
The Mississippi River is a great walleye fishery. Bordering the Eastern part of the state there are several areas along the river that are reported each week in the Iowa Department of Natural Resources Fishing Report. The Mississippi River Pool 11 at Guttenberg is a very popular destination for not only walleye but sauger as well. Before heading out to fish in the river make sure you check local river levels and any warning or cautions for boaters. At the time of this writing the water levels were quite high and warnings for floating debris were issued, boating was not recommended. Be smart… be safe.
For Central Iowa anglers, Big Creek Lake is a rising walleye fishery. Iowa Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Biologist Ben Dodd has been working very closely with this fishery. “In the coming years, this lake will definitely be an up and comer”, said Dodd. “We have a great number of fish that are being caught but that are just below that legal limit. Those fish will reach the 15 inch minimum length limit by this fall or next spring.” Dodd also noted that the ice fishing season this winter could see some of those sublegal fish come in.
This spring and early summer I spent quite a number of days out on the lake targeting walleye. Though many of the fish that were caught during those trips were less than 15 inches, several had freeze brands on them. “The vertical bars, or what looks like an 11 are from the 2012 stocking, and the 0 or O are from 2013. These freeze brands just let us know what year class they came from, especially during the gillnet surveys,” continued the biologist. “It’s also been a great public relations tool for us as well. Anglers are catching these branded fish and calling in asking for information. So they get updated on the walleye project and that info is passed on through social media and forums.”
“We’re very optimistic about the project at Big Creek. The subsequent data and information will help us improve other impoundments throughout Iowa,” said Dodd. There are some very good walleye in Big Creek, noted by an 8.9lb fish caught during the gillnet surveys this spring. During a recent outing I caught and released a 24 inch walleye. By far Big Creek is moving up as a walleye fishery.
PRACTICE CPR/SELECTIVE HARVEST
Fishing in the State of Iowa is a privilege and it’s every angler’s responsibility to help the efforts of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources as they continue to work at improving fisheries across the State. Follow the size limits and slots limits imposed by the Iowa DNR and practice CPR, (Catch, Photo, and Release). This ensures that the brood stock is maintained and you still have a record of your catch. If it’s a trophy fish, consider a replica mount. These replicas will last a life time versus real mounts that may last up to 15 years. Limit your catch, don’t catch your limit. Preserve and pass on this great resource we have here in Iowa.