Winter Panfish Preview on the Iowa Great Lakes

By Steve Weisman

With the entire open water panfishing so outstanding on the Iowa Great Lakes, ice fishermen can hardly wait to see what the hard water season will bring. Big Spirit, East Okoboji, Upper Gar, Minnewashta and West Okoboji consistently produced excellent panfishing action all summer. From perch, to yellow bass to crappies and bluegills…it was awesome. Let’s take a look at each lake for an ice fishing preview.

Before we start, however, a word of caution…be careful of the ice conditions. Not all ice is “created equal,” and it is always wise to use common sense and caution. Every year spots open up on Big Spirit, East Okoboji and West Okoboji. Whether it is current or waterfowl or whatever…be careful!

Big Spirit
The perch are back. Lots of 8-11 inch fish. It began near the end of June and although there were lulls, anglers continued to catch nice perch through the fall. So what took so long? Well, as DNR Fisheries Biologist Mike Hawkins keeps reminding me, “They are a cyclic fish with a lifespan in our area of about six years. For that reason, there will be that phenomenal year of fishing followed by a decline.”

It had been four years since our last good perch fishing, and anglers were getting pretty worried. Hawkins kept assuring me that a big year class was in the system and working its way to adulthood. He was right, and yes they are back.

Most of the action this summer has been out in the basin, anywhere from 18-20 ft. of water. There have been meandering schools that will be there milling around and then be gone, only to come back a while later. Then every once in a while, they will stay. That’s when the action becomes non-stop, and you can do no wrong.

This winter they will be out in the basin, but a lot of fishermen will try Anglers Bay and Hales Slough as soon as the ice gets thick enough. They are usually just off the weedbeds out into the sand. Tiny ice jigs tipped with plastic, silver wigglers or wax worms will work well in the shallower water, while smaller Puppet Minnow, Kastmaster and Shuck’s Jigger Minnow become go-to lures in the basin. I think Clam’s new Rattlin’ Blade Spoon could be a hot bait.

At the same time, I have found the Clam Tungsten Drop Series to work very well. The tungsten allows the jig to get to the bottom more quickly, yet it fishes tiny. That allows you to better control the presentation. So even the 1/64-ounce jig will get to the bottom. Last winter I caught a lot of perch on other lakes with the Drop jig. Even though it is small, it shows up well on my Vexilar flasher.

One thing about the basin perch on Big Spirit. You have two choices: sit and wait for the school or be mobile and search for them. If they have been biting in an area, you at least have a starting point. I will also use spots I have marked in the fall as locations to begin. Any kind of subtle bottom changes like sand to muck or just off deep rocks are other starting points. As the winter goes, the perch will for sure be out in the muck gorging on bloodworms.

East Okoboji
This lake is chuck full of yellow bass and also has a good perch population. This past summer yellow bass could be found all over the lake. All it took was watching for a school of fish on the locator, drop the anchor and fish. Bingo: schools of hungry yellow bass. Of course, I marked those special spots where the yellow bass consistently ran from 9-11 inches in length. My wife even caught one pushing 13 inches! They put up quite a fight and if you trim the red strip off the back of the fillet, they taste pretty good.

For years there has been very little ice fishing done on East Okoboji. Sure, there was a little bit off of Parks Marina for walleyes, but that was about it. Then came late last winter. The last month of the season the west half of East Okoboji was dotted with towns of portable shelters. Most of the fish taken were yellow bass, but there were days where lots of perch and crappies were taken. Once again, the same lures and baits can be used for these panfish. I suspect that we will see anglers out there as soon as the ice is safe.

Upper Gar
This is a tiny lake, and it usually freezes up pretty early. Just be careful of the bridge at the north end. There always seems to be a current and open water. It’s a shallow lake, and early ice usually produces nice bluegills and crappies. However, it’s an early and late day bite and often only lasts a couple of weeks. After that, it becomes hit and miss.

Located south of Upper Gar, Minnewashta is known for its panfish: yellow bass, perch, bluegill and crappies. The water is stained, so you have to use a flasher if you want to “watch” what is below the ice! I really think you can go anywhere on the lake and find yellow bass. However, they don’t on average run as consistent in size as those on East Okoboji so there is more sorting.
With Minnewashta, you never know what you will catch. Most likely you will end up with all four. Plus, every once in a while, a walleye will be taken. When schools come through, the flasher screen will light up!

West Okoboji
This lake is “THE” sight fishing lake. Last winter I caught fish in 16-25 feet of water, and for most of the winter I could see the bottom in 18 feet, along with the jig and any fish that came through. However, that gets hard on the back, so I would often save my back by using my Vexilar or my Scout underwater camera.

This lake is known for its bluegills with anglers coming from all across the Midwest to try to sight fish these finicky sight feeders. Yet that is the challenge. There is a true sense of satisfaction, when you get a 9-inch bluegill to commit and take the bait!

Any of the bays (Emerson, Little Emerson, Millers, Little Millers, Smiths, North, Haywards) can be good for panfish. However, each year it is just a little bit different, and one bay becomes hotter than another one does. Key for the bluegills is finding a good weedbed with standing weeds and pathways for the fish to come and go. If there is no snow on the ice, the shallow bite becomes very, very difficult with the bluegills tucking themselves back in the weeds during sunny days. Then the bite becomes this: before the sun hits the tree line and after the sun hits the tree line. That is why I often hope for a good cloudy day!

Although we are targeting bluegills, at times 10-12 inch crappies and perch will come through. Nothing more exciting than when a 12-inch crappie opens its big mouth and inhales the jig!

For the most part, however, the perch will be caught out deeper on the sand. It might be 16, 20, 25, 30…60 feet of water. Last winter I had a month of good perch fishing in 20-25 feet of water. My best bait was the 1/32-ounce Clam Dingle Drop tipped with silver wigglers. That little ball and chain seemed to really trigger the bite.

Every year there is also a bite out in the 35-60 feet of water. However, unless I plan on keeping everything I catch, I don’t fish these depths. The pressure is so different that the perch can’t handle it and their swim bladder comes up. They are dead. Last year I witnessed what some anglers had done with the little 5-7 inch perch. They threw them on the ice and covered them up with slush or snow. Definitely not the way to handle the resource! Plus, you never know when a slot walleye might take a bait. Now that is really sad!

A final thought
Things look promising for this winter on the Iowa Great Lakes. At the same time, there are many other lakes within 40 miles that are also good ice fishing options: Silver Lake (Lake Park), Silver Lake (Ayrshire), Lost Island, Five Island and Storm Lake. I can hardly wait.
One final thought. Don’t forget to take a youngster along. They are our fishing and hunting future!