Yellow Bass: Iowans Hate to love Panfish

By Rod Woten

Iowa has a love-hate relationship with the yellow bass. On one hand they’re plentiful, fun to catch and make delicious table fare. On the other hand, in many instances, they’re an invasive species and out-compete other panfish like crappies and bluegills…even largemouth bass. They are prolific breeders so they can overwhelm smaller bodies of water in a short span of time. They truly are the fish we hate to love.

Invasive Species
While Yellow Bass are native to the state, they are typically invasive in the places that many anglers catch them today. The “home waters” for this feisty little fish is the Mississippi River and some of Iowa’s larger interior rivers like the Des Moines River. Turn-of-the-century stocking introduced these fish to Clear Lake. However, by now these fish have become such a part of the Clear Lake fishery that many people don’t even realize they’re not native to Clear Lake.

Fortunately, Clear Lake has a few qualities that allow the yellow bass to live there in relative balance with the rest of the eco-system. Two of the most significant qualities are the physical size of Clear Lake and the abundance of highly predatory species like walleye, catfish, white bass and Muskie. Clear Lake is just big enough that yellow bass would have a hard time overpopulating its waters. Are there plenty of yellows in Clear Lake? You bet there is! But thanks to the enormous volume of water in that lake and the lakes hungry predators foraging heavily on them, the yellow bass has found a sustainable place in that particular fishery. East Okoboji Lake, like Clear Lake, also has a healthy yellow bass population. It’s no coincidence then that East Okoboji also has a couple of the same qualities as Clear Lake, abundant room and heavy predation.

It is when these fish are introduced, by whatever means, into smaller bodies of water with much less predation that things can go awry. We’ve seen it too many times before in some of the smaller fertile lakes in southwestern Iowa. Three Mile Lake, Twelve Mile Lake, Lake Anita, Otter Creek Lake, Lake Cornelia….these are just a few of the lakes where the introduction of yellow bass has adversely affected the fishery. Many times, the only effective solution is to draw down the lake, kill off all the fish in it, and start from scratch with re-stocking.

Target For Harvest
Many of the things that make the yellow bass such an ecological nightmare for most lakes, are also what makes them so popular to catch and also a great species to target if you want to take home a bucket full of fish for the freezer. Yellow bass travel in large schools and the larger the school, the more ravenous their appetites. The key for the ice angler is to stay on the move, continually drilling fresh holes until eventually landing on top of one of these schools. Once a school is located, it can be non-stop action. On lakes like Clear Lake, when the bite is really on, 100 fish days are not out of the ordinary. The other thing that makes yellow bass ideal for harvest is that they are delicious on the table. I liken the fillet to that of a crappie with a nice flaky texture, and since there is no limit on them in the state you can put as many yellow bass in your freezer as you are willing to fillet. Many people confuse the yellow bass with their cousin the white bass and mistakenly think the fillets are less than desirable because of it. The “blood line” in the fillet of a white bass that gives it its strong taste is non-existent in the yellow bass, so yellow bass fillets taste much better in almost anyone’s book.

Technique and Tackle
I like to fish for yellows like I do perch. Both species act similarly in that they roam the large expanses of water that make up the main body of the lake in schools searching for forage. This means I drill lots of holes over the basin and flat areas of the lake and quickly move from hole to hole, looking for a high concentration of yellow bass below. Don’t get caught in the trap of sitting in one hole hoping to draw a school of fish to you. I only give any hole a couple of minutes before I move to another looking for that hot hole. It’s also important to resist the temptation to stay in a hole where you’re seeing one or two fish at a time. Because these fish aren’t subject to the competition for food that occurs in a school, you will often have to tease and coerce these fish into biting. If I set up on a hole where that is the case, it’s hard for me to leave those fish, but I know if I can find an active school of fish, they will bite as fast as I can get my lure down to them. Yellows can also be like perch in that if you don’t keep their attention, the school will quickly move on. This means you always want to keep something down there when you’re on top of a school. If you’re fishing with a buddy, have them come over and drop down your hole anytime you don’t have your lure down there…whether it be to re-tie, re-bait or unhook a fish. Eventually that school will probably move on, but if you can keep their interest, odds are that they will stick around much longer.

Yellow bass can be caught on almost any of the same tackle that crappies, bluegills or perch can be caught on. Obviously you want to match the size and profile of your lure to the mood of the fish, but one of my favorite lures for yellow bass regardless of their mood is a small jigging spoon with a dropper chain. A spoon puts out more flash and vibration than a jig and I feel this helps steer schools that may be in the area in my direction. A spoon is also heavy enough that I can repeatedly lift and drop into the bottom. This creates additional vibration and sends up little clouds of silt that imitate emerging aquatic insects that yellows love to eat. This tactic is especially effective if the school that I’m sitting on top of starts to move away. Pounding the bottom like this will often stop them in their tracks and turn them around for a second look.

I use live bait and plastics about equally when fishing for yellow bass. There are definitely days when they show a preference for live bait. My live bait of choice is maggots or Eurolarvae, because they seem to be just a slight bit tougher that wax worms and seem to stay on the hook just a little better. Regardless of whether you use plastics or live bait, you will be re-baiting often. Yellows are notoriously hard on bait. If they’re not ripping it up when they’re on the hook, they’re plucking it off the hook while they’re inspecting it. I have experimented with some of the pork rind baits on the market, but haven’t had much success selling it as a real bug to the fish. One trick that many seasoned yellow bass fisherman use to combat this is to remove a small strip of belly meat from one of the first yellows they catch and thread it on their jig much as they would a maggot or plastic tail. This belly meat is very tough, and can usually last through many fish.

Where to catch’em
Without a doubt, the number one lake for yellow bass in the state is Clear Lake. Clear Lake consistently pumps out thousands of yellow bass to ice anglers every winter. I’m especially excited about this coming hardwater season on Clear Lake because it appears the average size is up considerably over previous years. The Iowa Great Lakes, specifically East Okoboji, rank a close second to Clear Lake. While East Okoboji is the focus for yellow bass fishing at the IGL’s, don’t overlook nearby Minnewashta. I’ve seen numerous Master Angler-class yellow bass come from that body of water as well. I’ve also been impressed with both the quality and quantity of yellow Bass that Otter Creek near Tama gives up every winter. Even though yellow bass are having a very negative effect on the fishery of Three Mile Lake near Creston, if you live in that corner of the state, it would be a great opportunity to fill your freezers with some delicious fillets. While the yellows in Three Mile are not nearly as big as Clear Lake or East Okoboji yellows, a five-gallon bucketful will still yield a mess of fillets, and you definitely won’t be hurting the fishery any by taking as many of those yellows home as you can manage….that would be more like doing the lake a favor.

Too Good to Pass Up
If you live in Iowa and love to ice fish, you really owe it to yourself to go after some yellow bass. They are plentiful and feed readily when you get on top of a school. They are also delicious and are a great option for filling your freezer since there is no limit on them in Iowa. The icing on the cake is that they ARE an invasive species, so taking them out of any given fishery will only help improve that fishery. With all those positives and really no negatives, how could you overlook this delicious panfish?