An oasis on the plains: year-round fishing on Iowa’s great lake
September 12, 2023
When most Midwesterners hear the word “Great Lakes,” they think of Huron, Erie, or Michigan. When Iowans hear those words, they think of Spirit, West Okoboji, Minnewachata, and Upper and Lower GAR. Iowa’s so-called “Great Lakes,” Spirit Lake and its five interconnected sister waters, provide an absolute treasure trove of year-round outdoor recreational opportunities. In the winter, ice fishing is incredibly popular, as intrepid, warmly dressed anglers descend on lakes from all over the Midwest in search of walleye, northern pike and other species. Come summer, the lakes come alive with recreational boaters, water skiers, and personal watercraft enthusiasts.
Despite the increase in non-fishing boat traffic, there are still plenty of fishing opportunities. In fact, as the Hawkeye State warms up in mid- to late summer, so does fishing. And with six waters to choose from, you can find room to elbow somewhere with excellent action.
Some anglers tend to prefer one body of water over another. Local fishing guide John Grosvenor certainly has a point.
“(West Okoboji) is probably one of the most diverse fisheries you’ll ever see,” Grosvenor says without hesitation. “And it’s not hard to catch fish. It’s a well-kept secret here in the upper Midwest because it’s in Iowa. People think of the 10,000 lakes north of us in Minnesota when they think of fishing, and Iowa doesn’t.” It doesn’t come to the mind of a lot of people. People when they think of a fishing destination.”
Now, in his 23rd year of mentoring, Grosvenor has had plenty of time to form his opinions. He has always found West Okoboji to be his favorite in the series, mainly because it is a very deep, clear lake with a lot of underwater structures. However, all of Iowa’s great lakes offer something for anglers to enjoy in late summer.
West Okoboji Gills
As with other Great Lakes of Iowa, the West Okoboji area is by no means a one-trick pony when it comes to species diversity. Grosvenor says it’s not uncommon for his clients to catch seven different species during a single four-hour trip on this lake, especially when fishing live bait under jellyfish. Targets include largemouth and smallmouth bass, walleye, pike, musky, freshwater drum, three different species of sunfish (bluegills, green sunfish, and pumpkinseed), crappie, yellow perch, and yellow bass.
“The yellow bass is an invasive species that has been in West Okoboji for about a decade. Everyone thought they were going to be the end of the fishery when they got here, but it’s gotten better. They thought they were going to be gone,” the guide says. “It’s a good eating fish, and it’s a lot of fun to catch.”
However, bluegills receive the lion’s share of Grosvenor’s attention during the late summer months. And these aren’t the bluegills in farm ponds either. “Our bluegills right now are unparalleled,” he says. “I’ve been doing this a long time, and this is the best crop of bluegills I can ever remember.”
He points out that the lake’s size standard is a 10-inch solid fish. He estimates he caught 20 of them in 2022, plus three 11-inch bluegills, which matches the number of 11-inch bluegills he caught in the previous two decades.
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According to the guide, catching good bluegills in West Okoboji isn’t exactly rocket science. He points out that modern electronics make finding schools of fish – even the deep-water August fish – much less difficult than it would have been in the past. Although West Okoboji (the deepest natural lake in Iowa) has a maximum depth of about 140 feet and an average of 38 feet, you’ll need to target water in the 15 to 20 foot range.
Grosvenor suggests rigging the inline egg sinker, circling under a sliding chute, and ending the presentation with a red worm, although he says waxworms or mealworms work well, too. While all of this is fairly standard for a bluegill rig, the leader he uses — 10- to 15-pound fluorocarbon — is anything but.
“I have people saying, ‘What? How can you do that?!'” the guide says. “The fish don’t care in the summer; they’re not picky. We catch a lot of other fish while we’re fishing these, and I hate to see that look on someone’s face when they lose a big fish to a cut line.”
Spirit Lake Mixed Bag
With an average depth of 16 feet and a surface area of about 5,600 acres, Big Spirit Lake (not to be confused with Little Spirit Lake to the northwest) is located north and east of West Okoboji. Like both West and East Okoboji, it also offers a range of species, although the most notable are walleye and yellow perch. However, due to the Hawkeye State’s typical hot and humid weather in the summer and high water temperatures, Spirit’s walleye are not easy to catch this time of year.
“Walleyes on Spirit are very difficult to catch in August,” Grosvenor admits. “It has a pretty good walleye population, but it’s kind of like any other lake in the Midwest, where the walleye get pretty tough in the warm water in late summer.”
Coincidentally, now many anglers are switching gears, focusing on the smaller, albeit just like its fine-eating cousin, the yellow perch. Grosvenor says Spirit Lake is popular for its yellow perch fishery but says residents are cyclical.
“(A few) years ago, we had an amazing class that was 9 to 12 inches tall,” he says. “Now we have an amazing 7- to 8-inch annual class. After another couple of years, we should have a lot of keepers, but you can still find some nice 9- to 12-inch keepers.”
The guide adds that fishermen still need to work for themselves, and that the daily limit of two perch (50 fish) is now rare. Speaking of limits, the daily walleye limit on all of Iowa’s great lakes is currently three fish, with a possession limit of six fish. Also, the lakes have a “must release” slot limit of 19 to 25 inches, and only one walleye longer than 25 inches is allowed each day.
Boaters can find launching facilities on all four sides of the Spirit. However, Grosvenor prefers to use the slope at Templer Park in the southwest corner, which is protected from the wind.
The “small” Great Lakes.
Small compared to East and West Okoboji and Spirit, the Upper Gar (36 acres) and Lower Gar (251 acres) cater to panfish enthusiasts. Both hold good numbers of black and white crappie, bluegill, and yellow bass, along with bullheads and channel cats.
Minnewashta lies between the Gar Lakes geographically and in size (118 surface acres), but is slightly deeper than both, with a maximum depth of 15 feet compared to 7 feet for Lower Gar and 8 feet for Upper Gar. Like its larger sisters, the Minnewashta supports good numbers of predators (walleye, pike, largemouth and smallmouth) and prey (various sunfish, yellow perch, yellow bass and crappie).
Know before you go
- Planning a trip to the Great Lakes region of Iowa
One of the great things about the entire Iowa Great Lakes region is the almost endless list of things to do. This includes fishing, of course, but there are also plenty of lodging, dining, and entertainment options. If you’re thinking of venturing to this gorgeous part of the Hoke State, first check out Vacation Okoboji (vacationokoboji.com), a comprehensive guide to anything you might want to see or do. Here, visitors can find an in-depth history of Iowa’s Great Lakes region and a comprehensive list of lodging options that includes everything from primitive camping in many state parks to more modern accommodations in many resorts, cottages, and cabins.
starving? Head to Betsy’s Diner (Spirit Lake) and step back into the 1950s with a good old burger, fries, and a chocolate shake. Vacation Okoboji lists eight guide services to choose from, including well-reviewed JTG Expeditions from Grosvenor (712-330-5815; fishokoboji.com).
Do you need tackle and bait? Kabele’s Trading Post & Lodge (712-336-1512; kabeles.com) has been serving anglers in the Spirit Lake area since 1968. Today it features an inventory that rivals any other sporting goods store on the planet. If Thane and Tanya Johnson don’t have this feature, you probably don’t need it.
And don’t forget to check out the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (iowadnr.gov), the state’s resource for everything outdoors, including licenses, hunting regulations, hunting reports, and a series of great “Where to Hunt” maps covering, among other things, all Great Lakes Region of Iowa.
- This article appeared in the August 2023 Midwest edition of Game & Fish magazine. Click to subscribe.
(tags for translation) MD Johnson