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Fishing at the Iowa Great Lakes: 'This lake is so full of fish, it's crazy'

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OKOBOJI, Iowa -- John Grosvenor spends about nine hours a day, seven days a week, leading fishing expeditions on the Iowa Great Lakes during the summer. He's done this for 21 summers. 

John Campbell, meanwhile, was about 2 years old, circa 1960, when he began fishing in the lakes in the summer. Campbell is also a fishing guide and, over a two-week period, he might spend one day not on the lake. He was inducted into the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame in 2019. 

Both men have a wealth of tips and strategies for a productive fishing trip to the Iowa Great Lakes, picked up over many a summer day spent in a boat. They both had nothing but good things to say about fishing in the Okoboji area. 

"You've got to think like a fish -- no, that's kind of cliché, isn't it?" said Grosvenor, 57, said during a phone call in early June. (He was leading a fishing group from Lincoln, Nebraska, on West Lake Okoboji as he spoke on the phone.) 

"You pretty much can just fish here and, there's always some situation that's going to work for you," said Campbell, 63, who was also leading a fishing group as he spoke. 

The many vagaries of fishing 

The Iowa Great Lakes are, besides to the Mississippi River in the east and the Missouri River to the west, the best-known bodies of water in the state. 

Despite this, or maybe because of this, some fishers shun the Lakes because of the heavy leisure-boat traffic, which can cause fishing boats to toss and rock from one side to the other uncomfortably. Smaller boats are particularly vulnerable to this phenomenon, and especially in the afternoons when the lakes are a madhouse of boaters. 

"This is kind of a hidden gem for open-water fishing, because there's so much boat traffic, pleasure-boating here, that the fishermen kind of avoid this lake," Grosvenor said, referring to West Lake Okoboji. "So, this lake, I believe, sees a lot more pressure in the wintertime with fishermen than it does in the summer." 

"If you're going to fish East or West Okoboji, you probably want to fish earlier in the day, because the pleasure boats don't tend to really get going until about noon," Campbell said. "The other lakes don't have quite the boat traffic, and so you could really fish those all day long." 

During the weekends, Campbell often heads to Spirit Lake, where the pleasure-boat traffic isn't as extreme. 

What catches best?

In the matter of bait, Grosvenor says to "keep it simple." 

"I just use worms mainly," he said. "This lake is so full of fish, it's crazy. And if you're not catching them, something's wrong. Maybe your bait's too big, your hook's too big, or maybe you're just not in the right spot. Keep moving -- there's really not much of an excuse not to catch fish here, just because there's an abundance of them." 

Campbell's go-to is crawler harnesses (also known as spinners), which are especially attractive to walleye. This familiar bit of tackle has a teardrop-shaped blade, usually painted a dazzling color or a with planished-brass appearance, with some colorful beads and a hook to put live bait. 

"Crawler harnesses are a good general-purpose-bait up here," he said. "They catch the walleye, plus about everything else in the lake. So it's a pretty versatile bait." 

Filling the lakes

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources stocks walleyes, pike and muskies in the Iowa Great Lakes -- to relieve the downward pressure on the fish populations caused by all the fishing -- but many of the fish in the lakes were born and raised there without the hand of man. 

"The other fish are able to naturally reproduce at a level that they don't really need the help," Campbell said. 

Grosvenor said an angler could catch "six or seven different species" in only four hours.

Popular fish species at the Iowa Great Lakes include bluegills, black crappie, largemouth bass and smallmouth bass, walleye, yellow perch, muskellunge (muskie), white bass and yellow bass, channel catfish and northern pike, according to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. Sheephead (freshwater drum) and carp are also present, but those species are less beloved. 

"I've seen a lot of different bodies of water, rivers and that -- I would say that the Iowa Great Lakes is in the top couple lakes for multi-species fishing," said Campbell, who is especially fond of walleye. "In other words, there might be a better walleye lake somewhere or a better muskie lake somewhere, but it's very rare to find all the different species that are all fairly accessible to catch." 

Certain species can be, at times, a bit more elusive than others -- Campbell said he likes to go after walleye because, "I enjoy the challenge." 

"There's times of the year when (walleye are) easier to catch, and then there's times of the year where it's much more of a challenge," he said. 

Whether the fish choose to bite or not is influenced by a variety of factors beyond human control, including the weather (fish bite more in stable, calm weather than in unsettled weather), the water temperature, even the cycle of the moon. 

"If the wind changes direction, that can kind of screw up the fishing, or if the clouds come in if it's been sunny for several days, that can screw up the fishing," Grosvenor said. "Sometimes in the spring especially, when it gets real cold at night and then it warms up into the 70s in the afternoon, that early morning, the first couple hours can be kind of tough because it got cold overnight and cooled the water down. Fish like it when it's a little bit warmer." 

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