September 27, 2023
From the Dakotas through Minnesota, Wisconsin into Michigan, the Upper Midwest is riddled with great multi-species fishing destinations. Many of these lakes have decades upon decades of history within the same families and friend(s) networks, many who visit every extended weekend and holiday possible. Waters like Lake of the Woods, Lake Winnibigoshish (aka “Winnie”), Leech Lake, Devils Lake, South Dakota’s Glacial Lakes, Lake Winnebago, the Chippewa Flowage, and fish-filled bays around the Great Lakes come to mind.
But Iowa? Not so much.
In fact, hordes of Iowan outdoors-folk head north, northwest, and northeast every chance they get to fish, perhaps not fully utilizing what they have in their own backyard. In fact, that’s part of the reason I chose Iowa’s Rathbun Reservoir as a Labor Day fishing destination. While interstate 35W was clogged bumper-to-bumper as far as three hours south of Minneapolis/St. Paul with northbound vacationers headed to classic Minnesota walleye waters, I was southbound free-wheeling, with the exception of an occasional passing semi-truck, pretty much alone in my lane, towing my double-duty fish/hunt Lund Alaskan 2000, a boat that does not get winterized and gets wet all winter long on any open-water I can find.
But back to Iowa. I’ll admit it: I’m a big fan of the Hawkeye State.
For starters, Iowa offers excellent trout fishing in its northeastern corner—and on the opposite end of the state, Big Spirit Lake and East/West Okoboji provide some good multi-species fishing opportunities, too. And, anywhere you can access the Mississippi River on the eastern edge of the state can provide lots of action.
But what’s intrigued me for years is located in south-central Iowa near the Missouri border, about an hour southeast of Des Moines, the final destination found through some twisting and hilly two-lane blacktop.
Called Rathbun Reservoir, it’s a 12,000-acre impoundment of the Des Moines River in Appanoose County that is actively managed for a variety of gamefish species, one of which is hard-to-find in this part of the country—wipers, a cross between scrappy white bass and the significantly larger striped bass.
So, that was my intent during a recent visit to Rathbun Reservoir over Labor Day, 2023—namely, to catch one (or more) large wipers, something us Minnesota boys aren’t typically within range of.
Worth a 5-hour drive? I hope so. After all, I could have driven to Devils Lake, North Dakota—probably my favorite fishery within a half day’s drive of home. While Devils has ridiculous walleye fishing—and some of the biggest white bass in the nation—they do not have wipers. At least yet. Who knows? North Dakota Fisheries tried introducing the European equivalent of the walleye (called zander) to a couple North Dakota waters. Maybe the wiper will be next …
Anyway, after talking with Bruce of the Iowa DNR at the Rathbun Fish Hatchery, I was advised that there’s a “pretty good population” of wipers in Rathbun – with some fish reaching 15 to 20 pounds. Wowzers!
Yes, my mouth fell open in a combination of disbelief and excitement. I was also advised that the two predominant walleye year classes fell between 18- and 20-inches and right around 22 inches—perfect “eater” size—with trophy marble eyes up to 30-inches also present in the system. And the crappies (both white and black), Bruce advised, can reach 17 inches. Dang.
Another bonus? If you’re a bass fisherman, there are green fish to be had throughout the system, but that wasn’t the intent of this visit. My target species were wipers and walleyes—saving crappie, bass, and whiskers fishing for later this fall or early spring next year. After all, you can’t do everything in three days.
Where to Fish on Rathbun
Northwest/Northwest/West Side: Locals and a close fishing buddy told me anglers concentrate efforts in search of panfish, white bass, channel cats, and big blue catfish on the northwest, northeast, and west side of Rathbun. Not sure if locals fish ‘em with jug-lines in Iowa, but the legality of that might be something to investigate. Sounds like fun.
Northeast/Southeast/East Side: These areas are reputed to hold more wipers, walleyes, and largemouth bass than the reservoir’s western areas. In the spring, coves and fingers hold all sorts of fish, including some big black and white crappies, rumored to reach sizes up to 17 inches. According to the locals, the best areas for big crappies are in the northeast. And there are cribs in many of Rathbun’s coves. I dropped waypoints on every crib that showed up on my Humminbird Side Imaging for future fishing, maybe on the ice this winter. A lot of anglers troll the rip-rap on the east side of the reservoir just minutes from the public boat launch, campgrounds, and marine. I fished it, caught a couple, but there wasn’t the wind needed (I was told) to push bait and fish into this area. When that happens, I was again told, and this area can really light up for walleyes.
You don’t need a lot of tackle to fish Rathbun successfully, as I found out.
Depending on the season, lipless crankbaits, jerkbaits, paddletails on 1/8- to 3/8-ounce jig heads work well (like Northland Eye-Candy Paddle Shads or pre-rigged Mimic Minnows), A-Rigs for schooling wipers, and the be-all-end-all, jack-of-all-trades best multi-species bait for Rathbun Reservoir? A simple white spinnerbait.
With a sizable gizzard shad forage base, a white spinnerbait just gets the job done. And you’ll catch numerous species in the same locations throwing it. The other great thing about a spinnerbait? Any child (like my 10-year-old daughter) or fishing newbie can cast it and slow-roll it back to the boat…and get bit. Repeatedly, at that.
Trolling at a good clip (2-3 mph) is a good way to find fish, so bring some #5 and #7 Northland Rumble Shads, Shad Raps, and Flicker Shads, all in shad-colored variations. Even though Rathbun’s water was pretty stained during my visit, shad patterns still caught the most fish. Bright colors didn’t produce; not sure why. In particular, the Purple Shad-colored #7 (dives 8-16 feet) Northland Rumble Shad was a champ for finding fish.
Then, once a couple fish were caught on the troll, I’d hit Spot Lock on my Ultrex, change rods, and proceed to cast a Z-Man SlingBladez Tandem Willow Spinnerbait in Pearl White, no soft-plastic trailer, no stinger hook. Just Plain Jane. And it worked well.
I stumbled into a few roaming wipers up to 6 or 7 pounds, some white bass, and a few largemouth, but the highlight of the visit were walleyes absolutely assassinating spinnerbaits, hammering them in a way I can’t ever recall. There was no apprehension on the walleyes’ part. Tentative, finicky biters? On Rathbun during Labor Day Weekend of 2023? Not so much.
Casting shallower than my crankbait trolling contour—toward wave-ripped rocky shores and points—18- to 25-inch walleyes crushed slow-rolled spinnerbaits in a foot to five feet of water.
Talk about fun, and unique in the world of walleye fishing—at least for me, coming from the state of jigging, rigging, slip-bobbering, and pulling cranks/bouncers. It was like reservoir bass fishing … but for nice-sized walleyes.
From what I could see with my eyes and with Side Imaging, the wind and waves were pushing gizzard shad into the shallows on a few of the northwestern main reservoir points and shorelines and the walleyes were on an absolute a.m. feed—almost like what you’d experience with wipers or striped bass, but without the surface busting up.
Fly It, You’ll Like It
While casting a bone-colored topwater plug will certainly catch wipers in the right conditions, if you’re handy chucking a fly, bring a 10-weight fly rod and a handful of streamers, Clousers … basically anything that might resemble a shad. Yes, it’s like flats fishing, but in Iowa.
Times To Fish Rathbun
According to locals, spring, fall, and winter are the best times to fish Rathbun. I was there over Labor Day, and the water temp was still 76-degrees, so full fall patterns weren’t in effect yet. But we still caught fish.
Go anytime you’re able and see what happens. Seems to be a lot of fish in the system; you’ll just have to find ‘em. Of course, that’s easier spring and fall with fish locating in coves, around primary and secondary points, along shallow riprap, etc. And, in the winter, I’ve been told to just set up shop around Rathbun’s numerous cribs.
Time-of-day? We got on the water early and the best fishing was from sunrise until 9 am or so. Since it was Labor Day, by 11 am literal parades of cigarette boats, pontoons, ski boats, jet-skis, and other party barges took over and parked on every point and sandbar you’d want to fish. Call it a mini version of Lake of the Ozarks. Go figure, though. It was Labor Day. What did I expect?
I’m pretty sure we could have found fish over open water away from the revelers—especially dropping my Humminbird Mega Live forward-facing sonar—but the bite tapered off anyway—a good time to return to the campsite, make breakfast, and take a nap. We did fish late-afternoon through dark and caught some fish, but the action was not nearly as good as the sunrise to early a.m. window.
Where to Stay
We operated out of a tent during our Labor Day stay, setting up HQ in the state-managed Buck Creek Campground, conveniently located a few minutes from the public boat access.
Priced somewhere around $20 a night, we had a nice site with electric hookup to charge boat batteries, power a radio, and juice-up phones. Buck Creek Campground observes a 10 pm-6 am “quiet time” so there was shut-eye. In terms of amenities, Buck Creek Campground features four clean showers/bathrooms and hot water, too. For cooking and washing dishes, water can be collected via a couple different pumps throughout the grounds.