8 Great Crappie Fishing Spots in Iowa

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On a crisp spring day in Iowa, there are three perfect ways to spend time outdoors. You could hunt turkeys, you could forage for morels, or you could fish for crappies. Tough choice. 

Granted, you can take a shot at catching crappies any time of year. Plenty of anglers jig them up through the ice in winter, troll crankbaits for them in summer, and spend fall days slingshotting jigs under the same docks that produced crappies in springtime.

But the months of March through May are special. With lakes warming, crappies invade shallow waters all over Iowa with three things on their agenda: warm up, grab a bite to eat, and spawn. 

Most Iowa lakes have populations of both white and black crappies. There is little difference between the two species, though black crappies thrive more in the clear, natural lakes in northern Iowa, whereas white crappies are equally at home in southern reservoirs with more turbidity.

Red Rock Lake

South-central Iowa’s Red Rock Lake is invariably one of the first names that comes up in any discussion of Iowa slab factories. This 15,250-acre impoundment on the Des Moines River has a serious reputation for producing big crappies. 

That doesn’t mean the fishing is always easy. Fickle spring weather on top of the cyclical nature of crappie populations can make the fishing hit-or-miss, but this is a lake where 9- to 12-inch crappies are average, and a few measuring up to 18 inches turn up every year.

You don’t really hear about small crappies caught here. It’s more a question of whether you’ll catch a few big crappies or a lot of big crappies. To put the odds in your favor, start in early spring.

Immediately after ice out, crappies are attracted to shallow areas with dark bottoms and riprap, which are the first to warm. Marina Cove has both, and it’s a great place to start early in the year. Spider rigging with minnows is a popular early-season tactic. 

Once the lake warms up from April into May and the spawn begins, the Whitebreast Arm of the lake is by far the most popular crappie destination, with countless cuts and coves along the shore where crappies readily strike small jigs. Teeter Creek is another underrated area. 

By summer, pods of crappies roam the lake’s open flats, and they can be tricky to pin down. Slow trolling with mini crankbaits is a tactic some locals rely on this time of year to hook a limit of warm-weather crappies. 

Big Spirit Lake

Part of a chain of glacial lakes known as the Iowa Great Lakes, Big Spirit Lake is one of the best fishing destinations in the state for a variety of species, crappies included. It’s the largest natural lake in Iowa at 5,684 acres, though its depth maxes out at just 22 feet. 

Big Spirit Lake is better known for walleye, but there’s an underrated crappie population here. Ice anglers pull plenty of 10- to 13-inch crappies up through the ice every winter. 

Crappies usually start to bite particularly well just before the ice goes out in March, and anglers who manage to catch the last safe ice of the year are often rewarded with a full stringer. If not, the bite picks right back up again after ice-out. 

Big Spirit Lake has a lot of great shallow crappie habitat, but a couple of spots stand out in early spring. Try the lagoon at Templar Recreation Area, near the south end of the lake, or work the area known as the Grade, a shallow bay with a fishing pier at the north end. 

Crappies in Big Spirit Lake spawn in May, which coincides with the walleye season opener. Expect a mixed bag this time of year, with crappies, walleye, white bass and yellow perch often sharing the same water.

Rathbun Reservoir

Located on the Chariton River in southeastern Iowa, Rathbun Reservoir has long been considered one of the premier crappie fisheries in the state. It’s an unbeatable numbers lake, and a sizable portion of the population is usually in the 9- to 12-inch class. 

Rathbun Reservoir is drawn down significantly every fall and refilled in spring, allowing vegetation to grow and create an endless cycle of new crappie habitat. There’s also a lot of brush and rock that becomes inundated as the lake reaches its 11,000-acre full pool. 

Early in the spring, look for crappies staging at the mouths of coves, including Honey Creek, Buck Creek, and the appropriately-named Crappie Cove. Warm, sunny days in early spring can bring them farther into the creek arms, with cold fronts sending them back out.

Crappies will shift towards the backs of the coves in stages as the spawn approaches. Spawning typically peaks in mid-May but can start as early as April. The biggest females spawn first, so hit the water in late April if you’re after slabs. 

In summer, anglers may find suspending crappies in 15 or 20 feet of water in the South Fork and Island View areas by either drifting jigs and minnows or trolling crankbaits. Bridges that span the major creek arms are also key areas. 

Mississippi River Backwaters

Anglers find some of the best crappie fishing anywhere in the Midwest in the backwaters along the Mississippi River, which forms Iowa’s eastern border. It’s especially great in winter, when the cuts and sloughs off the main river freeze over.

Every pool of the Mississippi River contains crappies, but pools 9 and 10—the two uppermost pools that border Iowa—are among the best. Here, the main river channel cuts through a broad floodplain crisscrossed by a maze of braided backwaters.

During the ice fishing season, you’ll usually find crappies in or near the deepest available cuts among the Mississippi Backwaters (‘deep’ in this instance usually means 6 to 8 feet). They often shelter just downstream of stumps and other woody cover that acts as a current break. 

The fishing continues to be excellent after the ice melts. Anglers often catch early-season crappies in just 2 or 3 feet of water, and there’s a good chance that any fallen tree or brush pile could harbor a few. There are a lot of perch and bluegill in the Mississippi River backwaters as well. 

Much of the area around this section of the Mississippi is within state wildlife management areas, making it open to the public and mostly undeveloped. New Albin Landing, in the extreme northeasternmost corner of Iowa, is one of many great spots to get on the water. 

Honorable Mentions

Black Hawk Lake

A natural lake that spans 922 acres, Black Hawk Lake is an excellent fishing lake in Western Iowa. It’s an especially great option for shore-bound anglers, who often out-fish those who have boats when crappie action peaks in springtime. 

Black Hawk Lake’s crappie fishing centers almost exclusively around Town Bay on the northwest corner of the lake. Crappies reliably file into the bay in huge numbers as the ice melts.

Anglers easily catch their limits from the west stone pier and the T-shaped pier on S. State Road. Once the crappies finish spawning, few are caught on Black Hawk Lake until fall, at which point there’s often a good bite around the inlet bridge at the west side of the lake.

Don Williams Lake

Though small in size, 151-acre Don Williams Lake boasts an impressive crappie population, making it a great option in the central part of the state. The size and abundance of crappies vary, but there are usually plenty of keepers to go around in springtime.

Newcomers might have to get used to fishing a little deeper than they’re accustomed to. Most of the crappie action is in the lower third of the reservoir, which is steep-sided and loaded with standing timber where crappies often suspend in about 15 feet of water.

An hour from Des Moines, Don Williams Lake is a well-known crappie hotspot with easy access through Don Williams Recreation Area. As a result, the fishing pressure can get very heavy for a small lake. It’s best to avoid weekends, especially during the peak spring crappie season.

West Okoboji Lake

Located just south of Big Spirit Lake, 3,847-acre West Okoboji Lake is another solid crappie option in the Iowa Great Lakes. Crappies are available along with some quality yellow perch and some of the biggest bluegill in Iowa. 

It pays to arrive at West Okoboji Lake right after ice-out, when a few sunny days in a row can warm up the shallows quickly. Crappies congregate in the canals and harbors along the west side and at the northwest end of the lake, which provide the warmest available water in March. 

These shallows continue to produce right through the May spawn most years. The property bordering the canals is almost entirely private, so you’ll need a boat to take advantage of the action.

Coralville Lake

Just south of Cedar Rapids in eastern Iowa, Coralville Lake is a long, meandering reservoir on the Iowa River that spans 5,340 acres. It supports a tremendous crappie population but can also be a challenging place to fish. 

Coralville Lake has an abundance of prime crappie habitat, including brush piles and laydowns placed by the DNR. The trouble is, annual drawdowns and occasional flooding events keep moving all this cover around, so the best crappie fishing spots tend to shift from year to year. 

Focus on structures that don’t move, like bridge pilings and riprap. Crappies are commonly caught along the face of the dam and around the docks at the nearby marina. A spillway connects Coralville Lake to neighboring Lake McBride, also a solid crappie lake.

Catch More Crappie

Do you know the favorite lures, baits, tactics and tackle for catching crappie? Check out the basics of crappie fishing in our easy guide.