10 Best Walleye Fishing Lakes and Rivers in Iowa

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Iowa hasn’t always enjoyed the best reputation for walleye fishing. As the old joke goes, that’s why you see so many Iowa license plates at boat ramps in Minnesota. 

That might be good for a chuckle, but it doesn’t do justice to the reality of Iowa’s walleye fishing. The truth is, walleye fishing in Iowa is as good as it’s been in generations, and by all indications, it’s just getting better. 

In Iowa, waterways including the mighty Mississippi, numerous inland rivers, and the chain of glacial lakes known as the “Iowa Great Lakes” are loaded with walleye. 

Walleye are native to many rivers and lakes across the Hawkeye State, and an intensive stocking program courtesy of the Iowa DNR has been helping to bolster the population for decades.

If you’re looking for the best walleye fishing in Iowa, start here.

Big Spirit Lake

The largest natural lake in Iowa, Big Spirit Lake spans 5,684 acres in the northwestern part of the state, a stone’s throw from the Minnesota state line. It’s one of Iowa’s best lakes for walleye and panfish. 

Big Spirit Lake is about 22 feet at its deepest point and is essentially an open bowl-shaped lake. Nearshore structure such as rock piles and weed lines provide most of the walleye action. 

The shoreline is highly developed, and dock fishing can also be productive. There’s abundant public access to Big Spirit Lake, including multiple parks and boat ramps.

Bank fishing and wading for walleye is very popular, especially during the first few weeks after the season opener in May.

Along with the other waters that make up Iowa’s Great Lakes, Big Spirit Lake is closed to walleye fishing from February 15th until the first Saturday in May. Take note of special slot limit rules as well.

From May into June, some of the best action is at the north end of the lake. Key spots include the old footbridge and areas known as the Grade, Buffalo Run, Templar Cove and Willow Row.

Casting stickbaits and jigs in shallow water is effective until the weeds become too thick, which usually happens during June. At that point, many anglers switch to trolling deeper rock piles and fishing after dark with live bait beneath lighted floats.

Walleye fishing on Big Spirit Lake is tough in summer, but fall offers some great opportunities. Troll the open basin early in the season before transitioning back toward shallows as the lake cools and weeds die off.

If you like catching big, toothy fish in weedy water, Big Spirit Lake also happens to offer some of Iowa’s best odds at catching an elusive muskellunge.

Lake Rathbun

An 11,000-acre impoundment of the Chariton River in southeastern Iowa, Lake Rathbun is a numbers lake as well as a potential trophy fishery. It’s perfectly normal to catch 20 or 30 walleye in a day, and the DNR has netted walleye over 12 pounds.

The Buck Creek arm of the lake is a popular place early in the season when walleye head shallow to spawn. But Lake Rathbun is somewhat unusual in that the best walleye fishing is in early summer.

More unusual still, walleye seem to bite best in shallow water on bright, sunny days during June and July. Nobody knows exactly why walleye behave this way here, but they do. 

Walleye are usually easy to tempt once you locate them, but the tricky part is finding fish. Lake Rathbun has so much prime structure—windswept banks, riprap, humps, points, creek channels, rocky shoals—that it can be hard to know where to begin. 

A few key areas include the submerged rock quarry near Island View, the scattered midlake rock piles marked with buoys, and Fowler’s Point, where the arms formed by Ham Creek and Honey Creek meet. 

Shad are the primary forage. Walleye hunt them by corralling them against solid structure. Crankbaits like Shad Raps and Flicker Shad are highly effective on Lake Rathbun.

Mississippi River

The Mississippi River forms Iowa’s entire eastern border and is a phenomenal walleye fishery. It can also be a challenging and intimidating place to fish due to its sheer size and the strength of its currents. 

A series of locks and dams break up the Mississippi River into pools, and walleye inhabit every pool along the Iowa section of the river. The best walleye fishing is invariably in the tailwaters below each lock and dam, especially in spring and fall.

The tailwaters at the head of Pools 14 and 15 are especially popular due to their proximity to the Quad Cities. It’s common to see huge gatherings of fishing boats in the tailwaters in spring.

Pool 9, where the river crosses from Minnesota to Iowa, is also excellent for walleye.

Walleye typically stack up in tailwaters in spring and fall back downriver in summer, often to the deep hole at the first major bend below each tailwater.

Wing dams are also great places to fish. The river has a lot of them. Most good charts of the Mississippi River will mark them, but you may also be able to see the surface disturbance caused by the current flowing over them. 

Heavy flows often make wing dams unfishable in early spring, but they’re great summer spots. Walleye often hold above, below, and to the side of these structures.

Classic minnow-tipped jigs are great for Mississippi River walleye. Many anglers also fish three-way rigs. A regional variation known as the Dubuque Rig is essentially a three-way rig with two jigs instead of a jig and a sinker. 

Clear Lake

North-central Iowa’s 3,684-acre Clear Lake has developed into one of the state’s best walleye lakes, but it wasn’t always. There was a time when this large natural lake was the Dead Sea as far as walleye anglers were concerned, with bullhead and carp being the dominant species.

But efforts from the DNR have vastly improved the fishery. Today, walleye are not only abundant but increasingly large. Plenty of them measure 18 to 24 inches. 

Clear Lake is just 18 feet deep but offers a wide variety of rocky structure and healthy vegetation. Late spring is a great time to fish, as walleye are drawn to emerging weed beds and docks being put back into the lake for the warm season. 

Key areas include Dodge Point and Woodford Island on the south shore, the outlet area at the east end of the lake, and the long stretches of bullrushes that line the north shore. 

Anglers have great success wading or fishing from the bank in these areas in both spring and fall using jigs tipped with minnows and curly tail grubs. Another great spot for shore-bound anglers is the earthen pier along the causeway at the west end of Clear Lake.

Like many northern Iowa Lakes, Clear Lake is also a popular ice fishing destination. It’s one of the better spots for hard water walleye and yellow perch, and anglers jig up plenty of both every winter for as long as safe ice is available, potentially from mid-December through the end of February. 

Des Moines River

The Des Moines River flows 525 miles from its headwaters in Minnesota to its confluence with the Mississippi River, cutting a diagonal path right through the heart of Iowa. It’s a phenomenal multi-species fishing river that offers walleye, catfish and bass.

Where walleye are concerned, some of the best spots on the Des Moines River are within a few miles of the city that shares its name. The two most popular spots to cast for ‘eyes are the Scott Street Dam just south of downtown Des Moines and the Saylorville Dam just above the city. 

There are also plenty of other good spots, including throughout the 13-mile stretch between these two landmarks. The river is loaded with 2- to 3-pound “eating-size” walleye, but there are monsters here too. 

Various seasons offer solid walleye opportunities on the Des Moines River, but arguably the best time to be on the water is early spring. There’s often a window of opportunity after ice-out but before spring rains raise and muddy the water too much.

The combination of a warming trend and just a little bit of color to the water triggers a flurry of feeding activity. Look for the best action below dams as well as rocky bars, riprap banks, tributary mouths, and drop-offs throughout the Des Moines River.

West Okoboji Lake

Along with Big Spirit Lake, West Okoboji Lake is another excellent walleye option in the chain known as the Iowa Great Lakes. It’s a little smaller than Big Spirit at 3,847 acres, but its 138-foot depths make it the deepest natural lake in the state. 

The fishing is usually excellent during the weeks following the season opener in May, though the lake can be crowded this time of year. Walleye action is excellent after dark along shorelines, shallow rocky structure and emerging weeds. 

If you want to beat the springtime crowds, wait until fall. There are fewer anglers after spring fades, but the walleye fishing is often just as good from late October until ice starts to form. 

Look for walleye around steep, rocky drop-offs and ledges late in the year. Manhattan Point, Gull Point and Egralharve Point are excellent areas to focus on, and local anglers typically connect using diving crankbaits, Berkley Power Minnows, and live minnows on bottom-bouncers.

Like Iowa’s other “Great Lakes,” West Okoboji offers some fantastic ice fishing. It’s arguably the best place in the state to catch huge bluegill through the ice, but expect a few walleye and some nice crappie in the mix. 

Honorable Mentions

Cedar River

A highly underrated walleye fishery is available in the Cedar River, which starts in Minnesota and flows 338 miles to its confluence with the Iowa River. It’s more of a numbers river than a place to target trophy walleye, but a 10-pounder isn’t impossible. 

The section from Gilbertville to Waverly is especially good for walleye. Two major tributaries—the West Fork Cedar River and the Shell Rock River—merge with the Cedar River in this stretch, and the area around their confluence is a major walleye hotspot.

Another key location is the tailwater below the Nashua Dam, a little farther upriver. Walleye stack up below the dam in spring when they head upstream to spawn, and many are caught there in fall, too.

Thanks to water quality improvements over the years, Cedar River also is among Iowa’s great smallmouth bass streams.

Lake Sugema

Built in 1993 and first stocked with walleye in 1997 after the initial stocking of saugeye failed to take off, Lake Seguma is one of the best bets for walleye in southern Iowa. This 579-acre reservoir is off the beaten path in the southeast corner of the state but well worth a detour. 

You won’t find a lot of trophy walleye here, but fish in the 12- to 20-inch range are usually quite abundant. The riprap face of the dam is a popular place to catch them on crankbaits and jigs. 

The lake also has some good drop-offs, rock jetties, and other rocky main lake structures that regularly produce walleye. A lot of timber was left standing in the coves as well, and it’s not unusual to find walleye hiding among it. 

Brushy Creek Lake

A fairly young reservoir, Brushy Creek Lake was built in 1998 and stocked immediately with walleye. The fishery took off in a hurry, with impressive growth rates that led to anglers catching walleye up to 8 pounds within just a few years. 

It remains a very good walleye lake in central Iowa. Spanning 690 acres, Brushy Creek Lake was impounded with its standing timber intact, which makes it a difficult place to troll. However, it’s a great place to jig for walleye in the submerged forests beneath the surface. 

A fish barrier was installed on the spillway at the dam in 2020, and should help the walleye fishery continue to improve. Prior to its installation, DNR surveys showed that periodic flooding washed away as much as 20 percent of Brushy Creek’s adult walleye.

Wapsipinicon River

The Wapsipinicon River, or “the Wapsi” as it’s often called, is a great sleeper river for walleye in northeast Iowa. Although it’s smaller than the nearby Cedar, Upper Iowa and Turkey rivers (all solid walleye bets in their own rights), the Wapsi more than holds its own.

The DNR has been stocking walleye here for a long time, and there are some big, old walleye in the river. It’s possible to tangle with a 10-pounder, especially during the pre-spawn period in early spring. 

During the warmer months, anglers often catch walleye in surprisingly shallow holes. A 5-fool hole downstream from some rocky structure will often hold fish.

During winter, Wapsipinicon walleye congregate in the deepest available water, like the dredge hole near Independence.

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