Iowa's Lake Okoboji truly is an angler's paradise.
On this cast, I let the lure sink a little more than usual. After a couple of twitches, I felt a steady series of taps. The hookset came just a hair too late and the fish, at least a five-pound largemouth bass, swirled just under the surface, just giving me a glimpse of its immense girth before it disappeared back into the darkness under the dock.
Missed fish or not, that will get anyone's blood pumping. I was fishing West Okoboji Lake in Spirit Lake, Iowa as a guest of Berkley and Pure Fishing. They had invited me to this place to check out Berkley's new lineup of lures that will be debuting throughout 2021.
On this day though, we were hitting the water for a day trip, and it ended up being one of the better bass fishing days I've had in quite some time. I quickly learned that I was on one of the best fisheries the Hawkeye State has to offer. After only one day in Iowa fishing, I was left wanting more.
The home of Berkley and big bass.
As I was driving in from Michigan a few days prior to hitting the open water, I was struck by how out in the middle of nowhere the East and West portions of Lake Okoboji are. I drove in from the south and passed through well over 100 miles of nothing but cornfields with sporadic patches of woods here and there. Ten miles out from Okoboji, most of the communities had populations listed on their signs just over 100. I kept getting some real "Children of the Corn" vibes from some of these places.
The lake and the various towns associated with it sit only about 30 miles south of the Minnesota border. Which is probably why you do not hear about Okoboji more often. As you drive into the vicinity of the lakes, the seemingly endless agriculture finally gives way to a populated area catering more to tourists. They come from as far away as Nebraska because Okoboji's clear waters offer some of the best boating and fishing around. It is little wonder you sometimes hear them called "Iowa's Great Lakes." These lakes were carved out by giant glaciers hundreds of thousands of years earlier. Many years ago, the Sioux called the area home. The name itself Okoboji comes from the Dakota language for the lake.
Today, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources keeps up the reputation of these lakes as a top fishery through regular stockings of muskies and walleye. In 1937, a teenager named Berkley Bedell started selling hand-tied flies to the anglers who travelled from near and far to fish West and East Okoboji's waters. Little did the 16-year-old know that the company he started would later become a household name. A true tackle empire for the modern age known to fishermen and women around the world. Today, Berkley operates a lab developing the latest in soft plastics, crankbaits, jigs, and more that are built and packaged for distribution on site.
Across the street from the factory is Berkley's Fisherman's Factory Outlet, one of the finest tackle stores I've ever visited. And because much of the product is produced across the street, the prices are much better than you will find in many other stores. Our group picked up our one-day Iowa fishing licenses there.
The first nice day of summer.
Berkley split the fishing portion up into two portions, a morning, and an evening session. For the morning's fishing, I was teamed up with Daniel Vega, the Assistant Category Manager for Baits. Unlike many of the other employees I had spoken with for the past year, Vega has only been with Berkley for about a year. His first three or four months with the company were a bit uneven to say the least. The company bounced back and forth between work from home and in-person due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Recently he has gotten more a chance to settle in as thing start to return to normal.
Vega suspected the fish were starting to move shallow in pre-spawn mode. He asked what I wanted to target. I have been fishing most of my life, but oddly enough, have only a handful of smallmouth bass catches to my name. None of them of notable size either. Vega said he had a suspicion they were hanging out under the docks shallow on West Okoboji. So, we set off in his boat through a narrow channel and then straight across to some promising looking docks. The ride over was rough and my fishing guide noted that the lake was seeing more traffic than normal because it was the first warm weekend of the summer.
Before we left, many of the Berkley engineers sounded a little unsure of how things would go. Our trip had been one of constant re-scheduling. The fishing portion was originally booked for Friday and was pushed back due to weather. For a while, the fishing was moved to Big Spirit Lake and then back to Okoboji because Berkley believed we would have better success here. There was some additional pressure on the water because multiple tournaments were being held on this day. I really did not care. I just wanted to go fishing. After all, even bad day of fishing is better than any at the home office right?
Vega believed most of the bass were hanging out under the docks, so we decided to do some skipping and see what happened. For the first 45 minutes or so things were quiet. The water clarity was crystal clear. The maximum depth of the area was around 10 feet, and we could see all the way to the bottom. It did not take us long to spot tons of panfish. Yellow bass, bluegills, black crappie, and yellow perch were everywhere. It is easy to see why this is such a hot ice fishing destination in the winter months.
Eventually Vega suggested we switch spots and we jetted across the lake a short distance to a different area. Vega was the first to miss a few strikes. Finally, I changed things up a little and let the wacky-rigged Berkley Maxscent General worm sink a little more. That was when that five or six-pounder swirled on my bait. That instantly woke me up. There was a good chance that had I landed that fish, it would have been a new personal best for me.
About ten to fifteen minutes after missing that fish, I finally hooked into my first fish of the day. It was a small largemouth that struck just off the front of a dock. My first fish catch in Iowa. About 20 minutes after that, I hooked into the first decent fish of the trip. The bass struck after I managed to thread the needle on a skip perfectly between two metal dock pilings. Unfortunately, I do not have as much time for fishing as I used to these days, which meant the approximately 16-inch fish was one of the better ones I have caught in a while.
It did not take me long after that to hook into another one around the same size. And then another, and another slightly larger one, around three pounds.
"Well, if you can't beat them, join them," Vega remarked as he hooked up a General of his own.
Eventually, he hooked into a nice two pound largemouth of his own. When he pulled it on the boat, it suddenly popped free and back into the drink. He let out a frustrated grunt.
"That counts, it was on the boat," I told him.
In one area, Vega suddenly got excited and pointed to the bottom where he said a 40-inch muskie was sitting near the bottom. Unfortunately, I missed seeing that fish. However, I did see the next one he spotted. It was a 25 or 30-incher sitting under a dock. Vega and I both cast at it, but the big fish sat there like a log and refused to move. It was probably just as well, a fish like that probably would not have stayed on long with the eight-pound test on the spinning rig I was using. Still, it is always a thrill to see a muskie in the wild!
In the afternoon, I switched boats to fish with Kyle Peterson, Berkley's Project Manager on baits and Dan Spengler, Sr. Project Manager of Bait Development. For this session, we decided to hit a length of shoreline in East Okoboji where we were not seeing a ton of boat traffic. It was also a bit of shoreline that neither of them had fished much, if at all, in the past. We decided to keep much of the focus the same. Target the undersides of docks where the largemouths were hanging out with soft plastics and maybe a jerkbait or two.
One big difference I noted immediately was that East Okoboji is a little messier than the west side. I had not had to clean any weeks off my lure all morning during the fishing on that side of the lake. Over here, it was a completely different matter as we started running into heavier vegetation. As we worked the docks, my guides asked me how the morning session with Vega went. They were quite pleased to find out I had out fished him, giving them at least a week's worth of ammo for ribbing at work. I did note that Vega had more strikes than I did, he just missed them.
"Oh, that guy sets the hook on everything," Peterson quipped.
I started off fishing a small jerk shad, but the only strikes I was getting were from the panfish that were battering it relentlessly. Eventually I decided to switch back to the General that had worked so well that morning. It was not long before I hooked into another fish, this one the nicest of the day yet. Peterson netted the three-pounder and then took my photo before I released it back into the glistening waters.
Only about 20 minutes later I hooked into another fish around 3.5 pounds. This one put up the best fight of the day, but the hook held true and soon I was holding one of the nicer bass that I have caught in a while. Unfortunately, this also ended up being my last fish of the day. We fished for several more hours and just could not buy a bite. Eventually Spengler landed a couple of two pounders as we were wrapping up the day.
I ended the day with six bass caught. The guys from Berkley fish these waters all the time and they all made it sound like this was a down day once we were back at the docks in front of the resort. Although, for my first fishing trip of the year, I considered it a great success. It is not often one catches multiple three pounders in my part of Michigan. Back at the docks we learned Mark Sexton, the Manager of Fish Science and Product testing, had managed to boat a nice five pounder in the afternoon session.
At the end of the day, I was left simply wishing we had more than one day to fish on this beautiful lake. I drove for home the next day with my thumb slightly roughed up from the six fish I had caught, and with a newfound appreciation for northern Iowa as a solid bass fishery. One thing is for sure, I want to visit and fish the Iowa Great Lakes again soon!