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Does Iowa really have good fly fishing? Yes, believe it or not, it’s true. There are ample opportunities to fly fish in Iowa. Beyond the cornfields and bluffs are cold-water streams filled with trout that are rarely targeted.
While most anglers won’t go out of their way to travel to Iowa to fly fish, it’s a wonderful destination that shouldn’t be overlooked.
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I chose to spend my college years in the northwest corner of Iowa and couldn’t stand the thought of not fishing throughout the four years. After a bit of research and some trial-and-error, I learned Iowa has unique fly fishing opportunities that would wow any level of angler.
Armed with this knowledge, I made it my mission to fly fish in Iowa as much as possible. From Iowa’s native brookies in small creeks to big pike in lakes, I’ve caught more than my share of fish in Iowa. With this guide, hopefully you can too.
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Why Fly Fish in Iowa?
Seclusion and a lack of pressure are the two obvious reasons to fly fish in Iowa. On top of these benefits, there’s a community of anglers that care deeply for their waters. The Trout Unlimited Chapter is full of men and women who are accepting and willing to show anyone the beauty of Iowa trout fishing.
The rest of the state is filled with numerous lake chains and large rivers. The variety of fishing available is impressive for a state most write off as flyover country. Take it from me, an experienced Iowa fly angler: there’s a lot to explore and experience in this beautiful state.
Iowa Fly Fishing: Fish Species
Along with the strong trout population, lakes spread across the state are filled with bass, pike and carp. These fish rarely see flies and are willing to take a swipe at almost anything you throw at them.
Brown trout up to two or three pounds are able to naturally reproduce in the Driftless Streams in Northeast Iowa, but they’re not native to the waters.
The DNR annually stocks the streams in an effort to keep the population high. Bloody Run Creek in Marquette along with McCloud Run in Linn are great options for brown trout fishing. Use Woolly Buggers and Stoneflies to catch these fish.
Brook trout are the only native trout to Iowa. Similar to the rest of the Driftless Region, brook trout are the prize fish. There’s one specific stream in the region that has never been stocked, so the DNR removes eggs from the stream to stock the surrounding waters.
Tunghead Pheasant Tail, Scuds and Pink Squirrels are all wonderful options for the brook trout. Joy Springs and Bailey’s Ford are two of my favorite streams to fish.
Bass are common all over the state of Iowa. You can fly fish for bass both in rivers and lakes. Be sure to use at least a 6-weight rod if you’re bass fishing. These fish are ruthless and have been known to snap a few rods.
Brushy Creek Lake in Lehigh along with Hawthorn are both great choices for bass. Use Gutless Frogs or Jawbreakers for these. Any sort of popper fly will also catch bass.
Carp are one of the most challenging fish to catch on this list. When it comes to fly fishing for carp, subtlety is the name of the game. These fish can easily be spooked and are a great test when it comes to your finesse fishing.
They’re found both in the Iowa and Missouri Rivers. I’ve always had success using small bonefish flies as well as baitfish streamers.
Pike are a common fish in Iowa throughout all of the inland lakes and streams. They’re aggressive and have sharp teeth, so be sure you use 1 or 2x leader. These fish like big, bright streamers.
The more obnoxious, the better. I find that Woolly Buggers or Bug-Eyed flies in size 2 work well. Clear Lake, Three Mile Lake and East Okoboji are all smart places to try.
Best Fly Fishing Spots in Iowa
Iowa is a tale of two landscapes. In the east, you have the Driftless Region with cold water streams, bluffs and deep valleys. Throughout the rest of the state, you have flatlands with large lakes and rivers.
You can take your pick of what type of fishing you’d like to do and have success. I personally enjoy targeting browns and the native brookies in small streams, but there’s also something to be said for targeting monster bass or pike in Iowa’s lakes as well.
Don’t count out any body of water in Iowa. The majority have fish that rarely see any sort of fly fishing action. It’s a great place to take out your beginner fly rod or fly rod combo and learn without having any unnecessary input from others.
Fly Fishing Rivers in Iowa
Depending on the fish you’re targeting, there are many options of rivers to fish in Iowa.
Some fishable streams and creeks are only about six feet wide. Others are over 50 yards wide with strong flows. Pack up your best fly fishing vest full of whatever gear and flies you’ll need for a variety of fishing scenarios.
The beauty of Iowa rivers is that there are few issues when it comes to accessibility. You’ll find wide-open casting lanes and plenty of public access.
📍Directions: Trout River, Iowa
The Trout River is a small river southeast of Decorah filled with brown, brook and rainbow trout. The majority of these fish range around 14 inches. This river has large amounts of accessible water due to the Trout River Wildlife Management Area.
There’s private property farther downstream that’s open to fly fishing as long as you stay on the banks. Any sort of mayfly, midge or gnat will catch fish.
You’ll only need your 3 or 4-weight rod to handle the fish in the Trout River. Your casting must be fairly accurate or you’ll find yourself hung up in the taller grass that lines the banks. Use 4 or 5x leader with 6x tippet on your fly reel. Short casts to the opposite banks are your best bet.
📍Directions: Coldwater Creek, Iowa
Coldwater Creek is a hotbed for fly fishing in Iowa. With over 1,000 fish per mile, you’ll find naturally reproducing brown trout and stocked rainbow trout. You can fish inside the Coldwater Creek Wildlife Management Area and have plenty of seclusion.
Be sure to use a 3 or 4-weight rod. You’ll use short casts and won’t have as much room to hit your spots. As a result, you’ll need to do some practicing before you hit the creek. I find that river loading is one of the better ways to fish this stream.
For flies, stick to small streamers and nymphs throughout the day and dry flies during the evening. BWO patters will find you the most fish. Coldwater Creek is a gem, so be sure to make it a priority on your next trip.
Bloody Run Creek
📍Directions: Bloody Run Creek, Iowa
Bloody Run Creek is a few miles west of the town of Marquette. This stream is full of deep pools and cut banks, so you’ll want to use flies that can reach the necessary depths. Weight Forward line works well on this creek due to the versatility it gives you.
Access is plentiful throughout the creek, and anglers with limited mobility should have no trouble finding places to fish. You only need a 3 or 4-weight rod for this creek and be sure to use light leader and tippet. Many of these fish are easily spooked, so use small flies like blood midges, Prince Nymphs and Mayflies.
📍Directions: Missouri River, Iowa
The Missouri River is a hotbed of fishing throughout western Iowa and is another of my favorite waters to hit. The river offers wonderful smallmouth bass fishing especially in the area between Sioux City and the Little Sioux River.
When fishing for smallmouth, be sure to use at least a 6-weight rod. Anything smaller won’t be able to handle the fight. Smallmouth are some of the best fighting freshwater fish available.
The Missouri River is a massive body of water, so be sure to fish around structure. The wing dams are wonderful places to target due to the large amount of fish stacked around them. These fish rarely see flies, so you’ll have success. I’ve always caught fish using poppers, large Woolly Buggers, and baitfish patterns.
📍Directions: Iowa River, Iowa
The Iowa River is a diverse body of water that supports a large population of warm-water fish. As a result, a fly angler can catch panfish, bass and even some pike. This river isn’t as intimidating as the Missouri, but it provides anglers with enough challenges to keep them coming back.
On the Iowa, I always use at least a 6-weight rod. You’ll need the casting power to hit the spots you’d like.
Also, 2 or 3x leader with baitfish streamers will land some of the bigger fish.
Rip those streamers through the water and don’t be shy. These fish like to hit aggressive targets, so keep working hard. It’s an extensive river so don’t only limit yourself to one spot.
Fly Fishing Iowa Lakes
The majority of lakes in Iowa are targeted by spin anglers in search of bass and walleye. Fly anglers on the lakes in Iowa have a field day due to the lack of flies the fish see. All over the state, lakes give anglers a chance to catch all types of freshwater fish.
📍Directions: Lake Macbride, Iowa
Lake Macbride is a quality fishery located on the eastern side of Iowa and is a wonderful lake for anglers to try. It sits in the middle of Lake Macbride State Park and presents great opportunities to catch spotted bass, pike and panfish. This lake is easily accessible to fish from shore, but a kayak or canoe would work best.
For targeting these fish, be sure to bring your 8-weight. There are sizable bass in the water that need strong equipment to fight. Try using Gutless Frogs or Jawbreakers to target these bass. The panfish can be caught on a 2 or 3-weight with small bee patterns. Either way, you can catch a great variety of fish while enjoying the beauty of Lake Macbride State Park.
📍Directions: Lake Darling, Iowa
Lark Darling is located within Lake Darling State Park near Brighton and is full of crappie, bluegill and largemouth bass. There’s a 1.5 mile long fishing trail that provides easy access to anglers of all abilities.
The lake is filled with vegetation, so stripping a mouse or frog pattern along the shore has the potential to catch fish.
In order to have enough power to do this, use a 7 or 8-weight rod along with 1 or 2x leader. The vegetation can make it difficult to maneuver and you’ll need the power to bring the fish out of the weeds.
On top of the wonderful fishing, Lake Darling State Park has activities for the entire family, so you won’t have to feel bad if you sneak away to the water.
📍Directions: Hannen Lake, Iowa
Hannen Lake was one of the first manmade lakes in Iowa. It spreads out over 45 acres near Benton. Hannen is filled with crappie, panfish and bass. The DNR regularly stocks the lake to keep the fish population high.
I like fishing this lake in a small boat or kayak. The casting lanes can be difficult to find onshore due to the trees surrounding the bank.
On this lake, you can use a 7 or 8-weight. Use 2 or 3x leader and find flies that are able to dive deep. Fish baitfish streamers low and slow. Do your best to get these flies through the vegetation and trees.
The bass love to sit around structure and dart out in pursuit of food. Also, in the evening, terrestrial flies and gutless frogs will entice some topwater strikes.
📍Directions: Lake Okoboji, Iowa
Lake Okoboji is in the midst of a string of lakes in northwest Iowa near the town of Spirit Lake. There are five lakes connected to one another and each offers its own unique fishing opportunity. East and West Okoboji are the most productive fisheries. Bass and pike are the best species to target on the fly.
There’s a lot of water to cover on Okoboji. While shore fishing is possible, do your best to fish from a boat.
It allows you to attack all of the structure throughout the numerous bays in the chain. 8-weight rods with heavier leader will handle both the pike and the bass.
I’ve always had good results using size 2-4 Woolly Buggers. I find them to be the most productive due to their versatility.
📍Directions: Viking Lake, Iowa
Located near Stanton, Viking Lake spans 136 acres and is filled with largemouth bass. Similar to the other lakes on this list, you’ll need to use an 8-weight rod to get your way through the structure.
In my experience, minnow and crawfish patterns work well throughout the lake. Tie these on 1 or 2x leader.
Viking Lake is located near Viking Lake State Park and has loads of family activities available. Shore access is plentiful and your casting lanes will be free. The vegetation isn’t too difficult to handle, so you won’t have to work as hard to be accurate with your casts.
Iowa Fishing Season
Fishing in Iowa is heavily dependent on the previous season’s precipitation level. Flooding can blow out the lakes and rivers, and some don’t recover until a few months into the summer.
The late spring into the fall is the most productive time of year to fish. The insects are in full hatch mode and fishing conditions steadily improve.
As the season progresses, be prepared to switch techniques and adapt to the weather changes. The fish become a bit more sluggish throughout the summer and are more active in the fall. The best months of the year are May through October.
Iowa Fly Fishing in May
Fly fishing Iowa in May is a bit of a blessing and a curse. The fish are extremely hungry, but the snowmelt can cause issues in finding fishable water. This hasn’t stopped me from hitting the water, and it shouldn’t stop you either!
The fish will still strike, but it’ll take a bit more work for you to find the best locations.
In May, use BWOs, Dun Flies, Stoneflies and Little Black Caddis. These are the primary hatches that will catch you fish.
Iowa Fly Fishing in June
By June, the water levels have dropped and fishing is back to normal. You can find sizable fish in all parts of the water.
It’s a wonderful opportunity to work on your different casts. You’ll have to be more stealthy because the water clarity is beginning to improve.
In June, BWOs, Caddis, Stoneflies, March Brown, Hendricksons and Quill Gordons are all hatching. June produces more hatches in Iowa than any other month of the year.
Iowa Fly Fishing in July
Fly fishing Iowa in July can be a bit of a challenge. Water temperatures all over the state begin to rise and the fish are only willing to eat during the early mornings and evenings.
It’s a perfect time to take a trip to the Driftless region. Water temperatures stay consistent and the fish are always hungry.
Fish streamers slowly right before the hatch and hit the dry flies hard in the mornings/evenings. A hot dry fly bite is hard to beat.
Iowa Fly Fishing in August
In Iowa, August is fairly similar to July. The temperatures are hot and humid and everything is feeling a bit sluggish. As a result, the fishing windows tighten. Mornings and evenings are the only solid times to hit the water.
Stoneflies, BWOs and Caddis Flies are the main options for anglers in August. Keep your skills sharp because prime time is coming!
Iowa Fly Fishing in September
Fly fishing Iowa in September is amazing. The temperatures start to drop, the feeding times extend and the terrestrial season begins. Beetles and grasshoppers fall into the water and lead to a feast. Trout and bass are especially active during September.
BWOs and Stoneflies are still around as well. Enjoy September in Iowa, it’s gorgeous.
Iowa Fly Fishing in October
October is the end of the truly productive months of Iowa fly fishing. The temperatures begin to drop and fish become pickier. The strikes are a bit less ferocious and small nymphs come into play.
Enjoy the last month before the temperature truly bottoms out. BWOs and Stoneflies are your best options. Start moving towards blood midges and Copper Johns.
Iowa Fly Fishing Lodges & Shops
While there are no fly fishing lodges in Iowa, there are several fishing shops that are wonderful resources for anyone looking to gain some insight into Iowa fly fishing.
Driftless on the Fly
Driftless on the Fly is a shop located in northeast Iowa that offers guided trips and fly fishing lessons. They have four guides on staff who are willing and able to show all that the Driftless region has to offer.
Inside the Hatchery is a fly shop containing all of the equipment necessary to catch fish on the streams in the Driftless region. While you’re there, take a look at the hatchery itself. It’s fascinating to see how the process works.
Fly fishing in Iowa is a well-kept secret. I’m still amazed at the wonderful fishing I was able to do there during the four years I lived in the state. Hungry fish, varied landscapes, and plenty of seclusion makes it one of my favorites states for fly fishing in the Midwest.
The streams sustain fish and offer a multitude of opportunities for anglers of all skill levels. The wild brook trout are always going to be picky, but the sizable browns and rainbows are always able to be caught.
Bass, pike and carp are catchable at all times during the year. A fly fishing purist may not expect much out of Iowa, but most Iowan anglers are okay with that. It leaves more pristine streams and trophy fish available for the rest of us.
Some images in this post are courtesy of Shutterstock.
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