Beneath the Ice

Winter Fishing in all 99 Counties

Home to stunning lakes and an abundance of rivers, streams and backwaters, Iowa’s waterways provide every kind of outdoor recreation. As these waters freeze over in the winter, many Iowans head inside to await their thawing – but that is not the case for Mark Anderson.

Instead, this chiropractor by day and ice fishing enthusiast by night bundles up and packs his gear, braving some of the state’s harshest weather for some of the best catches. His passion has led to 20 years of ice fishing adventures, including 15 years of competing in tournaments across the state.

Now, Mark has set a goal of ice fishing in each of Iowa’s 99 counties, exploring lesser-known waters while still making the greatest catches and memories. With 73 counties already completed, he’s well on his way and plans to finish the rest within the next five years.

Q. Where did your passion for ice fishing start? And what has kept you at it for so long?

Man kneeling in his ice hut holding up a large fish.

Mark Anderson (MA): So, I’m the only one in my family who does it. I had a friend and his dad who took me out when I was in in grad school, and from there the bug just bit me, it just clicked. It was amazing and I loved it. Ever since then, it’s been one of my favorite things to do. I prefer ice fishing over open water fishing, which I was doing for a long time prior.

I love it because there’s a community aspect to it. When you’re fishing from shore or in a boat, it’s harder to develop relationships with people or create that camaraderie, whereas ice fishing is more of a communal sport. I used to enjoy fishing by myself, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to enjoy fishing in groups and developing some great friendships in that way. It also just gave me something to do in the wintertime and offered a way to enjoy the beauty that Iowa has to offer while also enjoying moments of solitude when needed.

Q. After so many years of ice fishing across the state, what inspired you to check off all 99 counties?

(MA): Unfortunately, Iowa isn’t really known as a big fishing destination, or even one of the major fishing states in the Midwest. But Iowa is getting looked over, and we shouldn’t be. There are some great opportunities here. I have a friend who is a big kayak bass fisherman, and he underwent this same task, so that’s where I got my inspiration. It just works, I love to ice fish and I love to explore different parts of the state. There are always places that people gravitate to because they’re known for having good fishing, but I wanted to find the waters off the beaten path that aren’t necessarily as popular and aren’t included in fishing reports. I wanted to uncover the hidden gems along the way, and I’ve been floored at the fantastic places across the state – you just have to find them.

For each county, I actually do a lot of homework to find the best bodies of water, and that makes it more worthwhile. I’ve learned that different parts of the state have completely different opportunities. For example, due to where the glaciers came through 14,000 years ago, most lakes north of Highway 20 are natural lakes, whereas south of there, most are manmade reservoirs. And then northeast Iowa is mostly streams and rivers. So those aspects alone offer different styles of fishing and obviously different landscapes as well.

Q. Throughout your journey, which spots have been added to your list of favorites?

(MA): The Mississippi River is a blast to ice fish through and is probably one of my favorite places, especially on its backwaters. It’s just beautiful up there, you have all the bluffs along the river and it’s unique to the state of Iowa, you don’t really see views like that fishing anywhere else.

Then you have the northwest part of the state, specifically the Iowa Great Lakes system. West Okoboji Lake is spring fed, so the waters are crystal clear and allow for sight fishing, which is something I love to do. Sight fishing is when you drill a hole through the ice, then you look down through the hole and can literally see everything. It’s like looking down into an aquarium. It’s one of the first things in ice fishing that I loved doing because everything is so visual, it’s in real time. Instead of looking at the digital lines on my flasher or sonar, this is looking at the fish and seeing how he reacts to my bait with my own eyes, which is exciting.

On the other hand, southern Iowa lakes are also fun to fish. Since they’re manmade reservoirs, as many of them were being built, most of the trees were left alone. So, at places like Three Mile Lake, you’ll be fishing in 30-40 feet of water, and you’ll be surrounded by entire trees growing out of the lake. That presents a unique opportunity, though that can be found in other parts of the state if you look hard enough.

Fishing poles dropped through the ice.

Q. As you continue to work through the counties, what are some tips and tricks you’ve learned?

(MA): Through all the tournaments I’ve competed in and just fishing on my own, I’ve learned and encourage people to never judge a body of water by the size in terms of what it could offer. The best fishing spots aren’t necessarily the largest lakes. The lakes that are off the beaten path can offer some pretty great fishing.

I would also suggest that you step outside your comfort zone and explore new bodies of water. They don’t have to be half a state away, but just try somewhere new and you never know what you’ll find. You might stumble upon a complete homerun or strike out, and those things happen. For example, I took a friend and his son fishing on Lake Anita a few years ago, and we stumbled upon some great fishing, and they had the time of their lives. So that made me really happy to help someone discover waters they’d either never fished before or never heard of in the first place.

Finally, for me, mobility has always been key. The fish are moving throughout the lake at any given time, so you don’t necessarily want to stick to one place. I tend to move around to find them, so I’m often fishing without a hut. That’s something I learned from tournaments; you can go out and catch a bunch of fish, but it’s the right fish you want to catch in order or do well in the tournament or make those great memories.

Q. For individuals who want to get into ice fishing, where would you suggest they start?

(MA): I do talk to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) quite often, maybe once a year I catch up with their fishery biologist to get a better idea of what lakes are looking better this year, which lakes are on the downslide, which ones are being renovated, etc. They have really good information on their website, everything from information about individual lakes to fishing reports and fish survey data where they survey the lake in certain seasons to see which fish are present, how many there are, what sizes they are, etc. That’s a really good resource to better educate yourself as to where you need to go, so that’s a great place to start.

I also always suggest that people network with their county conservation groups as well as people they meet at tournaments, online or even in bait shops. Talk to the people in the industry and you’ll find some great learning opportunities. For example, many county conservation groups offer free ice fishing classes. You can also join your local fishing club or group on social media, stuff like that to kind of learn more about the different opportunities. When I first moved to Des Moines, I joined the Central Iowa Anglers group, and that was a great way to meet people in the area and learn a lot about the art of fishing.

Published January 3, 2023

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