Iowa’s Biggest Fish Species: Here is What Anglers Should Target

iowa biggest fish

Iowa, despite being a landlocked state in the heart of the United States, boasts an impressive array of freshwater fish species. From the meandering rivers to the tranquil lakes, Iowa’s waters harbor a diverse aquatic ecosystem.

Among the many fish species that call Iowa home, several notable giants reign supreme in terms of size and awe-inspiring presence. In this article, we delve into the depths of Iowa’s waterways to uncover the biggest fish that grace its rivers and lakes.

1. Channel Catfish (Ictalurus punctatus)

Channel Catfish
Source: mdc.mo.gov

The channel catfish, a common species found throughout Iowa, is popular for its size and strength. These whiskered behemoths can reach lengths of over 40 inches and weigh more than 40 pounds.

The Mississippi River, Des Moines River, and numerous lakes across the state provide ideal habitats for these massive catfish to grow.

Anglers seeking an exhilarating challenge often target the channel catfish, both for their impressive size and their reputation as formidable fighters.

2. Flathead Catfish (Pylodictis olivaris)

Flathead Catfish
Source: mdc.mo.gov

Considered the heavyweight champion of Iowa’s waters, the flathead catfish takes the crown for the largest freshwater fish found in the state.

Reaching lengths exceeding 50 inches and weighing well over 60 pounds, these solitary predators dominate the rivers and reservoirs they inhabit.

The Mississippi River and its tributaries, such as the Iowa River and the Cedar River, are prime locations to encounter these massive flatheads.

Anglers who embark on a quest for the ultimate angling challenge often find themselves in awe of the sheer size and power of these impressive creatures.

3. Muskellunge (Esox masquinongy)

Source: mdc.mo.gov

The elusive and fierce muskellunge, or muskie, holds a prominent position as Iowa’s apex predator. While not as large as some of the catfish species, muskies can still attain remarkable sizes, with lengths exceeding 50 inches and weights surpassing 30 pounds.

These formidable fish inhabit the cooler, clearer waters of Iowa’s lakes and rivers, including Spirit Lake, West Okoboji Lake, and the Upper Iowa River.

Anglers who manage to hook a muskie are greeted with a thrilling battle against a fish known for its strength, agility, and acrobatic leaps.

4. Paddlefish (Polyodon spathula)

Source: mdc.mo.gov

The paddlefish, with its distinctive elongated snout and prehistoric appearance, is a fascinating inhabitant of Iowa’s waters.

Although not as well-known as some of the other species, paddlefish can grow to impressive lengths, often exceeding 50 inches. These filter-feeding giants primarily inhabit the Mississippi River, where they undertake impressive migratory journeys.

Due to their unique characteristics and limited populations, paddlefish are strictly catch-and-release in Iowa, making them a highly valued species among anglers and conservationists alike.

Best Fishing Spots in Iowa

Iowa, though landlocked, offers a wealth of excellent fishing spots for anglers to explore. From scenic rivers to serene lakes, here are some of the state’s top fishing destinations:

1. Mississippi River

Stretching along Iowa’s eastern border, the Mississippi River is renowned for its diverse fish population. Anglers can reel in trophy-sized catfish, walleye, bass, and northern pike while enjoying breathtaking river views.

2. Spirit Lake

Located in northwest Iowa, Spirit Lake is the state’s largest natural lake and a haven for fishing enthusiasts. It is famous for its abundance of panfish, walleye, northern pike, and muskellunge, providing anglers with ample opportunities for a successful catch.

3. Clear Lake

Known as the “Bass Capital of Iowa,” Clear Lake offers exceptional bass fishing. Anglers can also target walleye, northern pike, and panfish. The lake’s clear waters and beautiful surroundings make it a popular fishing and recreational destination.

4. Rathbun Lake

Situated in south-central Iowa, Rathbun Lake is a sprawling reservoir teeming with fish. Anglers can target crappie, bluegill, largemouth bass, channel catfish, and walleye. The lake’s scenic beauty and peaceful ambiance add to the fishing experience.

5. Okoboji Lakes

The Okoboji chain of lakes, including West Okoboji Lake, East Okoboji Lake, and Big Spirit Lake, offers excellent fishing opportunities. Anglers can pursue walleye, northern pike, largemouth bass, and panfish. The area’s picturesque landscapes and recreational activities make it a popular tourist destination as well.

6. Des Moines River

Flowing through the heart of Iowa, the Des Moines River provides diverse fishing opportunities. Anglers can target catfish, smallmouth bass, walleye, and various panfish species. The river’s scenic stretches and ample fishing access points attract anglers of all skill levels.

As you plan your next fishing adventure, take a look at this overview to become more familiar with Iowa’s wildlife.

Common Fish in the Waters of Iowa

Iowa’s waters are home to a variety of fish species, with some being more common than others. Here are some of the most frequently fish species in Iowa:

1. Bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus)

Source: wboy.com

Bluegill is one of the most prevalent panfish species in Iowa’s lakes, ponds, and rivers. Anglers often target them due to their abundance and willingness to bite. They are known for their vibrant blue and yellow colors and make for great table fare.

2. Largemouth Bass (Micropterus salmoides)

Largemouth Bass
Source: news.yale.edu

Largemouth bass are popular gamefish in Iowa. They can be found in lakes, ponds, and rivers, where they inhabit areas with vegetation and structure. Known for their aggressive strikes and fighting ability, largemouth bass are highly sought after by anglers.

3. Crappie (Pomoxis spp.)

Source: wired2fish.com

Iowa is home to both black and white crappie species. These panfish are abundant in lakes and reservoirs and provide excellent angling opportunities. Crappies are known for their tasty, flaky flesh and are a favorite among many Iowa anglers.

4. Walleye (Sander vitreus)

Source: wired2fish.com

Walleye are a highly popular gamefish in Iowa’s waters. They present excellent table fare and require challenging angling tactics. Walleye are present in rivers and lakes, with popular fishing destinations such as the Mississippi River and Spirit Lake yielding impressive catches.

5. Northern Pike (Esox lucius)

Northern Pike
Source: a-z-animals.com

Northern pike, famous for their predatory nature and toothy jaws, live in various Iowa lakes and rivers. They are voracious predators and offer anglers an exciting challenge. Popular locations for pike fishing in Iowa include Clear Lake and Rathbun Lake.


Iowa may not have access to the vast ocean or boast marine giants, but its rivers and lakes harbor an impressive collection of freshwater behemoths.

From the muscular catfish to the elusive muskie and the peculiar paddlefish, Iowa’s waterways offer anglers and nature enthusiasts a chance to witness and appreciate these remarkable fish.

Whether it’s the thrill of reeling in a record-breaking catfish or the awe-inspiring encounter with a paddlefish, exploring the biggest fish in Iowa is a captivating journey that showcases the diversity and beauty of the state’s aquatic treasures.

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