Minnows and nightcrawlers in southwestern Iowa, be warned. Anglers are coming for you and heading to Lake Anita.
So much so that Cappel’s Ace Hardware in Atlantic, 15 miles away, had to up its weekly bait orders to keep up with demand. Thanks to a watershed that protects water quality and a recent fish renovation, anglers and campers have made Lake Anita State Park the go-to place between Des Moines and Omaha. “We do real well – it has a great impact on us, that’s for sure,” said Tom Cappel, the store’s owner, of the lake. “We have a large fishing section. It’s gotten bigger since Anita has picked up again. It’s a good business for us 52 weeks of the year.”
Not that long ago, that wasn’t the case. Yellow bass and grass carp were overtaking game fish and destroying aquatic plants. Without those plants to tie up phosphorus in the water, algae blooms became a problem. “When I first got here in 2002, camping was going down because fishing had become so poor,” said Josh Peach, park manager. So in 2003, the DNR drained the lake, killed what fish remained, deepened and strengthened the shoreline, installed underwater fish habitat, and added pea gravel spawning areas to attract bluegills and largemouth bass closer to shore.
Park visitors were sparse while the lake took a couple of years to refill. The town of Anita, along the park’s northern boundary, could feel that lack of campers and anglers. “What affects us at the park affects the town of Anita,” said Peach.
But once the lake refilled, word spread quickly about the successful renovation. The park hosted 12 fishing tournaments this summer. Park use and camping numbers are higher than ever before, especially on summer Saturday nights, when the Friends of Lake Anita offer a free movie and popcorn. Those park visitors stop in town for supplies, gas, bait, dinner and more. “It’s a fantastic thing for the whole town. We get people coming in with the campers. I’m glad we have it here,” said Lee Poeppe, owner of Redwood Steak House in Anita. “It has grown. It helps the community tremendously.” People come from as far away as Waterloo and Omaha, said E.D. Brocker with the friends group. “Everything is in place here for a great weekend,” Brocker said.
Conservation practices and a quality watershed protect that investment in the community. “The water quality has always been exceptional at Anita because of the watershed,” said Peach. A small amount of land drains to the lake – 13 acres of land for every acre of lake – and a good portion of the basin is grassland, pasture or permanent vegetation through the Conservation Reserve Program. Along with the prairie restoration in the park, that helps soak up rainfall and reduce runoff. Ponds in the park catch sediment and nutrients before they can reach the lake. “The fishing’s been phenomenal since the renovation,” said Bryan Hayes, DNR fisheries biologist. “Part of it’s the good water quality.”