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Top Urban Fishing Spots in Des Moines

  • 5/18/2016 11:15:00 AM
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Sixty percent of anglers travel no more than 20 miles to fish. For those near Iowa’s largest metro, hit these local picks. (Stay tuned for top spots in more cities in future issues of Iowa Outdoors.)

From the May/June 2016 issue of Iowa Outdoors
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From Gray's Lake to Jester Park, here are the top 15 spots to fish in the Des Moines metro | Iowa DNRSpend a fun family day fishing at the DMACC campus ponds in Ankeny or West Des Moines. Catch an abundance of bluegill and crappie, along with largemouth bass and channel catfish. Trails, fishing jetties and an accessible pier provide excellent shore fishing access. Look for bluegill and crappies near shoreline rocks. Use small hooks, bobbers and bait and fish close to the rocks in late April and May;

City Campus Pond, nestled in the center of the West Des Moines City Campus (4200 Mills Civic Pkwy) offers good fishing for bluegill. Shoreline access is good and a walking trail surrounds the pond. Native plants along the hillside southeast of the pond help prevent erosion entering the water, improving water quality and providing a beautiful background of vibrant colors.

Recently renovated Fort Des Moines Pond is easy to find just southwest of Southridge Mall. Catch bluegill, channel catfish, crappie and largemouth bass. A trail around the lake and fishing pier provide great shoreline access. Take a stroll on the pedestrian bridge over the pond, let the kids play on the playground or learn more about central Iowa trees in the arboretum within Fort Des Moines Park. Numerous park amenities will be added this spring and summer, including a new lake drive, an accessible fishing pier, canoe launch, environmental education outdoor classroom, amphitheater and shelter, renovated shelters and playground and enhancements to the peninsula that provides a scenic view of the pond. The park will remain open during construction, however short term closures may be necessary to ensure public safety; search

Get away from the crowds and enjoy the beautiful scenery at Yellow Banks Park Pond. Fish the jetty, or hang out under the covered dock to get out of the elements. Hike the trails to find a more secluded spot to cast your line. Relax in the open gathering area on top of the dam. Picnic areas overlook the Des Moines River. The boat ramp at Yellow Banks Park provides easy access to the Des Moines River between Des Moines and Lake Red Rock; search

Thomas Mitchell Pond, nestled in a quiet park three miles southwest of Mitchellville, provides excellent shoreline access. Cast for bluegill, channel catfish and largemouth bass off the fishing piers. A trail surrounds the pond. Kids can burn off energy at the playground. Camp, picnic, hike, watch wildlife or hunt mushrooms; search

Three ponds at Jester Park on the western shore of Saylorville Lake provide hours of fun for kids and beginner anglers. Catch an abundance of bass, bluegill, green sunfish and crappie. The pond on the north side of the park has fishing jetties and a boardwalk which provides great fishing access. An array of outdoor activities await all ages, including a natural play area for children, camping and rental cabins, equestrian center, golf course and elk and bison wildlife exhibit; search

Anglers with a bit more experience will find a variety of fishing opportunities at Saylorville Reservoir. Shoreline access is available, but a boat is needed to access many areas of the reservoir. White bass, hybrid striped bass (wipers) and channel catfish are the most targeted species. This multi-use recreational area offers camping, a visitor center near the dam, biking and hiking trails and several natural areas; search “Saylorville” at

Plan a quick get-away at Big Creek State Park, just 10 miles north of Des Moines near Polk City on highway 415. Use small tackle and light line to catch aggressive bluegill close to shore at this 866-acre lake in late May and early June. May is also a great month to catch walleye here. Numerous fishing jetties dot the lakeshore, along with a universally accessible fishing pier on the east side of the lake. Big Creek Marina rents fishing boats, pontoons, water bikes, kayaks and more. A paved trail surrounds much of the lake, and there is a large playground near the beach;

Adventurous anglers can find rewards within the river systems in central Iowa. The Des Moines River is a good resource to focus on in spring (February-May). Catch a diverse mix of walleye, white bass, hybrid striped bass and flathead and channel catfish below riffles and low-head dams. Hardier anglers target the Scott Avenue and Center Street dams in downtown Des Moines. Anglers typically have success fishing below Saylorville and Red Rock reservoirs as well. Multiple boat ramps provide access to the river. The more popular ramps are Sycamore Access in Johnston (NW 66th Ave.), Prospect Park (1225 Prospect Road) and Birdland Park (2100 Saylor Road) in Des Moines and in Pleasant Hill (Vandalia Road).

Take your kids to one of the top fishing spots in Des Moines for a fun day | Iowa DNRIt’s worth a couple hours of fishing at Copper Creek Lake, 4390 East University Avenue. It has “decent bluegill and hybrid striped bass,” says Steven Konrady, an AmeriCorps member working for the DNR mapping urban fisheries resources. It’s one of the few urban fisheries with good white bass populations, introduced to control problematic shad. Lighted trail, playground equipment, shelters, open space, picnic areas and excellent shoreline fishing. Carry-in, non-gas powered, non-inflatable watercraft only; designated launch area; search “Copper Creek” at

Lake Petocka is easy to spot just off the diagonal north of Bondurant (520 Pleasant Street NE). It is an amazing catfish fishery, Konrady says, with big fish and plenty of them. And the bluegills have “broken the mold. Some really nice bluegill there.” A small borrow pit, it has a small watershed and clear water, so fish tend to grow a little slower. It’s one of central Iowa’s favorite urban trout fisheries in the winter; search Lake Petocka at, or

Gray’s Lake in downtown Des Moines is worth a look, not just for the fishing, but the unique opportunities found there. The lake is influenced by flooding of the adjacent Raccoon River, so expect a fair number of riverine species—think non traditional opportunities like carp and gar. “Change up your game,” Konrady says, and try flyfishing for carp. The Raccoon also offers some of the best river opportunities in the district, he claims. If fishing slows, there is no shortage of activities to fill the day. The park is known for its 1.9-mile trail, beautifully lit at night, filled with rollerbladers, walkers, runners and bikers and equipped with emergency phones. Bring your kayak or canoe, or rent watercraft (and bikes) from the concession stand. Rent a sailboat and try your hand at this unique adventure. Sign up for a class, like SUP yoga, or sit in on a program, like birding basics, at various times throughout the year. Search Gray’s Lake at

Just across the street is Des Moines Water Works Park, a major hub connecting hundreds of miles of trails for biking, walking and running. Take a stroll through Arie Den Boer Arboretum, best the last week of April and first week of May when blooming crabapples draw thousands of visitors. 

Historically, Easter Lake in southeast Des Moines has suffered poor water quality. Sedimentation reduced the surface size by 48 acres and volume by 24 percent. Excess nutrients, specifically phosphorous, plagued the lake. Sediment and nutrients caused frequent algae blooms and poor water clarity. Elevated bacteria levels forced swimming advisories. Undesirable carp and shad clogged it. Stunted panfish dominated. In short, the lake was impaired.

But changes are on the way, enough so that state and county leaders say this will soon be a destination location—not just for fishing but for family fun. 

“There is a lot of hope that it will turn into something pretty amazing,” says Konrady. 

Lake levels are currently drawn down to install fish barriers and work on the spillway. Dredging will follow likely this spring, focusing on areas already identified as popular spots by local anglers. Shoreline stabilization and fish habitat construction is next on the timeline. Fish stocking will happen in late 2017 or 2018, according to Mike McGhee, former DNR lake restoration coordinator now working for the Polk County Conservation Board on project oversight and lake restoration. Sediment retention structures and ponds are planned throughout the watershed. Plenty of infrastructure currently exists at Easter Lake, and more is planned, including a 10K trail that is expected to attract competition races. 

McGhee says roughly 400,000 visitors currently enjoy Easter Lake—a number expected to grow to 1 to 1.5 million once restoration is complete. 

Although fishing will not be allowed until mid-2017, Terra Lake is the center piece of Johnston’s unique Terra Park (6300 Pioneer Parkway), featuring lots of outdoor recreation options for the whole family. The 8-acre lake was built by the city of Johnston in 2014 and largemouth bass, channel catfish and bluegills were stocked last spring and fall. A temporary fishing ban is in place to allow those fish to spawn and grow. A fishing pier on the east side of the lake provides great fishing access. A large lawn surrounds the lake—perfect for concerts and games. An open-air civic shelter serves large gatherings, or choose the picnic pavilion for smaller events. An outdoor amphitheater and picnic and lakeside shelters will be added later this year. Kids can hit the playground or peruse the numerous native plantings. Jump on the adjacent bike trail and decide whether to go north through the city, southwest into Urbandale and West Des Moines or east toward downtown Des Moines. Search “Terra Park” at

For more ideas, check out our Iowa Fishing board on Pinterest and follow us on Twitter for fishing updates.

Gray's Lake is one of our top fishing spots in Des Moines | Iowa DNR