List of Common Big Spirit Lake Fish Species [Updated]
Big Spirit Lake is located in Dickinson County, Iowa, and it is part of a chain of lakes in the area called the Iowa Great Lakes. Spanning about 5,700 acres with a mean depth of 17 feet, Big Spirit Lake is the largest natural lake found in Iowa. The lake was once called “Mini-Wakan” by Native Americans, but later on, French voyageurs began calling the lake “Lac d’Esprits,” both of which translate to “Lake of Spirits.” The lake is believed to have this name because Native Americans thought that an evil spirit had watched over Big Spirit Lake, so tribes would avoid traveling across the lake as much as possible.
Today, stories of evil spirits do not seem to be a bother to most, considering that Big Spirit Lake is a glorious attraction to tourists and Iowa residents alike. Big Spirit Lake can be a windy location, so sailors and windsurfers love the area. The lake also has smoother water along the shores, which makes for perfect conditions for water skiing, wakeboarding, and tubing.
The area also offers picnic areas, piers, boat launches, fish cleaning stations, and accessible shorelines that allow for family fun and plenty of opportunities for fishing. In fact, Big Spirit Lake is a top fishing attraction in Iowa, and there are over 40 species of fish to catch! Below are the most common fish species that can be found in Big Spirit Lake.
List of Fish Species in Big Spirit Lake
1) Bigmouth buffalo (Ictiobus cyprinellus)
Bigmouth buffalo enjoy the shallow, standing water that Big Spirit Lake has to offer, but they are also found in deeper locations during certain times of the year. These fish can withstand many different water qualities from low oxygen content to higher turbidity, but they prefer clear waters with muddy bottoms.
Bigmouth buffalo are an olive or bronze color with a lighter color belly, and they closely resemble a common carp. The main difference between the two is that bigmouth buffalo lack the two chin barbels that carp possess. This species is the largest member of the suckerfish family, growing to about 15 – 27 inches long and 2 – 14 pounds. Bigmouth buffalo get their name from their very large sucker mouth that faces terminally, and they use this mouth to feed on zooplankton, benthic larvae, crustaceans, and detritus.
2) Common carp (Cyprinus carpio)
Common carp, also known as European carp, are one of the most abundant and widely distributed fish in Iowa, and they prefer areas where water is warm and still or very slow-moving. This species has a robust body with a brassy green back and white to yellow sides. They have large scales with a black dot on each and two pairs of barbels on their upper jaw. These fish have rows of pharyngeal teeth that they use to dig up aquatic plant roots to eat in addition to catching insects, crustaceans, and small mollusks.
Common carp are a non-native species to North America, and they were brought to the United States in the late 1800s because they were a wildly popular food item for immigrants who wanted to be able to continue eating them when they came to the United States.
3) Black bullhead (Ameiurus melas)
Black bullheads are a type of catfish that can be found in Big Spirit Lake where the water is still and the bottom is silty; although they are incredibly tolerant to many different water conditions. These fish have black or dark olive bodies and a cream-colored belly. Black bullheads can be distinguished from other species of bullheads by a light-colored band that runs along the base of the tail.
This species grows to about 8 – 14 inches in length and weighs 1 – 2 pounds. Equipped with eight black barbels on their face, black bullheads navigate the waters to find anything they can eat including small crayfish, worms, small mollusks, crustaceans, and aquatic plants, but bullheads in Iowa heavily rely on midge and mayfly larvae as well as fathead minnows.
4) Channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatus)
Channel catfish are one of the most abundant types of catfish in the United States. This species can be found near woody drift piles, shorelines, sand bars, and other covered areas in Spirit Lake. Like all catfish, the channel catfish does not have scales and has barbels on the upper and lower jaw; however, the channel catfish can be distinguished by its deeply forked tail, silvery body, and overbite. These fish grow to about 10 – 20 inches long and weigh anywhere from 2 – 10 pounds.
Catfish tend to eat quite a bit of food, so they use their barbels covered in taste buds to sense their surroundings in murky waters and find food like snails, fishes, snakes, frogs, insects, aquatic plants, and even birds. At Big Spirit Lake, the daily bag limit for channel catfish is eight fish, and the possession limit is 30 fish.
5) Black crappie (Pomoxis nigromaculatus)
Black crappies like the clear and still waters at Big Spirit Lake, and they can be found near areas with submerged coverings. These fish have compressed bodies and are generally a darker green on the back with dark mottling on the silvery sides. They also have 7 – 8 spines on their dorsal fins, which distinguishes them from white crappies, who have 5 – 6 spines.
This species exhibits sexual dimorphism, so the males tend to be larger and darker than the females. Black crappies typically grow to about 8 – 12 inches and will weigh 0.25 – 1 pounds. This species is generally nocturnal, so they will hunt during the night for small fishes, crustaceans, and insects. Currently, there is a 25 fish bag limit for crappies at Big Spirit Lake.
6) White crappie (Pomoxis annularis)
White crappies are less abundant than black crappies in Big Spirit Lake because they do well in moving, turbid waters, but these fish can still be caught in the lake from time to time. White crappies have compressed bodies that are silvery-olive on the back and silvery-white towards the belly. These fish have dark vertical bands along the sides of their bodies, and their gill covers have spines.
Males look slightly different than females during breeding season because males will develop a dark throat. White crappies average about 9 – 10 inches long and are around 2 pounds as adults. These fish generally eat smaller fishes like minnows or shad, but they will also eat insects like mayflies.
7) Bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus)
Bluegills are the most common sunfish in Iowa, and they prefer warm pools of water with lots of vegetation. These fish are characterized by having disk-shaped bodies with an olive-green back, an orangish-yellow belly, and a black dot at the base of the dorsal fin. Bluegills get their name from the bluish hue surrounding the gill covers. This species averages around 7.5 inches in length and weighs around half a pound as adults. These fish have very little mouths, so they will only eat smaller prey such as zooplankton, insects, worms, and snails.
Bluegills are a main source of food for many larger fish such as largemouth bass, so they have adapted to be maneuverable. For instance, this species can make very quick stops by spreading out their pectoral fins. The daily bag limit for bluegills in Big Spirit Lake is 25 fish.
8) Green sunfish (Lepomis cyanellus)
Green sunfish are a widely distributed fish in Iowa due to their tolerance to many different water conditions including high turbidity, low oxygen, and faster moving water; however, these fish are most commonly found around the shores of lakes where there is a lot of cover. Green sunfish have bluish-green bodies covered in green or yellow reflections and a whitish belly. These fish also have a yellow and green mottled head, a black ear flap, and yellow edges on their fins.
This species typically reaches around 3 – 7 inches in length and will rarely weigh over a pound. Green sunfish have very large mouths for panfish, and they use this mouth to eat aquatic insects, crustaceans, and smaller fishes.
9) Pumpkinseed (Lepomis gibbosus)
Pumpkinseed sunfish are not incredibly abundant in Iowa, but they can be found in Big Spirit Lake where the water is clear, warmer, and has lots of vegetation to hide in. This species has a disc-shaped body that is speckled with olive green, blue, orange, and yellow, and they have orange and blue waves running across their faces.
These fish grow to about 5 – 8 inches long and weigh around 8 – 12 ounces. These fish are active during the day and will feed on insects, larvae, mollusks, snails, crustaceans, leeches, small fish, and detritus. At night, pumpkinseeds will rest near the bottom of the river or in vegetation, so they will not be spotted by predators. The daily bag limit for pumpkinseeds is 25 fish at Big Spirit Lake.
10) Freshwater drum (Aplodinotus grunniens)
Freshwater drum, also known as sheepshead, is a fish that will most likely be found in the shallow, muddy waters of Big Spirit Lake. This species gets its name from the drumming or croaking noise males can make with a specific muscle in their body to attract mates. Freshwater drum are characterized by their silver bodies with a lateral line that extends all the way through their caudal fin. They also have a steeply sloping body that gives them the appearance of having a humpback.
This species averages about 10 – 14 inches long and will usually weigh up to five pounds. Drum have large teeth that help them eat a variety of prey at the bottom of the lake including snails, insects, small fish, and zebra mussels.
11) Largemouth bass (Micropterus salmoides)
Largemouth bass are found throughout much of Iowa, and they enjoy the still waters of Big Spirit Lake in areas where there is plenty of cover. Largemouth bass get their name from their mouth, which extends past the eye, unlike smallmouth bass. Largemouth bass have olive-green bodies with dark mottling along the back and speckles along the sides.
This species has an average length of 13 inches and will generally weigh less than 5 pounds, although the largest largemouth ever recorded was 22 pounds and 4 ounces. Largemouths are carnivores that primarily feed on crayfish but will also eat other fishes and insects. The bag limit for black bass species combined is three fish, and the fish must exceed 15 inches in length.
12) Smallmouth bass (Micropterus dolomieu)
Smallmouth bass are not as widely spread throughout Iowa compared to largemouth bass, but some can still be found in Big Spirit Lake. Smallmouths are an olive-green color with vertical bands on the side of the body, and they range from 12 – 18 inches in length and weigh around 1 – 4 pounds.
While smallmouths look very similar to largemouth bass, the major distinction between the two is that smallmouth bass have a smaller mouth that extends to the midpoint of the eye. Despite the difference in mouth sizes, smallmouths eat a diet similar to largemouth bass.
13) Yellow bass (Morone mississippiensis)
Yellow bass are not densely populated in Iowa, but they can be found in the clear waters of Big Spirit Lake. This species is characterized by its olive-green back and yellowish sides. They also have seven dark horizontal stripes on the mid to upper portion of their bodies and broken lines on the lower middle portion.
Yellow bass are relatively small, growing to about 6 – 10 inches long and weighing around 8 – 11 ounces. These fish do not have teeth or tongues, but they still are able to hunt in schools for insects, crustaceans, and other fishes.
14) White bass (Morone chrysops)
White bass prefer to be in large, open areas of Big Spirit Lake where the turbidity is very low. These fish are a silvery-white color, and they wear 6 – 8 black stripes laterally across their bodies. They have an underbite mouth, much like the largemouth bass; however, white bass are more closely related to striped bass that reside in the more brackish areas of a river or the sea.
White bass are a mid-sized fish, and they average about 12 – 14 inches in length and weigh around two pounds. This species is highly aggressive when it comes to feeding, and schools of white bass will hunt together for items such as gizzard shad, perch, carp, and other fish species.
15) Muskellunge (Esox masquinongy)
Muskellunge, more commonly known as muskies, can be found in Big Spirit Lake because they prefer very clear and slow-moving waters. These fish come in three subspecies that have slightly different patterning and native ranges, but they will all have darker green or brownish backs that fade to light green sides and a whitish belly. Muskies are the largest of the pike family, and they can reach about 30 – 40 inches long and 10 – 20 pounds on average, although they can reach up to 70 pounds in certain waters.
These fish have jaws lined with long, sharp teeth, and the roof of their mouths are covered in smaller curved teeth. They also have excellent vision both during the day and at night. With these factors combined, muskies make for top predators that eat a number of larger fish species. Muskies are not necessarily naturally occurring in Iowa lakes, so there are efforts to stock muskies in many bodies of water in Iowa. Because of this, there is a daily bag limit of one muskellunge at Big Spirit Lake, and the fish has to be over 40 inches long in order to keep it.
16) Northern pike (Esox lucius)
Northern pike are common in the upper two-thirds of Iowa, and they prefer cooler waters but can tolerate many different conditions. This species is characterized by torpedo-shaped bodies that are dark green or brown and covered in gold spots. They also have pointed mouths that contain many sharp teeth.
Northern pike grow to about 18 – 25 inches long and weigh around 2 – 5 pounds. Due to the structure of their body, northern pike prove to be vicious predators and will lunge to eat other fish, frogs, crayfish, small mammals, and ducklings. At Big Spirit Lake, there is a three-fish daily bag limit for northern pike.
17) Quillback (Carpiodes cyprinus)
Quillback carpsuckers are widely distributed in Iowa, and they enjoy clear streams and large deep pools like Big Spirit Lake. These fish have brown backs and silvery-yellow sides with large, dark-edged scales. Quillbacks highly resemble other carpsuckers, but some distinguishing features are the long first ray on the dorsal fin and the lack of a protrusion at the middle of the lower lip.
This species reaches around 12 – 17 inches long and will weigh 1 – 3 pounds as adults. Quillbacks are bottom feeders, and they can often be found searching the bottom of lakes and streams for plant matter, insect larvae, and small mollusks.
18) Walleye (Sander vitreus)
Walleye are found throughout Iowa, but they prefer calm, cool, sandy-bottom lakes. This species has a brownish-green body that fades to a cream belly complete with dark horizontal lines. These fish are the largest of the perch family, and they average about 11 pounds.
Walleye get their name from their big, glassy pupils, and these eyes look like this due to a reflective layer on the inner eye called the tapetum lucidum, which helps walleyes see prey in times of low visibility. This layer makes walleyes sensitive to bright light, however, so they often hunt for their prey, like fishes and mudpuppies, at dusk or night. Currently, the bag limit for walleye at Big Spirit Lake is three fish, and only one of those fish can exceed 25 inches long. The rest of the fish kept must be under 19 inches long.
19) Yellow perch (Perca flavescens)
Yellow perch are most abundant in natural lakes in Iowa, much like Big Spirit Lake, because they prefer clear, cool waters. This species is known for its golden yellow to greenish body covered in 6 – 8 dark vertical bars. These fish have yellow or green eyes and orange-red tinted fins. Yellow perch generally grow to about 7 – 10 inches long and weigh around a pound, although this species is prone to having stunted growth in areas where food is limited.
When food is abundant, adults will feed on the bottom of the lake with their subterminal mouth, and they will search for items such as benthic macroinvertebrates as well as smaller fishes. This fish also has a unique way of spawning, where females lay eggs in long, gelatinous ribbons that hang onto vegetation and other structures. There is currently a 25 fish bag limit for yellow perch at Big Spirit Lake.
20) White sucker (Catostomus commersonii)
White suckers are extremely common in almost all types of water in Iowa, and they are extremely tolerant of many water conditions including high turbidity and polluted waters. These fish are characterized by long slender bodies that are olive-brown on the back, silver on the sides, and white on the belly. During breeding season, males will develop gold coloration on their backs and red stripes across their sides.
As adults, white suckers reach about 10 – 16 inches long and will weigh less than two pounds. White suckers also have toothless terminal mouths with thick lips, which they use to suck zooplankton, larvae, fish eggs, and benthic invertebrates off of the lake floor.