History of Big Spirit Lake

Big Spirit Lake, a freshwater lake of approximately 5,684 acres, is the largest natural lake in Iowa. Located in Dickinson County in northwest Iowa, the lake is the northernmost of the group of lakes known as the “Iowa Great Lakes.” Formed as a glacial pothole nearly 13,000 years ago during the most recent ice age, Big Spirit Lake has an average depth of 17 feet with its deepest point being 24 feet. The northern shore of Big Spirit Lake borders Minnesota.

Big Spirit Lake contains over 40 species of fish and is a popular fishing destination for anglers throughout Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska and South Dakota. Visitors, and residents alike, fish for walleye, northern pike, perch, bass, catfish and crappies by boat or from a dock during the summer and through the ice during the winter. The state record freshwater drum and muskellunge were caught in Big Spirit Lake.

The State Fish Hatchery in Orleans, just south of Big Spirit Lake, is a popular spot to view the aquariums that showcase many local fish species. The hatchery and its grounds are open from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. on weekdays. In addition, when walleye spawning is in full swing, usually in early to mid-April, the hatchery is open to visitors 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Between 40,000 and 60,000 people visit the Spirit Lake Hatchery each year.

Big Spirit Lake has had several names throughout history. Native Americans named it “Mini-Wakan,” and it was known as “Lac d’Esprits" by French voyageurs. Both names translate to “Lake of the Spirits.” A current tradition holds that Native Americans believed Big Spirit Lake to be under the watch of an evil spirit. Tribe members avoided crossing the lake in their canoes. Another legend relates that lovers of opposing tribes perished in a storm during a forbidden meeting.

Those or newer tales testify to the quality of wind on the lake, making it popular with sailors and windsurfers. Big Spirit Lake’s shoreline also creates vast expanses of smooth water, making acres of skiing, tubing, wakeboarding and other activities available for power boaters.  And on days with less wind you will find kayaks and canoes venturing further out on the lake.