Secret Smallmouths of Western Iowa

Secret Smallmouths of Western Iowa

Who needs the traditional smallmouth hotspots when there are so many Hawkeye State hotspots off the beaten path?

By Dan Anderson

After more than 40 years of fishing Iowa's waters for catfish, largemouth bass, crappies, walleyes, bluegills and even carp, I've finally seen the light.

That light flashed from the sun-silvered sides of a 1-pound smallmouth bass as it tail-walked across the surface of a creek in Dallas County. I waded the creek last summer in search of carp for fun and catfish for supper, using night crawlers for bait. The creek is largely sand- and mud-bottomed, but about three times per mile it's bisected by a rock bar, or ripples over scattered cobble at the mouth of a tributary stream.

I'd already enjoyed battles with several 3- and 4-pound carp and was dragging a couple of 2-pound channel cats on a stringer, when I encountered the first rock bar of my afternoon's wade. I cast above the riffle and allowed my split-shotted crawler to drift over the rocks and settle into the shallow pool below. Something pounced on the crawler, hooked itself and headed sideways in a run that threw a spray of water droplets from my line.

I know a bass when I see a bass, and the fish that soon struggled in my wetted hand was a bass - of some sort. I studied it and memorized its conformation and coloration so I could identify its exact species when I got back to my reference books. Then I released it. I shouldn't have worried about memorizing that first fish. By the time my bridge-to-bridge wade was finished, I caught and released nearly twenty of them and lost all interest in carp and catfish.

Any Des Moines River tributary can produce chunky smallmouths like this -- if you know where to look. Photo by Dan Anderson

The next evening I returned to the creek with an ultralight rod and reel and a pocketful of jigs. This time, I headed straight for a rock bar. I waded into the pool below and flipped a white 1/16-ounce twister-tail into the smooth water above the riffle. I had barely recovered the slack when the line zipped tight and my first tail-walker of the night was headed across the creek. In a few minutes, a 1-pound smallmouth bass struggled in my hand.

I'd never caught a smallmouth bass prior to the previous day, so I spent some time confirming what I'd caught. The only thing that confused me was the fish's silver coloration, with only subtle mottled bars and spots on its cheeks and gill covers.

"It was probably the water conditions and age that made it silver rather than brown and mottled, like we're used to seeing," said Marion Conover, chief of fisheries for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. "Maybe it was the muddier, warmer water, or it wasn't old enough to get its full coloration. It doesn't surprise me that you found them in a central Iowa catfish creek. Everybody thinks that smallmouth bass are restricted to the Iowa Great Lakes and our coolwater streams in northeast Iowa, but we see them all across the state.

"When I was stationed in north-central Iowa, a local game warden tipped me off that there were smallmouth bass in some tributaries to the Upper Cedar River in Franklin County," continued Conover. "I did some exploring and had a lot of fun catching smallmouths from Otter Creek, Spring Creek and Maynes Creek. I think there were maybe half a dozen other guys who knew about the smallmouths, and we didn't talk about it much. It was a fun little fishery that we had all to ourselves."

Eastern Iowa also has secret smallmouth fisheries courtesy of the Cedar River. Dave McClure of Cedar Rapids said Indian Creek, which flows through the city of Cedar Rapids, is an excellent example.

"In summer, the water in Indian Creek ranges from 6 to 20 feet wide," said McClure. "Depth ranges from ankle deep to holes maybe 6 or 8 feet deep. There are rock and cobble bars every so often, and if you fish those rocky areas with a twister-tail or spinner, it's not hard to pick up smallmouths up to 3 or 4 pounds."

McClure has explored long stretches of the Cedar River, the Iowa River and smaller rivers like the Wapsipinicon, Maquoketa and Volga. Any time he encounters a sizable tributary, he thinks "smallmouth."

"Depending on the size of the tributary, there may be fishable water for only a half mile from the mouth, or for several miles, but if there's a couple of feet of water and some rocks, there's probably at least a few smallmouths at every rock bar or outcrop," he said. "It's actually easier to find smallmouths in those creeks than in the big rivers.

"The fish are more concentrated in the rocky areas and in smaller pools," said McClure. "If you canoe them in the spring or wade them in the summer, it's surprising how many smallies you can find once you know where to look."

McClure uses traditional smallmouth tackle and tactics to target smallies in those small waters. In-line spinners work well below riffles, topwaters are deadly in calm pools early in morning or late in the evening, and twister-tail jigs work all the time. Ultralight rods and reels and 4-pound-test line make even 1-pound smallies a challenge to land.

Catch and Release Smallies

Certain segments of specific rivers in Iowa have been designated "No-kill" for smallmouth bass. All smallmouth bass caught from No-Kill segments of rivers must be immediately released.


No-Kill segments include: The Middle Raccoon River from Lennon Mills dam at Panora downstream to the dam at Redfield; The Maquoketa River, from the Lake Delhi Dam downstream to the first county gravel road bridge; the Cedar River, from the Otranto Dam downstream to the bridge on county road T26 south of St. Ansgar; and the Upper Iowa River, from the Fifth Street bridge in Decorah downstream to the "upper" dam.


All other streams and rivers in Iowa have 12-inch minimum length limits on smallmouth and black bass, with a daily limit of three and possession limit of six.


Any creek or small river that's a tributary of a larger river in the northeastern two-thirds of Iowa probably holds smallmouth bass. The Cedar River, the Iowa River, the Des Moines River and all three forks of the Raccoon River support resident populations of smallmouths.

"There used to be a strong smallmouth population in the Middle Raccoon River below Panora," said fisheries chief Conover. "The big flood of 1993 flushed out a lot of the habitat, and that population fell off. But we're trying to redevelop some of the habitat in that stretch of river, and doing a little stocking to jumpstart the smallmouth population again."

Conover paused during the interview. "You know, now that I think about it, there are some tributaries to the Raccoon River not far from where I live that might be worth checking out for smallmouths," he mused. "Panther Creek and Mosquito Creek, west of Adel, might be worth wading when summer comes around. In our tagging studies, we've seen smallmouths move 30 miles up tributaries when water conditions were right."

Ron Ganoe, who lives near the North Fork of the Raccoon River west of Rippey in Greene County, regularly lands smallmouths from nearby Buttrick and Hardin Creeks while using night crawlers for catfish.

"Any time the river gets high, you can expect to start picking up occasional smallmouths from the creeks," said Ganoe. "People think I'm nuts when I talk about catching smallmouths out of those creeks, but I catch more smallmouths out of the creeks than I do from the river."

The Des Moines River holds smallmouths from Lake Red Rock upstream to the Minnesota border. Dan Luke, a semi-pro tournament largemouth bass angler from Winterset, reports that one of the state's best-kept secret smallmouth fisheries is just north of Des Moines.

"From Saylorville Dam downstream to the north side of Des Moines, there are a lot of smallies," he reported. "The water from Saylorville is cool, the sediments are settled out so it's pretty clear, and smallmouths are doing really, really well in that stretch of river. I know guys who clobber smallmouths around the rocks and bridge pilings on that stretch of river, but they never tell anybody, because they want to keep it to themselves."

Which brings us back to my personal smallmouth discovery in Dallas County. I'll confess that the creek is a tributary of the Des Moines River, but that's all I'm going to tell you.

I've got to keep a few secrets.

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