A Walleye Fixer-Upper

A Walleye Fixer-Upper

The IDNR is developing the Upper Iowa River into an outstanding walleye fishery. Here's what you need to know to get in on the action. (July 2006)

On the Upper Iowa River, a lot of improvements have been made that rate a thumbs-up from local walleye anglers. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources has invested a lot of time and money into the river and its tributaries, and the result is one of the fastest growing walleye fisheries in the state.


Located in the state's far northeastern corner, the Upper Iowa River watershed covers a thousand square miles and includes several feeder streams, some of which are outstanding trout waters.

The river flows through Winneshiek, Howard and Allamakee counties. Open prairie land borders the upper reaches of the stream until it winds its way down through 400-foot high vertical bluffs and rocky structure.


The IDNR estimates that well over 300,000 anglers a year journey to the Upper Iowa River, and some knowledgeable sources say that this is a conservative number. The river's excellent fishing is no secret, but it continues to improve despite the pressure put on it.


Fisheries biologists are pleased to report that the smallmouth bass and trout fishing have remained excellent. The river system has been so healthy that even the stocking of thousands of walleyes hasn't hurt the already established fisheries.

"In 1999, we wanted to look at the entire Upper Iowa and its watershed to check for places where nitrogen, phosphorous, atrzine and bacteria were entering the waterway," said Bill Kalishek, an IDNR fisheries biologist with the Decorah Hatchery.

Over the last six years IDNR biologists have accumulated a lot of information on where these four fish-killing substances are finding their way into the river. A number of projects have been undertaken in conjunction with county conservation boards and the federal Natural Resource Conservation Service to fix the problem.

"The benefits are already being seen, and some won't be evident for fifteen to twenty years down the road," said Kalishek.

Each project is specifically directed at an area of the watershed where water quality surveys have shown the need.

"Too much nitrogen, phosphorous, atrzine and bacteria can have a long-term impact on fishing and water quality. Phosphorous can affect walleye reproduction, while high levels of phosphorous and nitrogen affect the entire food chain all the way up from tiny bacteria to the walleyes. Generally, the lower the nitrogen and phosphorous levels, the better the fishery."

The IDNR's responses have been as varied, creative and location-specific as biologists and engineers can make them, said Kalishek.

Sediment basins are one project that's received high marks from both the IDNR and surrounding landowners. The Trout, North Bear and South Bear streams were natural sites to work at controlling runoff during storms.

The basins are small dams and pipes that back up and direct the flow of water on low-lying lands during the monsoon-like rainstorms that can dump several inches of water in the area. Normally, these gully-washers would drain into the streams within eight to ten hours and take a lot of soil along with them. But water backs up behind the sediment dams to create ponds that may then take days to drain off, leaving the soil where it belongs.

On Staff Creek, the surrounding wetlands have been restored to leach out high nitrogen levels before the nitrogen can reach flowing water. Not only are the wetlands good for wildlife, but the nitrogen counts downstream have improved.

The IDNR is also working on ways to utilize tiles to do the same thing. Diverting water from a direct route into the stream is a viable way of leaching out the nitrogen.

According to Paul Berland, Coordinator of the Upper Iowa River Watershed Project, the organization recently received over $671,000 to improve the water quality in the river and its tributaries. The target of the project is to reduce sediment that reaches the river and to reduce bacteria counts by constructing animal-waste storage systems within the watershed. Landowners will be able to fund their construction of soil stabilization terraces, sediment basins and animal-waste storage facilities with money that will cover from 50 to 75 percent of the costs.

"The Pine and Coldwater streams have also been targeted for bacteria reduction," said Kalishek.

According to him, bacteria come from the intestines of warm-blooded farm animals and humans. Runoff from manure and inadequate septic systems on bordering properties has been a source of high concentrations of bacteria. Keeping this waste out of the water lowers the bacteria count, and efforts at encouraging manure-pit use and improved sanitation systems seem to be working.

Bank stabilization efforts have also had good results.

"We looked for banks that were actively eroding on trout streams that feed into the Upper Iowa. We graded it, put in riprap, put the dirt back on top of the riprap and seeded it," said Kalishek.

"In some cases, the mud bottom has turned into a gravel one. Stretches throughout the length of the Upper Iowa that used to be mud are now areas with gravel bottoms that walleyes are utilizing. What's good for the streams is good for the river."

Kalishek noted that the Upper Iowa River is unique, in that the bottom is generally rocky along the entire length of the river, a distance that extends nearly seventy miles. Due to this excellent habitat, the walleye population has taken off nearly everywhere in the river.

Although a lot of state money has been channeled into improving the fishery, it couldn't have been done without the help of volunteers. Last September, area residents arrived for the Fourth Annual Upper Iowa Cleanup. They scoured about thirty river miles to pick up trash above Kendallville and below Blufton.

The efforts of the IDNR are paying off as far as Duane Hruska of Hruska's Canoe Livery is concerned.

"The water clarity is great. The only time it gets dirty is when it rains heavily, and then it clears back up in a couple of weeks," said Hruska, who has been in business on the river for thirty years.

According to him, the IDNR has had an uphill battle in improving the quality of the river.

"Some of the farmers around here don't practice good conservation. They farm right up to the edge of the river and even l

et their cows gather in the middle of the river during the summer."

"We used to get a lot of sediment, but right now we have a lot more conservation-minded farmers in the area. They're probably using more chemicals than they used to, but the buffers the IDNR has constructed probably keeps a lot of the chemicals out of the river. The riprap is helping to prevent runoff."

Hruska also noted that he's been hearing a lot more about the walleyes being taken on the river.

"Last year especially, the guys have been catching walleyes in the upper reaches and around Blufton," he said. "The anglers have seemed satisfied with the sizes of the walleyes they've been catching, and there's been some pretty good-sized ones."

Stocking walleyes into the Upper Iowa has been wildly successful in this improved environment, said Kalishek.

Downstream of Decorah is the 18-foot-tall Lower Dam. Below the dam, walleyes have always migrated upstream from the Mississippi River to where the dam stopped their progress.

The IDNR began stocking 2-inch fingerling walleyes above the Upper Dam in 1996. A total of 2,000 fish were released to see what would happen. The walleyes survived and thrived, and the stocking has been an annual event ever since.

The fishing has been so good that anglers are taking home plenty of eating-sized 14- to 19-inch fish, along with an occasional 20-incher.

"We started to increase the number of walleyes being stocked to over 22,000 and we've been going with that number," said Kalishek. "The first stocking every year occurs in Howard County at Live Springs off the boat dock in Lidtke Park, which is a conservation board park. Then we head downstream to Decorah.

"We try to stock walleyes when the water is fairly clear. If we get high water, we know that the new walleyes will move downstream. The Upper Dam is only about 7 or 8 feet tall, and the fish can go right over that dam and survive. No stocking occurs in the 10-mile stretch between the Upper and Lower dams due to the shallow habitat, but walleyes get in there by overflowing the Upper Dam.

"We're seeing walleyes up to 21 or 22 inches," noted Kalishek. "I've had reports of fish bigger than that. There are good numbers of 14- to 18-inch fish, and the good fishing seems to be spread throughout the entire length of the river."

Kalishek expressed surprise that the river could sustain this many walleyes without lowering the number of smallmouth bass being taken.

"If the smallmouth bass were hurt, we'd quit stocking walleyes right away. But the bass haven't been hurt a bit. The river has an abundant source of food that both walleyes and smallmouths feed on. There are fifty-eight different species of fish in the river that include the various suckers, creek chubs and other minnows. As a result, we've been able to increase the walleye population without decreasing the bass population."

Brad Osmonson of Ozzie's Outdoors bait shop has been very impressed with the improving walleye fishery.

"I think the stocking efforts are doing a lot," said Osmonson. "The fish are growing fast, and there's a lot of them. The walleye fishing has been fantastic over the last few years."

Osmonson pointed out that on one outing, he tossed a Calcutta-style plastic minnow with a swirl tail and easily pulled in five 18- to 19-inch 'eyes. A 5-pound fish was brought into the bait shop in 2005 and in recent years, several walleyes that size showed up along with an 8-pounder taken where Highway 76 crosses the river.

According to Osmonson, the best fishing is from the Lower Dam down to the Mississippi River and from Blufton to Decorah. He knows of two groups of anglers that come from the southern part of Iowa just to fish for walleyes.

For the last couple of years, the water has been low, said Osmonson. But that just concentrates the walleyes and makes them easier to catch with night crawlers and minnows.

Most anglers tie on a jig and minnow, but Osmonson claims that a plastic swirl tail minnow can do just as well or better. The action of the tail in clear water seems to tempt even the more wary lunkers.

Kalishek recommends tackling the Upper Iowa's 'eyes any time of the year.

Walleyes begin to move upstream for spawning when water temperatures reach into the low 40- to 50- degree mark. The Lower Dam near Decorah can be a hotspot when the fish migrating upstream from the Mississippi River run into a barrier they can't get around.

Try using as light of monofilament line as you can get away with. Two-pound-test can be used in deeper open water, but thicker line will be required around rocks and fallen trees.

Three-way rigs with minnows are standard fare in the warming weather and can take light-biting 'eyes if the hooksets are quick and decisive. Leadhead jigs will keep the minnow down near the bottom when the water is flowing. During this early part of the year, targeting eddies and tailwaters can be the most productive way to go.

In the summer and fall, look for areas of deeper water and river runs with a good flow of water. The fish will be from 3 to 6 feet deep and occasionally they'll forage up into the shallower, rocky water.

Small crankbaits, night crawlers on a long hook and jigheads with a minnow can all take summer walleyes, depending on the conditions. The fish are eating heavily and on the move near submerged rocks, points, deep channels in the riverbed and other cover.

"October through December can produce the bigger walleyes," said Kalishek.

In those months, the fish will be at 5 feet or deeper. If you can see the bottom from a canoe, then you're probably fishing too shallow.

In the winter, the Upper Iowa can have 4- or 5-foot visibility because the water is so clear. Look for water where there isn't a lot of current, because the walleyes' metabolism has slowed down. At times, the walleyes will appear to be in a sort of semi-hibernation. These fish don't want to expend energy fighting the current, so you'll find them in slack water behind riffles, in deepwater sanctuaries and out-of-the-current eddies.

Light line and leeches or minnows are recommended. These walleyes are lethargic and won't chase a fast-moving bait.

Kalishek pointed out that where coldwater trout streams or springs flow into the river, the water temperatures will remain at about fifty degrees unless the winter weather is severe. Anglers can often locate walleyes in these warmer pockets of water tucked down along rocky bottom structure. Otherwise, check for 'eyes on the bottom of the deepest water you can find. There is a deeper section in Decorah where the Twin Springs em

pties into the river. Right below the confluence is a favorite local fishing hole that usually holds plenty of cold-weather walleyes.

Access to the Upper Iowa River usually means a small ramp or an area where a canoe can be launched from the riverbank.

Two hard-surfaced ramps are available. The first is in Lidtke Park on the north edge of Lime Springs. The second is at Black Hawk Point, one and a half miles south of New Albin off Route 26. Gravel ramps are available in Kendallville park on the north edge of town off Route 139, at Trout Stream Access off Route 9 at Decorah, and at the Upper Dam six miles east of Decorah off River Road where you can launch above and below the dam.

Carry-down access points to launch a canoe are numerous. Canoeists can enjoy both the spectacular scenery and the fall walleyes. A canoe float trip can combine the both of best worlds.

Numerous campgrounds and canoe outfitters are located on the river between Lime Springs and Decorah. The Upper Iowa River is one of the state's most scenic rivers with high limestone bluffs, some of which reach 400 feet tall.

The Upper Iowa River harbors one of the state's fastest growing walleye fisheries, and it's only getting better. Walleyes are approaching trophy-class sizes, and all it takes is a canoe to find them. Shoreline fishing below the Decorah Lower Dam in the early spring is also an excellent bet for big Mississippi River fish making their way upstream.

For more information, contact the IDNR's Decorah Hatchery at (563) 382-8324.

You can obtain additional information from the Upper Iowa River Watershed Project in Postville, IA, by calling (563) 864-7112.

Hruska's Canoe Livery near Kendallville can be reached at (563) 547-4566.

Ozzie's Outdoors can be contacted at (563) 382-1211.

For information on lodging and other amenities, contact the Winneskiek County Tourism Council at 1-800-463-4692.

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