Moving waters in the central part of the state offer a variety of opportunities for getting into hard-hitting, high-jumping smallmouth bass. Here's what you need to know to catch 'em. (April 2006)
The conventional wisdom would have it that smallmouth bass are a rarity infrequently glimpsed by anglers working central Iowa's rivers. The explanation: Our warm, muddy midstate waterways are more favorable to catfish than smallies. True?
Not if you take into account the experience of longtime central Iowa anglers Tom Holcomb and Kurt Rowland, who have been proving that conventional wisdom wrong for more than 20 years. Holcomb and Rowland each discovered central Iowa's secret smallmouths years ago in rivers near their homes, and have developed considerable expertise on when, where and how to catch bronzebacks where bronzebacks aren't supposed to be.
RACCOON RIVER SMALLMOUTHS
When veterinarian Dr. Tom Holcomb moved to Adel in the early 1970s, he was a diehard catfish guy who only found smallmouths in the Middle Raccoon River by accident.
"A friend and I were wading the Middle Coon, fishing for catfish, and had sat down on a brushpile to take a break," recalled Holcomb. "One of our minnows was dangling on the surface, just barely in the water. All of a sudden there was a big splash and the minnow was gone.
"I looked at my friend and said, 'What was that?' He shook his head, and said, 'I don't know, but I think we'd better figure out how to catch whatever it was!'
Experimentation proved the mystery fish to be a smallmouth bass and Holcomb begin specifically targeting smallmouths, on a strictly catch-and-release basis. Not many years later, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources acknowledged the unique fishery by establishing a "No-Kill" zone on the Middle Raccoon River from the Lennon Mills Dam at Panora downstream to the dam at Redfield.
"There was some nice rock and cobble habitat on the Middle Raccoon, and a pretty decent population of smallmouths," said IDNR fisheries chief Marion Conover. "Establishing a No-Kill zone encouraged anglers to enjoy the fishery without damaging a population that wouldn't have tolerated a lot of harvest."
Unfortunately, Mother Nature damaged what the IDNR was attempting to protect. The floods of 1993 dumped massive amounts of silt in the Raccoon River and damaged much of the smallmouth habitat. The river's smallmouth population dwindled through the mid to late '90s.
But in recent years, smallmouth-friendly habitat has reappeared, thanks to moderate water flows and improved soil management practices on the Raccoon watershed.
"(Smallmouths) are starting to come back," noted Holcomb. "For about 10 years, they were pretty scarce, but in the past couple years we're starting to see more 6- to 10-inchers, a few up to a couple pounds. Things are looking good for 2006."
Holcomb wades the river carrying a 4-foot-long ultralight spinning rod (which he built himself) fitted with an ultralight open-face spinning reel spooled with 4-pound-test line. Mepps and Panther Martin inline spinners in chartreuse, orange or crawdad colors work well for him, but he also has success drifting a minnow below a small bobber.
"A lot of guys focus on the riffles below rock and gravel bars," he said, "but I spend as much time fishing the flat stretches between the riffles. I've had really good luck drifting a minnow under a bobber on that flat water. If there are big rocks or current breaks scattered in those flat stretches, there'll probably be a smallmouth somewhere near them."
Holcomb also probes the bases of cutbanks on the outside curves of the river, and never overlooks any isolated rocks or boulders. "A lot of the time, the river has scoured down to gravel bottom at the base of those cutbanks," he said. "There are often big, rock-like chunks of hard clay that have fallen off the cutbank, or even big boulders, along the base of those cutbanks. Smallies like to lie behind those current breaks in those gravel-bottomed areas."
DES MOINES RIVER BELOW RED ROCK
Kurt Rowland, who operates Whitebreast Adventures guide service -- www.whitebreastadventures.com, (641) 947-2261 -- on Lake Red Rock, discovered smallmouth bass in the Des Moines River below Red Rock Dam nearly 20 years ago.
"For years and years, I had them pretty much all to myself, because nobody else knew they were there," he said. "When the flow is right, I know places where I can catch and release 20, maybe 30 smallmouths a day. Most of them are in the 2- to 3-pound range, but my biggest so far was a shade more than 6 pounds."
Humans and Mother Nature combined to create smallmouth habitat on the Des Moines. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Red Rock Dam acts as a filter for the sometimes-muddy river, and glaciers laid a base layer of sand, gravel, cobble and rocks beneath the fertile black soil of the current Des Moines River valley.
"Downstream from the dam, the river bottom is down to the glacial pan in a lot of places," said Rowland. "In those places, the river bottom alternates between stretches of big rocks, little rocks, gravel and sand all the way down to Eddyville before it goes back to more of a mud-and-sand bottom."
The resulting combination of rocks, cobble, gravel and relatively cool, filtered water provides excellent smallmouth habitat. Rowland begins catching smallmouths in early spring.
"I'll pick up a few smallmouths in late March and early April right below the dam," he said. "They don't make a run in early spring like white bass and walleyes, but there's a few of them there that you can pick up with inline spinners tipped with minnows, or jigs tipped with minnows."
The river below Red Rock flows high and fast from mid-spring through early summer. Rowland notes that during this time, smallies may venture up small tributaries that aren't as turbid as the main river.
"There are times when the river is high that English Creek, Whitebreast Creek and some of the other tributaries are relatively low and clear when the main river is high and muddy," said Rowland. "If you can find some rocky habitat in those creeks, you'll probably find some smallmouths."
Mid to late summer normally brings Red Rock to normal pool, and the Corps reduces flow though the dam. Rowland monitors release rates.
"If they've been releasing 20,000 cubic feet for three weeks and then drop it to 16,000, I want to be on the river the next day," he said. "Two things happen
: There's less water, so the smallmouths are concentrated in specific areas, and they seem to really go on a feed.
"There are places, rocky-bottomed areas with some large obstructions that are major current breaks, that can be unbelievable fishing," he said. "When that flow drops to 16,000, the smallmouths absolutely stack up below those current breaks. I've had days when I literally caught a 2- or 3-pound smallmouth on every cast."
Rowland uses 6-foot Berkley Bionics spinning rods and Abu Garcia or Mitchell open-face spinning reels loaded with 6-pound-test Trilene XL monofilament. He combines artificial lures with live baits.
"If I use an inline spinner like a Mepps or a Panther Martin, I always tip it with a minnow," he said. "I guarantee that if you are tipped with a minnow and lose the minnow, but keep fishing, your hits will decrease by 50 percent. The same with jigs; I always tip them with a minnow.
"Presentation is critical," he added. "You'll catch twice as many fish if you cast parallel to the current rather than across the current. "
In an area to which access is already, according to Rowland, "challenging," that means tough fishing for shore-anglers "There are very few public accesses in that stretch of river, and the local landowners can be pretty territorial about trespassers," he warned. "There's good access upstream from the new Highway 92 bridge for a ways; otherwise, you have to either wade a lot between bridges and accesses, or drag a boat across a lot of rock and sandbars.
"It's not for the faint of heart. But if you put in the time and make the effort, you're going to catch smallmouths like you wouldn't believe."