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Eastern Iowa's Best Smallmouth Bassin'

Eastern Iowa's Best Smallmouth Bassin'

The eastern side of the Hawkeye State boasts some excellent smallmouth fishing. We'll show you the venues with the most going for them. (April 2007)

Orlan Love, outdoor writer for Cedar Rapids-area paper The Gazette battles a big smallie on the Maquoketa River.
Photo by Mark Tade.

The fish was magnificent, at least 19 inches long, husky and healthy. Near where Indian Creek flows into the Cedar River downstream from Cedar Rapids, I watched her cruise slowly around an old brush-tangled bridge abutment.

My office is only a five-minute walk from the fish, and for several weeks I tried to outsmart that smallmouth during lunch breaks and whenever else I could find a few minutes to fish. I wasn't alone: Several other anglers tested their skill on the big bass. As far as I know, no one ever caught her, and she's out there yet.

That a lunker smallmouth lives so close to Iowa's second-largest city is living proof of one of Iowa's outstanding but little-known fish success stories.

A few decades ago smallmouth were rare throughout Iowa and almost nonexistent below Cedar Rapids. Creatures of relatively clear water, smallies love a hard bottom. They'll rarely be far from rock or gravel. Years ago Iowa rivers were murky from agricultural and urban runoff and discharges from sewer plants and industries. Our rivers received constant inputs of nutrient and sediment that flowed downstream to settle on the rocky bottom that smallies love. Although most Iowa rivers always had remnant smallmouth populations the fish were few and far between. Our rivers produced quality fishing for catfish and carp and not much else.

That began changing several decades ago, and the Cedar River provides a good example of what happened in many of Iowa's streams. In the early 1980s, Cedar Rapids opened a new sewer plant to replace an aging, ineffective one. Industries that once dumped a toxic stew of chemicals and nutrients into the river invested millions in pollution control. Today, it's common for factories to discharge cleaner water back into the river than they draw from it. Good news didn't all come from cities. Agricultural run-off declined as no-till farming and Conservation Reserve Program enrollment became widespread on farms. A further factor on the Mississippi River was the establishment of exotic zebra mussels. Millions of these Caspian Sea natives now filter particles from Iowa water. Although Iowa's river water quality is still far from pristine, it has improved, and smallmouth bass responded with gusto. Iowa Department of Natural Resources fisheries management has helped improve walleye and trout fishing, but smallies did it on their own. Most of the comeback can be pegged to better water quality but a 12-inch minimum size for smallmouth bass helped the comeback.

The improving fishery is so new that relatively few Iowa anglers know about it or target that "other bass," the smallmouth. I didn't realize how much fun smallies are to catch until I tangled with my first one on the Cedar River. I'd been successfully fishing for largemouths for over 40 years in many states and had landed thousands of them.


My first smallie slammed a crankbait, tore off downstream, and jumped three times before I finally eased it up a tiny gravely beach. As I examined the mottled bronze fish I marveled at its strength. It was only 15 inches, but it fought harder and longer than a largemouth half again as big. As I gradually caught more smallmouth I learned my first one was no fluke. I don't think a harder fighting fish lives in Iowa's waters.

"The entire state of Iowa is within the historic range of smallmouth bass, but by far the best river bass fishing is in the northeast corner of the state," said IDNR fisheries chief Marion Conover.

The Upper Iowa, Turkey, Volga, Yellow, Wapsipinicon, Cedar, Shell Rock and Iowa Rivers all have excellent bass populations. So do their larger tributaries. Generally the rivers that originate above or near the Minnesota border and flow southeast toward the Mississippi have the best smallmouth populations.

Orlan Love, outdoor writer for the Cedar Rapids Gazette may be Iowa's best-known smallmouth bass angler. He fishes Eastern Iowa rivers frequently and often reports on smallmouth fishing in his newspaper articles.

"My top picks for excellent Eastern Iowa fishing would be the Maquoketa in Delaware County, the Cedar in Mitchell County, the Turkey from Eldorado to Elgin, the Volga on both sides of Fayette, the Upper Iowa above Decorah, the Iowa in Hardin County, the Wapsipinicon from Independence to Anamosa, and the Shell Rock in Cerro Gordo and Butler counties," he said.

Love has fished all these rivers and has an accurate picture of smallmouth trends.

"I think the quality of smallmouth fishing in Eastern Iowa rivers, which is excellent, is staying about the same," he said. "Some people fret about otters depleting our stocks, but I have not seen evidence of that. I think it could get even better in the next few years based on the phenomenal reproductive success smallmouths enjoyed in 2005. The progeny of that hatch, now about 5 or 6 inches long, can be found everywhere in all the rivers I've mentioned. They're almost a nuisance now.

"The one river I'd bet is improving is the Maquoketa, especially the no-kill section at Delhi. The DNR has documented that both numbers and sizes are improving there," he said.

In addition to fishing many of the main rivers Love also fishes their tributaries.

"My experience is that they hold bass, especially before, during and shortly after the spawn. Often the fish are smaller in tributaries than in the main river, but these small streams are worth fishing, especially if the main stem is swollen and dirty from heavy rains but a tributary runs clear and lower," continued Love.

There's another good reason for fishing tributary streams for smallmouth.

"It's a lot like trout fishing," said Steve Krotz, fishing manager at the Cedar Rapids GOT Outdoors Store. "The streams usually have clear water, brush, pools, and riffles. Bass are spooky and challenging. And, they live in many more streams than trout. Tributaries are perfect for fly fishing."

Although Eastern Iowa's best smallmouth fishing is north of Interstate 80, there are pockets of good bass fishing in rivers south of the big highway. IDNR fisheries research chief Don Bonneau told me that smallmouth bass could be found in nearly any river where the habitat is right. That means a rocky bottom, some current and reasonably clear water. Bass are rare in southern Iowa rivers simply because these rivers tend to have mostly muddy bottoms, a

nd the water is usually more turbid than up north. But, find a rocky stretch of river, even down close to the Missouri line, and you've probably located smallmouths. Although they live in pockets of habitat the rare angler who seeks them out can find excellent smallmouth fishing without any competition.

America's classic smallmouth waters tend to be in the Great Lakes, large lakes in Canada or Minnesota, and some huge southern reservoirs. Smallies are common in Iowa's Lake Okoboji and Spirit Lake. There are some in Clear Lake and a very few in Lake Macbride and Coralville Reservoir. Retired fishery biologist Bob Middedorf told me that anglers could spend a lifetime fishing these two eastern Iowa lakes and not catch a smallmouth bass.

In Eastern Iowa smallmouth are river fish. Because they are almost always found near rock they are easy to locate. About the only exception to the rocky habitat rule is around wooden bridge abutments and all the woody debris that often builds up around them after storms. Big smallies love these brushy areas but catching them amid the tangle of branches is an extreme fishing challenge.

In Iowa, the smallmouth may be the premier game fish available to city dwellers, boatless anglers and even children. I often see kids fishing in Indian Creek near my office each summer, and many a respectful bass has gone home strapped to the handlebars of bicycles. Kids who can't get to a largemouth lake without an adult to drive them there can cycle to urban tributary streams or even the downtowns of cities and towns and find smallmouth.

Smallmouth are Iowa's urban bass for two reasons. First, many towns were established in sites appropriate for milling. Early settlers needed water power, and so sought out swift-flowing stretches of river, especially those that could be dammed to create a mill pond.

Few cities use water power today but some of the old dams remain and speed the current below them, keeping rocks and gravel silt free. Bass love these places, which are often are downtown. Outstanding fishing is available below Cedar Rapids' two dams, for example, and even the old broken nonfunctional dam at Palisades Kepler State Park produces fast fishing.

Second, cities frequently dump thousands of tons of limestone riprap and broken hunks of concrete rubble into rivers to stabilize the bank. Smallies love the rock and all the cavities in between boulders. Ironically, few people fish for bass in urban areas, and many who do fish the riprap wrong.

Where riprap lines a bank bass will be tight to the rock-often right beneath anglers feet. Most people cast out at a right angle to the bank into the main current. Smallies usually aren't out there. But, cast up or downstream a foot or two out from the rock and retrieve the lure parallel to riprap and bass will dart from rocky crevices to attack the lure.

Cedar Rapids again is a good example. Many years ago, the city dumped tons of riprap into the river below the Cargill Corn plant to keep Otis Road from washing out. Although few anglers work lures along the river face, the area holds many big smallmouths. Most Iowa towns and cities have either rocky riffles or riprapped banks, or both. The old rule of thumb holds. Find rock and moving water and you've probably found smallmouth bass. They don't attract much attention because anglers either don't know they are there or don't target them.

Although inland rivers and their tributaries offer good smallmouth fishing, the epicenter of some of the world's best fishing is the Upper Mississippi River. Tournament walleye angler Dave Nichols has been fishing the upper Mississippi for decades.

"Years ago we rarely caught a bass," he said. "That's not the case now. The river is filled with smallmouth bass with the very best fishing up in the Lansing area. Smallie fishing is good all the way down river to about the middle part of the state but it gradually gets less productive the further downstream you go. I'd rate Pool 9 the best and Pool 12 the most downriver place for decent bass fishing.

"Anglers don't need a boat to catch them, and often they don't even need to travel much. There's excellent fishing from shore at Dubuque, in the Davenport area, and anywhere else that you find a tad bit of current over a rocky bottom or along riprap," he said.

Nichols credits improving water quality for the upsurge in bass. "It may be a combination of better agricultural practices and zebra mussels that has done it. Last year the river was very low. It was dry and there just wasn't much runoff, and that probably also helped the water quality be somewhat better," he said.

Smallmouth naturally prey on crawdads, minnows, insects, and just about any other hapless animal that falls into the water. Cast out a live crawdad, and smallies will attack. Live chubs also are a productive live bait, and plenty of smallmouth have been tricked by night crawlers. Although bait is amazingly effective, most serious smallmouth anglers stick with lures.

I've had success with a wide range of lures. Most smallie anglers prefer crankbaits, jigs with twister tails or minnows, or a variety of soft plastic baits. They all work well, but sometimes even unorthodox lures produce spectacular fishing.

One summer evening I caught several husky smallies in the current on a black Hula Popper, a lure usually reserved for largemouths on hot evenings in quiet lakes.

"Because smallies live in places loaded with snags, I fish with plastic rigged weedless. My favorite is a Yamamoto Senko," said veteran smallmouth angler Jack Lorenz, former national director of the Izaak Walton League.

Nichols prefers using scented plastics to target bronzebacks. "One time I was fishing with a partner on the Mississippi," he said. "He was using unscented worms, and I had similar scented ones on. After I'd caught 13 bass and he was fishless he took one of mine and caught a bass on his third cast. I'm convinced it helps leaving a scent trail in the water."

There are two general ways of fishing plastic baits. Both work, but sometimes one technique will be best on a given day. The first is casting a plastic bait upstream and letting it tumble down with the current while keeping a slack line. It can be hard to tell when a fish picks up the lure, but on some days this is by far the most effective technique. Set the hook when a fish starts a run. The second technique is to cast and retrieve the lure on a tight line. Many anglers let a fish fondle the lure a bit before setting the hook.

Because smallies often live in urban stretches of river, a boat isn't usually needed for great fishing.

"I prefer to wade," said Love. "If I'm fishing from a boat or canoe I need to fiddle around with the boat when I'm fishing. It's much simpler wading. I can concentrate on fishing."

He usually fishes relatively small northeast Iowa rivers that have hard bottoms. These streams are easy to wade. "I often wade out in the river and cast toward a rocky shoreline," he said.

Anglers should be aware that the IDNR has designated four areas as no-kill zones for black bass. All are on stretches of the Middle Raccoon, Maquoketa, Cedar, and Upper Iowa Rivers. Details are in the fishing regulations booklet.

A boat can be a great asset when fishing the Upper Mississippi. Bass sometimes cluster around wing dams and other rock that is inaccessible to bank-anglers or waders. Fortunately, the big river has plenty of rocky shoreline, especially in urban areas.

Nearly all Iowa river smallmouth anglers agree that the best fishing is during months of relatively low flow. High, swollen, murky rivers make for poor fishing. It all depends on the weather. During April bass will normally move from deep pockets of sluggish water overwintering areas to summer habitat in shallower water along rocks. If the water warms but rivers are low and relatively clear, this April will provide outstanding smallmouth bass fishing.

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