Streaming through eastern Iowa toward its confluence with the mighty Mississippi, the clear, cold, boulder-strewn Maquoketa River arguably hosts the Hawkeye State's best smallmouth bass fishing. (April 2008)
Though smallmouths can be found in other areas of the state (including the Iowa Great Lakes), the streams of northeast Iowa are the center of their range.
Photo by Michael Skinner.
It looked like a perfect walleye setup. The Maquoketa River was moderately low and clear by farm-country standards. A school of minnows -- probably shad -- darted around, occasionally dimpling the surface; everything looked just right. Anticipation ran strong as I cast a twister-tailed jig into the current.
Expecting a strike any second, I slowly bounced the jig over the bottom: nothing. Then, as I was about to yank the lure from the water, a fish darted out of the rubble beneath my feet, nailed the jig and dashed upstream. Fortunately, my line held as the fish turned and headed downstream, stripping line from the drag.
I was certain that whatever was on my line was no walleye, and my mind raced to make an identification without having seen the fish clearly. Maybe a striper? Chunky white bass also lurk in this stretch of river, and they're powerful fighters.
As I gradually worked the reluctant fish toward shore, it surfaced, but didn't flash white-bass silver. Instead, I saw the deep bronze of an Iowa smallmouth. After admiring the 16-inch bass for a few seconds, I gently worked the hook loose and eased it out into slack water to rest before it finned back into the river.
Ask Iowa anglers to name the fish that fights the hardest, and you'll likely hear a range of responses. Some will argue for a largemouth, a big trout or a lunker catfish. But anyone who's tangled with a husky smallmouth knows the truth: Pound for pound, the smallie is the sportiest fish in Hawkeye waters.
Unfortunately, relatively few people have caught a big smallmouth bass. Many don't realize that Iowa offers outstanding angling for this scrappy native, though it may be one of the easiest game fish to locate. Catfish, bluegills, crappies and largemouth bass can be found in nearly all of Iowa's lakes. They tend to be generalists, able to live in waters of varied environmental quality.
Not the smallmouth. With the exception of a thriving population in the Iowa Great Lakes, these are river fish in Iowa. And not just any river will do. Most Iowa rivers feature sluggish current, muddy water and a soft bottom -- habitat conditions that smallmouths won't tolerate. As a result of their selectivity, smallmouth bass are not difficult to find. To enjoy outstanding smallmouth bass fishing, simply locate a rocky bottom with boulders in any relatively clear river or stream. Almost without exception, smallmouth bass will be there.
"Although the entire state is in the traditional smallmouth bass range, they are essentially absent from Iowa's southwest corner because of the lack of habitat, said Iowa Department of Natural Resources fisheries chief Marion Conover. "There are some in rocky river stretches in all other parts of Iowa, but the absolute epicenter of their range is in the northeast corner of the state."
Although the Cedar, Shell Rock, Wapsipinicon, Upper Iowa, Turkey and Yellow rivers all harbor strong populations of this feisty fish, the Maquoketa is likely the best Iowa river for smallmouths. The reason? Water quality is relatively good on the Maquoketa, and the river has an abundance of the fish's beloved rocks and boulders. Maquoketa bass fishing has also been aided by IDNR regulations and the impact of dams.
"Smallmouth bass can be found in the Maquoketa all the way from the Backbone Dam to the river's confluence with the Mississippi River at Green Island. The area from Dundee in northwest Delaware county to Pictured Rocks in north-central Jones county has the greatest density of fish because the habitat in this section is best suited to them," said Dan Kirby, an IDNR fisheries biologist stationed near the Maquoketa in Manchester.
This stretch also boasts several dams. The best known is the one that creates Lake Delhi, but several towns along the river also have dams of varied heights. "Dams help this fish in two ways. Slack water above the dam causes sediment to drop to the bottom. Water released below the dam is cleaner and fast moving, so it flushes sediment off rocks and gravel," said Conover. The Maquoketa also has enough water velocity and bends to naturally keep sediment flowing downstream to the Mississippi and maintain the hard bottom that smallmouths require.
Kirby has detailed data on smallmouth numbers and the best places to fish. "Before the late 1970s," he said, "we didn't have much information about smallmouths in the Maquoketa until biologist Vaughan Paragamian conducted extensive research over a multiyear span. We now have a point of reference that stretches back almost 30 years.
"Iowa State University students and biologists recently revisited the sites he studied. Although all their data haven't been released, it's safe to say that current bass populations are similar to those from the early 1980s."
Perhaps the most studied stretch of the river is the catch-and-release area below the Delhi Dam. Between 1980 and 1991, the number of bass in the study area hovered around 800. Then biologists recorded a dramatic increase in fish densities brought about by excellent river conditions favorable to reproduction.
"Many of these strong year-classes survive to older ages because they aren't harvested in the catch-and-release area," said Kirby. "Between 1995 and 2005, there were between 1,534 and 2,375 fish in the study area." That's nearly triple the 1980 population, and anglers have enjoyed the Maquoketa bass bulge. According to Kirby, the bass from these golden years are gradually dying off, and fish numbers have declined somewhat for a few years; they're now increasing in the catch-and-release area.
"The IDNR has studied smallmouth bass for many years, and we have moved a few, but mostly populations depend on river conditions, and that is out of our control," said Conover.
When heavy rain during spawning season brings dirt into the river, reproduction can be minimal.
The IDNR doesn't control the weather, but it can regulate anglers. Smallies are especially vulnerable to harvest, and many years ago the IDNR took two actions to help the fish live longer and grow bigger: It set a statewide 12-inch minimum-size limit on both small and largemouth bass in Iowa rivers, and implemented catch-and-release areas on sections of the Middle Raccoon, Cedar, Upper Iowa and Maquoketa. The Maquoketa catch-an
d-release area extends downstream from below the Lake Delhi Dam to the first county gravel road bridge. Catch-and-release sections of the other rivers are identified in the IDNR's fishing regulations booklet.
The regulations have helped bass and bass fishing -- especially on the Maquoketa. "The length limits have benefited both smallmouth and largemouth numbers and size of fish," said IDNR fisheries research chief Don Bonneau.
Catch-and-release fishing has gained popularity among dedicated smallmouth bass anglers. "We were considering eliminating the catch-and-release section on the Cedar River because our research didn't indicate that it was very effective there," said Conover, "but many anglers told us they like the regulation, so we kept it."
The regulation has certainly helped Maquoketa River smallies. "Catch-and-release fishing does not necessarily increase the number of fish," Kirby said, "but it can increase the number of large fish in areas where fish growth is good and there was heavy fishing mortality before the regulation. Paragamian's research in the late 1970s showed that anglers were keeping many fish, but today they release most smallmouth bass. That's helped.
"In the early 1980s, about 10 percent of smallmouth in the catch-and-release stretch were longer than 12 inches, but by 1990, it had increased to 40 percent. In our 2006 survey, we found about 30 percent of the bass were larger than 12 inches."
IDNR biologists Bill Kalishek and Mike Wade conducted research comparing smallmouth populations in the catch-and-release area and similar stretches of river where anglers can keep bass. "The catch-and-release area had higher numbers, larger size distribution and a greater percentage of fish over 12 inches than the kill area," said Kirby. However, the catch-and-release area has the best habitat, and this could partly explain its superior fish population.
Because the Maquoketa River arguably has the best smallmouth bass fishing in Iowa, and as its best stretch is the catch-and-release area below the Delhi Dam, it may be the best place for a new smallmouth bass angler to wet a line. Absent a lot of recent rain, April is a great month for bass fishing.
IDNR research indicates that smallmouth bass move the most in April and September. The water is relatively warm, and fish are hungry. April fishing depends greatly on water conditions. I enjoyed outstanding smallmouth angling one relatively unusual April following a winter of light snowfall. Spring rains were scarce, and the river was low and clear, making fishing conditions perfect. Unfortunately, heavy spring rains and snowmelt often turn Iowa's April rivers into dirty torrents. Fishing is often futile in these conditions.
IDNR research shows strong smallmouth bass populations in the Maquoketa, but anglers often have the best information on where and when fishing quality is best. Of all Iowa smallmouth bass anglers, Mike Jacobs is perhaps the most ardent, and certainly one of the most effective. He's been seriously fishing the Maquoketa for about 15 years.
"I love fishing this river, and in 2007, I think, the average bass size was a bit bigger than in past years," Jacobs said. "There were lots of fish in the 12- to 13-inch range, with good numbers of 15- to 17-inch fish. The biggest I've ever personally caught was 21 1/2 inches."
Jacobs fishes many eastern Iowa rivers either by wading or from a kayak or kick-boat. "There's good fishing in the upper stretch of the Maquoketa catch-and-release area," he said, "but access is easy there, and pressure is high. Many of the fish have been caught several times. I prefer the lower stretch of the catch-and-release area. It's not as accessible, and I often fish it from my kick boat. Pressure is much lighter there, and the fish are more naÃ¯ve.
"Last year, I started fishing it in mid-April, and fishing stayed productive through the end of May. September is also an outstanding month, but fishing can also be good throughout the summer. I strictly fly-fish, and usually use subsurface flies early and late in the season. But in the summer, surface poppers can be outstanding . . . On a good day, a partner and I will land 40 to 50 fish, but we've had several 100 to 120 fish days."
Cedar Rapids attorney Jim Peters also enjoys fishing the catch-and-release area. "I love this stretch. It's close to Cedar Rapids, has good water quality if it hasn't rained recently, has relatively constant water level, and has variety," Peters said. "It's rocky for the first couple of miles below the Delhi Dam and lower down has more brush and downed trees.
"We fish from a canoe but get out and wade some areas; often we fish from 10 a.m. until dark. Sometimes we spent six hours on the water and cover only four and a half miles, but still don't feel like we hit all the good spots. Sometimes the stars are coming out when we finally get to the pickup."
Most of the fish Peters and his fishing companions catch are smallmouth bass in the 8- to 12-inch range -- but not all bass in the river are smallies: Largemouth bass are also known to haunt stretches of this stream.
Peters had a tip for anyone fishing from a canoe drifting downstream. "I often use topwater plugs," he offered. "I like to cast and am always surprised at how many fish are in shallow water close to shore. Subsurface lures often get caught on snags, and you have to furiously paddle upstream to retrieve them. This doesn't happen with topwater lures."
Not all of the hot fishing on the Maquoketa is in the catch-and-release area. According to Kirby, worthwhile fishing exists even within the towns and cities that line the banks. "Fish are caught in Dundee and below the Manchester, Monticello and Maquoketa dams," he said. "Probably the best of these is below the dam at Manchester."
According to the biologist, fishing of substantial quality is available as well in the Pictured Rocks area in north-central Jones County. It has excellent smallmouth bass habitat and plenty of fish.
Smallmouth bass are efficient predators, but minnows and crawdads make up the bulk of their diet. Major hatches of aquatic insects often occur in midsummer, and the fish shift their diet to take advantage of the bounty -- hence the effectiveness in the warm months of surface poppers.
In general, any artificial bait that mimics crawdads and minnows will work well on bass. Crankbaits, spinners, spoons and a wide range of plastic baits will work well. Jack Lorenz, former national director of the Izaak Walton League, is a lifelong angler who has traveled the continent fishing for smallies. "One of my most effective lures is a Yamamoto Senko," he said. "I cast upstream and let the lure tumble down with the current, and often a bass will grab it. Many other soft plastic lures are effective."
IDNR biologists see a bright future for Iowa's smallmouth bass. "This fish will always provide an important fishery in our clear water rivers and a few lakes," said Don Bonneau. Anglers can help preserve fish populations by practicing catch-and-release fishing even in areas w
here the law allows harvest.
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Being outdoors in an Iowa April is delightful. The earth is coming to life as winter fades away, and one of the best places to be is along the Maquoketa River fishing for Iowa's "other" black bass.