The meandering streams of eastern and northeastern Iowa hold the promise of some of the best bronzeback fishing our state has to offer. (April 2009)
Recent IDNR research indicates that smallmouth bass in northeast Iowa's Mississippi River tributaries migrate downstream in the winter and return in spring.
Grandpa was an agitator. He was also a wealth of aphorisms, many of which tied a misunderstanding of fish and wildlife patterns to irrational conclusions. If northern pike don't want to bite in July, it isn't because they lost their teeth, as he often suggested. We simply weren't fishing where the fish were.
Grandpa's observation that bass won't bite until the dogwoods bloom seemed equally goofy. But he would say it every early-spring afternoon, when I returned from a local smallmouth stream with nothing but suckers and chubs for the effort.
Recent radio-tracking studies of smallmouth bass and other species in northeast Iowa streams have nothing to do with blooming dogwoods. Research reveals our coldwater failures on bass are for the same reason we used to come up empty on summer pike: we're not fishing where the fish are.
"Conventional wisdom that smallmouth bass are homebodies has gone right out the window," Iowa Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist Bill Kalishek said. "Telemetry studies clearly show that adult smallmouth bass in the Turkey, Upper Iowa and other tributaries of the Mississippi River migrate downstream to spend the winter, returning in the spring."
Inland migration from overwinter areas in the Mississippi this month is tied to warming water temperatures, often coupled with runoff from snowmelt and spring rains.
"What biologists don't understand is why these fish continue downstream past deeper holes with other habitat parameters, which should provide ideal overwinter habitat," Kalishek continued.
Studies on the Turkey River show fully 50 percent of adult smallmouths migrated sometimes dozens of miles to the Mississippi when water temperatures cooled to the 40s in November, returning to spend their summers in the same location in the Turkey River as waters warmed to about 55 degrees in April.
"Some smallmouths radio-tagged around Elkader migrated 35 miles downstream to the Mississippi in the fall and returned the following spring," Kalishek said.
Exactly when this inland migration occurs is driven by the first spike in water temperature -- usually about the same time the April sun goads dogwood trees to bloom.
"Little smallmouths -- 6-8 inches -- tend to stay in the tributaries year 'round until reaching maturity," the biologist said. "If cabin fever drives you to a favorite smallie spot on one of our northeast Iowa streams and all you catch is juvenile bass, it's probably because the adults haven't moved inland yet."
Dan Kirby manages sections of several smallmouth rivers, which are a little farther away from the Mississippi. "Migration isn't so pronounced a little farther inland," Kirby said. "However, the fish can move eight to 10 miles to find suitable overwinter areas. These areas typically are 6- to 8-foot-deep pools with a few boulders located next to but not in significant current."
Public access to some Iowa smallmouth streams is open to interpretation.
"The water belongs to the people of Iowa," Kirby said. "Essentially, if you can float a section with a kayak or canoe, you have a right to fish, even when the water passes through private lands."
"If you're wading a stream, you need the landowner's permission," Kalishek said. "At least this is according to a recent opinion by the state attorney general."
Belly boats -- inner tubes that allow both wading and floating -- are great tools for chasing smallmouths in waters generally too deep to wade but too difficult to navigate in a canoe.
If you have a belly boat and plan on using it on some of the skinnier Iowa streams, asking permission before fishin' is a wise strategy. "(Most) landowners don't have a problem with granting access," Kirby said. "On smaller waters, it's just the right thing to do."
A law on the books since the late 1800s dealing with original streambeds on "meandered rivers" makes clear that the old streambed is state property and, therefore, open to public access.
The IDNR's Web site (www.iowadnr.gov) clearly shows areas that fall under the meandered rivers statute under the watershed access tab on this Web site's mapping page.
The recreation maps tab is another valuable resource for sportsmen, noting both areas open to the public and boundary lines.
These maps are also handy when planning a float trip down one of our more popular smallmouth streams.
Another invaluable guide is the Iowa Sportsman's Atlas, a book showing public hunting and fishing opportunities in all 99 Iowa counties, lodging options, boat ramps and IDNR contacts.
For more information on the Iowa Sportsman's Atlas, call (800) 568-8334 or go to www.sportsmanatlas. com.
Iowa has hundreds of miles of streams that hold smallmouth bass. If there were a ground zero for bronzeback opportunities in Iowa, it would have to be the "turkey foot" region west of Janesville, where the west fork of Cedar River meets the Cedar's main branch and is joined by the Shell Rock River.
"If you look at an aerial view, the topography resembles a giant turkey foot," Kirby said. "It would take at least two weeks to probe all this water thoroughly. Probably the best time of the entire year to fish here would be September. Weather then is generally stable, and fish have really strapped on the feed bag because they know winter is just around the corner."
Kirby said the best smallmouth fishing on the Shell Rock is from Green down to the confluence with Cedar River near the town of Shell Rock in Butler and Bremer counties.
"Almost the entire main branch of the Cedar River and virtually the entire west fork are worth fishing," Kirby said, noting a canoe or fishing kayak would be the most efficient way to cover this water.
That stretch of the Cedar from Otranto to the dam at Mitchell is also catch-and-release-only water, offering both size and numbers of fish, according to Kalishek. "There are good spots and there are excellen
t spots as the Cedar winds through Mitchell and Floyd counties," he said. "That stretch of river between Mitchell and Nashua offers some pretty good smallmouth fishing."
The Maquoketa's prime stretch is five miles of river between the Delhi dam and County X-31. "This part of the resource is so fragile that it is protected by catch-and-release-only regulations," Kirby noted.
The upper reaches of the Maquoketa in Delaware and Jones counties have the best smallmouth habitat, according to IDNR biologists. Below Monticello, the habitat changes considerably, with less limestone in the streambed and surrounding area.
"Limestone streambed is a real key in prime smallmouth habitat," Kalishek said. "Limestone offers habitats which best support a variety of creatures in the smallmouth diet, in addition to providing survivable habitat parameters for this scrappy game fish."
Buchanan and Linn counties are home to the Wapsipinicon's best smallie water. Kirby rates that stretch of the "Wapsi" from Troy Mills up to Littleton as prime. "If you head northwest in Buchanan County, this river loses its shoulders and is a little tougher to access," Kirby said. "There are also a lot of pike swimming here, which both compete with smallmouths for food and enjoy them as part of their own diet."
Kalishek said the lower Turkey River below its confluence with the Volga River around Garber has essentially poor smallmouth habitat, with three specific stretches of this river offering good to excellent smallmouth fishing.
"In Howard County the area south of Cresco is pretty good," Kalishek advised. "So are the runs from Elkader to Garber and Eldorado to Elgin.
"Virtually the entire Upper Iowa River has good to excellent smallmouth fishing. You'll find fish above Lime Springs all the way to the Minnesota state line."
Kalishek spends a tremendous amount of time on the Upper Iowa River near his office at the Decorah hatchery. "There is some truly beautiful smallmouth water as the Upper Iowa flows through Winneshiek and Allamakee counties to its eventual confluence with the Mississippi just southeast of New Albin."
The lower several miles of the Upper Iowa just a short float below Wild Landing were "channelized" many years ago as an effort at flood control. This plan has not lived up to expectations, with floodwaters backing up from the Mississippi River like they did in 1993, and rainfall, like the 10 3/4 inches that fell in 30 hours last June.
After this deluge, the Upper Iowa cut a new channel in front of my house, creating a 3,000-acre temporary lake almost 10 feet deep from Blackhawk Road across the valley to county Route A-26.
When waters receded, they left a serpentine pattern of channels cut between shallow sandbars all the way to the Mississippi, offering unique habitat for chasing smallmouth.
The best way to fish the lower Upper Iowa is to work upstream, casting in such a way that plastic fliptails on 1/32-ounce jigs tumble down along the sandbar edge with the current.
A clear Heddon Tiny Torpedo surface lure is also deadly here and on other smallmouth streams in the Hawkeye State.
Kalishek's involvement with fishing for smallmouth bass is somewhere between unreasonable passion and blatant addiction.
"I always have at least one rod in the truck ready to go," Kalishek said. "A smallmouth outing doesn't have to be a day-long event with military planning. If I just have an hour and can hook up with a couple of fish, it's a good day -- no matter what else happens."
Kalishek uses medium-action spinning gear for Iowa's smallies with lures larger than most experts recommend.
"I use inline spinners quite a bit," he noted, "at least a No. 3 Black Fury Mepps or similar-sized copper Vibrax. Sometimes I'll go as big as a No. 5 if it's windy or I want to make a long cast from shore."
This angler prefers the Chug Bug to the Tiny Torpedo when fish are active on the surface. "A lot of anglers think the Devil's Toothpick is a largemouth bait," he said. "Smallmouths like it too -- especially a black one. This is my 'go-to' bait on a sultry summer evening when nature is noisy all around you."
Rapala Shad Raps are another weapon employed by this veteran angler. "I know they come in all sorts of fancy patterns now, but as long as fish keep eating the reliable silver/black Rap, I'll keep throwing it."
Kalishek uses size 5-7 Shad Raps and goes with the same silver/black color scheme when throwing an original Rapala. "Sometimes I'll downsize on a floating stick bait, especially early in the spring," he said, "but in the summertime in areas that aren't too snaggy, I'll throw size 9 or 13 baits."
He also carries a good selection of soft plastics when chasing these fish, once again preferring large offerings rather than small ones. "I'm a big fan of Berkley plastics," Kalishek said. "Sometimes I'll throw a ringworm, but usually it's something bigger -- 6 or even 7 inches -- and usually black.
"If I had just one bait to throw for Iowa's stream smallmouths, it would be a 4-inch black Berkley twistertail on a 1/32-ounce tube jighead," he said. "This seems to be the ideal weight to offer up a swimming presentation by making a steady retrieve in just about the current velocity that many smallmouths prefer.
"The standard ballhead jig doesn't have a big enough gap or long enough shank to get a good hookset, even with aggressive fish. This is why I went to a tube jighead. The best ones are those where you can tie at the top of the hook rather than at an angle. When using a jighead where this isn't possible, I'll slide the knot around to allow more of an inline presentation."
Kalishek said most of his smallmouth fishing is done from shore, though he occasionally fishes from a canoe. "I'm a run-and-gun kind of guy," he explained. "I like to do a lot of 'bridge hopping.' It seems like there is always at least one or two smallies hanging out around every bridge. You can find out if fish are home and interested in eating in just a few casts."
Dan Kirby said his life changed forever last summer when he purchased a kayak specifically designed for fishing. Most fishing kayaks have readily accessible dry storage for tackle, rod holders and bungees for attaching nets and other gear.
Some models allow deployment of a small crab claw anchor from the stern while still facing forward. This is a real advantage when probing spots requires more than a couple of casts. "Of course, you can always get out of the kayak and make a few casts from shore," he said.
Some of the better fishing kayaks have a bracket to hold the paddle while your hands are busy using a fishing rod. Another option is a tethe
r attached near the middle of the paddle.
"Trust me. You don't want to lose a paddle when you're kayaking," Kirby said. "Kayaking is typically a solo sport, just like smallmouth fishing. There are tandem kayaks on the market, but if you choose to go with a buddy, it's usually better to fish independently out of different watercraft."
Folks of truly modest means can be serious players for Iowa's stream smallmouths for a relatively small amount of money. About $20 will buy all the terminal tackle you need to get started.
A car-topper, canoe or kayak provides nearly ideal access to all of Iowa's smallie streams.
Find more about Iowa fishing and hunting at: IowaGameandFish.com