Iowa's Moving-Water Smallmouths

Iowa's Moving-Water Smallmouths

It can get so hot in the state this month that only the insects feel like biting. But find waters that flow -- like those in these rivers -- and you'll find the smallmouths biting, too.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

As time goes on, more and more anglers complain about crowded conditions on our lakes and reservoirs. It seems as if it gets worse every weekend: more boats, more anglers, less opportunity to fish. But don't despair. There's a cure for this problem -- fishing small rivers and streams.

That hasn't always been an option for western Iowa anglers, however. Past years saw this part of the state develop a well-deserved reputation for poor fishing, especially for smallmouths. After a boom in the 1970s and early '80s, the fishing went bust.

That's changing. Angling for smallmouths on the small rivers and streams of our state is on the rebound; populations are increasing. Size is getting better, too. A 14-inch fish, deemed rare in the past, is now considered ordinary, almost routine.

Streams aren't easy to fish, however. It takes special skills, along with patience and resolve, to be successful. Anglers with experience at these venues will tell you that stealth should be your first concern.

In the hot, dry weather of summer, the fish will be stacked in pools of gin-clear, quiet water that most of the time will be shallow, maybe less than 4 feet deep. Those factors make for skittish fish -- very skittish fish. Approach these pools with care. Walk lightly; don't disturb anything. If you're wading, move through the water with precision. Every movement sends out pressure waves that the fish feel. Wear camo or neutral earth tones. Save your bright shirts for the photos.

Lure selection is important, too. Choices vary, but as a rule, it's hard to go wrong if you match the hatch. The primary smallmouth forage base in most streams consists of minnows, not crayfish. Most of them are small, too, so don't oversize your lures.

Small grubs or tiny hair jigs are also productive. Allow them to tumble along with the current and drop into any holes or cuts along the way. Carefully work around any rock or wood cover in the area, especially if the cover is situated near a current break.

Small in-line spinners in white, gray, silver, blue or gold will attract smallmouths almost anywhere, and Iowa's no exception. Vary their speed and depth until you find what turns the fish from spectator to participant. Some of the smaller lightweight crankbaits will also produce. Be especially careful to choose those that match the size of the prevailing forage. Stream smallmouths don't see many 7- or 8-inch minnows, so it's unlikely that they'll find a lure of that size appealing.

In the early morning or late evening, buzzbaits can be lethal. Throw them along seams in the current, around sharp rocky points and over any gently running water you can find. They're especially effective in the deep, black shade found under cutbanks and alongside rock bluffs at this time of day.

You'll need tackle that fits with the small clear water and yet is strong and tough enough to handle the big ones and the rough environmental factors it'll encounter. For most anglers, that means open-faced spinning tackle. Medium or medium-light rods are the norm. Lines should be abrasion-resistant; either 4- or 6-pound-test will generally get the job done.

With these basics in mind, let's see what the experts say about where to fish for smallmouths in western Iowa's small rivers and streams.


Up in the northwest corner of the state lies the Rock River. It flows for 50 or 60 miles through Lyon and Sioux counties. There are frequent access points along its path, most rough and unimproved. During the summer, the Rock consists mostly of long stretches of shallow riffles and dry, sunbleached rock between smallish pools of clear, still water. It can be a long way between pools, so pack light if you're going to fish this one.

The forage base in this stream is composed of minnows that, owing to the habitat, are on the small side. Fish this river with very small baits. They'll look more natural, and provoke more strikes.

Small floating minnow plugs are very popular with local anglers. Silver sides with blue or black backs seem to work best. Make long casts over this clear water and retrieve your lure with long, slow pulls of the rod. Allow the bait to stop and float gently to the top from time to time. Work minnow plugs around cutbanks, laydowns and any cover you can spot.

Buzzbaits and small poppers are also effective, especially early or late in the day. They're at their best along the riffles at the head of the pools, over deep holes, and anywhere you can find a little wood. On most days, a soft, easy retrieve will outproduce a noisy, splashy one. Throw natural, muted colors first. Switch to bright, loud colors only as a last resort.

Iowa Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist Jim Christianson rates Rock River smallmouth fishing "pretty good." Anglers can expect to catch smallies up to 17 inches, although the average size is closer to 12.

The Rock River is a wonderful place to fish. The countryside is pristine, and for the most part, especially during the week, you won't see another angler during your outing. Don't let the opportunity pass.


Down south a ways, and more towards the center of the state, anglers will find the North Raccoon River. It's had a tough past. Through the 1980s and '90s, pollution, contaminants and silt ruined the smallmouth spawning habitat. Once that happened, the fishing crashed. To describe it as having been "poor" would be overly charitable -- "nonexistent" would be more accurate.

It's better now -- a lot better. The streams are clean (or, at least, cleaner), the silt's manageable, and spawning habitat has been restored. "It's just starting to come on," said IDNR fisheries biologist Lannie Miller. As is the case with its neighbor to the north, the North Raccoon will conceal most of its summertime smallies in the pools; it's unlike its neighbor, however, in having more water. Some of the bigger pools are large enough to accommodate small fishing boats.

The forage fish -- still mostly minnows -- are bigger, too. That means anglers should use bigger baits. But still, minnow imitators are the local favorites. Throw them below the numerous rock and wing dams found in the river. Spend some time scouting the water in your area to find them -- it'll be time well spent. Most of the smallmouths caught in the North Raccoon River are in the 12- to 14-inch range; electrofishing sam

pling has turned up at least one 19-incher. That's a good fish almost anywhere.

Miller emphasizes that catch-and-release must be practiced at this venue, as dry, hot weather concentrates the fish. "A good angler can wipe them out in no time flat," he cautioned. So concerned is Miller that he at first didn't want the North Raccoon covered in this article; the increase in fishing pressure that's sure to ensue concerned him. If you fish this one, please respect the fragility of the fishing.


Of course, no review of western Iowa smallmouth fishing would be complete without a mention of the Missouri River, which runs the length of the western edge of the state. Miller reports that the smallmouth fishing is "exploding" on the Missouri, which, being much bigger than the two flows detailed above, accommodates modern bass boats. Still, the best fishing during August is usually in the tributaries and inflows along its shoreline. The pools in the upstream ends of them will offer unparalleled angling opportunities.

Some of the tributaries are named; many are not. No matter: Habitat is what matters here. The quiet, shallow waters deep into the backwater areas of these tributaries and inflows are where you should be fishing. Use the same stealth techniques and lures that you'd deploy on the Rock or the North Raccoon. Look for cutbanks, rock, weeds and wood.

The inflows around Sioux City are especially productive. Three- and 4-pound fish are relatively common in this area, most of them caught by anglers working small in-line spinners and safety pin-style spinnerbaits. White, silver and gray seem to be the best colors. Fish them with the current flow along riffles created by rocks and sandbars, or as close to cutbanks as you can get.

An especially hot strategy in this area is to target freshly downed trees lying in or hanging over the water. As the leaves wilt, they attract small bugs and insects, which in turn beckon baitfish, which draw in predators; a timeless round. Be wary of taking a big bass boat into these pools. You'll run the risk not only of damaging an expensive boat, but of scaring the fish to boot. Johnboats and light craft offer more opportunity.

For detailed info on access points and fishing conditions along the Rock River, contact the IDNR at (712) 336-1840; for either the North Raccoon River or the Missouri River and its tributaries, contact the agency at (712) 657-2638.

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