Although Iowa's Upper and Middle Raccoon rivers, along with the North and South Skunk, aren't prime destinations for walleyes, locals know that there's still some good fishing to be had. (May 2006)
Have you ever thought of combining a canoe trip with some walleye angling? If you have, you probably didn't consider launching out onto these rivers.
Even with land-mammal names like the Raccoon and the Skunk, these smaller rivers can provide some outstanding walleye angling. Angling pressure on some sections is light and the fish are ready and accessible.
"River fishing is more casting than trolling," said Dick McWilliams, an experienced fisheries management biologist with the Boone Fish Management station. "Small spinners and jigheads with twistertails are the way to go if you're below a big run or riffles. You'll be working the edges of the current where walleyes will be holding just outside of the current and waiting for food to come to them. You can also work the pools and the holes that you can find with a depth finder from a boat."
"Sometimes a light baited hook with a wrap and a small split shot to keep it down towards the bottom works well. I just throw it out and let the current take it to the fish. The walleyes position themselves just outside the current and instinctively know where their food will be coming from. For me, it's almost always a jighead of one type or another and they're as easy to cast as the spinners."
Walleyes are normally associated with larger river systems like the Des Moines River. Smaller rivers that meander through the countryside, run over shallow rocks and wind downstream through tangled brush and tree roots can be just as productive if you know where to look. Fish populations in smaller rivers aren't as high as in their larger counterparts -- but then, the angling pressure isn't nearly as great, either.
So if you're looking for a challenge this spring and are willing to wade or float down a scenic, peaceful river, here are a couple of destinations that, despite their names, feature walleyes as the main attraction this spring.
NORTH RACCOON RIVER
"Up to Storm Lake, the North Raccoon River has some pretty good walleye angling in it," said McWilliams. "The North Raccoon is stocked, and in 2005, the conditions for walleyes were right. In the Jefferson City area we have some good riffles and a lot of walleyes are caught in this stretch of the river, and at some pretty good sizes, too."
McWilliams isn't shy about saying that he wouldn't send hordes of anglers to a smaller river to catch walleyes. The usual big-river locations can more easily handle the crowds and do have greater numbers of fish, during both runs and slack times, when fish are holding in pools and river-bottom holes.
But the walleyes are there to be caught on the smaller rivers too, when anglers target the right kind of structure and use good tactics and baits. As the rivers flow closer to larger river systems or impoundments, the angling opportunities get even better.
One North Raccoon hotspot to try is the dam at Adel. The walleyes concentrate below the dam as they begin moving upriver in the springtime until the dam blocks their progress. Anglers tossing jigheads and small spinners near the bottom structure can limit out with eating-sized fish.
MIDDLE AND SOUTH RACCOON RIVERS
The Middle and South Raccoon rivers are major tributaries of the Raccoon River and flow through Guthrie and Dallas counties in the southwestern part of the Hawkeye state. The section from Linden to Redfield Dam and the area below the low-head dam at Redfield are home to plenty of scrappy walleyes.
Boulders, snags and river-bottom holes are primary holding locations for riverine walleyes in this section of the river. Look for them relating to cover in as deep of water as possible. Spring flooding can make locating them a bit trickier and enable the fish to move around freely. Shoreline trees, docks and other structure can create out-of-current pockets where walleyes rest and wait to ambush food moving downstream with the faster moving current.
About a mile below Redfield is the confluence of the Middle and South Raccoon rivers. The current can be swift and boaters need to be aware of a lot of submerged structure and tricky navigating. A lot more walleyes show up as the river gets bigger and deeper.
"The Middle Raccoon has some walleye fishing in it because of the on-stream Lake Panorama reservoir," said McWilliams. "The South Raccoon goes another 10 miles and joins with the North Raccoon into the Raccoon River before emptying into the Des Moines River. It's this section of the river upstream from the Des Moines River where you'll find plenty of walleyes. The fishing here can be phenomenal."
Access to the river near Lake Panorama can be found in the Springbrook State Park seven miles north of Guthrie Center on Springbrook Road in Guthrie County.
Fishing near the dams at Redfield and Panora in Dallas and Guthrie counties can also be high percentage hotspots when the fish are stacked up. Casting jigs and lightly bouncing them along the bottom may catch a lot of rocks and snags, but it's also where you'll be catching the 'eyes.
Twistertails on jigheads work wonders on river walleyes wherever you find them. The traditional techniques and tactics used throughout our river systems produce fish here as well, and if you're afraid of losing baits you probably won't be catching a lot of fish. Take along several colors of both jigheads and soft-plastic tails to experiment with. Water conditions in rivers can change with rainfall, wind and bottom composition, and you'll never know what level of water clarity you'll find when you arrive.
Stocking walleyes into both the Raccoon and the Des Moines rivers has been going on for years and has definitely contributed to the creation of good populations in these waters.
The Middle Raccoon has the designation of being one of the most beautiful rivers in the state. From Lenon Mill Park to the Redfield Dam it is part of the Iowa Protected Water Areas (PWA) and is worth seeing even if the walleyes aren't in the biting mood.
The upper half of the Raccoon River is a mass of chutes, sandbars, pools, snags and shallow water. From Sac County downstream, walleye cover abounds but the river isn't large enough to support what many anglers would consider to be a decent walleye population.
Once the Raccoon has traveled much of its course and neared the Des Moines River, the story changes. Walleye numbers increase and angler success increases proportionately. 'Eyes from the
much larger Des Moines often move up into the Raccoon to join with walleyes stocked into the Raccoon. The closer the Raccoon flows to its confluence with the Des Moines, the better the angling.
Boater access to the Raccoon River isn't a problem. Nearly forty access points are located along the length of the river and range from carry-down access where a canoe can be walked down to the water to hard-surfaced ramps capable of launching boats off a trailer.
Access points into the most productive reaches of the river are nearest Des Moines and include the Walnut Woods State Park on the west edge of Des Moines, the Booneville Access on the west side of Booneville and the Two Rivers Access on the northwest edge of Van Meter.
The Walnut Woods State Park access is at the west edge of Des Moines off SW 52nd Avenue. The Booneville Access is off Route 22 at the west edge of Booneville. The Two Rivers Access is on the northwest edge of Van Meter off Pleasant Street.
"Walleye fishing in my area, which includes Buena Vista, Carroll and Calhoun counties, is a little bit spotty on the Raccoon," said Don Harrig, a fisheries technician at the Black Hawk Fish Management office. "The locals have their favorite spots that they go to, and when the fish aren't biting, the pressure is pretty light -- until someone starts catching fish again; then the fishing pressure picks up. For someone not from the area, I'd recommend trying the Grant County Park near Grant City; it's a good spot to try if you've never fished the river. Or fish the lower half of Sac County down through Calhoun and into Carroll counties."
The Grant County Park access site is off 365th Street and has a carry-down boat launch. "Sometimes the walleyes will move up to the base of the lowhead dams where they can be caught in the early spring, though spring fishing is slower than a little later in the summer," said Harrig. "There are several lowhead dams, and the fish can get over some of them during high-water periods. Walleyes travel from one section of the river to another more frequently in the lower river and not as much upstream from Sac City."
Harrig pointed out that a lot of times visiting anglers target the Raccoon River during the periods when the walleyes are turned off and then go home disappointed. Success can be weather-dependent for locals and non-locals alike. When the fish are turned on anglers can generally expect to hook into fish in the 2-pound range and larger. "The biggest I've heard about is a 6-pounder," said Harrig.
Most anglers drift fish down the river, casting to pools and riffles, or fish from the bank at high-percentage spots near county parks and bridges. Canoes are the mainstay in the upper river where the water might be low, which has been the case over the last several years.
For more information on fishing the Raccoon rivers contact the Black Hawk Fish Management office in Lake View at (712) 657-2638 or the Boone Fish Management office in Boone at (515) 432-2823.
"There are some stretches of the Skunk River that aren't too bad, but the habitat isn't the best," said McWilliams. "The further southeast on the river you go, the better it is. Where the river is smaller the walleyes are present, but not in good numbers."
From its humble beginnings in Hamilton County, the South Skunk picks up steam as it eventually makes its way west of Interstate 35 and down through the city of Ames. The South Skunk joins up with the North Skunk in Keokuk County. The river then flows southeast until it empties into the mighty Mississippi River about five miles south of Burlington in Lee County.
Walleyes are creatures of large, flowing rivers where cover and structure are abundant. Any of the animal rivers hold more walleyes the further downstream you go; there, the rivers are wider and deeper, and the Skunk is no exception. In general, the closer to the Mississippi a river gets, the more fishing opportunities there will be.
Anglers who can locate walleyes moving up into the Skunk from the Mississippi will find good numbers and sizes. These fish can be taken by conventional methods, and the fishing can be hot.
According to McWilliams, some stretches of the Skunk are pretty good for walleyes -- it's just a matter of finding them. Where the river is smaller, the number of walleyes is lower.
"There is some potential for walleyes," said the Lake Darling Fish Management office's river biologist Don Kline, whose familiarity with the river can put anglers onto the fish. "There are many rock riffle areas in the lower part of the river starting below the confluence of the North and South Skunk Rivers. The rock riffles are low and you will see them from late summer until the high water next spring.
"There is bedrock coming out of the south bank and sloping to the north, and many times there is a high, steep bank that might rise 50 to 100 feet above water level. There is usually a chute on the north side of the river that has good flow and the rock riffle will extend downstream for up to a quarter of a mile. These are the good fishing spots, and the walleyes should be staged up there to take advantage of the minnows and crawfish."
Though the upper reaches of the Skunk River don't hold a lot of walleyes they can still be taken when you're targeting the right spots. The river flows a total of 361 miles, but doesn't get interesting until the North Skunk and the South Skunk come close to meeting in Keokuk County.
From the South Skunk at Ames on downstream, an occasional walleye is taken. There is a very large channeled section in the river in Polk County that holds walleyes worth working for.
"I would try typical river walleye rigs just off the swift water along the chutes," said Kline. "The riffles become longer as you go downstream, and there is a lowhead dam at Oakland Mills in Henry County near Mt. Pleasant. Anglers catch some walleyes there, and that would be the best spot to try.
"The riffles and rapids in this location are long and extend from the lowhead dam for a half-mile downstream."
The Faulkner's boat ramp is at the lower end of this area and accessible except at low flow.
Kline also recommends visiting anglers make a few casts at the riffle areas starting at McKain, above and below Brighton, at Coppock, Rome, Lowell (Stephenson) near Gray's Landing, Augusta and Indian Path, starting from the top of the river and moving downstream. There aren't any riffles below the Indian Path site that hold a lot of fish.
Boater access south of Ames is located at the Oswalt Bridge Skunk River Access, three miles west of Colfax, a short distance from Polk County. In Ames boaters can put in at the River Valley Park on 13th Street.
For more information on fishing the Skunk River, contact the Boone Fish Management office at (515) 432-2823 or the Lake Darling Fish Management office at (319) 694-2430.
Looking for some angling opportunities away from the crowds? Locals make up the bulk of the fishing crowd here and have kept their secret for years. If you're interested in targeting waters where the scenery makes even the best of fishing days pale, the Raccoon and Skunk rivers are for you.
River walleyes are alike no matter where you find them. Look for the fish outside of the main flow, below dams, extensive riffles or large structures and be willing to fish close to the bottom. Boating access generally requires smaller watercraft that may have to be portaged over rapids, around lowhead dams or otherwise manhandled in ways that bigger waters don't require.
Contact the Iowa Department of Natural Resources for more information online at www.iowadnr.com. Ask for the Iowa Stream Fishing and Canoe Guide, which lists public access sites on the Raccoon and Skunk rivers.