Friday, July 26, 2013

Smallie Tangles with Fluffy Butt on Upper Iowa River Float

   The red-eyed, black Fluffy Butt splatted on the water in a break between the trees.  A split-second later & at least 3’ away, a largish, olive-colored fish leapt into the air.  Oh baby!
   I finned furiously to maintain my pontoon’s position in the brisk current of the Upper Iowa River.  Gaining in excitement, I soon cast my fly into the tree branches located above the fish’s lair.  Feeling the urgency that I’m certain other anglers would understand, I attempted to tease that fly from the wood.  Failing to delicately gain its release, I pinched fly line in my fingers & let tension steadily build on leader and fly by allowing the pontoon to drift downriver.  Then, at one point, the fly line simply relaxed.  Looking down & lifting the rod tip, I didn’t see the expected limp, dangling leader.  My Fluffy Butt emerged from the river, still connected solidly to its tippet.
   The pontoon had drifted downriver from the bank with the overhanging trees.  With the old iron bridge of my take-out spot already in view & the hot July sun again meeting my skin, I decided to finish out the float.  But in the next second, I sensed my regret if I should give up so quickly on landing what was no slouch of a fish.  The river, which meanders through Decorah, IA, before making its way to the Mississippi River, had suffered through 2 drought years followed by multiple floods in 2013.  The water remained higher than usual and turbid.  After 6 hours of fishing, I’d landed one 7” smallie & missed 2 strikes.  Others had admitted to taking no fish, aside from one guy who kept saying he’d “cheated” and put on a worm, telling me he then landed a small fish.  At least the reports of the river’s beautiful scenery were true.    
   So, I rowed my pontoon upriver & continued past the fish’s lair at least another 25’ to ensure there was time to prepare fly rod and line for casting.  Once again, I furiously waggled my finned feet to hold the toon’s position.  The casts advertised my excitement, but I avoided casting into any more trees.  I talked to the fly, I talked to myself, and I talked to the fish.  Please, oh please.
   And on my 5th or 6th drift, someone or something listened…   That fish took my Fluffy Butt, made the shortest of runs & vaulted from the water!  I yelled, “Whooop!!”, among other things.  Ecstatic, I could not believe my good fortune.  That powerful smallie and I fought through its runs, dives, & aerial acrobatics for about 4 minutes.  The fish needed to expend a bit of energy prior to any attempt for me to lip it from on my toon & I was determined not to break it off. 
“If I land this fish will you take a picture?” I asked the man in the kayak.  Just about the time I hooked into the smallie, I’d glimpsed the couple floating down the river in their kayaks.  The man had evidently taken more interest in the fishy antics and remained closer to the action.  With the smallie lipped, we jockeyed our watercraft to maintain close contact and I handed him the camera.  Feeling happy and filled with life, I held that 16.5” smallmouth, complete with red-eyed, black Fluffy Butt adorning its lip.  The next moment I thanked the couple, & retrieved my camera & fly.  After ensuring the fish was doing well, I released it.  In a flash the smallie returned to its turbid waterworld.  Thanks, oh thanks.

IF You Go
   The Upper Iowa River flows through MN and IA in its upper stretch & angling in this region requires fishing licenses from both states.  In Iowa, the river is deemed ‘navigable’ so the public may float its waters.  However the river is also classified ‘non-meandered’, meaning the owner(s) of the land adjacent to the water also own the stream bed.  If this is a private owner, the riverbed is also private property.  While the public can legally float the river, there are limited circumstances in which the public can legally step foot on privately-owned riverbed (likely such as wading through or around obstacles of water navigation).  Please visit the internet or a DNR office in the region for more details. 
   The water varies from skinny to wide as it flows downriver through Northeast Iowa.  The river’s popular rocky bluffs, shores and river bed are interspersed with a wooded, dirt, sand &/or farm landscape.  Easily navigable rapids are replaced by a more placid current flow.  Four dams are present along the river’s length & must be portaged.  Skinny water can mean shallow water where a canoe will need to be dragged.  Bigger water may increase the need for a PFD, but one per person is required on all watercraft in Iowa.  This link is recommended to learn current, average & historic water flows and depths for particular waterways:
   Smallmouth bass are more prevalent in the river’s upper, rocky, often shallow habitat but both smallies and walleye are found throughout the river.  Walleye, as 2” fingerlings, are also stocked in the river and both walleye and sauger travel upward from the Mississippi River.  Pike are also sprinkled throughout the Upper Iowa River.  Trout can be found near coldwater tributaries and springs.
   It is reported that the greatest recreational traffic is often found near Kendalville to Bluffton and on to Decorah due to the combination of beautiful scenery coupled with fewer river sections requiring the possibility of dragging watercraft through shallow water.  Of course more recreational traffic can affect fishing.
   Multiple campgrounds are located on the Upper Iowa River and an easy put-in or takeout spot is an excellent benefit to staying at one of the campgrounds.  Luckily, I    found a quiet, uncrowded campground.  I wasn’t thrilled with the $2 fee to shower or the $20 shuttle service (to take me on a 10-minute drive back to my vehicle), but it was convenient.  I drove by two crowded campgrounds located across the river from one another.  On a Friday at nightfall, I heard blaring country music and the ka-booms M-80s.  The tightly-packed metal campers reminded me of sardines in a can.  The campgrounds might be a fun place to party.  Those who were awake as I floated between the campgrounds on Saturday morning waved & were friendly as was, literally, everyone else floating the river that day.  Again, I recommend an internet search for reviews on campgrounds (or local outfitters for watercraft or shuttle rentals), to ensure your needs for the type of trip you want are met.  Of course, Iowa also offers many Wildlife Management Areas (WMA) if you don’t mind primitive camping.
   DNR employees, campground operators, river outfitters & fishing guides are also potential sources of great information to make a successful fishing and float trip.  DNR offices, including hatcheries and rearing stations, are some of the businesses which offer canoe float maps of Iowa rivers.  The maps are an excellent resource for planning a successful float trip.  I’ve read positive reviews about the book “Paddling Iowa”, by Nate Hoogeveen, & will soon own a copy of the 2012 revised edition. (7/2013)