When I first moved to northwest Iowa over 30 years ago and I wanted to go fishing, I headed to one of the Iowa Great Lakes or some of the smaller lakes around. I never gave interior stream/river fishing much thought. About 20 years ago a friend of mind introduced me to float fishing by way of canoe or kayak on the West Fork of the Des Moines River. What an experience! Aside from the fishing, I found an incredibly serene and beautiful world inside the banks of the river. A totally different world than what I had seen from the outside as a passerby on the road.
For such a pristine experience, it was amazingly simple, both in equipment and costs: no big boat and motor, no fancy fishing equipment and lures. Plus, that day there was no competition. Over our six-hour float, we met no other human beings. It was just the two of us with only the sights and sounds of nature to keep us company! Deer, waterfowl, pheasants, songbirds, birds of prey…awesome! Oh, and several catfish, walleye, and the mighty carp to keep us entertained. I became a true believer that the interior streams and rivers in Iowa are some of the best-kept secrets around.,
A Little Background
First, we need to understand the dynamics of our inland streams and rivers. Their levels vary with the time of the year and are greatly influenced by rain, snowfall, and runoff. Huge rains and heavy snowpack will change a gently flowing stream into an out-of-bank fury that will destroy pretty much anything in its path. At the same time, during late summer when rainfall is less prevalent, the stream might even dry up in spots so that portaging is required to get from one “dry” spot to the flowing water. So it is a good idea to know what the current water levels are like, if there have been recent rains north of where you will be on the water, and what the weather forecast is for the time you will be on the water.
There are many types of canoes and kayaks available on today’s market. However, since Iowa’s waters have little whitewater and are normally slower rivers and streams, the most common types of canoes and kayaks are the recreational and the touring. The recreational is more stable, maneuverable, and durable. Not as fast as the touring design and not as capable of hauling a large amount of gear, but easier to handle. The recreational type is usually shorter and the most used by educational programs. Although today’s canoe and kayak materials have advanced to include both natural and synthetic materials, one of the most lightweight and abrasive resistant materials, along with inexpensive aluminum. Both canoes and kayaks over 13 feet in length must have an Iowa Registration Certificate and decals affixed to the forward half of each side of the craft to be operated legally on pubic waters.
All canoes and kayaks must have at least one United States Coast Guard approved wearable life jacket for each person on board. If the vessel is 16 feet or longer, one throwable PFD must also be on board. If you are going to be on the water between sunset and sunrise, some form of navigation lights is needed. However, for canoes and kayaks, a lantern or flashlight shining a white light will meet the requirement.
First, remember this type of boating is way different than boating on a lake or large river. People in a canoe/kayak are very close to the water surface and most likely end up with water in the vessel at some point along the trip. So some kind of bailing bucket will help remove water when needed. It is also a good idea to waterproof containers to put any equipment (clothes, shoes, food) in that you want to remain dry. Some people even put this equipment in plastic bags for added protection.
A good nylon rope that can be tied to the bow or stern of the vessel is also important. Until needed, the rope is usually kept out of the way. Cushions or knee pads also are important equipment. The cushion can act as both a seat and a kneeler pad and also as a throwable flotation device.
Remember that the river or stream that you will be on is a moving body of water. Proper vessel control is a must! The faster the flow, the more you need to learn how to keep the vessel straight. Learning how to beach the vessel also needs to be practiced. Most likely at one time or another, the vessel will capsize. It’s simply part of canoeing or kayaking a stream or river. That’s why it is so important that you know how to maneuver and use the vessel to your advantage. That’s the reason why life jackets should always be worn when you are navigating rivers….not just stowed with the rest of the storage. A good rule of thumb to follow is to only navigate waters that are equal to your ability to navigate the canoe or kayak. If the water looks too imposing for you then don’t go…wait it out for slower waters.
According to the Iowa DNR, many “upsets” occur during the launching or landing. First for launching: if there are at least two people, one should hold the vessel steady while the other person gets in. Keep the weight-bearing foot on the centerline and balance the craft from side to side by transferring the weight to your hands. Maintain three points of contact while entering or getting out of the vessel: one hand and two feet or two hands and one foot!
It is also vital that you become familiar with any signage that is posted both on land and in the water when present. These signs let people know of mileage, hazards, low-head dams, portages, etc. along the trail. Knowing the meaning of each sign is important!
Again remember that a float trip is not a boat ride on a lake. The float trip is going from Point A to Point B, all downstream, so you need to have a vehicle waiting at the destination point. Remember, too, that a mile is not a mile. Until you have tried it, it’s hard to explain just how meandering is really done while floating down stream. Thus, one mile on a road can mean several hundred yards or miles more on the water. Consider the time variable, too. You won’t be going 60 miles per hour. So, a trip of a few miles may take you several hours.
Learn to read the water! On any given water, you will find pools and holes, runs with faster current and riffles where water really rolls over a rocky surface. Plus, be on the watch for overhanging trees, snags, and rocks. Also, sooner or later you will probably run into a low-head dam that will be holding back some water, while at the same time creating a whirlpool right below the obstruction. Most people should and will land upstream and portage beyond the rapids and then return to the water. This is just the safe route and the best way of avoiding capsizing. Also don’t be surprised if you come across an obstruction by one of nature’s best builders, the beaver either!
It’s also a good idea to let people know when and where you will be traveling on the water. Today a cell phone can also be invaluable in case you need help so make sure to take one with you or someone in your group has one. In addition leave a map of your float plan that details your route and camping spots, or break spots if intended.
How long do you want to float? A few hours? A day? Several days? It’s all up to you. Some rivers and streams in Iowa meander through town and county parks with campgrounds. You can make as big of a trip out of this float experience as you would like.
Two common fish taken in our inland rivers are catfish and walleye. If you are looking for catfish, think structure: holes, snags, and rocks. Holes and snags are prime locations year-round, while the rocks draw catfish during spawning time.
One of the most common practices is to anchor above a snag and allow the bait to drift to the snag, along the edge of the snag, and around the snag. As summer draws on, water levels often drop, which means that snags and a deep hole make a great combination for holding catfish.
Walleyes are another targeted fish in our inland rivers. Low-head dams are great places to target walleye. Walleyes move toward the moving water and current, and a well-placed jig or twister both offer a great presentation. However, beware that snags and rocks usually will take their share of lures. Holes, of course, and even snags and log jams can hold walleyes as well.
If I had to choose one bait for summer catfish and walleyes, I think it would be a juicy, fat night crawler. Plus, you can bet you will run into a few buffalo, carp, and other rough fish. Although they are not on my list, this means that there will most likely be non-stop action throughout the day.
One fish that I must mention, though I have never had the opportunity to fish for in Iowa’s rivers, is the smallmouth bass. Although I have not fished for the smallie in Iowa’s interior waters there are plenty of streams that hold fishable populations and I have heard they are a blast to catch.
Overall I like to keep things really simple when fishing from a canoe or kayak. Too much gear creates chaos and when in confined space on moving water chaos is never good. I will take one versatile pole, some universal lures, live bait, spool of line, and extra terminal tackle.
This article gives a quick overview of one of the most untapped fishing opportunities in the Hawkeye State. What more could you ask for? Abundant and willing fish to bite, very little competition, and some of the most incredible beauty that Iowa has to offer. Still, to become a good river angler, it takes time and knowledge of the fishery. For me, I was lucky. I had a great “guide” to help me get started. That’s one way to become an expert; go with an angler that knows the water, the fish, and how to navigate the vessel.
So, if you are looking for an angling challenge that takes you off the lakes of Iowa and on the rivers and streams, consider a float/fishing trip on one of Iowa’s many interior streams and rivers. I don’t think you will be disappointed. Don’t forget to have a vehicle waiting for you when the float trip is over!
Safety and Responsible Paddling Tips
The American Canoe Association and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources urges all paddlers to boat responsibly to prevent accidents, minimize impacts, and avoid conflicts with residents and other river users. We offer these guidelines for responsible paddling.
• Wear a properly-fitted life jacket while on the water. Never paddle under the influence of alcohol or unprescribed drugs.
• Paddle with a group, not by yourself. Leave a “float plan” for your trip with a friend or relative.
• Dress appropriately for weather and water conditions, including air and water temperature. Avoid conditions for which you are not prepared.
• Learn about and study your route in advance, especially hazards that are beyond your skill level.
• Carry a supply of food and drinking water adequate for your trips length.
• Be able to read the water and effectively steer and propel your boat. Learn how to rescue yourself and others in the event of a capsize.
• Do not stand up in your boat, and avoid weight shifts that may cause capsize. Do not carry more weight or persons than your boat is designed to safely accommodate.
• Know where the dams are!
• Know and understand your river levels and flows, as well as the weather forecast. Remember, rain that has fallen upstream will be coming downstream!
• Watch out for newer paddlers. Offer advice, be supportive, share your knowledge and make them feel welcome.
Leave No Trace Ethics
Dispose of waste properly. Never litter. Always pack out your trash. A good habit to develop is to always take a mesh trash bag so you can pick up around the access points. Always leave it cleaner than you found it.
• Use a portable toilet or other approved method to pack out solid human waste and paper products. Dispose of liquid waste 200’ from water and away from camps and trails.
• Travel and camp on durable surfaces whenever possible. Minimize impacts to shore when launching, portaging and scouting.
• Avoid building campfires, except in established fire rings or in emergencies. Building a fire on sandbars is fine as long as you leave no trace of it the following morning.
• Respect wildlife by observing from a safe distance. Leave artifacts and natural features undisturbed.
Laws and Regulations
Meandered, Non-Meandered, and Navigable Rivers
These terms can be confusing, but are important in understanding what the rules are for where you can be and where you can’t:
A Meandered river is one in which adjacent land owners own the land above the high water mark. Land below the high water mark is public, giving citizens the right to explore sandbars at leisure without worry of trespassing. Land above that level is usually private, and should not be utilized by people navigating streams except when portaging around an obstruction. View a map of meandered rivers and legal boundaries of meandered rivers to learn more.
A non-meandered river, on the other hand, is one in which private landowners own all the land adjacent to and underneath the water-including the bottom, sandbars, and banks. Most river miles in Iowa are designated as non-meandered. A 1996 attorney general opinion, however, permits activities incidental to navigation on non-meandered rivers, such as, fishing, swimming, and wading when the river is considered navigable. This law also allows for trash clean-ups and the need to portage obstructions in the rivers.
A navigable river is defined by state law as one “which can support a vessel capable of carrying one or more persons during a total of a six-month period in one out of every ten years.” Most rivers and larger creeks in Iowa, including non-meandered rivers, are considered navigable. State law expressly allows boating traffic down to one-person vessel such as kayaks on navigable streams.
Courtesy of Iowa DNR