Iowa Trout Grand Slam
By Rod Woten
Brace yourselves. Those of you unaware that Iowa has fishable trout populations may be in for a shock. Not only DOES Iowa have fishable trout populations in the northeast corner of the state…some of which do NOT rely on regular stocking to maintain their population…but Iowa actually has THREE species of trout to catch. Yes, that’s right, I said THREE! As a fly-fishing guide for trout, I often get requests from some clients to catch one species specifically, so I have to know which of the northeast Iowa streams give me the best chance of putting my client on the desired species. Sometimes, I even have clients that want to catch the Iowa trout grand slam, which is to catch all three species in one outing. To keep these clients happy, I also have to know which streams give my clients the best shot at catching all three species.
Rainbow trout are probably the most widely distributed species of trout in Iowa. Their populations are maintained almost exclusively via regular stocking. As a guide they are the easiest of the three species to lead my clients to because a high percentage of Iowa’s trout streams are stocked with rainbow trout. While the bulk of the rainbow trout population is maintained through stocking, there are a few streams in northeast Iowa where natural reproduction has been verified and it seems like they add another stream to the list every couple of years. I like to think this may be due to improving water quality but have no scientific evidence to back that up. Rainbow trout can be very frustrating to attempt to catch on the fly because it takes many of the newly stocked fish a period of time to figure out what they’re supposed to be eating. They are so used to eating the floating pellets that they are fed at the hatchery that they don’t take flies, which look like the bugs they’re supposed to be eating.
The second most prolific trout species in Iowa would be brown trout. In certain pockets of Iowa’s trout country, they reign supreme over the other two species, but generally speaking, they are not quite as widely distributed as the rainbow trout. In contrast to the rainbow trout, browns do very well in Iowa where they naturally reproduce in most of the streams they inhabit and reproduce to the point of being sustainable without stocking in many of the streams they inhabit. This makes sense however, given that brown trout are the most tolerant of the three species of less than ideal water quality. When I have clients that want to chase feisty, angry, hard-hitting brown trout I head to completely different streams that I go to for either of the other two species.
Ironically enough, Iowa’s least prolific trout is the only of the three species that is native to the state AND it’s not really even a trout! Technically speaking, brook trout are really a char and more closely related to arctic char and dolly varden. The South Pine strain of brook trout are native to the state and have been here since before European settlers ever set foot west of the Mississippi. In fact, South Pine strain brook trout have been in Iowa and isolated from other strains long enough that they have evolved to be genetically unique from any other strain of brook trout in the world! Unfortunately, the South Pine Strain did not fare well in the urbanization of the state and agricultural practice of the past and their population dwindled. Luckily an undisturbed stream of South Pine strain brook trout was found and from that small population other populations were hatched and distributed to a few select streams in order to preserve them. South Pine brookies still struggle with the water quality of most of Iowa’s trout streams, so even today there are only a handful of streams where you can specifically target them.
Don’t despair though. Other strains that handle less-than-perfect water quality slightly better that the South Pine fish have been introduced to the state in order to find a more suitable strain that will better support harvest. I believe the DNR is still experimenting with strains, however, because even with the new strains of brook trout, they are the hardest fish to catch in most trout streams in Iowa. Fortunately there are a few streams where I can take clients to almost exclusively catch brook trout. Since brook trout are also the least prolific of the three species, when I get clients that want to catch the grand slam, I focus their entire trip around a couple of streams where they have as good a chance of catching brookies as they do rainbows and browns.
There is a fourth type of trout you can catch in Iowa that you don’t hear or read much about, but they are out there. Since this fish is actually a hybrid, I won’t call it a separate species, but it is definitely a fourth variety of trout that you can catch in Iowa. The tiger trout is a cross between a brown trout and a brook trout, and they are absolutely beautiful! Their coloration is similar to a brook trout except that the worm like marking that are typically on the back of the brookie are magnified on the tiger trout. It’s hard to pick a specific stream in Iowa to target tigers, but since they are a brookie-brown hybrid, any stream that has brookies and browns together has a good chance of containing tigers. There are a couple of streams in particular that present ideal conditions. I won’t name them in the article, but if you read closely enough, you’ll be able to deduce which ones they are from my descriptions for the species present.
Where To Target Rainbows
Since rainbow trout are probably the most prolific trout in Iowa, you can catch them in just about any stream that gets stocked. In fact, many of the rainbow trout that get caught in the state have only been stocked within the past couple of weeks. Obviously, some do avoid being caught between stockings and some even avoid being caught between seasons. They are often referred to as holdover fish and are the next best thing to catching a truly wild-born rainbow trout. It might actually be easier for me to tell which streams to NOT focus on for targeting rainbows. There are a handful of streams in the far northern reaches of Iowa’s trout country that are specifically known as wild brown trout fisheries, so you’d simply be wasting your time targeting rainbows there. Specifically, two of the streams are French Creek and Waterloo Creek. Can you catch rainbows in these streams? Possibly. Is it worth your time to target rainbows there? Definitely not! I will also add that one of my favorite places to target rainbow trout is Coldwater Creek. The rainbow trout do really well there, and some of my best rainbows, that weren’t spent brood fish that had been stocked, have come from Coldwater. Coldwater also gives you a legitimate shot at a truly wild-born rainbow trout, since this is one of the few streams where the DNR has verified natural reproduction of rainbow trout. I always catch & release rainbows caught from Coldwater for this specific reason. Often rainbows are the species that I recommend for my clients as table fare, especially if I know they are stocked fish. This places a little less pressure on the naturally reproducing browns and the brookies that already have an uphill battle just to survive.
Where To Target Browns
Obviously French Creek and Waterloo Creek, which I already mentioned when talking about rainbow trout, would be my top two choices for targeting brown trout. I ESPECIALLY like open pasture section along French Creek. My mind fondly returns a trip to that stretch of French when it had rained heavily the previous day and she was running high, fast and dirty. No one was catching fish on dry flies or nymphs under indicators, but by Czech Nymphing, I was able to dredge up some of the fattest, most aggressive browns I had ever caught! It was truly an amazing day. Almost all the fish you catch from either of these streams is as wild as you can get in Iowa and they range in size from young stream-born fingerling to trophy class bruisers. In fact, I believe that French creek provides all the ingredients that the hatchery in Manchester uses to spawn and rear future generations of browns in Iowa.
Where To Target Brookies
One of my favorite places to target Brookies in Iowa is at The Seed Savers Exchange just outside of Decorah. Pine Spring Creek is actually the name of the water that flows through the property and it contains almost exclusively brook trout. If brookies are specifically what you’re after, then your chances of catching only brookies is about 95% here. One of the reasons I so LOVE to fish Pine Spring is because the brookies it contains are actually a restored population of the South Pine strain of brook trout. That’s right, when you catch a brookie from Pine Spring you are catching a strain of fish that is unique to Iowa and have been here for millennia! Because of this, Pine Springs is catch and release only for brook trout, but to be able to catch such a unique fish is definitely worth it. For a real treat, fish it in the fall when all the rooster brookies are wearing their full spawning colors…absolutely BREATHTAKING! Oh, and the reason that there’s only a 95% chance of catching brookies exclusively at Pine Spring? Well at the other end of Pine Spring is West Canoe Creek, which is a good brown trout stream in its own right, and the browns in West Canoe Creek sometime find their way upstream and end up in Pine Spring Creek. This is the one instance where I will enthusiastically encourage clients to keep any brown trout caught to help give the brookies in Pine Spring a fighting chance.
Another good option for brookies only is South Pine Creek, also near Decorah. South Pine Creek is the namesake for the South Pine strain of Brook trout and with good reason. The little valley contains the stream where that particular strain of brook trout was discovered. Because the brook trout population in this little stream is naturally reproducing, it also has artificial-only and catch-and-release-only regulations in place. The hike to get into the valley is a good little walk. It typically takes me about 45 minutes to hike down to the stream over rolling terrain. In comparison to the walk in, the walk out of the valley that contains South Pine Creek is the REAL challenge! As with most all wild brook trout, the brookies in South Pine also are not terribly large. A trophy sized fish from South Pine Will be in the 10 to 11-inch range. Even despite South Pine’s lack of easy access and relatively small fish, it is well worth it to be able to catch truly wild brookies.
Where to catch The Iowa Trout
Fortunately, there are several good streams in Iowa where all three species are present and present a good chance for an angler to catch the trout grand slam for Iowa. The first one that comes to mind for me are the twin streams of North and South Bear creek. These two streams account for probably well over 75% of my Iowa grand slams. Although either of the creeks are well known as wild brown trout fisheries, some days they seem more like a rainbow trout fisheries and other day like brook trout fisheries. Regardless, a trip to North or South Bear Creek when I don’t catch at least two of the three species is very rare.
Another good option would be Otter Creek and Glover Creek in Echo Valley State Park. All three species are stocked there, and I have caught all three…unfortunately never on the same trip. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Just the fact that all three are present is huge. I have actually SEEN all three species in one trip, but not caught all three…yet! To catch the grand slam here, you may have to also get off the beaten path and fish the wooded section between the parking area for each. This is some of the best fishing, in my opinion, anyway. It feels much more like fishing a small mountain stream in the Smoky Mountains than it does a small creek between cornfields in Iowa. You would be amazed how little water these fish can hide in! Drift a fly over some of the skinniest water you can find and a brookie will still appear out of nowhere and annihilate that fly! It is absolutely amazing the smallest crack crevice or rock these fish will hide behind, in or under. You have to be stealthy when fishing this section because you are so close to the water. You also have to cast accurately and not miss hooksets, because you won’t get a second shot at a missed or spooked fish. If you see any kind of water that a fish could even have a remote chance of hiding in, you should make a cast to it, because it probably holds a fish. I have even caught a dozen or more fish from the same pocket in some of the better holes in the wooded section.
Another good location to attempt a grand slam would be Spring Branch Creek that runs through the grounds of the state hatchery near Manchester Iowa. Not only are all three species present here, but there are some true trophies in that crystal-clear water. Just upstream of the hatchery I saw one of the biggest brown trout I have ever seen slowly slide back up under a bank hide as I approached the stream. No matter what fly I drifted through that run, I could NOT convince that brown to re-appear! The fish here are not easy to catch because the water is crystal clear they’ve seen every artificial fly and lure known to man (Spring Branch is artificial only and also has size regulations), so it is a true test of your skills as an angler, but the rewards can be well worth it!
Obviously, I have only begun to scratch the surface as far as which streams offer the best chance at any given species of trout. There are almost 100 trout streams in Iowa, and I have only mentioned a few. I would highly encourage you to pick up a copy of the trout map that the Iowa DNR published. It shows all the trout streams in the state, list the species in each and also tells you if it is stocked annually, stocked monthly, is self-sustaining or is a put-and-grow stream. The trout fishing section of the DNR website also contains all of this information and more such as historical stocking data, access conditions, special regulations for each stream, etc. Using the information from either of these sources, you can target other streams based on what species you’re after or plan your next Iowa Trout Grand Slam trip. I hope to see you out there!