In terms of physical water area, rivers are the most under fished bodies of water we have in the state. This is mostly due to the fact that much of a river’s shoreline is bordered by private ground, it often takes a boat to fish places away from dams and public access spots and in times of low or high water it can be downright difficult or dangerous to navigate a boat anyways. They rarely if ever see pressure in the winter months and the nature of moving water isn’t easy to fish by some of the more common tactics used in lakes.
It wasn’t until my teenage years that I really started to focus my fishing efforts on rivers. This was often for hard-fighting species like carp and catfish using presentations such as corn, worms and stinkbait. I always fished from the bank and it wasn’t until my 20’s that I fished a river from a boat. Rivers in Iowa have more species diversity that most lakes, from perch to pike to flathead catfish and of course all of your favorite rough fish species.
Who Lives There
If its white bass, largemouth, smallmouth or even wipers you are after, multiple rivers in the state have the option for any of these. The Mississippi river, especially the backwaters, is prime habitat for largemouth and smallmouth. Other stretches of this river with abundant rock along the bank, wing dams and docks are fantastic places to find smallmouth bass and white bass. The dams naturally are heavily used by white bass.
Many other rivers in the state like the Wapsipinicon, Des Moines, Cedar, Iowa and Skunk, just to name a few, all boast populations of good smallmouth fishing. Interior rivers like the Des Moines, Raccoon and lower Cedar and Iowa also have strong populations of white bass and the occasional wiper in places like Saylorville and Red Rock. All of these rivers mentioned also have pike and walleye, sometimes in good numbers. Rivers in general are predator heavy and it’s not uncommon to catch bass, pike and walleye all in the same outing at certain times of the year.
In terms of catfish, well, pick a river and it has at least one of the three major species native to Iowa in it somewhere. Channel catfish by and large are the most abundant species and they live in all of the major river systems throughout the state. Flathead catfish are less common than channel cats but also occur in many of the rivers. Some of the better water for these would be the Des Moines, the Raccoon, the Mississippi and Missouri and their larger tributaries. If you want to catch a blue cat then you will need to put on some miles unless you live along the western border or in the southeast corner of Iowa. These fish are abundant in the Missouri river but can also be found in the lower Des Moines past Ottumwa and Lower portions of the Mississippi such as below lock and dam 19.
Even panfish species are found in rivers and the Mississippi backwaters would be a classic example. Here anglers can find everything from perch to bluegill and of course crappies. These areas are also targeted by ice fisherman. I haven’t caught many panfish on the river but when I have it’s near dams or slow pools along a rocky bank. I’ve caught primarily rock bass and crappie and it was generally while targeting white bass or walleye with smaller jigs.
What I look For
In most river scenarios I look for current seams, areas of slack or slower water adjacent to the main river current whether the river is high, normal or low. These areas congregate baitfish and offer feeding opportunities along with resting areas for predatory fish. Other species like carp and suckers also frequent these slower water areas. Aside from current seams, it really depends on the species you are targeting, river conditions, time of day and time of year.
The primary species I target throughout the warmer months is catfish so I tend to default to the upstream sides of log jams, rocky banks with current seams or the edges of an outside bend with points that protrude, generating slack water behind. If the river is high I like to fish very close to the bank in the slowest water I can find. When the river gets low I will explore the areas described above along with the upstream edges of a run, a small creek draining in to the river or the backsides of islands. These locations can also offer opportunities for walleye, pike, panfish and white bass at times.
Keep Safety in Mind
Safety is always key when fishing any river, especially from a boat. My parents didn’t allow me to fish the river without adult supervision until I was thirteen or fourteen. If you are boating, make sure the water levels are safe and always keep life jackets and a throw cushion handy. Make sure the boat is in proper working order and always take along extra gas.
If you plan to fish a new stretch of river at night, it pays to get on the water in the daylight to see what you are up against and get a feel for shallow spots, rocks and trees. I like to carry a good LED spotlight which helps immensely for locating objects in the water during night travel. If you ever feel unsafe whether that’s in a boat or along the bank then the best option is to get off the river or try a spot with less hazards. Every year, people drown from pushing their luck with flowing water.
Fishing a river is not always easy, especially when you don’t have a boat option and there are limited places to access. The internet has a wealth of knowledge around any species you wish to target and often a quick Google search will bring up a host articles to browse through. Talking to local fisherman or the local bait shop can also be really good for figuring out what is biting at that time. Keep safety in mind and good luck on the river!