By Rod Woten
While they’re not raindrops on roses or whiskers on kittens, there are definitely a few of Iowa’s fabled coldwater spring streams that have become my favorites for chasing angry brown trout, elusive brook trout or flashy rainbow trout. Some of them are my favorite because of the scenery or solitude, while others rank highly because of the quantity or quality of fish available. Some are even a combination of all of these things allowing me “one-stop shopping” for whatever I may be in the mood for.
North & South Bear Creeks
These two coldwater creeks are at the top of my list for many reasons. They offer a great mix of all three species found in Iowa, with a chance at a trophy specimen from any of the three. On either of these creeks you can toss a fly at a hatchery fresh rainbow trout or catch a truly wild, stream-born brown or brook trout. They also offer walk-from-the parking-lot access if that’s your preference or bushwhack-to-find-the-fish opportunities if adventure is your thing. There are also several options for lodging all along these twin waterways if you plan to make your trip more than a single day endeavor, ranging from primitive tent camping to organized RV sites to warm and cozy cabins. All in all, this makes North and South Bear creeks the most bang for your buck in the state regardless of how you like to fly fish for trout.
The confluence of the two streams, just east of the little town of Highlandville, is a very popular place to fish, and with good reason. Gravel parking areas on each side of Quandahl Road, just before the bridge that crosses North Bear, offer easy access to North Bear on the north side of the road and South Bear on the south. As an added bonus, this is one of the main stocking areas for the unannounced stocking dates for these creeks, so there always seems to be an abundance of fish here.
Fish can often be seen rising in the deep pool where North Bear empties into South Bear. There is a small point of land accessible from the South Bear lot that will give you great access to drift a black Griffiths Gnat across this pool and catch those rising fish. A good roll-cast is essential here because there is no room for an overhead cast.
North Bear is a very different creek from South Bear. Heading upstream from the confluence area, it appears very similar to South Bear, winding its way through fairly dense timber, being crossed several times by a stocking road. The further upstream you go, however, the thinner the timber gets and the more it begins to resemble a “classic” open pasture spring creek. By the time you get upstream to the second access at the bridge on 360th Street expect to see open pastures with dairy cattle grazing along the banks of the creek. The upper reaches of North Bear offer anglers the best chance at solitude and a peaceful, uninterrupted fishing experience.
Most of the land at this end of North Bear is private property, but arrangements have been made with the owners to allow public access for fishing. These areas are made evident by the wooden “stiles” that allow easy access from the parking spots to the pasture and North Bear itself. Being able to fish this private land is a privilege we don’t want to lose, so please be sure to only access that land for fishing, and leave the area cleaner than you found it. There have been some instances in the state where a few slobs caused the property owners to stop allowing public access and ruined the fishing for everyone.
It is pretty rare that I make a trip to the Manchester area without spending at least part of the day fishing Bailey’s Ford County Park. While Bailey’s Ford is the name of the park, the stream that runs through it is actually the lower reaches of the infamous Spring Branch Creek which flows through the Manchester Trout Hatchery, just a few miles upstream. Bailey’s Ford is in very heavy rotation on the stocking schedule, getting stocked every Saturday and on other varying days of the week. This means there is almost always an abundance of fish in this short section of stream. Access is also very easy.
The upper reaches of the stream are only a few yards away from the gravel parking lot at the north end of the park. There are even two very nice handicap accessible concrete pads directly adjacent to the parking area that sit in amongst some of the best trout waters in the park. In just about every inch of water of the section of stream from the park’s northern boundary to the iron bridge that crosses the creek just south of the parking lot it is possible to catch fish.
There are fast flowing riffles and medium flow pools with bank hides for drifting nymphs through, and there are slower moving pools with rising fish that are ideally suited to dry fly fishing. Some of the best fish I have caught from Bailey’s Ford have come from the wide fast riffles directly in front of the south-most handicap pad. This is not the place to go if you want to get away from the crowds, because it can get very busy on stocking days. For me, however, having a short section of stream that packs so many opportunities to try different fly techniques, so many different kinds of trout water, and the opportunity to practice a few different casts while being almost guaranteed to catch a fish or two, is more than I could ask for.
There are fish to be had in the lower reaches of the park, too, but I rarely have the opportunity or the need to make it down there. The wade can be a very scenic one, though. Some of the limestone outcroppings and boulders that are in the stream once it enters the woods adjacent to the main part of the park are breathtaking and fishing from just north of the foot bridge all the way to its confluence with the Maquoketa River can very good, too.
Many people give me a puzzled look when I mention Richmond Springs, but as soon as I tell them that it’s the spring creek that flows through Backbone State Park, the lights instantly come on. With good reason, too, since Backbone is one of the most popular…and most beautiful state parks in Iowa. It also holds tremendous trout fishing opportunities. Richmond Springs is on a stocking schedule very similar to Bailey’s Ford; getting stocked every Saturday and then one other varying day each week. Because of this there seems to always be an abundance of fish in the park. While Richmond Springs is more rugged than Bailey’s Ford, it is not nearly as rugged as stretches of North and South Bear Creeks. This means for someone looking for an experience somewhere between the two extremes of Iowa trout fishing, Backbone Park is ideal. That being said, access to fish the creek is relatively good, or at least it used to be.
Before the flooding of ’08, the lower reaches of Backbone that contain Richmond Springs had a road that meandered alongside the stream, crossing through it at certain points, and offering multitude of convenient access points. The flooding changed everything, though, dumping tons of sand and silt on the roadways and stream crossings forcing the park rangers to close the lower Backbone to vehicle traffic. This made access somewhat more difficult, although still very do-able by foot. Fortunately the flooding didn’t really seem to hurt the fishing that much, though. Some of the familiar riffles have changed and some of the pools are deeper or longer now, but as I start to re-learn the altered stream, fishing has remained steady for me.
One other attraction of Richmond Springs that I’d like to mention is that you can actually view the springhead at the NE end of lower Backbone. There are only a few places in the state where the source of the spring creek is as easily accessible as Richmond Springs and it is truly a sight to behold. Seeing the rate at which the water come rushing out from under the limestone cliff face is breathtaking, so it’s definitely something you don’t want to miss while you’re there.
South Pine Creek
South Pine may well be one of the most rugged fishing experiences in Iowa, and I hesitate to even give it publicity because it is such a small fishery with some fairly delicate nuances. South Pine Creek is rugged because it is at least a half hour hike in from the nearest parking area. Even once you do make it to the stream, other than some bank stabilization work and man made bank hides and undercuts, it’s hard to believe another human being has ever made it into this little valley. The hike in is no picnic either. While it is a nice wide mowed grass trial for most of the trip, its up and down nature reinforced in my mind why this area is often referred to as “Little Switzerland”. Once you reach the timbered ridge overlooking the valley with South Pine Creek snaking its way through, it drops nearly straight down to the stream…and nearly straight up as you hike out.
The hike is definitely worth it, though! Once you reach South Pine Creek, you are rewarded with a chance to catch one of the true natives of Iowa. The brook trout contained in South Pine have been tested and identified as a unique strain that is estimated to have been there since the last ice age. These trout are genetically unique from any other strain of brookie in the world, so it is very special to me to be able to land one. These are the fish that were in this stream before the pioneers even started to push west through Iowa…well before even Julien Dubuque was beginning to carve a foothold in the Iowa wilderness. I lived in Iowa all my life, but it’s pretty hard for me to top that!
Because of the unique status of these fish, and because the entire fishable potion of South Pine is relatively small, this can be a fairly fragile fishery. Because of this, South Pine is a catch and release only stream, and is also restricted to artificial baits only. The remote nature of South Pine Creek also helps to protect the fragile waterway, because it definitely discourages the masses from descending upon the stream.
It does appear that the extra regulations and difficulty of access have been very effective in preserving all that South Pine Creek is. I have seen as many or more fish in the short section of South Pine as I have seen anywhere in the state. Truthfully, I was blown away by the sheer volume of fish I observed. Even with such an abundance of fish, though, they can be VERY difficult to catch. These are the wildest fish you will finds in the state. They know every trick in the book for avoiding detection and capture by predators.
What Are Your Favorites?
As you can tell, trout fishing in Iowa offers something for every skill level and every taste when it comes to fly fishing for trout. I’m a trout bum, so I love a challenge….once in a lifetime opportunities and once in a lifetime fish. In contrast, some days I also do like to work on my fundamentals over fish that are less wary. Fortunately, I have opportunities for both right here in Iowa.
These are a few of my favorite streams based on the things I look for in any fly fishing excursion, but these are only the tip of the iceberg. There are lots of trout streams in Iowa that I haven’t had the opportunity to fish…YET, and there are many trout streams in the state that fall outside my criteria, but might be right up your alley. The best way to find out for sure is to grab a fly rod and make a trip to any of the multitude of trout streams in the state. Very soon, you may have a few of your own favorite streams.