Troutin’ About in Iowa

Use the word “trout” and “Iowa” in the same sentence and you’ll definitely get some funny looks. Trout are rarely the first fish that comes to mind when most think of Iowa. Fish more typically thought of, as “Iowa fish” are bluegills, catfish, largemouth bass, white bass and crappies. I never cease to be amazed by the number of people in the state that have no idea that we have cold water streams in the northeast corner of state that support active, robust and very fishable trout populations. Not only do these trout provide for great angling opportunities, but also the chance to catch a trophy fish is a real possibility. The scenery is absolutely breathtaking, and total solitude is there for those willing to seek it.

The Essentials
There are many ways to catch trout in Iowa’s coldwater spring streams. They range from live bait, cheese, corn and dough baits to inline spinners and small crankbaits on spinning tackle to dry flies and nymphs on fly tackle. Regardless of which method you choose to catch trout, there are two absolute necessities that you can’t hit the trout streams without. The first thing, obviously, is a current Iowa fishing license. That alone, however is not enough because a trout stamp is also required. Getting caught on the trout streams without one is a mistake you’ll only make once.

Children that are not required to have a fishing license under Iowa law are also not required to have a trout stamp. However, if the child wishes to keep their own five fish limit they will need a trout stamp to do so. Without the stamp, any fish they catch go against the daily limit of the adult that accompanies them.

Native vs. non-native species
The three trout species found in Iowa’s trout streams are brook trout, brown trout and rainbow trout. Of the three species only the brook trout is a true native of the state. Browns and rainbows have been introduced to Iowa through stocking efforts. Brook trout and brown are the only two species that are capable of reproducing in the types of habitat that Iowa’s spring streams offer, so rainbow trout populations are sustained entirely through stocking.

Brown trout have actually done well enough in some Iowa streams that the frequency of stocking them has been greatly reduced and rather than stocking catchable sized fish, fingerling brown trout are stocked. It is for this reason that during guide trips, I often encourage my clients to release all brown and brook trout caught, so that they may spawn and continue to sustain populations. That being said, as long as the stream you’re fishing has no special regulations, keeping any species of trout caught is completely legal as long as you’re not exceeding the daily five fish limit; so please do so if you desire.

Two Types of Streams
Iowa trout anglers will find two types of streams in northeast Iowa. The first is the typical “public” stream that is open to anyone. Many of these are on public land, but some do also meander through private property. In many cases the DNR has made arrangements with landowners to allow the general public to access these streams through private land much as if they were on public land.

Most of these areas are made very obvious by the wooden “stiles” that cross the fences of the private land, making access to the streams as easy as climbing up a set of stairs and back down again. It is very important, however, that these public streams on private land be accessed for fishing ONLY! That means no morel hunting, no flower picking, no camping and no hunting of any kind. It is important that these privileges not be abused, because access can be revoked at any time and actually has been revoked in a few cases in the past.

The other type of streams is called a “Put and Grow” stream. These types of streams are almost exclusively on private land. Access to these streams is not pre-arranged through the DNR and there are no nice wooden stiles to assist in getting to and from the stream. Anyone that wants to fish a Put and Grow stream must put in some legwork up front to identify who the landowner is, and gain permission from him or her to fish the stream on their property. I know it sounds like a lot of work…and it can be, but the advantages of fishing a Put and Grow stream make it well worth the effort.

The first advantage to a Put and Grow stream is that there’s a high probability that you’ll have the whole stream to yourself. Not many trout anglers are willing to put in the up-front work to gain access to the stream or the bushwhacking it sometimes takes to get to the stream. Because of this, these streams don’t receive near as much pressure as the public streams do.

In fact, chances are pretty good, that many of the fish in these streams have never even seen an artificial lure before. That takes us to the second advantage…Put and Grow streams are the ultimate way to test your fishing skill against the wildest trout in the state. Put and Grow fish are usually only stocked on an annual basis and only at the fingerling stage. These fish aren’t use to being fed floating food pellets on a daily basis in the hatchery for a majority of their life like their public stream brothers and sisters are. That means Put and Grow fish will be ultra-picky about what they eat.

These are not fish that are easily caught with marshmallows or PowerBait like public stream fish are. For fly casters, perfect casts are needed and anything less than a perfect drift just won’t get the job done. A third distinct advantage of Put and Grow streams is that since these fish aren’t harvested at anything near the rate that their public streams brethren are, there’s a very good chance that there are some trophy size wild fish in these streams. Personally, I would bushwhack through the thickest briar patch for the chance to not only catch a trophy fish, but also a truly WILD trophy fish. For the die-hard trout angler, Put and Grow streams are definitely where it’s at!

Fly vs. Spinning Tackle
As I already alluded to earlier, there are lots of different ways to catch trout in the spring streams of Northeast Iowa. My two favorites are with spinning tackle or with fly tackle. The lure selection for either method can be as complicated or as simple as you want to make it, but I will just touch on a few of my go to lures for each type of tackle.

For spinning tackle, I lean towards the light side, opting for a light-action or medium-light action rod…definitely not going any heavier than medium action. In my opinion, a 5-1/2 foot rod is about ideal for Northeast Iowa. It’s long enough to cushion runs from a nice sized trout and ensure casting accuracy and distance, while still being short enough that it is relatively easy to yield on all but the most overgrown streams.

My go-to line is 6-pound test fluorocarbon, which is strong enough to land most fish you’ll find in the streams as well as resist the inevitable abrasions and allow you to pull free from most snags, all the while being thin enough and invisible enough that it goes by undetected by even the most wary trout. Fluorocarbon line has the perfect mix of toughness and invisibility that makes it IDEAL for trout fishing.

My lure selection for spin fishing for trout is pretty basic. In fact, I catch almost all my spinning tackle trout on one of three lures. Those lures would be an Original Floating Rapala, a Countdown Rapala, or a Panther Martin inline spinner. For either the Floating or Countdown Rapalas, I like sizes 1, 3, 5 and 7 in silver, gold, rainbow trout, brown trout or brook trout colors. For the Panther Martin spinners, I like sizes 2, 3 and 4. I like my Panther Martins in any colors with a gold or silver blade, but for what it’s worth, my spinner wallet is almost dominated by the Panther Martins with the black body and chartreuse blade.

For fly-fishing, I prefer a 7 to 8 foot 5 weight fly rod. This is long enough to still get off good overhead and roll casts, while still not being too unwieldy in the thick stuff. Like my spinning lures, my fly selections are also pretty simple. My number one dry fly is an Elk Hair Caddis. I have this fly in a variety of sizes to “match the hatch”, and also in a few different colors, although natural brown is my favorite. A close second to the Caddis is the Griffiths Gnat. Like the Caddis, I have this fly in a variety of sizes and colors, but smaller seems to be better with this fly and again I like a natural brown or black. A distant third as my favorite dry fly is an Adams, and I like the smaller sizes in this fly also.

For fishing below the surface with fly tackle, which is how I fly fish 85% of the time, it’s hard to beat a “hopper-dropper” setup. This is simply a foam hopper with a small beadhead nymph tied to the shank of the hook in the hopper with a short piece of tippet. The nymphs will pick up fish feeding below the surface, and the hopper serves as a strike indicator as well as picking up bonus top water trout. This rig is especially effective in the late summer when hopper hatches are at their peak. My favorite nymphs for the “dropper” portion of this rig are Hare’s Ears, Pheasant Tails, Copper Johns and Zebra Midges. Experiment with colors and sizes of these nymphs until you figure out exactly what the trout are eating that day.

What Else to Bring?
Hip waders are almost a must to effectively chase Iowa’s spring stream trout. It can be done without waders, but wearing a pair of hipsters will give you much better angles on some hot spots, as well also allow you to thoroughly probe every area of the stream. A good fishing vest is also indispensable. Much of the time, there won’t be a good place to set a standard tackle box down, so keeping all your tackle strategically stored in a fishing vest will greatly enhance the experience for you by allowing uninhibited mobility and hands free fishing.

No trip to Iowa’s trout stream is complete without mosquitoes, biting flies and gnats, so be sure to bring along some good insect repellent. Polarized sunglasses are also a good idea because they not only protect your eyes from glare and allow you to better see trout in the water, but they also protect your eyes from errant flies or spinning tackle that suddenly decides to free itself with rifle-like velocity from snags on the other side of the stream. It seems that almost every trip I make to Iowa’s trout country has at least some rain in it, so I’ve taken to always carrying a lightweight and breathable rain jacket with me wherever I go. The back pocket of my fishing vest has a pocket that is ideal for keeping my rain jacket out of the way until I need it.

Get Troutin’!
If you’re tired of the same ponds, lakes or rivers that you’ve been fishing or looking for something a little different, then trout fishing in the streams of Northeast Iowa is definitely something you should try. It can cost as much or as little as you want, but like anything else, it’s best to start off simple.

Hopefully, I’ve given enough direction that anyone that’s interested in trying Iowa trout fishing can get a good, simple start. The Iowa DNR website also has great maps of all streams and has a dynamite paper map available for the asking, so be sure to take advantage of those resources too. It won’t be long now and the hard water season will be a distant memory. I’m already feeling the itch to get my fly rods ready for my first trout trip of the year.

Now is the time to start looking at the maps, deciding which streams you want to fish and putting together your plans. I know I will be. Spring on Iowa’s trout streams is second only to early/mid-fall in my opinion, as I can hardly wait for that first trip of the season.

So, who’s going with me?

Brown Trout:

Brownish in color, shading to green and yellow; large dark spots on sides surrounded by a yellow “halo”; fingerlings stocked into streams, weights over 3 pounds are trophy sized.

State Record: 15 pounds, 6 ounces – North Prairie Lake, Blackhawk County.

Brook Trout:

Top portion of back covered with lighter “worm-like” markings on a darker background; vivid white line on front edge on lower fins; male develops deep yellow-red-crimson colorations with red and pale yellow spots along the sides during the breeding season; fish over 1 pound are trophy sized.

State Record: 7 pounds, 19.75 inches long.

Rainbow Trout:

Prominent pink-red horizontal stripe along each side; sides and back, dorsal and caudal fins marked with many small black spots; 7-12 inch fish are stocked into streams, fish over 10 pounds are extremely rare in Iowa.

State Record: 19 pounds, 8 ounces – French Creek, Allamakee County.