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Get the lowdown on river fishing in Iowa

  • 7/7/2016 2:46:00 PM
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Know where to go and how to make the most of your trip with our river fishing guide | Iowa DNRWith many thousands of miles of rivers in Iowa, and many methods to fishing them, there are many theories, techniques, and so-called secrets of the trade. So where do you start? 

Where to go

The Missouri River is known for its swift currents and narrow channels, but don’t let this scare you away. If you like catfish, you’ll love the Missouri River. Both channel and flathead catfish are abundant in the fast moving water. Jon Christensen, DNR Natural Resources Technician, praises the Missouri River for its “good population of flathead catfish, both large and small.”

He continues by saying, “The swift current, rocks and snags are good habitat and food is abundant for these predatory catfish.” Out of the current, you’ll run into shovelnose sturgeon, sauger and walleye. Smallmouth bass are known to hang out around Sioux City, especially when the river’s low. 

On Iowa’s opposite border is the Mighty Mississippi, a completely different story. Much of the river’s natural flow has been interrupted by wing dams and navigation locks. So instead of a continuous body of water, it’s a bunch of slow moving segments, called pools.

Scott Gritters, DNR Natural Resource Biologist, says, “The Mississippi River is always a great bet – each pool has 100 species of fish, something is always biting. You feel like Huck Finn each and every time on it.”

However, its conversion has had a distinct effect on the river’s aquatic inhabitants. Don’t look for current-loving fish like smallmouth bass. Expect species akin to lakes and ponds, like crappie, bluegill, walleye, carp and freshwater drum.

Between our bordering rivers lie Iowa’s individually distinctive interior rivers. A particularly popular area is on the Cedar River, south of Cedar Rapids. Channel catfish, flathead catfish and shovelnose sturgeon are common in these waters, although walleye and smallmouth bass also have substantial populations in the Linn county area.

Another stretch of river worth investigating is the Des Moines River north of Saylorville Lake. Try summer catfishing on central Iowa rivers, but especially on the Des Moines -- try stink baits or cut bait.

Farther west, the Little Sioux River is a favorite for catfish in the main channels, as well as walleye and northern pike below low head dams. Before you go, view an extensive list of Iowa’s rivers, with information on access points and native species.

Where to stand

It is crucial to choose your location on the river carefully, depending on what’s available and what you’d like to catch.

In river dams or natural barriers, the water just below is heavily oxygenated, which is able to host many types of aquatic life. This is where predatory fish like to lurk, such as walleye, sauger and paddlefish, as well as the smaller fish they feed on. Catfish tend to prefer stronger currents; find these closer to the main channel.

Other surefire locations to find fish are on the outside of river bends, pockets formed behind large boulders in the current, or at the joint of two merging streams. 

Tips and tricks

Warmer water temperatures during the summer months increase the metabolism of bigger fish. They’ll be looking for food, which means more action on your line.

Flathead catfish are predators, so you’ll have the best luck with live fish as bait. Green sunfish and bullheads tend to survive best on the hook.

Many fish do their feeding after the sun has set. When fishing at night, think about using natural baits. These attract fish by both their appearance and odor.

Lastly, make sure you have your license and brush up on the laws in place to protect both you and the future of Iowa’s aquatic environments.


Find more information on our Iowa Fishing board on Pinterest or sign up for our weekly fishing report emails.

Tips for river fishing | Iowa DNR