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Iowa is a diverse region, offering unique angling opportunities across the state. Anglers can enjoy a variety of fishing experiences from the border rivers of the Mississippi to the Missouri, through farm ponds, natural and man-made lakes, and interior rivers and streams.
Ten species of catfish live in Iowa waters. Family members can be separated into three major groups: large catfishes, flathead catfish, blue catfish, and channel catfish, often weigh more than 20 pounds; the bullheads, black, yellow, and brown, rarely exceed 4 pounds; and madtoms, tadpole madtom, slender madtom, stone cat, and freckled madtom, the smallest of the catfishes. Catfish have no scales, eight fleshy barbels or "whiskers" around their mouth and strong, sharp spines found at the insertion of the dorsal and pectoral fins. Learn tips for identifying Iowa's large catfish with this helpful guide.
Some of the most popular sportfish species, such as basses, bluegill, and crappies are members of this family. Twelve species of sunfish live in Iowa waters, including three black bass species, six sunfish species, and three crappie-like members. Smallmouth bass are most abundant in streams, largemouth bass prefer quiet waters of lakes and large rivers,black and white crappie are found in moderate to large-sized lakes and streams,green sunfish and orange-spotted sunfish are found nearly everywhere and bluegills prefer lakes, ponds and the backwaters of large rivers.
All sunfish have at least one spine at the front part of the dorsal fin, which is continuous with the rear portion. Their body is deeply compressed laterally, and the attachment of the pelvic fins is far forward, nearly beneath the pectoral fins. Three or more spines are at the front of the anal fin, and the scales have rough edges.
Iowa’s popular gamefish, walleye, sauger and yellow perch, are some of the 20 members of the perch family in Iowa. The remaining members are various species of darters. Members of the perch family have rather slender, elongated bodies and a large bone on the gill cover that ends in a flat spine. The spiny and soft portions of the dorsal fin are completely separated.
The native brook trout and the naturalized rainbow and brown trout are the only coldwater gamefish in Iowa. They are slender with tiny scales covering their body, a hooked lower jaw and an adipose fin behind the dorsal fin. All Iowa trout streams, more than 100, are located in nine northeastern counties, roughly east of the Cedar River and north of the Cedar Rapids and Maquoketa. Most coldwater streams are in private ownership, with trout fishing allowed by public access agreements between the Department of Natural Resources and the landowners. Natural reproduction of brown and brook trout presently occurs in a few streams, but most trout found in Iowa streams are produced at one of the three trout hatcheries located at Manchester, Decorah and Big Springs.
These important gamefish have three different species in the state: northern pike, muskellunge, and grass pickerel. Pike, voracious fish and primary predators, are held in high esteem by anglers. Considerable effort has been made for hatchery production of these fish to replenish depleted populations. Members of the pike family have long, cylindrical bodies with a short dorsal fin far back on the body. Their heads are flattened with duckbill-shaped jaws lined with very sharp teeth.
The Iowa DNR used data collected from muskellunge in the Iowa Great Lakes (East and West Okoboji, and Spirit Lake) to create a length-weight conversion chart to help catch-and-release anglers determine the weight of their fish.
Length-weight Conversion Chart
Length-weight Conversion Chart
Once referred to as "sea basses", three members of this family are found in Iowa. Two native species are the white bass and yellow bass, and the hybrid striped bass is an exotic species. This hybrid, also known as the Palmetto bass, is the cross of a female ocean striped bass (Morone saxatilis) and a male white bass. This fish, which does not occur in natural populations, was originally hybridized in the southern United States as a rapid growing fish adaptable to freshwater environments. Hybrid striped bass also provide a trophy fishery, with the current state record weighing nearly 20 pounds. Hybrid striped bass were stocked recently in urban lakes such as Lake Manawa, Gray's Lake, Blue Heron Lake and Ada Hayden Lake, to improve the quality of these urban fisheries.
Suckers, as their name implies, are mainly bottom feeders, foraging by sucking up materials from the bottom. Some members of the family, mainly the buffalo fishes (bigmouth and smallmouth buffalo), filter plankton for food directly from the water. Suckers eat aquatic insects and their larvae, small mollusks, algae, detritus and tiny crustaceans. They find food by touch, taste and sight, and survive well in turbid waters. This ability to adapt to diverse environments contributes to, at times, very dense populations. Sucker family members can surpass the total biomass of all other fish in most Iowa rivers and impoundments, as well as in some natural lakes. Despite these high populations, suckers are seldom taken by Iowa anglers, except in very early spring. Spring spawning runs of the redhorses and white sucker are notable exceptions, when many are taken by bait fishing and snagging.
The mouth of all suckers is located on the underside of the head and is tipped with fleshy protrusile lips. All members are soft-rayed fishes with toothless jaws, scaleless heads, cycloid scales (smooth-edged), forked caudal fin, and a single, continuous, fleshy dorsal fin. Many suckers are often confused with minnow species, but they differ in many features. Most suckers have 10 or more dorsal fin rays, which is always one or two more than the native minnows. The pharyngeal tooth pattern is wholly different in the suckers.
This family includes many common bait species found in the state, as well as the common carp. The Cyprinidae family is the most diverse and dynamic group of fish in Iowa and perhaps the world. Minnows can be found in all Iowa rivers and streams and in most lakes. Their range of environmental tolerance varies from those that are on the very extremes of their natural continental distribution and are threatened with extirpation, to those with expanding distribution and abundance. Minnows form the basis of our natural stream fish fauna and have filled most of the habitat niches through evolution and natural selection.
Most small fish, regardless of species, are wrongly called "minnows", which leads to misidentification. Cyprinids are small, rarely reaching more than 12 inches in length - even as adults. Not all members of the minnow family are small, however; introduced and exotic fishes such as common carp, goldfish, bighead carp, silver carp and white amur (grass carp) reach sizes that rank with the largest freshwater fishes. Cyprinids share several common taxonomic characters, separating them from other fish families. External features include: scaleless head, toothless jaws, lack of adipose fin, lack of appendages at the base of the pelvic fins, and a single, soft dorsal fin in native species with less than 10 rays.
Primitive fish in Iowa include the paddlefish, bowfin, sturgeon, gar and lamprey. They lack one or several of the features more "advanced" fish species have, such as jaws, ganoid scale type, lack of vertebrae, body structure, or phylogenetic relations.
Iowa has several peculiar families with only one or two members. Some of the more common fish include the freshwater drum, brook stickleback, and gizzard shad. Mottled and slimy sculpins are found in the trout streams of northeast Iowa. American eel, mooneye, and burbot are only found in the largest of Iowa's rivers. Other unique Iowa fish include the central mudminnow, brook silverside, banded killifish, blackstripe topminnow and the trout-perch.
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