In a state noted for impaired water, Eastern Iowa still has some pretty good rivers.
Though most of them contain excessive loads of silt, bacteria and nutrients, they generally are much healthier than they were in my youth before the advent of the 1972 Clean Water Act, which curtailed industrial and municipal pollution, and the 1985 Farm Bill, which introduced the water-cleansing Conservation Reserve Program.
While we wait and hope for additional progress through the state’s nutrient-reduction strategy, our streams still provide solitude, scenery and suitable game fish habitat.
With the exception of stretches damaged by periodic localized manure spills, fish and the aquatic species they prey on generally thrive in the Mississippi River tributaries draining the state’s northeast quadrant.
While there may be some good river stretches in other parts of the state — the upper reaches of the Boone and Des Moines and the Skunk around Ames come to mind — their typically silty, sluggish character limits their suitability for game fish other than the channel catfish.
Having sampled all the Eastern Iowa rivers, several of them repeatedly over many years, here are my subjective rankings of the top five:
5. Maquoketa River
The Maquoketa would have ranked much higher — maybe even at the top — before the Lake Delhi dam breached in 2010, smothering the rocky substrate of its world-famous black bass catch-and-release zone beneath thick layers of silt that had settled over decades on the lake bed.
The winding 20-mile stretch from Monticello to Highway 136, with its wooded bluffs and exposed limestone, offers superb scenery and fine angling for bass and walleye.
4. Cedar River
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The Cedar and its main tributary the Shell Rock, both heavily stocked with walleye fingerlings, provide excellent boat angling for the tasty game fish and excellent tailwater fishing below several dams. The Cedar has a farm-country look in its middle reaches, but its swift headwaters and the gorge at Palisades-Kepler State Park offer some of the state’s most breathtaking scenery.
3. Upper Iowa River
The Upper Iowa, with lofty palisades and fern-shaded springs tumbling over limestone, is almost pretty enough to distract from its excellent fishing for bass, walleye and trout. It is so pretty, in fact, that you can have a hard time having much of it to yourself.
2. Turkey River
The Turkey and its main tributaries, the Volga and Little Turkey, lack some of the Upper Iowa’s glamour but offer the same attractions, with fewer distractions, spread over well more than 100 miles of eminently fishable water.
1. Wapsipinicon River
The Wapsipinicon loses points for its understated scenery and its leisurely pace, at least in the eyes of paddlers, most of whom would rate it below several other Iowa rivers.
From an angler’s perspective, however, I rate it tops not just because I live near it, fish it often and know it well, but because I think it gives anglers their best odds for catching big smallmouth bass.
You can catch more bass faster on some other streams, but their lunkers don’t quite measure up to those of the Wapsi.
As with most other Iowa rivers, high water renders it unfishable for too much of the open water season. But when it’s right, it washes away all thoughts of leaving home for better fishing elsewhere.