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CASCADE — Two friends and I and conducted an unscientific survey Sunday on a creek devastated last September by a manure-caused fish kill.
With our crude tools — leadhead jigs and sinking flies — Mike Jacobs of Monticello, Doug Nauman of Anamosa and I counted 50 smallmouth bass in a 3.5 mile stretch of Whitewater Creek.
For many people — including three flotillas of kayakers who passed us Sunday — the creek’s wild beauty more than justifies the trip.
We believers that smallmouth bass epitomize wild beauty were especially gratified to find one of the state’s most scenic streams has at least partially recovered from an influx of cow manure that killed almost 8,000 fish.
We floated the stream’s lower portion, known as Whitewater Canyon, an area distinguished by mature forests, lofty palisades, murmuring rapids and raptors riding the rising air currents overhead, often casting their gliding shadows upon us as we cast our lures below.
Geologists believe the collapse of an ancient cave system created the canyon as long ago as 20,000 years.
Moss- and fern-covered dolomite monoliths, some as big as garages, line portions of the creek, creating shaded current breaks and undercut banks that provide ideal ambush sites for aggressive bass.
In such spots, well-placed lures would often elicit strikes from fat bass — many in the 14- to 16-inch range, though none bigger — who used the swift current to multiply their already heroic resistance to being caught.
The canyon lies just a few miles above Whitewater’s confluence with the North Fork Maquoketa River, from which, it appears, pre-spawn smallmouth have begun to repopulate the creek.
Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist Dan Kirby, who surveyed the creek after the fish kill, said he found dead fish all along its course, including through the canyon. There’s no telling if some of the stream’s resident fish survived the influx of manure, he said.
With the canyon’s proximity to the North Fork — which flows unimpeded by dams from Cascade to its confluence with the Maquoketa River, which in turn flows unimpeded to the Mississippi River — recolonization could happen relatively quickly, Kirby said.
Sue Miller, an environmental specialist in the DNR’s Manchester office, said there was “insufficient evidence to determine that any one person was responsible.”
The presence of dead fish along nearly 23 miles of stream “makes me think it was multiple sources,” she said.
Fisheries biologists determined a fish restitution value of $18,000 for 7,821 dead fish. They estimated 4,049 dead suckers and redhorse; 1,691 minnows, shiners, chubs and dace; 837 stonecat; 418 smallmouth bass; 317 stonerollers; 161 sunfish; 51 channel catfish; and other species.