116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
When I was a young teenager growing up in Waterloo, catching a walleye from the shorelines of the Cedar River was like getting a Mickey Mantle in a pack of baseball cards.
In late March and early April, my dad and I would spend an hour or so on many evenings and some mornings casting bucktail jigs from the rocky banks of the river below the 11th Street bridge downtown, where there were deep spots and eddies favored by prespawn walleyes.
The problem was, there weren't many walleyes to catch in those days.
Natural reproduction was minimal and even though the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and area fishing clubs were stocking millions of two-inch fry every year in rivers throughout northeast Iowa, the walleye fisheries never took off. Today, it's one of the great success stories in DNR annals. There are more walleyes in rivers like the Cedar, Wapsipinicon, Shell Rock, Maquoketa, West Fork, Turkey and Upper Iowa than ever.
In the mid-1980s, noted fisheries biologist Vaughn Paragamian of the DNR developed a six-year study of the walleye fishery in Iowa's interior rivers. Ultimately, that work determined there was no food for those tiny fry to survive. Typically, high water created too much turbidity to produce zooplankton for those stockings.
Paragamian recommended the stocking of fingerlings instead of fry, but that was only part of the solution. While those fish showed better survival rates, ongoing research determined larger fingerlings in the six-inch range and fall stockings when river conditions are usually stable had a far greater impact on the population.
These days, it's not uncommon for anglers to catch limits of walleyes, and there are plenty of trophies out there, too.
There's no better time to target those fish than now when they've worked their way upstream to spawn in the tailwaters below the lowhead dams on Iowa's interior rivers. Look for sections of the river that feature shallow rock and gravel shelfs adjacent to deeper water and areas where current breaks create eddies that female walleyes will use to spawn.
Many anglers fish these areas from shore, although some pull on a pair of waders to extend their range and others use small boats to probe holes and current breaks that are inaccessible from the banks.
There are several effective ways to catch these walleyes.
You can cast bucktail or hair jigs upstream and gently lift and drop them as the current carries them downstream. Plain jig heads tipped with plastics like ringworms and grub tails are a good approach, as well, and the plastic can add a little buoyancy that helps keep the presentation in the strike zone a little longer. The weight of the jig depends on the river's flow.
Live bait is another approach. Jig fishermen don't typically tip their jigs with live bait because it doesn't stay on the hook well when you're casting it or working it through rocky stretches of river.
However, fathead minnows, shiners, chubs and crawlers can be fished on a plain hook. You'll need a weighting system to hold the rig near the bottom. Some anglers prefer to use a three-way swivel with one line to the bait and another shorter line to a sinker. Others opt for in-line sinkers followed by a barrel swivel to prevent the sinker from sliding all the way down the line to the hook, which is then attached as a three- or four-foot leader.
These live bait rigs are best fished downstream with enough weight to hold them in the current and then slowly worked upstream a couple of feet at a time. Trying to throw them upstream and fishing them downstream with the current can create problems with tangles, detecting bites and snags.
Boat anglers have more options. Vertical jigging is a great way to incorporate live bait into a jigging presentation. There are also opportunities on some interior rivers to troll crankbaits like Floating Rapalas, Shad Raps and Flicker Shads upstream.
If it's the fish of a lifetime you're after, consider night fishing. By and large, the bigger female walleyes seem to stage in the deepest available water and move into the shallows under the cover of darkness. Casting Floating Rapalas, which dive only a few inches under the surface, produces some giants, but jigs also will work.
Keep in mind that dams produce dangerous undercurrents that can suck an angler under or overturn a boat. There also is considerable current in the tailwaters in the middle of the river that can be deadly.
Fishing from shore is the safest approach, but it's still a good idea to either wear a lifejacket or have one within arm's reach in case of emergency. Wading anglers should always wear a life jacket. Rivers are full of slippery rocks and invisible holes that can take a fisherman down.
I never got a Mickey Mantle in those packs of baseball cards, but I'm knocking one out of the park more often than ever with a catch of beautiful, golden walleyes on those interior rivers.