116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
It took several days to unravel the mystery of the wallowing fish earlier this month.
As I fished a rocky stretch of the Wapsipinicon on June 6, unseen aquatic animals repeatedly roiled the surface of the murky river no more than a foot from the bank.
Unlike a typical startled fish, which bolts for deep water at the first hint of danger, these fish held their ground and continued their wallowing, even though they had to have sensed my presence.
Spawning fish, I surmised, but what kind?
It could not be a northern pike, the state’s earliest spawner, which begins reproduction right after the ice melts in lakes and streams, typically about mid-March. Nor could it be a walleye, which typically spawns in early April when water temperatures reach the 42 to 54 degree range.
Since I was fishing in a spot known to be frequented by smallmouth bass, I held out a slim hope that they accounted for the bank-side thrashing, even though the Department of Natural Resources states on its website that “smallmouth bass spawn in Iowa in early May as water temperatures exceed 60 degrees.”
That jibed with my own experience of catching spawning smallmouth bass on May 22 in the Maquoketa River and with a text message from bass fishing legend Vance Gordon of Marion, who said on May 16: “Smallmouth are spawning right now” on the Upper Mississippi.
I considered carp, which typically spawn from mid-April through June in Iowa, as a species of interest, but the habitat — rocky substrate, brisk current — seemed a little too upscale for a fish that, by my observations, at least, prefers to reproduce in warm, sluggish, silt-bottomed back waters.
As the leading suspect, that left the channel catfish, the state’s latest-spawning game fish, which lays its eggs from May through July when the water warms to 75 degrees. Back when I used to fish for spawning catfish, I always considered the first half of June, when the fluffy seeds of the cottonwood tree drifted down like snow, as prime time.
The only way to close the case, of course, would be to catch one of the threshing fish in the act.
When I first noticed the action on June 6, I spent half an hour casting a variety of lures into the three target areas with no response from the fish. The next day the fish were still splashing near the bank in the same locations and still oblivious to my lures. On the third morning I crept ever more stealthily to the bank overlooking one of the active spots and saw in the shallow but murky water the unmistakable silhouettes of a pair of smallmouth bass.
The proximity of bass to the threshing provided a new leading suspect and rejuvenated my investigation. After numerous rock-ticking retrieves of a crayfish-imitating crankbait, I finally felt resistance and set the hooks into a large, energetic fish that foamed the water before freeing itself without ever revealing itself.
Foul-hooked carp or catfish or fair-hooked smallmouth bass? I suspected smallmouth, but still had no tangible evidence.
Later that same morning I hooked a hefty smallmouth bass, which I landed and photographed before returning it to its spawning grounds.
The next day, with fish still threshing in the shallows, I caught two more similarly sized smallmouth from the same spot.
I gave the fish two days off before returning to the spot on June 12 when I caught one more near-shore smallmouth bass. The threshing dwindled the following day and disappeared on June 14.
Though my accumulated evidence would not likely hold up in court, the mystery had been solved to my satisfaction.