Outdoors

A great start to, hopefully, a great fishing season

Wildside column: Big fish on Wapsi raises hopes

Sam Patterson of Atkins shows off a healthy Wapsipinicon River smallmouth bass caught April 5. Of 53 bass caught that day, all but six were at least 15 inches long. (Orlan Love/correspondent)
Sam Patterson of Atkins shows off a healthy Wapsipinicon River smallmouth bass caught April 5. Of 53 bass caught that day, all but six were at least 15 inches long. (Orlan Love/correspondent)

The year’s first outing can’t foretell how the rest of the open water fishing season will go, but in the case of my opening 2019 foray, I wish it could.

Which is to say it greatly exceeded my expectations.

On the morning of April 5, my nephew Sam Patterson of Atkins and I launched his jon boat in the Wapsipinicon River.

Earlier that day I sent Sam a text message expressing optimism based on a favorable weather forecast — warm, windless and overcast — and the “fishy” look of the river, which had fallen and cleared dramatically since mid-March, when slabs of ice careening downstream at flood-tide battered shoreline trees, leaving lurid scars halfway up their trunks.

“Should be good,” the laconic Sam replied.

In six hours we covered four miles and fished seven spots known for producing game fish in the spring.

We more or less wasted half that time in five spots that yielded a total of five fish — a pace so slow as to be tedious.

In the other two spots, we caught 48 smallmouth bass.

During the fast action, we each caught fish on successive casts and we caught fish simultaneously on three occasions.

For an uninterrupted three hours, we each experienced on every retrieve that tingly, hair trigger, about-to-set-the-hook feeling anglers love.

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Two anglers catching 53 smallmouth bass in six hours is a good day almost anywhere but nothing exceptional on northeast Iowa’s Mississippi tributaries.

What made the day special was the size of the bass — all but six were between 15 and 18 inches long, and the “shorties” were not far behind. The females among them, with their egg-swollen bellies, looked even bigger than they were.

Based on a lifetime’s loosely cataloged data, I estimate I’ve caught three or four dinks for every Wapsipinicon smallmouth that equaled or exceeded 15 inches. A succession of healthy year classes is just a fact of life in a river with good natural reproduction and recruitment.

Curious about the preponderance of lunker bass, I consulted Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist Dan Kirby, who suggested some possible explanations.

Maybe most of the smaller bass were still scattered throughout the river and had not yet gravitated to the spawning areas preferred by the adult fish, he said.

Maybe chronic high water levels have limited the size of recent year classes, in effect increasing the proportion of adult bass in the river.

Or maybe, as happened in the late 1990s on the Maquoketa River’s black bass catch-and-release zone, the Wapsipinicon smallmouth population has come to be dominated by large fish.

Let’s go with that last one.

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