I’m not what you call an early adopter — only years of snide remarks made me give up my flip phone — but chronic high water on Eastern Iowa rivers is finally forcing me to hang up my chest waders and find a new way to catch smallmouth bass.
After 2018, the state’s second-wettest year in 126 years of record-keeping, a year that yielded just six days suitable for wading the Wapsipinicon, I thought I would just wait it out.
Drier weather would surely return, I thought, allowing me to resume the successful and enjoyable technique I had practiced for more than 50 years.
But it did not.
Iowa’s 2019 statewide average precipitation totaled 41.49 inches, 6.22 inches above normal, making it the state’s 12th wettest calendar year, according to State Climatologist Justin Glisan.
Together, 2019 and 2018 (with its statewide average of 45.08 inches, 9.81 inches above normal) constitute Iowa’s wettest two consecutive calendar years on record. And they are not an aberration: 2016 with 38.78 inches, 2015 with 43.28 inches and 2014 with 39.66 inches rank, respectively, as the state’s 21st, 9th and 17th wettest years.
Excessive precipitation, of course, translates into increased river flows, as documented by analysis of discharge data collected since 1935 at a gauge on the Wapsipinicon near its confluence with the Mississippi River.
That analysis, by Chris Jones, a University of Iowa researcher at IIHR-Hydroscience & Engineering, shows the record two-year average discharge at that gauge, 3,818 cubic feet per second, occurred during the state’s wettest two-year period, 2018 and 2019. The record 10-year average discharge, 2,818 cfs, also occurred in the most recent 10-year period, he said.
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Jones also noted from 1935 to 1989, the annual average discharge was less than 1,000 cfs in 15 of those 55 years, while in the most recent 30 years it has not once gone below 1,000 cfs — a shift he called “really quite remarkable.”
Excessive river flows understandably render wade angling both dangerous and ineffective. Whereas I once wore out chest waders every year, my current pair, now three years old, remains like new and likely will outlast me.
Most of my 2019 fishing consisted of dabbling from shore along four rocky river stretches where game fish are accessible. Unfortunately, those four finite stretches afforded no more than 20 minutes of entertainment, which even if you multiply by three visits per day falls far short of an actual fishing trip. And one of angling’s central appeals — solving the twin mysteries of where fish live and what they will bite under changing conditions — is lost when you fish the same spots with the same lures day after day.
I once had a small motorboat intended for outings on the Wapsipinicon, but I seldom used it because wading was handier and more effective. I could get an extra hour of fishing in the time it took to launch and load the boat, and with my feet planted on the riverbed, I could make more casts more accurately than I could while trying to control the boat against the vagaries of wind and current. Plus there is just something more direct and intimate about being on the same plane as the fish, as opposed to looking down upon them from the deck of a boat.
With wading no longer an option and bank fishing a not wholly satisfactory substitute, I wish I still had that boat and resolve to have something like it before the 2020 open water fishing season begins.