Fishing along Maquoketa River on the mend

Wildside column: Lake Delhi dam breach had damaged ideal spot

Department of Natural Resources fisheries technician Greg Simmons hands a walleye to biologist Dan Kirby on Thursday during an annual fish census in the Maquoketa River below the Delhi dam. (Orlan Love/correspondent)

DELHI — Surveying the debris-strewn muck flats below the Lake Delhi dam shortly after its 2010 failure, I doubted I would live long enough to see the recovery of that once-famous smallmouth bass fishery.

Well, I have.

It may not be all the way back yet, but its wounds are healing, and it is again a good place to fish.

The breach unleashed a surge of floodwater that festooned trees along the river with boats, docks, picnic tables and other ruined relics of life along a lake that no longer existed.

A Department of Natural Resources official calculated 180,000 cubic yards of silt — the equivalent of 18,000 dump truck loads — had washed into the Maquoketa River in the two months following the breach, burying harshly eroded stream banks beneath mud and sand.

Eighty years’ accumulation of squishy muck oozed downstream, smothering a rocky streambed that for generations had nurtured the state’s foremost smallmouth bass fishery in a 4.5-milelong, bluff-walled gorge below the dam.

Like many other smallmouth enthusiasts, I frequently visited that black bass catch-and-release zone before its ruination. Because of its natural endowments and the state’s protective rules, it had more bass per mile and a higher percentage of mature bass than any other river stretch in Iowa. It also was just 30 miles from my door and, because of its comparatively small watershed, it was often fishable when heavy rains up north rendered the Wapsipinicon too high and swift for a wading angler.

With that very condition prevailing Wednesday, I fished below the Lake Delhi dam for the first time since the breach, and it was like old times.

Sparklingly clear water again flowed swiftly over rock, rubble and sand, reflecting the gold and maroon foliage of hardwoods on the stone-faced bluffs.

Overhead an osprey circled, his fish hawk eye on skittering minnows fleeing from aquatic predators as plentiful and easy to catch as I had remembered.

On the following day, a DNR fisheries crew — Dan Kirby, Mark Winn, Greg Simmons and Megan Thul — verified my assessment during their annual fish census below the dam.

In their first electroshock run, they netted a tankful of game fish that included a 28.5-inch walleye, a 25-inch walleye and a 19-inch smallmouth bass which, with subsequent catches, prompted Winn to conclude, “They’re back.”

Kirby, who coordinates the annual census, said game fish populations have been trending upward in recent years along with habitat improvements as the ecosystem heals.

The completion last year of the new Lake Delhi dam, which traps sediment in the lake, should accelerate the recovery, he said.

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