Chasing smalljaws on the lower Upper Iowa

By Captain Ted Peck

Mother Nature doesn’t care a whit about the Gregorian calendar which drives human behavior here in the Driftless Area.

Mother Nature doesn’t care a whit about the Gregorian calendar which drives human behavior here in the Driftless Area. Life forms at the peak of the food pyramid, I believe March 20 was supposed to usher in spring.
But in calendar year 2022 Mother Nature brought us a hybrid. You might call the season we’ve endured since the Vernal Equinox ‘Sprinter’ or ‘Wiing.’
Shortly after the Sunday we celebrate as Mother’s Day our natural world evolved into a season we are familiar with: Summer.

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Two days after Mother’s Day water temperature in a couple of popular sloughs was 60.  Two days after that temperature in this deep but quiet-flowing water jumped to 72!
Seems like it takes forever to bring a pot of water for a boil. Warming a “pot” of water a mile long and 10 feet deep 12 degrees in less than 48 hours is a sound argument for wearing SPF 50+ sunblock.
This year, all of nature’s grandeur burst forth at once. Orioles, grosbeaks and hummingbirds suddenly appeared near back decks of human dwellings all over the driftless, looking for something sweet, with insects by the gazillions adding to nature’s chorus.
There is no fanfare in the soft parade of smallmouth bass moving back into the Upper Iowa River from confluence with the immortal Mississippi just south of New Albin.
Some fish will make this bi-annual journey almost as far inland as Decorah, where they will dwell until about the middle of that month we call October. This movement is driven to a great extent by water temperature.
There is something magic about a temperature of 55 degrees Fahrenheit and freshwater ecosystems. At about 55 degrees, inland lakes and ponds “turn over,” with near uniform temperature throughout the water column mixing together to turn fairly clear surface water into scum-blotted mud for a few days.
Fifty-five degrees in the Mississippi River mainstem also goads scrappy smallmouth bass to move back into tributaries where they will spawn and dwell until this temperature pushes them back downstream to the Big River with woodlands painted in colorful splendor.
For decade, conventional wisdom said smallmouth bass were homebodies, willing to tussle on a well-placed hook near a midstream boulder or mysterious backeddy close to a long-fallen tree every time a cast lands in the perfect spot – until a fisher decides to take this trophy home.
Extensive studies done by Iowa fisheries biologists on Turkey River in 2013 revealed many smallmouth bass living in the driftless migrated up to 30 miles from tributaries into the Mississippi River mainstem twice each year, bypassing suitable over-winter habitat in home streams to swim in the Big River.
This silent exodus of bronze backed, red-eyed scaly bruisers from the Mississippi River into that stream out our back door is happening right now.
Most of the Upper Iowa flows through private lands where permission must be obtained before fishing. However, there are many public spots at bridge crossings and canoe launch sites where fishers can toss a small spinner, crankbait, plastic grub – or worm with a high probability of finding a small-jawed rocket running the gauntlet to find a summer home.
Floating the Upper Iowa in a canoe, kayak or small flatbottom boat is the most efficient way to invite a smallmouth bass to dance. To a great extent, the lower reaches of the Upper Iowa are primarily sand bottom, with fish cruising the deepwater edge of serpentine sandbars—and near structure like large rocks and fallen trees.
With snagging up almost a certainty, there is wisdom in using a two-inch long plastic fliptail on a 1/16-ounce jighead which costs a quarter instead of a fancy spinner or crankbait.
There was a time when a store-bought lure only cost about as much as a gallon of gas – back when gas was just a couple of bucks. Lure prices jumped to $5 several years before price at the pump tickled this outrageous amount.
If you can find a way to the riverbank with a hook, line, sinker and a couple of lively nightcrawlers sometime this week, the actual cost is easy to quantify…priceless.

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