The Driftless Through Different Eyes

Last Time I was in the Northeast Corner of Iowa, I had absolutely no frickin' clue what a redhorse, a mooneye, or a carpsucker was. I had no clue that Brookies happened to be the only true native trout in the area.


My, how the times have changed.


Our family has visited NE Iowa to go trout fishing before, as it allows my father to relive his childhood memories of exploring streams in the mountains of New Jersey. Sure, these Iowa streams may not be the same, but they do a darn good job.

It allows a novice roughfisherman like me to practice my skills in a different kind of environment from what you'd find in the slow, warm, and sometimes muddy streams of central Iowa.

We left for the hills on the morning of Friday, August 11, and drove over many good looking spots along the Skunk, Turkey, Wapsipinicon, and Cedar Rivers before arriving at our destination in Waukon, Iowa. 

Since we arrived mid-afternoon, we quickly unpacked and trucked off to our first spot at a creek to remain unnamed in Allamakee County. We had been pointed to this spot by a family friend who told tales of him and his buddies catching trout by the dozen, with more left to catch. We believed him.

We arrived at the creek to see trout sitting behind and on top of rocks at the tail of the pool. They didn't appear to be in a feeding mood, so we moved up to a pool where we could see what we believed to be loads of trout sitting and feeding. 

After passing the nightcrawlers by their heads without so much as even a glance from the fish, one rolled and revealed to me it's true indentity: Catostomus Comersoni. White Sucker. And there were loads of them down there.

I immediately put on the tiniest piece of worm I could manage to pinch and began laying it down in front of the suckers. They only appeared to top out around 15", which was decent. Then, what I had thought was a log began to feed off the bottom. It was a sucker that was easily over 20" and likely weighed in the three pound range. I drifted the nightcrawler within an inch of his nose, but he remained stationary and continued to feed on whatever was down there. 

Thankfully, to make up for the tight lips of these whites, was one of the most beautiful fish I have ever laid eyes upon. I could see the white fins of a brook trout at the bottom of the pool, so I began to focus on him as he seemed active. Soon enough, I coaxed him into attacking my nightcrawler, and shortly after he was in my net.


An absolutely gorgeous fish, no doubt stream-born, had fallen victim as my first fish of the trip. This was good. I fished the suckers for a while after but had no such luck. We swore to come back the next day and try again.

For now, both my dad and I had caught trout at this hole, including a beautiful native, which inspired confidence for us at the next spot downstream. We arrived at this spot to find it loaded with people. We soon found that most of them were fishing right next to the parking lot, and we could easily escape the crowd my wandering downstream a ways. I stopped to fish a nice looking little run that appeared deep enough to hold a couple fish. I was quickly rewarded by a stocker brookie.

Not the pretty native from earlier, but a nice fish nonetheless.

My dad managed to land another nice brookie, but we couldn't find any more natives.





On Saturday, we headed south to an old favorite spot of ours, Paint Creek. Given it's direct drainage into the Mighty Miss, I decided to throw out a hail mary and see if I could catch the rare black redhorse. I set up my rod in a deep, gravelly hole and waited. 


I got a quick, aggressive bite that screamed 'CHUB" at me, but I waited to see what it was. Soon enough, I had a good, solid, take and I knew I had hooked a trout. I soon found a dark chrome rainbow trout in my hands. When going to take my hook out, I noticed that he had a small fly hook still in his mouth. I removed it for him and sent him on his way to go terrorize some bugs.


After weeding through a dozen chubs, I finally got a different bite. Something slow. Methodical. This screamed something suckerlike to me. My heartrate increased tenfold. I picked my rod up and let whatever was biting take all the slack before setting the hook. Soon the line tightened, and I put some "oomph" into the set. Then I ducked. 

The bite was none other than Mister Crawdaddy who decided to pick up my worm and go for a walk with it. Bit of a disappointment. 

I realized that I likely wouldn't get my black ghost from this hole, and we decided to scurry back to the creek from Friday to try for some suckers.


We arrived back at the creek and saw the multitude of suckers teeming in the hole. Keep in mind, the Iowa State Record White Sucker is 2 pounds 14 ounces, and 20 inches long. I could see a sucker in that hole that was DEFINITELY that big. But there was only one problem.

He wouldn't bite.

We determined that this sucker would have to be caught another day. I tried live nymphs, worms, and even threw a cricket in his direction. Nothing.

My dad and I fished our way upstream where we found another hole full of fish. But this hole was different. It had whites in it, but it also had something else, something that was a little..


Not the black that I was pursuing, but still a beautiful fish to encounter. I took her on a full crawler, surprisingly enough. 

Catching the shorty must've stirred something up among the white suckers, because they went from suspended to thoroughly working the bottom for food. This was better.

Soon enough, a 17" white found my crawler on the bottom and seemed happy enough to taste it.

I spent another hour trying to catch more suckers, but the one I caught seemed to quickly shut off their feeding. Oh well. By then, the sun had begun to set, and we decided to skedaddle so we wouldn't have to drive home in the dark on gravel roads.




The final day. I don't know much more of an empty feeling that's worse than when you've come on a trip to target a fish and have come short in multiple ways. In my case, I had wanted to catch a state record white sucker. I saw plenty of them, but failed to fool them with anything in my arsenal. Secondly, (although this was a longshot), I wanted to get a black redhorse. I got very overexciting when that crawdaddy began snackin' on my crawler to the point of where my hookset sent him flying out of the water and over my head.

But today felt different.

We packed our stuff up and checked out of the hotel, exiting Waukon playing Waylon Jennings and cruisin' down the hardball at 60-something miles per hour, and headed north with our sights locked on South Bear Creek. This was a new spot, and we were very excited to check it out.

When we arrived, we found we had the access all to ourselves. I pulled out my 4wt fly rod for only the second time this trip to try and get a couple. My dad and I hopped down to the stream, and let me tell you somethin' about that. Most trout streams, you can walk in with some old tennis shoes and shorts and be just fine. Might be a little chilly at first, but you'll get used to it.

That wasn't the case with Bear Creek. It was COLD! 

The water had both of us shivering pretty quickly as it had been much colder than any other stream we'd been in during the weekend. Thankfully, after seeing some trout feeding aggressively on the surface, we didn't feel too cold anymore.

After I had caught one and my dad missed one on a nightcrawler, we began venturing upstream. We came acrost a hole that looked like it held fish. Sadly, my dad's feed had started to get sore, so he headed back down to see if he could find anymore fish that he could catch on spinning gear.

I walked up onto this hole, which didn't appear too deep at first, but as I got closer, I could see that it wasn't only more than 8 feet deep, but that it was loaded with hungry trout. 

This oughta be good, I thought to myself. 

I tied on a small bead-head nymph and crimped a little spilt shot onto the line to help it sink a bit faster. I quickly hooked up with a small rainbow, who released himself before I could net him. 

Later, after I had landed multiple fish on the nymph in this hole, I felt a slightly different tap from the ones I had been getting. I swung hard into the hookset, and felt dead weight. This was where my heart started beating a bit faster. The fish wasn't fighting much, but felt heavy, and I thought I had finally fooled a nice sucker. But the creek had something else in store for me.

As the mystery fish came to the surface, I saw that it was not a sucker, but a very, very, very, very large trout. As in, from what I could see, something along the lines of 7-9lbs. Once I got the fish to the surface, it began to fight VERY hard. I had to tiptoe on a rock ledge to follow it upstream to keep my line off logs, and then I had to tiptoe back downstream to keep him from running that way. Thankfully, after that, the big fish stayed in the deep hole for most of the fight. Then, things started to go bad. Quickly.

I had finally thought that I had tired the fish out, and I had the rod raised high above my head as I was dragging the fish along the surface towards my net. He was so close. 

But then, I heard the sound that all anglers dread. The sound of nightmares when a big fish is tugging. 


The fish had one final tail flop, which put more stress on my already stressed out line. He broke my line straight up. Not at the knot. But he just broke it. This was bad, but it gets worse. Much worse.

As I stood there thinking about the fish that had just broken me. I looked down at the water. And I saw my rod tip floating there. I slowly looked at the rod in my hand, and quickly came to a realization. That rainbow trout had just cost me $85. Shoot.

With a heavy heart, I began the walk of shame back downstream to the car. I goofed. I had come so close to landing a dream fish, but again, couldn't do it.


Our next and final fishing spot for the day was the Lower Dam on the Upper Iowa River. There, I hoped to catch a shovelnose sturgeon. We arrived to one of the most beautiful dams I have ever laid eyes on.


We decided to set up shop with some nightcrawlers in some medium current with deep looking water to see if Mr. Spadeface wanted to show. I quickly got an aggressive bite and set into a different lifer: The Mooneye.

We sat on this hole for about an hour with no other bites. We found a place to cross the river and headed back upstream on the other side of the river. We soon discovered that this dam had a secondary channel that was even more beautiful than the first spillway.

My dad began to throw a mepps and try to catch his lifer mooneye, while I stuck with a nightcrawler. Soon, my dad got an aggressive take on a mepps, and a large mooneye came springing out of the water and threw his mepps. Encouraged my dad then stuck one for good a few casts later.

While taking his picture, I looked over at my rod and saw it nearly doubled over. I stumbled along the mud and rocks to get to it and set the hook HARD! The moment I set I knew I was in for a fight. This fish felt heavy, it stayed down, and even took a little bit of line at one point. I thought I finally had my spadeface. When I got it to the surface, I could see that it had barbels. But it was no sturgeon.

Yup. This little bugger gave me a fight I won't forget, as he was runnin' like a bat out of hell when he felt that hook. Oh, well. Back in the water we go.

Another 45 minutes went by without only another mooneye being caught. We could occasionally see a few quillbacks coming up into the shallows grazing, but they weren't interested in anything. We decided to pack in our gear and leave. The Upper Iowa River was done granting us it's gifts, at least for now.


Northeast Iowa was good to us this year. I caught a new lifer, albeit not the one I was expecting, catching a lifer is always an exciting thing, no matter what species. I guess the fact that I lost fish and that I couldn't locate a shovelnose just makes me want to come back.


And that's something to look forward too.

Species List: 
Carp, Common
Chub, Creek
Redhorse, Shorthead
Shiner, Common
Sucker, White
Trout, Brook
Trout, Brown
Trout, Rainbow


Susquehannock's picture

The word "driftless" has this romanticism for me that had me about half drooling when I read the name of the report, and it more than lived up to those expectations. There are some neat fish here, and the pictures are great, too.


RoughFish's picture

That mooneye picture is beautiful. I need to find some of those.

andy's picture

This was a nice read, Casey.  Some beautiful country there, and some beautiful streams.  Do you have plans to try again for a record white sucker next year?



Casey Shanaberger's picture

Thanks Andy, that country never seems to disappoint. I have plans to stop by there next spring on my way home from the roundup. It's kind of on the way and I figure the suckers might actually be feeding in the spring.

"I swear if you catch another drum"

stick500's picture

I was quickly scrolling through the article when I came upon the first shot of the dam and I thought "whoa, what a beautiful spot" and then I recognized it as I have been there once. I happened to hit the late spring sucker bite and had a good time with them hitting on crawlers. Unfortunately, there were a couple of goofballs catching a bunch and keeping them on a stringer. I asked what they were going to do with them and they said they just take a picture of the stringer of fish they caught that day and let them go. What a waste as I don't think too many fish survive being on a stringer for any length of time. Occasionally I'll keep a sucker for catfish bait, but otherwise I'm all C&R with rough fish. Thanks for the great article and pics! I want to hit that place again.

"We don't fish for the fish. Ninety percent of what I like about this sport -- and it is a sport -- is sitting in the boat doing nothing. And the icing on the cake is when God smiles on you and you hook one." - Hank Hill