The Raccoon River is a medium sized river that is home to a multitude of warm-water species. It flows through the fertile farmlands of central Iowa and draws the majority of its water from 3 forks. Each fork is completely different from the others, and it makes fishing the Raccoon interesting. The Raccoon River basin is home to one of the largest fights over water quality in the country.
The South Raccoon
The smallest of the 3 forks, the South Raccoon rises as a small trickle out of farmlands just west of Wichita, Iowa. From there, it travels on a southeast course, picking up multiple water sources and forming into a large enough body of water to support thriving fish populations around Guthrie Center, IA. It continues to meander its way southeast picking up two large tributaries (Brushy and Beaver Creek) that double its size. It then makes a turn east and heads straight in that direction until it meets the Middle Raccoon River. It then continues east, now even larger, until it meets the North Raccoon in Van Meter, IA.
The South Raccoon is what comes to mind when you think of channel catfish. Channel cats thrive in this river, often exceeding lengths of 18” in a small body of water. The river is filled with cutbanks and logjams, and for most of its 72 mile course, has a mud/sand bottom. Common Carp frequent this stretch, as do the occasional flathead catfish and shortnose gar.
In its lower reaches, it begins to become a quicker, rockier stream as it loses elevation. Here, anglers can find shorthead redhorse, carpsuckers, stonecats, drum, and even a rare smallmouth bass. At Nation’s Bridge Park near Stuart, anglers may find themselves sharing the water with paddlers, as this is a well known launching area for kayaks.
The Middle Raccoon
The Middle Fork of the Raccoon River (and my personal favorite) begins its trek near Carroll, IA. It uneventfully flows southeast through farm fields, picking up loads of fertilizers, causing mass eutrophication in this stretch of river. Until the river reaches Coon Rapids, it will be a slow, algae-filled mess. You may be lucky to pull out some sickly channel catfish or common carp out of this stretch of river on a good day. However, the river begins to transform once it passes through Coon Rapids.
Coon Rapids sits on the edge of Central Iowa’s minor region of limestone bedrock. The Middle Raccoon begins to dive into the limestone valleys and picks up a gravel bottom, scattered boulders, and it becomes a quick and medium sized river. It becomes surrounded by conservation areas and becomes much cleaner than it was upstream. Smallmouth Bass become quite prevalent, and even though larger fish don’t occur often in this stretch, it is a pristine stretch of river. Then it gets dammed up and becomes Lake Panorama.
Lake Panorama is a water quality nightmare. Since not all of the nitrates have left the river, they settle into the lake and cause massive algae blooms every summer. Some years, people are told to stay out of the water. If you can manage to avoid the hordes of jet-skis and wannabe professional bass fishermen, the lake will produce a massive flathead catfish and common carp on a semi-consistent basis and will cough up sickly pike and channel catfish every now and then. Thankfully, the Iowa DNR took notice to this and has begun lake cleanup processes. They have also installed a filter on the panorama spillway that helps clean out most of the nitrates and algae.
Once the Middle Raccoon is free of Lake Panorama, it becomes one of the best-kept secrets in Iowa. It flows under tall cliffs and bluffs as it makes its way through the Lennon Mills Dam (which sadly does not allow for easy fish passage). Downstream of here, the river is chock-full of smallmouth bass, yellow bass, and walleye. A few white bass will show up here and there as well. I actually do enjoy walleye fishing here, because it is a more intimate setting; wading a clear river in the middle of summer makes every fish enjoyable. Smallmouth and largemouth bass are protected by the DNR in this stretch of river, and they must all be released.
Yellow Bass are quite the anomaly in this river, as they were stocked in Lake Panorama in the late 60s but never became established. Some 40 years later, they began appearing in large numbers downstream in the river. Today, they have an established population in the Middle Raccoon. There are also large populations of white sucker and channel catfish in this stretch of river. The channel cats are aggressive and can often be caught on lures throughout the summer and fall. Common carp become harder to find as you go downstream from the lake. but can be found occasionally in deeper holes. Redhorse are also uncommon in this stretch, as the white suckers have become dominant.
Once you reach the dam at Redfield, fishing is amazing. Below the dam, you will find smallmouth bass, yellow bass, walleye, channel catfish, giant bluegill, and even the occasional flathead. Below redfield, the river widens out and continues by Hanging Rock, a giant limestone cliff right on the river.
Another popular launching area for kayakers, the river loses elevation and has a long set of rapids and riffles before it ends it merges with the South Raccoon.
The North Raccoon
150 years ago, the North Raccoon River was a clean, free flowing river that meandered through a glacial prairie filled with wetlands and small natural lakes. Today, if flows through thousands of acres of heavily fertilized farmland and is filled with alarmingly high amounts of nitrates and other farm pollutants. In fact, the North Raccoon has some of the highest nitrate levels of any river in the Mississippi Basin. The waterworks plant in Des Moines has actually sued three different counties in northern Iowa over water quality. Thanks to careless farming, a beautiful river was nearly ruined. Thankfully, the fight is not over and many environmental action groups are voluntarily installing buffer strips on farmland to help prevent runoff and are creating artificial wetlands and restoring old ones. It will take a long time, but the fight for clear water is not over.
In terms of fishing, the North Raccoon is not all bad. Even with high nitrates, fish do alright. The river still holds a strong population of channel catfish, common carp, and carpsuckers. There are a few smallmouth bass scattered around rockier areas, and walleyes are uncommon. Another fish that seemingly has a strong population here are smallmouth buffalo. A few yellow bass have ventured over from the Middle Raccoon but it doesn’t seem like they have established themselves yet. I wouldn’t recommend eating much out of this river, though.
Main Fork of The Raccoon
It is here where the Raccoon takes on the shape of most Iowan rivers. It slows, flattens out, and begins to meander around the countryside. Here, some of the best flathead fishing in central Iowa can be found. From Van Meter to the river’s confluence in the Des Moines River, it flows completely free of any dams. The river typically runs muddier in this stretch, mainly due to the fact that is has dozens of sizable tributaries and a fairly sedimented bottom. The Raccoon is also very susceptible to flooding just due to the fact that it is largely free-flowing except for one reservoir on the Middle Fork and a few low-head dams scattered upstream.
A few of my personal favorite areas to fish come from this stretch, including hotspots for smallmouth bass, redhorse, and even shortnose gar. Due to the largely free-flowing nature of this river, there are dozens of small backwater lakes loaded with shortnose. Closer to Des Moines, multiple companies have dug large quarries that have in turn filled with water from floods, being able to support sizable populations of large fish. This section of river is fairly devoid of access until it reaches Des Moines, which means that there are miles of unpressured water waiting for the kayak-based or boat-based angler. The only catch is that access points are few and far between, so be wary of that.
Starting just west of Des Moines, the river becomes surrounded by backwater lakes all the down to its confluence with the Des Moines River. Most are gravel and limestone pits, reaching depths of 50’ on average and even 70’ on a few select lakes. The more urban ones have been filled in and restored to make them safe the public. Some of my favorite gar fishing spots include these lakes, as most are connected to the river via flooding or a small inlet that was dug out. These lakes also offer excellent bass, crappie, and walleye fishing year round. A few of these lakes are natural backwaters, such as Blue Heron Lake or Gray’s Lake, both which have been converted into city parks. They offer excellent fishing for almost every species present in the river to their high amounts of food and nutrients. A few of these lakes also hold surprising populations of pike, but I am not at liberty to disclose those lakes.
The Raccoon River and its surrounding area are very unexplored when it comes to fishing. Many places on the 3 forks are undocumented by outdoorsmen and are often left alone in favor of bigger waters. The 3 forks are diverse, ranging from water quality nightmares to pristine water to rapids and riffles just within miles of each other. It is one of best kept secrets in Iowegia.