Wednesday, August 14, 2019

The sport of angling has spawned thousands of writers beginning with Jeremiah (Old Testament, 1000 BC), to Izaak Walton (Compleat Angler, 1653), to Ernest Hemingway (The Sun Also Rises, 1926, great book, and The Old Man and the Sea, 1952, way-overrated) and Norman Maclean (A River Runs Through It, 1977, best fishing book ever). That last one has stayed with me since the day I finished it. While trout fishing in the Rocky Mountains of Montana is the story’s centerpiece, the book is about coming to grips with not being able to make a difference.

This post today was inspired by “angling”, which of course sounds so much more noble than “fishing,” because it is. It’s the highest form of fishing, fooling something into biting something it shouldn’t. I love doing that.

Tragically, I’ve only been fishing twice since spring but one of those times was yesterday and if you’re only going to fish twice in five months, you’re super lucky if one of those times is with Orlan Love. I was super lucky yesterday.

Orlan is a semi-retired newspaper columnist who spent most of his career at the Cedar Rapids Gazette writing about Iowa’s environment and agriculture. I’ve corresponded with him for a few years on various topics.

Orlan’s favorite stream is the Wapsi, which runs right through his home town of Quasqueton where he still lives. According to Orlan, it’s sort of a good news/bad news story with the Wapsi. The good news is the fish are far bigger now than when he grew up (1950s-60s). He says the fish got bigger all over eastern Iowa following the implementation of the Clean Water Act in 1974, which virtually eliminated human sewage-caused fish kills. The fish now have time to grow up. The bad news is that in many recent years the stream has become nearly unfishable using his preferred method: wading and casting. More rain and more drainage tile combine to keep average flows on the Wapsi too high for safe wading on many more days compared to yesteryear.

wapsi discharge

We didn’t fish the Wapsi yesterday because Orlan thought algae had the water a little “off” and he knew smallmouth bass were active on the Maquoketa River, about 30 minutes from the Love shack in “Quasky”. So at 7 a.m. we headed over there in Orlan’s pickup.

The Maquoketa stretch we fished is downstream of the Lake Delhi dam, an unnatural landscape feature that ironically keeps the exiting river in a natural state. Much of the sediment and nutrients that would degrade stream water quality are held back by the dam. The Maquoketa's rocky and sandy stream bottom remain relatively silt-free, allowing smallmouth bass and other clean water species to thrive.


One of these clean water species is the redhorse sucker. While the redhorse doesn’t provide many angling opportunities, it is a pollution-intolerant species and we saw hundreds of them quivering in current buffered by big rocks. As a boy, Orlan handfished the bony redhorse out of the Wapsi at the Quasky dam, where they congregated while spawning. His mother ground their flesh into fish patties, a process that pulverized the maddening bones and made them edible.

Mississippi River redhorse sucker

We waded upstream from our entry point and fished likely-looking pools as we went. Orlan generously gave me first crack at spots, and even with that enormous advantage, I couldn’t outfish him, and believe me, I ain't no slouch when it comes to catching fish (and bragging about it). There’s a theory out there that whoever has his lure in the water the most will catch the most fish, and if that is true, no one on earth will outfish Orlan. His style is a relentless cast/retrieve/cast/retrieve which is only interrupted by a hooked fish. In total we caught about 35 “smallies” in four hours of fishing. Not fantastic fishing, but great for Iowa in my experience.

On the ride to and from, we talked about the newspaper business and Iowa angling. I have nostalgic feelings about newspaper outdoor columnists. Back in the days when I fished a lot, urgently-necessary garage clean out or lawn work was weekend torture because it cut into fishing time. If you knew you couldn’t make it out to the lake or stream, you could always read about it in the Sunday morning paper thanks to guys like Orlan and Larry Stone at the Des Moines Register. It all seems so long ago now.

Driving from Quasky to Delhi and back, we saw countless spools of drainage tile sitting in farm yards and on truck flatbeds rolling down US 20. We wondered, where does it end. In Orlan’s home turf of the Upper Wapsi, about $6.6 million was spent on new tile just in one year (2016), and who knows how much since then. This dwarfs what is spent on water quality in the watershed, even with a watershed project in place.


I’ll finish with a few words about Quasqueton. Although Quasky is small, it seems to be holding its own and the town looks good. It’s small enough (population ~550) that there are no house numbers and that Orlan’s garden can provide enough tomatoes for everyone attending the upcoming (8/24) annual Historical Society Fish Fry. I should say that his is no normal garden—79 tomato plants. He also is a no-till gardener and plants an oat cover crop following harvest.

Unscientific observation: these small towns in eastern Iowa seem to be fairing better than their counterparts to the west. I don’t know why, except that maybe they are within commuting distance of good jobs in population centers.

Thanks Orlan.