"Just walk through the gates and the river is on your right." The directions seemed simple enough as we pulled on our hip waders and collected our fishing gear. Nearly 20 minutes later, we learned that Iowa’s "walk-in" trout program is true to its name.
Wooden "walkovers" marked the pasture crossing. Cattle have access to the stream at a graveled crossing. Otherwise, fencing keeps the stream off-limits and erosion to a minimum. Once over the weather beaten-ladders, we saw the trout. Or more accurately, they saw us. The foot-long silhouettes knifed away as we walked up to the clear, swift-running stream. You would never recognize it, but neighbor Doug Thompson and I were on the Maquoketa River.
Here, north of Backbone State Park in Clayton County, it was only a few yards wide. Springs from the sloping limestone hills fed it, on its meander through northeast Iowa. That cold, clear water is the number one requirement of trout.
These were not the angler-friendly rainbows stocked up to three times a week in most trout streams. Iowa’s three hatcheries supply 350,000 to 400,000 for those "put-and-take" programs. Anglers on those 50 streams usually can take home their limits on stocking day IF they show up early enough.
No, these were brown trout, skittish and wary of humans or anything else that casts a shadow on the rocks, oak bank-hide structures and edge vegetation. "Walk in streams are more for the angler who wants a challenge," explains DNR Fisheries Biologist Dave Marolf, manager at the Manchester hatchery. "You are probably not going to take your limit. These fish are a little more wary, especially after a few days in the stream. They hold very well in the habitat there."
They held very well for our first hours on the stream this week. The only fish we hooked were the 5-inch creek chubs that swarmed around our offerings. By ourselves most of the day, we did talk with one angler on his way out. "It’s a real challenge to get trout in here," admitted Ed Nelson of Davenport. "Today? I hooked two. Lost two. On the first one, I was in just too big ’a hurry. On the other one, I hung him up on a snag and didn’t get him out."
By afternoon, we were tired of scaring fish. Splashing enough for a half dozen fishermen, we were not exactly quiet. Still, our arsenal of 2 and 4 pound test line, an assortment of tiny jigs, flies and even small redworms were shunned.
Finally, in mid-afternoon, one of the browns gave in and took the bait, but it flopped off just before I could guide it to the net. Slowly though, a couple more hits yielded results. Maybe they were just getting hungry.
Working our way upstream, we discovered a long bend of sturdy oak bankhides. We hadn’t frightened these trout yet. A tiny hook with small white twister tail brought most of the strikes. Within a couple hours, we each had trout to take home. The browns were easy to identify, with their clustered worm-like markings. There was also a big brook trout on the stringer; recognizable by its bright yellow underside and white rimmed lower fins.
Just as importantly, we were still the only anglers on the stream. "I liked the quiet; just listening to the water run," noted Thompson, as we walked out. "Streams like this, running through a pasture, are a lot like where I fished when I was growing up in Ohio. It took awhile to identify those little holes. You walk by them and don’t think they are deep enough to hold fish, but they sure did."
He was also taken back by the finicky nature of the trout. "I could see the fish actually move away from the jig as it floated by. Then, I’d move to another hole, cast out two or three times and they’d hit it rather than ignore it even if they decided it was something they didn’t want to eat."
"There are about a dozen of these walk-in streams," tallied Marolf. "They are stocked only about twice a month, but there is less angler pressure, too. Fish stay in there longer for the angler."
Many of the walk-in streams are on private property. The DNR works with the landowners on improvements, such as the fencing and gravel crossings for vehicles and livestock. That keeps water quality high, benefiting the entire stream corridor, not just the sensitive trout.
And those grassy streambanks, treelined sandbars and rocky pools do more than add to the water quality. They add to the overall aesthetic value of the trip.
"Just the beauty of being here is enough for me," admitted Nelson, the angler from Davenport. "You don’t have to have a fish. It’s just an added bonus if you do get one."
As he left, though, he acknowledged that he wasn’t done yet. "Anybody can see fish stacked up and catch them. To actually walk in and work to get one, that’s the challenge. I’m optimistic. I’m gonna go to a couple other places and see what happens there."
Sidebar: Trout Info
The locations of about a dozen "walk-in" areas are listed in the DNR’s Trout Guide, available from DNR offices around Iowa. The guide also has tips on how to catch trout, as well as details such as handicap accessibility and urban locations, which are stocked several times each winter.
Each trout hatchery or rearing station updates stocking information regularly for the 50 or so "put-and-take" streams. Call Manchester (319/927-5736), Elkader (319/245-1699) or Decorah (319/382-3315) for details.
For a real challenge, there are also put and grow streams where trout fingerlings are stocked, to grow-up wild. Most are on private land, with landowner permission needed to try your luck for native brook trout