Dateline: May 8, 2011 – Des Moines, Iowa
“If you cast it, they will bite.” I heard these whispers late at night, often right before I took my medication.
Iowa isn’t just all about mysterious cornfields, baseball, and Radar O’Reilly, and as you may have guessed, I managed to chase a fishing dream there earlier this summer. Through a complicated series of events that involved a petulant customer and an unplanned 4 state road trip, I found myself this May on the Des Moines River, casting for Paddlefish – which are also petulant and unplanned. But this was not the first dream I had chased in Iowa, and strangely enough, the first time I went there had nothing to do with fishing. To tell that story, I would need to take you back 21 years, when my body mass and hair were distributed differently, to another road trip that involved 5 states and a wayward pair of underpants.
In August of 1990, when I was certainly a passionate fisherman but had not developed the twisted obsession that was to take me to so many countries, I made my first trip to Iowa – to play baseball. What, you ask? Baseball? Of course. As you might recall, this was around the time that the movie “Field of Dreams” was released.
A much younger Steve in front of the “Field of Dreams” corn. If you look carefully in the background, you might see Shoeless Joe Jackson, walking around barefoot.
“Field of Dreams” is one of the best movies I have ever seen, one of two movies to ever make me shed a manly tear. I decided it was morally necessary to make a pilgrimage to Dyersville – the small northeastern Iowa farming town where the actual field is located. So I went, with old girlfriend Pam Aitken, on a midwestern baseball road trip that took us to old Comiskey Park, the old Metrodome in Minneapolis, and finally, to Dyersville*. I actually got into a pickup ball game there with some other baseball tourists, and among my most treasured memories is hitting a home run into the corn. That 9 year-old will NEVER throw me a hanging curve again.
The bleachers and house actually used in the movie, Dyersville, Iowa. That’s Pam on the right. She remains a very good friend after all these years, although she is still mad at me for making fun of her cat, which was savage and often attacked for no reason.
Snowflake the pointlessly violent cat. Possibly the worst cat ever. For a video that provides the full Snowflake experience, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9aqA9lvUQ2c&feature=related.
Then, just like that, 19 years passed.
In June of 2009, I was summoned to Des Moines on business, to exchange loud words with an especially petulant client. (My “day job” involves a lot of yelling. Sometimes the client and I take turns, sometimes we don’t.) Because I always find a way to tack on at least a couple of hours of fishing to every possible trip, (see https://1000fish.wordpress.com/2010/10/13/fishing-off-the-company-pier/,) I met fishing guide Ryan Kreitzinger.
Simply put, Ryan is a kindred spirit in the species-hunting brotherhood. As soon as we discussed my quest, his mind was racing with species ideas, ranging from the pedestrian Quillback to the downright exotic Paddlefish. Our first jaunt, in June 2009, added Iowa to my state list and the little-known but interesting (to me, at least) Bigmouth Buffalo to my species tally.
The Bigmouth Buffalo. It’s really named that. There is also a Smallmouth Buffalo and a Black Buffalo. These are not to be confused with a Buffalo Bill, which is what you get when you buy a Buffalo on credit.
My second trip with Ryan, in September of 2009, did not add a single new species, but resulted in an unlikely and silly adventure through three new fishing states, Missouri, Nebraska, and Kansas. If the fishing had been good in Missouri, we would have stayed in Missouri. But the fishing was awful, and we would not stay in misery in Missouri, so late in the morning, we started nosing around for something else to do, and Nebraska was temptingly close. Once we found a stream and caught a small Catfish in Nebraska, a quick check of the map showed that Kansas was only half an hour south. And so it was that we found ourselves at 6pm, 300 miles away from Des Moines where I had a looming 7pm dinner scheduled. Needless to say, I was a bit late, but Ryan and I got to talk a lot of midwestern fishing on that long, flat ride back to Des Moines. I knew I had to come back.
The day started in Missouri with high hopes.
Fishing was lousy in Nebraska too.
“Toto, we are too in Kansas.”
One of the larger fish we caught that day.
This recent trip, on May 7-8, was not under the umbrella of a business venture – it was purely a fishing excursion. The target – the elusive and bizarre Paddlefish. This creature, of ancient plankton-eating design and related to the sharks and sturgeons, makes primally-urged spawning runs up major midwestern rivers in springtime and can be caught if the timing is just right. A week on either side of the spawning window, and you’re up the creek without a paddle. So we gave it a shot. I have lusted after these beasts, in a fishing sense, since I saw someone catch one on Greenlawn Spillway in Columbus, Ohio back in 1988.
We spent our first day at Red Rock spillway south of Des Moines. I’ll end the incredible suspense. There were no Paddlefish. We gave it a very game try, but they had not yet experienced their primal urges, and a Paddlefish without urges is a Paddlefish that is almost impossible to find. But the fishing was otherwise great. I got one exceptional new species – the Shortnose Gar, and had a couple of other great fights, especially from a Bighead Carp that weighed over 50 pounds. The action was nonstop, so it was hard to get too worked up over no Paddlefish, although I still managed to pout briefly.
The Shortnose Gar. This one is about 8 ounces off the world record.
A solid freshwater Drum. Saltwater relatives of this critter can exceed a hundred pounds.
A large Common Carp – or, in Iowa parlance, a big ol’ honkin’ Carp.
And speaking of big ol’ honkin’ Carp, this one would qualify as bigger, ol’er, and even more honkin’. This is a Bighead Carp, so many would say I can relate to it.
Day two was spent chasing local fish in Des Moines, which is French for “no Paddlefish here.” Ryan had a regular shopping list of places to try for new critters, and we pounded assorted spillways, creeks, ponds, and the decorative reflecting pool at an apartment complex. We caught some interesting stuff – plenty of Catfish, some small Walleye, and quite a large Carp. But the more exotic cyprinids seemed to be on vacation, and despite checking half a dozen locations on a breezy but bright Sunday morning, the fish did not seem to be cooperating. I stuck at it because this is how things are done, and persistence results in bizarre catches, or having a drink thrown on you.
We plied the downtown parts of the Des Moines River early in the morning without success, then headed out to a rural creek. It was a gorgeous location, and while I did not pick off any new species, I got perhaps the most monstrous Creek Chub I have ever seen. (Note – this still doesn’t mean it was all that big of a fish, sort of like saying “It was the largest, most savage miniature poodle I have ever seen.”)
A positively monstrous Creek Chub.
A lovely country creek in central Iowa.
We then moved to a pond in a local park. I quickly noticed there was a passionate toad love-fest going on, amusing to watch but tough for parents to explain to bewildered children. The most common answer – “They’re wrestling.”
The rare Iowa wrestling toad. (Photo by Ryan Krietzinger.)
They never pop when they do this. Astonishing.
The Black Bullhead. Truly a face only a mother could love.
We decided to finish the trip back at the downtown spillway on the Des Moines River. We got a few fish, but nothing too exciting, and time was starting to grow short. It was fairly late in the afternoon, with only a half an hour before I had to leave for the airport, when I got smacked hard on a jig/worm combo. I figured it was another catfish, but the fight was somehow different, and as it became visible in the cloudy water, I snarfed my Pepsi because it WAS something new. There is always that breathless moment of fear before a fish is finally landed – whatever it was, I did not want to have another bitter memory of snapping off what would have been a new species. But Ryan adroitly swept it up onto the shore, and we had our species of the day – the River Carpsucker.
The little-known but gladly-received River Carpsucker.
Steve and Ryan beside the Des Moines River. No, he is not that tall – I think he is standing on Tom Cruise’s shoulders, or a pile of toads, I forget which.
On the quick trip out to the airport, Ryan kept trying to apologize for what he felt wasn’t perfect fishing, and I kept telling him I had a great time – two new species and a whole bunch of big fish is nothing to sneeze at. We talked through the next shot at the Paddlefish – March 1, 2012, Mississippi River. Hopefully, we’ll be more in tune with their primal urges, or it’s going to be a cold and lonely weekend. Except I’m sure the toads will find a way to stay warm.
* Interestingly, this road trip was originally supposed to include my buddy Dave Hogan, but he had to pull out at the last minute. So we took a pair of his underpants and they toured with us. Dave’s underpants have thus been to the Field of Dreams, and although they went 1 for 9, that’s still a lot better than Dave hits.
Dave’s underpants visit old Comiskey Park on their way to Iowa. In hindsight, I was very trusting that Dave’s wife Micki gave me a clean pair.