Fishing in downtown Des Moines seems as old as the city

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Anyone with at least a casual understanding of fishing knows that places where one stream meets another tend to be productive spots.

One of them is where the Raccoon River joins the Des Moines River – what the locals call the confluence. Centuries before they also called it downtown, people were pulling fish from these waters.

They were there a century ago when the Des Moines Register and Leader published an essay on the scene. He noted that as early as 4 a.m. “on the middle pier of the Locust Street Bridge the men found a place to rest and try their fortunes”, fishing a catch in the muddy water below.

And they are here today. People like Matt Vondra of West Des Moines, a heavy equipment operator who has been frequenting downtown bridges during his off hours for 20 years to launch a line for “flats and cats” – flathead catfish and bearded man – against the backdrop of the Des Moines skyline.

Managing several sturdy poles strung with a heavy line, he looks for catches like the personal best 65-pounder he landed in 2011, fishing off the pedestrian bridge south of the Court Avenue span. He proudly displays a photo on his phone of himself hoisting his odd-looking flat head, his whiskered mouth wide enough to swallow his arm.

“I can be here all night if the fish bite,” Vondra told the Des Moines Register, recalling amusing conversations with inebriated bar patrons who stumble across decks at 2 a.m.

What makes this urban stretch of river such a great place to fish?

A major attraction is the big fish – the monsters of the river that lurk on the bottom, waiting to suck up the green sunfish, bullhead and shad hanging from the big hooks that anglers like Vondra have lowered to them.

Greg Sieck, natural resources manager at Dallas County Conservation, knows the lure. He recently caught a 71-pound flathead, 10 pounds less than the Iowa record, in a tributary just off the Des Moines River, the exact location of which he politely refuses to identify.

Although he considers himself primarily a hunter, he is – so to speak – addicted to fishing, catching around 100 cats a year with lines rigged on banks that he casts in the evening and then checks early the next day.

“They can really fight,” he said, luring the goliaths into his boat.

These battles attract anglers who are often crammed shoulder-to-shoulder on the Scott Avenue Bridge, fishing the churning low-head dam below, a famous hangout for the greats. Others walk the banks of the river below the dam, throwing themselves into the whirlpools for lunker walleyes.

Oddly enough, as the town grew, the fishing may have gotten even better. At some point after the 1969 completion of the Red Rock Dam, south of Des Moines, and the Saylorville Dam to the north a few years later, reports of very large fish caught in the 50-mile stretch of the river Des Moines between the dams started. increase.

Marion Conover, then chief of the state office of fisheries for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, told the registry in 1994 that the number of game fish species was also proliferating. And at the same time, although the endless battle against agricultural runoff continues, the river has become cleaner, thanks to increased standards for sewage treatment and stormwater control.

Anglers like Vonda worry that something might spoil the fun — especially the plan to open fast passages for kayakers in the Scott Street Dam and the one below the Iowa Women of Achievement Bridge.

But even if the introduction of the white-water course degrades the quality of the fishing, there are those who will likely continue to come and sit under the skyscrapers, watching for the telltale jolt of a fish hitting their perches. .

That’s because for people like northerner Calvin Henderson, fishing isn’t the only reason to descend to the bridges, where he throws with his wife and daughter while his sons cycle to the new skatepark just upstream. A 2007 state survey of why people fish found the top three reasons to be “for relaxation” (34%), followed by “to be with family” (26%) and “for sports” (16%).

Henderson ticks all of those boxes. One weekend evening, as downtown quiets and the lights come on, Henderson relaxes in his camping chair and admires the scene. He walks away from it all in the middle of it all.

“I don’t mind catching the little ones,” he said. “I can still find my peace.”

David H. Henry