Downtown Des Moines fishing seems as old as the city

Posted at 4:10 PM, Jul 17, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-17 17:10:47-04

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

One of them is where the Raccoon River flows into the Des Moines River — what folks around here call the confluence. Eons before they also called it downtown, people have been pulling fish from those waters.

They were there a century ago, when the Des Moines Register and Leader published an essay on the scene. It noted that as early as 4 a.m. “out at the middle pier of the Locust Street bridge men find a place to rest and try their fortune,” angling for a catch in the muddy water below.

And they are there today. People like Matt Vondra of West Des Moines, a heavy equipment operator who’s been frequenting the downtown bridges on his off hours for 20 years to drop a line for the “flats and cats” — flathead and channel catfish — against the backdrop of the Des Moines skyline.

Managing multiple stout poles strung with heavy line, he seeks 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 him hoisting the freakish-looking flathead, its whiskered mouth wide enough to swallow his arm.

“I can be here all night if the fish are biting,” Vondra told the Des Moines Register, reminiscing about amusing conversations with inebriated bar patrons who stumble across the bridges at 2 a.m.

What is it that makes this urban stretch of river such a good place to fish?

A major attraction is the big fish — the river monsters who lurk on the bottom, waiting to suck up the green sunfish, bullheads and shad suspended on the hefty hooks lowered to them by anglers like Vondra.

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

Though he considers himself a hunter, first and foremost, he’s — so to speak — hooked on fishing, catching about 100 cats a year with bank-mounted lines he sets out in the evening, then checks early the next day.

“They can really put up a fight,” he says of pulling the goliaths into his boat.

Those battles draw anglers who are often packed shoulder-to-shoulder on the Scott Avenue bridge, fishing the churn of the low-head dam beneath it, a famous hangout for the big ones. Others walk the banks of the river below the dam, casting into eddies for lunker walleyes.

Oddly, as the city has grown, the fishing has perhaps gotten even better. At some point after the 1969 completion of Red Rock Dam, south of Des Moines, and Saylorville Dam to the north a few years later, reports of really big fish being caught in the 50-mile stretch of the Des Moines River between the dams started to increase.

Marion Conover, then state bureau chief of fisheries for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, told the Register in 1994 that the number of species of gamefish also proliferated. And at the same time — though the endless battle with farm runoff continues — the river got cleaner, thanks to increasing standards for treatment of sewage and control of storm water.

Anglers like Vonda worry that something may come along to spoil the fun — in particular the plan to open fast-flowing 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 whitewater course degrades the quality of fishing, there are those who likely will continue to come and sit beneath the skyscrapers, watching for the telltale jerk of a fish strike on their poles.

That’s because for people like north-sider Calvin Henderson, fishing isn’t the only reason to come down to the bridges, where he casts with his wife and daughter while his sons ride their bikes to the new skatepark just upstream. A 2007 state survey of reasons why people fish found the top three reasons were “for relaxation” (34%), followed by “to be with family” (26%), and “for the sport” (16%).

Henderson ticks all those boxes. On a weekend night, as downtown grows quiet and the lights wink on, Henderson relaxes in his camp chair and takes in the scene. He’s getting away from it all right in the middle of it all.

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

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