Big Lakes, Big Water, Big Wind, Big Waves

Article by John Pearson, Iowa DNR 

Photo by Pam Wolter 

Paddling on big lakes can be immensely rewarding for their access to beautiful, expansive landscapes and intimate viewing of new suites of wildlife, but it needs to be done with full respect for the power of wind and waves that are unique to big water.   Many paddlers first learn their boat-handling skills on rivers and creeks where currents, rapids, strainers, and sweepers are the main features and hazards with which to be reckoned.   With the glaring exception of paddling laboriously downstream against an upstream headwind, wind is not typically a big issue on rivers, tucked away as they often are in narrow, wind-buffered valley bottoms protected by tree-lined banks and bluffs.  Venturing out onto the open, exposed waters of big lakes, however, presents a new set of hazards with wind being chief among them.  River paddlers who wish to explore the beauty of big lakes need to be aware of the special challenges of wind and waves that are likely to be new to them.  Let’s explore how to do that!

Iowa’s big lakes include the flood-control reservoirs of Red Rock, Rathbun, Saylorville, and Coralville, the navigation pools of the Mississippi River, and large natural lakes such as Spirit Lake, West Okoboji Lake, Storm Lake, and Clear Lake in northern and northwest Iowa.  How big is big?  Lake Red Rock leads the list with 15,000 acres at normal pool, swelling to 70,000 acres during periods of high water; it is informally known as “Iowa’s inland sea” and can feature dangerously sea-like conditions of big waves and crashing surf.  Rathbun Lake is a close second with 11,000 acres at normal pool and 21,000 acres at flood pool.  More important than the mere acreage of a lake is its “fetch” – the distance that wind can travel unimpeded by topographic blockage or tall vegetation.  The longer the fetch, the greater its potential to generate big waves.  At flood pool, Lake Red Rock presents over 25 miles of open water to winds sweeping in from the northwest.  By the time waves reach the southeast end of the lake, they have been building in size and strength for many miles.  Even the “smallest” lakes listed above – Clear Lake (3600 acres) and Storm Lake (3400 acres) – are several miles in diameter and can build to sea-like conditions under strong winds.  I have personally witnessed waves several feet in height pushed across Lake Red Rock and smashing onto its rocky shoreline on windy days when even the most skilled, intrepid, and dare-devilish kayakers choose to watch the spectacle safely from shore!

Almost needless to say, beginning paddlers and paddlers experienced only on rivers and small, quiet lakes and ponds should not venture out into the dangerous conditions of big winds and big waves on big lakes.  I say “almost” needless because all too often paddlers newly venturing onto big lakes find themselves in conditions beyond their comfort level and boat-handling skills.  Sometimes this can be due to false confidence (“I can handle this”), but often it is the case that new paddlers set off in conditions that are initially benign but unexpectedly change into something more dangerous.  Here are ways to avoid that pitfall and to enjoy a safe and rewarding outing:

Use a boat designed for the conditions you will encounter – Different boats are designed for different uses.  While open canoes can safely traverse calm water, they can swamp in big waves; they should be used only in calm conditions near shore.  Although having a closed deck to shed overwashing waves, recreational kayaks (with unpartitioned hulls) can also completely fill with water upon capsizing; like canoes, they should be used only near shore where paddlers can easily swim to safety after capsizing.  Sea kayaks, partitioned with front and rear bulkheads, are the boats best suited for paddling on big lakes because their closed decks shed overwashing waves, remain afloat after capsizes, and can be rescued without going ashore.  Given that conditions may change during the course of a trip from calm to rough and that paddlers may wander from near shore to far from shore, sea kayaks are the most versatile vessel for paddling on big lakes.  However, sea kayaks can be expensive, so paddlers may opt to use more affordable recreational kayaks or canoes.… which is fine, just be sure to use them only for the calm, near-shore environment for which they were designed!

Know your comfort level with wind speed – Always check the weather report before a trip and pay particular attention to current and predicted wind speed and direction.  Weather reports on commercial radio and television do not consistently provide this level of detail, so be sure to consult a source that does, such as the National Weather Service (NWS) broadcast on a dedicated weather radio or viewed on a website with hourly predictions.  Critical thresholds for wind are:

·         0-5 MPH – Flat water easy for any skill level

·         5-10 MPH – Beginners feel uneasy with small waves

·         10-15 MPH – Waves begin to build, beginners experience difficulty with boat handling

·         15-20 MPH – Wind and waves are an issue even for experienced paddlers

·         >20 MPH – These are strong winds with big waves, only skilled paddlers should be out

Pay attention to whether winds are predicted to increase later in the day.  Just because conditions are calm when you launch in the morning will not guarantee that they will not be rough in the afternoon when you are returning.  If you are comfortable only in wind less than 10 MPH but the wind is predicted to rise above 15 MPH, be sure to return well before the increase sets in (which may arrive sooner than predicted)!

Be aware of wind direction – Launch ramps are often located in protected bays where the effect of wind and waves are not pronounced, but paddling out of the bay into the open lake can expose paddlers to winds of unexpected strength from an unexpected direction.  Again, listen to a detailed weather report and link that information to the layout of the shoreline you will be following.  At Lake Red Rock, paddlers often launch from the ramp just east of Hwy 14 on the south shore.  When the wind is from the southeast, paddling northeastward along the shoreline will be in calm water protected from the wind by a high upland… until you reach Elk Rock Point, where the shoreline veers to the southeast and you will be confronted with a headwind.  If you are simply following the shoreline without paying attention to its  change in direction, you may find yourself suddenly committed to much rougher water than you expected or can handle.  Always anticipate a change in conditions as you “round a corner” and reassess if you (and everyone in your party) are able and comfortable with continuing.

Another hazard related to wind direction is when waves are blown onto cliffs, resulting in rebounding waves interacting with incoming waves to create a highly turbulent zone known as clapotis… or less formally as “washing machine waves”.  Coming from two directions, waves in this zone are wild and chaotic with crests and troughs often doubled in height and depth.  Capsizing is a real hazard here, combined with the threat of being pummeled against rock cliffs!  Although ominous, clapotis is usually localized at the base of cliffs can be easily avoided by paddling a route around and away from the rough zone.

Become skilled for paddling in rough water – Despite good intentions to paddle only in benign weather, new paddlers may unexpectedly get caught in rough conditions.  Be prepared for that inevitability by learning a full complement of basic strokes, braces, and rescue techniques:

·         Forward strokes, reverse strokes, sweep strokes, pinweeds, draws, and rudders – these will help you maneuver your boat to avoid trouble spots and to paddle out of them if you get caught.

·         Low brace, high brace, and sculling for support can prevent you from capsizing if you lose your balance.

·         Scramble rescue, paddle float rescue, and partner rescues will enable you to recover from capsizing with or without assistance.

The best way to learn these skills is to take lessons from trained instructors.  Yes, there is a cost associated with training, both in time and dollars.  Your skill level and safety are worth it!

Use good judgment – Big lakes are more variable than the small lakes and rivers you have likely experienced, more exposed to wind and their accompanying waves.  Watch the weather and be prepared to alter your original plan in the face of changing conditions.  Know your strengths, weaknesses, and limitations and always stay within your skill level… while raising that level for future outings through training and practice.  Be smart, be safe, and enjoy the beauty and challenges of Iowa’s big lakes!


Clean Water Advocates and Experts Gathered at Iowa Water Quality Summit

Clean Water Advocates and Experts Gathered at Iowa Water Quality Summit
Izaak Walton League Brings Community Together To Address Water Pollution Across Iowa

Des Moines, IA – Water pollution is a persistent threat in communities across Iowa. Last weekend, the Izaak Walton League of America (IWLA) brought together advocates, academics, and agency staff to discuss water quality challenges specific to Iowa and map out steps to create a state-wide volunteer network to monitor water quality and push for changes to improve water quality.

“Monitoring is the first step to improving water quality,” says Sam Briggs, IWLA Clean Water Program Director. “You have to know what’s wrong to be able to fix it. Our goal is to train more stream monitors across Iowa and provide a home for their monitoring results that the public can use to find water quality information for their communities.”

IOWATER, the state’s volunteer water quality monitoring program, no longer has funding to continue, so the League is working to find other ways for individuals and organizations to collaborate on a state-wide volunteer water quality monitoring program. The League partnered with our local Des Moines Chapter to host an Iowa Water Quality Summit.

“Iowa has over 750 impaired waterways and is one of the main contributors to the ‘dead zone’ in the Gulf of Mexico,” says Mike Delaney, Conservation Director for the IWLA Iowa Division. “Public health and recreation continue to be threatened by polluted waters. Monitoring waterways is critical to gauge how we are doing – for better or worse.”

Delaney opened the summit, followed by a warm welcome from Richard Galloway, President of the IWLA Des Moines Chapter. Sam Briggs shared information about how the League’s Clean Water Hub ( provides a nationwide database to share local water quality monitoring results. Due to the urgency of Iowa’s water quality problems, the League recently dedicated a full-time position staff person to Iowa to serve as the Midwest Save our Streams Coordinator. This is a huge step forward to help expand water quality monitoring efforts in Iowa.

Speakers, panel discussions, and breakout sessions incorporated knowledge, experience, challenges, and successes based on long-term programs. Presenters and panel members included Mary Skopec (Iowa Lakeside Laboratory), Steve Konrady (Iowa DNR), Chris Jones (IIHR), Dan Haug (Prairie Rivers of Iowa), Ted Corrigan (Des Moines Water Works), Susan Judkins (President, Watershed Management Association), and Rich Leopold (Polk County Conservation). Attendees left the summit feeling optimistic that collaboration will continue and expand with the support of the Izaak Walton League of America.

The Iowa Water Quality Summit followed two other important water quality events in Des Moines this summer. The League’s annual National Convention was held in West Des Moines July 16-19, and the Iowa Water Festival was held at the League’s Des Moines Chapter on June 23.

To learn more about how to get involved in improving water quality in Iowa, contact Save Our Streams Coordinator Zach Moss ( or visit


Founded in 1922, the Izaak Walton League of America ( protects America’s outdoors through education, community-based conservation, and promoting outdoor recreation.

Geode Paddle Event by Jefferson County Conservation

Article by Jefferson County Conservation

Photo by Jefferson County Conservation: Two participants paddle for the takeout. You can see the rocks weighing down the back end of the kayaks.

Over twenty people took to the water in search of geodes along the Des Moines River. The ‘Geode Paddle’ was held on Friday, August 9th starting at 10:00am. Although the paddle was only 3.6 river miles, participants enjoyed the shorter route which allowed them to spend most of their time searching rock bars for fossils and geodes.  The paddle began at Bentonsport and ended in Bonaparte. Ryan Clark, geologist with the Iowa Geological Survey, led the paddle as he discussed the geology of Iowa and why we find geodes in this stretch of river.

Clark began by sharing an overview of Iowa’s geologic history. This timeline helped for participants to have a better understanding of why the geodes are found in this area and what rock layer to be looking in. Once Clark completed his talk, Brittney Tiller, Naturalist with Jefferson County Conservation gave a brief safety talk and summary of the day. Participants began launching shortly after the talk wrapped up.

Clark explained that the geodes came from the Warsaw Formation which is a grayish shale that can easily be eroded. Participants would paddle a short distance down river before stopping at a rock bar to search for nature’s treasures. After two stops of searching for geodes, participants stopped at another rock bar. This one had more limestone present which meant geodes were not as prevalent however fossils could be found in nearly every rock. From horn coral, crinoids, and brachiopods, the fossils were in abundance. Participants were excited to have a great mix of both fossils and geodes in their boats to take home. Two more rock bars were hit before taking out at Bonaparte.

With a very long waiting list, high interest, and participants which had such a great time, this topic is clearly a participant favorite. Participants seemed to be amazed that this stretch of river had so much to offer. Overall this was an extremely successful program which should be offered again.

Kayak Paddle, How to Narrow Down Your Choice

How to choose? When trying out a potential new paddle here are some considerations to improve your purchase of the “best fit” paddle for you.

  • Practice using assorted paddles at a demo event
  • Use good posture to practice
  • Practice the torso twist as if you were paddling your kayak
  • Use proper hand positioning
  • Figure out if you are a high-angle paddler (hold hands above shoulder height) use a shorter. paddle or a low- angle paddler (hold hands below shoulder height) use a longer paddle
  • Decide on composition: Choices…plastic, wood or carbon using price considerations, weight and aesthetics
  • Blade size? Will you need to move a lot of water?
  • Consult a manufacturers chart using your torso height rather than general height. It can make a huge difference.
  • Consider feathering options for wind considerations
  • Consider shaft diameter depending on hand size. Do you have small hands? Use a smaller diameter shaft for grip comfort and less tiring paddling.

Article credits to:; http://www.theadventurejunkies.com

Tubers and Strainers: Beware!

Tubers and strainers are becoming a concern on the rivers in Iowa. Tubing is becoming a popular recreational activity. Quite often the first -time tuber or new river user is not knowledgeable about the risks they take upon themselves when they innocently choose to enjoy a day on the river with friends, floating with a cooler and catching some rays.

Education is the key to those demographic users.   How do we educate those users on the dangers of rivers and teach them about river reading, eddy rests, life jacket safety, water hydraulics, CFS (cubic feet per second) or the dangers of strainers that lurk around many outside bends of a river?  If you add alcoholic beverages into the mix, tuber safety is compromised even before a potential strainer happens.

The nature of a river is for the current to be in charge of the direction that it wants to go and will take you along for the ride.  Just adding two safety features to a tuber’s recreational day will ensure some measure of safety. By wearing a snug fitting life jacket and using a short paddle or one end of a kayak paddle, both can assist the tuber in having more control of the direction they float and can offer some drowning protection.

This should enable them to avoid strainers and if they should be removed from their tube or spring a leak, they will have a bit more control and safety.   Education about staying on the inside of a bend can be helpful too.  Can we also educate about not littering those empty cans?

Species 101: Great Blue Heron

The Great Blue Heron is a common sight in the waterways of Iowa. It is North America’s largest bird with a wingspan of 5.5 to 6.6 feet that exhibit slow and deep silent beats. They average 3 to 4.5 feet tall and live around 15 years in the wild.

They have beautiful blue-gray plumage. Their range includes most of North and Central America, the Caribbean and Galapagos Islands. They can be found along wetlands and marshes, and shorelines of fresh and slow moving rivers quietly foraging on fish, frogs, snakes, insects, turtles and salamanders.

The mating pair typically raise one brood per year in the north and two in the south in shrubs or trees near the water. The eggs are light blue in color and are incubated by both parents in 25-30 days. Then, they leave the nest at 65 to 90 days.

Photo Courtesy of Pam Wolter

Article info credits to:;;;


Iowa River Names and Their Origins

Chief White Cloud of the Ioways


Boone River: Daniel Boone’s son explored Iowa in 1835, the Boone River is named after him.

Des Moines River: Des Moines is a French phrase which literally means “River of the Monks.” Early French explorers named it “La Riviere des Moines.” The name may have referred to the Trappist monks that built their huts near the mouth of the river at the Mississippi.

Iowa River: Named after the Native American Ioway tribe. The State of Iowa is named after this river. The tribal name “Awuxwa” was spelled by the French as “Ayoua” and by the English as “Ioway. ”

Maquoketa River: It’s name derives from Maquaw-Autaw, which means “Bear River” in Meskwaki. It is said that the black bear, once common to this area, helped give the river its name. “Maquoketa” is a Native American word for bear. They no doubt enjoyed the many caves and caverns in this unique geological area.

Mississippi River: Native American word meaning “Great River”.

Missouri River: Named after a native American tribe, “Missouria (in their native language,  Niúachi) that lived in the area near the mouth of the Mississippi.

Nishnabotna River: A Native America word meaning “Canoe-making” river.

Wapsipinicon River: The naming of the Wapsipinicon River is sometimes relayed as Native American folklore. One story features a young maiden named Wapsi and the son of a tribal chief named Pinicon canoeing on the river on the eve of their wedding day. The jealous Fleet Foot sneaks along the shoreline and shoots Pinicon through the heart. As Wapsi jumps to the aid of Pinicon, the canoe overturns. The two lovers drown in the swift current.

Although the story is appealing, the literal translation of “Wapsipinicon” is White Potato River or Swan Apple River – referring to Jerusalem artichoke plants that grow along the riverbank. The river is affectionately referred to as the “Wapsi(e)”.

Winnebago River: Named after the Winnebago tribe, now referred to as “Ho-Chunk” Nation. They spoke a Siouan language with large tribes in the Iowa, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Minnesota areas.

Chief Waukon Decorah  (Waa-kaun-see-kaa) 
              A Winnebago Chief  

Missouria Warrior (left side) 


Winnebago wigwam


Article info and credits to: Iowa DNR, The Goldfish (April 1985), Wikipedia,,,!

All Photos Courtesy of: Wikipedia 

Monthly Feature: Species 101: Iowa’s Aquatic Turtles

Snapper Photo Courtesy of 

Iowa has 17 species of turtles with most being aquatic out of the 356 species found worldwide. Turtles are the oldest reptile and fossils found date during the Jurassic time period, older than snakes and crocs.

Tortoises and fresh water turtles are the most threatened with extinction than any other vertebrate. They have a lot of human pressure against them with the large Asian trade, over harvesting, water and land pollution and habitat destruction.

Another challenge turtles face is they do not reach sexual maturity until they are several years old and do not mate annually. Unfortunately, turtles are difficult to re-establish once gone from an area. They can be defined as in a “fragile” state with fingers crossed for their sustainability.

Most are considered in the common category, however there are some species that are threatened in the state and all around turtle abundance of common species of years gone by is no longer their current status and overall are declining. It is no longer typical to see logs and logs of turtles sunning as you recreate on rivers. You may paddle some rivers and sections and not see any turtles.

Iowa turtles have many challenges with loss of habitat and over harvest and only recent regulations placed.  Many are sold to Asian markets by commercial hunters resulting in lower populations of turtles across some of their past locales. Iowa’s regulations and limits began in 2017.

Current Iowa Turtle Season and Regulations: 
Spiny softshell, smooth softshell and painted turtles
  • Open December 15 until May 14.
  • Closed May 15 until July 15.
  • Open July 16 until January 10.
Common snapping turtle
Continuous open season.
Iowa Turtle Limits:
You can take and possess a maximum of 100 pounds of live turtles or 50 pounds of dressed turtles.
Spiny softshell, or smooth softshell, Daily catch limit – 1
Painted turtle, Daily catch limit – 1
Common snapping turtle, Daily catch limit – 4
Iowa Turtle Regulations:
  • You need a fishing license to take common snapping turtles, spiny softshells, smooth softshells, and painted turtles.
  • Nonresidents can only take common snapping turtles, spiny softshells, smooth softshells, and painted turtles from the Missouri, Mississippi and Big Sioux rivers.
  • You must have a special license to sell live or dressed turtles.
  • You cannot take turtle eggs from the wild.
  • You can take turtles only by hand, turtle hook, turtle trap or hook and line.
  • You cannot sort, cull, high-grade, or otherwise replace any turtle in possession.
  • Turtle traps must have no more than one throat or funneling device.
  • All turtle traps must have a functional escape hole provided with a minimum diameter in all directions of 7-1/2 inches to let fish and small turtles pass through.
  • The 7-1/2 inch escape hole on hoop type traps must be in the last hoop to the tail-line.
  • Set all turtle traps with the top of the trap visible above the waterline at all times.
  • You must attach an all-weather gear tag above the waterline to each piece of gear. The gear tag must plainly display the name, address, and license number of the licensee.
  • Check each trap and empty the catch at least every 72 hours (3 days). When checked, turtles shall be taken into possession or released immediately.
Blanding’s Turtle
Painted Turtle 
False Map Turtle 
Turtle Photos Courtesy of Kip Ladage
For more information on the Iowa’s aquatic turtles, click here:
Info credits to:  Iowa DNR, Wikipedia, “Turtles in Trouble” by the Turtle Conservation Coalition, Iowa Sierra Club.

News from Genoa National Fish Hatchery

The Higgins’ eye pearlymussel is native to the Mississippi River and some of its northern tributaries. It is usually found in areas of swift current and buries itself in mud-gravel bottoms in water up to 15 feet deep with only the edge of its shell and its feeding siphons exposed.
Higgins’ eye populations are in immediate danger of being eliminated in the Upper Mississippi River. One of the strategies to save the species is the propagation of the Higgins’ eye at Genoa National Fish Hatchery in Wisconsin.
Article Credit to Genoa National Fish Hatchery
Photo Credit: Gary L. Wege, USFWS

Celebrate a Child’s First Fish

 Preserve the memory of your kid or grandkid hooking their first fish this summer with a special certificate. Print the certificate yourself from an electronic file posted online or request a printed certificate.

Apply for a first fish certificate online at or complete the form in the Iowa Fishing Regulations and mail it in.

It’s easy and free to participate. There are no size, species or age requirements – only that it is the fish the angler has successfully landed.

Family and friends can join in on the celebration by viewing the first catch photos of their children and other budding anglers on the First Fish webpage once the entry is approved.

Fishing is a great way to enjoy being outdoors with families and friends. Follow the simple tips for taking kids fishing on the Iowa DNR website at http://fishing.iowadnr.govto help keep the experience fun and positive for the whole family.

Media Contact: Holly Luft, Fisheries Bureau, Iowa Department of Natural Resources, 712-769-2587.

For the Iowa DNR article go to:’s-first-fish