The Dirty History of Indiana Rivers

In my opinion it doesn’t get any better than river fishing. Casting a lure or fly to a native smallmouth bass and having it smash your offering is the thing dreams are made of. I’ve caught more smallmouth in the last 15 years than I did in the previous 40 – not only more fish but bigger fish.

I don’t think my fishing expertise has soared since 2005, it’s simply that the fishing has gradually improved.There were years that I didn't bother fishing Indiana rivers because the fishing was so poor. So what’s up with Indiana rivers now?

I’ve fished Flatrock River in east central Indiana since my childhood. I’ve seen it fish really well and I’ve seen it not worth pulling on your waders. There seems to be a direct correlation between farming practices and the quality of fishing. I’m not a biologist, but I’ve had many years of opportunity to observe my local rivers. There are many good rivers in east central Indiana but I’ll use Flatrock to make my point.

The Flatrock in Rush County looking clean and healthy, but that hasn't always been the case.

Prior to the 80s farmers primarily used a process known as moldboard plowing. When farmers moldboard plow, the surface of their fields are turned under exposing fresh soil. When farmers moldboard plow in the fall it guarantees their fields will experience excessive erosion.

Tons upon tons of topsoil was washed into our rivers during this time period. This practice didn’t benefit anyone. Farmers lost valuable topsoil and environmentalists cried foul because of the muddy runoff into the rivers.

Siltation is what happens when valuable topsoil drifts down our rivers and settles on top of the smallmouth bass nests smothering them and preventing the eggs from hatching. During the moldboard plow years everything in the river appeared to be covered by a layer of dirt. Fishing was horrible, at least where I fished the Flatrock. I assume other rivers in the state experienced the same disaster.

Moving into the 21st century, and somewhat before then, farmers began using a technique known as no-till farming. Instead of turning the soil over and planting their seeds they kill all of the weeds with a herbicide and then drill the seeds into the ground. This goes a long way to control the erosion problem and the siltation problem. The jury is still out when it comes to judging the effect massive amounts of herbicides will have on our waterways.

Nathan Yazel, wildlife biologist for the Indiana DNR, with a large smallmouth bass from the Flatrock River in Rush County.

Also during this time period many of the smaller rural communities installed sewage lift stations. Prior to this most of the homes had a sewer pipe that connected them directly to the closest river or stream.Everything flushed down the toilet or poured down the drain ended up in the river. You can imagine what effect that had on the fishing, not to mention the aesthetic value.

Recovery was painfully slow, however it seemed to me once the fall plowing stopped and sewage issues were somewhat under control, fishing gradually improved. I began catching smallmouth bass on a regular basis. Crawfish, a favorite smallmouth food, began to repopulate the rivers.

It improved to the point that a fisherman could expect success on most of his or her outings. Indiana rivers are far from being pristine but they appear to be better than they were in the past, at least the ones that I regularly fish. Others may not be so lucky; I fear river pollution is going to be an issue for many years to come.

Even though I’ve seen improvements, I know things can go south very quickly where pollution issues are concerned. Two years ago I noticed a severe decline in the number of crawfish in the Flatrock River. There were dead crawfish everywhere. Only three years ago it was hard to step in the Flatrock without stepping on a crawfish.

In my opinion the best smallmouth streams have a healthy population of crawfish. This year I’m seeing a few more crawfish, hopefully they are on the rebound. I’ve tried to figure out why the crawfish population declined so dramatically and so rapidly.

I talked to a few of my friends that farm in the area where I fish to see if they had changed their farming practice. They assured me they had not. Obviously something changed or I wouldn’t have seen the rapid decline in the smallmouth’s food of choice.

Indiana is a farming state. A large part of our economy is based on farming. If Indiana’s political leaders ever have to make a choice between efficient farming and a healthy smallmouth bass fishery, farming will win hands down. I’d like to think we can have both, a healthy fishery and efficient farming practices. We’ll see.

Taking quality smallmouth bass fishing for granted in a highly- industrialized or heavily-farmed state is a mistake. It can change in a flash. All it takes is one faulty valve or one careless person. Confined livestock feeding lots are notorious for causing massive fish kills. Even if the offender is heavily fined it won’t bring back a viable fishery. It takes many years for a slow-growing smallmouth bass to reach twenty inches.

The bottom line is enjoy it while it lasts. During my lifetime I’ve seen radical swings in the fishing quality of our rivers. Unless we band together in our fight for cleaner rivers and streams there is no reason why things will be any different in the future.

Don’t be afraid to join an active conservation organization that shares your views. The Indiana Wildlife Federation is one of the best in the state. When we speak as a group our voice is much louder.