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The Last Windrow: The Big Sioux

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The “Sioux” was moving slower around this time of the summer. The Big Sioux River, which cuts its path from South Dakota to the Iowa border, had long since returned to its banks after spring flooding. 

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The river was known for its propensity of covering the lowlands with silt, dead trees and last year’s cornstalks during its spring rampage and now in mid-July it was just a gentle flowing stream. 

I grew up near the muddy shores of the Big Sioux River. I considered the river “big water” and it was about the only water that held a population of channel catfish anywhere near our Iowa farm. 

The smaller Floyd River nearer our farm had long since been tamed and straightened to avoid floods, but the Big Sioux still ran free. There had been talk from government officials about straightening this stream as well, but there was a groundswell of adverse opinion to that idea and the Sioux remained as it had been since the glaciers had retreated. It still runs free.

July meant that the river was now at a level that would make it possible for a kid with a fishing rod to explore its shoreline with the hope of hooking a giant, barbelled channel “cat.” 

The musty smell of river water penetrated the senses as one approached the water. High growing hemp and nettles hugged the banks along the river and one could come away with welts aplenty if they accidentally brushed one of these plants. 

A rooster pheasant might cackle an alarm as the fisherman worked his way to the edge of the river. With temps nearing 100 and humidity in the same range, it was a sweat-filled experience. 

Large, half-submerged logs dotted the edge of the shoreline, left over from the last flood. Carp could be heard sucking at the base of these downed trees. 

Cotton from the cottonwood trees along the shore floated on the surface to be inhaled by one of these golden scaled denizens. More than once we used bait called “doughballs” to entice a strike from one of these bugle-mouthed fighters. 

But, my main aim was the whiskered channel catfish. “Cats” hid under brushpiles and in deep undercuts below steep banks. Favored baits were fresh frogs, shrimp or fresh chicken livers. Catfish had the bad reputation of wanting only bait with a bad aroma, but I found that they actually preferred fresh bait even more. 

I fished the “Sioux” both in daylight and late at night when mosquitoes by the billion hummed above the river. I waited patiently on the bank, watching my flashlight-lit rod tip for the signal that a “cat” had inhaled my presentation.  

With the river moving swiftly and unseen in front of me in the pitch black darkness, there was an eerie feeling that went along with this kind of sport. I never tired of it.

I never once encountered a boat or float of any kind on the river during those days in the early 1960s. The river had not yet been discovered by anyone other than a few farmers who lived nearby. It was a place of quiet. 

The Big Sioux still courses along the Iowa/South Dakota borderland. It has a lot more traffic now than in those days when you never saw another human. The catfish still live there. The pheasant might still cackle. The nettles still sting. 

It seems such a long time ago that I was its visitor. I miss it.

See you next time. Okay?

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