By the time the Iowa River makes its slow deep bend behind my home it has flowed nearly three hundred miles through the heart of farm country, meandering through an expansive maze of corn and soybean fields. Along the way, it also visits several industrial hog farms that deliver farm runoff and nitrates to the river. The river is damned just north of Iowa City, forming the expansive serpent-shaped Coralville Reservoir before cascading through Coralville Dam and flowing into the city. A downtown placard describing the construction of the dam in 1949 proudly reads, “Putting the River to Work,” as if the river had been slacking off before. My suspicion is that people would rather water-ski on unmoving water than take in the complexities of a river.
Montana, a state famous for its blue-ribbon trout streams, formed my love of rivers. When I moved to Iowa City I did not expect to find anything like the cold clear mountain streams that I had known in Montana, and the Iowa River looked more like a spot to find discarded cigarette butts and plastic grocery bags than fish. I ignored the river at first, but after a few weeks, I could not ignore the piscatorial itch and set out to find something like what I had known in Montana. What I found was something entirely different and unexpectedly beautiful.
The same dam I first detested when moving to Iowa City had unintentionally created the eutrophic habitat for carp to flourish. I soon discovered the widely scorned and overlooked carp are just as selective of a fly as trout and twice as weary of an angler’s presence. Now, every time I watch the light reflect off the golden scales of a carp as I release it back into the muddy river, I am reminded of the ways life adapts to change in beautiful if imperceptible ways. This awareness has given me a different opinion of the river, and now as I take my walks along its banks I stare into the water and think of the lowly carp swimming so unappreciated in its murky depths.