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Author: Cap'n Ted

Swans say ‘Safe Ice’

Swans say ‘Safe Ice’

Migration of the last tundra swans on Friday signals the arrival of ‘safe’ ice after more than a month of purgatory on Pool 9. Seems a fitting conclusion to the dog turd split of a fishing season Ma Nature served up in 2018. The whipped cream was a River on the cusp between open water and ice with neither safe nor productive access either way. Seven swans were swimming on one of my favorite early ice perch spots on Pearl Harbor Day.  They left a cherry on the ice when migrating east over the weekend. It is now Tuesday morning. Time to grind a hole past that cherry and pop a fish or two.

I’ve been keeping a fishing diary for nearly 40 years, noting significant events in the natural world to better predict future patterns. About 20 years ago I noted that the tundra swans had suddenly departed. Two days later I noted we finally had safe ice. When this sequence repeated the next year it was worth a closer look. I shared this pattern with the world when my first book Mississippi Musings with the Old Guide was published back in 2010. Here we are 8 years later. The big birds bug out. Two days later we have ‘safe’ ice on the usual spots on both sides of the River.  Now THAT, my friends, is a PATTERN.

Five years ago my ol’ pal Tom Gruenwald showed up to do a couple of ice fishing segments on Sportsman Channel for his show Tom Gruenwald Outdoors. The ambient temp was -15, with wind chill, -50…and we were BUCKET FISHING. When the shows aired the following year it changed my life. The decision was made right then to spend the coldest part of winter in the Sunshine State. The Admiral and me found a little place in Mexico Beach on the Fla. panhandle and have been going back every winter since. You can still see these episodes by going to the HT Enterprises website, clicking on the TV show, then clicking on Season 3. But the show no longer airs on Sportsman Channel in 2018…and after Hurricane Michael hit the panhandle back in October Mexico Beach ain’t there either!

So for the first time in five years I’ve grown some facial fur, with a plan of sticking around Dodge this winter. The swans are gone.  Time to hit the ice. Back when I first started going to Florida the decision was made to no longer guide ice fishing. That decision still stands. Too many folks think just because you’re a guide you can make the fish bite. You can’t. Fish metabolism is extremely slow under the ice. They bite when they want to bite. Odds are long–even at ‘prime time’ that they’ll want to eat during the 4 hour window of a trip. Besides, its too damn much work for an old guy who has just been told both his shoulders have ‘severe’ damage. Poking 40 holes through 3 feet of ice certainly won’t make this condition any better. So from now on, hardwater is all about fun fishin’. Maybe you’ll see a pearl or two here. maybe not. Might not blog again until the River opens up enough to fish. Maybe February, certainly by mid-March.

There will be a new policy on guided trips in 2019: leave your demons and shiny objects at the dock. If you feel compelled to bring that electronic teat along, fine. But plan on grief from this old River Rat every time you respond to that Pavlovian tone! Maybe this is why boss Bob Gillespie called me “outrageously outspoken” in the bio beneath my pro staff photo in his 2019 Custom Jigs & Spins/ B-Fish-N tackle catalog. Any trip with me is all about THE RIVER, that immortal, icon genuine force of nature.


Next Saturday, Dec. 15, I’ll be working the aisles at Cabela’s in Prairie du Chien for another great sponsor, Northland tackle company. Northland, Custom Jigs and HT all have some tremendous products which really catch fish.  Please stop by and howdy if you’re in the neighborhood.


It really torques me on how the fishing industry has changed in recent years, putting more emphasis on social media than actual fishing ability and activity out on the water. One long time lure sponsor’s new pro staff manager told me I HAD TO contribute to social media if I wanted to stay on their pro staff.  Fortunately, my boss saw value in actually being out there 200 days a year and ‘grandfathered’ me in. How ironic! They even named a lure after me “Red Head Uncle Ted”.  But this blog isn’t about me. It’s all about the Big River and all things which swim here. Speaking of Big River, there is an article in the current issue about walleye fishing. I also shot the cover photo. But this ain’t about me.  Guess I’m felling bummed about two toasted shoulders right now.


We can talk all things fishin’ next Saturday at Cabela’s in PdC, or February 8-10 at a seminar on walleyes at the Rockford Fishing Show. This seminar is essentially bullet points for the next book Walleye Fishing on the Upper Mississippi River, due on the book shelves when I’m done going Hillary with hammers and bleach bit on every shiny object which comes within arms length. Shiny objects will be what takes down the greatest nation in world history.  Just go for that serotonin buzz by responding to that Pavlovian ring tone out there in the boat next spring and you’ll hear all about it.

Last best day for bass fishin’

Last best day for bass fishin’

One reason Dave M. has been a favorite client for so many years is his tendency to be easily misled. We cancelled a trip about a month ago due to high water.  Told him the bite wouldn’t be hot again until the pool dropped to 627. Called him a few days ago to tell him the River would be at 627 by today. Unfortunately Dave said he had meetings and appointments. I told him ll/2 would be the last best day to catch a nice SMB of 2018. He called back a day later and said he would take the day if it was still open. We left the dock at 10:30. Told him if we could put 20 fish in the boat over the next 6 hours it would be a good day. At 2:06 into the trip we caught the 20th fish and quite counting. Then the fishing actually got better!

I’m on the water about 200 days annually, so having the ‘best day of the year’ is a long shot. But today was by far the best day of the year. Dave averaged one bass, walleye or pike every six minutes for 5 hours.  Then he & I were both plum tuckered out and decided to call it a day. All fihs came on the Rat-L-Trap or Trap MR-6 in <8 fow. Huh?

Just about everybody out there today was vertical jigging in 14-20 fow, cuz that’s what usually works this time of year. But the water temp is still 47 degrees. The baitfish are shallow, so the predators are too!


I’m sure the fish know tough weather is coming, TOMORROW. Rare enough to catch SMB in 47 degree water, but about 1/3 of the bass we caught were LMB.  Now that’s really weird. Also caught a half dozen pike and a few quality walleyes. One more thing I like abouit fishing with Dave is that he is a SPORTSMAN.  kept just for walleyes and one 32″ pike, releasing everything else.


Thee weather was perfect. No wind. Sunny sky.  Sweatshirt weather. Thumbs are scraped raw from bass lips. Hands sliced by walleye gills. Not complaining. Not one bit. Caught enough quality bass to cash a check in any tourney here on the River. They were all released so you can catch ’em in the future. They won’t be there tomorrow, but will be ready to bring lotsa smiles next year. Today was the last best day of 2018. Time for a couple slices of Pork’s pizza and a beer. I’m whupped.


It’s All About the Numbers

It’s All About the Numbers

My wife, the Admiral, calls me “Rain Man” cuz I’m always crunching numbers. None of that ‘new math’ stuff. No algebra, either. When I entered high school algebra was a requirement. A half century later I can attest the need for this course of study to find success in life was pure crap…and I worked for many years as a paramedic, requiring algebraic equations to assure correct dosage of meds.

But I was a paramedic–not a pharmacist or MD. The formulas could have bee easily memorized by a task-trained monkey. OK, so the Admiral’s nickname for me also has to deal with attitude.

A pessimist is an optimist with experience. Failure to plan for the worst invites disaster. Anything better than disaster is a good day on the water. Most days on the water are terrific.

This morning might have been an exception. I cancelled a trip because of exceptionally high water and 83% prediction of rain. The weatherman got the rain wrong, but the 35+ mph sustained wind correct.

A check of surface water temps revealed 45-47 degrees. Looks like my last blog was on target! Bass pretty much shut down at 53 degrees in the fall. Walleye action really picks up when water temps go below 48. We are now at this point.

Water clarity is good, given perpetually high water conditions. River levels are dropping slowly. Right now they are about 629 on Pool 9. Water is still coming through the trees. Fish don’t have edges to relate to, making it tougher to corral food. This will change markedly when the level drops to 627. Edges appear then, both above and below the water–back eddies and current breaks in which forage can hold, with predators hovering nearby.

Conditions get even better when the level drops to 625–and below. We should see this by the first week in November, barring more significant rain.

Here’s a positive thought: walleyes have had very little pressure ALL YEAR because of perpetual high water. The dominant year class of ‘eyes in the system which started 2018 just shy of the 15″ minimum keeper length are now fat, legal fish–with little discretion as winter comes knocking at the door.

But the Rain Man becomes the Ice Man when that magic number 32 appears on the thermometer. Fish will still be biting as long as the boat ramps allow access. Then it will be time to break out the buckets and short rods again.

Two years ago I quit guiding ice fishing. Too much work for this old river rat. Besides, a fishing guide is not a magician. A guide can’t make them eat, When water temps drop below 40 degrees the feeding window is short–often outside the window of a half-day guided trip.

Using basic math I crunched the numbers, concluding it costs $62 every time I launch the boat, based on 75 guide trips per year.

Beginning next year the U.S. fish and Wildlife Service is taxing Miss River fishing guides 3% of their gross income up front.

FWS personnel have never worked as fishing guided on Ol’ Man River. Most have probably never run a business. I’ve done BOTH for longer than most of ’em have been on the planet. But they feel compelled to tell me how to do both, and charge 3% of my gross income up to $500 annually with every cent of this tax going to ADMINISTRATIVE PURPOSES.

Doesn’t matter that the River has been at the ‘Action Stage’ perpetually every month this year since August. Doesn’t matter if the outboard blows up and you’re out of business for awhile.

A couple weeks ago I had a phone conversation with Tim Yager, assistant refuge mgr. for the FWS. Told him how much it cost to launch the boat, based on 75 trips/yr and how this year’s work didn’t even come close to that.

Yager said “how can you afford to run a business?” gotta say, he’s mighty sharp for a college boy. Believe my life’s work of teaching folks about the joys and wonders of the River are about done.

Only the Creator knows where the numbers go from this point forward. God is the ultimate Rain Man

Last Cast for Bass

Last Cast for Bass

With the River well into the Action Stage for two weeks now–and on the rise AGAIN fishing will be generally tough for the foreseeable future.

The one exception is bass both green and brown. Water temps are now in the mid-50’s and will drop like a stone over the next week or so. When the water temp drops below about 52 aggressive bass activity comes to a screeching halt until next spring when 43 degrees means an active shallower water bite near wood on dark bottom bays with a good northern exposure.

Right now bass are real close to where you would expect to find them in mid-October: congregated at ambush points where they can chow down with little effort in preparation for winter.

In years with ‘normal’ flow this means the top of closing dams, the leading edge of wingdams close to shore, tributary entry points and rocky points on islands: essentially anyplace they can herd minnows for an easy meal.

Minnows aren’t going to fight the current. They will retreat to the DOWN CURRENT side of wingdams and closing dams, SLACKWATER areas of tribs and backside of islands away from current.

I had clients out last week who were amazed to find smallmouth bass stacked on a mudflat and eager to garwoofle Rat-L-Traps fished in a burning retrieve.

The River was rising and stained, the air temp had dropped over 30 degrees overnight and the wind was howling out of the northwest at 20 mph–not exactly prime conditions.

But these conditions slapped those little bass brains into the realization that their metabolism was about to slow waaaay down and the need to take on fuel is critical.

This is definitely a run-n-gun situation. If fish are present you’ll know after about a dozen well placed casts. Hook one and give the spot another five minutes. Hook two and its time to stay and play.

Find a pod of active LMB or SMB (sometimes they’ll be schooling in same spot) and you may find fish-on-every-cast action. When the bite slows, change the presentation instead of the location. If you don’t hook up again in 15 minutes, move on.

With pool levels tickling Minor Flood stage by mid-week with water temps continuing to fall, the show might be over until we get ice. The situation is driven entirely by River level. If it goes up from 628 instead of down look elsewhere to get your string stretched.

High Water & Seasonal Change

High Water & Seasonal Change

River level in pool 9 has been in the ‘action stage’ for over a week with forecast calling for it to remain at this level for AT LEAST another week.

meanwhile, we are going through seasonal change, Last week at this time I headed Up Nort for a few days. Almost zero fall color, all the way to Lake Superior. Actually, more color in the River bottoms here than there, even though the north should be real close to seasonal peak. Why? Because perpetual high water this summer has stressed trees in the River bottoms–even maples and cottonwoods which are usually quite content with ‘wet feet’

I fear this wet years will kill a bunch of these trees, resulting in potential calamity at some point in the early future. But I go along with what Jesus said in Matthew about having enough worries to deal with today. Jesus also said not to worry. So I don’t.

The fish don’t worry. The River is high–but stable. They have found the food and are feeding like big dogs with water temps now hovering pretty close to 59 degrees and falling steadily.

Species like pike, bass and panfish are easy to find. Walleyes are a little more challenging. But if you think like a walleye and FOLLOW THE FOOD ol’ marble-eyes is pretty easy to find.

Let’s look at a wingdam scenario. At normal pool the ‘eyes should be feeding like gangbusters above the wingdams from the middle of a good dam out to the end. But at action stage, you won’t find’ em there, BECAUSE THE FOOD ISN’T THERE! Check the shore end of the dam…or maybe behind it. You just might be surprised!

Finding walleyes back in the running sloughs tke a little more effort. But one constant remains: find the food and you’ll find the fish. Running sloughs are still pretty stained, but weeds don’t seem to be as much of a problem as they are around Oct. 1st most years. Once temps fall into the mid-40’s (in a couple of weeks) this bite should be really, really easy as the fish ‘stair step’ progressively deeper as winter approaches.

Consistent success is all about time on the water.I’m out there just about every day, but it still takes me at least an hour EVERY DAY to get a handle on where the fish are and assess their attitude. Sometimes this attitude–at least with walleyes–is ‘not interested’. When the River tells you to go for another species, its wise to listen. At least if you wanna CATCH FISH.

Not about to parrot “that’s why they call it fishin’, not catchin'”.

Fish don’t have the time or inclination to philosophize. They have one mission: survival. you’ll catch more fish if you get in the mindset of ” if I was a fish, what do I need to do now to survive”. Sometimes the answer is EAT. sometimes it’s HUNKER DOWN. Once you understand your success is based on a personal skill set plus deciphering fish motivation you won’t even feel compelled to blurt out dumb stuff like ” a bad day fishin’ is better than a good day at work” if you EVER see a fishing guide say this, ask to see his credentials.

Tickling the ‘Action’Stage Again

Tickling the ‘Action’Stage Again

Recent rains have pushed Ol’Man River to the edge of the ‘action stage again, coming up one foot overnight. Forecast is for this pattern to hold for at least a week. That’s OK.

High water is the new normal in this incredibly muggy buggy summer, which weather guys say will come to an abrupt halt in the next 48 hour, with a FIFTY DEGREE temperature drop overnite…now THAT is a cold front!

The fish kinda expect a temperature drop. After all, it’s almost October. The bite will be good again by Tuesday–but we’ll still be tickling the ‘action’stage, which makes the wingdam walleye bite a little tricky for the short term.

Right now, water temps are still in the low 70’s. In three weeks they SHOULD be somewhere in the 50’s and walleyes will be migrating upstream. Bass will be aggressive until water temp drops below 55. Pike will be just happy, toothy guys between now and late October, and panfish will be on the move but certainly willing to bite.

I got out for a couple hours yesterday morning ahead of the rain and caught about 20 SMB and WB on my ultralight Croix, throwing a topwater. The rain is supposed to back off by mid-morning, with air temps pushing into the mid-80s with cloudy skies. These dynamics, coupled with a rapidly rising River mean today’s best play will be targeting areas not directly impacted by runoff and choke points in migration routes in the running sloughs where there is at least 18″ visibility. since the atmosphere will be muggy, the surface tension will be high and the pike should hit buzzbaits like big dawgs. They will be concentrated and cruising in areas where the panfish live–submergent vegetation, especially elodea. So today I will go piking, then catch a few perch for supper.

When that 50 degree air temp drops in a couple of days, coupled with belly-full River this weekend will be a good time for digging out the mittens and doing some serious thumb twiddling.

But for the next 48 hours fishing will be good. And it will be good again by about Tuesday–if we don’t get a bunch more rain.

Consistent success in fishing is all about time on the water.

Time on the Water

Time on the Water

A bad situation on pool 9 has taken a turn for the worse over the past couple days, as heavy rains in the Twin Cities and point north have arrived, bringing the annual floating hayfield of grass on the back of a rising river.

Right now the pool is stabilized at the ‘action stage’, which menas about 95% of the 30,000 acres is a Reese’s cup without the peanut butter filling . That’s OK.

If you know where to find that 5% of fishable water you can still have a ball. The 5% will jump to 8% in a couple of days if local rainfall doesn’t become a factor. Ever-changing mudlines will develop over the next few days. A little frogging around is required to find water with at least 18″ visibility. But once found, fish will cooperate even under cold front conditions.

Frogging around yesterday only produced about a dozen bass for me and a couple of really good hooks, but one fat largie was an honest 5 lbs. and a scrappy SMB measured up at 18″–with every possible negative condition except for gale force winds and lightning part of the equation.

We found several places where there was plenty of ‘acceptable’ water with at least 18″ of visibility. The last place we fished you could see a Rat-L-Trap or spinnerbait coming through the water at least 50′ from the boat at the end of a long cast.

It is now 18 hours later. This patch of gin-clear water has no doubt moved. After decades on this water I have a pretty good hunch where to find it. My guide book is pretty much open for the rest of the month. That’s OK too. This has been an awful year working as a Mississippi river guide. But I’m still gonna go fishin’ and will almost always catch a few, even if it’s just for fun…and there’s no place on god’s green earth I would rather be.

The best part is, you seldom see more than a couple of boats-even on a weekend. At least boats cruising where the fish are!
The Bible says ‘iron sharpens iron’. Ol’ Man River may be liquid, but it’s tougher than any man. It’s tougher to catch a 10 pound ‘eye here than out on Erie or up on Green Bay–so when you wrestle a good fish out of the River it means much, much more.

Time on the water is much more important than just about anything else when you’re out there on the Big River. A sophisticated electronic box with 200 GPS waypoints is of little value when the fish that prompted a waypoint are already swimming far, far away.

It is now 8 a.m. I have not been fishing since yesterday. Time to git out there and se what the river has to say this morning.

chocolate lemonade

chocolate lemonade

A pile of rain has hit the upper Mississippi River basin over the past 48 hours, raising river levels a couple of feet and turning a major portion of the fishery into chocolate milk.

This inundation has pushed fish away from the flow in pursuit of cleaner, quieter water. there are still a number of areas which load from downstream and are far enough from shoreline runoff with adequate habitat parameters. It takes fish a couple of days to acclimatize to new haunts. This process is well underway, exacerbated by warm water temperatures.

River levels in the main flow have pretty much crested–one advantage of being a broad shouldered flow–in a couple of days River levels should drop sharply, making chokepoints hot as a reverse migration begins by this weekend.

These conditions can be challenging to the average angler, but the rapid rise/fall scenario when water temps are in the 70s create conditions which simply make me giddy!

Experience has revealed a number of choke points which fish must pass in their return to summer status quo. It may take a fair amount of run-and-gun to land on the mother lode, but when you find ’em a reaction bait like my beloved Rat-L-Trap can produce a fish on every cast.

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. This process is easier if you don’t use chocolate water. Water with 2’+ visibility is still out there if you know where to look.

EZ Does It!

EZ Does It!

The River has been running at low summer pool for the past couple weeks, resulting in a mixed blessing for fishermen. Low water levels concentrate fish–but low water also concentrates fishermen.

Had a couple trips this week where I had to start on secondary spots, cuz primary, easy to find spots already had boat on them…and this was during the week. Secondary spots usually don’t hold as many fish, but occasionally they give up a beauty. Secondary spots are usually microstructures–not very big–where boat control is a major factor in hooking up.

Common sense will tell you taking it easy when navigating beyond the channel is a good idea. There were a couple days last week when the River stage got down around 621, putting many sandbars into lower unit range–even just off the channel. There are also a few hazards IN the channel which you need to watch out for. There is a multi-pronged donniker–well actually, a staub–in the channel on the lower west side of Battle island. I flew past a rental houseboat the other day and gestured wildly for them to change course. Didn’t work.

With low water levels the bite on wingdams and closing dams is really coming on. Good place to soak a spendy willocat for walleyes. But a crankbait will catch ’em, too….along with both SMB & LMB.

Bluegills are relating to inside edges of these structures right now as well as in the wood. Crappies have pretty much moved out of the weeds and into the wood. Perch are still mostly in the weeds.

Can’t say more than that, cuz I’ve gotta make a living. When you come around a bend and see AT LEAST one boat on the next seven spots you wanna fish–on a TUESDAY–the River is crowded.

The Plug Is Pulled!

The Plug Is Pulled!

Pool 9 is now at normal summer pool levels and should remain stable for the foreseeable future. In many ways this is a mixed blessing. With River levels down six feet from where they were just a couple of weeks ago the fish population is more concentrated. The downside is, navigation beyond the channel is difficult, bordering on dangerous. There are several channels running between the main channel and Minnesota slough, several more between the main channel and Lansing Big Lake. I’m not going to run any of them until River levels come back up again. It may take more time to go the long way around, but getting stuck on a sandbar for an afternoon or overnite when its not intentional is not fun.

Perch and some nice bluegills have been tearing up my Perchanator with a little piece of crawler around elodea (coontail) weeds in 3-6 fow back in the running sloughs, with crappies and gills also relating to wood in a little deeper water. With the plug now pulled after extended high water there are many, many fresh deadfalls which will be fish magnets this fall and in years to come

There has been a super topwater and just subsurface pike bite the past few days. I’ve had the best luck on a black buzzbait, Custom Caster Shaker and where there is some open water over weeds the Rat-l-Trap Red head Uncle Ted.

SMB have been on fire lately throwing topwater baits along current breaks in the morning before the sun becomes a factor and with Chompers salty sinkers once the heat comes on, trying to target any available shade.

The wing dam bite for wallies and smallies is going great guns right now. I should remain good until the grass starts coming down in a few weeks.

Use caution when navigating in the backwaters. If possible enter from the downstream end, Coming in from upstream can be like the ol’ Chinese finger trap–the sandbar will keep getting shallower until you’re hung up. Attempting to fight the current is like boxing with God. You ain’t gonna win.