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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.

Wings, walleyes & weeds

Wings, walleyes & weeds

Apologies for not posting a blog lately. Been too busy catching fish!
The River is in GREAT shape right now, falling steadily and providing tremendous multi-species action–with one caveat: weeds, weeds, weeds getting flushed from the flood plain as levels continue to recede.

This can make for tough lure presentation when trolling, or even casting cranks. A quick fix is a barrel swivel about 30″ up the line or going with a single hook presentation.

The wingdam bite just started in the last 48 hours and should be super in the weeks ahead–at least until the autumn weeds start coming downstream.

Pike have been practically suicidal on a topwater bite using buzzbaits, Custom Carter Shaker chatterbaits and the Red Head Uncle Ted floating Rat-L-Trap.

There is a good topwater bite at low light and in shade for smallmouth throwing Pop -R’s and Chug Bugs over rocks and above barriers like deadfalls with considerable current.

Walleyes–mostly borderline legal–are aggressive drifting running sloughs in 10-13 fow with a 3/16 oz jighead and a half crawler. Quite a few quality fish are smacking “Caitlin” and RBF pattern Bomber A’s , oxbow Rat-L-Traps and purple prism glass Shad Raps on the rocks.

The Teddy Skunk Perchanator available at local tackle shops and on-line from BimboSkunk.com/ted have been flat out tearin’ up the panfish using 10′ St. Croix panfish rods in 3-8 fow back in the midst of deadfalls and snags. Mostly gills and crappies. A few perch are in the wood, too, but if you’re species specific for perch try dropping the Perchanator between Elodea (coontail) fronds in 3-8 fow.

Largies have been hangin’ in the wood with the panfish and hangin’ in the weeds with the pike. Pretty much too easy–but easy is good.

One downside: after a summer of essentially no boats on the River, traffic is heavy bordering on incredible even during the week.

Obvious spots are getting pounded early and often. As a result I’ve actually had better luck after 7 a.m. fishing secondary spots, some of which look far from ‘fishy’.

Took today and tomorrow off to heal (hooked 3 times yesterday. Neck wound hurts the worst) and to celebrate 47 years of Happy Marriage to the Admiral–the sweetest, most understanding lady on the planet. I am truly blessed. Livin’ the Dream!

A sweet half inch!

A sweet half inch!

A 15-inch minimum keeper size on walleyes is in effect on Pool 9 of the Mississippi where I spend a sinful amount of time. In 2017 and so far this year lots of folks have had to suffer through my observation “the smartest walleye on pool 9 is 14 3/4″ long…and she weighs eight pounds” because so many fish were just shy of keeper length.

The 2015 year class of walleyes fed heavily through the February in April weather last spring and perpetual ‘action stage’ river levels
which we’ve had to endure since mid-June–a three full weeks of which was in bona fide flood stage with both fishing and access somewhat challenging.

The last species specific walleye trip I had was on June 20. The daily bag limit on the River is 6 walleyes. I think this is too many. The bag limit in MY boat is 5 per person, with only one fish over 20″. The guys on June 20 went home with 10 legal fish–6 of which were under 16″.

I’ve been “fun fishing” a bunch since this trip, picking up a few walleyes. Only twice has the ‘admiral’ requested I bring home walleyes for dinner since then. Kept one 18″ and two 15 1/4″ on these two occasions.

Because of all the high water I’ve only had two guide trips so far this month. Walleyes were caught on both these trips, as a ‘bonus’ species on lures intended for smallmouth bass. On both trips, “legal” fish were 75% of the catch.

Any fish which is close to the minimum gets measured TWICE to ensure this fish is a keeper, if the fish is headed for the livewell. In 2017 and this Spring probably 75% of the walleyes were “smart” and trying to stay short as they packed on the weight.

Honestly, most walleyes shorter than about 18″ lack discretion, are aggressive to the point of being borderline stoopid. With less than perfect conditions keeping anglers off the River in droves, these aggressive dummies have been chowing steadily on stuff without hooks. I’m guessing most of the banner 2015 year class of walleyes in pool 9 is now comfortably beyond the magic number which makes them candidates for a sandwich.

Predators follow prey. The best way to catch walleyes is still heading out for “whatever’s biting”–since River levels will be at action stage for the foreseeable future–with wingdam and closing dam bites essentially off the table until cfm and river levels recede at least two more feet.

Since the 2015 year class of marble eyes is still stoopid, time of day isn’t as much of a factor as it is with an aggressive bite from quality fish in a typical summer.

It will take a couple of years before 2015 fish remaining in the system quit acting like those gullible bass as they grow past 18 inches. 18-26″ females have the greatest potential for carrying on the family name. There may come a time in the future when the walleye bag in my boat will change to 3-!8″ if I feel this is the best way to protect the resource.

Every time you catch a fish, the future of the resource is in your hands. State DNR’s and the FWS won’t take a pro-active stance in protecting our walleye resource. With a slot limit or 3-18″ daily bag it wouldn’t take long to return the Upper Miss to a trophy walleye fishery as seen in the Red Wing tailwaters or south at Bellevue-Dubuque.

Two 15″ walleyes or a single 18-incher provide an all you can eat walleye experience for the admiral and me. Fresh walleye is WAY better than one that comes out of the freezer.

The fact that there are never any fish in my freezer has nothing to do with a potential excuse to go fishing.

Dealing with the high water new norm

Dealing with the high water new norm

Just about a month ago the River eased past the ‘action’ stage into ‘minor flood’. Flood is flood. There is no such thing as being ” a little bit pregnant”.

The challenge comes when River levels rise to the point where water is coming through the trees, eliminating edges where predators can push prey for easier ambush.

With edges gone, predators have to adapt to survive. This includes the top of the food chain who chase prey from boats. On pool 9 the River has been dropping an inch a day for almost two weeks now. The drop is supposed to accelerate in another week. With no major rain events upstream, that should put us back down to the ‘action’ stage—where some access points like New Albin, Millstone, Bad Axe and Visagers become flooded.

Right now, water is still in the trees, but it isn’t coming downstream with a vengeance. Edges are developing, making fishing easier every day.

Given conditions, water clarity is good on the mainstem now. In some backwaters it is clear to the point where a fluorocarbon leader is needed to avoid spooking fish.

No creature wants to work harder than it has to to ensure survival. With cfm still cranking along at about 90, the mainstem isn’t the first place you want to look.

The flood plain beyond the backwaters spreads out horizontally with every inch of river rise. A foot of water is enough to survive in if escape cover is nearby—and with so many flooded weeds in the flood plain, cover is everywhere!

With infinitely more places to hide, it takes longer to find fish. When you find ’em you usually find a bunch…and the bunch is there because they’ve found easy prey.

Baits which work well in shallow or weedy water work well. This is why I caught a walleye on a buzzbait yesterday. One nice thing about being on the water essentially every day, is the daily hunt for active fish is shorter. They have tails. They move. But with water only dropping an inch a day, they don’t move that much.

It will likely be almost a month before we see a good main channel wingdam/closing dam bite. A few weeks after that the fish will start moving into fall patterns.

The good news is, casual anglers are staying away in droves. Many fish have forgotten what a hook looks like. Fog is burning off. Time to go educate a few of those scaly critters.

Lemonade

Lemonade

This is the worst year for the guide business that I can ever remember. Pool 9 had been running at the ‘Action’ stage since we came down out of flood stage, after the April Ice Age. By next weekend the pool level is supposed to creep back up to the point where it tickles ‘minor flood’.

Thing wingdam/closing dam bite for walleyes was just coming on when the River jumped a foot and got muddy a week ago. Now the easy-peezey crankbait fishing which makes ‘eye chasing so much fun in the summer will be spotty at best til probably month’s end. The fish can still be caught drifting crawlers(if it doesn’t get too muddy again) but a high percentage of fish are shorts.

In the meantime, water clarity is key to fish location for walleyes and other popular species–and the key of the key is finding water that’s kinda clear but not uber clear. This takes time on the water. You just know it when you see it.

The clarity situation changes daily. sometimes almost by the hour. It is necessary to run-n-gun until you find ’em. Fortunately with about 30K acres to fish in Pool 9 it is possible to make a milk run until finding water which is liable to produce.

Consistent success is still possible, but to a great extent success is driven by attitude. If you head out thinking that the fish are already wet and they don’t leave the River you’re on the right track.

Some little areas where you would run aground at normal pool are panfish magnets when the River is up–and preadators are right behind them.

Weeds can’t grow as fast as the River can rise, so weeds which were emergent become submergent. ideal conditions for running a chatterbait, spinnerbait or squarebill like the Rat-L-Trap Echo 1.75.

When you find places with just-right clarity and the weeds are in between emergent and submergent–and the air is muggy causing great surface tension it’s a fantastic opportunity to throw buzzbaits–one of the funnest ways to catch fish. Bubbles which occur from a buzzbait’s wake are a good indicator of surface tension. The longer the trail, the more effective that buzzbait will be.

These are precisely the conditions I found fish in on a trip last week. The guys caught over 30 pike and some quality bass at mid-day under a bright sky in 1-3 fow. Several buzzbaits died in combat with toothy critters, forcing an emergency run to buy a dozen more for the week ahead.

Folks who come to the River on a species-specific quest under ANY conditions are setting themselves up for disappointment.
Better to see what the River feels like giving up, then honing location and presentation to cash in on the bounty.

More often than not, if you want to chase bass, then walleyes are on a rip. Go looking for walleyes and the pike won’t leave you alone.

Catching a fish on the very first cast is never a good thing. Might as well bring bananas for a snack. The River is always listening. Mention serious intent for catching walleyes when launching the boat and more often than not, you’ll get euchered.

Nothing wrong with THINKING walleyes. Just don’t say it. The very best trips are those when we talk about catching Amberjack or Blue Marlin when we slide the Lund into the water .Better still is a species-specific quest for sheephead.

Speak loudly about the pugilistic ability and great taste (both true!) of sheepies while secretly hoping for smallmouth and you probably won’t see a sheepie all day.
Like the old saying goes “if life gives you lemons, buy a chainsaw and book a trip to the rainforest”

Dropping in to Summer Pattern

Dropping in to Summer Pattern

pool 9 is falling steadily will all gamefish species moving into their summer haunts and patterns. Over the next couple of days water will be pulling completely out of the trees, sometimes leaving behind a distinct mudline which can be a real fish magnet–but this mudline can change and even disappear in an hour or a day.

This morning I was fishing a trib entry point where THREE distinct mudlines converged. Gar were holding a family reunion just above this confluence, feeding heavily on an abundance of bait, with smallmouth, walleyes and white bass cruising nearby.

The rock bite for smallies with senkos and flukes hasn’t started yet, but will begin very, very soon with walleyes beginning to congregate in fair numbers along current seams relating to rocks.

Barring obscene rainy weather the River should continue to drop, with the wingdam/closing dam bite coming on quickly.

Water temp is now consistently in the upper 60s and getting warmer, definitely having some impact on times when walleyes are most active.

Weeds are starting to grow back in the running sloughs, with American water lotus now on the surface in a few areas and fanning out. Appearance of good elodea patches is still a couple weeks away. When the elodea gets up a couple of feet the perch will be much easier to find.

Taking the next couple days off due to the holiday. Hopefully this will give my hands a chance to heal. Fins, pike teeth, hooks and those lovely walleye gill plates have left a fair number of gashes, slashes, punctures and dents. Occupational hazard. No complaints.

Back to the grind on Tuesday. But so far, not much guide work on the books for the first couple weeks of June. doesn’t matter. Either way I’ll be on the River. Would be nice if temps would top out in the low 80s–but there is much to be said for getting on the water early and to the hammock by noon.