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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.

Stage is set for Super June

Stage is set for Super June

We’re just coming out of the worst spring I’ve seen in over 20 years of fishin’ on pool 9. But a lifetime on the River has taught that things have a way of evening out.

The River is dropping steadily, with fishing getting better every day, setting the table for some phenomenal June fishing!

In just a few more days boat ramp access will be much easier. By Wednesday water should be out of the trees, resulting in some fabulous mudline action all over the pool. Water clarity is already pretty good, with 1’+ visibility most places and 3’+ in quite a few areas. Water temp has also warmed substantially over the past few days from a chilly 56 up to the mid-60’s…and sometimes even warmer.

Crappies are spawning, with bass spawn within 48-72 hours…and ‘gills right after that. Walleyes have been in summer , high-water pattern for several weeks now. with dropping water levels the pattern will be more defined and ‘eyes even easier to find.

Probably the most important concept in consistent fishing success is understanding the predator/prey relationship. Predators are gonna follow their prey–which means for the next couple weeks at least cruising in less than 10’ of water…often MUCH less.

Two days ago I was chasing pike for fun. had a fat 36 incher garwoofle my Northland Reed Runner magnum spinnerbait and put a substantial bend in that St. Croix legend Glass. Five minutes later I got bit again. But this time it was a 23″ walleye!

Walleyes on spinnerbaits? You bet! A spinnerbait looks like minnows. Predator/prey relationship. For the next several weeks one of my go-to ‘eye baits is a Custom Carter Shaker chatterbait made by Choo Choo lures, with a Kalin Sizmic grub trailer. Of course, one rod is forever rigged with a Rat-L-Trap. Most of the walleyes which came into the Lund last week came on the Trap, but a few on other presentations too. One day after catching three on the Trap, the bite in this non-descript little area slowed so I switched to snap-jigging a fluke resulting in two more decent fish.

There was really no obvious reason for the walleyes to be there…except FOOD…which they could see but I couldn’t.

My guide calendar is starting to fill up, but there are still quite a few open days, no doubt cuz folks are still shell shocked from the worst spring in over 20 years. I don’t get to fish much when guiding. Much as I love sharing the wonders of the River and teaching folks how to fish here, My days of playing the game at this level are winding down and I’m far too addicted to the tug which is the drug to sit around waiting for the phone to ring.

If you’re reading this, you ain’t fishin’…but I AM! Be careful out there.

Pebbles in the Milk Jug

Pebbles in the Milk Jug

Old Man River is finally coming down out of ‘minor’ flood. Should be able to get the boat in wearing knee boots in a couple of days. The Miss is like the scales of justice. It has been owly since ice out–but its about to get great!

A couple of folks have recently asked if flooding in the Miss is more frequent now than it used to be. I think this needs to be looked at in cosmic terms rather than the human perspective.

In the beginning, God created the Mississippi River. He looked down and saw it was good. God figured this great River should carry an allegorical gallon milk jug of water. He poured it across the land and moved on to other work. To this very day, that same gallon comes down the River to the Gulf of Mexico. The Bible tells us the Creator gave man stewardship over the land. Things went pretty well in this regard for thousands of years as native Americans realized thriving meant finding harmony with nature rather than futile attempts to bend this force of nature to the will of man.

Then the white man arrived–like a guy from Chicago moving to the country, drawn by it beauty and deciding he could improve it.

The mighty U.S. Congress mandated the Corps of Engineers maintain a channel for navigation. They complied, throwing a handful of pebbles in that allegorical gallon milk jug. later, Congress mandated the channel be made deeper to allow for more ‘progress. More pebbles in the jug. some concrete, too in the form of 33 massive lock & dam systems—and there are still 164 allegorical ounces coming down the River, now obliged to find a way around all the pebbles.

maintaining a 9 foot channel for navigation reinforces the first rule of plumbing–silt rolls downhill. Backwaters of the Mississippi which used to hold the displaced water silted in, clear up to pool 11 at Guttenberg. When I was a kid, just 50 years ago growing up on pool 13 downstream you could get from the backwaters to the main channel a half-dozen different ways. No more. One dredge cut now, with the silt send on downstream to reinforce the first rule of plumbing.

So here we sit, mid-May, with the river just coming down out of ‘minor flood’ to ‘action stage’. Those who work on the River could care less what the USGS calls the River conditions. If you can’t launch the boat anywhere–that’s a FLOOD.

Nowadays there are about a quart of pebbles in the allegorical milk jug, with 164 ounces still coming down the River. In a few days enough of those ounces will pass downstream to the point where I can get the boat wet again. Lord willin’ this will be in just a day or two.

When this happens, the fishin’ will go from good to off the charts in a very short time. When this happens, you can read about it in this blog…once I get off the River.

Running up the Stairs

Running up the Stairs

The upper Miss is finally shaking off winter! The 10 inches of snow we received on Wednesday is already gone from everywhere but the hills, entering the water column and sparking seasonal change.

Many factors come into play in the River as we run headlong toward May. Water temperature is just one factor. I was out for the first time in a week yesterday. Water temp on the main channel varied from 35-37…pretty much where it’s been for over a month.

BUT some dark bottom areas with little current were as warm as 49 degrees! Pike typically spawn in these areas when waters warm to 45, with walleyes typically getting down to business at about 45. A female walleye can only carry eggs around for so long.

On the Miss, pre-spawn walleye location is like coming up a flight of stairs, moving ever-shallower until its time to get into shallow water with rocky-rubble bottom and spawn at night.

Some fat females were already half way up the stairs in late March. When 2nd winter arrived, they pretty much sheltered in place. Many of these fish have already spawned…even though water temps have been below the ‘ideal’.

Other fat females are poised to rocket up those allegorical stairs. Under the almost-May sun it doesn’t take long for waters to warm–and “warm” is a relative thing. The average date of spawn on the Upper Miss is April 15-20. Although this year’s spawn has so far been fits and spurts, the soft parade of Mississippi River life is well underway!

Yesterday smallmouth bass started getting active, pretty much in the same habitats you would expect to find spawning walleyes.

Fish are cold blooded, naturally drawn to warmer water. It will be game on for pike and other species in those areas where I found 49 degree water yesterday. Time to break out the Rat-L-Traps!

Yesterday was the best day weather-wise we’ve seen all Spring. Blue skies, calm winds and a temperature pushing the average norm of 60 degrees. The only thing missing on the River was boats! Not many folks out there for a sunny Friday afternoon…with the exception of the bottom end of Desoto Bay where a dozen boats were clustered. Somebody must have caught a perch and hooted like john Gillespie.

Spring 2.0

Spring 2.0

If you check about 4 blogs back–a month ago–we were on track for a normal spring. Falling water temps are never a good thing in the Spring. Two weeks ago water temps fell from 39 down to 36, and they have dropped to near-freezing since then.

Snow sounds crunchy underfoot when it’s really cold out. This truth was reinforced this morning when walking the dog. The thought that there is something wrong with hearing crunchy snow underfoot on April 7 crossed my mind. Then I realized the Creator made it so, therefore it must be right. My arms are far too short to box with the Almighty. Much better to work within His grand plan–which brings us back to that blog a month ago: we’re back on track for Spring. The end of “Second Winter” should come this week.

Walleyes which had begun stair-step staging from 28 to 21 to 18 feet of water are back at the bottom of the steps again, sulking in their wintering holes. This sulk will end shortly and with purpose. I haven’t fished in more than a week, simply because it isn’t worth fighting near-zero windchills to be out there during the unpredicatable–but certainly brief–window when fish decide to eat. it will still be a couple of days before I get out again. The first place i’m gonna look is in quiet deep water. By next weekend, i’m thinking the fish should be running up the steps, partly because April 15 is real close to the time fish in the Upper Miss usually decide to spawn.

Because of this spawning urge, the walleyes are about to get antsy. They just don’t know it yet, because limited mental capacity in their pea-sized, cold blooded brains is still in hibernation mode.

The river is running just a little high now, but actually on the low side compared to most years at this time. With just a little more color in the water, a little more color is called for in lure selection.

Spring 2.0 will be happening any day now. Vertical jigging in the deep trenches with Echotails and hair jigs will quickly give way to dragging and pitching plastics.

There is a small soft tackle bag always close at hand which contains a half-dozen or so plastics,, with the selection driven by what kind of fish I’m chasing. In the warmer months this is mostly Chompers, Chompers senkos, flukes and Kalin swimbaits.

This time of year it used to be ringworms and K-Grubs. It just dawned on me that advancements in the world of plastics have changed the cold water plastic selection in that handy go-bag. There are still a couple bags of Kalin grubs in there in different colors, but ringworms were replaced by the beefier Moxie tails a year or two ago…and the Moxie tail has given way to the B-Fish-N Tackle Pulse R, essentially the ringworm on steroids mated with a paddletail on steroids. Regardless of plastic color, the Pulse R is fished behind a Pyrokeet pattern Precision jighead.

Between now and when the ‘eyes go post-spawn about the 25th, the Pulse R will be one of three primary eye-chasing presentations in my Lund.

Little things are really great big things when the water is cold and/or the barometer is stratospheric.

At the Cusp of the Run!

At the Cusp of the Run!

Water temperatures are starting to tickle 40 degrees on pool 9 after hovering at 37-38 for over a week. Today the air temp is supposed to tickle 60, which may kick the water temp up to 42, resulting in much more aggressive walleye, sauger and perch activity.

Ice is still clinging to Desoto Bay, although the far north end is open and there is 5-10′ of open water along the edges. Ice broke loose yesterday on Fish Lake–at the bottom end of the “S” turn in Minnesota slough–going from shore to shore and completely blocking upstream passage. Might be gone today. might not. yesterday I had to run clear upstream to Lost Cut on the main channel and sneak in the back door of Mn. slough, where the action is mostly short saugers and the occasional decent fish. About a week ago, I launched at New albin and got back to the ramp about dark–to find a garage sized chunk of 8″ thick ice blocking the north ramp(the south ramp was still locked up) With some River ingenuity I was able to use thrust from the E-Tech and natural current out of the Winnebago slough to push the ice away jut long enough to get the boat out before ANOTHER big slab blocked the ramp.

The point is, the Miss is a profoundly unforgiving place. Don’t go anywhere you can’t get yourself out of, especially with ice still a factor.

The walleyes have already started what I call ‘stair-step staging’ with the water at 38. Depth is a major key to fish location. It also drives presentation. When I find the marble-eyes happy place du jour, I start with a vertical jig downstream with hair and plastic, pull three-ways back upstream, then follow the contour and pitch/drag ringworms from shallow to deep..

Seems like one presentation usually has an edge. but the other day when fishing with my ol’ pal Ron Barefield we caught ’em with every presentation and Ronnie CPRed a hefty myopic melon we guessed at abut 9 lbs. This was a good day. So far, not every day is a good day–at least when it comes to catchin’. The bite has been definitely time sensitive, too. All that wants to bite after 3 p.m. has been perch, and the perch tend to come through in waves.

But this whole situation will be downstream from us by the time you launch the boat. The hot bite window is about to open. maybe today. Gonna go find out right now.

Sno-cone perch

Sno-cone perch

Got out on a favorite chunk of early March ice yesterday. First time since Thursday. last time out there was 22″ of good ice here, and a nice mess of respectable perch which attacked a Slab Rap. On Thursday, I got on the ice about noon, with the hot bite from about 1-3 p.m.

So yesterday, back to essentially the same holes. Walked on the ice about 9 a.m. perch still there. By noon I had iced just six–none of them keepers. Started with the slab Rap, then went to a Forage Minnow on a drop chain, #3 Puppet Minnow, then a Purple Cecil.

The perch had varying degrees of interest. some shooting up off the bottom several feet before ghosting away. Meanwhile two deadsticks baited with minnows produced absolutely nothing.

About 1 .pm I went to the Gold Cecil and hooked into a fat 12′ female. maybe it was time of day, maybe lure choice and presentation. Can’t say. But bite was steady after that with no time to ponder sundry mysteries of the fishing universe.

kept 9 perch 9-11 inches. Several iced were over a foot. Biggest was 12 1/2″. No monsters, but some really nice perch. The males are milting like crazy now. Female perch are putting a lot of energy into egg production, so flesh is definitely not as firm as the males…one more reason not to keep those fat orange egg cannons.

This morning I was lying in bed, mulling fishing options for the day. I KNOW I can go catch a dozen walleyes and saugers in the boat…but that will be pretty much an every day grind once the guiding work picks up. I also KNOW I can go ice a nice mess of perch.

Thoughts turned to the ice. There is still about 20″ where I was fishing. But the first six inches or so no has the consistency of a sno-cone. Ice is already gone or passage is unsafe on the other hidden March hardwater spots. Yesterday there were only three other bucketeers within shouting distance–not that I ever felt like yelling ‘fish on!’

Experience has taught calling out ‘help!’ comes out several octaves higher, with just a hint of desperation in the tone. Not the kind of song a crusty old river rat likes to sing.

So it’s back to the ice for a couple more days, then time to charge the Vexilar and put it on a shelf. Better to see that FL-28 safely stowed than realizing it is somewhere on the bottom and i’m thankful to be safely ashore and alive.

Probably won’t blog for awhile. Will be too busy fishing to jump on the shiny object and tell the world I’m fishing.