A Sense of Place
Around the Next Bend
A river guide never fails to find something new on the Mississippi.
By Tim Holschlag
He had no idea it would be like this. Childlike excitement revealing itself like a rocky riffle in low water, James attempts a detached tone. "Do you get many that size here?"
Ill play the game. Deadpan, I reply, "That 19-incher you just caught was about the 90th smallie over 17 inches Ive taken on top this summer." I pretend not to notice the tremble in his hand as he lays the fly-rod popper on the water again.
James, my guiding client, has just discovered the upper Mississippi River. A world-traveling angler from St. Paul, he had never fished the Miss because hed envisioned the commercial river, the one girded by cities, locks and dams, industrial plants. This river, just 40 miles north of the IDS tower, is new to him. Lured here by the smallmouth bass fishing, James says the Mississippis fishery rivals that of congested western trout rivers.
"But its so quiet here," he observes. Indeed. Floating this five-mile section, we see little development along the wooded shore, and few other anglers. Here, the Father of Waters is like an undiscovered wild waterway. Eagles soar and ospreys dive. This is Montanas Yellowstone River sans hominids.
Of course, this all seems perfectly normal to me. I work on the Mississippi every day. And I grew up on moving waters, wading and floating rivers since the summer days when Ricky Schmidt and I would walk a mile and a half to fish Plum Creek for chubs. We were 6 then. Now Im nearing nine times that age, and still following the river around the next bend.
And thats exactly why I love rivers so much. The next bend always has new fishing potential, new water, new adventure. And each river is a world all its own. Large or small, fast flow or slow, wild or civilized, opaque or crystalline, every river I know has a unique character.
The Mississippi actually has multiple personalities, even within Minnesota, from its remote Itasca headwaters to the barge-bearing metro river, to its vast Lake Pepin reaches.
I guide on a 50-mile stretch just north of Minneapolis, where the channel is maybe 600 feet across and rocky throughout—handsome water in a semiwild setting. Here, the mighty and often murky Miss is certainly no easy book to read, but after years of plying its waters I sometimes think Ive seen all its moods. Then it thoroughly surprises me.
During the floods of 93, when the river flowed full for months, I found fish in places I hadnt seen them before and havent seen them since. And just last year I discovered a new Mississippi right where the old one flows. Tom, a die-hard angler and regular client, and I were floating an island-studded section of river near Monticello. A late start, good fishing, and the waning days of September left us still on the water as evening approached. Earlier in the day, my heretofore faithful 8-horse had died, so I knew it would be oars all the way and a late landing. This was just fine with Tom. After casing the rods, I laid into the oars.
As the harvest moon rose, we quietly approached the islands. Though I thought I knew the area as well as I know my own boat, now it was a mysterious world of shadows and nighttime splashes. Snaking through dark channels and past unseen river critters, I had about the best float of my life on a brand-new river.
Ive been guiding on the upper Miss for more than a decade, but I still get a kick out of rediscovering it, and bringing newbies into my river world. Surprising them with the natural beauty and fecundity of their backyard river makes me smile.
Naturally, peoples reactions to the river depend on their expectations. James, Tom, and dozens of others who come with few expectations and little knowledge of the river often find it delightful. The uncrowded quietness and superb fishing make them instant river fans. One client, a California fly-fisher, had been avidly pursuing smallmouth for 22 years. Heavy rains had roiled the river, and the current was fierce; but during his first morning on the Mississippi, nearly 5 pounds of smallmouth fell for his fly—his biggest bass ever. Now he makes the long trek to our Minnesota rivers every year.
A few arent so easily impressed. With heads too big for their hats, they regard themselves as whiz-bang anglers and expect the Mississippi to deliver instant gratification. But this river has a way of humbling this type of guy.
A classic case was the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Armed with the priciest tackle and a smidgen of lake-fishing experience, Mr. Fortune expected the river to be a pushover. An above-normal flow that day meant stiff currents and big bellies—that is, slack loops in the fly line. But rather than heeding my hook-setting advice, he ignored the current and insisted on using his wimpy lake technique. Many fish rose to his fly, but after a frustrating seven hours he had landed just two of them. Despite his status, the river was his boss.
His fishing partner, however—more modestly equipped, but more open to my advice—caught 11 fine fish that day, including the biggest smallmouth of his life.
The occasional unruly client notwithstanding, most folks are great, eager to learn and willing to accept that Im the captain of our little ship. Many of them ask what its like to work on the river for a living. Well, its not all fun and game fish. Theres a generous measure of tedium to the job—get up, pack lunches, load boat, drive, meet client, shuttle, launch, rig up, row, instruct, maneuver boat, unhook fish, row, take photos, row, unhook fish, row, tie on flies, row, take out, drive, clean boat, dinner, bed, get up, pack lunches. Except farmers, no one complains about the weather as much as a river guide does. There may be as many adverse conditions as days in the fishing season. My mission is to catch fish in everything from drought to flood, from cold rain to blazing sun to howling gale—no matter how inexperienced the client in the boat.
But I cant complain. I enjoy the challenge, and the occasional odd client adds spice. (I still have the portrait of me drawn by a fellow who wanted to catch just one bass on his delicate bamboo fly rod, and then spent the rest of the day talking about becoming a sketch artist in Boulder.) The best part of the job is just being out there. Five, sometimes six or seven days a week, Im on moving water.
Certainly other jobs, including some Ive had, pay more and offer better security, but for me nothing measures up to the one I have now. This despite (actually, because of) the job being so physical. My craft is propelled mostly by current and oars, with nary a battery on board. High-tech, doze-in-the-boat fishin it aint. Theres no machinery, no electronics, no intercessor between me and the river and its fish. Thats also why I love fly-fishing so much. Modern fly rods may be fancy graphite, but they catch fish only with practiced effort. Even the flies are strictly hands-on. Personally tied by myself and friends, they fool many bass (plus the occasional walleye, catfish, and pike). But the angler must constantly work the fly—casting it, twitching it, drifting it.
Nonpiscine nature also figures prominently in my life on the river. The kik-ik-ik of the eagle is a regular and reassuring sound, as is the cheep, cheep of the osprey. Watching these acrobatic fish hawks plunge into Snuffys Rapids, sometimes emerging with a tasty sucker, is almost as enjoyable as a big bass on the line. And when you spend your days in a slow and quiet craft, low to the water and near to the banks, even closer animal encounters are bound to occur.
Once a client almost caught a deer—on his fly. He was an older gent who loved placing his popper inches from the shoreline, and one windblown cast went slightly awry. When it landed in waist-high grass a few feet onto shore, Ed gave a mighty pull to dislodge the fly. The grass quivered from the tug, then exploded, as a bedded whitetail burst forth. Eds fly flew free and the deer bounded into the woods. It was difficult to say which of us was more startled. Doubtless that deer had a good story for his friends, but so did my client. For several more years, he excitedly recounted the "near deer" tale every time we fished together.
An otter encounter was even odder. That summer an adult otter with three exuberant pups was a regular sight along a secluded stretch. A good mother, she gave a warning chitter when the boat drifted too close and always managed to get the pups to hide in the grass until we passed. Then for a week, no otter show. Until one day just a single otter, about the size of one of the pups, bounded along the rocky bank. Instead of running or swimming away, this fellow matched our speed as we floated down the river.
Amazingly, after scampering along the shore for 50 yards, he dove into the river and started swimming right for us! We were a short cast from the bank, with Johns floating fly and floating line directly in the otters path. He tried to get it out of the way, but too late. Swimming into the line, the pup was temporarily tangled, then continued toward the boat. As he neared, I gave him a little splash with the oar. But even this didnt immediately deter him. He swam around the boat for several more seconds then turned and headed back to the bank, where he perched on a boulder. Was he looking for mama and his siblings? Did our moving boat seem like an island to explore? Did he just want to visit? I dunno.
Fish, of course, are the river wildlife I remember most vividly. Floating along, I see a familiar boulder and remember the 18-incher with only one eye that we caught four times one summer from exactly the same spot. Or the small eddy below the NSP rapids, where a humongous smallie once struck at a floating lure with such enthusiasm it leaped completely out of the water and over the lure. And a "secret" little island channel, where my Kansas clients once hooked and landed two 4-pounders simultaneously. Fond memories are around every bend.
Fortunately, some folks have given thought not just to memories of the past, but also to conservation for the future. A few years ago the Department of Natural Resources, at the urging of The Smallmouth Alliance conservation group, placed catch-and-release smallmouth regulations on 47 miles of the Mississippi. This wise move has made the upper Miss a world-class fishing destination. And it should serve as a positive example for many other Minnesota waters.
But danger also lurks around the bend. Developers and homebuyers have discovered the waterway in recent years. More sprawling houses now overlook the river. Clearing the wooded shorelines for their picture windows, folks are actually degrading the river theyve come to view. The clearing increases bank erosion and reduces water quality.
Instead of sterile, chemical-laden lawns creeping to the waters edge, the Miss and its splendid smallies would do much better with at least a 20-foot buffer of natural vegetation. Protecting such a strip of riverbank wouldnt encroach on anyones livelihood or domicile; it would simply be a sensible way to protect a priceless public resource.
Limiting development depends on understanding that the real beauty of the river is its wooded wildness and unpredictability. That fishing and floating the river in the company of eagles and otters is far better than simply being able to see it from the living room.
If this viewpoint competes with those who would manage and manicure nature for their private purposes, naturally, Im rooting for an untamed future for this river and her fish. And Im hoping everyone else who loves the Mississippi will stand up for her too. I intend to keep following that winding water all my life, but what lies around the next bend is up to all of us.
Tim Holschlag is the owner of Moving Waters Guiding and author of Stream Smallmouth Fishing. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.