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Photos: Hansi Johnson

Mississippi Learnin'. Smallies and pike on the mighty Mississippi.

By Tom Hazelton

Photos by Hansi Johnson

Remember,” Art said. “You move for the barges. They don’t move for you.” He was talking to Hansi, our designated captain, who was at the helm. Art, the instructor from Fun ‘n The Sun Houseboat Vacations, mostly spoke in memorized soundbites, seasoned with friendly snark. But on this point, we could tell, he was serious.

SOUTHEASTERN MINNESOTA’S BEAUTIFUL BLUFF COUNTRY IS PART OF THE EXPANSIVE DRIFTLESS REGION, WHICH INCLUDES NORTHEASTERN IOWA AND SOUTHWESTERN WISCONSIN. SOME OF THE BLUFFS TOWER MORE THAN 500 FEET ABOVE THE RIVER. THIS PART OF MINNESOTA HOLDS SOME OF THE STATE’S HIGHEST CONCENTRATIONS OF PIKE, TROUT, SMALLMOUTH, LARGEMOUTH, AND AMISH PEOPLE. Photo: Hansi Johnson

It is rule number one of the Mississippi River: Industry First. No matter what we were hoping to do here with fly rods, binoculars, cameras, and coolers full of food and beer, the Mississippi is a working river. Stay out of the way of the barges, and mind the red and green buoys that mark the main channel.

The morning was dark with a low overcast, amplifying the drama of training. But it was almost over: The marina’s pontoon boat popped out of a side channel, matching our speed and slipping alongside, ready to take Art back to the dock and leave us alone on the houseboat.

“Keep it between the buoys,” Hansi recited.
“Yep,” Art said. “Wisconsin red, Minnesota green.”

We all nodded seriously. We’d spent the night on the docked houseboat, and had watched the training DVD—but right after an absurdly large meal of grilled burgers, corn on the cob, and assorted pasta and potato salads, washed down with a variety of ales. This protocol refresher was a good idea.

“And don’t hit one,” he added, tired-sounding. “They’ll open this boat up like a sardine can.” Then he stepped out of the cabin and onto the pontoon boat.

“I didn’t tell him I’m colorblind,” whispered Hansi.

The pontoon pulled away, and we were on our own in the channel. Hansi gripped the helm. A red buoy surged in the current just off the starboard bow.

“What color is that one?”

BRIAN “LUCKY” PORTER, CIG IN HAND, PULLING TRIPLE DUTY AS FLYFISHING GUIDE, NAVIGATER, AND FISHY-PATTERN ADVISER. SORT OF A HERNANDO DE SOTO MEETS DAHLBERG SITUATION. Photo: Hansi Johnson

Shades of grey aside, Hansi was the de facto captain of our cruise. He grew up in this hill country, fishing and hunting the backwaters we were aiming to explore over the next few days, and the trip had been his idea. He’s the Director of Recreational Lands at the Minnesota Land Trust, a nonprofit that works with private landowners to protect, restore, and manage wild places in the state. The Land Trust is always looking for ways to showcase their projects and to attract donors, and Hansi is always looking for ways to do those things with fly rods.

His hypothesis: A Mississippi houseboat mothership, with a couple skiffs in tow, could offer fishing and relaxing on a sliding scale of hardcore-ness. It would also immerse us in the unique river landscape in a way that a lodge, motel, or vacation rental just couldn’t.

So this was a test run. Is it doable? Safe? Good fishing? Fun? We aimed to find out. The crew—our quarantine bubble for the next three days—in addition to Hansi: myself and Lucky, as drivers of the fishing boats; and Willie and Dave, local anglers, supporters of the Land Trust, and enthusiastic houseboat-hypothesis guinea pigs.

Minnesota’s Mississippi shoreline bounds the “Southeast Blufflands” region, or what anglers know as the Minnesota Driftless. All five of us fish it: A magical world of pastoral valleys, each drained by a spring creek, mostly brimming with wild fish. As we sailed the houseboat down the big river, we talked about those trout, perched above us in the bluffs, swimming eternally upstream in cold, clear spring water, against the great pull of continental drainage that is the Mississippi.

This country makes you think about drainage. Anything that contaminates those streams ends up down here in the big river. The Land Trust is heavily invested here, along with other groups like The Nature Conservancy, Trout Unlimited, and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, working with the farmers and landowners to protect and restore streams, and remnant prairie and oak savannah segments—and to secure fishing easements on the troutier waters.

DAVE DAWKIINS (FIGHTING FISH), AND WILLY RAHR ARE BOTH BOARD MEMBERS OF THE MINNESOTA LAND TRUST. CONVENIENTLY, BOTH MEN ALSO ENJOY A GOOD DAY OF BASSIN’ IN THE RAIN. Photo: Hansi Johnson

But this trip was not about trout. As we motored downriver we looked with anglers’ eyes at the water we’d be exploring for the next few days. Despite the gloomy weather, it all looked good. The problem with big rivers is that every bank looks fishy, and this part of the Miss was the biggest river I’d ever been on. Along the outside bends, manmade riprap roiled the water, and on the insides, leaning and fallen tree tangles begged to be cast at. Each side channel looked juicier than the last, and the slack water behind sand spits was choked with Jurassic-looking lilypad patches that quivered with bassy appeal.

Which explained the dozens of power-poled glitter boats we were seeing. They were creeping in and out of backwaters, jumping into hyperspace, and roostertailing from spot to spot. Reportedly there was some sort of bass tournament just getting underway on this stretch—a good reason for us to head farther downriver.

But that meant we would have to negotiate one more man-made impediment: a U. S. Army Corps of Engineers Lock and Dam. The Upper Miss is sectioned by a series of such dams, and one lock-through would put us outside the tournament boundary, hopefully away from the bass boats, and thick in fish.

Starting with the earliest European explorers, boat captains often complained about the poor navigability of the Mississippi. It was an ever-changing maze of braided channels and islands, interrupted by rapids, and bristling with woody snags of every size and attitude, for which they invented descriptive nicknames: sawyers, preachers, planters, and sweepers.

In the early 1800s, shipping increased, hauling lumber, settlers, grain, and everything else up toward St. Paul. Rock wing-dams were built along the channel edges to divert the current away from the banks. This helped, and commerce and settlement expanded along the river corridor. In the 1930s the locks and dams were constructed, creating a series of pools with a constant navigation depth of at least nine feet—shipping became safe and industry boomed. Today these structures, along with perpetual dredging of sand and sediment, keep millions of tons of cargo chugging up and down the river, primarily via the boss barges that Art had warned us about.

IF YOU STRUGGLE TO TELL THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN PIKE AND MUSKY, HERE’S A FUN WAY TO TELL THEM APART: A MUSKY IS THE ONE YOU DIDN’T CATCH. Photo: Hansi Johnson

The dam structure itself extended out of sight river left, and to the right, the tiny-looking lock gate waited for us, nestled against the wooded bluff. It should be no big deal, we reasoned. We’re all boat people. We’d seen some of the other houseboat crews that morning. Landlubbers. If they can do it, we can do it. But then again, we also understand how sideways such things can go. And sixty feet of rental boat is a lot to manage.

But we were reassured by the bored-looking lock attendants, who tossed us the lines as our fenders gently bumped the concrete wall. We were careful to not wrap them around our hands, and we held fast as the water surged and drained and the boat dropped, almost imperceptibly, a dozen feet closer to sea level. The downstream gate opened, we pushed off the wall, and the tension burst in a round of laughter and excitement. Now all we had to do was find our beach.

Southeast Minnesota has very little public land, compared to the rest of the state. But most of the river corridor is within the Upper Mississippi National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, which extends all the way down into Iowa and Illinois, and is open for public use. We had a beach in mind, picked out for its proximity to the fishiest-looking backwaters we could find from the sky. In an hour we were there.

Wing dams, visible only by surface disturbance, extended a hundred yards perpendicularly into the channel. Hansi turned the bow of the houseboat between the wing dams, compensated for current, and slid the hull up onto the sand. He held it there with forward power while we deckhands set the anchors. We were home.

NATIVE SMALLMOUTH BASS ARE MORE COMMONLY TARGETED ON THE UPPER MISSISSIPPI THAN THE NON-NATIVE LARGEMOUTH. BUT NO RIGHT-MINDED FLYFISHER IS GOING TO PASS UP SHOTS AT A MINNESOTA BUCKETMOUTH. SMALLIES TYPICALLY PREFER MOVING WATER, BUT IF IT’S LARGEMOUTH YOU’RE AFTER, THEN LOCATE SOME LILYPADS AND COMMENCE CASTING. Photo: Hansi Johnson

The poling platform on Lucky’s Towee skiff meant he could get into super-skinny stuff. Willie and Dave climbed in with him, and they buzzed upstream out of sight, headed for a braided backwater we’d seen on the map. Hansi and I took my boat, a slightly larger flat-bottom with a bow-mount, across the river toward a fishy-looking island.

Indeed it was fishy. I killed the outboard and we drifted down along the bank as the island tapered to a long sandbar. Hansi landed a Murdich minnow right on top of it, and before he could strip, a bass shot out of the dark water, charged, and missed the fly. When my fly landed, three bass came out to chase. I also missed, but now we knew what to look for.

I trolling-motored up behind the island, and we moved fish on every sandbar we found. A few smallies managed to get a mouthful. We also landed a couple hammerhandle northern pike. Rain squalls were blowing over with more regularity, but the fish, as they say, were already wet, and didn’t seem to mind.

We explored each side channel until we were ducking tree limbs or the trolling motor was frothing muddy water. There were plenty of fish: smallmouth if current, largemouth if weeds, and pike if deep slack water. The best spots were the scour holes, 15 or more feet deep, sometimes way back into a creek, sometimes just as we were about to run out of water. You’d never know they were there without sonar.

One such hole was hidden just off the channel in a small finger of dead water that disappeared into the trees. I held the trolling motor up out of the water and we coasted over the sandbar. When I put the motor down the graph read 21 feet.

“Oh man,” I said. “Gotta be a pike in here.”

Suitably jinxed, we fished the hole, its edges, and upstream a hundred yards until blocked by a jam of deadfalls. And then back down. Nothing. Hansi sat down to eat his sandwich as I spun the boat toward the main river, and flipped a last cast at the bank. Three strips in, a shower of baitfish bailed from the water into the relative safety of the air—six feet to the left my fly. I said as much and Hansi looked up and we both saw the fish coming.

“Musky!” I cried, knowing it wasn’t possible in this section of river. The not-a-musky flared its gills and inhaled my Murdich. Fly line flew off the deck. My 8-weight was too light—Esox fight like they want to keep the fly, not like they’re trying to escape—but the fish was corralled by the scour hole. We managed to slide it into the net, where it overlapped nose-to-tail. It would have been a respectable musky, but for a river pike, it was a dandy.

Despite the dark water, the fish was clean, with bright cream spots, chainmail dorsal stripes, and rose-colored fins. The fly in the corner of its mouth was shredded and my six inches of wire bite-guard was kinked and slinkied up. It had been a close one.

We met up with the other boat in a wide-open marsh under a dark and spitting sky. But the mood was high: They’d caught fish, too. Lucky, from atop his platform, had plucked fish out of distant lies with a spin-cast Super Fluke, while Dave and Willie surgically covered the nearer water with streamers and poppers. We floated there a while, glad for a break from navigating and casting. It was peaceful in the rain. Wood ducks hooted softly as they browsed, and a giant formation of geese passed over, high out of earshot. We traded beers from boat to boat and told fishing stories until the light began to fade.

Photo: Hansi Johnson

It had been a long day. The good kind of long day, with just enough adventure and exertion to make nightfall—and dinner—extra welcome. Dave opened the fridge and produced a giant pile of taco components from El Burrito Mercado in St. Paul, and toasted tortillas over the gas range. We dined like river kings. Afterwards, aged beers and whiskeys were uncorked, cigars and other combustibles procured.

Lucky and I stood out on the rear deck. We’re both accustomed to far more spartan lodging on fishing trips. Between the impressive accommodations and the shock of sharing an indoor space with non-family members for the first time since March, it was a lot to take in.

“Not that I’m complaining,” I said, and headed inside for another taco.

The next morning we woke to gunfire. Sporadic volleys echoed up and down the Minnesota side of the river as that state’s youth hunters took advantage of an early crack at the local ducks. And they were flying. A stiff breeze, steady rain, and a low ceiling meant good shooting for waterfowlers. For us, it was an excuse for a big breakfast. Dave whipped up scrambled eggs for the whole crew and we stuffed them into tortillas with the leftover taco fixings.

When we shoved our fishing boats off the beach, the rain was just quitting. The tops of the bluffs remained hidden in clouds, and it was easy to imagine that they might continue straight up for thousands of feet. For picture-taking purposes, Hansi added his boat to our fleet, a retro-looking canoeish craft by Esquif, out of Quebec, that he’d stashed on the upper deck of the houseboat.

We headed down the main river, three boats together. Our first stop was a wing dam and marker light at the foot of a mountain-bluff that turned the river hard right. Dave and I drifted over the flat below the rocks. The speed at which the sand was skimming beneath the boat was a little shocking; it’s otherwise hard to appreciate the current speed in such big water. We cast to holes and cuts in the sand created by the hydraulics of the wing dam. Hansi, in his canoe, was able to float right over the dam and reported flushing a big northern out of a patch of grass—bigger than the one I’d caught.

“Like, way bigger,” he yelled across the water.

We worked all three boats up into a new backwater, feeling extra small as we passed a mammoth Army Corps of Engineers installation of weathered concrete and steel. But once we rounded the first bend, it might as well have been a thousand miles away.

MASSIVE WILDFIRES BURNING ACROSS THE WEST IN EARLY SEPTEMBER, 2020, SENT SMOKE ALL THE WAY TO THE EAST COAST, CREATING MANY A FIRE-RED SUNRISE, EVEN IN SOUTHEASTERN MINNESOTA. Photo: Hansi Johnson

Lucky led the way with Willie, making quick passage with his push-pole. Hansi followed, stand-up paddling with ease. I had to stop and tear balls of weeds off my trolling motor every hundred yards or so. Dave, sitting on the back deck, dug out his binoculars.

The fall Mississippi flyway migration was just starting. Dave, a birder, quizzed me, a beginner birder, on songs and sightings. Flycatchers, kingfishers, woodpeckers, and more; the beach-running shorebirds had us both stumped. The heavy green canopy, the thick duckweed, and the dark skies made the place feel exotic. I half expected a gator to slide off the bank, or a snake to drop into the boat. I shook my head and reminded myself that I was only two hours from home.

That wild feeling is no accident. The backwaters are natural, of course, but they rely on regular water-level fluctuations for vegetation to take root, stabilize banks, and create structure—and for occasional flooding and erosion to rearrange things. But when the lock and dam system was built, it choked off this riparian respiration. Today, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Wildlife Refuge implement regular summertime water-level drawdowns to breathe life back into the backwaters. Likewise, as we explored, Hansi pointed out valleys and drainages that held streams on which the Land Trust had been working, protecting or restoring water quality far upstream of where it joined the river itself. Having seen and fished both places, it was now easy to make the connection: it all flows downstream, whether clear spring water or water contaminated with agricultural pollution. These fish and birds—and everything else that lives here—need it clean.

We eventually popped out into a weedless channel with heavy current and a severe meander. And there were fish. Glittery-black balls of shad were staged up on the sandbars, and smallies slashed about their margins, sending them skittering. Sometimes a fly got eaten. Just before the confluence with the main river, we found another deep scour hole, and in the eddy Lucky and Willie spent ten minutes missing, hooking, losing, and landing a dozen decent largemouth.

That evening we buzzed upriver under a finally-clearing sky to revisit a bank that had held a few bigger smallies the day before. It was a traditional Mississippi riverbank, like the ones I often fish hundreds of miles upstream: mud and boulders, moderate current, and tons of woody structure. Sawyers, preachers, planters, and sweepers. The fish, however, had disappeared with the cloud cover, and soon we were drifting, talking, making a cast here or there. Just being on a fishing trip.

Lucky manned the grill and Dave made gin and tonics. On the menu for our final night aboard: a shocking array of cheeses and charcuterie that Willie dug out from somewhere. Plus abundant grillables, including burgers, venison chops, veggie burgers, and assorted sausages. We’d have to eat it all—tomorrow afternoon the houseboat was due back at Fun ’n The Sun’s marina.

After dinner we felt a deep rumble through the deck of the boat. We clambered up the spiral stairs to the top deck in time to see the searchlight of a downbound barge pointed at the bank across from us. It was still far upstream, around the bend, but it lit up the trees and buoys daylight-bright. Eventually it came into sight, illuminated like a small airport, just as loud, and not much smaller.

But it passed, and within 20 minutes the river was wild again. We could hear the water under the boat, a soft rushing sound, and a barred owl somewhere in the forest behind us. For the first time all weekend, we could see the stars.

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