Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Old Man River

The Mississippi River, Ojibwe, Great River, Big River, The Mighty Mississip', Old Man River, whatever you call it, the Mississippi has provided transportation, power, water, food, industry, and recreation for civilization for hundreds of years.  I'm reminded of the majesty and history of this amazing river every time I drive the beautiful river road with breathtaking outlooks among the Western Wisconsin driftless bluffs and pass the various Laura Ingalls Wilder historic sites in the Pepin, Wisconsin area.  I'm also reminded of the constant evolution of the river and its footprint when I pass Lake Pepin, a pool in the river formed by sediment from the Chippewa River where it merges with the Mississippi.  I'm lucky to have such a beautiful fishery, and scenery, close to home.

I've been fortunate to catch some nice bass and pike (even an owl) there.  Locals speak highly of the fishery.  Bassmaster Magazine recognizes several of its pools along the Wisconsin border in the top bass fisheries.  KVD, Ike, Hackattack, and other fishing greats search for bass on the LaCrosse, Wisconsin area pools for BASS and MLF events.  A must-fish for anyone nearby.

The Mississippi also provides amazing backwaters.  Some accessible only accessible by few powered craft (airboats, duck boats, etc.), are a perfect environment for kayak fishing.  Eager to find some tank bass with some prime froggin', a friend of mine reached out asking if I'd be interested in a day trip to the river.  The plan quickly came together and we invited another new fishing friend, who brought another to join the hunt.

With an injured shoulder and bad back, I'm eager to try my jon boat trailer re-engineered to be a kayak/bike hauler with easy-load PVC.   The night prior I load everything, as per usual, to mitigate forgetting key equipment.  A possible day-ruining mistake on Big River.

Morning-of my alarm bumps me out of bed and out the door.  Running behind, I update my buddies on my whereabouts and ETA.  I race the clock, taking some less traveled back roads.  Smoother and straighter, they take me west faster until I hit the River Road and head due south.

The river road is beautiful no matter the time of day.  The bluffs overlook the river, and glare at Minnesota as if saying "Go Pack, Go!".  The sun is starting to climb over the majestic bluffs, turning the sand colored cliffs a tint of orange, which then radiates across the glimmering river.  This early in the morning, the local small river town businesses are closed except the bait shops.  The road is filled mostly with trucks pulling campers or fishing boats.  Each boat landing I pass on the main channel has a line of boats at least three deep waiting to get their haul of the multitude of species the fishery has to offer.  I smirk as I roll south, knowing there I'm going there will be no lines.

A short drive later, I arrive at one of the backwater launches.  I greet my friends, and introduce myself to the new one.  We all perform our unload and rigging rituals.  This being my first time using my new trailer setup, I felt a bit disjointed, but I was satisfied with the trailer.  In a short amount of time, we were all on the water.

The pressure was on.  I was a bit late, and I was the only one who had fished these waters.  I wanted to show my buddies a good time and get them the great fish known to inhabit these waters.  I start explaining to them some of the features I've found in the water in my time fishing the area and we naturally disperse to locate the patterns and location of the fish today.  The water is cooler and higher than usual due to local rains and flooding.  River fishing is always a challenge with the significantly changing conditions.  But with the challenge comes greater reward.  Perhaps some of those tank bass from the south have made their way up north to take us on a kayak sleigh ride.

Having anticipated the flooding breaking up the weed mats I usually focus on in this area, I had a buzz bait ready to go on my Ardent topwater setup.  A few casts in and I have the first fish of the day, which one of my buddies announces across the water to the others in our fishing party.  It is a small Northern Pike, but a good sign the fish didn't get washed down to Louisiana with the flooding.

I continue working the usual ledge I like to fish.  When I encounter a few lingering weed mats that were able to endure the flooding, I opt to switch to the more weed-resistant frog.  However, my usual "hot spots" aren't producing even a swirl or a bite.  I grow disappointed, not that I'm not catching more fish, but that my buddies may have a hard time catching fish on this water I spoke so highly of.  Allowing the current to take me back to my buddies, I work the opposite bank with a crank, also unsuccessful.

Upon arrival to the first two, I check on a status.  The deep hole I showed them is producing bites but nothing producing at this point.  I paddle deeper in the backwaters where my buddy is working his topwater magic in a large area of lily pads.  He reports a few fish and several bites.  This tells us they aren't deep or sticking to the ledges.  They are shallow in the calmer, warmer, backwaters seeking refuge from the cooler waters and fast currents caused by recent flooding.  I suggest we hit a stretch of backwater with more space and less boat traffic.  Where we are fishing now sees the occasional bass boat since the water is deeper.

We all agree and begin the steam upstream.  One of my buddies, a topwater master, was able to land several smallmouth bass suspended against rocks along the current as we made our way.  No trophy fish, but I was happy to see someone in the group prove fish existed here.  We abandon the as-the-crow-flies route and divert into a section of backwater to try our hand there.  I personally hadn't fished the area, but it looked promising.

This offshoot didn't produce any fish.  However, it was beautiful.  The current came through here, lazily flowing around the down trees and beaver dams.  We came upon a circular opening in the water, where the current swirled.  The varying, lazy, but powerful current of this river never ceases to amaze me.

After emerging from the offshoot, the current switches direction and pushes us towards our destination.  Allowing the current to carry us, we all work the vegetation on either side with various topwater tactics.  I am trying my hand at a Booyah popper frog for the first time.  As expected, as this was along a deep area with long current, there was no sign of life.  What happened next was a low before my high in the day.

While allowing the current to carry me, I snapped my Bending Branches Angler Pro paddle into the holder on my FeelFree Lure kayak.  This allows me to stand and fish in the current without worrying about my paddle, but it is at the ready.  Nearing the bridge where we need to switch directions to enter the new slough, I pull my paddle off its holder.  I've mad this move hundreds of times before.  This one felt different.

My kayak allows for limitless gear and rigging configurations.  Its flush mount holders on either side are usually reserved for my baitcaster and backup baitcaster.  They are equipped with bungee leashes to keep the poles attached to the kayak.  My crate has DIY rod holders made of 2" PVC and hose clamps.  These are usually reserved for my spinning setups, which I rarely use.  They too have bungees available as a leash.  I also have rod floats in my hatch that keep my rods afloat should they go overboard. I only use the leashes and floats in fast rivers, and this current wasn't terribly fast.  I also had my brand new spinning combo in the flush mount holder, rather than in the crate.  However, the spinning reel has a longer handle, and the reel sticks out further than the baitcasters.

The odd feeling I felt before the "sploosh" as my paddle catching the reel and pulling it out of the rod holder, allowing it to slide into the water (this speaks volumes about how light the Bending Branches Angler Pro and Ardent Finesse are since the extra weight of the rod/reel didn't phase me until it was to late).  I look behind me as I see my new James Gang Lure Company lure, and Ardent Finesse combo sink slowly to the depths.  I'm of course frustrated at my own complacency but shake it off, refusing to let it ruin my day.  After a short bout of venting followed by sympathy from my fishing my buddies because of my lost rod/reel, we venture on to the targeted backwaters.

Nearing the same location where I caught a 19.5" largemouth earlier this year, I stealthily approach the narrow channel to the backwaters as to not spook any beasts that linger beneath.  Working my popper frog, I'm surprised as a Northern Pike launches completely out of the water at my frog.  Though he missed it, a fish launched 6" out of the water was a fun sight.

I slowly work into the channel, tossing my frog into the long grass and slowly pulling it into the water.  After two casts, I have a taker.  A respectable bass, very fat.  I let out my usual joyful sounds, like a kid catching his first fish, and pull him into the kayak.  I'm slightly disappointed when I place it on my hawg trough.  The girth of the fish was deceiving as it only measures in at 15.5".  Still happy to have caught a descent bass, I admire the creature and toss it back into the water to get bigger.

Near this spot, I toss my frog under a tree branch hanging in the water.  The frog sails over the top of the last branch.  I take this as an opportunity to lightly jig the frog into the water.  On the second bounce, there is a blowup.  I set the hook which launches the small bass out of the brush and towards my kayak.  I laugh at the size/retrieve and toss it back.

For kicks, I toss my frog in the same spot and repeat the over-the-branch jig technique.  This time, on the first jig, another blowup.  However, it is exponentially larger.  Possibly epic.  I set the hook.  This time, the bass does not launch out of the water and through the tree.  Instead my rod doubles over as my 50lb braid snaps the branch.  This one is a tank!

After a short battle thanks to the torque of my Ardent topwater setup, I land the bass while screaming with excitement.  This bass has amazing girth.  I was so elated it was all a blur.  I may have been drooling, perhaps crying, I'm not sure (you will able to witness it on my YouTube channel soon).  The girth of this fish is again deceiving.  The fish measured in at just under 18".  Whatever this one was eating, it was certainly high in fat.  After some photos and showing it to my buddies, I release him to swim another day.
Photo by: Chang Lor www.cxfishing.com
After the journey towards the main channel, we finally arrived at the target slough.  Our fishing thus far indicated the fish were shallow in the sloughs.  Likely staying away from the cooler, strong currents brought on by recent flooding.  After catching two nice bass, the group is eager to find more tanks.

We arrive at a down tree leading into the main part of the slough.  The tree is floating in our way, the pencil-like bottom indicating a beaver had caused the roadblock.  Using the stability of my FeelFree Lure, I'm able to push it aside so we can pass into the target waters.

Shortly after arriving, the popper frog again produces fish, starting with a couple Northern Pike.  I locate a school of them, one of which is huge, but I'm unable to coax a strong bite.  Our party continues working the sides of the slough.  All but one of us are able to coax several bites, misses, and land a few bass and pike.  After a slow float-and-fish through the slough, we arrive at an offshoot of the main channel.  We collectively decide to paddle towards the main channel to scout some rip-rap breaker walls and wood I spotted during previous trips.

Photo by: Chang Lor www.cxfishing.com
After turning the corner out of the sanctuary of the slough, we are immediately met with a strong headwind and current.  I drop the seat on my FeelFree Lure into the low position to make a lower profile and easier paddling.  A short, but tough, paddle to the break wall into the main channel provides quite the sight.  The walls provide shelter against the wind and chop that comes from the wide main channel, like a harbor.  However, with the high waters, it is acting more like a funnel.  The Ovaltine-colored water is rushing between the large rock walls.  It is sloshing and whirling around erratically.  Swallows are flying overhead diving down and grabbing debris, though I'm not sure if it is for consumption or construction.  One of my buddies with the fastest of all the kayaks tries to make it into the main channel to fish the banks there.  

He is paddling feverishly like the Olympic whitewater canoes, but he is not making much progress.  He quickly grows tired and allows the current to wash him back to where the rest of us watch in awe.  He and another buddy opt to stay put and try for smallmouth against the current from the rocky shore while me and another shoot the current across to a large round shoreline where some of the current is washing around in a big circle.

Our sonars show the impact of the current on the bottom.  The 10-15 foot bottom quickly drops to near 50 feet and remains 20-40 feet in the round area.  We try jigging and cranking for the deep fish we are spotting on our sonars.  However, the current is swift and difficult to navigate in these high waters.  We realize these are poor fishing conditions and dangerous, so we allow the current to push us back towards the slough from where we came.

We make our way back through the slough, getting a few bites.  Before exiting the slough, my buddy who had been skunked thus far landed two nice largemouth within a few minutes of each other.  At this point, I'm exhausted.  However, I'm satisfied with the trip.  Everyone in the group caught respectable fish and had a great time.

As we make our way back downstream, I toss my frog back under the same tree I pulled the toad from on our way through.  I didn't expect a bite, so I was surprised by another huge blowup.  Except this time, the branch I was hung over was much larger.  The bass dove and my braid pulled tight around the limb, eventually allowing the lure end to go slack.  The fish escaped, I was frustrated.  My buddy tried tossing into the same spot before I went in to rescue my frog.  He wasn't able to coax a bite so I moved in and freed my snag.  Refusing to give up on the spot, I try a few more casts without success.  The spot was burned so I moved on, taking a moment as I exit the slough to notice my deck.  Almost pure green, a sign that it was an excellent day of froggin' on the Mississippi.

Before hitting the channel to carry us back to the launch, one of my buddies and I try using crank baits to snag my sunken rod and reel without success while one of our buddies lands another nice largemouth.  It was worth a try...

We let the current to carry us back to the slough where we launched.  Myself and a buddy decided to head in to load up while two stayed behind for another try at the deep hole they got bites on in the morning.  Two of us loaded up and reminisced about the fish and good times of the day.  When we were done, the other two arrived at the launch.  We said our goodbyes, opting to make it happen again, and parted ways.  This was a great day on Old Man River with great friends.  















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