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The Mighty Upper Mississippi by John Edstrom

The fish took the surface popper with the efficiency of a veteran predator. With just a small dimple. After that move the fish decided that the middle of the river was a safer place to be so off in went. My fly reel grudgingly gave up about 50 feet of fly line. “This must be a carp,” I said to my fishing partner Scott Bestul. “Or maybe a big Northern Pike…Oh man! It’s a smallmouth!” I said as a Smallmouth Bass of massive proportions rose out of the water in a mid river leap and proceeded to move back toward the boat, which was drifting slowly downriver. One more lunge and a headshake and the beast was free. My body slumped as I bent over in shock. This was my first encounter with a 22” or larger smallmouth bass. This happened many years ago, I know the fish was 22.5” because a friend of mine caught it later that summer (and measured it) and another friend of mine caught a huge fish in the same area the summer previous. In 18 years of guiding I have landed myself or netted for my clients many 21.5” smallies. A few years ago I netted for a gentleman by the name of Gary Grabko another 22.5” fish. These giant smallies make a 20” fish look almost ordinary. The Upper Mississippi River has the productivity and the regulations to make this possible.

“The Upper Mississippi is a world class smalllmouth bass fishery and I would put it up against anywhere in the world” says Dave Kollman of St.Cloud Minnesota. Dave prefers to fish subsurface with Clouser minnow patterns and leech patterns that he has developed himself. He will switch over to a surface presentation during his so-called “Cocktail Hour” from 5 to 6 pm. Dave enjoys fishing along with the Ospreys and Bald Eagles that live along the river. “The Mississippi has much larger than average smallmouth and the top water fishing is excellent” adds Kollman.

The Mississippi River is one of the worlds major river systems in size, habitat diversity and biological productivity, It is the largest river in North America, it flows 3,705 kilometers from Lake Itasca to the sub tropical Louisiana Delta. The name Mississippi is an Ojibwa (Chippewa) word meaning “Great River” or “Gathering of waters”, an appropriate name because the entire river basin or watershed extends from the Allegheny Mountains in the eastern US to the Rocky Mountains. This watershed includes all or parts of 31 states and 2 Canadian provinces. Of the Worlds Rivers the Mississippi ranks third in length, and second in watershed area. The Mississippi river and its adjacent forests and wetlands provide important habitat for fish and wildlife and the watershed includes the largest continuous system of wetlands in North America.

The Headwaters segment of the Mississippi (upstream of St.Anthony Falls in Minneapolis to the source) must have had different moods before the European explorers arrived. Logging took many of the virgin stands of timber and settlers plowed under some of the vast native tall grass prairie that filtered water into this mighty river. Clear flows, long riffles with vast weed beds shaded by huge pine, oak, maple and basswood trees hid many different species of fish long ago.

Ancestors of today’s American Indians began populating the Upper Mississippi about
12,000 ears ago after the last of the continental glaciers receded. These indigenous people established seasonal villages on the high banks along the river and they canoed the river to hunt, gather plants and trade goods.

Spanish and French expeditions explored portions of the river in the 1600’s and 1700’s. Various explorers approaching from the north were looking for the rivers mouth. Other explorers approaching from the south were looking for its origin with the hope that they would discover a shortcut across the continent to the Far East. Some of the more well known explorers including Father Louis Hennepin, Jonathon Carver, Zebulon Pike, J.C. Beltrami and Henry Schoolcraft have names that are known to many that live in cities along the river. The French and English established trading posts along the Upper Mississippi from the late 1600’s to the early 1800’s. Great numbers of beaver pelts and other furs were traded at the posts for cloth, metal, tools and other products.

In the Mid 1800’s early immigrants sent home reports of the bountiful wilderness and of an opportunity to start new lives for them and their families. Immigrants from Germany, Sweden, Norway and other European countries began to settle in the area and establish farms in the surrounding hills and prairie.

Steam Boats regularly traveled between St.Cloud and St.Anthony Falls carrying passengers and freight upstream and Wheat downstream. More settlers arrived and development continued which has validated Schoolcraft observation from long ago: “It is difficult in passing it (the rivers landscape) to resist the idea that it will, some future day sustain a dense population”

The city of Minneapolis traces its roots to early European settlements at St.Anthony Falls. The falls powered the gristmills and sawmills that provided flour and lumber for the settlers. Historically St. Anthony Falls blocked fish migration upstream. There are many species of fish in the lower river that were never found above the falls. At the turn of the century the locks and dams at St. Anthony falls allowed passage of several fish species upstream but only to the Coon Rapids Dam. For example there are no white bass, sturgeon, paddlefish, gizzard shad, sauger and other lower river species of fish in the Headwaters stretch. Since 1906 the Coon Rapids dam has been the barrier for all fish migration and serves as the barrier that the Falls no longer provides. This barrier has stopped the various new exotic carp that are now migrating up the Mississippi. Many different species of fish can be found below this dam. The most exotic that I have seen is the American Eel. These interesting fish spawn in the Sargasso Sea (an area north of the Bahamas) and return to freshwater to live their lives.

Today the river flows free for 60 miles in a stretch between St.Cloud and Coon Rapids Minnesota. The most undeveloped stretch of this piece of water is from St. Cloud to Monticello. This stretch is wide and shallow and flows swiftly past high sand hills covered with hardwoods and occasional pine stands. From Monticello to Elk River the river flows over several broad riffles and through many deep runs and holes. More development is seen downstream of Dayton as the river flows to Anoka. The Headwaters stretch has the highest gradient, dropping 204 meters between Lake Itasca and St. Anthony Falls.

John Weitz of St.Cloud fishes the Beaver Islands stretch, his favorite. According to John “The islands were named in 1805 by explorer Zebulon Pike. The islands and the channels were choked by beaver dams back then” Weitz echoes Kollman and says” The size of smallmouth has to be considered world class and the average size is improving due to the no kill slot limit regulation. The mid September no kill regulation has really helped the larger fish survive as well.”

The Mississippi here is much smaller than the channelized lower river. No barge traffic up here, the river still flows in the same undisturbed channel that Father Hennenpin traveled in the1600’s. Within this stretch of river there is a piece of water that gives the modern day fly fisher a chance to experience fishing that rivals the “good old days”. Superb smallmouth bass habitat is found here on the Upper Mississippi. Rocky banks, mid river rock piles deposited by glaciers long ago and long deep runs studded with rock and boulders are the norm here. This perfect habitat generates good year classes of smallmouth in years where there is low, stable flow in the critical months of spawning. Typically the Upper Mississippi produces excellent year classes of smallies in 3 or 4 years out of 10 years. This may seem like a modest amount but in the years between good year classes the river will produce some large fish for the fly fisher. The Mississippi is a large river compared to most Midwest fly fishing destinations. Abundant forage fish as well as excellent numbers of crayfish produce great growth rates on smallmouth in the Mississippi.

The smallmouth bass found in the Mississippi are tough just like their home. They have evolved in a moving water environment. There are some thick “pork chop” smallies in this river, but many are streamlined and athletic, a product of living on a constant treadmill. They are strong from head to tail with big shoulders, a thick wrist and a huge tail. They will out pull any trout, any day of the year, guaranteed. You will see some true pot bellied smallmouth in lakes. They are strong fish as well but not as vigorous as a river fish. Compare them to a largemouth bass? Well, please lets not even go there. No comparison. A Smallmouth would win the contest every time.

Large river smallmouth need to be pursued with a #7, 8 or 9 fly rod. A fly fisher will deal with strong current, strong wind and strong fish. These wonderful fish deserve to be fought hard, landed fast and released green. The chances of survival are much better if they are released with plenty of energy left and not completely played out.

Well known smallmouth expert Tim Holschlag gathered a small group of concerned smallmouth anglers in the mid 1980’s. This was the start of the Smallmouth Alliance. “Nobody wanted to talk about it back then and we wondered if people would accept the proposal.” said Holschlag. The group was alarmed by a the decline in size of smallmouth in the Mississippi and they proposed to the Minnesota DNR a slot limit regulation for the Clearwater to Elk River stretch of the river. Over harvest of smallmouth bass in the 1980’s had created a fishery with many bass 15” and smaller. The group received some opposition to the proposed regulation as well. But the discussion came at a fortuitous time. There was a growing interest in smallmouth bass and this group wanted to make this regulation an example for other smallmouth fisheries around the country.

Because of the history of over harvest of large smallmouth and the potential for even better smallie fishing this stretch of river was protected by the State of Minnesota as a Special Regulations fishery with a slot limit on smallmouth bass. Initially an experimental smallmouth bass regulation was implemented on the Mississippi River from Clearwater to Elk River in 1990, after the Smallmouth Alliance and the public raised concerns over perceived over harvest of large smallmouth bass in this portion of the river. The regulation included a three fish daily bag limit and a protective slot limit of 12 to 20 inches with only one fish allowed over 20 inches. The goals of this regulation were to improve the size of smallmouth bass and protect them from over harvest. An extension of the regulation area from the St. Cloud dam to the Coon Rapids dam was initially pursued by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in 1999 in an effort to provide an area for the regulation to be properly evaluated within the confines of two barriers. Due to concerns from locals in the Anoka area the regulation was extended to only include the 47-mile stretch from St.Cloud to Dayton in the year 2000. Presently these same regulations are maintaining a great fishery for large river smallmouth bass.

In this special regulations piece there are also opportunities to catch Muskies (upstream of Clearwater), Northern Pike, walleye, carp and even channel catfish on a fly. This may seem a little out of the box to many fly fishers but we need to take a look at the resource that we have in the upper Midwest. The Mississippi is just one of many excellent fisheries available to us.

The Upper Mississippi is a complex waterway due to the incredible fertility, insect life and number of fish. There are numerous islands, backwaters, and riffles that rarely see a fly. Float trip style fishing is the best way to access the untouched stretches. The best plan is to float a section of no more than 8-10 miles. Wade fishing is an option in low water years. Good areas for wade fishing are found all along the river from St.Cloud to Anoka where the river slows to form the impoundment upstream of the Coon Rapids dam. All of these factors combine to create a challenging fly fishing experience.

The Mississippi fishes well at the start of mid summer. Most years the fly fishing for smallmouth does not get serious until the last week of June. Consider that this river drains a large part of the entire state of Minnesota. This is a huge watershed and the rivers and lakes of Northern Minnesota hold plenty of water well into early summer. The Mississippi fishes best as the water levels come down and the flow stabilizes.

Smallmouth are spawning in May and the beginning of June. The smaller males guarding the nests can be caught this time of year but the big females go through a time of recuperation and not much feeding. This period usually lasts for a week or ten days. This time of rest is obvious to anyone who spends a lot of time pursuing these fish. When they do decide it is time to put some weight back on, they feed often and with little selectivity. My guests and myself catch some of the largest fish at this time of year. They might not be as filled out as they are later in the summer but they are hungry. The water levels moderate by July and some great fishing begins.

In early July there is an impressive hatch of Ephron Luekon, aka White Miller. This is a fairly predictable late evening spinner fall. Many great smallmouth have been fooled during this hatch. Throughout the summer there are many species of mayflies as well as caddis available to the smallmouth and some days the fish feed on the occasional bug. Massive Midge hatches are found on the Mississippi all summer as well. They contribute to the productivity of the smallmouth fishery; young of the year smallmouth feed on them heavily as well as the many forage fish that smallmouth bass feed on. Hellgrammites are present but they are unavailable to smallmouth most of the year. Just like a worm in trout stream (How many worms does a stream trout really see?) smallmouth really go for a hellgrammite imitation. The next big hatch that gets the attention of the smallmouth is the baetis hatch in October. This is a midday hatch and like other baetis hatches there are more insects emerging on cloudy days. At this time of year the smallmouth are grouped up close to wintering areas, this can be fun fly fishing and some of the best numbers of smallmouth taken for the entire season come from this hatch. Matching the hatch is not critical so much of the time any surface fly presented properly will do just fine. Part of the appeal of smallmouth is that they are not as selective as trout.

One of the most pleasant experiences available to a Mississippi fly fisher is fishing a popper, deer hair bug or deer hair diver to bankside lies or mid river structure on a summer day or evening. Taking a nice smallmouth on the surface is a treat. If you encounter a day when the fish are feeding well then you will end the day with a sore wrist thanks to several burly smallmouth. Hard foam poppers are very consistent fish catchers due to the fertile color of the water. These flies make plenty of noise in the stained water of early summer and agitate large smallmouth to come up and dispose of the source of the racket. Heavy tippet (OX-1X)) is required to fish these flies properly. This heavy tippet provides a good system for pulling flies out of overhanging trees as well. Deer hair divers are another great pattern on the Mississippi. Long, rabbit strip divers are my favorite. This type of fly mimics the size of forage fish that truly big smallmouth are looking for.

Sculpins are also a preferred food for Mississippi smallmouth. Fishing a sculpin pattern on a long leader, indicator and floating line is a good technique for sunny days when the fish are reluctant to come up and take a popper or a diver. The forage that Mississippi smallies rely on most in the mid summer season are crayfish. Therefore the best subsurface fly for consistent summer fishing would be some type of weighted crayfish pattern. Use crayfish imitations that are 1.5 to 2 inches long or close to this size. This is the size of a freshly molted crayfish, which is the perfect size for a smallie to inhale. They seem to know that the big daddy crayfish are just too much to handle, claws and all. The smaller crayfish with the smaller claws are preferred every time. Studies have found that smallies prefer this size crayfish and also prefer them with the smaller more slender claws. When smallmouth confronted a crayfish with large claws in the study they would often give up and look for easier prey.

In fall, as the water temperature drops, crayfish move to their winter hideouts and the smallmouth switch to bait fish as their main food source. Shiners, chubs, suckers, etc are the main target for this time of year. Many young of the year baitfish are confused as the water temp drops. They move around in vulnerable areas as they look for a wintering area. The smallmouth key in on this. I have witnessed many days where a white or light gray baitfish imitation will out fish the same crayfish pattern that was a consistent fish producer earlier in the year. Keep your patterns fairly sparse. They will fish deeper in the water column and look more like the slender young of the year baitfish.

Fall usually is the most productive time to fish the Mississippi. Low water levels concentrate the fish, many anglers have given up on fishing in favor of hunting seasons, and the fish are feeling the need to put on as much weight as possible before winter sets in. The crayfish know that it is time to find a place to hibernate for the winter so they are unavailable for smallmouth. This leaves much less competition for your fly. The fish this time of year are in fantastic shape. In fact they are in the best condition of the year from a long summer of feeding. The water stays warm until the end of September so their metabolism remains cranked up. The smallmouth will feed in shallow water for longer periods of time due to the low angle of the sun. Many times the best fishing will be at the warmest part of the day. Water temps are conducive to fly fishing many years in to November and some years fly fishing is a viable option in December.

There are many old time river rats still patrolling the Mississippi. They are a collection of various types of fishers. Dan Gapen is a well-known river rat that has been fishing the Mississippi for many, many years. He has a lot to offer any one willing to listen about this river. Several fly fishing guides are working the river these days. All of us are lucky to be able to work such a unique fishery. There are many regular fly fishers as well. Every one of them has a special reverence to the river.

The Special regulations piece of the Mississippi is a wonderful fishery. This part of the river is within 45 minutes of any part of the Twin Cities. John Weitz of St. Cloud adds, “The Mississippi is a mini wilderness in the midst of a growing metro area.”

“The Upper Mississippi River has to be considered a National Treasure” says Tim Holschlag. A warm summer evening in July with a slight breeze coming out of the south and the smell of basswood trees adding to the ambiance is time well spent. The take of a several smallmouth on a fly in the beauty light of evening will add bonus to the moment and validate the fact that special regulations do work.