Mar 10, 2014

 ODE TO THE WOLF RIVER RIG

Its effectiveness is in its simplicity. It is called the Wolf River Rig and presumably was first used on the Wolf River where it took its name. Certainly millions of these rigs were used over the years to catch walleyes, saugers and white bass on the Wolf River.

I have no idea when the first Wolf River Rig was used but it has been fished for probably a century if not longer. When I was growing up in the 1950s and 60s, everyone who fished the Wolf and Fox Rivers in east central Wisconsin used the Wolf River Rig. There seemed to be no other way to fish the rivers without one.

It seemed every bar, gas station and, of course, all of the bait shops along the Fox and Wolf Rivers had cards of them hanging on the wall. I remember going into a bar or two with my grandfather and on the back wall next to the boxes of cigars and pints of liquor was a card or two of Wolf River Rigs tacked on the wall. They were coiled in small plastic bags and stapled to the card. I could hear guys getting a couple of cigars or a pint to go and saying, “Might as well get a couple of those Wolf River Rigs,” and the bartender reached over to pull them off the card.

At bait shops there would be a box, usually on the counter sitting right next to the cash register with a pile of the rigs, again coiled in small plastic bags. As you pay for your minnows, they were right there, and more often than not, someone in the group would get a couple Wolf River jigs just in case you lost one. Even if you had several already floating around your tackle box, it certainly didn’t hurt anything to get a couple more. They were relatively inexpensive; probably no more than 35 or 50 cents, in those days, and everyone knew they worked.

The ones you bought then were ingeniously simple, and they are today. It began with a three way swivel. On one of the swivels was attached a foot and half long leader with a bell shaped sinker. As I remember, they usually used a 3/4 or 1 ounce sinker. On the other swivel was a three foot long leader with a hook. Attach the third swivel to your fishing line, put a minnow on the hook and drop it in the river. It was that easy and you were ready to start catching fish. They were particularly ideal for fishing the rivers. Especially in the spring, the current would be strong so the weight got the bait to the bottom and the current swept the bait behind it. To fish it properly, you dropped it down so the sinker was just a couple of inches off the bottom. You would watch your rod tip and when a fish hit the tip would bounce.

I have seen them mentioned in fishing magazines and I still see them for sale in sport or bait shops. I do not see them in gas stations and bars like they used to be. Some companies making these rigs and some writers refer to them as three way rigs. In Wisconsin, as well as much of the Midwest, they are still known by the “correct” name as the Wolf River Rig. Certainly any sport or bait shop in the Fox River Valley or anywhere along the Wolf and Fox River would be sacrilegious to refer to them as anything but the Wolf River Rig.

Fishing with Grandpa

My grandfather, who taught me how to fish, used nothing but the Wolf River Rig. He was primarily a bait fisherman. Only once, when were fishing for northern pike on Lake Poygan, did I ever see him use an artificial bait. His bait of choice was shiner minnows. However, once we were using nightcrawlers in addition to minnows, and he baited one of his Wolf River Rigs with a nightcrawler. As I remember, he did catch fish with it. Although the Wolf River Rig was designed for river fishing in the spring, my grandfather used it in all waters throughout the year. We spent a lot of days fishing Lake Winnebago where we used minnows on Wolf River Rigs and we caught walleyes, saugers, which he called sand pike in those days, yellow perch and the occasional crappie or bluegill.

The original, commercial version of the Wolf River Rig was modified by my grandfather. In the spring, he normally fished all night on the Fox River just west of Oshkosh. It was my first major fishing adventure and for a twelve or thirteen year old boy was indeed a grand adventure. I was excited for days when I first was given permission to go with Grandpa for the all night early spring fishing. We were fishing for white bass and would pick up an occasional walleye. That first time I even caught a couple of catfish.

Before my first trip I went to a bait shop and picked up a dollars worth of Wolf River Rigs. I was all set. It was just before sunset when we dropped anchor just west of the Highway 41 bridge and after hanging the lanterns off the side of the boat, we baited our rigs and dropped them in the water. Grandpa saw my Wolf River Rig and asked where I got it. I proudly told him a bought it at a bait shop earlier in the week. He looked at it again and mentioned it might work and told me to give it a try. In the next half an hour or so, he caught three or four fish and I hadn’t gotten a strike yet. Finally, he told me to pull my rig in. He pulled out his knife and started to slash away at my rig and told me to try again. Within a few minutes I was getting strikes and started catching fish.

What he had done was trim the line with the sinker to about a foot in length and the leader with the hook to eight inches long. From then on that was the standard. When I got back home I took the other rigs I purchased and trimmed them how Grandpa did. Every now and then I still buy Wolf River Rigs. I still have some of them in one of my tackle boxes. Before I use them I would cut them back like Grandpa had showed me. Most of the rigs I made for myself as well as Grandpa, I used a ruler to make sure the line with the sinker was a foot in length and then used a snelled hook on the other swivel. They were made by Eagle Claw with a hook already tied to a six or eight inch piece of heavy monofilament. They seemed ideal for tying Wolf River Rigs.

A couple of years ago, in the fall, I took one of Grandpa’s old fiberglass rods with the old metal casting reel, put new line on it, and took it fishing on the Mississippi River. Of course, the only bait to use with it was a Wolf River Rig. I tied up another rig with the same specifications I used when I was a kid caught fish with it again. It was fun to catch fish with Grandpa’s old rod that hadn’t been used since he passed away in 1971. Once again it showed how universally effective the Wolf River Rig still is. I think Grandpa would have liked that.

More Modifications to the Wolf River Rig

As time has gone on, I have once again taken the basic idea of the Wolf River Rig and modified it. A couple of years ago, I was using two rods when I fished the Mississippi in the spring and fall. One rod had a jig and the other rod I had a bait rig on it. I got to thinking…why couldn’t I put them together? I started with a three way swivel. On one swivel I tied a 12 to 14 inch leader and attached a 1/2 or 3/4 ounce chartreuse jig. On the other swivel I tied an 18 inch leader with three chartreuse beads and a chartreuse number six circle hook.

A couple of days later I went out and used it. I caught fish with it and found using both a jig and bait rig was doubling my opportunity with one rod. When using the one rod with the double rig rather than the two rods I was missing fewer fish and catching more. It was one of those win-win situations. There were times I caught a fish on each hook at the same time; that was exciting!

This past fall my twelve year old grandson, Max Hein, who lives in La Crosse, gave me another idea for modifying the basic Wolf River Rig. We were fishing the Mississippi River, south of La Crosse, and he was going through his tackle box when he asked if it would be possible to replace the single hook on my double rig with a small floating Rapala. I said why not and cut the hook off much like my grandfather had modified my first Wolf River Rig, attached the Rapala, making sure he had a minnow on the jig before he dropped it back in the water. I would like to report he caught fish with it but after about 20 minutes he decided to try just a plain jig on his line.

However, I will say in that same 20 minutes or so I hadn’t caught a fish either so it wasn’t a truly conclusive test. It sounds like a great idea and I will try Max’s version a few more times. I have a feeling it will work.

     My grandfather would be amazed at what we now do with the Wolf River Rig. It has always been a basic, simple but effective bait presentation. But like anything else, with a bit of imagination, the old Wolf River Rig can be used in other ways. I think he would have approved that 50 years later I, his grandson, and my grandson are still experimenting with it.