Nov 10, 2017
FALL ON THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER
It happens every fall. Sometime around the middle of October, the bass fishing significantly declines as both the air and water temperatures drop. I feel no sense of despair over this. It just means the year’s last season is beginning for me. The last season is moving from my lakes in northwestern Wisconsin where I spent the late spring, summer and early fall pursuing bass, to fishing the Mississippi River for walleyes and sauger. I actually look forward to fishing the late fall on the Mississippi River. It extends the fishing year I have on open water.
Scott Clark of Hudson, Wisconsin, and I drop anchor in 20 feet of water and are making our first fall trip on the Mississippi River. It is a warm day with blue skies, a few clouds and a light wind. They used to call this kind of day Indian summer. I don’t know if political correctness allows us to use that term anymore, but it is an amazingly mild day this late in the month and it does seem a bit like summer. Except for the fact that the trees are all turning color.
A few boats drift by. Fishermen tell us the fishing has been slow, but everyone agrees it is a great day to be on the water. We start with a three-way rig, which has a jig on one leader and hooks with beads on the other, each baited with minnows. Scott picks up a keeper sauger, which goes into the livewell for a future fish fry.
A bit later, a fish slams my bait. It stays deep and I yell for the net. The fish is taking line off the reel and seems to be swimming in a circle. I get the fish off the bottom, but it still puts up a strong fight and my drag whines as it reluctantly gives out line. Finally, we can see it. It is a 24-inch sturgeon and a couple moments later Scott nets the fish for me. After twisting the hook out, I slip the fish back in the water. Sturgeon are always a nice bonus to the day.
After our lunch of pastrami and Swiss cheese on black rye, we try dragging plastic baits. We get a couple of strikes, but no fish. We move to the other side of the river, where several other boats have congregated, and drop anchor. We return back to three-way rigs and within minutes we both have strikes. During the next two hours, we steadily get strikes and put more fish in the livewell. At one point, I catch two fish on my three-way rig. We end the day with thirty fish, a great start to the last season of the year.
The one big difference between early spring fishing and late fall fishing on the Mississippi River is that in the spring we start with cold weather and by the time we quit in late April or early May, just before the bass season begins, it has gotten warm. In the fall, we start in warm weather and by the time we quit for the year, it is cold. I generally will go until Thanksgiving and even into the first week of December if the weather doesn’t get too harsh. By the time we cross into November, we start getting snow and frost and sometimes ice building up on our rod guides. My rule of thumb is once temperatures drop below 25 degrees for the day’s high, it is time for me to put the boat away for the year. There have been times I fished with temperatures below twenty degrees, but it seems I don’t catch that many fish to put up with those kinds of temperatures. My wife once told me, “This is the time of year people, other than me, are questioning your sanity.”
“The coldest I have ever been, as an adult, has been with you on this river,” Dennis Virden, of Burnsville, MN said to me as we got the boat ready to launch. However, today will not be one of those days. It is bright and sunny. It is a bit cooler than it was the first day I was on the river and the wind is a bit stronger, but it is still a very pleasant fall day for late October. We drop anchor in the general area I caught fish last time I was out. The current is stronger today, so we change to 1 oz. jigs to keep our bait on the bottom.
Dennis gets the first fish, a small catfish. A few minutes later, I catch a keeper sauger. Even being anchored, the boat continues to slowly drift, but there is no one close to us so we just let it go. I see a pelican standing in the shallow water and an occasional eagle is floating on the wind overhead. We drift down to about fifteen feet of water and start getting more strikes. We start putting more sauger in the livewell and Dennis later adds a walleye to the mix.
We go through a dry spell and we move back to where we first started. The fish don’t seem to be hitting so we move back downriver, back to fifteen feet of water. I feel a fish slam my bait. I pull back to set the hook and for an instant the fish doesn’t move and then takes off slowly. My spinning rod is bent in half as the fish moves off. Dennis grabs the net and in a couple of moments we see the fish in the water. I finally lead the fish into the net as Dennis pulls it in the boat. It is a nineteen and a half inch sauger. The fish is fat and powerful. I put it back in the water and watch it slowly swim away. It is a nice fish, but too big to keep.
We now have two more fish to catch to fill our limit of twelve fish. Dennis gets the next keeper and five minutes later, I catch the last keeper fish. It is a little after 3:30 when I head the boat back downriver to the landing. “I always dress as if I am going ice fishing when I am on the river,” Dennis says. “But I didn’t need it today.” The weather was nice and we caught a lot of fish. It is just a matter of time before the cold weather shows up.
As the weather changes throughout the spring and fall, there will also be fluctuations in the water on the river. In the spring, the changes are more dramatic. The water is usually always high with strong currents. A rainstorm, which is common in spring, will always increase water levels and current strength; at times driving them to flood stage. In the fall, although there are great changes in the weather, alterations in water levels and current will be less.
The key to catching walleye and sauger in the Mississippi River is to get your bait to the bottom of the river and keep it there. In the spring, I normally always use a 1oz. jig. In the fall, I can sometimes get away with a ½ oz. to a ¾ oz. jig. This year, water levels seem to be normal but the current is a bit stronger than what we normally find in the fall, so I am sticking with ¾ oz. and occasionally 1 oz. jigs when needed.
The Mississippi River forms the boundary between Wisconsin and Minnesota for the southern half of the two states before it turns northwest at Prescott, Wisconsin into Minnesota flowing through Minneapolis and Saint Paul on its way to the headwaters of the Mississippi in northern Minnesota. I have fished the Mississippi River in Saint Paul, as well as around Hastings in Minnesota and Prescott in Wisconsin. I have also fished the Mississippi River a couple of times around La Crosse. By far my favorite spot on the river is the dam just north of Red Wing, MN. Here, it is possible to catch almost everything. My primary objective is fishing for walleye and its cousin the sauger. But we also catch sturgeon, catfish, white bass, crappies, yellow perch, northern pike and even musky as well as any number of rough fish such as carp, sheepshead, mooneye and others. Anything you find in freshwater can be found in the Mississippi River.
The two baits I normally use on the Mississippi River are a three-way rig and a jig and minnow. The three-way rig is a tied on a three-way swivel with a two to three foot leader going to a hook with a couple of chartreuse beads. The other leader has ¾ to 1oz. chartreuse jig, depending on the strength of the current. For a jig and minnow, I use a Fire-Ball Jig by Northland. I generally use a ¾ oz. jig in either a firetiger color or chartreuse color with a stinger hook for light strikes. Both baits are easy to use. Drop them down until the jig hits bottom, lift them four or five inches, letting it drop down again.
Blade spoons are another good fall bait. However, I seldom use them the spring. But, with fish more aggressive in the fall, blade spoons are perfect. I use a ½ or ¾ oz. spoon in either firetiger, gold, or orange colors, in that order. They are also easy to use. Let the bait drop to the bottom and rapidly raise the rod tip a foot or two before letting it fall back again. It is called ripping. If a fish hits while I am bringing the spoon up the hook sets itself. However, if the fish hits while the bait is fluttering back to the bottom then it is hard to get a good hook set.
Plastic baits are becoming very popular for fishing the river and I use them throughout the fall and spring. There are a number of plastic baits from ring worms to the well-known curly tail grubs. My two favorites are the 3-inch Fluke and the “Curly Tail” Flukes by the Prescott Bait Company. I use either purple fleck, oyster, smoke glitter or green chartreuse colors with a 3/8 oz. jig. If I use the chartreuse Fluke, then I use a chartreuse jig and a purple jig on the other colors.
I fish plastic baits by drifting, or some people call it dragging. Leaving the boat drift with the current, I use the trolling motor only to control the drift, getting me around other boats and keeping me at the depth I want to fish. I drop the bait to the bottom, lifting it up about two inches. As I am drifting, I pop the rod tip a bit and will drop the bait every now and then so it hits bottom to make sure I am staying close to the bottom. These plastic baits are not typically used with minnows and some people are now using plastic baits exclusively, never bothering to get minnows at all. I still feel funny not taking a bucket of minnows with me on the river since I use the three-way rigs and jigs. However, I find myself using plastic baits more and more, so for now, I still get a scoop of minnows, but perhaps one day I might not need minnows either.
There seems to be a sense of urgency in the fall that you don’t see in the spring. Perhaps because people, animals and fish know the weather is getting colder and we are marching relentlessly toward winter. We see a lot of waterfowl in the skies. We hear the high-pitched yelping of snow geese and the guttural honking of geese in the air. Across from us, on the Wisconsin side where we fish on the Mississippi River, is a large marsh and we hear gunfire, reminding us that duck hunting is in season too.
Deer hunting is going on as well. Bowhunting has been going on for a some time and in November both Minnesota and Wisconsin have their gun seasons for deer. The Minnesota gun season starts on the first Saturday in November, going for a couple of weeks and Wisconsin holds their nine day gun season beginning the Saturday before Thanksgiving. I remember once on the opening day of the Wisconsin gun season I was fishing on the Mississippi River. Looking over to the Wisconsin bank we saw a large 8-point buck leisurely stroll along the river. Regardless of whether you are deer hunter or not, it was quite a sight.
By the time deer season comes around, it is getting cold and sometimes I hear the excuse from people that it is too cold to be sitting in the boat. They are the same people who will sit in a deer stand all day. I am not sure I understand the difference? Isn’t it just as cold to sit in a deer stand as it is to sit in a boat that time of year?
In the morning, I find an intricate lace of frost across the windshield of the car. We have snow flurries and occasionally the snow sticks for a day or two. Winter is on its way, getting closer with every day. I am now wearing several layers of clothing topped by a down jacket and am actually wearing gloves for a change. I have clothes I specifically purchased for fishing these late November days. I remember once on a very cold day when the temperature plunged to 13 degrees. I went fishing that day, much to my wife’s distress. I did catch some fish when I found feeding sauger in a 65 foot hole. It was the coldest day I have ever fished on open water, and the deepest I have ever caught fish. Although I caught fish, I regretted fishing in that cold of weather. That did border on insanity, although I never admitted it to my wife.
It is early December and reasonably warm by early December standards. Doug Hurd, of Eagan, Minnesota, and I are heading for the river. I think today might be my last day on the water for the year. On the first three strikes I lose the fish. Finally, I get a sauger into the boat. Doug and I work hard trying to find fish, but the fishing remains slow. We end the day keeping three fish. It is getting dark as we make the run back to the landing. The sun sinking behind the trees turns the sky cold with streaks of light red and purple. It is a good way to end the season.
A couple days later, I clean the garage, moving the lawn tractor, hand mower and outdoor furniture to one side of the garage. I jam the boat into that side of the garage and pull out the snow blower. There is still enough room in the garage for one of our cars. It has been a good fall. We caught a lot of fish and I fished with a lot of good friends. By fishing the Mississippi River, I extended my fishing season by almost two months. I am ready for winter. But, I take comfort in knowing that in another three months I will be back on the Mississippi River for spring fishing.