Mar 12, 2019

The Joys of April

Though the spring opener is still more than a month away, there’s lots of good open water fishing this time of year

By Mike Yurk 

It’s easy for fishermen to overlook the month of April. The regular fishing season doesn’t start until the first Saturday in May, so no one gets too excited about April. It is just another month to get through until the season starts. Although some fishermen may ignore April, there is a lot going on that month which makes for great fishing.

My first memories of fishing in April are of the famed walleye run on the Wolf and Fox rivers. I remember Friday nights after supper my father and I would drive to Winneconne where my father knew a man who had a small engine repair shop right on the river which also included a dock on the water. Getting to the dock after dark, we set out our lines and waited for a walleye to come through.

I remember the nights being cold. We could hear the river rushing by in the darkness. On the river there were some boats bobbing around on the water with lights reflecting off the surface, and fishermen were lined up on the bridge which crossed the river. Lanterns were lit and lines dangled down from the bridge.

It seemed like the fishermen on the bridge comprised one big party. Maybe it was just a party to some of them. Everyone seemed to know each other and there was a great deal of comrade among all the fishermen, or perhaps it just the shared experience of enduring the cold and wind when the fish weren’t hitting. Regardless if the fish were hitting or not, there always seemed to be a lot of excitement. I guess a lot of people were happy to just get out fishing.

Father would send me over to a bar, grill and bait shop next to the dock to get hot coffee for him and hot chocolate for me. We got a bucket of minnows there earlier when we first started fishing. Going to get hot drinks, I remember the smell of grease and hamburgers from the grill mixing with beer and stale cigarette smoke from the bar mingling with the odors from the minnow tanks.

I never remembered catching a lot of fish. Like everyone else, we were just happy to be fishing. One night father put his rod down on the dock while he was drinking his coffee when his line shot out. He grabbed his spinning rod just before it was going to be dragged in the water. His spinning rod was bent in half as he fought the fish, finally flipping it up on the dock. It was about a 30-inch northern pike. A few minutes later my rod tip began to bounce and when I set the hook, I felt a fish pulling away. It turned out to be a walleye, and half an hour later I added a white bass to the bucket. It was probably our best night of fishing the river in April.

April on Wisconsin’s West Coast

Now I live on the other side of the Wisconsin near the Mississippi River and once again I’m fishing for walleye and sauger in April. When we start in early April there may be people in northern Wisconsin and Minnesota still ice fishing, but the river is open and the fish are running. I’m happy to be out on open water in a boat again after a long winter. It still feels a lot like winter, and I’m dressed as if I’m ice fishing. In April on the Mississippi I’ve been through ice storms and blizzards, but they are a mere inconvenience in comparison to the joys of fishing on the river again.

I fish the dam on the Mississippi River north of Red Wing, Minn. I use a modified version of the Wolf River Rig my father and I used when I was a kid. The Wolf River Rig begins with a three-way swivel. One swivel has a leader with a bell-shaped sinker and another swivel has a longer leader with a hook.

Now when I fish my version of the Wolf River Rig, I replace the bell-shaped sinker with a 1-ounce chartreuse jig and on the hook leader I add three chartreuse beads with a chartreuse hook. I normally bait both the jig and hook with minnows, but there are times now when I use a 3- or 4-inch plastic grub on the jig.

I remember once on the first of April. My buddy Doug Hurd from Eagan, Minn. and I were on the Mississippi River. It was our first day on the river. It was chilly with gray skies and the promise of more snow to come. Fish were hitting steadily and we put a few fish in the livewell. They were mostly sauger with an occasional walleye. Anytime you are fishing a river – and especially the Mississippi River – you never know what you will catch when you set the hook.

Early afternoon a fish slammed my bait. When I set the hook it felt like I was hung up, except I could feel throbbing on the other end of the line. The fish began to move and there was nothing I was going to do to stop it. My drag was singing and my line was slicing through the water. I started to chase after the fish with my trolling motor. Sometimes I could pull the fish up a couple of feet, but then it would just sink back to the bottom. Every time I got the fish coming up toward the boat it just moved off, seeming merely inconvenienced by my hook and line.

It was probably about 15 minutes before I finally got the fish off the bottom, but the fight was far from over. Ten minutes later the fish was just below the surface, but with the muddy water we still hadn’t seen it, yet. I pulled back on the rod, still surprised my 8-pound line was still holding, and then we saw it. It was a huge catfish and it looked almost frightening as it boiled to the surface. We figured it was a big fish, but this one looked almost prehistorically huge.

Doug grabbed the net, but we knew it was never going to fit. I had some rubber gloves in the boat and with those Doug grabbed the fish on either side of the head by the gills, trying to drag it into the boat. But he still couldn’t get it in. Dropping my spinning rod, I wrapped my arms around Doug’s waist and we both pulled the fish into the boat. The catfish was about four feet long and between a foot to foot and a half wide. Doug took my photo and I had to use both hands to just barely hold the fish up. I guess it weighed close to 50 pounds.

When I put it back in the water, the fish just slowly swam away. My 8-pound line was twisted and kinked. I cut off about 30 feet before I could use it again.

Doug and I continued to catch sauger with the occasional walleye. Some were too small and they went back in the river, but we were catching enough keepers to put in the livewell for a future fish fry. Doug set the hook and his spinning rod was bucking as he brought the fish in. As he got it to the surface, he said “What is this?”

Hoisting it in the boat we saw it was a foot-long brown trout. You can catch a bit of everything when fishing the river. We ended the day catching almost 50 fish. In addition to the big catfish, the wayward brown trout and a bunch of smaller sauger and walleye were released. We kept 10 fish. That night it began to snow and the next morning we found a foot of snow on the ground. It would be a couple of days before we got back on the river.

Easter perch tradition

One of the other joys of April is early season perch fishing. Our family gathers at our daughter Kim’s house for Easter. She, her husband, Damien, and their children live in an eastern suburb of Minneapolis. Our other daughter, Lisa, and her children, living in La Crosse, come up for the holiday.

The Saturday before Easter is prep time for Easter dinner, but also our annual perch fishing trip. Damien comes out to our home in Hudson, bringing along the oldest two grandchildren, Max and Amelia. We start the day going out to get a hamburger and then head to Lake Mallalieu.

Lake Mallalieu separates Hudson from North Hudson. In the middle 1800s a dam was built on a river running into the St. Croix River and the resulting back up of water became Lake Mallalieu. The lake was used to store logs rafted down the river from the logging camps further north and to provide pressure to run the saw mills at the mouth of the river.

Today the saw mills are long gone, but the lake is still there and I’ve been fishing it for more than the 20 years I’ve made Hudson my home. The lake is primarily known for bass fishing – both smallmouth as well as largemouth – but the season for those fish is still a month away. Instead, we go for yellow perch.

We slowly motor over the lake to where the water slides over the dam. In front of the dam is an old railroad bridge. It hasn’t been used as long as I’ve lived in Hudson, but it once led to the entrance of one of the largest box car-repair facilities in the country. I turn the motor off as we near the bridge and crawl to the front of the boat. Damien is standing on the back-casting deck. I grab the rough logs of the bridge and tie off the front of the boat as Damien ties off the back. Fishing is easy. We put small crappie minnows on light jigs, dropping them to the bottom and jigging them slightly.

Damien catches the first perch. The tip of his ultralight spinning rod is bouncing as the fish pulls away, but within a moment he has the fish splashing alongside the boat. Within a couple of minutes Max brings in a perch and before he has baited his hook again, his sister Amelia flips a perch into the boat. From there the fish continue to hit and the action is fast and furious. The perch hit our baits hard. There is no mistaking a strike, and the perch put up a tough fight on light spinning rods.

When the fish began to slow down, we untie the boat, pull ourselves along the bridge, and tie back up 20 feet or so from where we started. The fishing starts all over again. At one time Damien, Max and Amelia caught a fish at the same time. It just doesn’t get any better than that. We end the day catching about 70 perch. A third of them we could have kept if we were interested in a fish fry, but no one wanted to clean fish the day before Easter, so we release all of our fish.

One year on our annual day-before-Easter perch fishing trip, we heard Max yell he had a big fish. Of course, there are bass in the lake, so as Max was battling his fish with his ultralight spinning rod doubled over, I expected to see him bring in a smallmouth or largemouth. Max kept cranking on the reel as the fish raced off. Max stopped the fish, turning it toward the boat again. The fish made a couple more runs before Max finally had the fish on the surface.

I saw a flash which looked silvery and I yelled for Damien to grab the net. Damien thrust the net in the water. Pulling it up we saw Max had a large trout. It was a brown trout and we estimated it went about four pounds. It was quite a trophy for a 13-year-old boy. We took a couple of photos before Max lowered the fish back into the water. The river draining into Lake Mallalieu is known as a trout stream, so probably because the water is so cold in the lake in April – with the ice coming off only a week or so earlier – would have lured the big brown out of the river and into the lake. 

Best time of year for crappie

By the mid to late April crappie will start moving into shallow water. It might be the best time of the year to catch a bunch of them.

I always plan a couple crappie fishing trips in the last weeks of April. It was a warm April day when my buddy, Dennis Virden, of Burnsville, Minn. and I drove to Loveless Lake in Polk County. I fished this lake off and on for years and knew there were crappie there. We didn’t need a lot of crappie. Another fishing buddy was supposed to join us for the day but was having health problems, so he had to back out. Dennis and I decided we needed to get enough crappie for our buddy to have a fish fry.

We launched the boat and motored across the lake to where there’s a stretch of bank with fallen timber, submerged logs and overhanging brush. You can always find crappie in places like that, especially in April.

We didn’t bother with minnows. Instead we used small tube jigs. We pulled up to the first sunken tree and dropped the trolling motor. We cast our jigs toward the tree, and just as the jig hit deeper water right off the brush we felt a pop and set the hook. Our ultralight spinning rods came alive as a fish surged off. Some of the fish were smaller than we wanted, but they all put up a short, spectacular fight. We caught and released about half a dozen crappie before we moved to the next log or pile of brush. Where ever we paused we picked up a couple fish.

Dennis pulled up on his spinning rod and announced he thought he had a bigger fish. I watched, and a couple moments later we saw a silvery flash in the water just before Dennis hoisted the fish into the boat. It was a keeper-size crappie and went into the livewell. As we worked along the bank, we caught a few yellow perch and some bluegill. But we are intent on crappie, so those fish go back in the water.

We stop for lunch and the wind gently drifts us across the lake as we eat our sandwiches. It’s warm and sunny and we enjoy the weather as much as the fishing. It’s hard to believe it still was snowing at the beginning of the month. We moved along the brushy bank and continued to catch panfish, slowly putting a few more crappie in the livewell. By mid-afternoon we caught over 60 fish and had enough fish in the livewell for our ailing friend to have a fish fry sometime in the next few days. It had been another great day in April.

April has much going for it. The regular fishing season might start in May, but good fishing has been going on for more than a month starting in April.

From winter making its last stand at the beginning of April to the warm days of spring at the end of the month, there is lot of fishing going on. The joy of April is to once again get out on open water. Don’t overlook April because it truly is the beginning of fishing season.