Seize the carp

Braving the rain to canoe the river and fish for smallmouth bass and carp.

White mist, white pines on the St. Croix River

About the same time Gabe arrived at the house to go fishing on Monday, the rain came back in a big way. A strong storm had come through earlier in the afternoon, but was followed by sun breaking through clouds. Now, though, it was falling again, seemingly harder than gravity could be responsible for, perhaps somehow projected down from the heavens.

Gabe dashed in the front door from his car and we stared out at where the canoe was sitting on the grass of the front lawn, just needing 10 minutes of work to get it on top of my car. We finally went to look at the weather radar on the computer–which told us it was raining and would be for a while–and when we returned to the front door, it had subsided.

We donned rain jackets and went out to strap the Wenonah on the car. The theory was that the showers would be sporadic and, on a warm day like this, not worth discouraging a fishing trip.

Driving east on Highway 36 the skies really let loose and we laughed a little bit about the fact that we were driving through such weather with a canoe on the car and fish swimming in our minds. But, we figured we’d get near the river and wait for it to let up. If it didn’t? Well… it had to.

Paddling down the rainy river

The skies weren’t giving up any helpful information as we approached the landing and when we pulled up to the river it was still coming down good, but by that time we’d driven all the way out there so what the heck, let’s go. We paddled away from shore with our hoods up and our hats pulled down and some rocky shoreline on the opposite bank in our sights.

I should say that perhaps only I had the rocky shoreline in my sights. Rocks generally mean smallmouth bass, which I was itching to target with a new Sage 8-weight fly rod. My paddling and fishing partner, on the other hand, has recently been smitten with fly fishing for carp (of all things!) and wanted to return to a mud flat upriver where a big one had snapped him off the day before. But first we casted at the rocky shoreline.

It was good we didn’t venture far from the landing, because almost imperceptibly, the rain stopped, the skies brightened, and I realized I had forgotten my sunglasses in the car. The oversight was understandable, considering the weather we had launched in.

After stopping to pick up the sunglasses, we struck off upstream. The water was high from a wet series of weeks, but the current was manageable. We dug in a bit and made it up to the first bend, where on the outside a bunch of snags against the bank usually hold some fish.

Summer bluffs

We took turns casting toward shore and the fish were willing if not enthusiastic. I was in the stern and, as much as I love the pull of a smallmouth on the line, I was enjoying just as much maneuvering the canoe while Gabe casted. I’ve been sitting in the stern of that boat for about five years now and I really love it. At seventeen feet, with 1 1/2″ of rocker and a nice wide beam, it’s proven itself as a great St. Croix craft. It turns sharply but it tracks well enough, and it’s stable enough for steady Gabe to stand in the bow and cast, or for our oblivious dog to shift her weight suddenly without putting all of us in the water.

The river was absolutely calm. The water was like glass, and white mist was rising, seeming to get held up on the white pines which towered over the other trees on the bluffs. It was evening now after a long and busy holiday weekend. Occasional canoes, kayaks, and pontoon boats passed by quietly, the stragglers of what had surely been a steady stream of people enjoying this gorgeous river all weekend long.

I continued seeing what I could do with my paddle. A draw there, a stroke here, and a canoe can move and turn all at once, in any possible direction. When you start to know how the paddle and the boat interact, it seems like you can move across the water on the power of thought. If you’re targeting spooky fish, or slipping through a narrow, twisting channel, a cooperative canoe becomes your dear friend and ally.

Rainy river

Carp were still on Gabe’s mind, so we headed up a back channel that entered the river here. Ahead were broad, shallow silt flats ringed by grasses and other water plants.

As we eased the canoe up the channel, big swirls started to appear at the edges of the open areas. Reeds and grasses were sent swinging back and forth as unseen creatures below the surface rooted around at their bases.

I gently pushed the canoe along while Gabe stood in the bow and looked for fish. If not the nudging of weeds, they would be revealed by a steady line of little bubbles on the surface that were sent up by feeding fish. When he spotted a target, he would send long, precise casts across the water to a spot just a few feet away from the target. Slowly he would twitch it a few times. Nothing happened.

We continued on exploring the backwater. Red-winged blackbirds perched swaying on tall grasses; a mature and immature bald eagle screeched back and forth at each other as we approached, stopped crying when we stopped approaching, and then flew off in separate directions. A tiny bird dive-bombed the immature bird its whole way across to the next stand of trees.

My carp-targeting friend continued to stalk the fish; he even got two brief takes. But the fish seemed to sense our very presence as we approached. I was taken again with how quiet a canoe can move through calm water. There seemed to be no resistance to our passage.

The day began to dwindle and in the morning it would be time to return to work after four days away. We set off up the channel, seeking its upstream connection to the main river. We found it but of course the entrance was blocked by a big snag. We precariously pulled the canoe over the big trees and then paddled out into the main channel, where we headed back down toward the landing.

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