It was hot Sunday, and humid. The air was heavy. At the urging of my amazing partner, who said that summer only seems too short when you pass on opportunities to get out and enjoy it, I went fishing, though my primary purpose was to stand in a river.
My secondary purpose was to get some stand-up fishing time in with my new Sage 9-foot, 8-weight, 4-piece fly rod. So far, it’s been used on a couple canoe trips on the St. Croix. The water on the Croix has been particularly high all summer and those canoe trips haven’t presented many opportunities to get out and wade fish. You can only get so much of an idea of a new rod while casting it from a canoe.
In addition to the rod, I loaded the car up with a small kit of smallmouth bass fishing gear, and a cooler with three beers and a bottle of ice water in it. I left the house about 1 p.m.
Then I drove to a tributary of the St. Croix about an hour north of the Twin Cities. About the same time you cross into Pine County, you notice that there are more pines in the landscape. And it is no wonder that the spot I would be fishing at is in a state forest named after the Ojibwe word for white pine.
There was a big white pine on the bank next to the riffle above which I started fishing. There was a fair bit of water coming down the river, but it was wade-able. I thought I would wait to get in the water until I got rigged up, but while I put a new leader on and tied on some tippet material, the mosquitoes started to attack, focusing on my legs. The water suddenly looked a lot more inviting. I stepped into it and walked out to knee-depth.
It’s worth noting two pieces of apparel at this point: the bugs were really attacking my bare legs, but did leave my torso alone, which happened to be clothed in a Columbia long-sleeved shirt I got this spring. It’s treated with some of that anti-bug stuff that seemed to work. It also has a couple Velcro chest pockets which held a small fly box and my forceps and nippers no problem. It has a back vent and is very light and breathable and has become my favorite summer paddling and fishing shirt. Katie says it looks nice on me, too. The river, like most of them in these parts, is very rocky, with its bottom being made up of a lot of rocks six inches to 24-inches in diameter. Death for toes and ankles. But as I scrambled in, fleeing the biting insects, my toes were protected by my Keen Newport H2’s rubber toes, and my feet felt sure on the tricky river bottom. Smallmouth like this kind of rocky river and these shoes have proven perfect for the environment. I actually find them to be a little hot and uncomfortable when my feet are not regularly being submerged, but for canoeing and fishing, perfect.
So there I was standing in the river, all by myself even though I had parked in the state forest campground and climbed down the banks from there. The campground was all but empty on this Sunday afternoon. Around a bend upstream, four kayakers came into sight, two men and two women. As the guy in the lead reached me, he asked how far to the campground landing and I assured him it couldn’t be far at all and he shouted back to the rest of his party that they were almost there. I asked if they’d had a good trip and he said yes but they were ready to be done.
I fished unsuccessfully for a while. The trick about wade fishing for smallmouth is that you want to keep moving, covering new water. The fish generally live solitary lives, and if you don’t entice one out on the first cast to a spot, you’re probably not going to get one on subsequent casts. But, not being in a canoe, and the river being fairly large, it was a bit of work to move around. After covering every piece of water I could from where I was standing, I walked down to the little rapids below me and then out to a big flat rock I thought I’d stand on while I tied on a new fly.
Standing on the dry rock meant my legs were exposed. The mosquitoes and flies renewed their attack. My legs were pulverized. I am not ashamed to admit I didn’t quite know what to do and didn’t have a good feeling about the fishing here either so I fled back to my car.
Wear pants next time. Hot when not submerged, yes, but worth it for protection from poison ivy, nettles and other flora when hiking the banks, and protection from those little biting bastards. And besides, the point is to be submerged as much as possible.
I left the campground and drove a mile down to the St. Croix River landing here. There is no bridge, but directly across the river on the Wisconsin side is another landing. You can imagine the ferry that ran across the river back in the 1920s and 30s. The ferry’s first passengers on opening were a circus, a sign at the landing informed me.
My thought had been maybe I would walk up from this landing 100 yards or so to where the river I had been fishing joined the St. Croix. But the water was high and the beach almost nonexistent and thus not enticing for the walk. And there were lots of other folks around, some young guys sitting on folding chairs with lines out in the water, fishing for catfish. This was not my scene, so I went back to the campground.
At the campground, the four kayakers were just finishing loading the boats into a trailer. The two guys were, I should say. I asked them how it had been and they said it was good. One guy went to get into his white Mercedes sedan and his wife opened her door to tell me “except for all the rocks we hit our butts on.” I laughed and said at least the water is still up relatively high so it was probably less rocks and she said “I guess” and closed the door. The other guy said “well, I had a ball” and then muttered something about the damn bugs and got in his vehicle.
I went down to the river. Here the river slid down a little incline, the water quickening into little standing waves. I positioned myself near the tail of the fast water and started casting to what was probably a good place if it had been a trout stream. I’m still trying to figure out where the bass hang out. But then as I retrieved my fly across the surface, a fishy form appeared underneath it and I pulled up on the rod but there was no resistance and no fish. The lack of any resistance meant the fish probably hadn’t felt the sting of the hook, so I casted to the same spot again and did the same retrieve and just like deja vu the fish struck again. This time I felt a brief tug as I struck back, but then it was gone again.
This time the fish had felt the hook. Any smart fish would use reasonable caution and forget about eating for an hour or two.
I casted back to the same spot. The fish struck. So did I. And it was on.
Boy can those smallmouth fight. It zigged and zagged around the pool. And it wasn’t like sometimes fishing in a river where the fish runs downstream and you’re fighting it back up the current. No, this fish stayed in front of me if not upstream. And just when it seemed to be slackening, it renewed the fight. My rod bent well against it.
I failed to mention that as I had started fishing, two tubes had drifted around the bend upstream and were slowly approaching. I pictured a contingent of the Swedish bikini team. Not long after I caught and released the bass–which was as dark as I’ve ever seen, deserving the name “black bass” which is sometimes applied–the tubes descended the little rapids, their occupants paddling weakly with their hands. The occupants were two men in their mid-fifties, sneakers and t-shirts. The first to go by had a head-rest on his tube and a beer in his hand. He asked how I was doing and he said they sometimes brought fishing rods along on a float.
As they continued on down the river, I casted again. My fly was a yellow popper tied up special by Gabe for my birthday. It’s curved foam body caused the most ridiculous wiggling motion as I retrieved it across the water surface. Apparently the fish loved it. Another one slashed at it, I struck too eagerly and not only missed the fish but my entire line went flying back behind my head. Fearing a tangle with streamside vegetation, my reflexes caused me to snap the rod forward again. I heard a tell-tale little snap from back where my fly should be and knew I had just snapped it off.
I spent the next hour trying other flies to no avail, not even a sniff by a fish, and wandering around the bank behind me trying to find the missing yellow wiggler. Also to no avail.
My day at the river ended with a very cold Miller High Life consumed on the banks. Again, not in the water, my legs were exposed and were viciously assaulted. For the first 30 minutes of my drive home, it felt like someone had taken a bag of hot embers and sprayed my legs with them. Little bastards.
I took backroads south through Pine and Chisago counties before finally rejoining the Interstate at Forest Lake. I listened to Dawes’ “North Hills.” Often there wasn’t a car in front of or behind me for a half-mile or more. Not bad compared to the angry Sunday evening southbound traffic heading home on the freeway from “up north.” A bruiser of a thunderstorm was rolling through and I caught the ragged back edge of it once I was on I-35.