Tag Archives: fly fishing

Early spring fishing

“Between snow and sun”

Early spring fishingSpring morning fishing
Orange for lunch on the bank
Between snow and sun

Those seventeen syllables won me a new t-shirt! Yes, I’m the proud winner of the FruitShare haiku contest. The Marine on St. Croix-based organic fruit delivery business recently sponsored the contest, requiring only that participants choose a currently-available fruit from their inventory and write a haiku about it.

At the risk of completely undermining the brevity of the piece, I will say that it is based in some of my favorite moments. I have always liked bringing an orange with me fishing, because it’s often hard to bring enough water along in an already-heavy fishing vest. A juicy orange can really quench the thirst you get when standing in a cold, flowing river all day. I’m also still pleased with how the last line refers back to the first, as spring is “between snow and sun.”

There were several good submissions. You can see them all here. One of my favorites was from Pam McClanahan, a friend from the Minnesota Historical Society Press:

Kumquat, small and bright,
I’ll be full of luck tonight
with you, full of light.

Shoreline

Twenty-three paragraphs about fishing

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.

Looking upstream

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.

Kayakers

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.

Shoreline

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.

Safety.

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.

Rain-speckled stone

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.

Hay bales

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.

Summer storm

White mist, white pines on the St. Croix River

Seize the 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.

Floating the St. Croix River

Trip Report: Camping, canoeing, and fly-fishing at St. Croix State Park

(Cross-posted at Minnesota Trails magazine.)

To get to the Little Yellow Banks canoe landing at St. Croix State Park, you first drive five miles of paved road from the highway to park headquarters. Then you drive another five miles of gravel road to the landing.

By the time you get to the landing, you feel like the hustle and bustle of modern life is pretty far away. The river–wild, undeveloped, beautiful–does nothing to dispel that feeling.

I left the Twin Cities last Thursday afternoon with my dog Lola and drove an hour-and-a-half north to the park. My buddies Eric and Gabe had spent the previous two nights in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and were going to meet me to camp that night and float a few miles of the St. Croix River in the morning and do a little fishing for smallmouth bass.

Big park, big adventures

At 34,000 acres, St. Croix State Park is Minnesota’s biggest state park. It contains 217 campsites, 127 miles of hiking trails, and large swaths of unbroken woods that are home to wolves and bears.

It also includes 21 miles of the federally-protected St. Croix River and seven miles of the Kettle River, a state-listed wild and scenic river and also a popular paddling destination. It is surely on many peoples’ list of top paddling destinations in the state. (View a PDF map of the park.)

When I finally arrived at Little Yellow Banks, it was about 4:00 p.m. The landing is named after the tributary which joins the St. Croix at that spot. It was where, during the 1890s, a logging railroad dumped timber into the river to float down the river to mills downstream. Today, the backwater at the confluence is a quiet, remote place.

And the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel of mosquitoes.

The bow of my canoe and the St. Croix River

The dog and I had no interest in sitting around feeding malnourished insects, so we hopped in the canoe and pushed off into the river to wait for our companions. Away from shore, the mosquitoes subsided and I was able to really relax and soak in the silence and beauty of the river.

A night in the woods

When the other guys got there, we drove back out the five miles of gravel (spotting deer, grouse, and a fox), then a bit further down another one of the park’s long roads to the Sand Creek Landing. There, we left one car to spend the night, and we returned to Little Yellow Banks.

The landing doubles as a campsite for river canoeists. We figured that we were within the guidelines, even though we hadn’t actually paddled up to the site, as we would be paddling away from it in the morning, and we parked our other car 100 yards up the road at the parking lot. Then, we set up the tents and otherwise made ourselves at home for the night.

Little Yellow Banks landing

Once it got fully dark, the mosquitoes subsided but a more welcome insect appeared. The flickers of fireflies began to pop up around us. Some of them blinking on and off, others fading in and out. If you looked closely, you could perceive at least a couple different colors of luminescence.

As we prepared dinner of New York Strips over the fire and couscous, a park ranger drove up and we talked fishing for a few minutes. He told us that in a night of fishing on the river, it’s possible to catch a sauger, catfish, smallmouth bass, northern pike, walleye, and maybe even a muskie.

Recently smitten by smallmouth bass on the fly rod, I have kept busy the past couple years seeking out new stretches of the St. Croix to pursue the fish, once said to be “inch for inch and pound for pound the gamest fish that swims.”

In the morning, I was hoping to get a fish or two on a new fly rod I had recently acquired. A heavier weight than my usual trout rod, it could cast in the wind of the open river and throw the big, non-aerodynamic flies that seem to sufficiently antagonize smallies to convince them to attack it.

Paddling on the St. Croix River

A wet and buggy start to a great day

It rained most of the night, but we were warm and dry in our tents. It was just me and Lola and the hope that the rain would taper off by morning. It did, though when I crawled out of the tent, the skies still looked threatening. Weather worries quickly dissipated though, as I was attacked with renewed gusto by the site’s mosquito population.

I rousted the other fellows, expressing my rather urgent need to know where they had put the bug dope. As soon as they opened their tent door, they suddenly found the motivation to get moving, too.

While the tents were taken down and camp otherwise deconstructed in surely record time, I made a pot of coffee. We were on the water very shortly, seeking relief from the swarms. And then the rain picked up again.

Getting ready to launch the canoes, in the rain and mosquitoes.

Despite appearing to be the type of rain that sticks around all day, the skies actually dried up pretty soon and we were able to relax. And the morning got steadily better. There was not another soul on the river, it seemed, and the banks were wild, without a cabin or any other sign of human visible.

The early June river-bottom woods were as lush and green as anything ever is in Minnesota. A steady chorus of birdsong rang out from the banks, the soundtrack to any good St. Croix excursion.

Going with the flow

The great thing about floating a river like the St. Croix truly must be the relaxed pace of the trip. You don’t need to worry about paddling much if you’re distracted by fishing or conversation; the steady current will keep you moving just fine.

While Gabe casted at every possible fish holding spot to no avail, Eric and I caught up on each other’s lives, while also finding time to solve many of the problems of the world and admire the scenery.

The seven miles down to the Sand Creek Landing passed pretty uneventfully. The clouds slowly broke up. We saw some folks on shore doing trail work. A very big bald eagle soared out of trees overhead a couple times. A couple fish were briefly waylaid.

The Unabomber catches a fish.

A nice smallmouth.

After a few hours, we arrived at our take-out and the end of our short trip. We had only seen about a third of the river the park contains, not to mention the other 250 miles of federally-protected river, including the St. Croix’s biggest tributary, the Namekagon.

Below our takeout, the river splits into two channels for about five miles, with the Kettle River Slough containing some reportedly fun rapids as the St. Croix approaches the mouth of the Kettle. There’s a big ledge at the end of the Slough where it rejoins the main channel.

As the epilogue to his 1960s history of the river, the writer, conservationist and historian James Taylor Dunn wrote of paddling the length of the whole river with a friend. Here’s what he wrote about paddling St. Croix State Park’s rapids:

“…[We] stopped for lunch just below the mouth of the rocky Kettle River on one of the three large islands which divide the stream. These islands, which extend through the seven miles of rapids, are high-banked and crowned with magnificent century-old pines.”

We drove back up to Yellow Banks, retrieved the other car, and then loaded the canoes and gear and headed for home. Mosquitoes sneaked into my vehicle while we loaded up, and my drive was occasionally punctuated by swatting one of the little pests.

See for yourself!

  • Canoeing 101  – On June 12 and August 14, St. Croix State Park is offering “St. Croix Canoe Cruise” programs. A naturalist will provide paddling basics, and then lead a 2-hour, 5-mile trip down the river. Visit the park website for more details.
  • Rentals – Pardun’s Canoe Rental rents canoes and provides shuttle service in the park, as well as at its location in Danbury, WI (approx. 15 miles from the park). They can offer advice on trips of different lengths, and handle the logistics of transportation.

Canine canoeing companion

A quiet trout stream at dusk.

Big flies, big fish

A quiet trout stream at dusk.

The only photograph from my single Hex foray.

In this month’s Minnesota Conservation Volunteer, the Department of Natural Resources treasured by many in the state, a story by Michael Kallok covered the allure of trout fishing during the Hexagenia mayfly hatch. While to most trout anglers, mayflies mean Blue-winged olives, Hendricksons, Sulfurs and so on, to the non-trout angling world, mayflies are Hexes, the giant flies that hatch on damp June nights, sometimes making roads and bridges impassable due to their sheer number.

But that’s not to say that the Hex is ignored by trout anglers. Anything but. There is a mysterious quality to the hatch; the big bugs and the fish that eat them only become active after sunset, and Hex hunters return with stories of fishing by ear—casting toward the sound of a rising fish and striking blindly at the hungry splash when one’s fly should be in the right place.

As with all fishing, it is about more than the catching. Hex aficionados also boast of stumbling along river banks in pitch black, and of the strange encounters only experienced after dark on lonely trout streams.

Kallok’s article focuses on the Straight River (PDF), which is not much discussed in Minnesota’s trout fishing community. Perhaps it is better known than I assume, and perhaps it has been quietly–secretively–fished by otherwise extroverted anglers. In any case, the secret is out now, and I’d be interested in a follow-up article to cover what this year’s fishing experience is like. I bet the Straight devotees, some of whose decades of dedication to the river and its Hex hatch was apparent in the article, won’t be so lonely this summer.

As the sun creeps toward the western horizon, swallows feeding high in the air offer hope for a spinner fall. At 9 p.m. Bill and Edie paddle downstream to settle in to other promising spots and wait for the bugs to arrive. Up above, a loose swarm of Hexagenia appears like specs of static in the darkening sky.

The river has taken on the tint and texture of a blued gun barrel. On the otherwise silky water, I focus on a small dimple, and it suddenly transforms into a pair of upright wings. Soon, graceful sailboat-shaped forms are popping up everywhere, lingering briefly before taking flight.

Hex are emerging!

I clip the spinner pattern from my leader and select a pattern to imitate an emerging Hexagenia. As I struggle in the dark to tie a new knot, a pod of trout begins to feed enthusiastically. One leaps clear out of the water, as if paying tribute to this time of plenty with an elegant waste of energy.

A commotion downstream, sounding like a nervous puppy’s first swim, precedes Bill’s exclamation: “Fish on!”

Moving into the 21st-century, the DNR provided a YouTube video to accompany the article featuring some photos and short video clips. Looks like great paddling, if nothing else!