A spring slow to warm holds the Mississippi in a winter fishin’ condition
ON THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER
That morning, Griz had seen his first robin, taking it as a sure sign spring couldn’t be too far distant. But spring seemed distant. This was early Tuesday and the temperature was still in the low 20s, cool for so late in March. Now, as Griz angled his truck out of St. Paul and south, toward Hastings and Prescott and finally Red Wing, his john boat trailing behind, he was happy he had brought along his old quilted bibs, dirty and fish-stained as they were.
“I ain’t ever washed ’em,’’ Griz would say, an obvious point to anyone who saw the battle-scarred outerwear.
This would be Griz’s first trip of the year on the Mississippi, other than to Pool 2. He’d fished Pool 2, downtown St. Paul, a couple of times a few weeks back. But the big walleyes he wanted had played hard to get. “They’re running up the Minnesota to spawn,’’ he said. “Not much goin’ on.’’
A year ago, Griz and I had made this same trip to Red Wing three weeks earlier. Much of March 2011 was warm, even balmy, and the sun burned our faces while we dropped 3/8-ounce jigs to the bottom of Ol’ Muddy, looking for walleyes.
We found ’em, too, coolers full, had we been keeping them. Most were small males. But some were real chunks. Afterward, we tied up Griz’s boat at a Jamaican joint hard by the river, ordered jerk chicken and a couple of beers, and basked in the glow of it all.
This year is different, and not just the weather. It’s the water: The river is as low as anglers hereabouts have seen it, Griz included.
“A friend of mine was down a few days ago and tried to run the back channel downstream,’’ Griz said, waving a hand generally in the direction of St. Louis, Memphis, New Orleans and beyond.
As he spoke, we stood at the public landing at the Wisconsin channel that lies between Red Wing and Hager City, Wis.
After launching, we would have two choices to get to the main channel of the Mississippi: Run downstream and become stuck on sandbars, as Griz’s friend did. Or put-put-put our way upstream, Griz’s tiller-drive 40-horse outboard tilted nearly entirely out of the water, prop spraying water like a fire hose.
We headed north.
“A lot of guys come down here and don’t know the river,’’ Griz said. “They think this water’s like water they see in lakes. It’s not. You don’t know where the shallow spots are here, or the wing dams, and you’ll lose it all: the skag, the lower unit, everything.’’
Dick Grzywinski is Griz’s full name. He lives in St. Paul, as he always has, long ago in that city straddling knucklehead Harleys to blow off steam after toiling long days on a loading dock. Occasionally beer was involved in these nighttime runs, and back on the dock come morning Griz would say some day he’d clear out of that dead-end job and become a fishing guide.
“ ‘You ain’t leavin’,’ the other guys would tell me,’’ Griz said. “But I knew I was. I’d already tore up my shoulder liftin’ on that dock. One day I just didn’t show up.’’
A fisherman then and a fisherman now, and a guide always, Griz sometimes has trouble getting off the water, he gets so into it. Occasionally clients ride along on some of these marathon excursions, not wanting, really, to complain. So they jig and jig and jig in ever-lower light until finally in the dark with the moon rising they’re back at the dock, Griz thinking nothing unusual about it.
“So now I’ve got an old alarm clock I hide in the stern,’’ Griz said. “That way if I think of it I can take a look and see when it’s time to go home.’’
Just upstream from Red Wing, Griz settled his boat into a handful of the countless currents that braid the Mississippi, top to bottom. Boat control is a big deal, and from the stern Griz flipped a switch on his electric trolling motor, firing it up. Soon we drifted downstream slowly, moving strategically among the currents, Griz with one eye on his depth finder, our lines vertical in the water.
Before I had impaled my first fathead on a jig, Griz had a walleye in the boat.
Then he caught another and another
We weren’t competing, exactly. Except with Griz you always want to at least hold your own. Otherwise from the stern he’ll stack walleyes like cord wood while you’re in the bow wondering just what’s going on.
“People pass this spot up,’’ Griz said. “It don’t look like much. But if you watch your depth finder, it’s different here. It holds fish. Always.’’
These weren’t big fish. Most were less than 18 inches. And some saugers were in the mix. But the day was unfolding as we had hoped: Our rods bent routinely to the heft of these feisty river prizes, while above, patches of blue sky hinted at a midday warmup.
Yet the Mississippi, with its low water and snowy banks, still seemed in winter’s grip. Some backwater bays held ice. Fewer eagles perched in trees than we usually see on March trips. Spring and its flood would arrive in time. But for now, the river lay waiting, even dormant, with winter still calling the shots.
Using a counter he keeps for that purpose, Griz recorded each fish we caught, the tally quickly climbing past 10, then 15 and beyond.
“The key is to keep your line vertical, and your jig on the bottom,’’ Griz said. “You’re not on the bottom, you’re not catching fish.’’
As Griz spoke, his rod doubled over.
This would be a big fish, perhaps a channel cat or a flathead or a dogfish or even a paddlefish.
But Griz knew by the way it fought, long before it breached, it was a walleye.
And it was: a behemoth with a fat tail, a 9-pounder that was quickly released.
The day never really did warm up. Clouds reclaimed the blue sky, and the wind picked up from the north.
As usual, we stayed on ’Ol Muddy longer than we planned. Finally, we found a joint with a river view and a frozen pizza, and called it a day.
Spring will arrive soon, and with it the flood. But Tuesday was still a winter’s day on ’Ol Muddy.
Editor’s note: Dick “Griz’’ Grzywinski and his guide service can be reached at 651-771-6231.