Dennis Anderson: Drifting for smallies along the St. Croix

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 6, 2014 - 9:19 AM

A river and the urge to fish provide the starting point. The right company and the right boat make it a “great day.”

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As guide Wendy Williamson steadied her drift boat in the currents of the Upper St. Croix River, angler Bob Nasby of St. Paul cast a fly near shore, looking for smallmouth bass.

Photo: Photos by DENNIS ANDERSON • danderson@startribune.com,

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DANBURY, WIS. — The wind was up, gusting all day, and sometimes Wendy Williamson’s drift boat blew upstream, against the current. This was a few days back, on the upper reaches of the St. Croix River, above its confluence with the Namekagon, and Wendy, Bob Nasby and I were looking for smallmouth bass.

In this summer of high water, fishing can be had. But the Mississippi, St. Croix and Minnesota rivers near the Twin Cities are too flush with water to locate fish consistently, and also sometimes dangerous.

On the St. Croix, fairly normal river levels exist farther upstream, and a day’s angling there can pass with reasonable expectations that fish will be found, a smallmouth bass here, maybe a muskie, northern pike or walleye there.

Mostly, Bob, Wendy and I wanted smallies, while hoping for the odd poke at a muskie. The latter are river fish, after all, and while midsummer isn’t the best time to catch them in moving water — a swirl, a tail flash and the gobbling of a big fly — it can be done.

“This looks like great water,” Bob said, rolling his line over in a tight loop and directing a finger-length fly toward shore.

A half-hour or so earlier, we had dropped Wendy’s drift boat into the St. Croix, and now, not far from shore, the three of us slid silently downriver, joined by a common interest in rivers, fish and fishing.

“Cast just over there,” Wendy said, urging Bob and me to land our flies as close to shore as possible.

Blue as the sky above, the St. Croix is wider in these parts than some might imagine, and fishy looking. Occasional riffles highlight its slight declinations, while deadfalls and lily pads lie in small bays, offering cover and still water for fish, bass in particular.

Such is the beauty — not just the St. Croix’s, but that of the Flambeau and Chippewa rivers, also — that inspired Wendy and her husband, Larry Mann, to stay in this country after moving here from Colorado in the late 1990s.

Wendy had grown up in Hayward, and years ago had migrated to the mountainous West, drawn there by its blue-ribbon streams and plentiful trout. In Colorado, she met Larry while the two guided fly anglers, and when Wendy’s father died and her mother needed help, they packed up, leaving the West and bringing with them to Wisconsin the drift boat with which they had plied so many mountain rivers.

“We were coming back to lake country, and there were a lot of guides around Hayward who would take clients for muskies and walleyes,” Wendy said. “But river fishing at the time wasn’t so popular.”

Long a haven for interlopers looking to make a living off the land, northern Wisconsin has over the years withstood influxes of loggers, trappers, hunters, fishing guides and even mobsters.

Some saw this big, forested country and went for broke — ultimately leaving the same way.

Others stayed and thrived.

The latter would describe Wendy and Larry’s excellent adventure over the past decade or so.

“About the time we arrived, interest was growing in fly fishing for warm-water species, such as smallmouth bass and muskies,” Wendy said, noting that the late Tom Helgeson of Minneapolis was publishing his Midwest Fly Fishing magazine at the time and also promoting a fly-fishing show in the Twin Cities each spring (the show, Tom Helgeson’s Great Waters Fly Fishing Expo, continues under the auspices of his children).

Taking note, and not a little risk, Wendy and Larry opened a shop — Hayward Fly Fishing Co. — and started guiding fly anglers on area rivers.

Comfortable as they long had been at the oars of drift boats, they soon found that local fly anglers, as well as those from the Twin Cities, Duluth, Milwaukee, Chicago and beyond, were eager to fish with them, one in the bow, one astern, on daylong drifts through big country.

Most times, smallmouth bass are the target. But muskies also remain a main attraction, particularly in October and November.

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  • A smallmouth bass caught by Dennis Anderson (not pictured) measured 19 inches long.

  • Smallmouth bass caught in rivers with strong currents can put up quite a fight. Their bronze coloring, blended with dark shades and plump shapes, lend them unique identities among freshwater fish.

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