Over the next few months I'll be spotlighting interesting and different pieces written by some of our areas top guides along with other people of interest.
Today, Capt Turk Gierke of the Croixsippi Guide Service.
Wintertime Fishing On The Open Water
Walleye Tactics, Safety And More
By: Turk Gierke
After the snow hits the ground, other motorists may give you strange looks when you drive down the road with a boat in tow. It is clear that angling has taken place after seeing the rigged-up fishing poles, balled-up used line and empty chuckwagon sandwich wrappers taking wing and circling in a wind where the dual console and walk through windshield meet.
Anglers may not know this, but most days a good bite happens on the Mississippi River all winter long and into early spring. This leaf-fallen, snow-covered, walleye and sauger scene may sound intimidating, especially on a river known to flood, flow fast and harbor people called river rats. However, when it is all said and done, it is not that different from summer-time angling.
In the 1930s the U.S. Corps of Engineers built locks and dams on the Mississippi River to create a navigational channel for barge traffic. As the locks allow commerce, conversely the dams restrict the natural migration of walleye and sauger, and act as a winter holding-ground for these fish.
There are numerous productive and trend-setting techniques on the Mississippi River for catching walleye in shallow water, casting hair jigs, jig and plastics, and blade baits. However, for newfound river anglers learning about coldwater walleye - vertical jigging - by drifting within sight of the dam outflow is the place to start.
The drift must be controlled and go naturally with the river flow. To make this happen, slowly backtroll a tiller motor into current or slowly forward troll a bowmount electric into the current. Before fishing starts, practice and learn boat control, and most importantly learn to slowly crawl forward, hover in place and gradually move with the water downstream.
Once boat control is achieved and repeatable, then you can begin to fish. The best starting technique and most popular is vertical jigging. The key is to keep the lure straight up and down. A five-sixteenths or three-eighths-ounce jig will do the job in the slower winter river current when fishing in depths from 18 to 25 feet of water. Later in the year as snow melts, heavier jigs are needed to accomplish vertical jigging, lighter ones are sufficient during the winter.
Attempt to keep the lure two to 10 inches off the bottom. The jig has reached the bottom when there is slack in the line. Keep the jig off the bottom. But how? Read the graph and adjust the depth, use feel and watch the line. Bright colored lines help enormously in seeing if the line is slack or tight, and of course watching the retrieve and lure drop on any cast can help as well.
When you start your drift, note where you are on the shoreline, and then slowly slide down stream. Note depths and locations where fish are holding and work those areas thoroughly. Repeat productive drift passes. Because of the firstclass fishery on the Mississippi, it is surprising how many fish can be caught even on an angler’s first river winter outing.
Experiment with color - chartreuse, black and orange are common jig head colors, also try tricolor jigs. Plastic tails can add a twist to the presentation and are highly effective and also widely used. Large fatheads and smaller shiners (if you can get them) are productive, and stinger hooks may be in order if the bites do not result in hooked-up fish.
There are times to be off the water, namely in the rising spring floodwaters, but follow a few simple steps for a safe open-water winter fishing experience.
The first step, as always, is to wear a proper fitting lifejacket. The second is to fish with a partner. River fishing in the winter is conducted when the water temperature is just above freezing, so safety is especially important.
Another step is understanding the navigation on the Upper Mississippi. When heading upstream (into the flow) keep the red nun buoy on the right hand (starboard) side of the boat, and when heading upstream, keep the green can buoy on the left hand (port) side. These buoys mark the main channel and will keep boats from running a ground and/or prevent prop and lower end damage.
Secondly, because of dangerous, deceptive currents, it is against the law to approach a dam closer than 150 feet from the downstream side. And it is also illegal to be within 600 feet of any dam while traveling upstream.
This next piece of advice is common sense: Stay away from all barges that are under way; they start operations once Lake Pepin thaws. The barges have a blind spot directly in front, and the towboat propellers throw a lot of water. Be aware of where and when these barges turn, and make sure to be on the inside bend side of a turning barge.
Another helpful tip: Do not anchor in an ice flow. It is possible for flowing ice sheets, to become hung up on a boat’s anchor rope. If the anchor does not give way and the ice sheet is large enough, the force of the moving ice can drag a roped boat’s bow underwater.
Clothing And Launching
Deer hunting attire from the hat down to the boots is a similar amount of clothing you will need to make your winter fishing quest. Just do not wear a jacket that is too bulky, as arms must be allowed to move and function.
Though the river flows and remains open for much of the winter, the temperature cut-off point for many anglers is 20 degrees or colder. Fishing in colder weather than that can be futile as line freezes on eyelets. I use Limit Creek LCS69MLF walleye rods for winter fishing because the eyelets are designed slightly larger in order to make winter fishing easier.
Even though water flows in the main channel, the water near the ramp may be frozen, especially if the temperature is below 20 degrees for an extended period. Also, ramp pavement can be iced over, and then sand and salt, as well as the four-wheel drive component, are needed.
Ramps located in bays and other places where there is low flow are iced-in for the season. Without a doubt, Everts Resort near Red Wing, Minn. has the best-kept winter ramps on the entire Mississippi River, plus a great bait-and-tackle shop.
Do not put water in the livewell, as complications with equipment will likely occur. Instead, keep fish in the well or cooler without water; trust me they will not spoil! When fishing is over, you must allow water to drain out of the motor by placing it in a vertical position (trim the motor all the way down) for a few minutes, then raise to travel. Some anglers also turn over the engine for a brief moment to expel water from the motor, however, this practice is becoming rare.
As always, the lower unit must be freshly lubed and inspected periodically for signs of water in the lube.
From Lock and Dam No. 1 in Minneapolis to No. 8 south of Brownsville, Minn., anglers turn heads towing water-dripping boats in the height of winter. Fishing the river some days is like shooting them in a barrel; it can be that good. Lifetime catches of 100 walleye and sauger a day have occurred for many river anglers, creating a cure for winter blues, and a warm and fuzzy feeling about this coldwater winter fishery.
Turk Gierke is a multi-species guide on the St. Croix and Mississippi Rivers. Turk can be contacted at 1-800-929-1801 firstname.lastname@example.org
for more information.
'Nuff about me, this is about a young lad and his encounter with his first Lake Sturgeon. I can' t tell the story the way Connor can, so here's Connor...
Ok so I was with my dad and his boss by the Hudson swing bridge (on the St Croix) using a Texas rig and braided line with a night crawler on the hook. We were anchored in about 5 feet and casting into 25 feet or so.
All the sudden I got a nibble and thought a sheephead was taking it but then it started to run! It ran for about 5 minutes but then it stopped and I began reeling in again. It ran one more time but this time when I was reeling it in it jumped 1 foot out of the water and that's when we saw it was a sturgeon!
I got it in the net then realized there was a tag on it's fin we scratched off the goo on the tag and it read " mn dnr 87995" that's when I started shaking and got some pictures we didn't get the weight or girth but we checked an online conversion chart. I saw that my very first sturgeon was not only 47" long and 19 lbs but that it was my biggest fish of my life!
Thanks for sharing your story with us Connor! I think sturgoen bring out your excitment in many of us "older kids"!
Here's the info from the MN DNR on Connors tagged fish.
This fish was originally tagged on October 1, 2010. At that time the fish was 1117 mm long (43.98") and weighed 6668 grams (14.7 lbs). It also had a girth of 368 mm (14.49"). The length-versus-weight ratio of this fish was about 8 percent below average for Lake Sturgeon in the St. Croix River . Yours is the first reported recapture of this fish since its initial tagging. According to the information you provided on your catch, this fish had relocated approximately 5.7 miles from the original capture site! The length that you reported for this fish is a little above what we would expect for after this amount of time (+3 inches), but is within reason given the difference in methods of measurement used by biologists and anglers. Our work to date has found that growth for Lake Sturgeon in the Lower St. Croix River is relatively slow and they increase in length at an average rate of 1.1 inches per year.
The 2011 St Croix River catch and release sturgeon season closes Oct 15th.
Water temps are dropping and the bite will be getting better and better until the end of the Catch and Release season on Oct 15th. We've caught fish on the whole gamut from crawlers, slice of sucker, fatheads and combos of each. Bait hasn't really been in favor of one over the other so far.
With the exception of one fish caught in 25 feet of water, all our fish came from the featureless 30 to 34 foot basin of the St. Croix Scenic Riverway near Bayport MN.
Although I like fishing at night, sturgeon can be had during daylight hours. There's better fishing and bite detection when the wind is low.The last couple nights have been cool with temps dropping to the 50's and stiff breezes blowing us up stream. Warmer cloths is not an option but a necessity. Gloves feel good for the short drive to the Boathouse Marina
To a river fisherman, fishing up stream of the boat seems very strange. We could have held the boat with two anchors, but the fish didn't seem to mind allowing the boat's transom to swing up stream and fish that way. There's very little current in the St Croix.
Some friendly reminders:
* To harvest a Lake Sturgeon you'll need a $5. Lake Sturgeon tag. The fish must be 60 inches long or more. The harvest season closes at the end of September. Followed by a 2 week catch and release season. Anglers do not need a Sturgeon tag to fish-catch and release Sturgeon.
* Support all large fish by using two hands and please don't hold our dinosaurs by their gill covers.
* Watch out for other boaters.
Good Luck and See You on the River!
More Sturgeon Photos can be found at www.BrianKsWorld.com
Our anchor touched down in 23 fow and our baits ended up in 30 to 50 fow depending on how far back we cast. My Favorite Wife and I were using crawlers, sucker slices, fat head minnow or combination of all of the above.
The targeted fish of the day:
Shovelnose Sturgeon and anything else that tugged on the line. We weren't to fussy as both of us were just happy to be out together enjoying a small slice of the summer that's left. It didn't take too long before Deb was playing tug-o-war with a plump 10 pound channel cat that picked up the squished sucker head. Never under estimate the power of a stepped on or otherwise squashed sucker head!
The first sturgeon that came to the boat was a little tagged Lake Sturgeon. She was all of 25 inches. The tag number, length and location was sent to the DNR office in Lake City to be added to their data base. Hopefully some day in my life time we'll see a catch and release season on the Mississippi for these incredible fish. As with all tagged fish, please leave the tag in the fish if your your releasing them. The tags keep on giving information each time they are caught and the info turned in.
The Shovelnose wouldn't disappoint us. It seemed like 4 or 5 fathead minnows on the 3/0 Team Catfish Double Action hook was the bait of choice for these fish some call the ugliest fish in North American. I use my channel cat/Lake Sturgeon set up. A Garcia 6500 spooled with 80 pound Team Catfish Tug O War line, mounted on a St. Croix TRC70MHF. I could get away with a much lighter set up however there's a very good chance of hooking into a trophy channel cat, a monster flathead or even and acrobatic Lake sturgeon.
The Shovelnose season is continuous below Lock and Dam #3 near Red Wing. There is a 10 fish limit if you would like to try one. Personally I have too much fun catching and releasing them to try to figure out how to clean one of these boneless dinosaurs. Also known as Hackleback or Sand Sturgeon, shovels are a hoot to catch. This sturgeon roams the Mississippi and Missouri rivers and their tributaries. One of the smallest of the sturgeon, with the WI State record being caught out of Everts Fishing Resort just a couple years ago at 5 pounds 9 oz. This is a record that will fall over the next few years. One client of mine caught what would have been a new state record by at least two ounces, but released it to keep on fishing .
Males reach sexual maturity around 5 years, females around 7 years. Like the Lake sturgeon, they don't spawn every year. Areas to target the guys will have sandy or gravel bottoms with moderate to heavy current. Most articles will say they mainly feed on aquatic invertebrates. Slices of sucker, fatheads as mentioned before and worms have work very well for me. Shovelnose sturgeon are classified as a sport fish in about half of 24 states where it's found. There's a number of states that allow commercial harvest. Shovels are another fish that's under fished in our area.
The St Croix River Lake Sturgeon season opens on Sept 4 this year. Time to get out there and enjoy the last few days of summer. Take the kids and get in some early Shovelnose fishing!
Over the last year and a half, the Corp of Engineers have been working on a $650,000 "feasability" study to place a fish passageway through Lock and Dam #3 near Red Wing, MN. According to the Corps website a goal was to have one in place by 2025 at the Hasting Lock and Dam also.
Until just recently the cost along with other information was listed on the Corps website. As of this morning my links to those web pages listed them as "unavailable".
The cost to build this passageway was felt to be prohibitive on the WI side of the river. $22. million according to the Corps website.
End of story right?
According to the latest stakeholders email, alternative areas are being concidered. While the Corps, The Natures Conservansy and the WI DNR push for building this fish "super highway", MN is going into high gear to put up road blocks.
I think we all agree that we can not stop them, but do we have to keep tossing money into the river to help them along? After all, we don't hear complaining about the fishing on our 80 miles of the Mississippi.
Subject: LD 3 Fish Passage Definite Project Report Status (UNCLASSIFIED)
Sent: Friday, July 15, 2011 2:48 PM
Classification: UNCLASSIFIED Caveats: NONE LD 3 Fish Passage Stakeholders, I apologize for the lack of communication of where we are with the above project. We have been looking at alternative fish way channels that are less expensive that the current channel thru the Wisconsin embankments. 1. As you know the current Preliminary Draft Report showed an increase in Project Cost for just the fish way channel which is now in excess of $19M. Most of the cost is associated with imported cofferdam fill/removal and the channel borrow removal as well. 2. The in-house team has been looking at two other possible less expensive fish way channel locations on the lock side thru the island. One uses the Auxiliary lock chamber (as suggested by Value Engineering team) and a second channel alternative is located between the auxiliary lock and the dam. Cost estimates are being generated to see if these two alternative channels are less expensive than the Wisconsin embankment channel to construct and still meet the original goals and objectives. 3. Costs should be complete in about two weeks. Tom Novak Tel: 651.290.5524 Cell: 612.201.6390 Fax: 651.290.5258 eMail: email@example.com