JACOBSON, MINN. – Wind gusts rippled the Mississippi River’s surface in a downstream direction as Collin Cody pulled on the oars of his drift boat to go upstream.
Heavy rain during the previous night loaded the river with fresh current, but the fishing guide could only grin and shake his head when asked if the extra resistance would tire him out. His reply? Amazingly easier than it looks.
“I position the boat and my clients make the casts,’’ he said. “There’s nothing I think about more than the next smallmouth eat. We chase the eat.’’
The 36-year-old schoolteacher is pursuing an alien dream: Running a summer fly-fishing business in northern Minnesota with a vessel built for the grand rivers of the Rocky Mountain West.
About 40 times a season, clients will meet up with Cody near his home in Grand Rapids. They’ll first stop at a convenience store for beef sticks and other provisions. Without fail, at least one passer-by will stop to gawk at the rig.
“Well, that’s an interesting boat,’’ they’ll say. “No motor, eh?”
Jeff Johnson grew up in Grand Rapids. He’s a walleye guide and good friend of Cody’s. They help each other out with their respective fishing businesses, and Johnson has been surprised by the acceptance and growth of Cody’s Northern Drift Outfitters.
“Growing up here you never saw someone fly fishing from a riverbank,’’ Johnson said. “That would be pretty far-fetched.’’
But mostly by word of mouth, Cody has expanded his base of clients for guided fly fishing by targeting trophy-sized smallmouth bass on the Upper Mississippi. If clients are happier catching lots of smallies, although lesser in size, he’ll take them out for a drift on the St. Louis or Big Fork rivers. If they want to camp overnight on the river, that’s OK, too.
“I think it’s unique and a pretty big opportunity,’’ Johnson said. “He offers smallmouth fishing on the fly that is world-class.’’
Cody grew up in a fishing family of five in Roseville, where his parents still live. But his introduction to fly casting came from a friend who took Collin to the Kinnickinnic River near River Falls, Wis. The experience woke what he believed was a passion just waiting to be nudged.
“It would have happened anyway, I was going to be hooked, but that’s when it started,’’ Cody said.
From Roseville High School, he went on to the University of Minnesota to get his degree in education. Katie, his wife, was getting her education degree at Bethel University in Arden Hills. They moved to Longmont, Colo., where they blended teaching, fishing and a life in the outdoors for eight years.
“We moved out there for the mountains,’’ Collin said.
Drift boats were the thing. He made friends and chased trout on Boulder Creek, Eagle River, Blue River, Yampa River and the Colorado River itself. He hung out so often at Rocky Mountain Anglers, a premier fly shop in Boulder, that the owner invited him to go pro.
“We would fish together,” Cody said, “and one day he just asked, ‘When are you going to start guiding for me?’ ’’
Cody bought his own drift boat. He said the shop’s cardinal rule for guides was not to make a single cast. It’s a devotion he brought back to Minnesota. His total focus on the river is putting his customers in position to catch a fish on their next cast. He can accommodate one or two anglers, but not three.
“Being a teacher lends itself to what I do as a fishing guide,’’ Cody said. “You learn every time you’re on the river.’’
The move back home to Minnesota came in 2016. Collin and Katie imagined living north of the seven-county metro area, but not as far north as Grand Rapids. The more they considered teaching openings in the community, the more they liked it. They now have three kids of their own. Collin educates fourth-graders, and Katie works as a physical education teacher.
“The amount of adventure up here is exciting,’’ Collin said. “It’s a good jumping-off point.’’
The Mississippi River flows in and out of Grand Rapids, and Collin Cody concentrates his trips downstream from the city on a long stretch that meanders to Jacobson near the Itasca-Aitkin county line. It’s the best spot for hulking 20-inch smallmouth bass that Cody has experienced, and he’s watching as more and more fly casters crave the bite. Top-water action is a huge part of the allure, and there’s always the chance of hooking a muskie or 36-inch northern.
“They’re out there patrolling the banks, but they’re like ghosts,’’ Cody said of the smallmouth. “They’re not there one minute but they make themselves visible the next and you’re watching them explode.’’
His first blind step into the almost nonexistent Minnesota drift boat business was to drive to Montana to buy a boat. He sold his first drift boat as he left Colorado. He came back from Bozeman with a minimalist 14-footer equipped with high-end, 9-foot oars made of heavy fir. The paddles are perfectly counterbalanced while swinging from their pinned oarlocks.
Cody said the St. Louis River is second in popularity for his clients. But when the flow is right on the Big Fork, he can offer good fishing in a remarkable setting. The launch point is not far from Grand Rapids.
“If you want to be in the middle of nowhere and nothingness on a river … that’s the Big Fork,’’ he said.
Cody’s favorite days on the water are when it’s piping hot. Smallies are always looking up on those days, anxious to eat.
“It would be an anomaly to say it’s too hot,’’ he said. “The hotter the better.’’
Cody said moonlighting as a fishing guide from Memorial Day weekend until school resumes in the fall is enough to keep him busy but not “crazy busy.’’ He’s content to build a reliable stable of clients.
“I just love it,’’ he said. “To me, it’s just sharing a passion. It’s such a cool resource up here.’’