ON THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER – For Huck Finn and his pal Jim, this river meant freedom in the memorable novel "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." But in time, as they drifted downstream, the towns and people who inhabited the Mississippi's banks closed in on the unlikely pair as they wandered toward an uncertain fate.
I was thinking about this the other day while on Ol' Miss south of Red Wing. My pal Griz — Dick Grzywinski of St. Paul — was at the tiller of his john boat and a strong wind was blowing combers upstream. Running counter to the river's current, the foamy wave-tops seemed intent on reversing the Mississippi's course.
Griz and I couldn't remember being on the river this early in spring, fishing for walleyes and saugers. Usually in the third week of March these fish are still staging in Lake Pepin in preparation for their spring run upstream to the Red Wing dam.
But this past winter in many ways wasn't a winter at all. And spring, defined generally in Minnesota as a weather period not as bad as winter, arrived early. So along with hundreds of other anglers, we strung spinning rods with monofilament and motored onto the Mississippi and toward an uncertain fate of our own.
"These fish are constantly moving in spring," Griz said. "So you if you find them in one place one day, they might be there the next day. Or they might be as far upstream as the dam."
A river fishing guide, Griz like others in his trade was grounded last spring by Gov. Tim Walz, who decreed that these professionals were unessential to Minnesota life. Flapdoodle is what Huck Finn called this particular kind of tomfoolery, and he wasn't far off.
But now a year had passed, Griz was vaccined up and ready to hit the water. The problem was the wind, which gusted to 35 miles per hour. The launch site we chose, on the Minnesota side of the river on the southern outskirts of Red Wing, would be a 15- or 20-minute boat ride to the head of Lake Pepin, where a vast angling flotilla gathered most days last week, seeking walleyes and sauger.
"They're getting fish down there, but let's try upriver instead," Griz said, "and see if we can find a spot out of the wind."
A popular walleye and sauger outfit among many early spring river anglers is the Dubuque Rig, which generally is trolled upstream. Employing a three-way swivel whose eyelets are attached to, 1. an angler's line; 2. a heavy (half-ounce or more) jig; and 3. a trailing smaller jig dressed with a soft plastic bait, a Dubuque Rig catches fish if trolled slowly enough (usually less than 1 mph) and especially if presented with a series of lifts and drops of the angler's rod.
But it's not the only way to catch early-season walleyes and saugers on the Mississippi.
"Besides," Griz said. "I like to jig. For me it's a more fun way to fish, and generally more productive."
So it was after bending his john boat into the river's current a mile or so, Griz found a sheltered stretch of water that pressed hard against a long steel barge that had wintered in that very place.
"Let's try it here," he said.
Griz's bait presentation appears simple but is precise in the manner of a laser-guided missile. Pointing the bow of his boat upstream, he controls its downstream drift with a stern-mounted electric trolling motor engaged in "forward." The goal is to keep the bow pointed upriver while controlling the boat's downstream speed such that the angle of our lines is vertical, or nearly so.
That way we can more accurately present our minnow-baited half-ounce jigs to walleyes and saugers that in almost all instances are hugging the river bottom.
Such presentations, including of Dubuque Rigs, are especially important in spring, when rivers often run high, fast and dirty.
Griz caught the first fish, a small walleye, and I boated the second, a walleye of similar dimensions.
"That's the great thing about the river, how healthy it is," Griz said. "You stay out here long enough and you'll catch fish of every size."
A year ago, the Wisconsin and Minnesota Departments of Natural Resources agreed to uniform walleye and sauger limits in this stretch of the Mississippi, limiting combined bags to four fish, with a minimum 15-inch length restriction for walleyes (though none for sauger).
One walleye or sauger over 20 inches also can be kept.
We boated walleyes and saugers one after another during our time on the river. Many walleyes were between 15 and 20 inches, and some fat saugers pushed the 20-inch mark.
Great fishing. And only an hour or so from the Twin Cities.
"I've guided from Lake of the Woods to the Iowa border," Griz said. "Minnesota doesn't have any better fishing than right here, on the Mississippi."
Guide Dick Grzywinski can be reached at (651) 771-6231.