“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” — Heraclitus
ON THE ZUMBRO RIVER – Bill Plantan has stepped into this river countless times, and did again on a recent day.
His intent, and mine, was to catch fish: smallmouth bass and perhaps a muskie. But with a partly blue sky overhead and a gentle summer breeze weaving among the riverbank’s box elders and willows, exploration seemed the higher calling.
“A great morning,” Plantan offered from the stern.
Critical to understanding Minnesota’s history, the Zumbro nonetheless twists through southeast Minnesota in generalized anonymity.
Bordered variously by limestone and sandstone bluffs, vibrant farmlands and thickly forested shoulders, the Zumbro until the mid-1800s was a lifeline for large mammals now gone, including elk and bison, as well as countless native birds, among them wild turkeys.
Each wandered or flitted about the big woods and oak savannas that adjoined the Zumbro, helping to define southeast Minnesota’s diverse and biologically rich landscape in the days before white settlement.
Uniquely sensitive, much of the region lies within the driftless area and its characteristic underground streams, sinkholes and springs.
Reaching for a fishing rod and attaching a Fluke, or rubberlike white bait, to a single hook, Plantan, 59, of Rochester cast toward the Zumbro’s shoreline, hoping to entice one of the river’s bronzebacks, or smallmouth bass, to strike.
As he did, he connected himself not only to the generations of anglers and river travelers who have plied the Zumbro since 1848, when the six counties of the river’s watershed were first surveyed and platted, but to a time 200 years earlier still, when French and British fur traders first came to the southeast to do business with, and live among, the eastern Dakota people.
Each — American Indian and newcomer alike — took inspiration from and was dependent upon the Zumbro.
In many ways, the same is true for Plantan, whose development over many years of his River Ridge Custom Canoe (www.riverridgecustomcanoes.com) is rooted in the Zumbro’s pools, riffles and gentle flat-water runs.
Just under 13 feet long and 39 inches across amidships, Plantan’s innovative craft is at home on rivers large and small.
But its birthplace, spiritually if not literally, is the Zumbro, whose three forks (North, Middle and South) ultimately join to form the main branch that empties into the Mississippi just north of Kellogg.
Casting and retrieving his Fluke, Plantan initially drew no takers, while I sent a large popper airborne with a 10-weight fly rod, hoping to trick a muskie to strike, “Jaws”-like.
“Muskies are in the Zumbro, but like all fish, they don’t bite everyday,” Plantan said.
In the bow, I rested comfortably in a thickly cushioned seat, a rarity for canoe travelers, while in the stern, one elbow bent to the handle of the electric trolling motor that propelled us, Plantan enjoyed a similarly plush perch.
Between us, innovatively, a rod holder cradled extra spinning and bait casting outfits, while a cooler stored lunch. Spaces also were reserved for tackle boxes and the motor battery.
But key to the craft’s design is its raised square stern, on which the electric motor is mounted.
Fishing from a river craft under power, after all, greatly increases an angler’s chances of catching fish, because deep pools, rocky shorelines and large boulders — each of which can harbor bass or other finned quarry — can be cast to once while passing downstream, then again and again after powering back upriver, using the motor.
Traditional canoes offer river anglers few such second chances.
“Being on the Zumbro so much, I thought of things that would come in handy for fishermen wanting a canoe that is stable enough and comfortable enough to increase their chances of catching fish,’’ Plantan said.
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Known by the Dakota as the Wazi Oju and by the French as the Riviere d’Embarrass, the Zumbro — after a century and more of neglect — now is the object of intense conservation efforts by a group called the Zumbro Watershed Partnership.
After settlers inhabited southeast Minnesota in the mid-1800s, vast landscape changes followed. Wetlands were drained, forests were cut down and wheat fields were planted.
Abetting this development was the construction along the Zumbro and other southeast rivers of dams and flour mills, one of which, built by Frederick Olds in Rochester in 1856, was the largest in Minnesota at the time.
Railways followed, starting in 1862 with the Winona and St. Peter line through Olmsted and Dodge counties, and in 1870 by the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul, along the Mississippi’s west bank through Wabasha and Goodhue counties.
Meanwhile, the Dakota tribes that had lived in the Zumbro watershed for hundreds of years, including the Mdewakantons, were being pushed out, before finally being removed to a reservation in the western part of the state, along the Minnesota River, by the Treaty of Mendota in 1851.
A decade later, Taoyateduta, better known as Little Crow, reluctantly commanded the Dakota in the War of 1862. The Indians were defeated, and a year afterward, Little Crow was shot by a farmer.
In the approximately 150 years that followed, the Zumbro River’s 900,000-acre watershed was intensively developed and farmed, alternately flowing, flooding and filling in.
Then, in 2004, a small group of southeast Minnesotans that would include Plantan gathered to protect and advocate for the Zumbro, after learning that several of its tributaries were too polluted and silt-filled to support fish or recreation.
Thus was born the Zumbro Watershed Partnership (www.zumbrowatershed.org), which today actively promotes land and water conservation in the southeast, with the intent of restoring the Zumbro and its adjoining streams to their once former selves.
The other day, the Zumbro flowed clean and pretty.
I didn’t catch a muskie.
But Plantan and I brought enough smallies over the gunnels of his tricked-out canoe to keep us busy, and we boated a northern pike, too.
So it was atop flowing water that — as Heraclitus suggested — changes day by day.
While also changing us.