ON THE UPPER ST. CROIX RIVER — Only a sharp eye or one bent toward appreciating this region’s history can spot the vestiges of the St. Croix River that once was.
A waterway that in the 1700s accommodated fur swapping between the Chippewa of the St. Croix Valley and traders who moved the dried pelts to points south and east was transformed by timber men a century later into a river of felled pines.
The other day, when Ted Higman, John Butler and I launched Ted’s drift boat into the Upper St. Croix, anyone who has ever plied the river, past or present, no matter the commodity of their interest, would have agreed the river was low.
Too little rainfall this spring and early summer virtually guaranteed that on our day’s outing we’d have to step from Ted’s boat on more than one occasion to drag the craft over rocks and sandbars.
“This is about as low as I’ve ever fished the St. Croix,” Ted said.
We were after smallmouth bass, and would cast for them with fly rods.
Few occasions in sport are as exciting as a smallmouth or largemouth bass rising from the depths to smash a “popper,” or surface fly that isn’t so much a fly as it is a fake frog or perhaps an imitation terrestrial, such as a grasshopper, cricket or beetle.
Though the same species, smallmouth and largemouth bass are from different families. To the angler, each has its advantages: largemouth grow bigger and typically inhabit lakes, while their smallmouth counterparts, though not exclusively river inhabitants, often are found in moving water.
Of the two, once hooked, smallies can be more acrobatic, sometimes performing tail walks, flips and head shakes in quick succession.
Ted, a professor of electrical engineering at the U, and John, a semi-retired investment professional, are among those who have fallen under the river smallie’s spell.
“Ted and I met in a local coffee shop, maybe 13 years ago,” John said, noting they both live in Marine on St. Croix. “I’ve learned a lot from Ted. Being an engineer, he knows fishing equipment as well as anyone.”
An Indiana native, Ted moved to Minnesota in 1989 to teach at the U. He had fished as a kid, and knew his way around a fly rod, but his primary sport upon landing in Minnesota wasn’t so much smallmouth bass as ruffed grouse.
“I had hunted quail in Indiana as a kid, and the quail hunting was pretty good back then, in the early 1970s,” he said. “But when the soybean fields grew to 600 acres each and fencerows and other habitat was lost, the quail went away. So when I moved to Minnesota, and found the grouse hunting here to be excellent, beginning for me in 1990, that’s what I did, hunt grouse.”
Twenty years would pass before Ted took up river smallmouth fishing in earnest, first purchasing a fishing kayak to pursue these fish, and later a drift boat — a craft particularly well-suited to Ted and John’s home water, the St. Croix.
“Let’s try poppers first,” Ted said as we shoved off from shore and were caught up quickly in the river’s currents.
Working the oars first, Ted pointed us downstream while John, in the boat’s aft, pulled line from his reel, preparing to cast. I, meanwhile, readied myself in the bow.
Among St. Croix anglers — whether fly, bait or hardware — a common belief is that, whatever sport the river offers, its main attribute is beauty. Many of the red and white pines that once crowded its shorelines and extended inland for miles have been replaced by maples and basswoods and oaks. But anglers who drift quietly between the St. Croix’s spectacularly florid borders are nevertheless treated to a truly Wild and Scenic River, a designation the St. Croix was granted beginning in 1972.
Mid-morning became midday, and Ted took his turn swinging a 7-weight rod, while John replaced him in the boat’s middle seat. Both of these guys throw tight loops, and their casting was rhythmic, marking time like 9-foot metronomes.
“There we go,” I said.
I had turned to see that Ted, his graphite rod deeply bent, had tricked the day’s first fish, a feisty smallie that John, shipping the oars briefly, soon netted and released.
So it went for seven hours or so, moving with the speed of the river, downstream.
You want in these instances for fish to jump all over your flies. But the nature of angling usually doesn’t allow it. So you settle in, casting and casting again, while occasionally reclining on a boat seat to eat an apple or a sandwich, and to soak up the day’s pleasures — including, on this day, a bald eagle carving circles in the sky high atop one riverbank, while, on the opposite shore, a merganser herded her brood to quiet water.
Ted and I would later employ large, colorful, sub-surface flies, or streamers, while John continued to cast poppers — electing, as he did, to “fish a dry fly or die trying,” as an old adage goes.
Sometimes we fooled smallies, including some hooked by John with his poppers. But mostly we fished, with not a lot of catching.
Whether our lack of success could be explained by happenstance, or whether, as some St. Croix anglers believe, the river’s smallie population has been over-exploited, is hard to say.
What’s clearer is that St. Croix River smallmouth bass deserve more attention, and possibly more protection, than they are afforded by Minnesota and Wisconsin departments of natural resources. The late Walter Mondale, among others, had the foresight to protect the St. Croix, and now, perhaps, the same prescience is needed to safeguard its fish.
After all, the St. Croix no longer traffics in furs or logs, resources that were harvested to exhaustion, and quickly.
Instead it harbors the rarest of present-day commodities, and among the most fragile: beauty, quietude, and a place to cast a line, perhaps to catch a fish.