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Monday, July 16, 2012

Dog Days on the Mississippi River

         Once August rolls around water temperatures have sky rocketed. Recreational boaters, swimmers and skiers have taken up residence on your favorite structure. Days in the boat get extremely hot and often end in swimming. The fish feel it too, often spreading out across deep water structure or hiding under heavy mats of weeds or docks. This is the time of year to head to the river for cool water and hot fishing!
Fish in rivers are less affected by the dog days heat. When you think about it rivers offer consistent oxygen levels throughout the water column, even in the heat of summer. They also provide you with the opportunity to throw on some shorts and wading boots and cool off yourself.
Living in Central Minnesota I’m lucky to have the Mississippi in close proximity. According to Dave Kollmann, President of the St. Cloud Fly Anglers Club, “We have some of the best smallmouth fishing in the world right here in our backyard.” Dave likes to seek out current breaks. Local smallmouth guru Chad Blashack of St. Cloud taught me the importance of fishing “lifts” or the area where a pool gradually shallows up before it riffles. He believes that these areas hold some of the largest smallmouth that he hooks each season. I like to look for the biggest boulders in the main current channel. These provide an ambush spot for bass as a smorgasbord of food travels past. Areas that have Valsneria (the grass that almost looks alive under water) will usually hold baitfish and have smallmouth in close proximity. Structure like wood or bridge pilings also create a current break and allow smallmouth to hunt efficiently. While searching out micro structure, don’t overlook the big stuff like rocky shorelines, eddies, wing dams, sand bars, points, humps and islands. The bronzebacks of the Mississippi can top out over 20” you’ve just got to get out and look for them. 

My favorite way to search out river smallies during the dog days of summer is by using #3 inline spinners. These allow me to fish fast and cover water. Fishing through many different pieces of structure is often necessary to find a true toad on the Mississippi. While I’ve had success with both dressed and undressed hooks on my inline spinners, a white bucktail is my confidence bait. I started to assemble my own from components purchased online. I find this helps keep costs down as many are lost to boulders. This allows you to fine tune color combinations on both the blades and the bucktail. While my confidence baits are tube jigs, inline spinners and plastic crayfish, many prefer the fly rod. Dave Kollmann recommended clouser minnows and wolly buggers in black, brown and olive. He also informed me that his favorite month to fish the river is August because of the great top water bite on foam poppers. Gary Rehbein, from Outdoor Logic Television, says you don’t need a big selection of baits to catch fish on the Mississippi. He recommends bringing along jerk baits, tubes, buzz baits and marabou jigs. He is currently working with jeffsjigs.com on a new marabou jig with rubber legs that he calls crazy legs. He thinks this has big potential for the bronzebacks of the Mississippi.  
The primary forage of Mississippi River smallmouth includes crayfish, red tail chubs and sculpins. When trying to “match the hatch” I would use color combinations that mimic these prey. While smallmouth bass tend to pass on low calorie midge hatches, they cannot resist some of the larger mayfly hatches. During an outing last summer, I encountered a huge hatch of white mayflies. Mouths were everywhere slurping these bugs off the surface. My tube jig that produced during the afternoon went unnoticed as fish feasted on these white bugs. Armed with only conventional tackle I found a popper with a white dressed back treble and finally begin to hook fish. While it was no perfect match, drifting these past a visibly feeding smallmouth would elicit strikes.
            I like to use a 7’ medium action spinning rod when targeting river smallies. I spool up with an abrasion resistant 6 pound test monofilament. Light line allows me to cast small baits long distances. When using fly gear, I’d recommend a 7 or 8 weight rod. This will allow you to cast big poppers with less effort and bring that 22” to hand once hooked. Keep your rod tip low to the water when fighting smallmouth bass. I’ve lost many big smallies over the years to that last unexpected jump before being landed. This was all because I had my rod tip high in the air. Keeping your rod tip low and pulling to the side prevents fish from jumping and throwing hooks.
There are many areas to start your smallmouth fishing adventure. While I tend to focus my efforts on the stretch between Sartell and Monticello, a phenomenal fishery exists as far north as Brainerd and as far south as La Crosse, Wisconsin. Depending on the stretch of river, some areas work well for the wading angler while others call for the use of a boat or canoe.
While you may find places with bigger numbers of smallmouth bass, you would be hard pressed to find a fishery with bigger numbers of large bass. The world class smallmouth fishery on the Mississippi can be attributed to special regulations protecting fish from 12-20”. Each of the river rats interviewed for this article spoke of an elusive 22” river smallie. They all had vivid descriptions of the event like it happened only yesterday. I can’t wait to hear about yours!

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