Driftless Outdoors: the Backwater buffet offers 130 starters

If river levels follow the USACE forecast over the next two weeks, you’ll have one of the best fishing Old Man River has to offer. Several conservation agencies charged with monitoring fish populations on the Immortal River estimate that there are approximately 130 finned species swimming in this river gem of the Driftless Zone.
Most sport anglers who venture here target game fish, panfish and “sport” fish like river catfish and white bass. There are dozens of species of minnows that may not be able to suck on a hook, with countless other species just not interested in dancing with you.
A presentation that targets bluegills or bass can lead to a fight with a Madtom, Hornyhead Chub, Golden Redhorse, or Quillback carpsucker.
Two weeks ago, I was fishing with people who wanted to catch walleye. A rough fish has found its jig. When the fish started dancing on the surface, I thought it was a knight. But the large feather protruding from the scaled creature’s back confirmed that it was indeed a spinyback carp – the first of its kind to see the inside of my boat all year.

Last week, customers wanted to target channel chats. River decided she’d rather give up bass, so we moved on to a crankbait casting presentation. Five minutes later, Brandy put the hook. The fish at the other end was a rainbow trout.
Brown trout are caught each April near tributaries, adding to the greater flow of the Mississippi. I’ve seen pictures of two brook trout caught by ice fishermen – one on Pool 9 and the other near LaCrosse, Wis.
But a rainbow trout in 62 degree water with summer knocking on the door? Wow! Especially over 15 miles from the nearest designated trout water.
With river levels dropping below “action”, access to the river stage will be much easier. The boat launch east of New Albin was closed due to high water for over a month.
Once the river is flowing at normal basin levels, fish like walleye will be easier to catch on major river structures like wing dams and closure dams.
“Marble eyes” have been swimming near these structures for weeks. But the tactics and presentation required some serious tweaking to find fish lips.
Fishing in Wingdam when the river is at the normal pool is quite simple. Anchor on the contour eight feet above this rock structure and cast a jig, lure, or soak live bait like a willocat.
If you fish where the fish are, you could just hook up. However, the river is a democracy. Fish also get a vote.
About 99 percent of all fishing in Mississippi takes place beyond the red and green buoys that mark the main channel. Backwaters and swamps are literally nurseries for young fish of the year. Predators will be where the prey is along the food chain.
Weed growth is now mostly submerged, with broad-leaved plants like the American water lotus – water lilies – just beginning to spread their glory in shallow, calm waters. By July 1, this growth will provide both shelter and shade. The temperature of the water under such a growth is 10 degrees lower than that of the water next to the pads in full sun.
With weeds growing in many backwaters just below the surface, a lure that tracks just a few inches but above the weeds can be extremely productive for all species of gamefish.
If I could choose one lure to fish this kind of water, it would be a Z-Man “jackhammer” black/blue lure, known in some circles as a bladed jig.
Because toothy creatures like northern pike cross where target species like bass and walleye live, a short steel leader replaces the carabiner that connects the lure to the line.
A three inch plastic “paddle tail” adds both bulk and attraction, allowing the lure to be fished just a little higher in the water column. Under the paddle tail hides a 3/0 “trailer” hook to bite fish that come in loaded but have doubts.
A talkative bait is not one of the walleye angler’s 10 lure choices on most waters where these fish inhabit. But that’s not most waters. It’s the enigmatic Mississippi River, one of the most diverse fisheries on planet Earth.
To access the USACE River level and forecast, visit water.weather.gov/ahps2/hydrograph.php?wfo=arx&gage=genw3.

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