The jonboat is ready to take us to the smallies
I had a chance to get in a day on the upper Mississippi River, between Minneapolis and St. Cloud, on Wed. October 15. It's among my favorite trips to make, and one I get to do woefully few times. While all fishing trips are good in some way or another, this one is special - it's with a friend, former co-worker, and truly great guy to fish with - Gregg Thorne. Musky anglers will recognize the Thorne name from the shop Gregg and his brother, Paul, started many years ago in Minneapolis - Thorne Bros. Gregg and I worked together at Cortland Line a number of years ago, and remained close friends after I left. In addition to being a terrific fisherman, Gregg's just one of the guys I enjoy spending time with. Our fall trips for smallmouth have also exposed me to a type of fishing I never do any other time - bait fishing for bass.
Gregg Thorne with a tiger striped smallmouth
Author with typical smallie
We launched Gregg's jonboat at a dirt ramp and went upstream to see if the bass were on their winter spots yet. We soon found out that, indeed, they were. Each spot we tried held a number of smallmouth that pounced on our sucker minnows. Since I'm not usually a practitioner of bait fishing, it takes me a little while to get the feel for the timing of setting the hook, especially with minnows as large as we were using (Some were over 6") But, I came around, and didn't deep hook any fish. All the bass were released alive to fight again, but both the walleyes we got "volunteered" to be dinner at the Thorne residence that nite!
More smallies from MN
As I look back on the day, one recurring theme to my trips jumps out at me - I have no idea how many fish we caught! I'm just not a fish counter. I know we had 2 full buckets of big minnows when we started, and only a handful of minnows left when we quit, and we didn't lose much bait, so, if I had to guess, I'd say we caught 40-50 bass, the 2 'eyes, and one nice channel cat that I got, pushing me over the edge in our hotly contested battle to see who caught the most species. When I go fishing, and someone asks how it was, I answer honestly with "It sucked", "It was pretty good", or "It was great". I usually know how few fish were caught when it sucks, but on the other days, I really don't know . My brother is a fish counter. He was with me on my recent trip flyfishing in Rocky Mtn. National Park. On the day we caught all the brookies, he asked me how many I had caught. I just looked at him - "I don't know - a lot". On last Wednesday, on the Mississippi, I had a good case of "Bass Thumb" at the end of the day, so I know I caught a lot!
Buckets full of sucker minnows
This section of the Mississippi, between St. Cloud and Minneapolis, is a terrific section of water. According to Gregg, a number of years ago, the river experienced very successful spawns a number of years in a row. Those year classes of fish are now in the 16-20" range, and there are a lot of them. We caught 3 fish smaller than 16" on our trip. I've fished here with Gregg in the summer as well and, while the areas and patterns are different, the average size of the bass found here is, to me, amazing. I've fished a lot of rivers for smallmouth in my life, and the best average size I've ever found has come from these waters. In addition to the great bass fishing, we saw an osprey and 6 bald eagles. The leaves were changing, a stiff NW wind was cutting down the river, and it was a perfect fall day to be chasing smallmouth!
One final thing about the river - I consider my self to be an excellent reader of water on a river - any river. I can usually be put a river I have never seen and figure out where the fish should be. Not here though. Without the direction from a person with a lifelong history of the fish and their patterns, I would flounder desperately on these waters. The winter holding areass are small and very subtle - most of the time not showing any indication on the surfac that this is where you want to fish. Local knowledge rules on these waters, and I love going with Gregg!