Location: North of Stillwater, MN
I have caught Amberjack in the Gulf of Mexico, walleye, northern pike, bass and panfish all over the Midwest, and now my wife and I are happy catching the sunfish and crappies from our dock on Ward Lake near Frederic, Wisconsin.
But by far my greatest fishing thrills came from my “secret fishing spot” on the St. Croix River. This small segment of the river became so amazingly productive that in my family it was soon classified BRALBO, which means the location would be revealed to “Blood Relatives and the Legally Blind Only.”
Well, there were to be a few BRALBO exceptions, like friends Herb and Jim. I enjoyed this place on a great river along with my son Erik, my father, Arthur, and other visiting relatives over a period of about 20 years. We took a lot of pictures. Then I moved away from the area for several years. It started like this.
In 1958, while in graduate school at the University of Minnesota and working part time at the U of M Hospital’s Rehabilitation Department, I learned that a couple of the staff therapists had happened upon good northern pike fishing spot on the St. Croix River. If we had any doubt, their claim was proven by their pictures in the Minneapolis Star Newspaper on July 28. Their fabulous catch of three northern pike weighed, respectively, 17 pounds, 6 ounces; 16 pounds, 8 ounces; and 10 pounds, 4 ounces. The report in the Minneapolis Star cited the Boy Scout Camp as the location of their good luck.
Herb, a University Hospital staff physician, and I, using clues from these fellows’ generous reports of their river trip, decided to see if we could sleuth out this fabulous northern pike fishing spot on the St. Croix. We set out from the only public dock in Stillwater, just north of the lift bridge between the railroad tracks and the river (it’ still there). In the newspaper article our work-mates had reported that their catch was made “by the Boy Scout Camp.”
Now these guys were very nice, honorable guys at work but our experience told us that there is little honor among fisherman when asked for directions to their fishing “hotspot.” You just have to expect a little hedging. The opposite of a “white lie,” I call it the “shady truth.” We knew from their surprisingly generous tales of conquest that the target area involved backwaters rather than the main stream, and we calculated about how long the trip had taken them, propelled by their 5-horse motor. We soon concluded that these crafty friends had used the Boy Scout Camp clue as a distracter because the travel time clues didn’t put us there on this first foray, and then we saw that the river didn’t have a “backwater by the Boy Scout Camp”. We had to expand our search. But now we were flying blind. Do we have to search all the way up to the Namakogen and back? We went from channel to channel and backwater to backwater.
It can be difficult to navigate up the main channel of this river, but it is even more difficult when one is trying to look behind each island. Sometimes there are three channels separated by islands, and we had to find just one special place in these nooks and crannies. Once we moored ourselves on a sandbar (hard to do going upstream) and 4 then had to pull the motor up and pole with the oars to get free so we could retreat and try a new angle.
After casting for about two hours in the eddies and bays we experienced not even one strike. Despite our poor luck, I never changed lures because I had so much faith in the red and white Daredevil spoon when trying to tempt a northern pike. Feeling a little discouraged, we edged the boat into a small backwater, near the East shore, distant from the main current. We were close to feeling defeated and were considering turning back, to drift and cast, maybe even troll to rest our arms on the way back toward Stillwater and home. Maybe we could find some walleyes in the main current.
Beginning to turn around to drift downstream, we slipped between two islands, and entered a new channel. I made a cast toward the middle of an eddy near the shore, and then let my big red and white Daredevil spoon float through the air from our boat over the slowly circling current. That red and white spoon never did more than touch the water – it floated down toward the surface, there was a startling splash, and a big fish broke the surface and struck my lure. When that big fellow hit, it threw a lot of water up and forward and then fell back with a big splash and took off like a streak.
This all happened so fast that I think I just watched. I had never seen a Northern Pike act like that. Oh I know a largemouth bass would, but a northern pike? After the hundreds of casts I had made that day without a strike I was just not ready for this. My rod bent and snapped before I could get myself focused on the battle that was beginning. Then, reel and line back-lashed. Finally, with my hands full of line and rod, and with no option to play the fish with either rod or reel, the line broke. There can be nothing more discouraging for a fisherman than to loose a big fish. This was obviously a bigger northern than any I had ever caught in the past. I was just shaking with excitement, but then, I had to consider the possibility that I had just blown my only chance for a good northern pike that day.
We anchored our boat to the shore and, casting from there out into the backwater, caught, and actually landed, three northern pike, also on red daredevils. They were very nice fish, weighing from five to 10 pounds. We now thought that we had found the hot spot. We had hope that there would be much bigger fish caught here, and that the one that broke my rod and got away was in that class. It was unique to fish in an area where the northern pike you catch are all big — in the braggin’ range. It was also surprising that this one little eddy could hold so many old lunkers. Where were the small northerns?
We guessed that the big fellows wanted this area for themselves, and were chasing competitors back to the main channel. Why were they here? That mystery was solved over time. We would learn that only under certain conditions would these big fish be drawn to this eddy. The requirements will become clearer to those who read the rest of these stories. Until I learned more of the river’s secrets, I would make some trips which were remembered only for the exposure to one of the really beautiful and still natural areas in the United States, and a little channel cat fishing, but without a northern strike.
Our first tour on this river, with its many islands and majestic banks, was beautiful but the trip required careful maneuvering to avoid getting stranded on an island. There would be many trips up the St. Croix in my future, and several other surprises.