My father and I met up at a small river on a picture perfect summer day in Minnesota. We had arrived at the starting point of our trip around mid-morning and the sun was already high in the sky and shining brightly with only a few cotton like clouds floating around. Our plan was to take our 16 ft. canoe that we called Big Red on a float trip down a three mile stretch of this river. Anticipation filled the air as this was our first fishing trip on the river and we knew that there were some trophy class Smallmouths swimming somewhere beneath the water's surface. We hurriedly loaded all of our gear into the canoe, including two fishing rods for each of us and we brought all of our favorite lures that we knew Smallmouth Bass couldn't resist. A cooler full of sandwiches and a few beverages would be all we would need to keep us going all day.
The first quarter mile stretch was shallow and fast with large canopied Oak Trees and Willow Trees overhanging the banks of the river. We floated down the middle of this river and casted to the shore hoping to coax a fish out of the shady retreats of the trees. I started the day using a hard minnow bait that was a favorite of mine in a color pattern that closely matched the local forage minnows. We could see large schools of minnows swimming in tight balls in slack water areas of the river, they had a black back with a shiny green stripe running down the middle of the body and the rest was a brilliant silver that flashed so brightly when reflecting the sunlight it could be seen from across the river. I was excited because I had my first strike within my first ten casts of the trip. I set the hook and felt the heavy weight of the fish for about a half second before the line went “ping” and then the line was totally slack. Retrieving my line I found that my line had been cut clean by the needle sharp teeth of a Northern Pike. I mumbled under my breath “ Frickin' pike cut me off,” as it had stolen one of my favorite lures. My dad just laughed from the back of the canoe and said, “better luck next time.” I quickly retied and put on another minnow bait identical to the one I had just lost, I always have duplicates of reliable lures because this happens to me more often than I would like.
We came to the first deep pool in the river we pulled our canoe off the the shallow sandy inside bend of the river. The clarity of this water amazed us, it was like floating on glass and the current was creating ripples that only partially obscured our vision. Still the bottom of this pool was deep and dark, we knew there would be some fish hiding in the depths. My first cast made it to the opposite bank directly across from me, as I started to swim the bait back to the canoe I was pleased with the enticing action that the bait was producing and as the bait reached the middle of the pool I stopped my retrieve and paused the bait and let it sit their motionless to trigger a fish into striking. I saw a bass charge up from the darkness and grab my lure and immediately turn and head back down for the safety of the deeper water. The fight had begun, and this bass was working with the current to try and free the hooks from his mouth. As the struggle continued, a school of other bass began to chase my fish in attempts to steal his meal. My dad had seen this and made a cast near where my fish was struggling and it did not take long for him to hook one of the fish in the chasing school and just like that we had caught two fish. A good start to this fishing trip.
On our subsequent casts into this pool we found the larger fish were not as interested in our baits. Many of the fish would follow the bait as it was swimming chasing just behind the lure. As soon as we would stop the bait to try and trigger the fish into biting but the fish just stopped and looked at it as the lure sat there. Then the bass would loose interest and begin to swim away and as soon as we started to swim the bait again the fish would resume the chase and be there right behind the lure again. We observed this behavior with at least a half dozen fish. It was like an epic game of cat and mouse and each time the Smallmouth won. As we continued to float down the river, through a deeper and slower moving section, we would see shadows of fish behind our lures and at the last minute we would see a golden flash as the fish turned away and swam back to the depths.
Frustrated and seemingly out smarted by these fish my dad and I stopped to re-evaluate our plan of attack. It was obvious that the fish were active and chasing baits but there was just something wrong with our presentation. We concluded that the extreme clarity of the water was causing the fish to be more selective and gave them the ability to discern a real soft minnow from the hard plastic minnow imitations that we were offering them. We had to make a decision because we knew that we needed something as close to the real thing as possible if we hoped to catch anymore fish, but we had no live bait with us. I had brought along a few soft plastic swimming minnows, the best artificial likeness of a real minnow that I could find. We each tied one on and traveled onto the next deep hole.
My first cast landed next to a tree that had fallen into the water and was half submerged at the head of the pool. After a few cranks of my reel handle I saw a fish crush my lure. This bass came up from the bottom with such speed and ferocity that he cleared himself straight up out of the water by two feet with my lure in his mouth. My dad's scream of excitement, “Whooooo”, reinforced what I already knew, this was a good sized fish and could possibly be the largest Smallmouth Bass I have ever caught. The notorious fighting of the fish tested the limits of all of my tackle as I tried to keep him from diving into trees or grass beds and loosing him. My dad expertly guided Big Red downstream from the back of the canoe and watched as this tug of war continued for several minutes. We landed the fish safely and I was elated with a huge smile when posing for a picture with this magnificent fish. We took some quick measurements to document the size of this fish before releasing it back to the river. I was relieved because I knew that this was the start of something good and we had found a solution to the loosen up the tongues of those bass that earlier had a case of lockjaw. My dad and I each caught at least a half dozen more nice Smallies and enjoyed the afternoon.
To end our canoe trip we had to go through a section of river that had once been dammed up to reach the landing where our other car was parked. This dam had been abandoned for almost a century, it had two different parts. We could hear the fast rushing water as we approached the first section . Looking at the rapids we could see the whitewater as the river dropped over the first section of the broken down dam. We pulled off to the side to observe, saw waves as high as 2 ft continually wash over the rocks, and searched for a way to portage around the rapids. The high side of the bank was too steep to safely carry a canoe and all of our gear, the low side was covered in Poison Ivy and Poison Oak. Neither one of us wanted to end up with a nasty rash, so we opted to shoot through the rapids. We got back in the canoe and aimed for a calm spot where the waves came together and cancelled each other out. As we approached the rapids we began to pick up speed. I was in the front of the canoe to to provide power so my job was to keep paddling and pulling us through the rapids as quickly as possible. As soon as we hit the rapids and the canoe started to fall a three foot wave hit squarely on the front of the canoe and wall of water came rushing up over the bow and I was instantly drenched. I fearlessly continued to paddle to keep us on a safe course through the rapids as waves sent more water into our canoe. In less than two seconds it was over and the white waters had calmed. We quickly checked to see what had happened and and instantly we knew we were in trouble. The canoe was completely filled with water and the gunwale of the canoe was floating at the waters surface, dad and I were sitting in water. We made a quick change of course and headed for the nearest bank, as the canoe slowed down it became more difficult for the two of us to keep the boat up right, all of the weight of the water in the canoe made it rock back and forth. Each of us was shifting our weight around to balance out the boat, moving at the same time in the same direction only made things worse. As soon as we reached shore dad bailed out of the canoe to make sure the boat didn't flip over.
We emptied all of our gear out of the canoe and placed it on the shore. We were glad that we had made preparations and stored all of our valuables in water tight containers and strapped everything to ourselves or to the bracing of the canoe so that nothing got lost. We tipped the empty canoe on it side and lifted it over our heads to drain all of the water out. After repacking Big Red with all of our gear we prepared for the second part of the dam, which was a 10 ft concrete wall that stretched across the river. The main river channel had carved a canyon into the concrete that was just wide enough for a canoe or kayak to pass through. Luckily the drop on the other side was only a few feet and there were no obstructions on the other side so this was considerably less difficult that the rapids.
We reached our vehicle safely and loaded the canoe on top. Afterwards we had a good laugh and sharing stories about memorable parts of the trip. We would not soon forget this trip and were already planning a return visit with a slight change of our route to avoid the broken down dam on our next trip.
Good Fishing To All,