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Stream Fishing in the Northwoods of Minnesota - Chesapeake Light Tackle

minn1I decided to tag along with my wife to a mid-August conference in the North Star State. We planned to finish our stay with a few vacation days along a trout stream in Wisconsin, but since I’ve heard great tales of smallmouth fishing in Minnesota, I thought I might spend some time in pursuit of bronzebacks while she went to her meetings. I considered hiring a guide but I’ve done quite a lot of stream fishing and part of the fun for me is exploring and finding my own fish. Knowing next to nothing about this region, I pulled up the area on MapQuest to look things over and immediately noticed a recognizable name. I figured a river with a rod company named after it had to be worth exploring, so Friday morning I set off north out of the Twin Cities.

minn2The St. Croix has been designated as a National Scenic River so it is managed by the National Park Service with well-maintained trails and access points.

My first stop was at a bait shop near a town billing itself as the Gateway to the Upper St. Croix, St. Croix Falls. After exasperating the young man at the counter with my questions, he led me back to the gun counter and introduced me to Todd, the owner. Todd was very helpful and suggested I get my bearings by starting near the gorge just south of town. After buying a few lures and looking over his large selection of fishing rods – heavy emphasis on St. Croix of course – I set off for the water.

I found the river clear, but stained reddish brown. When I stepped onto the slippery rocks I was surprised that it was very warm, at least as warm as the mid-70s air temperature. Hmm, my years of smallie fishing in the streams of the southeastern mountains taught me to look for cooler water this time of year. That would mean deep pools and ambush points below rapids where the current was strong. I tied on a 1/8 ounce Panther Martin spinner and clamped on a couple of bb split shots above the leader. After several casts it became apparent that I was going to have to look for deeper water than what I found gushing through the gorge. There were also lots of footprints and other evidence of frequent fishing along the bank. I decided to drive farther downstream and hike in.

The water was slower here, and fortunately more productive. I made a long cast up the shoreline and worked my lure around some logs when the line came tight and I set the hook into my first fish of the day. I knew right away this wasn’t the explosive fight of a smallmouth. Instead there was a steady pull and I felt the slow bend of a long fish, exactly like the fight of a chain pickerel back on the Severn or Magothy. It turned out I wasn’t far off. I was quite pleased with an 18 inch northern pike, a new species for me.

minn3I kept working my way up the river landing a few more pike around the tree-falls. I switched over to a safety-pin style spinner because I could work it slower in the deeper pools. A few casts later I set the hook and laughed out loud when a 6 inch smallmouth launched itself about 3 feet into the air throwing my lure right back against my chest. That’s more like it. Since the little fish had been holding in a deep pool just above a shoal, I decided to concentrate on that pattern since it was all I had. Sure enough, a few casts later another bronzeback hit the sky. This one stayed on, but wasn’t much bigger than the first. Oh well, at least I had a pattern.

minn4Unfortunately, my pattern worked only for small fish. Or maybe the bigger ones just weren’t biting. Whatever it was, I fished for 3 more hours with only a handful of small fish to my credit by the time the sun started to set. I resolved to try new waters the next day.

Back at the hotel in Minneapolis I Googled “Minnesota Smallmouth” and found a ranking of area rivers. Most of the better ones were at least a hundred miles north, but I found one that looked interesting and only a 75 mile drive up Interstate 35. I set out the next morning for the Kettle River which is a northern tributary to the St. Croix. I had no idea where to go to find access, so just kept driving until the closest exit to the river which turned out to be Sandstone. As I drove through the sleepy little saturday morning town I noticed they were setting up for a street festival. I detoured around Main Street and soon found the river. Near the bridge was a historical marker designating a sandstone quarry so I headed down a little dirt road that looked like it might lead to the quarry and the river.

minn5The water here was clearer than yesterday’s, but still about as warm. I hiked about a mile upstream along a small trail though the abandoned and overgrown river-side quarry. I saw very little evidence of fishing along the way so thought myself fortunate to have found nice-looking water at such an unspoiled locati
on. I stopped beneath a small bluff and made a long cast upstream. Wham! Before I had even closed my bell my rod tip dipped and I felt the tug of a strongly fighting fish. There’s no mistaking the savage run of a frantic smallmouth bass. I checked my drag and counted down until lift-off. The launch was not disappointing and once again the fish threw my spinner half-way across the river. I always laugh when an airborne smallmouth throws my lure. It’s a sight as thrilling as any experience in fishing, ranking right up there with a big rockfish exploding on a top-water plug. That fish would’ve easily gone 3 pounds. Smallmouth are somewhat territorial, so I didn’t expect another fish at the same spot, but was surprised when I hooked up again on the next cast. This one was smaller, but still bigger than anything I’d caught the day before. The next three hours produced one fish after another, most in the one to two pound range. This was the Minnesota fishing I’d heard about. I was having a blast.

minn6It was lunch-time and I was hungry so I headed back down the trail deciding to check out that street fair. Apparently there is still an active quarry in Sandstone because they were celebrating “Quarry Days.” Lunch would be a heart-healthy serving of deep-fried cheese curds and ice cold lemonade. A kid was walking around carrying a timber-wolf cub and he brought him over to let me pet him. I’m a sucker for pretty girls with tiaras so I introduced myself to a couple of young ladies along the way talking their mom into snapping the real trophy shot of the day. A guy came up and asked me where I was from. I told him Tennessee via Maryland and I was up here to fish. He snapped my picture and told me he was with the local paper. My wife’s gonna love that one!

minn7I found a booth at the fair with a guy selling fishing lures. He told me about another access area to the Kettle River farther south near its confluence with the St. Croix. I followed his directions and found more pristine conditions with dark waters loaded with bronzebacks. All the fish were fat and very dark, matching the water perfectly. Sometimes the fish wouldn’t bolt when I waded past them up-stream. I think they knew they were well camouflaged among the rocks. I finished my fishing day about 6:00 PM and drove back to the Twin Cities. This morning I’m drinking coffee while sitting at an open-air cafe waiting on my wife to finish her meetings so we can set off for trout country in Wisconsin. I’ll let you know how that goes in Part II.



Part II

As my time on the steams of the upper mid-west continues, I’ve been noticing the similarities between stream fishing and fishing the Chesapeake Bay. As a kid, I learned how to fish on creeks and rivers and it’s apparent that I’ve incorporated almost all of those techniques in the quest for open-water striped bass. Basic tenants of stream fishing like jigging with the current, matching the hatch, maintaining a high level of stealth, working the upstream side of structure, looking for shallow ledges near deep holes, and using the lightest tackle available for the job are all tried-and-proven striped bass techniques. Similarly, fishing the Bay has taught me a thing or two about working my way up a clear mountain stream. There’s no doubt I’m a better creek fisherman now than I was before I started fishing the brackish waters of the Chesapeake. At the basics, fishing is fishing.

Leaving downtown Minneapolis about noon, we crossed the Mississippi river and arrived at Kinni Creek Lodge in River Falls, WI about 2:00 PM. The lodge sits along the spring-fed Kinnikinnick River which is billed as a Class A trout stream. The water beside the lodge was swift, cold and clear, but I was disappointed to find the area very populated and the stream somewhat narrow. Since it was rarely over 25 feet wide, calling it a “river” seems overly optimistic. Nevertheless, Paige the lodge owner was very helpful in pointing out characteristics of the stream and the most productive patterns for fishing it. She also noted that most of the shoreline was privately owned and posted. I decided a kayak would be the best way to explore even though it would mean leaving the long-rod at the lodge and spincasting. We loaded an Old Town Voyager onto the back of her truck and she drove me upstream about 10 miles dropping me at an area where the creek wound through a small patch of woods near some farm fields.


As I suspected, the river had been well-fished and subsequently the trout were finicky. Further complicating the situation were the low hanging branches and fallen trees that made it nearly impossible to fish from the boat. My only choice was to periodically beach the kayak then get out and wade. After a few unsuccessful stops near deep bends and shoals, I decided that wasn’t going to work either. Trout fishing in the Smoky Mountains taught me the importance of being sneaky. The problem was I had just floated over the water I was now casting into, so the fish already knew I was there. The sight of an occasional brook trout rising to take a gnat or tiny grasshopper off the surface made me wish for a dry fly. I might as well have been throwing rocks at them because the little fish were completely ignoring my in-line spinners. My only hope would have been to beach the boat, then walk downstream and wade back up, but I didn’t want to trespass and the banks around parks and other public property were mostly lined with fishermen. I gave up and decided a three hour kayak ride through an occasional class I rapid wasn’t the worst way to spend a Sunday evening. The day’s biggest adventure came when I encountered a tree all the way across the creek in the middle of a rapid. I thought I could lean back far enough to get under it, but it caught me right under the chin and almost took my head off. Fast water is unforgiving. So were the trout. I finished the day skunked.

After reading some articles in trout magazines at the lodge I decided my best bet for Monday would be to drive north and look for rural areas with cold-water tributaries to the St. Croix. If I didn’t find trout I could always smallmouth fish. This turned out to be a good decision. I stopped at the visitor center to the Wild River State Park on the Minnesota side of the St. Croix and found a park ranger who liked to fish and was willing to help. He wasn’t too optimistic about trout, but suggested I try the St. Croix around the mouth of the Sunrise River in Chisago County, MN. Then, as an afterthought, he said, “I’ve always wanted to fish up the Sunrise too, might be some trout there.” That sounded interesting.

minn11I already knew about what to expect out of the St. Croix, but the Sunrise sounded like what I was looking for. When I arrived at the parking area near the mouth I found the water cold and clear. The “river” was about the same size as the Kinnikinnick and easily wadeable. Other than the ranger station, there wasn’t a house within 5 miles and no private property to be concerned about. Looking to find less-accessible waters than those beside the parking area, I hiked back up the dirt road about a mile and plunged into the woods at a spot where I could hear the rushing water off in the distance. Unfortunately, there was a big cliff between me and the river. It provided a good vantage point to some interesting looking fishing spots, so I worked my way down a dry creek bed toward t
he water. Apparently the Appalachians don’t hold a monopoly on moonshine stills, because I found what I think was the remains of one near a cold spring above the river.

minn12My first dozen casts were unproductive, so I took off the Panther Martin spinner I was throwing. I was seeing lots of crayfish around the rocks, so I tied on a Rebel Wee-Crawfish. That was the ticket. I made a long cast into a deep pool above a shallow shoal and felt a solid strike. I set the hook into what I thought might be a smallmouth. I was pleasantly surprised when I reeled in a feisty little brown trout. A quick photo and I made another cast into the same pool. Another strike, another hook up, this time no mistaking the fierce fight of a bronze back. Wow! Trout and smallmouth on subsequent casts, what could be better? My next cast showed me. Judging by the fight I thought I had hooked into one of the hogsuckers I’d been spooking from under the banks, but a strong run past me downstream told me I’d tied into a walleye. Three subsequent casts had produced three of the finest gamefish around. I was thrilled.

The next three hours produced fish after fish after fish. Most were smallmouth, but I managed a few more brownies and even another walleye. One pool in particula


r produced 8 bass. Amazing. It was getting late, but I kept playing the “one-more-fish” game until I knew I had to go. I left the Sunrise about sunset and high-stepped my way though stinging nettles back to the road. On the hike back to the car I was thinking I must have discovered one of the unspoiled gems of Minnesota stream fishing. I know there are bigger fish in the deep lakes, but there’s no purer fishing than working your way up a pristine stream. Heading home today and suffering though a three-hour flight delay in Chicago, I’m sure wishing I was back there!



Posted Wednesday, August 15th, 2007 at 2:20 am
Filed Under Category: Articles
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Responses to “Stream Fishing in the Northwoods of Minnesota”

  1. Nick says:

    Nice write up on what sounds like some great fishing. I live in the Twin Cities and am always looking for new places to try out. After reading this, I think my next foray will be to the Sunrise.

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  4. Fletch says:

    Shawn, is there a way to reply back to you only through Hooked Up? I wanted to ask you a few more questions about last Friday night. Heading to Cape Cod this week…fishing is breaking wide open up there….cannot wait.

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