Outdoors / Sports

Hooked on the beauty of the St. Croix River

DANBURY, Wis.--The wind was up, gusting all day, and sometimes Wendy Williamson's drift boat blew upstream, against the current. This was a few days back, on the upper reaches of the St. Croix River, above its confluence with the Namekagon, and Wendy, Bob Nasby and I were looking for smallmouth bass.

In this summer of high water, fishing can be had. But the Mississippi, St. Croix and Minnesota rivers near the Twin Cities are too flush with water to locate fish consistently, and also sometimes dangerous.

On the St. Croix, fairly normal river levels exist farther upstream, and a day's angling there can pass with reasonable expectations that fish will be found, a smallmouth bass here, maybe a muskie, northern pike or walleye there.

Mostly, Bob, Wendy and I wanted smallies, while hoping for the odd poke at a muskie. The latter are river fish, after all, and while midsummer isn't the best time to catch them in moving water -- a swirl, a tail flash and the gobbling of a big fly -- it can be done.

"This looks like great water," Bob said, rolling his line over in a tight loop and directing a finger-length fly toward shore.

A half-hour or so earlier, we had dropped Wendy's drift boat into the St. Croix, and now, not far from shore, the three of us slid silently downriver, joined by a common interest in rivers, fish and fishing.

"Cast just over there," Wendy said, urging Bob and me to land our flies as close to shore as possible.

Blue as the sky above, the St. Croix is wider in these parts than some might imagine, and fishy looking. Occasional riffles highlight its slight declinations, while deadfalls and lily pads lie in small bays, offering cover and still water for fish, bass in particular.

Such is the beauty -- not just the St. Croix's, but that of the Flambeau and Chippewa rivers, also -- that inspired Wendy and her husband, Larry Mann, to stay in this country after moving here from Colorado in the late 1990s.

Wendy had grown up in Hayward, and years ago had migrated to the mountainous West, drawn there by its blue-ribbon streams and plentiful trout. In Colorado, she met Larry while the two guided fly anglers, and when Wendy's father died and her mother needed help, they packed up, leaving the West and bringing with them to Wisconsin the drift boat with which they had plied so many mountain rivers.

"We were coming back to lake country, and there were a lot of guides around Hayward who would take clients for muskies and walleyes," Wendy said. "But river fishing at the time wasn't so popular."

Long a haven for interlopers looking to make a living off the land, northern Wisconsin has over the years withstood influxes of loggers, trappers, hunters, fishing guides and even mobsters.

Some saw this big, forested country and went for broke -- ultimately leaving the same way.

Others stayed and thrived.

The latter would describe Wendy and Larry's excellent adventure over the past decade or so.

"About the time we arrived, interest was growing in fly fishing for warm-water species, such as smallmouth bass and muskies," Wendy said.

Taking note, and not a little risk, Wendy and Larry opened a shop -- Hayward Fly Fishing Co. -- and started guiding fly anglers on area rivers.

Comfortable as they long had been at the oars of drift boats, they soon found that local fly anglers, as well as those from the Twin Cities, Duluth, Milwaukee, Chicago and beyond, were eager to fish with them, one in the bow, one astern, on daylong drifts through big country.

Most times, smallmouth bass are the target. But muskies also remain a main attraction, particularly in October and November.

There.

A bulbous smallmouth had boiled beneath Bob's fly, its mouth agape. But the fish, it turned out, was only teasing, slapping at Bob's feathery attraction with its tail, intending, perhaps, to rid it from its watery haunt.

Quickly changing flies, Bob, a fly-casting instructor whose rod handling is akin to artistry, soon had his line airborne again, believing, as confident anglers do, that something in his fly box, or Wendy's, would trigger a strike.

Watching this from astern, time and again I cast to the river's opposite shore, my line carrying a fly that was part popper, part diver, a lure that to a fish might resemble a swimming frog.

All the while, the wind blew as a storm coalesced to the southwest, forcing Wendy at times to bend smartly to her oars.

I caught my first fat river bass of the day perhaps 45 minutes into the drift, a rotund specimen that bent my 7-weight rod deeply as it played the river's strong current to its advantage.

So it went.

Drift. A smallie. Drift some more. Another smallie, the biggest of which measured 19 inches, an exceptional river bass.

Muskies?

One of these toothy fish followed my fly to the boat, and Bob briefly hooked another -- fantasy encounters that will ensure our return to the St. Croix, or the Chippewa or the Flambeau, later this year.

When Wendy angled her boat to shore a final time in late afternoon, Bob summed up the outing.

"Great day," he said.

And it had been.

(c)2014 Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

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