Let the River Run

Many years ago, before the locks & dams were built, the Mississippi River ran wild through the heart of Minneapolis. Why not again?


I am not sure when I fell under the river's spell. The easy answer is a year and a half ago, when, at the tail end of a drab winter, I bought a used boat with a 15-horsepower Johnson outboard motor. After exploring a few area lakes, I discovered the river and found myself goofing around on the water as an alternative to watching television, reading, or engaging in any of the other activities characteristic of a normal and balanced human existence. When I was on the river, the rest of the world had a pleasing way of receding. People say that fishing is a contemplative activity, but I found it to be the opposite. For me, pursuing what lies under the flat, impossibly smooth waters at the top of an eddy seems to erase the contemplation of past and future.

At first, I spent most of my time in what the Army Corps of Engineers refers to as Pool 2--the stretch of Mississippi that runs from Lock and Dam No. 1, just south of the Ford Bridge, to Hastings. Usually, I dropped the boat in at a ramp in Hidden Falls Regional Park in St. Paul and motored upriver a half-mile to the area just below Lock and Dam No. 1.

Michael Dvorak

It is not a handsome spot. Between the lock, the dam, and the retaining walls that hug the bluffs, there is an unseemly amount of concrete. Once-tree-lined banks are now held in place by stretches of riprap. Pop bottles and dead carp litter the shoreline. There is really only one picturesque element in the immediate vicinity: a nameless, heavily wooded island about the size of a city block. The island, which sits just below the dam, is occasionally flooded by high water. Usually it emerges no worse for the wear, save for the innumerable plastic bags and other flood detritus that wind up in the branches of its trees.

I return to this area regularly because I keep finding interesting fishing. In my early explorations, I spent most of my time dangling worms in the slack-water areas, a technique that produced a surprising variety and quantity of fish. I caught a lot of freshwater drum--a silvery deep-bodied fish that is typically 14 to 18 inches in length. Like many of the species that inhabit the Mississippi, the drum (also known by the amusing folk name "thunder pumper") is regarded as rough fish. The designation has no taxonomical significance; it merely serves as the antonym to game fish, the term for species that are highly regarded by anglers. But labels carry costs, and a surprising number of fishermen throw their freshly caught drum on the bank to rot, apparently satisfied that they are doing a public service by freeing the river of a rough fish. The treatment of the drum, like our treatment of the river itself, has a certain arbitrary quality.

As that first summer on the river wore on, I found myself stealing away whenever possible. Two, three, four times a week. Like most compulsions, mine grew stronger the more I fed it. In return, the river surrendered more of its secrets. By mid-summer, I was casting my eyes at the tailrace, the part of the dam where the falling water empties into the lower pool. I could see that fish-eating birds were drawn to the area, including great blue herons, egrets, night herons, belted kingfishers, and cormorants.

When the water is high, the tailrace at Lock and Dam No. 1 is a turbulent and somewhat problematic place to boat. In general, such places are notorious drowning zones, so boaters are discouraged (and sometimes prohibited) from exploring them. But at low water, the tailrace didn't seem particularly intimidating. And the frothy waters there, I soon learned, often hold a lot of fish. On some days, I could see huge schools of common carp swarming in the shallows, their big, wide bodies exposed as they scrounged for food in the boulders at the base of the dam. Channel catfish, smallmouth bass, quillbacks, white bass, yellow bass, and walleyes remained below the surface, but they all frequented the area. On a few days, I even landed some skipjack herring, a fabulous leaping fish long thought to have disappeared from the area.

In December I talked to a researcher about the presence of hormone-disrupting compounds in municipal wastewater that empties into the river at Metro Sewage Treatment Plant, located just a few miles south of downtown St. Paul. The researcher mentioned that fish seemed to be drawn to the relatively warm water of the treated sewage during the cold winter months. That was all I needed to know. I boated to the plant, up the quarter-mile effluent channel, and spent a winter afternoon throwing jigs and minnows into the concrete outfall where the treated sewage emptied into the channel. As it turned out, the effluent was swarming with small walleyes--ready biters all. Among the hardcore winter anglers, the productivity of this spot was no secret. The particular brand of city fishing even has its own terminology: It is referred to as "fishing the crap."

I enjoyed fishing the crap. It was not foul, as you might expect. The air didn't stink, though there was a distinct and strange sweet smell. Herons and kingfishers were wintering on the banks of the channel. Mallards dabbled in the shallows. Bald eagles soared overhead. And fish were on the hook. Initially, I regarded the presence of all this wildlife in what seemed to be an unnatural part of the river as little more than an odd irony. That engineered features like the effluent channel and the dams attracted and concentrated living creatures certainly made it easy to catch fish and spot birds. Still, something seemed a little wrong about the whole undertaking. I mean, like it or not, I was spending my day fishing in sewage.

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