A Mixed Bag

Cannon River, Red Wing, Minnesota – April, 1995

Warm air wafts in through an open window, laden with the year’s first fresh smells of cut grass, the chirping of birds and the cheerful voices of children playing outside. It’s a t-shirt and shorts sort of day and I am buzzing with excitement to head to the river and do some fishing. Dad caves to my excitement. He shuts down his computer and helps my sister Ashley and I pack a cooler with sandwiches and sodas. Then we load our fishing gear into Dad’s Station Wagon, which, under the bright sun, feels as hot as an oven inside. We roll the windows all the way down and head to the bait and tackle shop.

At 4 Seasons Sports, I pry the plastic lid off a Styrofoam container and poke a finger into the damp, shredded newspaper to expose some worms. These nightcrawlers are firm and juicy—perfect fishing bait. We throw in a couple of candy bars and hit the highway.

Just a few miles north of town Dad pulls onto the gravel road leading to one of my absolute favorite fishing spots. We pass several farm fields—the rich, aromatic soil radiating warmth—before the road enters a tunnel of trees as it narrows into a winding, rocky two-track. Branches screech and scrape the sides of the Station Wagon as we bounce down the steep and deeply rutted trail. When we finally reach the end of the road and the car stops I jump out before Dad can even shut it off and run to the edge of the Cannon River to scope things out. I like what I see—the river level has returned to normal stage after its seasonal post-snowmelt swelling.

I am standing on a big point bar composed of cobbles blanketed in a crumbly layer of dried, silty mud. Upstream and to my left is a swift riffle. The strong current continues out in front of me to hug the opposite streambank. Downstream and to my right, the cloudy brown water swirls in a deep, sluggish eddy. It’s a perfect place to toss in a worm and wait for a bite.

Some of my fondest childhood memories were made fishing this spot with Dad and Ashley. Many of my first 25 species were caught right here, too. (Image credit: Google).

I run back to the car and help Dad and Ashley carry the fishing gear to the river’s edge. Dad ties on a bottom rig consisting of a sliding sinker, swivel, eighteen inches of monofilament leader, an orange plastic bead, and a plain hook. He hands me the rod and I thread a squirming worm onto the hook. I press the button of my closed-face Zebco reel and swing the rod forward—releasing my thumb just in time to send the bait sailing forward. It drops into the water beyond the seam where the strong current meets the sluggish eddy. I prop the butt of the rod against a large rock and lean a heavy cobble against it to pin it in place. The rod tip bounces for a few seconds as the sinker rolls over underwater rocks, until the current pushes the rig out of the faster water and the sinker holds in place. The rod sways gently up and down with the gentle pressure of the current on the line.

I stare at the line, anticipating a bite, allowing my attention to break just long enough for Dad to spray mosquito repellent on my arms, legs and the back of my neck. Soon, the tip of my rod abruptly hops in a lively series of twitches. I kneel and carefully lift the rod. I can feel the tap-tap, tap-tap of a nibbling fish vibrate through the rod. When I sense a building weight I pull back swiftly to set the hook firm. The pole arches. Fish on!

The fish runs hard, pulling a little drag, but it isn’t huge. The line carves a zig-zag through the surface of the water as the fish changes direction below. I see a flash of gold in the turbid water and a moment later I am sliding the fish, twisting and splashing, into the shallows. It is a Shorthead Redhorse, a beautiful sucker with metallic gold scales and vivid red fins. I pick the fish up and easily pop the hook free from its rubbery lips. I set the fish, my first open water catch of the year, back into the river and it zooms away into deeper water.

Shorthead Redhorse – a beautiful brass and crimson native sucker.

I cast the mangled nub of worm back to the same spot. I gaze downstream, where Ashley sits amid the green shoots of young grass on the muddy bank. She’s staring off, admiring the scenery but I notice that her rod is doubled over and about to be pulled into the water, so I yell out to her. She grabs the rod just in time, and a fish rolls at the surface on the far side of the river. It’s big, but I can’t yet tell what it is. Line peels steadily off the drag as the fish runs hard downstream. A lengthy tug-of-war ensues before the fish tires out and Ashley is able to reel it in close enough for Dad to land. He grasps the hefty fish and carries it up and away from the water. He sets the fish, a Common Carp, on the muddy ground. Its huge, brown scales shimmer in the sunlight. The fish lays flat just long enough for us to take a photograph, rubbery mouth protruding and contracting in an attempt to draw water. Then it flaps its broad orange tail, rolls toward the river, and squirms down the slippery mud slope and back into the water. It swims away slowly to fade into the murky depths.

Common Carp are not native to North America, but they certainly put up a good battle on rod and reel.

I check my own line and find that my bait was picked clean while I was distracted by the exciting carp. I add a fresh worm to my hook and, to mix things up, cast into the middle of the deep eddy. Within seconds I get a nibble and hook a fish. This one doesn’t put up much of a fight, tugging just a couple times before letting me reel it all the way to shore. It is a Freshwater Drum, our most common catch from the Cannon River. The hook is embedded deep in its mouth and I need Dad’s help to get it out. We let this one go but then Ashley and I come up with an idea. We collect a bunch of large cobbles and place them in the water to form a semi-circle against the shoreline. Then I dig my fingers deep into the gravel and gritty sand and use my hands to scoop out a depression that will serve as a temporary holding pool for our next catch.

Freshwater Drum – one of the most commonly caught species throughout the Upper Mississippi River Valley.

It doesn’t take long for my sister to catch another drum, and this one we place in our makeshift livewell. While we observe our captive drum Dad hooks and lands a good-sized Sauger on a Rat-L-Trap. The season isn’t yet open for this species, so we let the would-be keeper fish go.

Seeing Dad catch something on a lure, I decide to take a break from worm fishing and try my luck with a Mepps spinner. The silver blades shine as the lure cuts across the tail of the riffle, imitating a minnow. After several optimistic but uneventful casts I think about switching back to the more consistent action of bottom-fishing with a worm. But just as I am about to lift the lure out of the water a big Smallmouth Bass races into the shallows and nabs it. The bass turns, peels off line, and takes the fight into the riffle. I can feel the rapid beating of its powerful tail vibrate through the rod. It leaps. Then leaps again, shaking its head and splashing down in a spray. The hook holds firm and I am able to fight it to shore. After snapping a couple of pictures with our one-time-use disposable camera I turn this red-eyed, bronze and brown fish back to the river.

The Cannon River is a great Smallmouth Bass fishery. They will eagerly smash spinners and Rat-L-Traps, and will also take worms, flies and other lures.

Inspired by that success, I continue casting the Mepps. Meanwhile, Ashley and Dad catch a variety of fish bottom-fishing with worms, including several Freshwater Drum, a Mooneye and a pair of keeper-size Channel Catfish. Dad adds the catfish to our blue-and-white rope stringer and ties the end to a heavy log. These fish will make a fine dinner.

White Bass chase baitfish to the surface in schools. When you find feeding White Bass you can often catch several on consecutive casts, and they put up a very strong fight for their size.

Without warning, a frenzied splash erupts at the surface of the eddy, surprisingly close to shore. More splashing ensues. A school of White Bass is chasing baitfish. I make a quick cast into the midst of the feeding frenzy. As soon as the Mepps hits the water the slack in my line snaps taut and I have a White Bass on my line. It fights frantically, zipping back and forth, putting up a valiant effort for its size. It continues to flip and flop vigorously after I lift it out of the water by the line. Mindful of the treble hooks and the fish’s sharp spines, I cautiously grab the fish and remove the hooks from its lips. I carry it to the stringer…and pause in shock when I see the giant snapping turtle lying motionless, staring at our captive catfish. I move the stringer out of the pool and set it up at the head of the riffle where the current is stronger. Our dinner fish should be safer from turtles here.

I cast to where the White Bass were a few times, but they seem to have moved on so I switch back to a worm. It doesn’t take long to get my next fish—a big Silver Redhorse and my largest fish of the day. In contrast to the Shorthead Redhorse, this sucker has gray fins and a more robust body. I release it after taking a couple of pictures.

Me holding a nice Walleye from the Cannon River. Not sure how I ended up in a Cowboy’s shirt…Skol Vikings!

Dad hasn’t had a bite in a while so he reels in to check his bait and finds a tiny little fish on the end of his line, which we would later identify as a Silver Chub. He decides to attach the chub to his hook as bait and casts it out to the current. After a long wait he gets a bite, and catches our first Walleye of the day. But like the Sauger, this fish is not in season and we have to let it go.

My line gets hung up in a snag. I snap the rod back at a few different angles, trying to loosen it, but fail. So I lay the rod on the ground and wait for Dad to come help me get it unstuck. While I’m waiting I notice the rod tip bounce, though, so I grab the rod and find that the line is no longer snagged. Better yet, I’ve hooked a fish! It feels pretty small. I reel in and lift something unusual from the water. It is definitely a sucker, but it’s not a White Sucker and it’s not a redhorse. This slender fish has a big blocky head that is hard and concave between the eyes. Its golden brown body is interrupted by dark saddles that remind me of the markings on a Sauger. The sucker lips are proportionately large, bumpy and ringed in black. Dad doesn’t know what it is, either, and so we take several pictures before returning it to the riffle.

It’s true what they say, time sure does fly when you’re having fun. As the sun falls below the tree line Dad suggests that we think about packing it up soon. I toss my bait out again—one last cast. After a few minutes of inactivity I get another bite, but when I set the hook there is nothing there. My hook is picked clean. In the twilight shadows and under attack from hordes of mosquitoes we pack up our gear, release the drum from its temporary pen and collect our stringer of keepers. While Dad drives home I reflect on the successful day of fishing and tally our catches onto a sheet of paper…12 species in one day!

At home I immediately page through my copy of McClane’s Field Guide to Freshwater Fish of North America while Dad fillets the day’s catch. My mystery fish is a Northern Hog Sucker. Although we’d caught highly-esteemed game fish like the Walleye and Smallmouth Bass, and while I certainly enjoyed eating the fresh catfish and White Bass—sprinkled with lemon-pepper and drizzled with melted butter—my favorite fish of the day was that strange new species. I open the binder in which I log the details of my all my fishing outings and pen “Northern Hog Sucker” on my running list of the fish species I have caught…my fishing lifelist.

Me and Dad with a Northern Pike and a Smallmouth Bass from a different spot on the Cannon River, mid-1990s.

 

 

 

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