Dateline: August 24, 2014 – Eau Claire, Wisconsin
It’s risky to ever think the Fish Gods owe you anything, but after the disastrous weather we faced on our May Wisconsin jaunt, it was tough not to think they might give us a break. (Prerequisite reading HERE.)
I knew Martini and I had to come back to Wisconsin. Even though it had been freezing cold and all the good spots had been under water, and I sprained my tongue trying not to say bad words in front of Mike the Pastor, we had still had a lot of fun and it was also obvious that the state had a lot of species left to offer. So when Mike offered us a weekend in August, we made the schedules work.
Travel went smoothly, and on the drive from Minneapolis to Eau Claire, Martini and I mused over how different things were three months later. It was high summer in the midwest – warm, humid, still. Water levels had receded from the biblical levels we found in May, and all the Dairy Queens were open late. Dairy Queens sell fried things and soft serve ice cream, essential foodstuffs for the unsupervised male.
We caught up with Mike early the next morning. It was great to see him – he is a true brother in the species hunting fraternity, and one of the few people who understands it is perfectly normal to drive thousands of miles to catch a Utah sucker. We drove about an hour out to some unpronounceable river and set up on a country bridge, just above a sweeping bend on a fast-running, medium-sized river.
Before my first cast, I smiled back at my inability to catch a shorthead redhorse in May. I wondered if the curse would continue. The answer came less than a minute later – I got a solid bite and a hard run in the current. As soon as the fish surfaced, I could see the red fins and the, well, short head of the shorthead. I had added a species.
The shorthead curse is ended.
It was good. It was beyond good. It was stupid good. Every fish we didn’t get in May came back and brought its friends, and we caught dozens of redhorse, as well as the occasional catfish and walleye.
I got a silver, followed by a few more shortheads, and then a bigger fish latched on and gave an even stronger fight. I walked it down to the bank, and as it surfaced, I saw I had gotten a golden redhorse – another new critter. The weather was pleasant, the fish were biting, and I was on the water with good friends.
We noticed that there were some small fish on the shoreline, so we set up micro rigs and caught what turned out to be common shiners.
This fish made my life difficult.
This small fish caused a disproportionate firestorm of ID controversy. I believed it to be a common shiner, which would have been a new critter for me, but at the same time as I was working through this ID, sharp-eyed 1000Fish reader Brandon Li went through “A Mourning on the Water” and pointed out that one of my fish in Michigan was actually a common shiner. But he didn’t stop there – he also noticed that I had misidentified the shiner in “My Old Kentucky Bone.” Some research showed that one NOT to be a creek chub, but rather a lined shiner – a new species almost five years after the fact. Both blogs have been updated for your reading pleasure, and a big thanks to Brandon.
We kept at it for a few hours – the fish would taper off for a bit, then we would get a run of five or six, then just enough time for a Red Bull. Martini, just because he does this sort of thing, casually caught an eight pound line class record silver.
And yes, his shirt is a sucker ID chart.
It was awesome, and then, at least for Martini, it got awesomer. He hooked a noticeably bigger fish on the left side of the bridge, and as it surfaced, he and Mike let out some primal whoops of triumph. Presuming that Martini’s pants had split, I walked over to discover that he had instead caught a Greater redhorse, a rather rare, larger species in the family. Sure I was thrilled for him, but as of that moment, a Greater redhorse became the one thing I wanted even more than I wanted to see Jaime Hamamoto break off a big bonefish.
Martini and the greater redhorse. The day was now officially epic, and we weren’t done.
There were a few lamprey about. Do not put this in your pants.
Mike explained that the greater redhorses were were rare – he had only caught a few in his life. So I didn’t have high hopes, but it was inspirational to know they were there. We moved spots in the early afternoon, to an isolated bridge on a smaller river. Mike proved how rare the greater redhorse was by promptly catching one. Sigh.
You have to be kidding me. I was the only guy in the car who hadn’t caught one.
It’s not like you can target these things – they all live in the same places, and they eat the same things. You put a worm on the bottom and take your chances. And about an hour later, a great day entered my small pantheon of legendary days. I got a greater.
And it was bigger than theirs, not that I care about such competitive tripe, but it really was quite a bit bigger than everyone else’s. And Jaime has never caught one, and if she did, it wouldn’t be this big.
We were out of Red Bull and superlatives, which is a shame, because I could have used one of each less than five minutes later. My rod, set with a crawler in mid-river where it could have caught anything from a redhorse to a walleye to a catfish, went down hard. It was a nice fish; a very solid fight. I had gotten around 20 redhorses for the day, and this one was definitely a good one. I brought it up out of the current and toward the bank, and it surfaced.
Mike’s eyes shot out of his head, and Martini grabbed the net and leaped off the culvert and down to the water. I wondered what all the excitement was when Mike yelled “It’s a River!” It took a moment before I spit out my Pepsi. The river redhorse is rare – listed as threatened in Wisconsin. Obviously, we couldn’t target or not target a bottom species, but it was an extraordinary and beautiful fish. Martini gently scooped it up so we could remove the hook and let it be on its way.
A river redhorse. The day was now just ridiculous.
We headed back to Eau Claire, thrilled with our success, and enjoyed a delightful meal of fried stuff and soft-serve ice cream. Five redhorse species in one day. I think I went to sleep mumbling about that. Or Kate Upton, I forget which.
The next day, we floated the Chippewa river. We had wanted to do this in May, but the water was simply too high and we would have been swept away never to be seen again. This time, the day was perfect – low water, a bit overcast, warm, and still.
Martini got a great species – the northern hogsucker – while he waited for me and Mike to shuttle the cars.
Sometimes, the selfie just gets awkward.
The guys. Martini is smiling because he had just caught a northern hogsucker.
We drifted from spot to spot, catching some beautiful smallmouth along the way. At one of the first sand bars where we stopped, I got a mooneye, adding my 5th species of the trip.
A mooneye. We got a bunch of these.
Wandering down the river, we picked up more smallmouth, plenty of redhorses, and a couple of nice catfish.
Martini got this on some sort of trout rod.
I was not displeased with this fish. Mike knows his stuff, and he unhesitatingly shared all of his secret spots.
With only one species for the day so far, I was still thrilled as we got off the water and ordered a pizza at the ramp so we could keep fishing.
When we finally made it back to the original put-in, Martini and I stayed to look for a northern hogsucker for me. It didn’t take long, and after a false alarm from a small catfish, I added the species.
These things are just cool.
We headed back to Eau Claire, thrilled with our success, and enjoyed a delightful meal of fried stuff and soft-serve ice cream.
The next morning, we hooked up Mike’s boat and headed to the Mississippi River. On the way, we had a delightful lunch of fried stuff and soft-serve ice cream. We had one main target – the sauger – which had successfully eluded me for years. These creatures are ridiculously light biters, like all of their walleye-related ilk. (See “The Goulash Archipelago“) We arrived on one of the dozens of dams along the river and launched on a perfect summer day.
There are loads of these dams. There are fish at all of them.
We had to work for the sauger, but we each got one, and I texted Bob Reine and told him he could stop giving me crap because I had caught one. He responded – “But have you caught a burbot?” Twit.
I didn’t say it was a big sauger, but I was thrilled with it.
We also added an emerald shiner in the shallows.
The real highlight of the day was the panfish bite on a rocky shoreline. We got dozens of solid bluegill and rock bass on light tackle – this is how a lot of us start fishing as children, and it never gets any less fun.
Another bluegill. Yes, Martini’s is bigger.
We fished until dusk, enjoying the river and the weather, watching the endless trains roll by. Trains will always remind me of my grandfather, who used to drive seven year-old me around Detroit looking for them.
We must have seen two dozen trains in a few hours. Seven year-old me was thrilled.
That evening, after a delightful meal of fried stuff and soft-serve ice cream, we decided to give the catfish a shot below the dam in town. There are some big flatheads there, and while I have gotten the species, I have never gotten a big one, and Martini has never gotten one.
I cast my setup, put it into into a rod holder, then walked 50 feet over to Martini and Mike to give them some weights.
It took me less than a minute to walk up to Martini and Mike, give them the weights, and walk back. In that time, my rod had apparently gotten snagged. The tip was down and rhythmically bobbing, so I picked it up to clear it. I reeled down, and reeled down, and after a moment, I realized that my line had drifted almost straight upstream. I quickly reviewed what I had learned in college physics, and it dawned on me that I had either hooked a fish or the Eau Claire River was running backwards. I set the hook, and felt the faint pumping of a big fish at the end of a lot of line. I was hoping for a big flathead. It would be a long time before I found out.
The fight dragged on over an hour – this was not all that heavy of a rod, and I was battling a lot of current as well as something beastly. Whatever it was came close to shore twice, pushing up big boils before heading deep again. My rig didn’t have muck lifting power, and I was getting concerned that my light leader was going to snap.
Martini and Steve battle the mystery beast, moments before Martini did something that both inspired and terrified me.
When the fish got close for the third time, Martini did something that I admire to this day, as much as it made me question his judgement. He jumped into the water. If you even wonder if someone is more of a brother than a fishing buddy, see if they will dive into an unfamiliar, fast river – at night – to land a fish of indeterminate size and disposition. There is a fine line between brave and clinically insane, and Martini had leaped across it.
There was a lot of thrashing and water thrown in the air – like a dog fighting a fire hose – and for a moment, we weren’t sure who was winning. Somewhere in there, my line broke, so I had even more incentive to hope it was Martini. At one stage, we could see the fish, Martini’s head, and Martini’s sneakers all at the same time. With an armload of thrashing animal, Martini regained his footing and presented my catch. When I saw it, I completely forgot that Mike was a pastor and said the things we usually say when we see an unexpectedly big fish. (Interestingly, when he broke off a big flathead later in the evening, Mike also may have briefly forgotten he was a pastor.)
In a narrow decision, Martini defeats the sturgeon.
I had gotten a big lake sturgeon, on a ten-pound class steelhead rod. The fish was out of season so we released it quickly, but at least I had finally caught a dignified example of the species.
At last, a decent laker. As you recall, my May sturgeon was all of 14 inches.
It had been a fantastic fish to close out my day. I sat by the riverbank, enjoying the summer evening and sipping a Pepsi. It brought back memories of so many nights by the Scioto River when I lived in Columbus, except that I actually caught something this time and no one threw up in my car.
There was a heat lightning show that went on most of the evening – constant flashes long and bright enough to read by. These summer displays can go on for hours without rain, and I had presumed we were safe. But as we looked to pack up and be on our way for more fried food and soft-serve ice cream, the clouds absolutely broke. We sprinted a few steps, but realized it was pointless and we were going to get drenched, so we just laughed through it and got soaked to the skivvies. It had been a great evening; a great trip – but at this last hour, the Fish Gods reminded us that they were still in charge.