Continued low water and challenging conditions. Big fish were caught however.
We pulled it off.. albeit with with some modifications. Bike shuttles, mask compliance, buff wear, and distance maintenance were all utilized in order to minimize potential exposure. Despite the added challenges and inconveniences, some really nice fish were caught.
The unedited version of Greg Fitz’s article that made its way into the Fly Fish Journal…..A buddy of mine has recently become completely obsessed with bass fishing. It is notable because he is from the pacific northwest and has spent a lifetime being spoiled by year round steelhead and trout fishing, but smallmouth got under his skin last year. I’m from Minnesota originally and I adore those bronze devils. For years they defined my summers and autumns. During the long, deep freeze of winter, I would often catch myself daydreaming of warm evenings and bass taking topwater bugs in a swirl.
The last time I saw him, we drank some beers and talked about bass flies. New fisheries mean new patterns and along the way of his smallmouth journey he has accumulated an impressive collection of balsa and foam poppers, deer hair frogs, Dahlberg Divers, sliders, gurglers, bunny leeches, crayfish, hellgrammites, murdich minnows and, of course, piles and piles of clousers. His bursting fly boxes looked like the Warmwater section of every fly shop I’ve ever visited. The only flies missing were the meticulous, blue foam dragonfly patterns I always see in stores and catalogs, but have never seen anyone actually use.
I own the same bundles of flies, more or less, but when he asked about my favorite patterns I had to admit that if I’m bass fishing, odds are I’m running a chartreuse Templeton. He didn’t know the pattern and started to Google it on his phone. I wasn’t sure he’d find much information online. Like many of the best patterns, the Templeton is a bug developed in a specific geographical region for specific water and a specific species. That doesn’t mean it wouldn’t work great elsewhere, or that it wouldn’t get eaten by fish besides smallmouth bass (I happen to know it works great on northern pike, too), but it means the pattern hasn’t made the leap to catalogs, fly tying blogs and fly shop bins yet. I don’t know that it will, or that it should. The Templeton isn’t some groundbreaking innovation, it is a working guide’s fly that just happens to function ideally in the scenario for which it is intended.
More importantly, in my mind at least, the Templeton is a talisman immediately recalling short summers, tannic water, the intersticial boundary between the eastern deciduous forest and the boreal forest of the north, and the bright red eyes of hungry smallmouth bass prowling their native rivers. Just thinking about the pattern makes me homesick.
The Templeton is the creation of my friend Bob Bickford. Bickford been fishing and guiding for smallmouth bass on the St. Croix River, along the boundary between Minnesota and Wisconsin, for decades. It is fair to say the Templeton is one of the foundations of his program. And while the fly fishes remarkably well on nearby stretches of the Upper Mississippi River as well, the Templeton was made specifically for the steep, grassy banks of the St. Croix.
Rising from the bog, lake and flowage country of northern Wisconsin, the St. Croix is a quintessential tea-stained northern river. It was among the first rivers named in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 1968 and has been, at least upriver of the gorge at Taylor’s Falls, largely protected from development because of that wise designation. Smallmouth prowl its shallow banks, cruising for bait gathered among waving emergent vegetation or corralled by rock, granite walls and downed timber, or opportunistically pouncing on whatever hapless terrestrial creature slips into the water.
Along these thin shorelines, a hard body popper can be too loud and a Sneaky Pete slider can be too quiet. The Dahlberg Diver is perfect, but deer hair it too much of a pain in the ass to spin and trim for a guide whose clients are going to launch some percentage of his fly collection into bank side trees every day. Not to mention flies lost to the saw blade teeth of occasional muskies and pike. Deer hair will start to waterlog and sink once it is saturated with water and fish slime, too.
Bickford would tell you that a Templeton is simply a generic diver made with foam, flash and marabou. Maybe a collar of crosscut bunny. Easy to mass produce at the tying bench, durable and they’ll float all day long. But the magic happens when an angler smacks the Templeton down inches from the bank and starts to swim and twitch the fly back to the boat. The Templeton’s pop, dive and bubble gurgle is the perfect smallmouth bass predatory trigger. Not too obnoxious to scary spooky fish, not too quiet to go unnoticed in big water. Simply perfect. Everytime I scoot a Templeton along, hearing and feeling that gentle chug and push of water, I am astounded if it doesn’t get attacked.
I’ve watched cruising fish turn and chase a Templeton from yards away. I’ve seen them destroy it the second it lands and shark out from underneath sunken logs to crush it. It is the only fly I’ve seen catch fish all day long when nothing else would work. On that particular day, I caught bass for hours while a friend burned through his roster of dependable patterns and remained skunked. It was uncanny. When I finally lent him a Templeton to use, he immediately caught three nice bass in the hundred yards before we reached the boat landing. You’d better believed he fished a Templeton the next day when we did the float again.
I let him keep the fly. It was a karmic debt I owed the universe. Bickford had given me the Templeton, told me how to cut the erlenmeyer flask shaped piece of foam, and explained how to best fish it on the St Croix. It was an act of fishy generosity and I think of it every time a smallmouth devours the Templeton as it desperately swims from the bank.
Objectively speaking, the Templeton is a goofy looking fly. I don’t think its creator would deny that. Because of its resemblance to a rodent face, Bickford had often joked that it was named for Templeton the Rat, a character in Charlotte’s Web. I asked him about it and he laughed. It turns out it was named for a longtime client who was among the first to fish the new fly when Bickford was tweaking the first generation of the pattern years ago. The client examined the fly after Bickford tied it on his line and promptly gave it back, telling him it was the “stupid fucking thing he’d ever seen.” He went on to describe the fly as having a marshmallow head, but using additional, colorful adjectives to express how he didn’t consider that association to be a positive.
They fished other flies for most of the day, but Bickford was eventually asked to demonstrate the pattern to the skeptical client later on that trip. The proto-Templeton caught a fish immediately. The client grudgingly gave it a try and was soon won over. The design got finalized soon afterwards and has been catching smallmouth on the rivers flowing out of the Northland ever since.
Stable water levels and good weather led to consistent catching.
The biggest news for 2019 is the new Adipose drift boat. It is absolutely the best boat ever designed for rivers like the St.Croix and Mississippi.
April was a consistently cloudy and cool month and produced some nice fish.
What Spring? and where’s the May Caddis hatch? Despite the incredible 3 week transformation from winter to summer the trout streams in the St.Croix Valley fished well. As of this writing the St.Croix and Mississippi river’s are at mid summer levels. This should make for an interesting summer.
The St.Croix River
The St. Croix River is a170 mile long tributary of the Mississippi that originates in northern Wisconsin and shares the border with Minnesota for 125 miles until its confluence with the Mississippi River at Prescott Wisconsin. The St.Croix River was among the eight original rivers to achieve protection under the 1968 National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The entire river including it’s northern tributary, the Namekagen River, constitutes the St.Croix National Scenic Riverway and is currently designated as a National Park.
The entire St.Croix basin has a rich cultural and economic history. Prior to the first European settlers, nomadic North American Indian tribes occupied the region subsisting on fish, game, and wild rice. As a result of the French influence and Ojibwe cooperation, the St Croix Valley was part of an immense fur trading network in the 1700’s. The late 1800’s ushered in the logging era which brought permanent settlement and vastly altered the surrounding landscape. The St.Croix River was used as a conduit to float enormous amounts of White Pine to southern population centers. For the modern day angler, the effects from the logging era are still visible today in the form of wing dams, sunken logs, and ice breaking islands.
The current day St.Croix River and all its tributaries offer excellent angling opportunities for both cold and warm water species accommodating any angling style. The headwaters and small streams that flow into the St.Croix are best fished by wading while the extensive midsection is better managed by using canoes, kayaks, and drift boats. The lower river is large, wide, and deep, making it navigable by all sizes of fishing boats, large yachts, and commercial vessels.
The St.Croix is a free flowing river from its headwaters for 120 miles until it’s slowed by the river’s only dam located in St.Croix Falls Wisconsin. The dam is fully operational and is considered by many to be an asset to the fishery as a physical barrier preventing the potential upstream migration of invasive species. The dam also serves as the unofficial delineation between the upper and lower river. The majority of fly fishing occurs upstream of the dam where the river is more shallow and less accessible to conventional water craft.
The St.Croix River basin and all the tributaries exist in an area better known for an abundance of still water. Locally, the river’s reputation as a great warm water fishery is well documented but angling pressure is considerably lighter than on nearby lakes. Historically, the upper river has been the domain of canoes where casting, especially fly casting, is substantially limited by the confines of a canoe. In the late 90’s, the use of drift boats gained popularity and hence maximized the river’s fly fishing potential. While
fly casting from a moving drift boat is generally considered to be the most efficient way to fish the St.Croix, canoes are still used and good wading options also exist.
“ All top water all the time” is the motto of one seasoned St.Croix guide. Perhaps the most unique and exciting characteristic of the river’s Smallmouth Bass, Northern Pike, Musky, and even Walleye is their tendency to feed in very shallow water and attack surface flys at any time of the day. As a matter of fact, the North American angler extraordinair, Larry Dahlberg developed and perfected his famous Dahlberg Diver on the St.Croix River.
The primary draw for fly anglers on the St.Croix is Smallmouth Bass. The river boasts a healthy population of 14-17 inch Bass and 18-20 inch Bass are not uncommon. The rise in popularity of catching a Musky on a fly is also attracting anglers to the river. Muskies are native to the drainage and spread throughout the entire river. They are however, not distributed equally and their location is often secretly guarded by local experts. While the Smallmouth Bass tend to move around during the coarse of the season, Muskies will often remain in place until the river ices up in November. Catching a Musky on a fly rod is a challenging affair. It usually involves repetitive casting with a 9 or 10 weight fly rod pitching a fly with the mass and air resistance of a dead bird. The gear required for the river’s Smallmouth Bass runs lighter with a 7 or 8 weight rod being the norm. In virtually all instances, a floating fly line will be adequate anywhere on the river.
Fly selection on the St. Croix is easy due to the fact warm water fish species are generally not as selective as their cold water cousins. Muskies, Northern Pike, and Smallmouth Bass can be fooled with a variety of top water poppers/divers and shallow running streamer presentations. There are times however, when a deep running clouser/crayfish pattern is needed to coax a reluctant Smallmouth Bass or Walleye to bite.
The season for fly fishing the St.Croix River is relatively short lasting from June through September for top water Smallmouth Bass and July through October for Muskies. Upstream of the dam, the river is free flowing and large fluctuations in water levels are the norm throughout the season. Many new to the river have launched a drift boat in June only to return in August to find that the river has had a 75% reduction in water volume. The combination of decreasing water levels and a stiff upstream south wind can turn any float trip into a real frustrating affair. The key to consistent fishing success is understanding the ebb and flow of the river’s upper tributaries and managing the seemingly ever-present wind. There are USGS Real Time water gauges on the Snake, Kettle, and on the main branch of the St.Croix. The canoe outfitters rely on a US Army Corp.of Engineers gauge near Grantsburg Wisconsin that provides an arbitrary
measurement in feet. As a general rule, a water level reading between 4-6 feet on the Corp.of Engineers gauge is optimal for canoeing and fishing.
Finding a section to float or a place to wade on the upper river is easy due to an excellent series of maps provided by the National Park Service. Wild River Outfitters in Granstburg WI is the only shuttle service available, but their service area is limited. Most guide services and independent anglers usually resort to a “do it yourself shuttle.” The local guides prefer it because it keeps the number of people on the river at a minimum. More often than not, one has the river to themselves during midweek floats. Despite the relative scarcity of fellow anglers and large population of willing fish, the St.Croix can still be a maddening fishing experience. The Smallmouth Bass have a real propensity to hold tight to the bank where precision casting and quick reflexes are required to maximize hookups. In the world of Smallmouth Bass angling, the St.Croix River is known as a “master’s degree” stream where accuracy, endurance, and advanced casting skills are needed to consistently catch fish.
Regulations on the St.Croix River can be confusing secondary to its geographical status as border water. Because the upstream portion of the St.Croix lies entirely within the state of Wisconsin, certain fish species seasons may start later/earlier than the lower river. Minnesota and Wisconsin’s DNR maintain excellent websites that are good resources for seasons, limits, and license information. As a general rule, anglers can start targeting Smallmouth Bass around Memorial Day weekend while Musky season usually starts a week later. Even though it’s legal to keep bass from the river for certain periods in the summer, fly anglers generally practice catch and release of all species.
The future of the St.Croix River and quality of its fishery is bright thanks largely to the Wild River status and National Park designation. With that being said, there are a multitude of potential threats to the watershed. From the north, oil pipeline crossings and frac sand mining operations pose a threat for catastrophic spills into the headwaters. From the south, migrating Asian Carp pose a potential to wipe out the lower river’s quality fishing. Fortunately for the river and users, there exists a well organized and well funded conservation organization called the St.Croix River Association. The association is working with anglers and all groups to promote the river while ensuring its over all environmental quality and economic viability for generations to come.