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.