Many of us know the St. Croix River as a great place to go boating, take pictures or picnic alongside. We might go for walks on the Stillwater levees or on Hudson’s long river walk. But do you ever consider what is lurking below the water’s surface?
The river is a thriving fishery with an immense variety of catchable fish species. Charlie “Turk” Gierke, professional fishing guide and owner of Croixsippi Fishing Guide Service in Hudson, says his boat record for one day is 17 species, everything from walleye, bass, sunfish, catfish, sturgeon and gar.
So, how do you catch 17 species in a day? “It’s called nightcrawlers,” Gierke says.
Tips to Get You Hooked
River fishing differs from lake fishing in a couple of important ways. In a lake, you will have little current and relatively stable water levels, but in a river, the current and the water depth are big factors to finding fish. Fish seek locations that offer a happy medium between current and slack water. The current brings a steady supply of food to fish, so they like to be near the current but not right in the fastest flow, as swimming against it requires them to expend unnecessary energy.
As to rising and falling water levels, Gierke says, “When the water comes up, the fish come up, and when the water goes back down they have to go back down. In the river, when the water comes up you have input, and that makes the clarity go down. If that happens, the fish have to come up shallower to have more light so they can see.”
If you’re boat fishing, Ron Smith of Smitty’s Guide Service in Hudson says, “Buy a depth finder, and learn how to use it. On the St. Croix, you don’t have to see individual fish; what you want to see is activity, schools of bait, hooks mixed in. When you find this activity, move deeper, then shallower. Identify the depth with the most concentrated activity. That’s where old marble eyes will be. Focus your presentations there and you’ll be rewarded more times than not.”
Gierke recommends returning to the same body of water two days in a row. “On the first day, just try to get acclimated and try to make a plan. Then, execute it on the second day. If you can go out there two days in a row for four hours at a time, a lot of things become clearer on that second day.”
Both guides agree that keeping it simple is better than constantly changing your presentation. “You have to know it’s a good presentation, but you don’t have to switch [it often],” Gierke says. “Sticking with one presentation is going to make all the difference in the world. It’s a slower process. Just target a set area and work it with a technique you are good at.”
Don’t have access to a boat? Don’t despair—you can still get out and fish. Gierke suggests starting with downtown Stillwater.
“Just bottom fish with as many lines as you can. Don’t go too heavy on the weights, just throw them out there.” Afton State Park and Stillwater’s Boom Site are also good places to give it a go.
Smith suggests the discharge channel at Xcel Energy’s King Plant electrical generating facility in Bayport or Hudson City Park, where anglers can fish on either side of the old highway causeway.
Like any sport, fishing is best undertaken with proper gear.
“An assortment of No. 4 and No. 6 octopus hooks, Aberdeen hooks, an assortment of 1/8-1/2 oz. egg sinkers, and a split shot would provide the basic necessities to get started,” Smith says.
And of course, you’ll need live bait (minnows or leeches are good options, with nightcrawlers being an excellent starting point), a fishing license for the side of the river you are fishing on if you are fishing off shore (a license from Minnesota or Wisconsin is valid while river fishing from a boat) and appropriate outdoor clothing.
In one sense, fishing has evolved mightily through the years. While some of us grew up rowing to our fishing spots, modern bass boats can rocket over the water at highway speeds. Fishermen used to find the bottom depth by tying a weight to a line, dropping it down to the bottom, then taking a rough measurement of the wet line. Now you can see the bottom contours (and your location) precisely with a smartphone app from Navionics—it is to lake navigation what Google Maps is to driving, allowing you to find points, drop-offs and underwater islands with precision even if you don’t have a depth finder.
Yet despite new technology, the fundamental act of fishing is still simple. Secure a nightcrawler onto a bare hook, affix a couple of light split shots to the line, and drop it to the bottom to see what’s there. There’s still the element of mystery that keeps anglers going back.
Reeling in Future Generations
Anyone who believes we go fishing simply to catch fish isn’t a fisherman. We fish, as Washington Irving said, “to produce a serenity in the mind.” There’s anecdotal evidence of sport fishing in Japan that dates back to the 9th century BC.
Unfortunately, we are seeing an unprecedented decline in the number of new fishermen. “Civilizations have been fishing for thousands of years, and in a flash it changes,” Gierke says. “I know I am generalizing, but many kids have no real ability to sit still without checking in and instantly being connected. It’s sad.”
The up-and-coming generation could appreciate fishing, could appreciate serenity in the mind, if we lead the way. Both Gierke and Smith believe there’s reason for hope, but it starts with shutting down the phones when we’re out, if at all possible.
The reason for hope? It’s easy to get hooked on fishing—if you give it a try. “One fish makes an angler,” Gierke says. “You can come back after the summertime in sixth grade and tell your buddies that you caught a 5 lb. bass. Then you tell them you are a fisherman.”
If you want to ensure a successful first day out, consider booking a half-day or full-day trip with Smitty’s Guide Service or Croixsippi Fishing Guide Service. Both are very good at opening up a whole new dimension of life for kids (and others) accustomed to the digital age.
If you want to eat your catch, “you can’t beat the St. Croix,” Gierke says. “It has the same health restrictions as Crane Lake.” The St. Croix is a federally protected waterway with limits on shoreline development, which is why being out on it can be such a profoundly enjoyable, back-to-nature experience.
In a time of harried living and disconnection, the act of fishing is one of connection—with your environment, with the fish, with your family and friends. Or perhaps it is a vehicle to some much-needed introvert time. Either way, it’s a worthy tradition well worth carrying on.
Anyone Can Fish
- The Department of Natural Resources for the states of Minnesota and Wisconsin offer information on how and where to fish on state lakes and rivers, including the St. Croix. dnr.state.mn.us/fishing; dnr.wi.gov/topic/fishing
- Fishing Has No Boundaries Inc. is a nonprofit whose goal is to open up the great outdoors for people with disabilities through the world of fishing; fhnbinc.org
- Let’s Go Fishing offers local no-cost fishing and boat excursions for seniors, people with physical or developmental disabilities, members of the U.S. military and veterans; lgfscv.org
Hook, Line and Sinker
For smaller children, Gierke recommends teaching them to fish with an old faithful Zebco spin-cast. For older children and adults, a medium-weight spinning rod is an excellent all-around choice—a 6.5-foot or 7-foot two-piece will serve you well in nearly any situation on the St. Croix River. This should be matched with an appropriate spinning reel and an 8 lb. test line.
(Left: Ron Smith; Right: Charlie "Turk" Gierke)
Fish of the St. Croix
When anglers are asked about the fish they prefer to catch, it becomes clear that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Yellow perch and rock bass are targets for beginners; crappies and bluegills are among the most cooperative of these smaller fish.
Walleye and sauger can be tricky to find, but are definitely popular with fish foodies.
Smallmouth bass give the angler a run for his/her money, with jumps and challenging runs.
Catfish and Sturgeon
The flathead catfish or lake sturgeon, some of which weigh more than 50 pounds, provide the challenge that experienced anglers seek.
Speaking of a challenge, northern pike or the muskellunge are the pinnacle.
These are the most commonly encountered species on the St. Croix River. Please visit the National Park Service website for a complete list of fish species.