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Mississippi River holds great angling for fishing opener

When Gov. Mark Dayton heads out in the early hours of May 13 in hopes of hooking into a big fish, he’ll be doing something only a few governors have done before: Marking the opening day of Minnesota’s angling season by fishing on a river.

While the Minnesota Governor’s Fishing Opener has taken place on the Mississippi three times before, it’s been on the lower, broader, deeper parts of the river between Red Wing and Winona, stretches that resemble lakes because of the dams and locks that impound the river to facilitate barge traffic. Dayton will see a much different Mississippi in the greater St. Cloud area, a shallower, more lazy river that calls for different angling techniques than those used on lakes and big rivers.

“Rivers are dynamic and always changing, with different flows and stages,” said Eric Altena, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources fisheries manager for the area. “That can affect your fishing a lot.”

The portion of the river that’s the focus for the Governor’s Fishing Opener this year is about 200 to 400 yards wide, and averages less than 3 feet in depth, with several deeper pools. Altena describes three different sections of the Mississippi around St. Cloud, separated by dams where early American explorer Zebulon Pike would have encountered water falls when he first visited the area in 1805.

The river below the St. Cloud dam includes the Beaver Islands, a cluster of 20 or 30 islands on the south end of St. Cloud so named by Pike for “the immense signs of those animals, for they have dams on every island.” The St. Cloud pool is a 6-mile stretch between the St. Cloud and Sartell dams that includes about a 264-acre reservoir within St. Cloud, as well as several miles of shallower, more natural river running through Sauk Rapids. Between the dams at Sartell and Royalton, the river flows unimpeded for 26 miles.

Nearly three dozen species of fish can be found in this portion of the Mississippi River, including smallmouth bass, walleye, northern pike, channel catfish and the occasional muskellunge. The river’s diverse and robust fishery relies wholly on natural reproduction (i.e. no stocking) and is largely the product of a healthy watershed. It receives relatively low angling pressure and catch rates can be high, in excess of five fish per hour for smallmouth bass.

Below St. Cloud, the river is recognized as a world-class smallmouth bass fishery that’s maintained by a special regulation with a 12-inch to 20-inch protected slot and a three-fish daily bag limit. Anglers fishing the opener on any stretch of the river around St. Cloud are likely to run into some bass action, Altena said. The season is catch and release for bass until May 27.

While electronics such as depth finders can be handy on large lakes, a pair of eyeballs may be just as useful on a shallow river. Altena recommends looking for eddies and riffles, places of transition in the flow, where the current changes or slows. If it’s rained recently, look for stormwater inlets or tributary streams – fish congregate there and wait for the current to deliver food. For an all-around general purpose set-up, Altena likes a nightcrawler or two on a short Lindy rig with about a one-foot leader and a 1/0 or 2/0 circle hook. High flow conditions are more favorable for walleye reproduction and recruitment, while low flow will generally yield more bass and catfish spawning success.

“If you don’t get a hit within 15 minutes, something’s wrong, and you should probably move,” he said.

The St. Cloud area of the Mississippi River also presents great opportunities for shore fishing, with many parks and public lands along the river for access. Downstream of the St. Cloud dam are Riverside Park, Beaver Islands Trail Park and River Bluffs Regional Park. Above the dam there’s Wilson Park and a number of others all along the river up to Sauk Rapids and to Sartell.

“There are plenty of opportunities to jump around from spot to spot to find the best one and the best presentation,” Altena said. “A lot has to do with timing. A spot may be productive or not at different times of day.”

As far as fish consumption goes, the river is similar to any other lake in the area, Altena said. As a general rule of thumb, it’s better to let the bigger ones go and keep the fish under 16 inches for eating.

Visit Fish Minnesota for more information about fishing.