October 04, 2010
The Winneshiek neck of Pool 9 on the Mississippi River boasts some tournament-wining bass fishing. (June 2007)
By Ted Peck
Don Rich and his son Don Jr. doubled on these bass just below Winneshiek's east channel bridge.
Photo by Ted Peck.
Hiding in plain sight on the mighty Mississippi River in northeast Iowa is a world-class bass factory -- the vast Winneshiek neck on Pool 9, a maze of running sloughs, side channels, woody cover and foliage that offers ideal habitat for largemouth bass and myriad other species.
You have no doubt that you're beholding a very special place when you look down on the Winneshiek from the heights of Mt. Hosmer City Park in Lansing. You can see for miles from atop the cliff on a clear day -- beyond to the far northeastern border to the north and downstream past Ferryville, Wis., across the river.
Although the Winneshiek is generally considered to be those waters lying south of Highway 82 which links the Hawkeye State with the Land of Cheese, habitat from the Winneshiek matrix continues upstream on back channels on both sides of the river up to about mile marker 666 -- the first almost easy access to the Winneshiek's east channel above Highway 82.
Getting to the east channel is almost easy from this entry point, because boaters need to navigate through a narrow, uncharted opening in a rocky closing dam, which spans the entire east channel here.
About a mile downstream, there's a shortcut where a wing dam blocks only part of a running slough leading to the lower Winneshiek. But this neck needs to be navigated with even greater caution, owing to the unseen dragon's teeth of stubs and stumps hiding ominously just below the river's serene surface.
Other side channels beckon boaters from the main channel along both sides of the river throughout the entire Winneshiek, at first glance appearing navigable with the promise of a pleasant visual feast on a leisurely cruise downstream.
Savvy river rats know that some of these routes are akin to terrestrial hoop nets, drawing unsuspecting victims in until escape to safety through the mudflats and wood back to the navigation buoys which mark the relative safety of the main channel turn a pleasure boating experience into a mission of considerable desperation -- causing many to venture here to swear that they will never return.
These natural barriers are a strong deterrent to the casual basser. Especially with so many less hazardous options on the unequaled fishery found in Old Man River. But those with a Tom-'n'-Huck sense of adventure, and others chasing the dream of cashing a fat tournament check, can realize some of the best bass action imaginable -- if you're willing to enter the Winneshiek with the knowledge that nature, not a 200-horsepower Yamaha, Mercury or Evinrude, calls the tune.
Iowa Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist Scott Gritters said that he hasn't had the opportunity to conduct baseline studies on the bass population in the Winneshiek, conceding "harvest by both tournament and regular anglers probably has some impact on the fishery. This is a complex and hard to understand issue which is also compounded by other factors like water levels, temperature, baitfish patterns and habitat use changes.
"The Winneshiek bottoms is one of our premier natural resources, clearly illustrating the adage 'If you want quality fishing you have to have quality habitat.' This neck of the river is a veritable poster for bass habitat."
According to Gritters, several massive multijurisdictional habitat projects designed to restore lost islands and, thus, to inhibit erosion are on tap in the near future for Pool 9. One of these projects is Capoli Slough at the lower end of the Winneshiek.
"This will help ensure we have we have quality fish and wildlife resources in Pool 9 for a long time," Gritters said. "The Winneshiek has the look and feel of being on a remote Canadian getaway -- the best part is there's no place like home."
Last summer, most of the 100 touring bass pros and their 100 co-anglers who qualified for the $64,000 top prize made the cut for the money round in the FLW Outdoors qualifying tourney with sacks of fish pulled from the Winneshiek -- over 25 river miles from the tournament headquarters site in downtown LaCrosse.
Why would anybody want to burn that much fuel, time and negotiate passage through the lock & dam at Genoa which separates pools 8 and 9 when countless bass are swimming closer to the tourney site?
"Because waters of the Winneshiek are about as close to a sure thing as you're ever gonna find in professional bass fishing" touring pro Derek "Duke" Jenkel said. "There is no doubt you can pull a quick limit of fish heavy enough to weigh back in that crazy maze -- with the honest potential for a heavy 'kicker' bass which could mean big bucks. This is some of the richest bass cover I've ever seen. And I've fished some of the best waters in the entire United States."
Touring pro Chad Morgenthaler agreed. "The Winneshiek has it all: a variety of weeds, wood, deep water, shallow water -- the entire package," he said. "With such a target-rich environment the biggest challenge a tournament angler faces -- beyond navigating through the natural hazards -- is finding a pattern that will yield the biggest bass."
Morgenthaler fishes all 28 of the FLW tournaments held around the country each year, averaging about $300,000 for his efforts. Many of these events are held in southern states where fishing pressure on bass is intense.
"Iowa bass anglers can't imagine the treasure they have in the Winneshiek slough," Morgenthaler said. "The first time I experienced these waters pre-fishing for the FLW event I couldn't help feeling like a skinny fox invited for a sleep over in a coop full of fat chickens".
I had the opportunity to share the boat with Morgenthaler that day, taking a couple days off from work as a fishing guide on Pool 9. Chad has been a buddy for a dozen years. We hadn't fished together since the days when we were both professional firefighters. Previous outings were always on Chad's home waters down in Southern Illinois.
On lakes like Crab Orchard, Devil's Kitchen and Kinkaid, you can fish all day for just a half-dozen good bites. Although Chad worked hard to put us on fish he was considerably irritated with my whining about how much better the bass fishing was in northeast Iowa.
Last summer it was truly gratifying to sit in his boat with a told-you-so smirk as Chad set the hook on probably 30 bass -- half of which with di
mensions worthy of tournament weight.
Time on the water with Morgenthaler and my old duck-huntin' buddy Duke Jenkel prior to the FLW event was a real eye-opener regarding new techniques, which Winneshiek bass probably hadn't seen much of prior to arrival of the touring pros.
The biggest epiphany came via a method Jenkel calls "punching." This entails Texas-rigging a multitentacled soft-plastic bait like the Sweet Beaver behind a 2-ounce bullet sinker. The heavy tungsten sinker "punches" easily through heavy carpets of foliage found in some nether reaches of the Winneshiek, allowing the plastic to tempt bass hunkered in the cooler water below the dense weeds.
Pulling hefty bass out of this heavy salad requires tackle with considerable backbone. Jenkel prefers a 7 1/2-foot G. Loomis flippin' stick and a baitcaster spooled with 50-pound test Berkley FireLine crystal.
The tungsten bullet weight he employs are denser than lead, enabling a smaller diameter sinker. A downside is the price -- about $6 a sinker. No major expense when chasing bass down on the Okeechobee in Florida when punching first gained favor. There are no toothy northern pike down on the Okeechobee -- but plenty in the Winneshiek.
Dukester was considerably annoyed by my unmitigated glee over his loss of $18 worth of sinkers to pike in the vast weedbed above the Cold Springs boat launch on the Wisconsin side of the river in a mere 15 minutes.
A couple hours later we were fishing several miles up-river in side cuts near the Lansing power plant. Some weather had blown in, with a light rain kicking bass feeding activity into overdrive.
All the commotion of bass boiling on the surface goaded us into switching over to hollow plastic rats, which can be extremely effective when skittered across duckweed.
Duke had me down four bass to one, explaining that the disparity of our catch rate could be attributed to the superior action of his $8 Rojas hollow plastic frog. Pike liked the Rojas frog better too.
Rojas frogs: $16. Tungsten weights $18. Watching Duke whine like a little girl: Priceless.
"Signature" lures may have an edge over generic baits when bass fishing. Maybe because anglers tend to work baits they believe in with a little more enthusiasm. When it comes to hollow plastic rats and tandem spinnerbaits the pike and structure factors combine to make use of generics a lesser financial headache when fishing the Winneshiek.
Bassing success here doesn't require a footlocker-sized tackle box. You can be a serious player -- at least if pike don't interfere -- with $10 worth of tackle that would fit in a paper lunch sack.
With fish settled into summer feeding patterns it doesn't take much time to figure out their feeding attitude. Location is driven more by river stage than prevailing local weather conditions.
During the mid-day period under a bright sky bass tend to tuck closer to cover under stable river conditions. This is especially true when fishing deeper weed beds. The water clarity changes between the downstream edge of a major vegetation plot and the outside edge where filtering action of the weeds has less impact is nothing short of remarkable.
Under normal summer conditions visibility in channels and running sloughs of the Winneshiek is typically 18 inches to three feet. However, if you can maneuver back into deep water edges of canals that snake through major weed beds, it is often possible to see the river bottom in over 8 feet of water between the weeds.
Many anglers come to the river with the preconceived notion that this water is discolored to the point where chartreuse or some obnoxious fluorescent color is the best choice for tempting bass.
If you feel compelled to appease the river spirits by donating several lures, tie on a red/yellow or chartreuse tandem spinnerbait, and it won't take long for a pike to collect your offering.
Pike will also eat spinnerbaits in more natural hues preferred by bass. But you'll likely tangle with several bucketmouths before paying this inevitable toll.
A spinnerbait is hands-down the best way to cover water and establish the feeding mood of bass in the Winneshiek on any given day. Weeds and wood are major keys to bass location here just about anytime.
Although bass can be swimming virtually anywhere weeds adjacent to at least 6 feet of water hold enhanced potential. Any point in weed growth or transition between different types of foliage is always worth a couple of casts, as is any point where two channels split as the river subtlety finds its way downstream.
Virtually any deadfall or stump has the potential for holding fish, even with adjacent water only a couple of feet deep. This is especially true if current flows close by rather than slack water.
Find a fallen tree surrounded by weeds with at least 6 feet of water and a little current nearby and its wise to have the landing net handy before you toss that first cast.
On the Mississippi, fish tend to congregate near optimum cover with greater density than at Iowa lakes. A spinnerbait is a good way to find out if anybody is "home" generating a strike as the lure pulses past with minimum potential for hanging up.
Once you find the fish, several bass may respond to the spinnerbait. Switching to a plastics presentation or a nearly stationary surface-bait can yield several more.
The first spot I showed Chad Morgenthaler last summer was woody cover not far from the excellent boat ramp west of the Lansing bridge. By starting with a spinnerbait and switching over to a blue/black 4-inch Sweet Beaver marketed by Cottonmouth Lures out of Carterville, Ill., Chad boated and released over 18 pounds of bass, which would have been enough weight to qualify for advancement during the approaching tournament, in just 20 minutes.
If you know where you're going on this water the entire Winneshiek can be negotiated with the boat up on plane. If you don't know where you're going the stage is set for considerable gnashing of teeth and general despair.
Experience has taught the value of redundant preparedness when venturing here. Take plenty of fuel, food and water. Throw some tools, means of starting a fire-including tinder (hint: toilet paper can be worth its weight in gold!) and communications capability. Having both a marine radio and cell phone in the boat is a good idea.
A GPS can be valuable in retracing a safe path back upstream -- and revealing where you went wrong. But a GPS is not a reliable navigation tool under some weather conditions -- most notably dense fog.
The term "pea soup" doesn't do justice to a dense summer fog on the Mississippi River. No one should try to
navigate this water at speeds above idle under foggy conditions.
"The Mississippi River is notoriously unforgiving. It can be a dangerous place," said Lt. Commander Patrick Clark of the U.S. Coast Guard. "A GPS can tell you your previous navigational route -- but it can't reveal what may lie in your path the next time down the river."
Bass tourneys are held almost every summer weekend on the Mississippi, with impact on both safety and the environment essentially uncharted, due in part by multiple jurisdiction between states bordering the river, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service charged with protecting natural resources in the refuge, which encompasses a great deal of the river and its backwaters, and the U.S. Coast Guard, which is responsible for maintaining the 9-foot-deep navigational channel between the red and green buoys on the main river.