September 02, 2020
By Dr. Jason Halfen
The mighty Mississippi River is the lifeblood of our nation. It unites the pine-studded wilderness of Minnesota with the fertile marshes and bayous of Louisiana. Her waters transport millions of tons of commerce—grain, construction materials, coal and more—and support an extraordinary density of fish, and fishing opportunities, as they pulse from north to south.
The upper pools of the Mississippi River feature a dazzling array of both cool- and warm-water finned targets. Home to an annual parade of regional and national bass and walleye tournaments, the Upper Mississippi River also boasts an incredible fishery for panfish—bluegills, crappies and perch—that few other destinations can surpass. The late-summer period finds this panfish bite shifting into high gear, as peak water temperatures support high metabolic rates and precipitation-driven changes to river stage and flow focus fish in predictable, high-percentage areas. Here are some tips that will help you to enjoy this Midwestern panfish paradise.
’GILLS GROOVE ON WING DAMS
Typical mid- to late-summer flows have a significant concentrating effect on bluegills, especially the big bulls. Many soft-bottomed backwater habitats lose their ’gill-attracting appeal as summer’s heat and falling river levels take hold. Bluegills respond by setting up shop on wing dams, which are artificial rock spines that extend from near shore toward the main-river channel, focusing both current and fish.
Bluegills congregate on the upstream sides of wing dams, typically out toward the tip, but not every dam will hold a bonanza of bulls. Indeed, it takes the right combination of current, depth and secondary structure—things like a few big boulders or a cut in the dam—to make these rocky structures a haven for late-summer bluegills. Consider a series of wing dams along a section of river. During periods of low flow—the laziest dog days of summer—the largest numbers of bluegills will be found on the first dam in the sequence, as that dam catches the most current. As flows increase, the prime wing dam will move farther back in the sequence, and bluegills will slide from the tips of the dams toward the shore.
Once you find late-summer bluegills, catching them is a breeze. Perhaps the easiest way is with a simple drop-shot rig dressed with a small chunk of nightcrawler. I use several pieces of split shot as my weight and a long-shank Aberdeen hook to hold the bait. Cast from your anchored position downstream, targeting the slick water just above the turbulent flow caused by the wing dam. This is where the bluegills should be, and don’t be surprised to occasionally tangle with larger wing dam residents, like walleyes, smallmouth bass and omnipresent freshwater drum, or sheepshead, as well.
Where to Go: Fantastic bluegill opportunities exist in the lower section of Pool 4—below Lake Pepin—through Pool 5. Not only does this section boast many dozens of bluegill-harboring wing dams, but protective harvest regulations have also allowed the overall bluegill size structure to increase dramatically. Pepin, Wisconsin, and Wabasha, Minnesota, provide excellent access to lower Pool 4, while Alma, Wis., is perfectly positioned for adventures on Pool 5. While you’re in the area, be sure to visit the National Eagle Center in Wabasha, and make time to enjoy lunch and terrific ice cream at the Nelson Creamery, situated between Pepin and Alma.
CRAPPIES CRAVE VERTICAL COVER
As summer pushes bluegills onto horizontal wingdams, low flow and warm water temperatures concentrate crappies on vertical cover, especially steep riprap banks that plunge into reasonably deep water and standing, flooded timber. As described earlier, having the right amount of current is paramount to finding large numbers of quality crappies. Stagnant waters won’t hold the crappies we’re looking for, and neither will rock walls that are catching the full force of the Mississippi’s summer flow. Rather, we’re looking for gentle but noticeable current—enough to make you stay on the trolling motor to hold position, but not so much that baits get blown downstream.
I’m a big fan of using compact soft plastics on light jigs when chasing crappies, and summertime river slabs are no exception. Dress a 1 1/2-inch-long minnow-shaped soft plastic on a 1/16-ounce jig and tie up with a premium eight-strand braided line for long casts and to cut the current. Cast quartering upstream to work a riprap bank and let the current gently sweep the bait along the rocks. Or, position the boat adjacent to woody cover and use precise casts to pick crappies out of the timber. When you find one river crappie, you’ve likely found many.
Where to Go: Crappies abound in many areas of the Upper Mississippi River, and you’ll find excellent opportunities in Pool 6, with good access from Trempealeau on the Wisconsin side and Winona in Minnesota. Trempealeau even offers a fishing float, positioned near prime water just below the dam, for anglers without a boat.
Great camping opportunities exist at Wisconsin’s Perrot State Park, upstream of Trempealeau, while Winona offers the feel of a bustling, vibrant river town with abundant shopping, lodging and restaurants.
PERCH POUNCE FROM THE WEEDS
Water quality continues to improve throughout the upper Mississippi River, and one habitat change accompanying better water quality is more abundant aquatic vegetation. Indeed, as weedbeds have expanded their footholds in backwaters and side channels of the Upper Mississippi, river tigers—yellow perch—have become larger and far more abundant. Although an uncommon livewell guest in recent decades, perch are now thriving in the Upper Mississippi River.
Nearly every backwater lake that has both current and weeds will also harbor perch in late summer. Packs of perch will hunt along the periphery of the weeds, often in depths of 4 to 6 feet, as they chase schools of shiners and small shad. One of the biggest thrills you’ll ever experience is sight-fishing for jumbo perch in these often very clear backwater lakes, as the standing vegetation does an amazing job of filtering out sediment and providing habitat for both predator and prey. When perch are on the chew, baits like ultra-light crankbaits or even small chatterbaits are a blast. On off days you’ll still turn plenty of heads with small plastics or micro tubes rigged on light jigs.
Where to Go: La Crosse and Onalaska, Wis., on Mississippi River pools 7 and 8, are the perfect launching pads for late-summer perch. The waters of Lake Onalaska, at the bottom end of Pool 7, is a great place to start the hunt, where you’ll find literally hundreds of miles of weedlines, side channels and other perch haunts that are worthy of one—or many—casts. The La Crosse-Onalaska area offers a "big-city experience" on the shores of the Mississippi, but I tend to prefer the stillness of a smaller, welcoming home base, like the Water’s Edge Marina and Campground in Stoddard on Pool 8.