FORT RIPLEY -- On a sunny, windy day a few weeks ago Rolf Moen, of Nisswa, and I launched a boat on the Mississippi River, a short distance from this central Minnesota town.

Our intent was to boat a smallmouth bass or two, a fish recognized for its rod-bending, sky-leaping, head-shaking abilities -- and also known to favor this stretch of rock and rubble-strewn Mississippi.

“The river is low for this time of the year,” I said to Rolf as we shoved off from the landing. “I was hoping we could go downstream to the 40 Islands, but that likely is not going to work today.”

A buck white-tailed deer is batting flies with its tail as it feeds on wild celery, an aquatic plant that grows profusely in shallows of the Mississippi River. Deer are a fairly common sight along the river during summer. Photo by Bill Marchel
A buck white-tailed deer is batting flies with its tail as it feeds on wild celery, an aquatic plant that grows profusely in shallows of the Mississippi River. Deer are a fairly common sight along the river during summer. Photo by Bill Marchel

Many people, most in fact, are unaware of the 40 Islands. Actually, I think there are about 50 islands, but who’s counting, along a roughly 4- or 5-mile stretch of river. The island-strewn section of river has, to me, always been called the “40 Islands” so that’s how I’ll refer to it.

The 40 Islands were, the way I understand it, fashioned from log jams, dating back to the late 1800s when the flowing water of the Mississippi was used to transport logs southward. Over time, fertile silt gathered on log jams, forming the islands on which now grow towering trees, including giant silver maples. Upon close examination, here and there, one can still see old logs buried under a century-and-a-half of soil.

A few hundred yards downstream from the boat landing is where Rolf and I first chucked our lures. A small eddy was tucked against the shoreline, just below a tiny shoreline point, and a few large boulders. Those obstructions were enough to set the current in a circle, creating a calm spot -- an eddy.

I’d like to write we caught a smallie at that first location, but in reality, we didn’t. If you have ever fished in fast current, you know the logistics of placing accurate casts, what with the boat zipping along, as one watches for those big boulders just below the surface. Hit a boulder sideways and the occupants of the boat are likely to get wet.

Rolf Moen, of Nisswa, is about to bring aboard a smallmouth bass he caught from the current-free water in the background. Photo by Bill Marchel
Rolf Moen, of Nisswa, is about to bring aboard a smallmouth bass he caught from the current-free water in the background. Photo by Bill Marchel

And just like that we were 20 yards downstream from the eddy.

One would think that a strong, gusty wind wouldn’t be a factor when fishing a river. The widest section is under 200 yards across. But wind is a factor, a big factor. Here’s why. Under calm conditions, when current breaks over and around a submerged boulder, the “hump” in the water is easy to spot. But when a gusty wind ripples the water’s surface, those telltale signs of hidden danger are no longer visible, which makes boat navigation tricky in shallow, rocky stretches of river.

Downstream even further, Rolf and I fished a few more eddies. At one point I had a pike bite me, but somehow it managed to avoid the hooks -- as they often do -- so I was able to retrieve my lure as it floated downstream.

Next stop was calm water behind an island. I cut the engine, and as we rounded the island’s tip, we spotted a young whitetail buck. The deer, which sported velvet-covered antlers, was feeding on wild celery along a rubble shoreline. It paid scant attention to us.

That’s when Rolf caught the first bass of the day. He was throwing a surface lure called a Skitter Pop. When the fish hit, Rolf set the hook. In typical smallmouth fashion, the bass made several impressive leaps before Rolf was able to bring it aboard.

That fish came from perfectly still water. No current at all. That, we agreed, might be the key to finding fish that day. Sure enough, a few casts later and Rolf caught another.

To successfully navigate that stretch of the Mississippi River, Rolf and I were aboard my duck boat, which is driven by a shallow-drive motor. The motor’s prop is constructed of heavy-duty stainless steel, and is able to withstand a beating, and that’s just what it got that day. That’s no territory for a standard outboard. Going downstream is one thing, going back up is another.

Fishing remained slow. We managed to catch only one more bass. We had a number of hits on our surface lures but were unable to hook those fish. Overall, we agreed the bass seemed to be in a neutral mode at best. We might have been able to catch more bass had we fished deeper water with tube jigs or craw tubes.

But, for Rolf and me, bass fishing is all about using surface lures.

BILL MARCHEL is a wildlife and outdoors photographer and writer whose work appears in many regional and national publications as well as the Brainerd Dispatch. He may be reached at bill@billmarchel.com. You also can visit his website at BillMARCHEL.com.