Ted Peck

Outdoors talk with certified Merchant Marine Captain Ted Peck.

Mississippi River waters receding to improve fishing

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Ted Peck
Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Rock River has been running belly full all summer, dumping her flow into the Mississippi near the Quad Cities and passing high water grief to all downstream who seek recreation on Old Man River.

Back in the 1800s, Congress tasked the Army Corps of Engineers with maintaining a navigable channel on this grand artery of North America. A series of 33 massive lock-and-dam systems were constructed between St. Paul, Minnesota, and St. Louis in the 1930s to achieve this goal.

Dam gates have been wide open since early April, with nature's power flushing past man's feeble attempts at control with a hundred swollen tributaries bulging the Old Man to twice its normal size.

Fishers all along Wisconsin's western border have been forced to look elsewhere to feel the tug of something finny at the end of their lines.

The Old Man finally decided to calm down after a tirade longer than most folks along the river can remember. Dam gates started going back in the water last week. Fishers are smiling again as the great pendulum of life is finally sweeping back the other way.

Fish in the Mississippi and its myriad backwaters haven't seen many hooks since last year. Fishers are laughing from the soul at the lack of piscatorial continuing education, with any and all of the 104 fish species living here vulnerable to a tussle with the planet's ultimate predator.

Bass, northern pike, panfish, catfish and walleyes are the most sought-after species. Walleyes—Wisconsin's favorite fish—are considered the grandest prize.

The Yatzeck brothers from Waukesha County would rather catch walleyes than any other species. Over the past half-century they have traversed North America, dogging marble eyes wherever they swim.

Their favorite water is the Mississippi River. Jim Yatzeck has a cabin just north of Ferryville. His brother John's place is overlooking the river from atop a bluff, just a few miles north.

Until the dam gates went back in the water last week, the Yatzeck brothers were forced to turn their backs on the angry Old Man. More than halfway through this crazy summer, their pontoon boats are back on the quiet waters of a slough known locally as Big Lake—and walleyes aren't overjoyed with the Yatzecks' return.

They celebrated John's 60th birthday last week catching smallmouth bass and walleyes, coming up with excuses ranging from poor cellphone reception to outboard motor trouble for wives who believed the timely consumption of birthday cake held greater importance.

Fish were relating to an old road bed, which was part of the topography before the big dam went in back in 1936. The structure hides beneath the vast expanse of Big Lake, the exact location known to just those accused of spending too much time on the River when the Mississippi is running belly full.

Soon those without this degree of riverine familiarity will discover this structure with the lower units of their outboard motors as the Mississippi returns to normal summer pool levels.

The walleyes will have moved to places elsewhere in the system by then, with the Yatzeck brothers in quiet, low-key pursuit.

Wisconsin has countless places to fish between Waukesha County and our western border, with thousands more at northern latitudes within the state.

For next couple weeks, at least, the Mighty Mississippi might be the very best place in the Land of Cheese to experience the joy of angling success.

Ted Peck, a certified Merchant Marine captain, is an outdoors columnist for The Gazette. Email him at tedpeck@acegroup.cc.

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