Tornadoes and hurricanes grab immediate headlines.
Two days later the world has moved on—with the exception of those directly impacted by the disaster.
Water, not wind, brings the big hurt. Storm surge in a hurricane passes with the tide. Imagine a storm surge lasting four full months.
The staggering impact of Mississippi River flooding, which began before the first day of spring and is slowly leaving Wisconsin behind as we welcome the meteorological arrival of summer, is leaving a mixed bag of revelations as gravity pulls it out of flooded islands for eventual union with the Gulf of Mexico.
Receding water leaves a distinct mudline downstream around islands and massive weed flats, with visibility that can exceed five feet in America’s storied Big Muddy River. These mudlines are multi-species fish magnets which change on an hourly basis like a spoonful of coffee creamer slowly drizzled into hot java.
Modern marine electronics have little value in finding fish with a river on the way down. Locating potential hotspots is entirely visual. Confirming active fish is best done with “search bait” like a spinnerbait or Rat-L-Trap. Once fish are located, changing lure presentation instead of boat location is a smart strategy.
I’ve been fishing the immortal river seriously since 1965 and have worked as a guide on our western border many times each year for more than 25 years. The changes over the past half-century have been remarkable, with changes over the past decade or so geometric in scope.
River metamorphosis is eternal and universal. The only education from ‘History of Greek Philosophy 431’ in my college days was a couple of Greeks with bellies full of fermented grapes arguing how many times you can step into a river before it changes didn’t have a clue.
Millennia later, the best we can do is accept the Rumsfield doctrine: “We don’t know what we don’t know.”
Conventional wisdom “you can’t catch any fish with your line out of the water” is more tangible.
Look for necked-down areas on a receding river through which fish must pass to survive. These necked-down areas are also good places to toss that search lure as a rapidly-rising river pushes fish out of the channel.
Combine the pearls of water clarity and fishing migration routes—with your line in the water—and you can discover phenomenal fishing like I’ve experienced for over two weeks. Last weekend my Rat-L-Trap found a pod of smallmouth bass and walleyes gorging on shad.
My buddy Frank stopped counting at 20 fish, just 52 minutes after we made the first cast.
Less than 24 hours later, the fish had moved more than a quarter mile. Ten casts with a Pop-R surface lure resulted in seven hook-ups with “cookie cutter” 16-inch smallmouth bass.
This little slice of fishing heaven is a half-mile stretch of slough that didn’t even exist until the spring of 2010 when the annual spring runoff wiped out a 100-yard wide swath of mature trees in the Immortal River’s never-ending quest to shorten it’s path to the Gulf.
The flood of 2010 left behind a chute of fast flowing water about 12 feet deep at normal river pool levels as the centerpiece with multiple microstructures nearby which have provided thrills from over 150 gamefish since last Thursday.
Electronics indicate this chute is now 14 feet deep, with the River projected to drop about five more feet before reaching normal river pool levels.
Even an inebriated Greek could realize this will change fish location and behavior as anglers begin to head west this summer to launch at ramps no longer hidden by floodwater.
Many trees won’t survive
Here’s a cautionary tale which isn’t even on environmentalist’s radar yet: studies indicate some tree species like silver maple and cottonwood can tolerate “wet feet” of flooded habitat for about a month. Islands of the Mississppi have been inundated for over four months.
This will kill many trees.
Dead trees can’t hold island-building sediment like live trees can. The sediment will head downstream beyond what you’ve seen in your lifetime, dropping out of the flow where the current slows, resulting in siltation.
Flooding will be common
Over time, a backwater slough of 1,000 acres, which was 5 feet deep, will silt in to the point where the depth is only 5 inches, exacerbating flooding severity in years to come.
I grew up on River Pool 13. Back in 1965 you could take a boat from a backwater to the main channel through a half-dozen different cuts. Today this same backwater has a narrow channel maintained by annual dredging.
By the time America was captivated by the horrors of 9/11, the Mississippi had silted in many once vibrant backwaters clear up to Petosi. Since then, similar habitat has been changed clear up to Pool 10 at Prairie du Chien.
We won’t know the impact of the 2019 flood for awhile, but I’ve got a river-rat hunch that the changes will come quicker and be more profound than ever seen before.