Driftless Outdoors: Successful May anglers are not deep thinkers

By Capn. Ted peck

James Hall caught this walleye on a chatterbait in a pool 9 backwater in less than 5 feet of water. Jesse Simpkins looks on. (submitted)

Pride won’t allow wannabe pro anglers that spend Saturdays flying up and down the river in $100,000 bass boats to admit they got “skunked”.  They will tell you time on the intimidating Mississippi was spent “eliminating unproductive water”.

When the river is running belly-full, and the water is standing—but not running through—islands and backwater sloughs in the flood plain in May, water over 10 feet deep with substantial current is essentially unproductive water. This pretty much cancels out the river mainstem if you’re trying to get your fishing string stretched.

With little spring snowmelt, the Driftless has yet to see a defined flood in 2024. The Mississippi drains almost one-third of America. Welcome April showers pushed river levels here to the ideal water in the trees, but not flowing through range.

River level is falling now, with the USACE extended forecast calling for a steady drop toward normal summer pool levels by early June. The result is near-perfect fishing conditions between now and the arrival of serious summer.

There is one caveat to our ideal fishing conditions: falling river levels pull logs and dunnage out of flood plain trees, drawn by gravity toward the main channel.

I’m not ashamed to admit one of my favorite sounds on the river is the painful whine of a 200 hp outboard driven by one of the NASCAR on the water crew hitting a big chunk of floating wood at 60 mph.

Water temperatures have warmed into the mid to upper 60’s, goading bass to move into water less than 10 feet deep to spawn this week.  Bluegills and crappies are sensing similar motivation. They will drop their eggs in scoured out moon crater clusters around brush piles and amongst developing weed clusters in less than six feet of water between the full moon this Thursday and Memorial Day.

Catching panfish on the spawning beds is pie easy. All that’s needed is a $310 Tom Sawyer linear graphite cane pole, a pencil shaped float, Gamakatsu or VMC #6 light wire hook and pinch of garden hackle after locating a spawning bed by sight or sometimes unexplained bubbles on the surface.

Folks fishing out of $100,000 bass boats for panfish believe a spendy fishing wand is necessary for success. Truth is a stick, string, 10-cent Mustad hook and pinch of nightcrawler will catch just as many fish either angling from shore or in a beat-up canoe.

“Garden hackle” is what snooty flyfishers call nightcrawlers when light footing along small streams in the Driftless in pursuit of trout. Trout fishing is pie easy right now, too.

Trout fishing is all about a stealthy approach and natural presentation. You don’t need an $800 Sage rod, $200 Hardy reel and #18 Midge or Black Gnat fly to catch trout. The basic stick & string bluegill pole will work.

Even garden hackle won’t get a trout to eat if you do the draft horse stomp on the stream bank when approaching an appealing coolee stream pool.

May is a time for catching instead of thinking too deeply about fishing. Tread softly, all senses in alert mode. Drink in the natural world of the Driftless. Life is good.

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