First spring outing on Mississippi backwaters reveals environmental changes

By Captain Ted Peck

With most ice cover gone from running sloughs and backwater areas of pools 9 and 10 this past week, a flotilla of walleye and perch fishers have descended on the Upper Mississippi.

With most ice cover gone from running sloughs and backwater areas of pools 9 and 10 this past week, a flotilla of walleye and perch fishers have descended on the Upper Mississippi.
Water temperatures on both the main river channel and backwaters are now hovering at 38-39 degrees, with much sought-after species of the Percidae family of fishes—walleye, sauger and yellow perch—starting to migrate out of wintering areas to shallower, quieter waters where they will spawn when temperatures warm to 45-48 degrees in several weeks.
Several factors are key in hooking up with these popular fishes during the pre-spawn period: lure presentation, water temperature and depth contour. The ability to “read the water” drives all of these factors, with boat control and avoiding the crowd among subtle angling nuances of hooking up.
Most of these sought-after species are cruising near the bottom right now, with jigs, river rigs and both live bait and soft plastic lures all part of the presentation matrix resulting in frantic deployment of a landing net.

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The first couple of chapters in my personal “perch search” this past week revealed significant changes on the bottom of running sloughs on both sides of the river: an abundance of filamentous algae.
Submergent weed growth is a good indicator of the river’s health.  There is an abundance of ‘good weeds’ like elodea and American water lotus in our neck of the Big River.
Most folks call these weeds “coontail” and “water lilies” with filamentous algae referred to in less complimentary terms like “pond scum” and “frog spittle”.
This undesirable vegetation is usually a result of too much phosphorus in the water—often from farming practices. 
My guess is perpetual flood conditions in 2019 washed a bunch of organophosphates and carbonates found in fertilizer into sloughs along the river, with the lowest pool levels since 1936 and profound siltation over the past 40 years providing ideal conditions for filamentous algae to prosper.
When a tug on the line reveals a tangle of monofilament woven into a mass of “pond scum” instead of a walleye there is little joy on the face of a fisher.
Perspective is paramount when you’re out on the water.  At least the weed-wad wasn’t blue green algae—highly toxic to pets and humans.  This weed is found in nutrient rich water, too. But usually later in the summer when water temperatures are much warmer.
Not every pull on the pole this past week has been “bad salad”.  Walleyes stretched the string too—one was 25 inches, falling within the slot limit. It was immediately released. A dozen marble-eyes fell short of the 15 inch minimum keeper length. These fish were also set free.
Several more had the perfect dimensions to take their rightful place in the food chain.  They became sandwiches.

Capt. Ted Peck is a full-time fishing guide on the Mississippi River.  Find him at www.tedpeckfishing.com.

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