Fishing low water in high summer

By Capn. Ted Peck

Blake Genske hugs his father, Bob, who is holding a 24” walleye. Because of the slot limit, this fish was released after the picture was taken. (Photo courtesy Ted Peck)

Last summer’s low water levels in the Upper Mississippi didn’t even make the top-20 list for low water levels the Corps of Engineers has kept for almost 100 years. The river’s low water in 2022 came within four inches of marks set in 1988 and 21 years before that in 1967, exposing bottom structure which would hold fish when the Father of Waters returned to normal pool levels – and beyond.

Last spring’s flooding brought the inkling that the river was even higher than record levels set back in ’65. This concept was on target thanks to the “muddy math” used by USACE to track River level records.

Siltation wasn’t a major consideration back in ’65, even down on Pool 13 near Sabula where I grew up. A half century later backwaters of this pool 150 miles south of here have morphed into shallow wetlands. We’re now seeing the same situation develop here on pools 9 and 10. Receding water deposited more silt this year. The Miss is within a few inches of making the low water record book again. But in reality, we’ve already surpassed this mark, impacting fish location and angling success.

Water in the upper Mississippi typically reaches low pool levels between mid-August and mid-September. We’re already tickling the low water mark set last year, with USACE forecasts calling for no changes over the next week.

Stable river levels are generally good for patterning fish location and behavior. With less “fishable” water, fish – and what they eat – is concentrated into smaller areas, usually with a little current and steeply breaking depth contours. The downside of catching big fish in a smaller pond is essentially those finny critters you seek are camped within a couple tail-flicks of a 24 hour, all you can eat buffet!

Why would any gamefish want to chomp down on something that looks like food when the real thing is right in front of them? Fortunately, gamefish respond to essentially two presentations which include a hook: feeding and striking.

Like humans, fish have five senses. In a feeding presentation you need to fool all five senses to set the hook. In a striking presentation a fisher only needs to tickle two senses: vision and vibration against a fish’s sensory lateral line.

With water temperature close to 80 degrees, metabolism of cold-water creatures like fish is in overdrive. It is almost impossible to retrieve a lure faster than a fish can swim. When a potential entrée comes zipping by a fish’s natural reaction is to snap at it. But if the lure doesn’t land right in front of a beautiful bass nose the best you can hope for is that the target’s interest will be piqued and it will follow the lure to investigate – often right back to the side of the boat.

Your best chance at hook up comes in trying to trigger a reaction strike by “pulsing” the lure’s retrieve with short bursts and pauses, changing the lure’s direction with a “figure L” just prior to lifting the bait out of the water to make another cast.

With fish metabolism in overdrive, they will feed aggressively and frequently, providing brief windows of opportunity. Fish are opportunists. If something edible is too easy to pass up they will likely eat it.

That purple piece of plastic with a chartreuse flippy tail might look like a warm chocolate chip cookie for a few minutes, several times each day. Especially at optimum feeding times like dawn, dusk or when a puffy cumulus cloud suddenly appears in a blue, clear sky on a sultry summer day.

There are precious few ultimate truths in fishing. But one flash of reliable wisdom is this: you can’t catch a fish if your line isn’t in the water.

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