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Woodland Trails: Fishing the St. Croix River

I was driving over the I-94 bridge at Hudson last week and noticed that the river was about half open and half frozen. In the sunshine the water was a brilliant blue but with the ice closing in it looked frigid and dangerous so far away below the bridge. Looking closer, I saw two blue ice shacks on the ice and two four-wheelers next to them. I was surprised to see that they seemed to be within 50 yards of open water!

I've witnessed that scene before when crossing the bridge. Sometimes four-wheelers, sometimes snowmobiles, sometimes just anglers on foot. I've fished that section of the St. Croix without much luck in the summer. I've fished a few sections of the main St. Croix River in the winter and never had much luck. I've heard reports of huge crappies pushing 15 inches, but I am a lake guy and prefer to fish the safer, fishier lakes of northern St. Croix County, Polk County and points north.

Whenever I fish the St. Croix River in warm weather I have always had great luck and enjoyed the time on the water, mostly during the week to avoid the pleasure boaters, and I've had great luck on walleye and smallmouth bass. It's a pristine river that can be great fishing when you can avoid all the pressure from all the pleasure boaters, speedboats and jet skis that also enjoy time on the Croix.

But it's those anglers on the ice that had me wondering? Being an ice angler, I've always wondered what those fishers were catching? How deep was the ice? How deep was the water they were fishing in? How did they get those machines on the ice? Were they after walleye, sauger or crappies? I have an inquiring mind and I needed to know.

Son Josh had the same questions running through his mind. He showed up with river maps, and we looked at the underwater structure, depths and wondered about all the possibilities. The deep hole down by the point was one of the deepest holes in the entire St. Croix River, at 72 feet. I hear it holds big cats and sturgeon in the summer. The closer you get to the I-94 bridge the shallower the water gets until you get right up near the bridge. But in the flats nearer to the shoreline closest to Hudson and the cloverleaf it's only about 18 feet deep.

Once I located a place to get on the ice, we were set for adventure. All the shoreline along Front Street is posted "no trespassing," so we needed to come up with a plan. The only problem was that the cold front was coming. Snow was predicted before the severe cold. I had to work and Josh did as well. We would only have a couple hours to explore.

My first thought as we approached our outing was how safe was the ice? This is a river, and flowing water is always potentially dangerous. But when you see four-wheelers and snowmobiles on the water you are encouraged. Ice picks in case you fall through? Rope with a life jacket? Is it really safe out there?

My next thoughts were all about sauger and walleye. The ice closest to the open water is around 30 to 40 feet deep. I smelled sauger, maybe walleye, hopefully crappies. I've heard reports from other large rivers where sauger stack up on each other. They look like cordwood stacked up ready to be burned. We loaded up with fatheads and crappie minnows. Buckshot jigs were on the rods. Demon glow jigs and waxies were readied for the crappie bite.

I was nervous as we headed out. This wasn't my first dance and I could tell that the ice was good near shore on the way out. It was a really long walk and we only had a couple of hours but I liked our plan. About halfway there we drilled a hole and found 18 feet of water and about 14 inches of ice. No fish were marked as Josh jigged a couple rods.

I moved on and drilled another hole 50 yards past him and found the same conditions. Again, no fish were marked or caught. Josh left a tip-up and moved past me and drilled another hole. I worked my hole and saw nothing on the flasher and caught nothing and left a tip-up as well. Josh headed beyond me again and drilled another hole, and this time he marked fish with the Marcum. But none would hit his lure. Frustration was setting in.

I went past him another 50 yards and found myself 60 yards from open water. I drilled another hole and marked a couple fish. I dropped another line with a jigging spoon and then drilled another hole and dropped a crappie minnow. I marked a couple fish, and they came up and looked at my bait just off bottom in about 34 feet of water. They came close but refused to take the free meal I was offering.

Time then ran out and it was time to leave. On the long walk back we talked about what could have been. No crappies. No walleye. No sauger. We wondered what had come up and smelled our tasty offering without so much as a nibble. My friend Chris Valentine who fishes the Croix a lot in the summer for "cats" said they could have been catfish. They might have even been white bass, carp or buffalo. Every fish in Wisconsin can be found in the St. Croix River.

We made a plan to go back when the weather changes and we get out of the deep freeze we are in. To be continued ...