As I write this it’s tough to imagine the bite of a November wind. But the breeze emitting from the air conditioner does feel cool enough to take my mind back to one of those days that get etched in the memory of a fisherman. A trip that forever reminds you why you ever took up the rod and reel in pursuit of the finned game.
For the better part of my life I lived within spitting distance of the Missouri River. A stretch that meandered through the plains of central North Dakota, looking relatively unchanged from the days Lewis and Clark explored its banks and General Custer gazed on its waters from the front porch of his home at Fort Abraham Lincoln. It’s a majestic run of water, in historical significance as well as in the annals of modern day walleye anglers. This is a river constantly on the move … forever changing. Sandbars pop up one day, then disappear the next. Its waters can run high and mighty in the spring and then low and slow come autumn.
My fondest memory of this river was carved during the low and slow period. The leaves were gone; the chill of winter was just around the bend. But the walleyes were anything but cold. The fish were hot; abundant and ready for action, as if they knew this would be the last fishing trip of the season.
A little background first. I was not a native of this river valley, rather a transplant from a state that happens to bare the same name as the river that eventually entranced me. And I was no walleye fisherman … not by any stretch of the imagination. But I knew fishing and I loved the sport. Soon after arriving in this prairie region, I met a fellow angler, Steve that just happened to be one of my new neighbors. Steve was by all accounts a River Rat. He had always fished the river, from the time he could hold a rod. And Steve was a walleye fisherman, wise in the ways of these fish that resided in the moving waters. As far as I was concerned there would be no finer angler to learn from if I was to unlock the secrets this river and these fish held.
So I fished with Steve on the Missouri River as often as I could. We covered the waters from the Dam at Pick City where Steve kept a small trailer for weekend getaways, all the way to the South Dakota border. We vertical jigged walleyes from deep holes and we caught fish trolling stickbaits along shallow sandbar breaks. Steve was versatile in all tactics when it came to these river walleyes and I soaked it all in like a sponge.
As the years went by, my outings with Steve tapered off some. His business got busy and I was starting a family. We both had other friends we fished with but we still kept in touch regularly, after all he only lived a couple houses down the block. So one late fall Wednesday afternoon as I was raking leaves in the yard, Steve happened by to ask what I had planned for that Friday, which just happened to be the day after Thanksgiving. Well I knew I did not want to be amongst the hordes at the mall, so I said I was up for most anything. The weatherman was predicting winter to arrive over the weekend so Steve thought it might be a good time for a fishing trip on the river before he’d be forced to put the boat to rest for the year. I agreed and our plans were set.
That Friday came and the morning met us with cool yet tolerable temps and a few clouds in the sky. It felt like a good day to be on the river. Little did I know just how good this day would be.
We had decided to fish a stretch of the river down stream a few miles that was well known to hold good numbers of walleyes in the fall. As we drove south toward the launch ramp, we passed Fort Abraham Lincoln and I couldn’t help but think as I had many times before, whether Custer had ever caught a walleye on the river during his time here, or if he went to his “Last Stand” never having experienced the bounty this water had to offer.
It was really no surprise as we launched the boat that we were the only rig in the parking lot. This area is full of hard-core outdoorsmen, but between it being late in the fall, a holiday weekend and hunting season, not many were taking advantage of the late fall fishing opportunities. We’d determined that the big “S” turn about two miles up river would be a good starting point for our trip, as it offered plenty of deep water and had historically been good to us in the past. Our first pass we jigged the upper edge of the break and each popped an “eater” fish. But we were not here for “eaters” … this trip was all about finding the quality walleyes that late fall fishing is known for. A few more passes with the jigs and while we were still catching fish, it was obvious a change was needed if we were to start hitting the right ones.
On the next pass Steve put down the jig stick and picked up his riggin’ rod. “This time through I want to work the deep edge of this and see if they’ll hit steaks instead of burgers” Steve said. This was his way of saying he wanted to rig the hole with big suckers instead of working it with fathead minnows on a jig. I opted to stay with the jig for the time being. By now the clouds were thickening and the air was beginning to feel cooler than when we started.
As was usually the case, Steve’s change in tactics proved to be the winning formula. I actually got the first bite on that pass, but when I set the hook I came up empty. A short ways further into the drift and Steve was into a dandy five pound walleye. “The walleyes are liking the steaks for Thanksgiving I guess” was his response. I stubbornly stuck with the jig one more pass, but after watching Steve catch 2 more nice fish, I too grabbed up the rigging rod.
I’ve always been a fan of the simple slip-sinker live bait rig, but was always more apt to use it in lake situations than in the river. However on this day, the current was minimal and it seemed this stretch was fishing more like a lake than a river. And there was no doubt that the walleyes we were after were much more interested in a four inch sucker swimming just off the bottom than a two inch minnow bounced along on a jig.
Over the next couple hours Steve and I literally had a hay day on those fish. Pass after pass we hooked into one chunky walleye after another. These were fish of quality too, most averaging three to four pounds, but there were several in the five to six pound range that came to the net too. The fishing was so good we never even noticed what the weather was doing. The wind had picked up a bit, the sky was now thick with clouds and overcast, and the temperature was getting downright nippy. But we were busy catching fish and barely noticed. It wasn’t until we were running low on bait that we noticed the first few snow flakes beginning to fall.
“Looks like the winter is coming a day earlier than we expected Steve” I mentioned almost under my breath. “No problem,” Steve came back, “I think we can make a couple more passes on these fish before it gets bad.” And a few more passes we made. The more we fished the more it snowed. The more it snowed, the bigger and more frequent the fish came. By the time we figured we’d better call it a day, it was almost dark and the snow was coming down in a white-out of big fluffy flakes. As Steve fired up the outboard I pushed a two inch blanket of snow off the rod locker to stow away the gear.
The ride back to the ramp was brutal. Snow flakes stung my face like little daggers, and it was only then I began to feel the bite of the November wind. It was tough going too because the snow was coming so heavy now that seeing our way down the river was almost impossible. An uneasy feeling when there are numerous obstacles in the form of things like sandbars, stumps and winding turns one needs to negotiate to get from point “A” to point “B”. We made it back to the ramp just fine though, thanks mostly to Steve’s almost instinctive knowledge of this water.
When I woke the next morning there were twenty six inches of fresh snow on the ground. As I bundled up to head out and shovel the driveway, all I could think about was what a day of fishing we’d had the day before, and I wondered if they’d still be biting today, or even if it would be possible to get a boat in the water now. I never found out. As it turned out that was the last trip of that season … it was also the last time Steve and I fished together. I moved away from the river a few months later. But neither time nor distance will ever dampen the memory of one of the best days walleye fishing I’ve ever had … or likely ever will have.