Thursday, February 2nd, 2023
Thursday, February 2nd, 2023

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Mississippi backwaters: great fishing requires great caution

By Tori J. McCormick
Contributing Writer


Sitting on a bucket beneath a peerless blue sky on a comfortable early-winter afternoon several years back, I spied moving water from the river’s main stem. 


It left a mark. 


It was my first time ice fishing the backwaters of the Mississippi River. I felt a weird sensation of uneasiness. It was disconcerting and a little scary, what with jigging for panfish on a frozen spit of backwater while the pulsing Big Miss rolled by in the distance. It was like standing over a cliff and contemplating what would happen if you slipped and went missing.


But that’s the allure of fishing the backwaters of the Mississippi – a system constantly in flux, full of intrigue, and fuller still with fish. 


For those more accustomed to ice fishing in lake country, the river experience is decidedly different – and perhaps even a little quaint. You’ll see fewer permanent and portable fish houses and more people sitting on buckets, enduring the elements and, yes, enjoying the day. 


You’ll see fewer new-age ice augers and more manual varieties that require a little human exertion. You’ll see fewer (if any) trucks sitting on the ice and more self-powered snow sleds used to haul in equipment from a roadway entry point. 


Shanty towns spring up like summer weeds on some lakes and grow throughout the season. Not on the backwaters. You’ll find crowds of anglers and even a festive atmosphere, but these good folks are day-trip anglers.  


“When you fish the backwaters, you’re generally hiking in and hiking out the same day,” said a good friend. “And you’re toting in all your gear, too. So you learn to bring only what you need. It’s just a different experience down here.” 


As the ice-fishing season cranks up, anglers are already prospecting for fish in some frozen backwater areas. In recent years, first ice typically forms during the first or second week of December. 


“It used to be around Thanksgiving when we’d see first ice, but now that’s pushed into early December,” said Dan Dieterman, Mississippi River habitat specialist with the Minnesota DNR in Lake City. “We had some unseasonably cold weather early this year, so anglers have already been out. But you have to be extremely careful. There’s no safe ice – and that’s especially true in the backwaters.” 


Safety first 

Keep in mind that lake ice isn’t river ice. On river backwater areas, even the faintest current can reduce its strength by eroding the ice from the bottom up. Extra caution is always advised, because ice erosion can happen very quickly – even during a few short hours. 


Most anglers constantly testing the ice (with ice chisels) as they move deeper into the system and hop-scotch from one backwater to the next. Many, particularly in early winter, wear life vests and have ice picks draped over their necks. 


“It’s no joke,” Dieterman said of ice safety along the Mississippi River watershed. 


Panfish fishing 

Dieterman has been fishing the Mississippi River backwaters most of his life. The backwaters are multi-species fisheries but are most noteworthy for panfish – bluegills, crappies, and perch. It’s also common to catch largemouth bass and northern pike.  


High water during the last year has made assessing fish populations that use the backwaters particularly difficult. 


“We’ve had too much water and couldn’t do sampling this fall,” Dieterman said. “Flood conditions the past eight or nine months likely haven’t been great for a majority of panfish species.”


There are still good numbers of bluegills and crappies, he said, most of which saw little fishing pressure during the summer because of high water. 


“We probably don’t have the numbers we had four to eight years ago, but there still are plenty of fish. And the size distribution is likely better,” he said. 


Perch numbers are probably down a little, too. 


“We have decent numbers, but not as many of the jumbo-sized fish we’ve seen in the past,” he said.  


Joel Nelson manages a geographic information systems research lab at the University of Minnesota’s Department of Soil, Water, and Climate. His work informs his fishing. 


Nelson loves hunting for big bluegills and crappies in the Mississippi River backwaters. 


“There aren’t many lakes east of where I live, so you go fish the backwaters … and I have many times over the years,” Nelson said. 


Nelson fishes what he calls “community spots,” as well as waters off the beaten trail. In fact, one of the most difficult questions to answer for newcomers to the region, Nelson said, is giving them advice on where to fish. 


Community spots along the river – where you’ll see a build-up off vehicles off the highway that runs parallel to the river – are good places to start. Another option is visiting a local bait shop and asking for help. 


“Bait shops are great information sources,” he said. That includes where to fish as well as what presentations to use.”


Nelson searches for backwaters away from the main channel. Such areas have little river flow or current and are attractive to crappies and, especially, bluegills, which he said are most “flow sensitive” of the panfish species.


For bluegills, anglers should target woody areas or weedbeds. Nelson said he often finds such areas during the summer and commits that knowledge to memory for the ice-fishing season.  


Perch are often targeted near rocks and riprap areas and around marinas. Unlike panfish, walleyes prefer current and are often found in waters closer to the river’s main stem. 


“Some days you’ll catch a bunch of largemouth bass – and good-sized fish, too – and some days you’ll have great luck with panfish and maybe even catch a big pike or two with a tip-up,” Nelson said. “Backwaters are multi-species strongholds, and there’s culture down there that runs deep.” 


While fishing the backwaters can be extremely productive, Nelson said his first and last consideration is ice safety. “You have to be on guard at all times,” he said. 

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