Big game hunting on the St. Croix River

In 1958, Dick Ugland began exploring the back channels on the St. Croix River upstream of Stillwater, searching for big northern pike.




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As told by Dick Ugland and originally published in the Stillwater Gazette.

St. Croix River northern pike, 1958I have caught Amberjack in the Gulf of Mexico, walleye, northern pike, bass and panfish all over the Midwest, and now my wife and I are happy catching the sunfish and crappies from our dock on Ward Lake near Frederic, Wisconsin.

But by far my greatest fishing thrills came from my “secret fishing spot” on the St. Croix River. This small segment of the river became so amazingly productive that in my family it was soon classified BRALBO, which means the location would be revealed to “Blood Relatives and the Legally Blind Only.”

Well, there were to be a few BRALBO exceptions, like friends Herb and Jim. I enjoyed this place on a great river along with my son Erik, my father, Arthur, and other visiting relatives over a period of about 20 years. We took a lot of pictures. Then I moved away from the area for several years. It started like this.

In 1958, while in graduate school at  the University of Minnesota and working part time at the U of M Hospital’s Rehabilitation Department, I learned that a couple of the staff therapists had happened upon good northern pike fishing spot on the St. Croix River.  If we had any doubt, their claim was proven by their pictures in the Minneapolis Star Newspaper  on July 28.  Their fabulous catch of three  northern pike weighed, respectively, 17 pounds, 6 ounces; 16 pounds, 8 ounces; and 10 pounds, 4 ounces.  The report in the Minneapolis Star cited the Boy Scout Camp as the location of their good luck.

Herb, a University Hospital staff physician, and I, using clues from these fellows’ generous reports of their river trip, decided to see if we could sleuth out this fabulous northern pike fishing spot on the St. Croix.  We set out from the only public dock in Stillwater, just north of the lift bridge between the railroad tracks and the river (it’ still there).  In the newspaper article our work-mates had reported that their catch was made “by the Boy Scout Camp.”

St. Croix River northern pike, 1958Now these guys were very nice, honorable guys at work but our experience told us that there is little honor among fisherman when asked for directions to their fishing “hotspot.” You just have to expect a little hedging.  The opposite of a “white lie,” I call it the “shady truth.”  We knew from their surprisingly generous tales of conquest that the target area involved backwaters rather than the main stream, and we calculated about how long the trip had taken them, propelled by their 5-horse motor.  We soon concluded that these crafty friends had used the Boy Scout Camp clue as a distracter because the travel time clues didn’t put us there on this first foray, and then we saw that the river didn’t have a “backwater by the Boy Scout Camp”.  We had to expand our search.  But now we were flying blind.  Do we have to search all the way up to the Namakogen and back?  We went from channel to channel and backwater to backwater.

It can be difficult to navigate up the main channel of this river, but it is even more difficult when one is trying to look behind each island. Sometimes there are three channels separated by islands, and we had to find just one special place in these nooks and crannies. Once we moored ourselves on a sandbar (hard to do going upstream) and 4 then had to pull the motor up and pole with the oars to get free so we could retreat and try a new angle.

After casting for about two hours in the eddies and bays we experienced not even one strike.  Despite our poor luck, I never changed lures because I had so much faith in the red and white Daredevil spoon when trying to tempt a northern pike.  Feeling a little discouraged, we edged the boat into a small backwater, near the East shore, distant from the main current.  We were close to feeling defeated and were considering turning back, to drift and cast, maybe even troll to rest our arms on the way back toward Stillwater and home.  Maybe we could find some walleyes in the main current.

Beginning to turn around to drift downstream, we slipped between two islands, and entered a new channel. I made a cast toward the middle of an eddy near the shore, and then let my big red and white Daredevil spoon float through the air from our boat over the slowly circling current.  That red and white spoon never did more than touch the water – it floated down toward the surface, there was a startling splash, and a big fish broke the surface and struck my lure.  When that big fellow hit, it threw a lot of water up and forward and then fell back with a big splash and took off like a streak.

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Big game hunting on the St. Croix River