RED WING, Minn. — Here on the Mississippi on a March day like no other, Griz and I settled in quickly to the old routine. Not the routine of catching fish, because at first we didn’t. The routine instead of impaling minnows onto jigs and leaning over the gunnels of his johnboat and peering into Old Muddy, the Mississippi. Just to see what we could see. This was on a recent Wednesday and the temperature rose past 70.
A year ago about this time we were on the river also, Griz and me. Ol’ Miss was wildly over its banks then and rushing southward in deadly currents of meltwater. You really wanted to watch yourself and your boat, and particularly watch downstream for sweepers and other debris. Eddies multiplied in concentric deadly circles along the shoreline, and you didn’t want to be caught up in one.
This day was different.
“Ain’t noone working anymore?” Griz said as we dropped his boat into a back channel on the Wisconsin side of the river.
The parking lot at the launch site had been flush with trucks and trailers, signaling, as Griz suggested, that the unemployment rate remains “unacceptably high,” as the politicos in Washington put it.
Either that or, more likely, Minnesota and Wisconsin residents and of course also a few Iowans had, simply, skipped work in favor of a day on the river.
“They ain’t up here yet,” Griz said when we had difficulty at first catching fish. “It’s too early. The weather’s nice. But the fish don’t necessarily migrate upriver by the weather. They migrate by the calendar, and they ain’t here yet.”
Surrounding us was a flotilla of boats that ran the gamut. Of course the big boys were out with their 21-footers all gleaming and glistening in the sun. Mixed among these was a mishmash of 16- to 18-foot tin boats whose numbers seemed endless. Also on the water was a minor fleet of rickety cartop-size craft, reminders to everyone of the importance of maintaining good credit scores.
“Looks like everyone’s fishing,” Griz said.
A born river rat, Griz was bewitched early by moving water. As a kid he wasn’t so much interested in school as he was in fishing and hunting. In middle school in St. Paul he kept a scattergun in his locker and on autumn days when the sweet hint of autumn wafted through a classroom’s open windows, he up and left, hitchhiking to Hugo or farther north if necessary, looking to scare up a rabbit or a pheasant or a duck.
“Finally I quit school,” Griz said. “I needed to help out the family. Also I liked to hunt and fish too much, and school got in the way.”
As Griz spoke he stretched one leg, then another. He’s 70 years old and no spring chicken. But flying off a knucklehead Harley at high speed when you’re in your 20s leaves the kinds of arthritic tattoos not easily shorn. In a hospital after the mishap, Griz awoke to news that his bike had been bent like spaghetti in a spoon. Also, various allegations of flight while being pursued required his attention. This was long before Griz became one of the most famous, and most recognizable, fishing guides in Minnesota, and also before he was inducted into the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame, and the Minnesota Fishing Hall of Fame.
“I served six months in the workhouse with a cast on my leg after that accident,” Griz said. “So, ya, it’s going to stiffen up a bit.”
Griz hates not catching fish, and we lasted only an hour or so among a raft of other boats that also weren’t catching fish before Griz cranked over his outboard and threw his boat on plane, headed downriver.
The seductress here of course was freedom. The Mississippi is so big and so long, bearing between its banks so many possibilities, that river men dating to those known to Mark Twain, and further back still, could not resist its calling.
“It is a strange study, a singular phenomenon, if you please,” Twain wrote in 1866, “that the only real, independent and genuine gentlemen in the world go quietly up and down the Mississippi River, asking no homage of any one, seeking no popularity, no notoriety, and not caring a damn whether school keeps or not.”
Griz ran us a long way to a spot he hadn’t fished in 10 years. Killing his engine, he watched his depth finder as a pilot might an altimeter, deploying his electric trolling motor to align us precisely along shore, atop an underwater trench.
“There we go,” Griz said a minute or so later, setting the hook on an 18-inch sauger.
As quickly, I caught a walleye, then Griz boated another sauger, and soon we had doubles on, each fighting a fish at the same time.
This was in early afternoon, and the sun grew warmer still.
“Boat control is the important thing,” Griz said. “As we drift downriver, I want to stay over the trench, using my trolling motor. Our lines have to stay vertical. If they’re not vertical, you’re not going to catch fish. Or not very many.”
Nearly hidden behind him, in the stern of his boat, Griz keeps a vintage alarm clock of the type seen nowadays only in estate sales. The clock’s purpose, once set, is to remind him to go home.
Otherwise, he can get so caught up in trying to hook “just one more” that he forgets to get off the river.
He didn’t have that problem. By 5 p.m., we had caught scores of walleyes and saugers and mooneyes and flathead cats and channel cats.
“Let’s get dinner,” I said.
Upriver, Griz angled his boat into a joint that serves Caribbean food and, not incidentally, beer.
We couldn’t get a table outside on the deck because everyone was outside on the deck. So we sat inside and listened to Bob Marley and ate jerk chicken and drank tall cool ones and watched not far away as the Mississippi rolled by.
A good warm day of fishing in March, that one.