PEPIN, Wis. — As the nation’s largest watershed, the Mighty Mississippi knows much about convergence.
But rarely has the principle been on display on as many levels as today on Lake Pepin.
Mother Nature dished up a warm, breezy afternoon that had elements of summer and fall.
Seizing the late-season opportunity, a flotilla of sailboats skittered over the lake’s surface. At the public boat landing in Pepin, a commercial fisherman unloaded a jon boat heavily laden with carp and buffalo.
Bluffs rise on all sides; two states meet at the river.
And in the shallows along the Minnesota shore, Jason Halfen of Eau Claire plied a rare combination of profession and avocation.
“That current break has got to hold some,” Halfen said, maneuvering his boat with the bow mount trolling motor. “We’ll get it figured out.”
Halfen flipped a cast into the turbid water. The 3/16th-ounce jig was tipped with a soft plastic; it settled slowly out of sight and drifted gently with the current.
The drift was interrupted by an abrupt tug. After a minute of to-and-fro, a 14-inch crappie came to net.
Work and play. Research and recreation. Using modern technology to help fulfill an age-old human quest.
For Halfen, it’s all in a day’s — you fill in the blank. Just make sure to be flexible.
Halfen, 40, is a chemistry professor at Wisconsin-Eau Claire who for the last year was on sabbatical to conduct fishing research for Rapala, the tackle manufacturer.
As the workforce evolves in the 21st century, fewer jobs are “typical.” Halfen isn’t your standard educator — he holds a doctorate in inorganic chemistry as well as a Wisconsin guide license.
“I guess the lines are blurred,” Halfen said as he motored upstream to do another drift through a school of crappies. “The important thing is to keep learning, keep looking for ways to use your skills and interests.”
Halfen and I started the day at his UW-Eau Claire laboratory to view his research on fish pheromones.
Countertops that once held Bunsen burners now feature 40-gallon aquariums. Here a tank of walleye, there largemouth bass.
Fish are extremely sensitive to pheromones, Halfen said, and can detect the substances at 1 part per trillion.
Such sensitivity helps migrating fish like steelhead, for example, find their way back to their spawning streams. It also can lead them to food.
Halfen is working on a soft plastic bait manufactured by Rapala called Trigger-X. The pheromones placed in the soft plastic baits are associated with feeding and aggression.
Work at UW-Eau Claire is helping fine-tune the design of the soft plastics to control the release rates of the pheromones. The soft plastic material is biodegradable.
It’s not traditional chemistry research, Halfen said.
“It’s very applied,” Halfen said. “With some very interesting side benefits.”
The university receives payments for a license fee, an access fee and to pay for supplies, just as it would with the National Science Foundation or other grantors. The project allows the school to employ a student in the lab.
Halfen said the university encourages such public/private relationships to fund research.
“Everybody wins,” Halfen said, making another cast. The project will continue at least through December 2012.
We pitched a variety of live bait and soft plastics on small jigs as the afternoon wore on. Both methods produced. For the record, the catch rates with live bait were slightly better than with the artificials.
Lake Pepin is a 24,550-acre natural widening on the Mississippi River. The lake has a good sampling of the 260 fish species in the upper Mississippi River, including walleye, sauger, northern pike, smallmouth bass, largemouth bass and panfish.
We found bluegill and crappie and smallmouth bass along weed edges and rocks in 2 to 8 feet of water. All the while, we kept an eye on the main lake for flocks of gulls.
When schools of white bass feed aggressively along the main navigation channel, they often drive minnows to the surface, drawing the feeding birds.
The action for panfish and bass was too good, however, along the shore for us to motor out to the few flurries of bird action we saw.
As we fished through the afternoon, river barges passed on our east as Amtrak trains rumbled past on the west. The Lake Pepin potpourri stirred some more.
Halfen took little notice. He was busy solving problems and collecting dinner.
(c)2011 the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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