You can’t say we didn’t have fair warning. For nearly all of it, from paddling from Skalbakken County Park right down to the catch of a nine pound walleye. Blame Kalahar. That would be Tom Kalahar, the fellow assigned to Renville County 30 some years ago as a conservationist and who vowed to spend no more than 12 months before searching for a job in a locale more closely attuned to his native Ottertail County.
Ottertail had more than 1,000 fishable lakes and one of the best smallmouth fishing rivers in a state known for great smallies. Renville County? None of the above. Yet, there he was in the heart of Big Ag working for the SWCD (Soil and Water Conservation District). “Then I discovered the Minnesota River,” says the avid hunter and fisherman in one of his many entertaining stories. “And we’re still here.”
Kalahar and I have shared guiding duties on this stretch of the Minnesota over several years, from a Hollywood director to avid fishermen to clean water advocates, with a few kids and nuns in mix as well. I’m the cook, he’s the entertainer. Nothing has changed on that aspect. What has changed is the river itself.
On my first canoe trip from Skalbakken through Patterson Rapids to Vicksburg County Park in 1993 began in the actual current flush against the northern most bank above the Skalbakken picnic shelter. Due to the flushing of waters off the upper prairie via Hawk Creek, the put-in point is now a placid backwater. Thick, deep siltation has shifted the river current some 200 meters south of the former channel. Downriver many of the tributary creeks are no longer shallow, rocky creeks, but rather now so choked full of siltation that if you didn’t know of the previous location you would paddle by without a second glance.
What has remained basically unchanged, and what Kalahar found so attractive so many years ago, is that this river is thoroughly an under appreciated resource. In all ways, by “big ag” farmers and by sports people alike. You can paddle the length of it and maybe see one or two other fishers, and those most often sit shaded upon the bank in a lawn chair. The river is too shallow for most boats nowadays. Some may use a small jet boat engine, while Kalahar’s partner, Ben Hillesheim, uses a long tiller made for shallow waters on his jon boat.
The other unchanged melody is that the fishing remains fantastic. On our “fair warning” trip a few weeks ago I was able to reel in a nearly nine pound, 28 inch walleye, a twin basically to Kalahar’s catch later on this trip. His just downriver and around the bend from my catch. My fishing partner, Tom Cherveny, an outdoor writer for the West Central Tribune, and I both brought in channel catfish weighing close to three pounds along with a few others of smaller size on both trips.
As Kalahar says, “Most times you’ll have the river to yourself. And, it’s great fishing! Caught my first sturgeon here. Smallmouth. Walleye. Catfish. And tonight we’re going after the big girls!”
The “big girls” are flathead catfish, some nearing 60 pounds according to DNR tagging efforts over the years. Near noon six of us in three canoes launched from Skalbakken and headed downriver, leisurely paddling, stopping behind random deadfall to drop a weighted worm, and taking in sights that included eagles, pelicans, a couple of forlorn-sounding Canada geese and a host of immature great blue herons. Herons so young they didn’t realize they should be wary enough to lead us downriver.
Kalahar and Hillesheim brought the serious stuff up from Vicksburg in a motorized jon boat to the sandbar where we would gather for our overnight camp, and a spot to rest before going into our serious afternoon fishing mode. We needed enough fish for the tacos I would cook for the riverine feast. Enough were caught even without Kalahar’s huge walleye, for very morsel was devoured before we settled in for the big show, one led by Kalahar’s nephew, Max Dzubay. The big river rods were fitted with cord-like lines and triangle weights heavy enough to keep the bullheads used for bait in place across from a deep river hole littered with tangling deadfall. At night the flatheads roam, cruising above the washed away loam.
As the evening crept in over the river we men of advanced age were once again awestruck by the appearance of stars, and satellites were pointed to cruising across the darkened heavens. In the midst of our celestial wonder, Alexandria’s Marv Boerboom’s rod was the first to take a big bend, and Kalahar’s shouts of joy may have been heard on the Sacred Heart bridge a few miles downriver. Though not one of the “big girls,” it was an impressive and hefty channel cat in the 10-pound range. A few hours later a second 10 pound channel was pulled in by nephew Max.
In the olden days, beer would have brought on a sluggish sleep. On this night, at our age, not so much. A thunderstorm with crackling lightning filled the skies to the north of us, and cell phones were pulled for the weather aps. Comforted by technological radar “balloons” indicating a miss by several miles allowed us to settle in for a lightning show that lit the river bend with distant, split second flashes of electrified light. We had the Milky Way off to the south, the lightning show to the north and east of us.
Around midnight we three writers … Cherveny, Scott Tedrick, of the local weeklies, and your’s truly … headed to our respective tents. We’ve social distanced like this long before the coronavirus pandemic. Along the river’s edge the serious fishers would man their rods and weave their man stories of hunting exploits and fishing wiles through the long night until dawn, all while anxiously awaiting attacks from the “big girls.”
Not long after midnight some ATVs appeared in the woods behind our gravel bar. Their loud roar along with what we might have recalled as beer-encouraged shouts of joy came without refrain. We were briefly surrounded by a different sort of storm, and from my tent the wavering lights bouncing through the bank of trees offered hints of both trepidation and wonder. Then, as suddenly as they appeared, the riders headed off back toward the county highway.
In a few months I’ll turn 77, and while I take smug pride in tent camping on a riverbank at my age, there was little comfort to be found on the sandy pile of rocks. There were intermittent dreams so I know there were moments of sleep, but when Max hooked his 35 pound “big girl” the shouts of celebration from the rivermen would have awoken Morana. No one was more thrilled than Kalahar. His nephew tagging the huge flathead was the capstone of our collective night on the river. For all of us. Even the sleepy ones.
Later Max would admit to suddenly having to reel like lightning to keep up with the flathead that made an interesting run straight toward him. “Truthfully,” he said, “it wasn’t much of a fight.” His work as an IT specialist has apparently helped him develop intense focusing skills, for his eyes were constantly focused on the rods … his and those of the other fishermen … for most of our time fishing on the sandbar. In the afternoon, through the taco dinner and even as dawn brought a seasonal fog to the river’s surface early the next morning. His rewards were just. A 10 pound channel cat and the 35 pound flathead, two fish for the lifetimes for most of us.
All the big fish were released, just for the record.
Our “fair warning” on the beauties of this overnight camping trip was just a few weeks ago when Kalahar led us down this same stretch of the river on a Saturday afternoon. He hoped this would be a grand overnighter for us all for over the past several years our plans for such an overnighter have been on hold due to the high waters that are turning this river into a “far northern Platte” … shallow and increasingly widened, with banks being eaten away by raging currents caused by flushed waters upstream.
All of us on the overnighter have experienced many canoe trips down this stretch for nearly 30 years, and we’ve caught uncountable numbers of fish while witnessing a river change right before our eyes. By now those changes should be expected, yet there was really no accurate fair warning of the degree of how much change would happen despite former Governor Arne Carlson’s 1992 edict calling for a change of cultural practices on the ills of this precious river resource.
What hasn’t changed is that most of those up on the plateau of the prairie don’t seem to care, for the Minnesota River has seemingly never been seen so much as a resource as a conduit for excess water. This hasn’t changed for several generations, and likely never will. And that is a “fair warning” in a strictest definition of the phrase.