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Outdoors column: Fishing excursion illustrates recovery of the St. Louis River

Sep 23, 2018 06:11AM ● By Editor

John Kratochvil and Jarrid Houston soak in a beautiful evening on the St. Louis River Estuary near Duluth. Photo by Scott Mackenthun

By Scott Mackenthun - Special to The Mankato Free Press - September 22, 2018

Blasting up the St. Louis River with the throttle buried at a brisk 36 mph, I’m passing downed trees and mid-channel bars, and something is apparent: Jarrid Houston has run this stretch of river before.

I know this because only a fool would dare blast through such treacherous spots with no familiarity. I also steal a peak at Jarrid’s graph and see an old red line from a previous trip aligning on his realtime LCD readout. With some indisputable evidence to ease my mind, I release my grip on the bottom of my seat and do my best to enjoy the ride.

In the less-perilous straightaways and with no hazards in view, I can enjoy the smooth ride and take in the beautiful evening. Herons stalk shorelines, and the sun plays peekaboo with the earth through the clouds. Most striking are the changing colors on the hillsides that lead into the Duluth port. A few yellow leaves are already fallen and floating, being brought downstream to enrich the cold and sterile waters of Lake Superior.

This is the St. Louis River Bay Estuary, a Pollution Control Agency Superfund site and Great Lakes Area of Concern that has made an incredible recovery in the past almost 50 years. While much has been accomplished, more work remains. Mercury content in fish here is much higher than most other places around the state, and there are other lingering issues.

Jarrid brings us to a curve in the river where he slows the boat off plane and to a stop. He drops his bow-mount motor into the tea-stained water and turns on Spot-Lock, a virtual anchor by way of integrated GPS and electric trolling motor that compensates for the constant push of the river. Best of all, there is no anchor line to snag when a fish bites.

Joining Jarrid and me is John Kratochvil of nearby Scanlon. We’re on the Wisconsin-Minnesota border and so have the option of fishing two lines. Jarrid has rigged Northland jigs with minnows for us to hop through this pool and ingeniously has dropped a large creek chub on a bronze hook off the back of the boat on a telltale Ultralight rod. When fishing out of state or on border waters, the option to fish a second line is like going to a Sunday brunch buffet and being asked by the waitress if you want the complimentary mimosa. Yes ma’am, and thank you very much.

Not five minutes into breaking down the Vikings' season-opening win, Jarrid tells us, “That rod is going, somebody take it,” in true altruistic guiding fashion.

The rod slowly bends down, the movement embellished on the soft tip of the ultralight. John grabs the rod and sets the first hook of the night, a nice eater walleye to start us off on the right foot, even though we won't be keeping any of our catch.

A few more walleye are brought to hand, as well as a small northern pike. I connect on my first bite of the night and watch the line charge quickly for the water’s surface. A plucky smallmouth bass does its best to throw the hook in a set of leaping jumps before I bring the fish aboard to quickly unhook and release it. Walleye continue to jump on the set lines left on the river’s bottom, the benefit of fishing one line actively by jigging and the second passively with a jig and minnow laying in wait.

Once we’ve sampled the going size of fish, Jarrid calls for a move. Breaking the old guide’s rule of never leaving fish to find fish, we head downstream to hit a few spots on the way back to the launch. We find a small inlet, and, almost as if on cue, small current seams take form and the water begins to run.

“It’s a seiche,” Houston explains. Lake Superior’s influence on the St. Louis River creates a local rise in water levels and, with it, some current at certain times of the day or when winds shift. This spot, he explains, has been a productive big fish spot. The St. Louis puts out its fair share of eating-sized fish, with an honest-to-goodness chance at a real whooper. We bounce a few minnows around before Jarrid calls for another move.

An architectural specifications writer by day and fishing guide and Duluth News-Tribune columnist by moonlight, Houston has been fishing the area since 2006 and began his guide service in 2009. Growing up on the St. Croix River, he applied what he knew about the St. Croix to the St. Louis and found a lot of similarities. On this day, we see his experience and knowledge in action.

Our final location is a sandy flat sitting on the end of a line of vegetation. The substrate edge is a transition from sand and silt to a deeper mucky edge.

The St. Louis River was once drastically impaired from serious industrial pollution but today is returning to excellent fish and wildlife habitat. Photo by Scott Mackenthun

We aren’t sitting long when a camouflage boat approaches. The local conservation officer makes friendly chatter before checking fishing licenses. We get the fishing report, and it’s good to hear we’re leading the pack.

Back to ourselves when the law man leaves, we crawl along the flat’s edge, bouncing and casting the jigs, with a few more walleyes for our efforts. A small channel catfish breaks up the walleye action, if nothing to showcase the river’s diversity. The walleye bite picks up the pace right before the sun sets on a gorgeous early fall day.

It’s time to head in and return to the week day rat race. On this day, the three-hour tour was a fine distraction.

For more information on Houston’s Guide Service, visit

Scott Mackenthun is an outdoors enthusiast who has been writing about hunting and fishing since 2005. He resides in New Prague and may be contacted at [email protected].

To see the original article, a photo gallery and for more stories, follow this link to the Mankato Free Press.

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