River men of days past were crusty old men, unshaven, wearing dirty clothes with patched knees, shirts ripped and torn. Old River Rats who’d shuffle along the docks, laces dragging from old boots with worn leather and holes in their soles. A cigarette dangled from their mouth. Their old sweat stained hat pulled down low faded out under a hot sun. They’d know the river better than anyone, could smell walleye and feel channel cats moving up stream. Tobacco on their chin and shirt, they were often followed as others tried to ply their secrets. The river was their school. They earned a degree, living off it and feeding their family from its bounty. They loved their lives. They loved the river and would fight to protect it. Most of those old timers are from a forgotten era that only old guys like me can remember.
St. Croix County resident of 56 years, Gregg Bennett is isn’t a River Rat and he knows it. He has that same deep love for the river. A graduate of Hudson High School and UW-Madison earning a Chemical Engineering degree before heading to UMass at Amherst for his PHD in Material Science. Yesterday he may have wished he had River Man’s degree when the three of us were on the river chasing walleyes.
“You can see all the fish on the graph and on side imaging. I was here a couple days ago and must have caught 20 shorts, put a few in the box, some eaters and tossed back any over 20s. Today is just a onesie twosie day.” For those who don’t speak fluid walleye, shorts are too small to keep. Today is just a one or two fish day. I’m eating some between 15” to 19” but any walleye over 20 inches go back!
Gregg’s father, my brother Richard, told me that Gregg likes to master everything and feels his oldest son is trying to master walleye fishing on the river. “I’m sure he was frustrated when he couldn’t get all the fish showing up on his electronics to bite. Gregg’s had a very successful career working for 3M in Turkey and Germany, learning both languages to succeed where the previous manager failed by trying to get employees there to learn English!”
Gregg, like every kid, started out fishing with his dad, my brother Dick. Dick loved to fish and that pair started out fishing in a little rowboat until Dick got a motor and later moved to canoes; Gregg went along at age 8 with a church group on several Boundary Waters (BWCAW) trips. Mary, Gregg’s mother, is most proud of him for his love of the Lord. Dick feels the BWCAW really created Gregg’s love of the outdoors and fishing. But life is more than fishing and later Gregg’s job took him away from it and the things he loved to do with his dad.
Even the best boat and electronics won’t catch fish after a front rolls through. To break the boredom Dick reminisced about another trip he and Gregg had on the water.
“We first noticed the big muskie as he was reeling in a small bass. I knew that if we held the bass there was a good chance the big musky would hit it and sure enough it did.”
Like an exploding bomb everything blew up. The big fish held that bass in its mouth and a great fight ensued. Then they realized they didn’t have a net. Gregg’s solution was to jump into the lake and swim to a cabin to borrow a net. Just like that, the 8 year old was in the shallow water and soon back with a net. After letting go of the fish and then smashing it a second time they got the musky almost in close enough to land after about a 45 minute fight. But when the musky saw the boat it was gone. Then Gregg realized the net from the elderly lady was rotten and falling apart in the boat. After a quick swim back and apologies they continued their adventure.”
Although our excursion didn’t have that kind of excitement it was fun and successful despite whitecaps from winds of 17 mph with gusts up to 25. I was amazed watching Gregg run the trolling motor, kicker motor and the big outboard simultaneously to keep us on fish while keeping four lines, two with planer boards, untangled, as well as keeping two old men from falling over board. We all caught fish and laughter filled the air. It was a good day on the river.
“My fondest fishing memories were when Dad got me up 5 a.m. to catch sunnies and crappies. Now he’s almost 80 years old and I get to drive him.”
Jim Bennett is an outdoorsman who lives and worked in the St. Croix River Valley and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org