Chris Kolbert: Check your wallet before launching canoe

Jason Kolbert of St. Charles displays a walleye he caught while paddling a river in southeastern Minnesota. The Zumbro and Root rivers both are known for their smallmouth bass, but populations of walleye and sauger exist in them, too.

As my paddle sliced through the peaceful water of a southeastern Minnesota river, I looked ahead at my son, Jason, sitting in the bow of the canoe. His home-made graphite fishing rod was nearly bent over double, as he fought a fish that had just struck his lure.

A few moments later, I got a glimpse of a white-tipped tail, and my eyes opened in surprise as the boy brought the fish to the side of the canoe.

It's not that walleyes haven't been caught in local rivers, like the Root, Zumbro, and Upper Iowa. For many years, I've heard rumors of people occasionally catching the toothy predators on these waters.

But the picturesque rivers are most often lauded for their smallmouth bass fishery than for Minnesota's state fish, or its cousin the sauger, for that matter.

On this trip, Jason had caught all three species. But then, I'm getting ahead of myself.


It was almost noon when we launched our canoe into a deep rapids that promised to take us through some of the most beautiful country in the upper Midwest. The thermometer was well on its way to 90 degrees, with a humidity that closely matched the temperature.

Fishermen sitting on a nearby shoreline nodded in acknowledgement as we passed by.

"Any luck?" I asked.

"A few — carp and a bass," one of the men replied without emotion.

Before leaving the house, I'd gone through a mental checklist of items to bring on our day-long excursion.

Canoe and paddles — check.

Life jackets and fishing equipment — check.

Water for hydration and food for a mid-afternoon lunch — check.


Camera — check.

It wasn't until we'd paddled a hundred yards that I remembered I had removed the fishing license from my wallet prior to going on an out-of-state trip. I hadn't put it back.

At that point, there was little chance of turning around in the swift water. As the realization hit me, there really was only one thing to do.

"I guess you're the only one who's going to be fishing today," I told my son as we continued downriver.

It was the right choice to make, as a role model for a teenage boy and for my own conscience. But as the boy rigged up a crank-bait and began to cast, I had a feeling that the day was going to be magical.

Two years before, I fished the same stretch of the river in a two-man kayak. It was hot and humid, much like this day. Before my fishing partner and I reached our take-out point, I'd caught and released dozens of smallmouth bass and sauger.

As if to confirm my aging memory, a pudgy bronzeback quickly engulfed Jason's crankbait and then bulldogged its way along the limestone river bottom. The aggressiveness of that smallmouth bass was an omen of what was to come.

By the time we stopped along the shoreline to make a campfire and cook a quick lunch, the boy had hooked and released numerous smallmouth bass and sauger.


We ate quickly and got back on the water, knowing that there were still several miles to go. The heat of the afternoon sun bore down and we found refuge by paddling under the towering limestone bluffs that guarded the river's edge.

The fish, it would seem, had decided to do the same. As the boy bounced his lure off the rocks and began to reel, yet another portly bass struck but missed its mark.

That's the kind of fishing that our local rivers have to offer — and while I thoroughly enjoy the north woods experience, I'm just as satisfied to fish the waters of the driftless region not far from my front door.

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