Weiss: Fluekiger family make a living by living life on the Mississippi
Jarrad and Jordan Fluekiger are the third and fourth generations of their family to make their living on the Mississippi River. You name -- shape it, work it, dredge it, hunt it, fish it -- the Fluekigers will do it.
LAKE CITY — Bright was the sunshine and lively the wind last week as Jarrad Fluekiger and his son, Jordan Fluekiger, guided four buddies who wanted to fish walleye and sauger on Lake Pepin.
All was right, all was as it should be as the Fluekiger legacy continued on the Mississippi River.
The father-son are the third and fourth generation of Fluekigers to make their living on the river, helping shape it, work it, dredge it, hunt it, fish it. That river is in their history and blood, it’s part of their livelihood, their love, their passion. They’ve lived close to it, and during the 1965 mega-flood, some lived in it.
The Fluekigers are not alone, of course. Other families have river histories going back several generations. There is something about that river that just pulls people to it.
The father-son Fluekiger duo fish from Red Wing down past LaCrosse, Wis., and guide wherever the fish are biting. In fall, Jarrad guides deer hunters as Rutting Ridge Outfitters in Buffalo County, Wis., that has had more trophy deer shot there than any other county in the country; he also owns two motels and is a real estate agent.
His son guides and works summers as a deckhand on a Corps of Engineers towboat christened the “Fluekiger” in honor of his great-grandfather and two great uncles. Now 20, Jordan was 19 when he got his captains license to guide, making him the youngest captain in the area, maybe the whole river.
The two also fish walleye professionally.
Two centuries on the river
The legacy that continued last week onto Pepin, a large natural reservoir of the Mississippi, began in the late 1800s when the family moved to the Alma, Wis. area, at first up a nearby, said Lee Fluekiger, Jarrad’s father. After a while the valley became known as “The Badlands” because one of his ancestors made moonshine there. “It’s still called the Badlands,” he said.
The first generation to work the river were brothers Harry, Clarence and Walter “Buck.”
Lee said his dad, Harry, began working on the river by cutting down trees to clear land that would be flooded when the locks and dams were built in the early 1930s. That was before chainsaws, he said. After serving in World War II, he became an electrician on the Alma and Whitman locks and dams, Clarence was the captain of the legendary dredge William A. Thompson and Buck captained the next largest dredge. When the two worked together, “their partying was quite extensive,” Lee said.
After the three brothers came Lee, now 70, who owned a bait shop in Alma, and guided and fished the river. He also worked for two summers on the Delta Queen paddleboat that took tourists from St. Paul to New Orleans and up to Pittsburgh.
His most unusual experience on the river — the Mississippi is rich with them — was when he and a friend were fishing a backwater near Wabasha. They saw a nice styrofoam cooler and found it was duct-taped shut. Curious, they opened it and found another smaller cooler. Inside that was a burial urn and a note from a man from St. Paul who wrote that the urn contained ashes of his father who wanted to take one last trip down the river. If it got past Lake Pepin, he asked that the ashes be returned; Lee and his friend did and received $500.
And now his son and grandson are carrying on the legacy. As to which of the three is the best fisherman, Lee said “it’s always me.” Okay, the other two will probably say the same thing but know it’s all in good fun. They’re all good.
The Mississippi has such a powerful pull, he said, “it gets in your blood, the smell, being around it.”
'Can't get enough of it'
Before Jarrad launched his large fishing boat bristling with rods, he said much the same thing: “Once you are born on the river, you smell that river, you feel that river, the sound of the river, everything about the river, you can’t get enough of it,” he said. He went away to college and worked another job for six years and they were the worst six years of his life, he said.
His son matched those thoughts.
“I was born on the river literally. I have been fishing since I was two,” he said. “I remember throwing my Snoopy pole in the water because I was mad.” Having such deep family history on the river is a thrill for him, “we have a passion for that we do.” He never worries about living up to the Fluekiger legacy. “I just worry about catching fish,” he said.
Last week on that hot, breezy day, the two guided four buddies: Rory Nelson and Jack Dellger from Plymouth, Wis., Joe Suttner from Elkhart Lake, Wis., and Shawn Marcom from West Olive, Mich.
Dellger said he began fishing with Lee about 20 years ago. “The grandpa was the storyteller,” he said. “Jarrad has a little bit of that in him.” As for Jordan, “he is nothing like them, it’s pure kid, a nice young man, a hard worker.”
There was work to be done.
They did well the day before and left from the Hok-Si-La landing just north of Lake City, heading upriver past Frontenac to a large flat near where the Rush River enters Pepin. The Rush and some other streams coming in are trout streams so they bring in cooler water, Jarrad said. That attracts bait fish, they attract walleye and sauger. To catch them, they used nine lines per boat (they have Wisconsin licenses) and used most planer boards to space out the lines as they trolled.
Within minutes, one board lurched.
“Nice and easy, nice and easy,” Jarrad said as one of the clients reeled it in. It seemed like a big one but was a foul-hooked smaller one that went back.
“That gets your heart going in the morning, doesn’t it!” Jarrad said. “Let’s do it again, just getting bigger and bigger.”
As they trolled up the lake, he predicted better things. “This where we caught them yesterday,” he said.
Sure enough, another fish — a sheephead. “You can’t fish the river without catching sheephead,” he said.
Bang! Within minutes, another fish that Nelson reeled in nice and easy. It was around 26 inches, “the biggest walleye of my life,” he said. “It was awesome, it felt like a big fish and it was.” It’s going to be mounted, he said as he grinned and grinned some more.
Jarrad liked that. “Seeing a smile on their face puts a smile on my face,” he said.
He kept looking around, checking where his boat was, which way the wind blew, which crank baits were working best, how deep the baits should go, how far back. Things change all the time on the river but “it’s the river,” he said. “If you know the river, it fishes pretty much the same everywhere. You learn to read the current seams.”
The job is work, it can be hard work. In fact, he said on the river, he’s called on to be more than a guide. When people are in his boat, they relax, want to talk. He’s heard about personal problems, financial upsets, marital woes. He sees himself as part counsellor and psychologist. Not on that day with the two buddies, though because it was all about fishing, and fishing stories and history of the river.
As he fished, he kept in touch with his son who was trolling nearby, finding out what was, or wasn’t working. As it turned out, his son’s boat was ahead.
“We all have out own unique characteristics on what we do better,” Jarrad said. He refused to say which of the three - grandpa, father and son - is best. But he’s really proud of his son. “Who wouldn’t want your son working and fishing with you,” he said. “I’m sure my dad had a lot of pride when I began guiding at 17.”
As he chatted and trolled, the number of walleye and sauger in the live wells began to grow. Each client had his one walleye longer than 20 inches so some nice fish had to go back. Slowly, they added walleye and sauger, tossing back a few sheephead.
Eventually, they had their limits and so did Jordan’s boat.
They roared back to Hok-Si-La with their clients’ limits and smiles.
They had written another page in the Fluekiger legacy on the Mississippi.
John Weiss has written and reported about Outdoors topics for the Post Bulletin for more than 45 years. He is the author of the book "Backroads: The Best of the Best by Post-Bulletin Columnist John Weiss”