The upper Mississippi River flows along with fair current and reasonably clean water. Clouds of shad create a fishery that most river fishermen in the lower Midwest only dream of because of species variety.
Moderate sized largemouth and smallmouth bass, northern pike, walleye, yellow perch and a good variety of catfish make this stretch of river a choice angler’s destination.
Ross Grothe launched into the river in late September. His 80-horsepower Yamaha outboard motor pushed upstream in a hurry to beat an oncoming thunderstorm. The veteran Minnesota tournament angler generally specialized in walleye, but today largemouth bass on plastic jerk baits was his target. Problem was, recent big rains raised the river levels and the fishing slowed down. The fish changed their feeding patterns.
“We are going to start fishing brush on the edge of a submerged flat and out of the current,” Grothe said. “We should find some fish around and just off the brush lines.”
The first casts were unproductive with light taps that might have been bluegill. Farther down the brush line a couple of nice bass hit in the 2-pound range. Seconds later a good northern pike struck with the fury they are famous for. The 5-pound pike made some heavy passes before giving up to the net.
“Never know what you are going to hook here,” Grothe said. “There are plenty of trophy fish in this area. Weather conditions always are a factor on the river, like any lake.”
An approaching thunderstorm ended our day early, but the morning provided a good sample of upper Mississippi River fishing. Remarkably, we were within sight of La Crosse, Wisconsin, a progressive town with a unique history.
La Crosse is located on a prairie flanked by tall bluffs up to 500 feet high, and sitting on the banks of the Black and Mississippi rivers. French explorers named the area for a game Indians played on the prairie that reminded them of their own La Crosse game in France.
The town was once a wide-open river town with violence, prostitution and dangerous saloons. This “sporting” area was approximately 2 1/2 miles long and seven blocks wide housing a lot of places to find trouble.
During the second half of the 19th century, La Crosse became an important center for steamboats, lumber mills, railroads and brewing. In 1884, La Crosse produced more beer than any other city in the state. River boats hauled logs, crops and other supplies up and down the river.
Mansions still stand in La Crosse from the 19th century, owned by families that made a fortune. The Castle La Crosse mansion was designed in 1891 for lumber baron Nymphus B. Holway by Schick and Stolze of La Crosse. This magnificent structure is now a popular bed and breakfast. Houses in this area are evidence of very successful ventures. Others parts of La Crosse were a different story.
“Our industries were based on lumber, railroad and river boat traffic in the 19th century,” said Kelly Krieg-Sigman, “These were rough times like most riverfront areas of that era. Being close to the river invited a large number of single, unattached, tough young men that were trying to make a living, many sending money home. They were young and unruly and Friday and Saturday night could be pretty exciting.”
The area was not without major crimes and in 1899, an epic murder took place that would spark a wild court trial.
“William Kehr was stabbed nine times by John C. Miller,” Krieg-Sigman said. “They had both been drinking heavily downtown while consorting with ladies of the evening. Words were exchanged before Kehr was repeatedly stabbed. He staggered several blocks before collapsing into unconsciousness and then death soon after. Miller and his companions moved to another bar and continued drinking, become extremely drunk before being arrested. He threatened to kill every city official starting with the mayor during his arrest.”
The main witnesses were prostitutes in the employ of a madame named Hazel Winter. Her brothel was named The Bullpen. She was the chief witness for the prosecution and was treated with very little respect on the witness stand. The prosecutor actually asked the jury if Hazel’s face wasn’t the most the most fiendish and repulsive thing they had ever seen? The official records did not record her answer, but no doubt it was sharp and to the point.
Somehow Miller escaped the noose and served seven years in prison. He bought a farm on his release and lived there into old age.
Today the brothels and troublemakers are gone and this same location is a beautiful art center with manicured river-front parks bordered by clean streets. However, there are still numerous bars on 3rd Street, where students from three colleges and local patrons can see and be seen.
During the 1970s there were more bars in this area than any other city in Wisconsin. Plenty of beer is made here and always has been with the exception of the era prohibition when the breweries switched to making malt and soda.
This town with a population of over 51,000 is sometimes overshadowed by Wisconsin’s larger cities, Milwaukee, Madison and Green Bay, but industrial growth has continued with several top manufacturers.
La Crosse, too, has become an art center. A good example is The Pump House Regional Art Center that once served as the La Crosse pumping station in 1913 is a good example, featuring world renowned art exhibits and plays in their moderate-sized theater. While there I met a group of artists from China there doing an art display. They were very friendly and open to my translated words. Toni Asher, Executive Director of the center takes great pride in rotating artists in for exhibits. Check their website at www.thepumphouse.org for more information.
There are many other entertainment venues including The La Crosse Center, university performances, The Weber Center of Performing Arts, The New Theater and others.
My tour concluded in Houghton’s Jackson Street Pub with a bowl of superb beef stew and a BLT on rye, an excellent meal. They specialize in unique pies, but my belt was already too tight.
La Crosse is a beautiful city now, but my sense of adventure mixed with a love for good fishing and history makes the last century very attractive when things were wide open and still wild.
– Kenneth Kieser, a veteran outdoors writer and member of the Waterfowlers Hall of Fame and National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame, writes a weekly outdoors column for The Examiner. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.