A Morning on the Yellow River…

bluegill on yellow river

Photo and Essay by Kim Wheeler, Burnett County Resident


Rising before dawn I dressed hurriedly, filled my thermos with hot coffee, and tiptoed out of the cabin careful not to wake anybody.  I made my way down to the shore of the river in the dim light and untied my canoe, already loaded with fishing gear and paddle, and slid it into the water and climbed in.


I pushed off from the shore and paddled my way upriver through the mist rising from the warm water into the cool morning air. Ahead of me I noticed an otter slip off a dock and swim across the river toward the far shore. The cattails along the near shore were strung with spiderwebs covered with dew that glistened in the thin pre-dawn light. A blue heron startled from the edge of the cattails and swooped upriver ahead of me in search of a new fishing spot with fewer interruptions.


I dipped my paddle gently into the water as I navigated the canoe through the slow flowing waters, making my way to my favorite fishing hole; a small bay with a side channel flowing along the right bank with a shallow area between the side channel and the main channel, about a half-mile upstream. It had several submerged stumps and weeds and from previous experience I knew it to house largemouth bass and northern pike.  It’s a fun spot to cast out a hula popper or weedless frog for some top-water action.  The water in the side channel is 4-6 feet deep and can be a good place to toss a worm and bobber for panfish when the action in the weed bed slows down.


I’ve been fishing on the Yellow River near Danbury in Burnett County, Wisconsin river for nearly forty years, in motorboats, from the shore, from bridges and from docks.  I enjoy fishing here with family and friends, but my favorite way is alone in my canoe, where I can fish in solitude and at my own pace.  In the early morning I am usually alone on the water, except for the wildlife.  Songbirds are abundant, as are kingfishers, blue and green herons, and families of ducks.  I don’t think I’ve ever ventured out on the river without seeing at least one eagle fly past, and occasionally I am given the gift of an Osprey sighting. Besides otter and muskrat, I’ve spotted whitetail deer and even black bears along the banks and swimming in the river.


The last stretch of the river is downstream from Big and Little Yellow Lakes and at this point is a wide, slow moving river.  Its northern journey from the lake is restricted by a dam several miles downriver before it empties into the St. Croix River at Danbury.  In most stretches of this part of the river, the channel is easily navigated and there are many shallow, weedy bays.  A few spots have a much wider spread, where the channel meanders through shallow wetland.  These areas are great fisheries for Northern Pike and Muskellunge.  Panfish, mostly bluegills and pumpkinseeds, are abundant and largemouth bass are common.  I’ve caught the occasional Walleye on the river throughout the years, but they are much more abundant on the two lakes upstream..  Most stretches of the river are “slow, no wake” which makes canoeing here  even more enjoyable despite the being a well-traveled waterway with many cabins and docks along the shore, and at least one pontoon boat and/or motorboat per dock. There are fewer homes along the river as you get closer to the dam, and the last couple miles are fairly wild and uninhabited.


That morning, I had the river to myself.  I steered the canoe into the shallow bay that was my destination, and prepared to take my first cast.  I decided to use  a weedless frog, and tossed it across the water toward a stump where I’ve had luck in the past. It landed within inches of the stump, and I let it rest a few moments before pulling the lure back toward me, one crank at a time.  After only two or three cranks, which pulled the frog a foot or so along each time, a fish struck.  The frog disappeared underwater, I pulled back to set the hook, and the fight was on.  There were a lot of places in the shallows for the fish to snag, so it was not a given that I would successfully land the fish.  It felt like a bass on the line, considering the way it was diving deep, pulling back and forth and circling.  I wound in the line, careful not to reel too quickly, and letting some out when the fish swam away from me.  I’ve broken a few lines by reeling too fast, as the fish can twist and turn and pull the other way in a heartbeat.  I always use medium weight line, 10 or-12 pound test, as well as a steel leader in case of a pike strike.  This particular fish put up a decent underwater fight, diving and charging toward deeper water, and once it finally surfaced and leaped into the air I saw that I had guessed right, it was a largemouth bass, and a nice sized one at that.  The fish worked it’s way toward the channel as I reeled it closer to my craft, and I finally won the battle as I netted it and lifted it into the boat.


Largemouth bass are a fun fish to catch, and a decent fish to eat, most of the time.  It is sweeter tasting than its sunfish relatives, with pinker meat before it is cooked.  I enjoy them, and decided to keep this three pound fish.  I strung the fish onto a stringer and lowered it back into the water and tied it off to the canoe.


By the time I had landed the bass, my canoe had moved too close to the channel so I paddled back into the shallows and tried my luck again near the same stump.  Several casts proved unsuccessful so I moved further into the bay and tried casting the frog at a few other stumps.  I had two strikes, both unsuccessful, and the way each fish hit the frog told me they were likely Northern pike.  I soon got bored with casting and decided to switch my focus to the sunfish that rested in the side channel.


There are a few ways to catch sunfish, I prefer worm and bobber.  Many years of fishing this river has proven to me that it is the best way, overall, to fish them, although if the conditions are right, fly fishing for sunnies may be the most fun.  The calmness of the morning would certainly have been a good time to try this technique, but I had not brought my fly rod along on this trip.  So the good ol’ lightweight KMart blue light special Shakespeare spinning rod combo with 6 pound test was up for its turn at bat.


You don’t need to work very hard to catch a lot of sunnies in the Yellow River.  They are nearly always hungry, and large ones can be found fairly easily, perhaps because the river does flow, if slowly, and the water depth at the bank line is usually already a couple feet deep. On the Yellow, the springtime spawn is probably the easiest time to catch nice sized panfish, when they are laying eggs in the lily pad-filled shallows.  My Dad’s dock is situated in one such shallow, about thirty feet from the main channel, and we can usually catch several hand-size fish in May and early June when the weeds aren’t too thick. But by July, the larger ones move into deeper water at the edges of the weed beds near the channel. I have found great success paddling a ways upstream from my Dad’s place and then turning my canoe around to float the channel downstream, plopping my bobber and line right at the edge of the weed bed and letting it drift along, usually not for long before a fish starts to nibble.  I don’t do much paddling when floating like this, except to make slight corrections to my path. It’s quite a relaxing way to fish.  Except that I’m usually kept busy hauling in and unhooking fish, replacing stripped worms, and recasting every twenty feet of floating or so.  Not all caught are keepers, but I usually can land enough for a nice meal for a few people.


The small side channel that I fished in that day moves much slower than the main channel, so all I needed to do was park my canoe in the weeds along the edge of the channel and cast the worm and bobber a few feet from the boat.  The fish will bite all throughout the channel, at the weed edges as well as in the center. Both large and small sunfish reside here, and I caught dozens of fish in about one hours time, keeping about ten nice sized bluegills and pumpkinseeds, strung onto the stringer with the bass I had caught earlier.


The sun was over the tree line by this time and I was getting hungry, so I decided to call it a morning and head back downriver to the cabin where likely the rest of my family was still sleeping, or just getting out of bed. I still had work ahead of me cleaning the fish, but it would be worth it.  There’s not much better for breakfast than sunnies dredged in Cracker crumbs and fried in butter on the stovetop. Especially when you’ve caught the fish yourself.