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Fishing upper Mississippi River in LaCrosse, Wisc., can be floating experience

“The Mississippi River towns are comely, clean, well-built, are pleasing to the eye, and cheery to the spirit. The Mississippi Valley is as reposeful as a dreamland, nothing worldly about it … nothing to hang a fret or a worry upon.” – Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi

Time seemed to stand still when we arrived in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, for the 63rd annual conference of the Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers. No matter where we went, the Mississippi River influence was encompassing. The AmericInn (our headquarters) was on the banks of the Black River, just across from French Island that enjoyed Old Man River as a boundary to the west. That was where we had dinner, at Huck Finn’s on the Water, passing the Tom Sawyer Pub along the way.

The Mississippi is legendary, carrying water from Lake Itasca in north central Minnesota nearly 2,350 miles to the Gulf of Mexico – the second largest river in North America. It’s just a few miles shorter than the Missouri River. Having never been to this region, it felt like home with the amount of water available.

The Best Dam Fishing Float on the Mississippi. (Bill Hilts Jr./Buffalo News)

The next day it was NFL Football Sunday and the Green Bay Packers were playing the Minnesota Vikings. Allegiances are divided here because the river is the boundary between Minnesota and Wisconsin. It turned out to be a great side story as we fished the river on the Best Dam Fishing Float (

It was a bit confusing at first because we were told to arrive at the launch ramp adjacent to Lock and Dam No. 7, which was on the Minnesota side of the river at LaCrescent. A quick phone call to Capt. Tom Rieple of Holmen, Wisconsin, and he hopped in his pontoon boat and drove across the river to pick us up at the boat launch.  He was there in a few minutes.

We loaded up our fishing gear and motored to our destination – a floating dock with over 500 feet of fishable railing and located in Wisconsin, so we needed a Wisconsin fishing license. The dock was in a perfect spot, next to the dam in Pool 8 but in a natural eddy that allows for baitfish to gather for anglers pursuing some of the 119 species of fish available in the Mississippi. On a good day, an angler can catch 20 of those species off this dock.

“This isn’t a good time to be fishing because we had 3 inches of rain a few days ago,” said Capt. Tom, the manager and captain of the Fishing Float. “Let us help you rig up with one of our set-ups and we’ll make sure you catch some fish.”

Reanna Cherry of Florida caught this 6-pound sheepshead as part of her 11th birthday present, fishing with her grandfather Brian Ross of Elkhorn, Wisconsin. (Bill Hilts Jr./Buffalo News)

One of the benefits of fishing different areas around the country is learning about new fishing spots and new fishing techniques. The floating dock guys have developed a “Super Slider System” that is basically a sinker-slider set-up. The fishing line goes through a small tube that has a weight attached (we used 1-1/2-ounce weights because of the increased water flow). Depending on where you fished on the dock and what species you were targeting, a different sized weight could be used. Normally, it would be a ¾ oz. weight. For bluegills, it might be a ¼ oz.

Despite the less than ideal conditions, my wife Sandy hit a sheepshead almost immediately. After getting some photos, Capt. Tom took me around the dock to introduce me to some of the regulars. He talked about some of the more memorable fish they caught and whether they were a Packers or Vikings fan. The game was fast approaching. Everyone kept fishing, but when the game started, they would make their way for lunch at the grill and catch a bit of the game. The Float’s claim to fame was the “Best Dam” Burger on the Mississippi.

It was quickly evident that the Best Dam Fishing Float was a family of sorts. Capt. Tom would walk the dock and banter back and forth with the loyal anglers, some of whom were second and third generation fishermen. Long-lasting friendships were made on this floating fishing dock.

This has been a tough year for the Fishing Float. It normally opens in mid-March. However, due to high water on the river, it didn't open until May 10. It didn’t take long to realize it still was too early and they shut down to mid-June. It will shut down for the season Oct. 31.

The Packers, in their home opener, jumped out to a 21-0 lead and things looked bleak for Vikings fans. The Packers fans were talking some smack, especially Capt. Tom.

Capt. Tom Rieple, manager and captain of the Fishing Float, holds up a small catfish before releasing it into the river. (Bill Hilts Jr./Buffalo News)

It was somewhere during the first half that Roger Spaulding of La Crosse hooked into something big. It gathered a crowd as Corey Strayback of Harmony, Minnesota, followed him around with a net to try and help him. A Vikings fan was helping a Packers fan.

After a lengthy battle, the catch was complete. Spaulding reeled in a 55-inch, 35-pound lake sturgeon. It was released to fight another day, a protected species on this river. That was a fitting conclusion to our Best Dam Fishing Float experience, and we hope to make it back again another day. The cost is only $20 for adults, $5 for kids 12 and under.

The game? The Packers held on to win 21-16 as the Vikings made a valiant comeback. The season is still young.

It seemed that no matter where we drove, the Upper Mississippi National Wildlife and Fish Refuge was present. After doing a little research, it was easy to see why. Created in 1924, this refuge covers 240,000 acres from Wabasha, Minnesota, to Rock Island, Illinois – a distance of about 260 miles.

To assist with navigation purposes, nearly 30 locks and dams are in place from Minneapolis to St. Louis, allowing each pool to maintain a 9-foot depth for movement of ships and barges. One break in the schedule allowed for a four-mile trip on the La Crosse Queen, an authentic paddlewheeler cruising up the river. No less than a dozen different bald eagles were spotted as we took the leisurely trip up the mighty Mississippi. I envisioned what it was like for Tom and Huck, and what I would be doing if I grew up in this area.

Wisconsin truly is an outdoor paradise and we’re just scratching the surface. A comment was made by one of the state tourism officials that no matter where you live in the state, you are no more than 30 miles from a launch ramp. With the Mississippi as a Western boundary, Lake Superior as a northern boundary and Lake Michigan to the east, we’re glad we made the trip to the Dairy State.

For more information on the area, check out You won’t be disappointed.

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