Mark Twain wrote, “It is strange how little has been written about the Upper Mississippi.”  Periodicals that have come out since Twain’s time (e.g., Big River Magazine) have somewhat corrected this shortcoming, but it does not alter the fact that when most people think about the Mississippi River, they associate it with its southern half. To those of us who live along the river north of its convergence with the Missouri, the Upper Mississippi is the Mississippi River – and except for our impression of the river as it passes through New Orleans, we don’t even have a strong sense of what the lower sections of the river look like. We, or at least I, imagine it as a single enormous navigation channel, a relatively unappealing ditch when compared to the maze of islands and backwaters that dominate the river up here. I have no doubt that people from Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Louisiana would disagree with me, but so long as their opinions don’t devolve into parochialism, I have no problem with a little regional pride. 

As a fisherman, the Upper Mississippi River’s diversity of fish is a wonder unto itself. Because of a series of locks and dams, the river between St. Paul and St. Louis is a conglomeration of ecosystems. The main channel has strong current, the shallow and weedy backwater has gentle current, and the “lakes” directly behind each dam have hardly any current at all. As a preservationist, I wouldn’t mind if there were no dams at all, but I have to admit that impoundments every thirty miles create multiple habitats to support a wide range of aquatic life. As a kid, I thought I knew all of the fish of Wisconsin, but growing up on the eastern side of the state, I did not know about the crazy diversity in the Mississippi. After twenty-five years of fishing the river, I still occasionally catch something new. And by new, I don’t just mean something I’ve never caught before. I mean a fish I’ve never seen before. I have to pull out my Fish of Wisconsin when I get home just to identify it.

Below is a list of the fish I recall catching on the Mississippi River. Initially I’d planned to rank them in priority order, but immediately realized I like to catch different fish for different reasons. Perch and walleye reside in a category all their own as far as good eating. Northerns and smallmouth bass are the most fun to catch, and I look for the constant action of bluegills when I take kids fishing.  Without a clear favorite, the fish are just listed in the order they came to mind.

  1. Perch
  2. Walleye
  3. Sauger
  4. Bluegill
  5. Sunfish
  6. Northern pike
  7. Smallmouth bass
  8. Largemouth bass
  9. Rock bass
  10. White bass
  11. Crappie, both black and white 
  12. Channel catfish
  13. Redhorse
  14. Sheepshead
  15. Dogfish (bowfin)
  16. Gar (longnosed or shortnosed?)
  17. Mooneye
  18. Warmouth
  19. Lamprey (attached to the belly of a northern pike)
  20. Shad
  21. Bullhead

There remain several species I’ve seen others catch, but have not caught myself. Some, like the common carp, sucker, and musky, I’ve caught elsewhere, but not on the Mississippi. Others, such as burbot, the two species of sturgeon, and flathead catfish, I’ve never caught anywhere. My friend Yao Yin even caught a rainbow trout once, but that fish was as lost as the hummingbird that got trapped in the rafters of my garage. (I helped it escape by opening the garage door and then placing a big pot of bright red flowers on the ground to coax it down.) It is fun to think that the next time I go out on the river I might catch something new.