Two Days on the River: Fishing the Eau Claire Across 50 Years

the river can change, but so can the fisherman

words & photos by Ron Davis

The Eau Claire River, looking downstream toward downtown Eau Claire.
The Eau Claire River, looking downstream toward downtown Eau Claire.

“No man ever steps in the same river twice.” –Heraclitus

Back in 1972, I was a sophomore at UW-Eau Claire. Like many at that time, I was pretty clueless about what direction my life would take, just content to be in college and not Vietnam or working a grueling paper mill job like many of my buddies. One thing I did know though was that I ached to fish, desperate to find a place where a poor, boat-less college kid could escape the stuffy classroom and catch a smallmouth bass.

At that time I was on the staff of The Purveyor, the campus literary magazine (now NOTA) and so shared an office with a promising young professor named Bruce Taylor. Taylor, an angler like myself, drew me a map of a “secret” stretch of the Eau Claire River I could access with my old Honda 350. So on a crisp, early fall day, armed with a cheap spinning rod bungeed to my sissy bar and a dinky tackle box strapped across my saddle, I followed a labyrinth of county and township roads to a dirt path leading down to a section of the river canopied by overhanging trees.

The water didn’t look too promising, just an open pool about 30 yards wide with none of the usual spillways, rock banks and roiling currents you’d commonly associate with smallies. I waded in anyway, knowing my tennies and jeans would dry on the ride home, and the chilly water coursed around my legs, as Jim Harrison once wrote, “at the exact but varying speed of life.”

I made a few casts with a silver spoon, then ran into trouble with a line snarl, and my lure sank to the bottom of the pool, probably I figured, to be lost on a rock or submerged log. Once I got the line untangled, I started to reel in and as expected, felt stiff resistance. But then the line moved – a fish! It was classic, the smallmouth sprinting and tail-walking all over the pool, but I finally lipped him, removed the hook and gently lowered the big-shouldered fish into the root beer-brown water. Thank you, Bruce!

The writer with a smallmouth caught on the Eau Claire River.
The writer with a smallmouth caught on the Eau Claire River.

In 2019, I had moved back to Eau Claire, and again was jones-ing for some piscatorial action. Larry Stordahl, an old friend and self-appointed tour guide to the Chippewa Valley, had taken me around to a few places on the Eau Claire where he thought I could wade and possibly have some luck, one just down the bank from Banbury Place. So on a hot July morning a week later I decided to give it a try.

Decked out in my fancy chest waders, carbide-studded boots, fly fishing vest, and a preposterous caped hat, I felt a little self-conscious as I left my car on Putnam and crossed Galloway. I tried to edge my way down the steep, rocky bank sideways but wound up sliding, stumbling and finally gracelessly skidding on my butt to the shoreline. As I waded in I was given even more evidence that I wasn’t 21 anymore as I teetered my way through a treacherous jumble of sharp, slippery rocks and chunks of concrete hiding in the stained water. Regretting I had left my wading staff back home, I retreated to search for a branch I could substitute, and feeling a little safer, I cautiously worked the river a little with a floating Rapala.

Even though I was just a few hundred yards up from the Dewey Street Bridge, the steep slopes covered with lush greenery and flood-worn rock outcroppings cut me off from city life, other than the occasional honks and Harley revs that percolated through to break the spell. Of course, the banks weren’t exactly pristine, strewn with a few water bottles, someone’s underwear and the ubiquitous plastic bags, but I was there for fishing, not a nature walk.

Finally tiring of fighting the prospect of dumping and floating down to Phoenix Park, I found a spit of sand that reached a ways out where I could cast into a seam in the current. A medium-sized smallmouth hit and gave me a nice fight as I played it up to the shore – a lovely, bronze-backed fish which angrily darted back into the depths after being released.

The sun had cleared the treetops by then, and swaddled in my gear, the heat had me breathing hard and swimming in sweat. I thought about things like heat stroke, wrenched knees, back spasms, my cell phone left in the car—old man worries that made me surrender and set to clawing my way on all fours back up to civilization.

In the car with the air conditioning on blast, I reflected that, as far as fishing goes, the morning could be called a success, and I was happy, though my doddering performance had been sobering. You could say the Eau Claire was the same river I had found in my college days, but I definitely wasn’t the same man. Nonetheless, as Harrison also wrote, the advancing years can kick you brutally hard, but fishing a river, “you forget the kick.”

Ron Davis is author of two books – Shiny Side Up and Rubber Side Down – both of which are available at The Local Store, 205 N. Dewey St., Eau Claire.