The St. Croix River of Minnesota and Wisconsin


The St. Croix (pronounced "Croy") is a river of roughfishing legend. This beautiful body of water federally designated as a Wild and Scenic River in 1968, and was one of the original eight rivers to be so designated. The Croix, as its devotees call it, is a largely pristine river. Several species of mussels, endangered or extinct almost everywhere else, are still found in the St. Croix. Rare fish species like the river redhorse, the lake sturgeon, and the gilt darter are common here.The variety in habitats spanned by this river is breathtaking.


St. Croix River Map

Map Courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons Project


The Croix has its headwaters in the broken swamplands of Northwest Wisconsin, near the town of Solon Springs. Here, the river drains a vast expanse of peat-stained bogs, tamarack swamps, and cedar swamps. This wetland complex also forms the headwaters of the Bois Brule River, which flows north, carrying that same water into Lake Superior. Thus, an enterprising canoist can travel up the St. Croix, cross the continental divide in the dense, trackless swamps east of Solon Springs, and emerge (probably covered in mosquito bites and half-drained of blood by deer flies) in the upper reaches of the Bois Brule. From there, it is possible to continue downriver to Lake Superior.


In its uppermost reaches, the St. Croix is a rocky, shallow stream, wadable in some stretches but perfect for canoing. The extreme upper reaches of the Croix are marred only by the dam at Gordon. The Gordon Dam backs up the river to form the St. Croix Flowage, a large bog-stained lake known for producing large and aggressive muskellunge. Below this dam the river sails through several notable rapids and minor whitewater rips before combining with the fabled Namekagon River near Danbury. The fishing on this stretch of water is very similar to the lower reaches of the nearby Namekagon, aside from the impounded sections. Clear but bog-stained water make sight-fishing possible, and species such as greater and river redhorse, northern hogsucker, and smallmouth bass can be found here. Access is easy, as much of the land is public. Several trout streams drain into it, including the extremely popular Namekagon. Once joined by the Namekagon, the Croix nearly doubles in size and becomes the brawling, sandy, pine-fringed water that canoists know and love.  Soon after, the St. Croix flees the state of Wisconsin for neighboring Minnesota.



The next portion is commonly referred to as "The Upper Croix" by Minnesotans, although it is probably better referred to as "The Middle Croix" to distinguish this big-water section from the small, wadable upper reaches in Wisconsin. It forms the border between the two states for the next 130 miles. This stretch is perfect for canoing, and is navigable by small motorboats as well - though with considerable risk. The Croix is a powerful, dynamic river, constantly changing. The submerged boulders, logs, sweepers, and gravel bars conspire to destroy most outboard motors. It is a winding course of mild rapids and long, swift runs, dotted by hundreds of steep-sided islands. Thickly forested and undeveloped, the river grows large crops of belligerent smallmouth bass and bulky channel catfish. Fish of the redhorse group are numerous and prolific, and this area is one of the few places in the world where one can reasonably hope to catch five species of redhorse in one sitting (River, Greater, Golden, Shorthead, and Silver). This highly coveted "Redhorse Super-Slam" is almost impossible anywhere but on the St. Croix River.


Access to this section of water can be had at every bridge crossing, and many boat landings exist that double as prime shore fishing spots. As always, anglers in canoes or small boats can access a wider variety of fishing holes, including the tail ends of islands, riffle areas, and the mouths of tributary streams. All of these can be really productive spots on the Croix, but even a fairly featureless run can hold good numbers of redhorse and smallmouth.


This stretch of river is also home to a recovering Lake Sturgeon population. Fish over six feet long and 150 pounds have been caught in this section of the river in days gone by. These fish are true natives, never having been extirpated and re-stocked. The middle portion is some of the best Smallmouth Bass habitat found anywhere, and this species is the one most often targeted by conventional anglers visiting the area. As the Croix flows south through this middle section, the river grows larger and larger, picking up major tributaries like the Tamarack, Snake, Kettle, and Sunrise Rivers in Minnesota and the Yellow, Clam, and Apple Rivers of Wisconsin, all excellent fishing rivers with significant angling resources of their own.


The next major landmark is the Dam at St. Croix Falls, which blocks fish passage from the lower river. Although a free-flowing river is better for migratory native fish, it also allows invasive species to easily access every part of the river, so this dam is a mixed blessing. Although the river below St. Croix Falls resembles the river above, the presence of so many southern and big-river species changes the character of this river completely. I consider this to be the beginning of the "Lower St. Croix" even though many like to place that transition at Stillwater.


The Lower St. Croix holds a much wider variety of fish species than the upper river does. Beginning at St. Croix Falls, exotic carp began to play a role in this fish community. Other prominent members of the fish assemblage include Freshwater Drum, White Bass, Muskellunge, Lake Sturgeon, Sauger, and Channel Catfish. The riverine environment stretches from the dam all the way to the town of Stillwater, snaking amongst hundreds of islands and backwater channels, before the river widens at the Stillwater Boom Site to form a body of water called Lake St. Croix.


Lake St. Croix is almost 8000 acres in size and has a maximum depth of 80 feet. It sees heavy use by recreational boaters, including giant yachts that motor up and down the river for no apparent reason at all hours of the day and night. Here, you can find Gizzard Shad, Buffalo, and Gar. A popular and productive muskellunge fishery exists on Lake St. Croix, along with a very popular winter ice fishery, chiefly targeting walleye, sauger, and crappie. This section of river can get rough in windy weather - making for tough going in a canoe or small boat. In contrast to the swift-flowing upper reaches, the last 25 miles of the St. Croix have very little perceptible current. The towns of Bayport, Afton, and Hudson crowd the banks with homes, bridges, and marinas. The Willow and Kinnickinnic Rivers add their waters to the Croix from the Wisconsin side. Finally, the Croix merges with the mighty Mississippi River at Prescott, adding it's very clear water to the always-muddy torrent of the Mississippi. The difference between the water clarity of the two rivers at their confluence is striking.



Fishing Lake St. Croix can be very productive - but access to good areas is tougher to come by, and the constant boat traffic can be irritating. Obviously, the confluence at Point Douglas - where it meets the Mississippi - is a popular shore spot, and anglers in boats frequent every point or bar that extends out into the river.


Flathead catfish can be found in Lake St. croix, but they grow very slowly here. A 9-year old flathead from Lake St. Croix is only 4 pounds in weight and 23 inches long. White Bass, on the other hand, grow fairly quickly here, and provide a really exciting and under-rated fishery for open-minded anglers. Oddities from the Mississippi will occasionally appear in Lake St. Croix. Although never commmon, native blue suckers, spotted suckers, and eels, as well as invasive bighead and grass carp, will sometimes be seen here. Zebra Mussels and Milfoil Mar the natural aquatic community as well. But compared to many other rivers this close to urban areas, the St. Croix has fared well. The water is still quite clean, and the number of dams is few. No-wake zones serve to limit the extremely damaging shoreline erosion that heavy boat traffic causes.


In the St. Croix, you can sample almost any sort of angling that the midwest has to offer, from pristine wilderness areas to convenient urban stomping grounds. Every visit is different, and the species mix is so varied that you can pursue a different species almost every outing if you so desire. Days of catching ten or more species of fish are not uncommon on the Croix, and days where you fight and land ten or more large, hard-fighting fish are also not unheard of. There's really something for everyone on this river. Check it out, you won't be disappointed. 






Dr Flathead's picture

Cool write up man.  Love that river.

andy's picture

Nicely written. While the croix deserves an entire book to do it real justice, you summed it up nicely. This river has been a big part of my angling life
Moose439's picture

Great stuff man, it made me a little home sick. The Croix is a sick river and is responsible for starting my now terminal addiction to roughfishing. I have caught more lifers and personal best fish out of that river than any other body of water. I have seen tons of insane things happen on that river .I have heard cannon ball like fish breaches at night, seen reels spooled, heavy braid snapped, hooks straighten and hearts and dreams made as well as crushed. Even to those who fish her often she is a fickle and unforgiving mistress changing on a daily basis for seemingly no reason at times. If you haven't fished it you're missing out.

MJohnson's picture

I think the location of the confluence of the Apple River with the St. Croix is confusing.  I'm sure I'm misinterpreting the context by taking a too linear view.   

Outdoors4life's picture

Great article!

As any article so much could be added but if you added it all it would become a book. I cut my teeth river fishing the lower croix north of Stilwater in a 12 foot rowboat every chance I got. It is my home! I live within site of it and have a great view of the sunrise every morning. It is a river of mystery never knowing what you might catch. Eelpout, blue suckers, american eels and many others among the odd catches that are possible on that river. Most of my lifelist is from that river and the tributaries.

If I were Moose this would make me miss home too!

It is all perspective!

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Jason E.'s picture

Great article. An exceptional and varied fishery that has received more TLC than many other large rivers.