The Prairie du Chien fisherman is one of the few fishermen remaining on the Mississippi River
THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER NEAR CASSVILLE – There’s an art to setting a fishing net, and Mike Valley is a true Picasso.
When on the Mississippi River, the current changes every day, and accuracy is important. He stepped forward, leaned on the edge of his boat and dropped the net into the water. If all goes as planned, the current will keep the net open for the fish to swim through.
People who hunt near him will watch his meticulous routine and ask him how exactly he knows where to set.
His answer? “You just know.”
If anyone is qualified to “just know it,” it’s Valley — a 62-year-old fourth-generation Mississippi River fisherman who makes a living selling his catch from the river at his Prairie du Chien shop, Valley Fish & Cheese. During his decades in the business, he has caught countless catfish, sturgeon, sheepshead, largemouth bass, and carp. He became intimately familiar with the Mississippi River, noting both routine fluctuations and larger shifts in its culture and ecosystem.
One big shift: There are only a few commercial fishermen left along the river, once a thriving industry, as people move further away from the idea of the river being central to their livelihoods and toward an easier one. Ways to make a living.
Vale knows he is among the last of a dying breed. He wants people to realize that they shouldn’t take his work for granted, but he also knows that people often don’t appreciate something until it’s gone.
The once thriving industry is coming to an end
These days, the valley heads to the river to fish twice a week. On a recent trip, he got a 700-pound flathead catfish about 40 miles upriver from home, cleaned it, and was up hours before sunrise the next day to put it on the smoker.
Valle began his career in fishing and wholesaling – that is, selling wholesale to retailers and restaurants. But in the early 1980s, he watched the wholesale industry begin to struggle and found a niche to sell his own product instead.
At his shop, a quirky market featured on PBS’s “Wisconsin Foodie,” he takes pride in offering something unique. Over the years, he has produced jerky catfish, summer turtle hot dogs, and jalapeño cheddar catfish, to name a few.
“Nobody’s going to go into your store, come home…and say, ‘You’re not going to believe this.’ I went to this place in Prairie du Chien and this guy had beef bacon!” Valle joked. “You have to create something different. Then they go home and tell people, and word spreads.”
But as he contemplates retirement with no one wanting to take over the store, area residents may soon have less choice to buy their fresh fish and other specialties. And this is in an already sparse market. Historically, most river towns had a fish market, Valley said. Today, only a few remain.
A similar situation has been brewing for years on the river itself, where the number of fishermen selling the fish commercially has been declining for decades. Commercial fishing in the upper Mississippi peaked in the mid-1960s, according to a 2018 study in the journal Fisheries, when the industry produced more than 6,000 tons of fish and generated about $9 million.
Today, data from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources shows a steady decline in commercial fishing licenses issued for the Mississippi River. In one category, the number of licenses issued fell from 144 in 2001 to 37 this year, for example.
When his father fished, there were 125 commercial fishermen on the Mississippi River within a 60-mile radius of Prairie du Chien, Valle said. Early in his career, he estimated there were between 50 and 60 of them. In those days, he remembers getting into arguments with other hunters who thought they owned a particular place.
Today, this is not a problem. He thinks there are no more than 10 of them left in the same radius.
He doubts this fall will be his last commercial fishing. Even though in his heart he wanted to continue, his body couldn’t do it anymore.
“It’s a lot of fun — raising the nets, catching the fish, the challenge, being on the river — but unfortunately you have to clean them, and that’s a lot of work,” he said.
Vale expects his fellow fishermen who are still pending will soon follow suit. Nine of the ten are over 50, and he said young people and children have lost interest in the art of dying. For his part, no one in his family is interested in taking it over.
Although Vali hates to say the fun is over, the constant interruption makes him sad. He believes that within a decade, they will all be gone.
“When I was a kid, there didn’t seem to be an end,” he said. “Now, you really look, and you can actually see the end.”
The changing river complicates fishing
As the commercial fishing industry dwindles, the river is often used for other purposes, Vale notes. He sees more party boats and catamarans.
Although the area is known for its competitive fishing tournaments and other sport fishing events that pump dollars into the local economy, Valley takes a dim view of it, too. As a conservationist, he deplores their use of the catch-and-release method to try to go after the best fish.
“If I go bass fishing and I want to eat two bass, I catch two and go home,” he said.
Having spent decades on the Mississippi River, he has also witnessed a series of well-documented environmental changes: erosion of islands; The backwaters of the river become shallower as sediment fills; And trees die.
The floodplain forests of the upper Mississippi have been threatened in recent decades. Diseases and prolonged floods kill trees, at which point invasive plant species move in, making it impossible for healthy trees to take root.
more:Mississippi River floodplain forests are dying. The race is on to bring them back.
These decaying trees cause a particular problem for fishermen like Vale if they set nets close to shore. The boat hits a dead tree hard and may collapse.
“(Outside of hunting) this spring, huge trees were falling around me 10 times a day,” he said. “It’s very dangerous.”
Trees killed by excessive flooding are a symptom of climate-related changes in the Mississippi River Basin. Climatologists expect more extreme weather events, such as flash floods and drought, to affect the heart of the country as the climate becomes warmer and more humid, affecting the intensity of rainfall.
These extremes have come to light in recent years as fish have been caught in the valley. Last spring, several cities along the upper Mississippi saw near-record flooding, including McGregor, Iowa, across the river from Prairie du Chien, where the river reached its third-highest crest on record on April 28.
Valley described this year’s spring fishing as “exceptional,” but it didn’t last long. The area entered a drought weeks later, resulting in the worst summer ever for catfish fishing. He cast just six nets that produced between 500 and 1,000 pounds of fish, compared to recent weeks, when he was able to cast nearly four times as many nets.
Even though things have changed, Vale said he still has hundreds of fond memories to look back on on his way out the door.
Many of those involve impressively large fish.
People always want to know about the biggest catfish ever caught. It was at age 16, when he caught two nearly 100-pound catfish in one net while fishing with his father.
“You always thought there would be a bigger tomorrow,” he recalls.
Madeline Heim is an American Legion reporter who writes about environmental issues in the Mississippi River watershed and across Wisconsin. Contact her at 920-996-7266 or email@example.com.
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