DRESBACH, Minn. — It was time to make it happen.
“Just Do It,” as per Nike’s longtime, and still popular, slogan tells us.
After years of listening to others chit-chat about this fishing hot spot, as well as writing several stories about this floating fish haven over my journalism career, it was time to jump aboard Captain Tom Rieple’s pontoon and check out the Best Dam Fishing Float first-hand.
It was time to let Captain Tom take me and my father-in-law, David Hanson, Sr., on a 4-minute a voyage across the main channel of the Mississippi River near Dresbach, Minn., to one of the most productive fishing holes in the La Crosse area — and beyond.
Would this place live up to the hype, or was he really Captain Hook who just landed two big suckers?
“When you run the fishing float for a number of years, you see really good days where there are hundreds of fish caught. Typically, people come out here and catch 50-60 fish a day, each person,” Captain Tom said in a no-poker-face manner. “It is the truth.”
He’s not lying.
The float — you can’t even tell your standing on 650,000 pounds of flotation, by the way, as it doesn’t even rock — is strategically placed in a natural eddy behind Lock & Dam 7, making it a restaurant of sorts for at least 20 different species of fish. On what Captain Tom freely told us was a “slow day,” we caught seven different species — sunfish, striped bass, sauger, sheepshead, channel catfish, redhorse and mooneye — and about 25 fish total in just over 3½ hours.
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Captain Tom’s definition of a “slow day” differs from mine, as I’ve spent day-long outings at northern Minnesota and even Canadian lakes catching a handful, or less, of fish. Now that’s a “slow day.”
As a matter of fact, in decades of fishing I can’t recall catching that many different species in that short of a time period. Or any time period, for that matter.
As you walk along the well-maintained fishing dock, which measures 100 feet in one direction adjacent to the main channel, you’re truly passing over different fishing habitat. Closer to the cozy fishing cabin that serves as a bait shop and snack bar, it’s 5 or 6 feet deep, and full of sunfish. Walk out to the long part of the T-like deck, and you’ll find a rocky reef that’s 10-12 feet deep, holding walleye, sauger and perch.
Head halfway down the longest part of the deck, and a short cast will put you in rapid-flowing water that is 40- to 50-feet deep. That’s where we found the channel cats hanging out. Talk about a fight.
With the ‘cats, that is, not Captain Tom.
“With the lock and dam, everything congregates up here, right below the dam. That is why they put the fishing floats below the dams as that is where the most feed, the highest oxygen level of water, are typically found,” Captain Tom said. “It is probably more of a food source type of thing, as bait fish hold up here, too.”
A former asphalt company worker who spent thousands of hours behind the wheel of a grater and paver, the 58-year-old Captain Tom — his preferred name to be called, and soon he’ll have a large tattoo on his back telling people that — has a gift to gab, as some folks say. He’ll tell story after story after story, all with names, fish weights, what bait they were using and how long they battled the fish.
He’s a friendly sort, to say the least, and knowledgeable one, too. This guy lives — and loves — to help people experience fishing.
“I have been doing this for 12 years and have met thousands of people. The experiences you see happen, the people you meet from all over the world, it’s hard to describe,” Captain Tom said. “We’ve had hundreds of people that have caught the biggest fish of their lives right here. I’m a people person and love hearing and retelling their stories.”
Again, he’s spewing the truth.
Take 24-year-old Nick Bang of Holmen, for example. A security worker for a local hospital, Bang makes the short trip to the fishing float as much as possible. And just like the Captain said, he’s caught some very, very large fish.
In fact, he’s caught the largest fish in the float’s history — or recent history, as in Captain Tom’s ownership tenure — when he landed a 95-pound lake sturgeon on Aug. 19, 2020. Yes, ninety-five pounds. That’s like reeling in a human-sized fish.
And believe me, this guy’s no one-fish wonder. He strong-armed a 46-pound flathead catfish onto the float on Sept. 14, and a 34-pound lake sturgeon on Sept. 16. And yes, there are plenty of witnesses to this fish feat.
“I love this float. I think it’s the best one in the region. Captain Tom keeps it in fantastic, tip-top shape,” Bang said. “Honestly, until last year I did not know we had fish this big in the river. Last year, it was the longest fight of my life with a fish. I have super heavy gear, and it still took me 45 minutes (to land it).”
Bang still recalls the day of the record fish like it was yesterday. I get it, as I would, too. You don’t forget something like that.
Maybe Captain Tom should call his float the “Memory Maker.”
“That (95-pounder) was unbelievable. Everybody on the float stopped fishing and watched it,” Bang said. “A 30- to 40-pound fish gets your heart racing, but this, it was almost heart-stopping. Even with the right gear, you kind of direct them where you want them to go. But if they want to go somewhere else, especially that size, they go.”
We didn’t catch any fish close to that size, but did catch a 3-pound catfish and netted another channel cat for a nearby angler that was likely 5- to 6 pounds. Again, on a “slow day.”
What’s nice about Captain Tom’s place is you can fish, then take a break for a soda and “best angus burgers you can find around,” he says. Again, after tasting the burgers, he speaks the truth.
Captain Tom, who has had 186 people fishing at one time, most of them on the float, but some on a rock wall that you can walk to from the float, has what he terms “a sizable investment” in the float, which he purchased from his brother-in-law, then promptly tore apart and built new.
It’s quite the place, and worth checking out. He says once you do, you’ll be back.
“There are not too many people who have experienced the float that haven’t been repeat customers,” Captain Tom said. “We don’t even call them customers. We consider everybody family. We have a lot of people come out for peace of the river, too. And, there’s a chance to catch a record fish.”
We didn’t break any records with our catch, but Captain Tom and his stepdaughter, Lisa Marie Tischer, who works alongside him, made it the best $20 bucks I’ve spent in a long, long time. Yes, 20 bucks gets you a pontoon ride to and from the landing near the Dresbach Welcome Center, and an all-day spot on the float (7 a.m. to 5 p.m.).
And yes, we’ll be back. Guaranteed.
WHITETAIL STORIES: With the Wisconsin archery and crossbow seasons for white-tailed deer having opened on Sept. 18, there is bound to some tongue-wagging tails to be told. Drop me a line and send me a photo of your big buck at email@example.com and it may end up being the topic of a Thursday column. I’ve been hunting for 45 years and writing for more than 40, and never tire of hearing a good deer story.
The same goes for the Oct. 2-10 deer hunt for hunters with disabilities, or for those who participate in the Wisconsin youth deer hunt on Oct. 9-10. Just drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org
FALL ADVENTURES: You don’t have to be a hunter or angler to be the focus of a column, as this space is for all-things outdoors. Taken a recent hike out West, or a biking adventure across the Midwest and want to tell others about it? Just send me a quick note and tell me about it at email@example.com
Jeff Brown, a former longtime sports editor for the Tribune, is a freelance outdoors writer. Send him story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org