LOOKBACK: Long history of fishing Cedar River in Austin area
Local waters especially popular in years before automobiles
By Tim Ruzek, Cedar River Watershed District
Back in 1958, the Austin Daily Herald wanted to know which offered the “sportiest” fishing: northern Minnesota or north of Austin on the Cedar River above the Ramsey Dam.
By today’s standards — and likely the same back then — most easily would choose “northern Minnesota.” But that wasn’t the case in 1958 between Donald Swoboda and his sister, Dorothy Herzog.
Swoboda had gone to Ramsey early on a Sunday morning and reported losing a fight with a 17-pound northern, “and he, thus, missed a chance to add another notch to his great record of fish-catchers on the Cedar,” according to the July 22, 1958, edition of the Herald.
As someone who fished daily on the Cedar River, Swoboda was out at 4 a.m. on a Saturday and Sunday, the article stated. “He doesn’t believe in driving long distances to fish when there are such big northerns in the Cedar.”
Meanwhile, his sister, Herzog, caught a 4-pound, 12-ounce smallmouth bass on Whitefish Lake in the Pequot Lakes, Minn., area.
“If Mrs. Herzog decides to have the bass mounted so her brother can see it, she thinks he may change his mind and try his luck in northern Minnesota,” the Herald wrote.
For many decades, Austinites “tried their luck” quite often on the Cedar River and its local tributary streams.
When they had success — and wanted to share their fish tales — it often went in the local newspapers.
In April 1889, for instance, Austin angler Ed Clarke set a local record by reeling in a 24.5 pound “pickerel” (likely what today is called a “northern,” which roughly would be about 44 inches long.
“Its pleasing countenance is in pickle at Giles & Tryon’s store, where the curious may take a look,” the Mower County Transcript reported on Clarke’s massive catch.
Pickerel were a common, popular catch in the early decades of fishing in the Austin area. Although walleye at times are called pickerel, the early news reports in Austin likely are referring to northerns when “pickerel” are used in an article. been called pickerel as well.
Other times, newspapers just reported on the fact that people went fishing, not necessarily what was caught. In July 1889, the Transcript wrote about three men who had been “fishing and drinking cold tea at the Ramsey bridge” on a weekday afternoon. “How about the fish?,” the article asked.
Other times, it was fishing news of the weird.
In June 1893, the Transcript reported a man broke his collar bone while fishing near the Ramsey Dam. The man was shooting fish, and the reverse action of his gun caused it to strike his collar bone.
Eleven years later, the Herald wrote about a man who spent the night on the Cedar while trying to find his way back to Austin from a fishing trip in his boat alone. The article led with: “The Cedar River is larger in the vicinity of Austin than most people think it is.”
“The shades of evening fell ere he was aware,” the 1904 article wrote. “He lost his bearing and into inlet and arm of the river, up and down he drifted until the light of the morning showed him where he was at.”
Fishing reports frequently were reported in Austin’s several newspapers in the late 1800s and early 1900s — the good and the bad.
“Pickerel and bass do not as yet display much zeal to be caught,” the Transcript wrote on May 6, 1875.
Many local fishing reports from those times also showed not much thought given to over-fishing the Cedar River and its streams.
‘Plenty’ of fish in Cedar
The “fish are plenty” was a sentiment shared often during the late 1800s in Austin newspapers. For many decades, starting in the late 1800s, the state stocked the Cedar River and other local waters with fish that helped with the quantity available for anglers.
(“Lookback” article on history of stocking fish in the Cedar River watershed in Minnesota: https://medium.com/@cedarmn/lookback-cedar-once-stocked-to-the-gills-with-fish-by-state-2405a54f1891)
On July 10, 1903, the Herald reported that Austin’s meat markets were overwhelmed with the “great quantity of fish that came up river this spring.”
“One man, who spends all of his leisure time along the river, says that over 500 pickerel a day has been taken from the Cedar River between Campbell’s Mill (downtown dam) and Officer’s Mill (formerly near County Road 4) for the past two weeks,” the article wrote. “Some families catch enough on Sunday to last all week. Quantities of pickerel are being salted and pickled for winter use.”
“One man, who spends all of his leisure time along the river, says that over 500 pickerel a day has been taken from the Cedar River between Campbell’s Mill (downtown dam) and Officer’s Mill (formerly near present-day Mower County Road 4) for the past two weeks,” the article wrote. “Some families catch enough on Sunday to last all week. Quantities of pickerel are being salted and pickled for winter use.”
In July 1884, the Transcript reported that a doctor and his wife from Cresco, Iowa, had stayed with a friend in Austin. During their stay, the doctor went fishing.
“The lovely Cedar is always a temptation to him when in Austin, and Friday he took in its privileges and, at the same time, took in a string of fish. Come often, Dr., fish are plenty, and Austin always extends a hearty welcome,” the Transcript wrote.
In November 1893, the Transcript wrote about an area judge visiting the Austin area and going fishing with two friends near Ramsey Dam.
“The three caught 16 pickerel, of which (his friend) Ed claims he caught 13. Lots of fun!” the Transcript wrote.
In October 1914, an area man was reported to have caught 26 “fine big bass” on a Sunday afternoon in the Cedar River near Blooming Prairie. Some weighed more than 3.5 pounds.
In May 1870, in the Mower County Register reported a group fished for a day with “remarkably fine success” at the mill pond formed on the Cedar behind Gregson’s Mill (later known as McAfee Dam), south of Austin. A 4-pound black bass “headed their well-filled string of beauties.”
“The disciples of Isaac Walton are having fine times sporting with the finny tribes of the Cedar. Every day, parties may be seen with rod in hand, on either side of the river, trying their luck,” the Register reported.
Another report from that decade (Dec. 14, 1876) noted that large quantities of fish were being taken from Turtle Creek, a tributary of the Cedar River on Austin’s southwest side.
“They are mostly pickerel averaging about a pound and a half in weight. They are delicious eating and may be had very cheap,” the Transcript reported.
Three decades later in October 1908, the Herald wrote about the potential fishing benefits from the major efforts to create a “big ditch” out of Turtle Creek and its ditch system, mostly in Freeborn County.
“Local fishermen say that when the big ditch turns the waters of Freeborn County’s lakes into the Cedar at this point (Austin), there will be a fine run of pickerel and perch up the river but the fishermen say that nothing but a flying fish could get over the dams,” the Herald wrote.
By September 1915, the Mower County Transcript-Republican wrote about local talk of catching pickerel, bass and bullheads or even a turtle from Turtle Creek for a “most refreshing soup.”
Residents of neighboring Freeborn County (which has Albert Lea and its lakes) some times ventured over to the Cedar for fishing.
On Dec. 5, 1888, the Albert Lea Tribune reported a group of men from Freeborn County went on a fishing excursion on the Cedar River in the area, resulting in more than 700 pounds of fish. The article claimed the group had made “the largest catch ever made in one night on Cedar River.”
“Besides enjoying many anecdotes and camp yarns in the commodious tent that sheltered them, and a jollier and happier crowd would be hard to find, and the event will be long remembered with pleasure by those who were present,” the Tribune wrote.
Cedar attracts groups of anglers
Group fishing trips often made the newspaper along with families getting together for a picnic and fishing.
On July 8, 1908, the Transcript noted that two families picnicked along the Cedar River at Ramsey Dam on the Fourth of July. A boy, with his father’s help, landed a pickerel weighing more than 4 pounds.
In July 1896, the Herald wrote about four families returning home from camping together along the Cedar, a few miles upstream from the Ramsey Dam.
“They christened their camp ‘Bull Head’ and report having a big time fishing and hunting,” the article stated.
In June 1916, a group from Elkton (middle Mower County) drove to the Ramsey Dam’s public recreation park, where they enjoyed a picnic, boating, fishing and motoring, the Transcript-Republican reported.
In July 1901, a “merry” group of four families picnicked and went fishing for most of a day at Ramsey Dam. The Transcript wrote, “The result of the catch of fish we will not chronicle.”
A group went up the Cedar in June 1889 for “a little piscatorial sport,” according to the Transcript. Frank Preston “won the medal by pulling a 10-lb. pickerel” — again, likely a northern.
“Old Timer” describes first half-century of fishing the Cedar
“The Old Timer,” a regular columnist at the time for the Herald, wrote in February 1949 about the days of fishing locally, especially when local anglers mainly relied on local waters before automobiles became more accessible.
“Both the upper and lower reaches of the Red Cedar provided good catches for the ardent angler,” The Old Timer wrote. “Nor were the possibilities of Turtle Creek neglected. These were the days before stream pollution and the rivers ran bank-full of clear, sweet water.”
He wrote that other “old timers” could remember many good catches of bass and pickerel along with “lesser fish,” such as perch, sunfish and suckers.
“At times, there is still good fishing in the upper Cedar but it is a parody of earlier days.”
The Old Timer claimed the largest fish ever caught locally — “as far as we know” — was taken from the strait in the Cedar River behind Oakwood Cemetery in Austin (upstream from today’s Interstate 90 bridges) dating back to the 1890s, if not longer. The pickerel — likely a northern — weighed nearly 23 pounds and was caught on an ordinary line by Joe Furtney.
“The head of this giant fish was preserved and, for a long time it was on display in the window of the Austin Furniture Co. in the 400 block of N. Main.”
He also wrote about a group in the early 1900s known as the “Big Four” — four congenial characters who lived not far from one another on Kenwood Avenue (present-day Fourth Street NW/SW) — went fishing often with cane poles, coarse lines and “any old bait that was available.”
“A lot of fish were caught but the fishing was just a convenient objective for the open-air outings, the pleasure of which all outdoorsmen understand and appreciate,” he wrote.
A little way south of Austin was a fishing spot “highly regarded by local trout fishermen” known as “Woodson’s pools,” a series of deep, spring-fed ponds.
As of 1949, the Cedar River below the downtown dam and “for a long distance downstream,” was practically devoid of aquatic life, the result of years of pollution, The Old Timer wrote. He argued that conditions in 1949 would be good for restoring the lower Cedar to “its former glory as a delightful and easily available facility for fishing, boating and winter skating.”
He suggested the old McAfee dam south of Austin be repaired (it was blown up in the 1930s because locals thought it played a big role in Austin’s flooding woes). By doing this, he wrote, the river’s water level would rise a foot or more, and then the Austin Ikes could restock the river with fish. “In a few years, the almost-dry gully through town could be a real asset to the community.”
While the Austin chapter of the Izaak Walton League (Austin Ikes) worked with MN DNR to stock fishing locally, including for more than a decade after The Old Timer’s column, the McAfee Dam was never repaired or replaced.
In the years and decades that have followed, local anglers have continued to fish the Cedar River and East Side Lake, which hosted fish derbies organized by the Austin Ikes. East Side Lake still continues to be the site for the Austin Jaycees’ annual Take a Kid Fishing contest; the Freedom Fest kids fishing contest; and the annual Fishing for a Cure ice-fishing contest.
Numerous photos also ran in the Herald in the 1950s through 1970s of anglers with fish caught locally.
A 1968 edition of the Herald showed two brothers, ages 10 and 12, with three “tasty” northerns they caught after only 30 minutes of fishing the Cedar River at the stone-arched Roosevelt Bridge (4th St. S.E.). They brothers said that fishing the Cedar is best when it’s high following a heavy rain.
A May 1970 edition of the Herald showed Austin angler Alex Laufle with a 5-pound brown trout he caught in a small lake, east of Lyle. It noted that a year earlier Laufle hooked a 15-pound northern in the Cedar at Austin.
In 1962, possibly a relative of his named Gerald Laufle, was pictured in the Herald near the East Side Lake dam with a 16-pound carp he caught there by pulling it out of the water when the lake’s level was lowered for a cleaning project. He and a friend caught 10 fish, mostly carp. An 8-year-old boy also caught a 10-pound carp and a 15-pound carp, who “put up a good fight.”
Back in May 1954, the Herald highlighted 13-year-old Austin boy Robert Maxfield for getting up early for the fishing opener and casting “his Daredevil into the pools below Ramsey Dam on the Cedar River.” He caught a 12-pound northern that day at 6:30 a.m.
“It took Robert 10 minutes to land the brute,” which measured 37 inches.
Ice fishing above Ramsey
Above the Ramsey Dam also has continued to be a destination for ice anglers, dating back to when the river was dammed there circa 1870 for the creation of a flour mill that today is The Old Mill Restaurant.
In January 1907, the Herald reported on a “party of fishermen” who left early in the morning to spear pickerel at the “Straight” of the Cedar at Ramsey — likely the long, straight channel upstream from the dam.
“The method used there is for several to cut holes through the ice at right angles to the stream and then at these holes, the spearmen sit covered with a blanket,” wrote the Herald. “Others of the party by beating the ice and other means scare the fish, which, in their flight, are taken as they attempt to pass the men with the weapons.”
On Feb. 9, 1871, the Register reported a “scarcity of fish” for ice fishing.
“For some reason, the fish in the Cedar River are not as numerous as they have been during previous winters,” the Register wrote. “ Last year at about this time, pickerel were being caught through holes in the ice, with ‘grab hooks,’ by the hundreds. Very few thus far have been caught this season.”
Ice fishing also became popular at East Side Lake in the 1950s and remains a local destination for ice anglers in winter.
That era seemed good for fishing locally overall.
When the regular fishing season opened in May 1951, the Herald reported that “everyone is in the mood for fishing, even the fish.”
“Record crowds are lining the shores of East Side Lake and the Cedar River, near Ramsey since the opening,” the Herald wrote.
Children were catching their limit of crappies at East Side Lake while some anglers were catching northerns up to 4.5 pounds there. Others fishing near Ramsey were catching their limit of northerns (three per day at the time) from 2.5 to 6 pounds.