Fishing Freshwater Walleye Fishing

Lessons from the Griz, the Last Great Fishing Legend of the North

There will never be another Midwestern folk hero quite like the Griz
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portrait of walleye angler Dick Grzywinski
The Griz on his home water, in Minnesota. Jake Dahlke

VERTICAL JIGGING for walleyes on the Mississippi River in 6 feet of water is like walking through a pitch-dark house that you’ve never stepped foot in before. In your mind’s eye, you can imagine the layout, the kitchen counters, the hallway to the master bedroom, the coffee table—or in this case the submerged rock piles, trenches, and deadfalls—but you can’t see any of it. So you must feel your way around. Move too aggressively and you’ll crash into the ottoman, or set your hook into a log. Move too meekly and you won’t get anywhere, or catch any fish. 

But Pool 2 of the Mississippi River—a 35-mile stretch from St. Paul to Hastings, Minnesota—is the Griz’s house. On this muddy metro water surrounded by industrial complexes and subdivisions, it’s not uncommon for the Griz to catch more than 100 walleyes a day. And the veteran fishing guide is not just running up numbers on dinks (he keeps a clicker in the back of the boat and counts each fish). He puts his clients on trophy walleyes, 8- to 10-pounders, on a weekly basis. 

Back in the mid-’90s when the river was producing a cycle of giant walleyes, the Griz boated 67 weighing more than 10 pounds in about a month and a half. Even in Minnesota, where walleye fishing is intertwined with our very culture, many serious fishermen have never caught a single 10-pound walleye in their lives.

This is just one of the many tales that make the Griz a true legend, perhaps the singular legend, of modern fishing lore in the Upper Midwest. The ’90s were arguably the golden age of fishing media here, when icons like Larry Dahlberg, Ron Schara, and the Lindner brothers dominated outdoor television, print media, and radio with fishing knowledge and adventures. During this time the Griz was featured in countless magazine articles, newspaper columns, fishing shows, and radio programs. But he never had a show of his own. He was too busy fishing. When a writer needed a column or a TV show host needed a big fish on camera, however, they called the Griz. It’s not hyperbole to say that his fishing knowledge was shared with millions of people.

Dick Grzywinski in his boat on a lake
The Griz hustles to a new spot on his home water. Jake Dahlke

The Griz is 82 now and still guiding clients several days a week. He walks down the boat ramp with a cane, and his once dark, slicked-back hair is a wispy white. But he still hammers fish, quietly putting up numbers and landing giants in pressured metro waters. And though that golden era of fishing media is long gone—YouTubers rule today, often relying on personality, entertainment, and technology more than experience on water—the Griz’s knowledge and perspective might be more important than ever.

Because while most of us still bump around in the dark or hope that our gadgets will light the way, the Griz can still see—and feel—what we’re all missing.

A Legend Is Born

I meet the Griz on the same stretch of Mississippi River that he fished as a kid. He’s sorting minnows to keep them cool and fresh on this hot August morning. His 16-foot Triton johnboat is 20 years old, but it looks brand-new. 

Pool 2 is catch-and-release only for walleyes, sauger, largemouth and smallmouth bass. It’s been this way since the early ’90s, after the Griz and his buddies petitioned the state department of natural resources to protect it as a trophy fishery. They saw the growing fishing pressure around the metro area and knew that if walleyes weren’t protected here so close to the city, they’d be fished out. The guides got what they wanted. The DNR’s decision was a controversial one at the time, since every walleye angler enjoys a good fish fry. 

“Now people come up to me, shake my hand and thank me for doing what I did,” Griz tells me as we load up his boat. 

Dick Grzywinski, sitting in boat, holds up a large walleye
Tough conditions don’t keep the Griz from catching walleyes. Jake Dahlke

Our plan is to catch some of those Pool 2 walleyes, along with whatever else decides to hit our jigs. The mission feels a bit impossible. I’m not a walleye expert, but I know that a hot, sunny, dead-calm day in the middle of August makes for tough fishing. I also know that waters around the Twin Cities get plenty of pressure, and that most serious anglers will drive three or four hours north when they’re serious about putting fish in the boat. But I also know enough to not question the Griz. He’s been at this a long time.

Dick Grzywinski was born in 1942 and was raised in a working-class neighborhood of St. Paul. More importantly, he was raised in a fishing family.

“My mom fished as hard as any of us,” he says. On weekends and vacations, the Gryzywinskis would travel around the state, chasing all varieties of species, usually slaying fish wherever they went.

As a young man, Griz quit his factory job and took on the profession of guiding. His motto was “have boat, will travel” and he hit all the major waters of Minnesota, guiding client after client to the best days of their fishing lives. He often slept in his truck or at campsites. He would guide at popular Northwoods resorts and baffle locals with the number and quality of fish he’d catch. 

Eventually word spread around local bait shops about the guide who was putting hundreds of fish in the boat on a regular basis. Back before the internet and social media, people hung out in bait shops to talk (and, yes, brag) about fishing. One of those shops was Frankie’s Live Bait & Marine, which started as a humble hardware store that sold bait on the side and has since grown into the largest Ranger boat dealer in the world. 

Frank Dusenka (whose father owned Frankie’s) became friends with the Griz and learned firsthand that all those fishing stories were true. As the tale goes, sometime in the ’80s Dusenka was attending In-Fisherman magazine’s Camp Fish, an event in northern Minnesota that featured the top guides and media in the region. 

“I go up there and nobody’s catching walleyes,” Dusenka says. “Al [Lindner] isn’t even getting walleyes. Well, the Griz was over on [Lake Winnibigosh] and I knew he was catching ’em. So we went over to the campground where the Griz was at and we saw his truck. I knock on the door and go, ‘Well, what are you doing?’ He opens the door and says, ‘Let me show ya what I’ve been doing.’ He flips open the lid of his cooler and, geeze, he’s got a limit of 8-pounders in there. I mean, we had the best of the best guides in the country and we had no fish.”

After that, the Griz got invited to guide at Camp Fish, where year after year he impressed some of the biggest fishing names in the Upper Midwest with his ability to put walleyes, pike, and muskies in the boat.

The Legend Grows

Most serious fishermen tell that story where they outfish everyone else on the boat, or at the camp, or in the tournament. It’s that one perfect day where you had the right spot, the right gear, the right feel, and you caught the biggest and the most. 

The Griz has eight decades worth of those stories, and everyone who has fished with him has a good Griz story, too. Al Lindner, who founded Lindy Tackle and In-Fisherman with his brother Ron, remembers the first time he met the Griz at Camp Fish. 

“He comes in from fishing with his people and he’s got that counter he’s always got with him and it’s got a hundred and some on it,” Lindner says. “I’m very skeptical. Come on, a hundred walleyes? So the next day I follow him out, he’s going to Raven’s Point on Winnie, and there were probably 25 boats on Raven’s Point when we got out there that day. He caught more fish than all of those other boats combined. It was astounding. It was like commercial fishing with a rod and reel.”

close-up of counter reading 0030
Thirty fish and counting. The Griz tracks numbers with his counter, but he also puts up big fish. Jake Dahlke

The Griz had a knack for putting fish in the boat when the pressure was on, anytime of the year. He was hired to catch the exhibit fish for Minnesota’s sports show. He caught many of the photo fish for the popular Hunting and Fishing Library books. Dennis Anderson, the longtime outdoors columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, would hit up the Griz when he needed a story on short notice. 

“There have been a couple times when I [called the Griz] and said, ‘I need a column and we gotta catch some fish and I don’t have a lot of time,’” says Anderson. “So we might go out for only half a day [and still catch them]. He’s kind of amazing—summer or winter, he can catch fish.”

As the years went by and the stories stacked up, the fishing public came to recognize the Griz. Fishermen would see him coming off the boat ramp and follow him around the lake, trying to learn all his spots. Other anglers would watch him with binoculars to see what he was using. Some of his clients would sneak GPS units onto the boat and mark productive spots with the intention of coming back later to fish them on their own.

None of this bothered the Griz much. 

“They still gotta catch ’em,” he says. “I’ll go down to Prescott [on the Mississippi River] and there will be boats all around. I just go between them and catch all the fish. They think I’m God of the River down there.”

One of the Griz’s simple joys in life is catching fish when others can’t, especially if those poor bastards just pulled up to fish right next to him. Once when he was fishing with Anderson, the writer started to complain because he was getting outfished by the Griz.

“He had a jig on and it was one color and I had another color jig,” Anderson says. “I said this is bullshit, you know, because he was catching fish. I said, ‘Give me a jig that’s the same color you got.’ Instead, he cut off his jig and he cut off mine and we swapped jigs. And he still outfished me—significantly. So, that was a bad deal.”

cork board hold photos of the griz with many happy clients
The bragging board at Frankie’s Live Bait and Marine. Jake Dahlke
The Griz with a walleye.
Another snapshot from Grankies. Jake Dahlke

Within a couple hours of fishing with the Griz, I have some stories of my own. He gives me a quick tutorial on how to jig properly at a practice spot. Then we shoot upriver and I stick a nice walleye that’s around 27 inches long, one of the bigger walleyes I’ve caught in Minnesota. A few minutes later I set the hook into what I think is a truly giant walleye, but Griz says, “Nope, it’s a sheepshead. When they spin, you know it’s a sheepshead,” and sure enough he’s right. I begin to see Griz for the legend that he is.

So later, I believe Frankie Dusenka when he says: “I’m going to tell you right now, you name somebody and I’ve fished with them, and there’s nobody that I’ve ever fished with that’s a better hook than the Griz.”

Lessons Learned the Old Way

But what exactly is the key to the Griz’s success? How is it that he’s able to outfish 25 boats full of competent anglers? There are several reasons.

The first is simple experience. For most of his guiding career, until he turned 69, he would fish from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Now even in his eighties he still fishes more days than not. In simple terms of actual hours on the water, it’s likely that the Griz is the most experienced angler in the Upper Midwest alive today.  

“There was no one who knew the water better than him,” Dusenka says. “You gotta remember, he learned to fish before there were any electronics. His dad was a real good fisherman, too. Back then there were a lot of secrets, and the Griz knew them all.” 

Then there’s the intensity and focus the Griz brings to fishing. We’re not here to enjoy a tranquil morning on the river. We’re here to catch ’em. He instructs me to eat lunch or drink water while we’re running between spots. While we’re at a spot, I should be rigged up and jigging, otherwise I could very well miss a crack at a giant. Back in the day, he would hand out a sticker to each of his clients that read: “I survived a day with the Griz.” Most were not used to fishing that hard for that many hours. 

griz steers his boat
This stretch of the Mississippi is heavily pressured, which is why the Griz advocated catch-and-release-only regulations here in the 1990s. Jake Dahlke

I once fished with Kevin VanDam during a practice day before a tournament, and the feeling in the boat was the same as when fishing with the Griz. You must fish intensely with every moment you’re given. Anything less is a disgrace. 

At some point during the day, that Henry David Thoreau quote runs through my head: “Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.” What bullshit. With the Griz, it’s precisely the fish we’re after. There is nothing else.  

Another reason for the Griz’s success is that he fishes in ways that others don’t. He’s best known for inventing rip jigging. This technique, which is sometimes called snap jigging, has been copied and adapted in a variety of ways over the decades. I won’t describe it in detail here, because the Griz never told me exactly how he did it. 

“I’d just have to show you,” he says, and it’s not a river tactic.

The variety of YouTube videos out there on rip jigging are quite different from the original technique.

The concept revolves around trolling while jigging aggressively to trigger reaction strikes from walleyes and anything else down there. The Griz uses his own hand-tied feather (not hair) jigs, usually in either white or yellow and not tipped with bait. The tactic is exactly what it sounds like. Instead of vertically jigging submissively or dragging live bait slowly, you cover water and aggressively rip the jig upward as you go. Fish often bite as the jig falls back to the bottom. 

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 “It changed the way I looked at walleye fishing forever,” says Lindner. “The understanding of a reaction bite versus a live bait finesse bite: It’s two completely different worlds in terms of making a walleye hit.”

As a kid, the Griz spent a lot of time spearing fish on the ice. He watched closely as they would approach a decoy or a sucker minnow.

“A pike won’t move if the sucker is swimming at him. He’ll just sit there,” the Griz says. “But if the sucker turns away, that’s when he’ll grab it.”

This informed Griz’s entire philosophy on fishing; it’s about triggering that reaction. He doesn’t mess with scented baits, he doesn’t overthink lure color, he doesn’t care about moon phases or barometric pressure readings. Instead, he focuses intensely on bait presentation and boat control. He tells me I must just touch the bottom with the jig. If I don’t get it to the bottom, I won’t catch ’em. If I drag it along the bottom, I’ll get snagged almost immediately. The minnow is hooked in the mouth and then up through the head. It’s OK if it’s dead, because it will be jigged constantly. I am to never stop jigging. When we move to deeper water I’m told to pull line from the reel, against the drag. This is so I know exactly how much line I’m letting out, versus opening the bail and letting out a random amount of line. We use ⅜-ounce jigs even though we’re fishing shallow water. This is so I can feel the bottom easily.

“Any client can feel the bottom with a heavy jig like that,” Griz says.

Griz holds up pike
These days the Griz loves catching and frying pike even more than walleye. Jake Dahlke

That combination of experience and attention to detail has helped the Griz discover bites that go unnoticed by everyone else. Several years ago he was fishing with a buddy in the middle of summer and the motor went out. They were adrift in the middle of the lake, and while his buddy tinkered with the motor, Griz grabbed his pike rod and made a long cast with a Rattlin Rap. To his surprise he stuck a nice-sized pike. He caught a few more like that, out in open water. He later went back and targeted pike specifically, trolling for them in open water—and hammered them. He noticed that at a certain time of summer, at a specific water temperature, pike leave deep weed beds and prowl open water in some metro lakes. He’s been on that bite ever since. 

The Griz is too old and ornery (and successful) to even trifle with more advanced fishing tech like Spot-Lock trolling motors or forward-facing sonar like Livescope. He uses a fish finder to see the depth and water temperature. Even if he doesn’t chart walleyes, he’ll still fish the spot, which flies in the face of modern fishing tactics. 

“They lay right on the bottom,” Griz says. “They lay right in the logs. Just because you don’t see them doesn’t mean they’re not there.”

The Last of His Kind

At one point I ask the Griz if he could snap his fingers and go back 60 years, before Livescope and Spot-Lock and even fish finders were popularized, would he? 

“Oh yeah. Hell yeah,” he says. “Back then everything you knew, you had to earn.”

Everyone I interviewed for this story agreed there will never be another Griz. 

“He’s the last of that breed,” Dusenka says.

This is in part because our technology won’t allow it. All of the destination lakes are now charted by GPS. The knowledge of those secret midlake reefs that was passed down through the generations can now be found by a novice angler with an app. Fishing techniques that once took years to become popular through print articles and television shows now trend on social media overnight. 

That’s not to say that there aren’t incredibly talented and successful anglers coming up behind the Griz—just that the mystery about them is gone. We can’t ponder how they caught 150 walleyes out on Raven’s Point because it’s already posted on Instagram or TikTok. And we can see exactly what structure they were fishing on our graphs. We can target the same offshore fish they’re after with our own Livescope units. 

“There are no more secrets,” says Lindner.

At least the Griz’s legacy will live on, quite obviously, in his granddaughter Maggie Stahley. She’s a fisheries biologist who, as a little kid, fished with her grandpa whenever he had an off day or a client canceled. The modern approach to taking a kid fishing—which goes something like “bring lots of snacks, quit fishing when they get bored, it doesn’t matter if you catch ’em, just make sure the kid has fun”—was not how the Griz went about it.  

“When I was super young fishing with him, I’d be scared of getting yelled at because he’s kind of intimidating,” Stahley says. “He was so particular. If you weren’t doing something perfectly, you’d get yelled at. It doesn’t matter if you’re a kid. You’ve got to be fishing the whole time with perfect technique. No looking at your phone. No crumbs in the boat. But I think that’s why I’m so hardcore now.”

Stahley is a legit angler and has fished all over the country. And just like her grandpa, she’s got fishing in her blood.

the griz and his granddaughter holding fish, sitting in boat
The Griz with his granddaughter Maggie Stahley, a fisheries biologist. Jake Dahlke

“When I went to college I started fishing with friends, and to be honest I thought they all kind of sucked because I was used to fishing with my grandpa. It was then that I realized it’s not normal to catch your limit every time,” Stahley says. “But I’ll never get skunked. [When I’m fishing] I have to make something happen.” 

The Griz’s legacy will also live on in Pool 2, which is still a trophy walleye fishery today, perhaps the best in Minnesota. When DNR metro rivers specialist Joel Strias did a survey on that stretch in 2021, he recorded 110 walleyes that averaged 19 inches in length. He surveyed several fish over 10 pounds. Fish here grow large quickly because of the incredible available forage (in the form of gizzard shad). Walleyes that are only two or three years old will measure 20 inches, Strias says. 

During my day of fishing with the Griz we catch plenty of fish, but no giant walleyes. Our biggest is that first 27-incher, which was an ancient, skinny walleye with a gnarly wound on its head. I halfway expect it to die upon release, but to my surprise it kicks off strongly.

“That one is on his way out,” the Griz says, and then goes back to fishing. 

Back at the boat ramp at the end of the day, a random guy approaches us while we’re packing up. He’s wearing basketball shorts and a white visor and he’s halfway jogging toward the Griz.

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“I know who you are, you’re the Griz!” he shouts. “I just had to come down here and shake your hand and say thank you.”

The guy and Griz make some small talk about fishing and then the guy heads back to his car, where his girlfriend is waiting with the windows up and the air conditioning on. As he passes me, he pumps his fist as if he’d just released a 10-pounder.

“It’s the Griz!” the man yells. And so the legend continues.

This story first appeared on Sept. 20, 2023.