ZUMBRO FALLS, Minn. -- Bill Plantan has no trouble remembering the exact moment his life took a big turn.
"It was Labor Day weekend, 1984," he said moments after sliding his canoe into the Zumbro River in southeast Minnesota.
"My friend and I wanted to do something new. We had never done any river fishing out of a canoe, so we decided to try it.
"We ended up tipping the canoe, but we caught 44 fish that day -- everything from smallmouth bass to walleyes to saugers.
"Even though I got wet, I knew that was the way to go. I was hooked."
Plantan laughs when he recalls the old canoe he once fished out of.
"I was like Red Green (TV's famous Canadian handyman)," he said with a smile. "I held it together with duct tape."
Look at Plantan now: He custom-makes canoes designed with fishermen in mind through his River Ridge Custom Canoes company, he is out using them every chance he gets and he runs a successful guide service.
The deep-V boats with big motors that are so common in Minnesota? They're not for Plantan.
He would much rather be on a scenic river in his canoe, fishing for smallmouth bass or muskies.
"I don't really care about the canoeing part of it," he said. "When I'm out, I hardly even use my paddle.
"I use my trolling motor, which this canoe was designed for. I look at my canoe as a way to get me to good fishing spots. It's as simple as that.
"I can get back to spots that are inaccessible to most fishermen."
Plantan's fiberglass, custom-made canoes feature a square stern to accommodate a trolling motor, a wide hull for stability, comfortable seats, a designated area for rods and reels, and plenty of room for gear.
Smallmouth bass aren't safe when Plantan is around. There aren't many places they can hide.
Plantan proved that on a recent weekday. Not long after he launched his canoe, he was enjoying great fishing in a beautiful setting.
With a bluff in the background, Plantan cast a Fluke to a pool at the edge of the current. When he jerked the plastic bait and let it flutter down, he watched a big smallmouth dart up and take it.
The bronze fish strained to get into the current, where it could get an advantage. But Plantan maneuvered his canoe so that he could fight the smallmouth and eventually won the battle.
"That fish will go 16, 17 inches," he said, admiring his catch before easing it back into the water. "But that's not uncommon here.
"The Zumbro has always been a very good smallmouth stream. It's a beautiful place to float, and you can catch some big fish here, too."
Plantan paused and took a moment to admire his surroundings. Orange Baltimore orioles flitted from tree to tree along the bank, breaking the green backdrop. Bald eagles soared overhead. And deer fed in a clearing in the distance.
It was quiet. Not another canoe was in sight. Only the sounds of gurgling riffles broke the silence.
Plantan reveled in those surroundings. For him, there's not a better way to fish.
"I am so passionate about this river," said Plantan, 54, who lives just outside of Rochester, Minn., on the banks of the Zumbro. "Having this in my backyard, getting to enjoy its splendor every week, I'm a lucky man.
"I'd much rather be out here than on a lake someplace."
Plantan's favorite kind of scenery on the Zumbro? A big, strapping smallmouth bass.
And there were plenty of those on this day.
With Plantan using a Fluke and me working a small jig-and-pig, we enjoyed steady action. Casting to current breaks, eddies, ledges and underwater boulder fields, we caught and released close to 50 fish in a six-hour float. Included were six fish that were 15 inches or larger.
But Plantan wasn't surprised. He has fished the Zumbro long enough to know that it is a special place.
He recalls another landmark moment in his life to illustrate that point.
"I was out here on Oct. 4, 2006, and I caught a 23 1/2 -inch smallmouth, the biggest one I've ever taken," he said. "I was using a spinnerbait when that one hit."
Plantan uses everything from topwater lures to crankbaits to plastic baits to lure the smallmouths. The Zumbro is his favorite stream. But he adds, "Within a four-hour radius of here, there are more streams than you can count that offer good smallmouth fishing.
"In this part of Minnesota, there are more streams than lakes. But that's fine with me."
ZUMBRO RIVER: A PARADISE FOR SMALLMOUTH- BASS FISHERMEN
--WHERE: The Zumbro flows through southeastern Minnesota, about 425 miles northeast of Kansas City.
--LENGTH: It stretches about 50 miles from the confluence of its major tributaries and eventually feeds the Mississippi River.
--CHARACTERISTICS: The Zumbro looks like something out of the Ozarks. It features clear water, riffles, bluffs and wooded hillsides, similar to many float streams in southern Missouri. The big difference: the smallmouth bass are bigger in the Northland.
--FISHING: Bill Plantan, a custom canoe designer and guide, concentrates on the cover along current breaks, eddies and deep boulder fields when he fishes for smallmouths. He often uses spinning gear and baits such as Flukes, crankbaits, topwater lures and small jig-and-pigs to lure the bass.
--MORE INFORMATION: Call Plantan at 507-288-2750.