BY BENJI NICHOLS
It’s hard to miss the incredible collection of carvings, bird decoys, turtle shells, hand painted signs, and fishing gear outside of Valley Fish & Cheese in downtown Prairie du Chien. Mike Valley’s flat-bottom boat may be parked on the boulevard, if he’s back in from the day’s adventures, and if you’re lucky, you’ll also catch the sweet, sweet smell of slow burning hickory rising from the smoke house.
On any given day, Mike will have been out early to check an assortment of nets, traps, or runs for local game like snapping turtle, or Mississippi River fish including carp, perch, catfish, buffalo fish, and more. He’s the fourth generation of his family to fish the Mississippi, although in his grandparents’ day, it was commercial fishing.
“In 1980, I had an auction in Harper’s Ferry and sold out all of our commercial fishing gear, everything – I went into sign painting full time. In 1982 I opened a small market over in Marquette, and in 1983 we moved to Prairie,” he says. “And I realized at that point in time that although the wholesale end of river fishing was done, we could still do something unique in retail.”
Mike has made quite a name for the Valley Fish & Cheese outpost on Highway 18. House made catfish bologna? Yep. Perch strips? Mmhhmm. Frog legs? No problem. Snapping turtle Jerky? It’s a winner. “You’ve gotta think off the block – I’ve always said we sell things Wal-Mart don’t,” says Mike, with a wry half smile on his face.
Being a proud river rat isn’t just a business for Mike – it’s truly a passion and an inherited way of life. Take his hand-carved bird decoys, an art that was passed down to him by family:
“The decoys were practical for generations – hunting decoys – but around my Dad’s time they became more decorative as well… but I use mine.” he says. “They’re carved to be used.”
Mike still hand paints signs for his shop, carves morel mushrooms, and has expanded into a new carving arena – hand carved bird decoy urns (they’re beautiful!).
When he’s not busy working at the store or checking nets, you might find him relaxing in a kayak on any number of the region’s rivers – maybe casting for bass, or just pan fishing. You’d be hard up to find anyone more in tune with the Mississippi River.
“Fill in – things are filling in at a rapid pace on the river. And the disappearance of carp over the last couple decades – habitat mostly. Yet on the other hand, 30 years ago it was a huge deal to see an eagle, and they’re everywhere now.”
And as much as the river has provided for generations of commercial fisherman and river rats, the only constant is change.
“Well it’s all kind of coming to an end – in a few years it’ll be gone,” Mike says of the fishing business on the Mississippi. “There’s a few people around, part timers here and there, but most of them are around my age. There might be five of us left right now, and nobody really coming up behind.”
Mike turns to the back door. “I still enjoy it though,” he says over his shoulder as he heads out, hickory smoke curling up ahead of him.
Stop by for some turtle jerky (and more!)
Valley Fish & Cheese
304 S Prairie St, Prairie du Chien, WI
Benji Nichols recalls Sunday afternoon rides to Prairie du Chien as a kid – and has never lost his love of river towns, the genuine people who live in them, and smoked fish.