Month – June 2013
Pepin is a huge natural lake on the Mississippi that straddles the border of southeastern Minnesota and southwestern Wisconsin. Revered for its prolific walleye and sauger fishery, the lake also produces lots of bass (both smallmouth and largemouth), big crappies, and plenty of catfish. This is big water – Lake Pepin is around 21 miles long and encompasses nearly thirty thousand acres of water. The influence of the Mississippi makes it very productive and brings in some interesting fish, like white and yellow bass, sheepshead, gar, and sturgeon.
We hit Pepin for the first time today. We launched late in the afternoon and hopped over to the Wisconsin side. Started trolling a little point with Lindy rigs, and it wasn’t too long before Noah hooked the first fish, a little walleye that popped off right at the net. Dad put the next fish in the boat, a sauger of about fifteen inches. Sauger rarely get much bigger than a few pounds (the average fish is around twelve inches), so it was a nice fish. We kept trolling the points and steep breaks, gradually moving shallower as we found more fish. The action was steady, but not crazy. We picked up lots of little walleye and sauger over the next few hours, but nothing too big.
The sauger were a new fish on our species list. These guys are closely related to walleye, but prefer murkier, shallower water and are usually smaller than their walleye cousins. (typically under eighteen inches).
Pepin is one of the most beautiful lakes I’ve ever fished. It sits right in the middle of the Driftless Area, bordered by towering bluffs. The lake rubs right up against the steep limestone cliffs, with creeks slicing through the valleys and spilling into the lake. Many of these little streams hold trout, and the cold water at the mouth creates a hotspot for all kinds of fish. The bluffs jut right out into the lake, producing lots of interesting points and bars to fish.
We headed back to the MN side and grabbed a quick walleye sandwich from a lakeside restaurant. As we were waiting for our food, Noah and I pitched jigs and crankbaits into the shallows hoping for some bass. Nothing on the jig, but I did manage to pull out a walleye on the crankbait in only about six feet of water! After we downed our sandwiches, we took a drive downstream. We stopped and hit the shallows with lipless cranks and jigs. A creek poured into a shallow, weedy bay with lots of brush, a perfect spot for bass. Sure enough, Braden hooked into a feisty smallmouth that put up quite a battle, leaping straight out of the water four times before making it to the net! I was surprised to find a bronzeback in such a weedy spot, but you never really know what to expect on Pepin.
Just before the sun fell below the horizon, we ran into a school of fish crashing bait on the surface. We were motoring around another creek mouth when a fish jumped only about twenty feet from the boat. Braden was right on him, casting his Rattle Trap slightly beyond and to the side of the rings. His Trap got nailed, and after a short but exciting battle he landed his first white bass!
After that it was pure chaos. Fish were erupting on the calm surface and minnows were flying everywhere in the shallows. All of us were furiously throwing our baits into the fray. I switched up my crank for a Rattlin’ Rap in light blue to better match what might be shad swimming in the shallows. My Rap got nailed after I cast it to a wake, and I pulled in another smaller white bass, my first. The fish were still frantically pounding the minnows in the shallows. Noah’s rod bent over, and a big smallie thrashed on the surface. He played him perfectly and soon had him in the net, a nice bass around 17″!I kept casting my blue Rap into the brawl. Right in the middle of the retrieve my line stopped, a good fish on the other end. I played him for a minute before landing a nice walleye of 20 inches. All of a sudden, it was dead. Just as quickly as it started, it was over. A few fish sporadically jumped, and we kept tossing our Raps, but we didn’t get another bite. As we motored back to the launch, a spectacular sunset ended a great day of fishing.
Walleye and Sauger were anywhere from three to eighteen feet of water, but the most consistent depths were about twelve to fifteen feet. I would fish the shallows at first and last light, and hit the deeper water during the day. We got most our fish on Lindy rigs and crawlers.
Creek mouths were hot for bass and had some crazy action right at sunset.
One spring evening before the weeds were too high or the mosquitos too thick Grandpa, Braden, and I set out to fish a creek that had rumors of holding big brown trout. It was one of those creeks where the fishing was good, but the catching was a bit of a different story. We had fished it in the past a few times, but never very hard, and hadn’t caught much. Actually, we never really caught anything. It was a kind of pseudo spring creek, gushing from some seeps way up in the headwaters, but lacking the typical spring creek character of dense watercress, sputtering rifles, and emerald-blue water. It ran a little on the warm side for trout streams – sometimes warmer than it really should in the summer months. There weren’t many trout prowling its waters, but it was somewhat close and provided a quick evening of scenic (and often amusing) fishing, so we fished it anyway. We never really expected much, so a fishless day wasn’t a huge disappointment.
Grandpa and I fished downstream while Braden headed off upstream into the woods. We nymphed pools and bounced beadheads through the riffles. We dragged flies through logjams and floated dries along the seams. We tried hard to entice a trout, but nothing happened.
As sunset approached, we packed up our rods and started toward the car. Braden appeared out of the bushes, and we exchanged stories. He had fished some nice runs with a nymph and was able to pull out a lone trout, a beauty of a sixteen inch brown. I was quite excited, not so much about the nature of his catch but the fact that he actually caught a fish, a trout, and a nice one at that out of a marginal creek.
Marginal creeks can provide some good fishing at times, even producing some large trout. I often struggle with deciding between making the long drive to fish more productive streams or spend more time fishing a marginal creek. A stream’s trout density doesn’t necessarily determine the quality of a fishing trip – you can catch just as many fish on a lower density creek as you can on a highly pressured stream full of trout if you know where to look. I love fishing famous blue-ribbon waters just as much as the next guy, but shorter drives equal more fishing time, which I’ll take gladly whenever I can get it. Here are eight tips to make your trips to less celebrated creeks more productive, in no real specific order. If you have a tip to add or find something I missed, drop us a comment below – I’d love to hear your feedback.
1. Keep moving
Covering a lot of ground is vital on these types of creeks. While you can sit and fish one good hole for hours on a fertile spring creek or tailwater, don’t expect to get much action doing this on a marginal creek. If the fish don’t hit after a few good drifts, move on. Good structure tends to be spread out, and getting your fly in front of as many trout (and holding spots) as possible will increase your chances of finding a hungry one. Hiking and sight fishing “New Zealand-style” can be very effective, and often makes for some very exciting fishing. However, if you do find fish you might want to hang around a while. Leaving fish (especially feeding trout) to find fish is never a good idea, unless they are spooked.
2. Find cold water
Warm water is the kiss of death in marginal creeks, and is often the major factor in determining a stream’s trout-holding capabilities. Water temps dictate when and where the fish will be holding, so if you can find cold water, you can usually find fish – and sometimes lots of them. A small pool thermometer or stream thermometer works quite nicely for finding good water, and should always be in a fly fishers pack. The “optimum feeding range” for trout is 50 to 68 degrees F(1), with the maximum survival temp around 75 degrees F. While trout may be around in 72 degree water, they probably won’t be very responsive to your offerings. Springs, seeps, and tributary creeks are good spots to check. Headwaters are often a good choice because they are closer to the source of spring creeks and therefore run colder and more trout-friendly. On the flip side, warmer water often contributes to a larger baitfish and crustacean population, which is responsible for the larger trout marginal creeks often produce.
3. Fish early and late in the season
This one goes along with #2. Water temps are usually much more favorable for fishing in the spring and fall. Not only will you find more hatching bugs, but the trout will naturally be feeding more aggressively, especially in the fall. Hitting these creeks in the middle of a hot summer day is generally not a good idea. If you do decide to head out on muggy August afternoon, fish shaded areas, deep dark pockets, and fast water where it will be colder and hold more oxygen. Terrestrials and tiny nymphs are great summer flies. While you can still catch trout through the heat of the summer, spring and fall will bring much more favorable conditions to target these fish.
4. Browns and rainbows
Since brown and rainbow trout can tolerate slightly warmer water than brookies, I usually focus on streams that hold these species when scouting new creeks. With that said, there are a few hidden brook trout creeks that might be labeled as marginal but still provide good fishing at times.
5. Check the records
Getting on the web and searching for stream records can prove to be an invaluable piece of your scouting game. DNR records with stocking, electrofishing, and access points can minimize wasted fishing time by pinpointing likely spots. Forgotten creeks with past stockings of species like brown trout that can tolerate and spawn in lower water quality are prime targets.
6. Fish attractor patterns
Marginal creeks seldom have the prolific insect life associated with spring creeks and tailwaters, so trout are far less likely to become selective. My favorite combo for prospecting unknown waters is a small orange stimulator dry and a pink squirrel nymph or a Hare and Copper. Any generic nymph such as a pheasant tail or copper john around a #14 or #16 will work fine. Midges are a favorite for a dropper, as they are present in almost every body of water and usually eaten by trout. Streamers are also a great choice for covering a lot of ground quickly, and just might land you a lunker.
Fish different types of structures and fly styles. Don’t be afraid to try unconventional techniques and spots, as trout will sometimes develop unique holding patterns. If riffles and pools aren’t producing, try slow water with logjams or overhanging brush. This saved the trip for me one hot summer day. I was fishing with Grandpa and Noah on a small creek that reportedly held a small population of brook trout. Temps near ninety and a bright, clear sky effectively cleared the holes of all trout. Many drifts through traditional good-looking riffles, runs, and pools with the trusty pink squirrel had me nearly convinced the waters were void of trout. I was finally able to “jig” a shimmering, vividly-colored brook trout out from under a thick log jam in some slack water.
8. Set your expectations
One of the mistakes most often made in fishing marginal trout waters is not setting realistic expectations. If you’re looking to slay numbers of fish, go elsewhere, but if you can stand going fish-less sometimes and are willing to do a little exploring, you might just find a hidden gem – and often have it all to yourself. Marginal creeks often hold some larger trout due to the warmer water and higher baitfish biomass, so it will often turn into a trophy hunt. In my book, solitude and a large trout or two more than makes up for the numbers of small fish you might catch fishing more productive waters. Sometimes it can get tough, though. You might go a few long, fish-less days without even seeing a trout before hitting it right and finding the honey hole, but don’t get discouraged. Discovering new and overlooked waters is one of the joys of trout fishing, and sometimes there is more to a good day of fishing than just catching fish.
We have fished the brown trout creek and many other marginal creeks like it since then. Some days have been good, with trout in the net, and others have been completely fishless. Regardless of if you’re catching fish or not, marginal creeks offer a constant challenge and force you to adapt to the situations presented, often sharpening your skills as a fly fisher.
Notes: (1) from http://www.flyanglersonline.com/features/canada/can10.php
June 1, 2013
We hit a local lake early this morning for some warmwater action. Started the morning trolling Lindy rigs for some walleye. No walleye, but we did nail some big sunfish on leeches. Surprisingly, these guys were holding in 20 feet of water!
After a few hours of walleye fishing without any luck, we moved in shallow to chase some bass. I pitched the llama hair jig to docks and caught a bunch of small bass. The panfish bite was pretty strong, with consistent action on tiny jigs or leeches. The water was crystal clear, making for some awesome sight fishing. My jig often wouldn’t make it to the bottom before a bass would dart out and grab it on the fall. Dad, Braden, and Noah each got some quality panfish on leeches.
Panfish are starting to move shallow. Fish can also be found in deeper water
The bass bite has remained hot in the shallows on the inside weedlines and on the docks
Water Temp 62 degrees F
May 28, 2013
Despite being exhausted from running on very little sleep over the weekend, I rolled out of bed early this morning to chase some bass. The clouds blocked out the sunrise again on another crisp morning on the water. However, even with what seemed like ideal conditions for shallow water bassin’, the bite was dead. I pounded the shoreline with everything from flies to spinners without any interest.
Grandpa and I decided to leave the shallows and the poor bass bite and go after some walleye. Trolling produced only one baby ‘eye, but the time spent in the boat was great. I hit the shoreline solo in the little rowboat after breakfast. I pitched jigs to the docks and shallow weeds that were just starting to pop. I hooked into a good fish right under an old pontoon that ran me all over, probably a pike, but he popped off right under the boat. After that things picked up a bit, and I nailed a nice largemouth on a llama hair jig I tied up earlier this morning. I really liked the llama hair on the jig. It had some great movement yet was stiff enough to push some water and maintain a solid profile, almost like bucktail, but softer. I’ll definitely be tying some baitfish patterns with it in the near future.
I landed another fat largemouth on the llama hair jig before picking up Braden. We patrolled the shallow flats on the inside of the weedline, tossing our lures toward shore. Braden hooked into a pike on a Rattle Trap, but his drag was set too tight and the pike broke him off when he dove under the boat. A few minutes later he stuck another pike, and this time he got it in the net, a nice fish that measured 21″.
One of the coolest things I’ve ever seen while fishing took place this morning. Braden was rolling his Rattle Trap over the weeds and brought it up to the boat. Just as he started to pick it up for another cast, a pike launched itself out of the water bent on destroying the Trap, sending a spray of water into the boat! By that time Braden had pulled it out of his reach and there was nothing he could do. It jumped literally two feet off the side of the boat, freaking both of us out with its aggressive attack.
A few casts later, Braden hooked a good fish on the Rattle Trap. A fat bucketmouth went airborn, tailwaking in its attempt to shake the hook. He carefully played it for a minute before I got it in the net, a great bass that weighed just over 3.5 lbs.
That was about all the time we had. Braden released the fish and we slowly drove back to the cabin, happy with a great weekend of fishing.
This weekend will be remembered as one of the best Openers we’ve ever had. The bass fishing was on fire for bigger fish, and the walleyes were shallow and hungry in the evenings. I couldn’t have imagined a better weekend of fishing on that lake. Here is a quick recap of the best locations and patterns:
Bass were in the shallows and hadn’t spawned yet, with lots of fat females hanging around. A tube fished slowly on the bottom accounted for the biggest fish.
Walleye roamed the shallow flats in the evening and after dark, sitting deeper (10-16 fow) during the day. Lindy rigs in the deeper water and floating Rapala’s in the shallows.
The best flies were Meat Whistles (around 3″, #4), conehead rabbit strip streamers, and conehead worm-style patterns. Anything with a weighted jig style head worked great, as long as it was big enough to get their attention. Slow retrieves with a few hops mixed in worked best.
May 27, 2013
After two early mornings and some hard days of fishing, I was beat. I slept in a bit today and hit the water almost an hour after sunrise. The clouds had returned. Hopefully the bass crept back into the shallows with them, I thought as I rigged up my rod. I lazily tossed a small black/silver Flicker Shad on the spin rod from shore, slowly working the scraggly new cattail stalks and the flat adjacent to the river mouth. The familiar tap of a strike abruptly interrupted the steady wobble of the Shad, and a bass struggled at the other end. I pretty quickly landed a fat sixteen incher that inhaled my crankbait. As I released him, I couldn’t help but wonder what would’ve happened if I’d been out at sunrise.
I caught one more decent bass on the Float-Tail Worm bass fly before heading in for breakfast. A few hours and a cup of coffee later the four of us piled into the old row boat and headed toward deeper water looking for some walleyes. We puttered out to the dropoff with the old electric trolling motor, dropping Lindy rigs armed with nightcrawlers into the depths. We trolled the flat just off the dropoff, Noah keeping us in about eighteen feet of water. As we drifted just off a tiny point, Grandpa’s rod bent over.
“Got one?” Braden asked.
“Doesn’t feel like a weed,” Grandpa replied as he reeled it in. The water flashed gold behind the boat, and Braden put the net on him, a nice little fourteen-inch walleye! Not a monster, but it was a great start.
I’ve never really caught walleye from a boat before. Honestly, before the one I caught on the fly the only ‘eyes I’d ever caught were through the ice. Besides a few short bouts of drifting somewhere in the middle of the lake over “deep water”, I’ve never pursued them very seriously. For most anglers in Minnesota, a few walleyes wouldn’t be anything special, but we were pretty excited to get one on our first serious attempt at targeting these fish. Finding good structure, picking the right rig, and Grandpa putting a walleye in the boat gave me a great feeling of satisfaction.
We trolled for another hour without another bite. Later in the afternoon Braden and I trolled around the entire lake. For the first hour of our trip we dragged Lindy rigs along the dropoffs, over a few points, and through the flats but failed to interest any fish. Near the end of our float, we came to the same point where Grandpa pulled in his walleye earlier in the day. I picked up a baby twelve inch ‘eye and Braden caught the fish of the trip:)
Bassin’ was pretty good tonight. Grandpa and I started the evening by soaking some nightcrawlers at the river mouth. Yeah, it was straight up bait fishing, but it was nice to just slow down a little and relax. A lot of (fly) fisherman get so intense in trying to match the hatch and stalk the fish that they often forget to slow down and enjoy the moment. Fishing this way allows you to do that and really enjoy the peacefulness and experience of the lake. Grandpa pulled in a nice largemouth, and both of us lost a few more worms. I fished a Meat Whistle and caught around eight in an hour. Nothing huge tonight, just bass around a pound that put up a good fight on the fly rod. I also landed another baby walleye, a cute little guy only about five inches long. Just after sunset I got perhaps the oddest catch of the trip on a fly, a little yellow bullhead! Bullheads don’t have great eyesight but rely primarily on their sense of smell to find their food, so I was surprised to find this guy on the end of my line.
Noah launched floating Rapalas into the dark of the night hoping for some walleyes. The fish have been coming up real shallow at night, taking advantage of the darkness to sneak onto the flats. He wasn’t disappointed, and caught two fish almost an hour after the sun slipped behind the trees, a solid sixteen incher and a smaller walleye.
Tomorrow is our last day…should be another good one.