April 14, 2014
Nearly all anglers have their opening day rituals, and we’re no different. Some involve early mornings, others involve dry flies, and all involve an unrealistically high dose of expectations and optimism. Though it’s hardly a “ritual,” Braden and I fished a small stream (we’ll call it Frustration Creek) on Minnesota Trout Opener for the second year in a row. It’s a torturous little creek, flowing deep, weedy, and horribly narrow, even in spring floods. A seemingly impenetrable wall of brush chokes the banks of the stream, intimidating even the most gifted of fly casters. If it didn’t scare off most anglers, I wouldn’t be surprised if a handful of innovative new casting maneuvers were invented from its soggy banks each year.
The fish are another story if you can bear the brush. According to electroshocking surveys (a method I’ve been tempted to resort to on a few occasions), a decent number of browns prowl the crystal clear waters, including some real monsters. Like any good spring creek population, these fish have an attitude. Though you can hardly see past your hand once you’re in that jungle, the trout are quite skittish and spend most of their time buried in the weeds or sulking under one of the streams many undercuts. If you can somehow miraculously navigate the sticks and get a fly in front of a fish, it’s unlikely you’ll get any attention. Needless to say, the stream doesn’t see many fishermen.
Frustration Creek has seen its share of troubles. Before development crowded its banks and warmed its waters, the creek flowed free and pure and cold. Stocked browns and brookies, the favored sport fish of the era, haunted its waters and amused local anglers. But, like most streams in the Driftless, poor land management eventually caught up with the stream, and the trout disappeared. Just a few years ago, habitat improvements and renewed stocking, along with the fierce effort of local conservationists and anglers, managed to establish a small wild population of brown trout. The stream banks have since exploded, engulfing the stream in a veil of brush and thick grass and hiding its trout from all but the most dedicated of anglers.
I’m not sure what it is about the little creek, but for some reason we return each year. It’s certainly not for the number of trout to be caught, as we have never even hooked a fish, let alone caught one in that stretch. Perhaps its the challenge of overcoming the brush and cracking the code, though we have yet to be rewarded with a trout. The more I think about it, I realize that it’s not the challenge of the stream or the prospect of catching trout, but it’s the sense of hope embodied by the little creek that keeps pulling us back to its brushy banks – the hope of catching a trout in such an unlikely place, the hope of the small trout population’s survival, the hope of pulling a wild and wary brown from its cold waters. For all of fly fishing conveys a sense of hope that’s somewhat hard to find in the day-to-day grind, and that’s partly why I think it’s so captivating.
So late in the evening on Opening Day Braden and I wandered the brush-choked banks of Frustration Creek. The tree-to-successful cast ratio was unusually low, and the weather was surprisingly beautiful, so it was a good day to be on the water. We drifted nymphs and stripped streamers and bounced woolly buggers along the narrow channel, but nothing happened. Our Opening Day ritual – complete with a thorough skunking – was preserved.
We returned the next evening, a bit earlier this time, with a renewed sense of hope. I’m honestly not sure what made us venture out in the awful weather, but we endured and scouted some new water. It was the kind of weather that you always hear is great for fishing – windy, cold, and plagued by a hard drizzle – but never really yields anything, leaving you with this weird feeling of disappointment and frustration and awe at your foolishness. Fortunately and much to our relief, it subsided in pretty short order, and it turned out to be a great day to take in the sights and smells of a trout stream on a cool spring evening.
We left a few flies in the bushes, scouted some new water, and actually had a bite while fishing the depths of a beaver pond, but the catching was not to be. Though my hands were numb by the end of the evening, it was amazing to actually fish a fly rod after the long, depressing depths of a Minnesota winter. The section of creek we fished is all of half a mile, though the beaver ponds and continuous windings of the currents add enough mysteries and secrets to last an entire season.
Mysteries and secrets that will only be uncovered through plenty of frustration. And a good dose of hope.
(Note: the challenges of Frustration Creek may have been slightly exaggerated due to the fishless nature of the trip. Interpret the stories of fly fishermen at your own discretion.)