Frustration Creek

Nighttime Browns on Frustration Creek

April 20, 2014

My eyes strained as I tried to focus on the blanket of smooth water flowing down through the pool. Darkness had not quite taken a firm grip on the evening, but I could hardly make out the riffle at the top of the hole. It was the time of day every fishermen dreams about – the magic hour at first and last light when the water comes alive.

The creek was still quite noisy with the honking of geese and whistle of duck wings, but the anticipation was deafening.

The silence broke with a brown trout leaping clear out of the water, smashing the calm blanket of creek into a thousand tiny ripples. My heart just about skipped a beat.

———-ο———-

Rivers are horribly deceptive, and spring creeks are perhaps the most illusive of all trout streams. When you’re alone on Frustration Creek, standing waist-deep on the edge of a mucky hole and trapped in an entangled jumble of brush, the complex nature of a trout stream is acutely apparent. Swirls of current and waving fronds of weeds hide the margins of the creek, barely perceptible and always misleading. The undercuts, carved deep into the banks, hide a few trout and lots of surprises – one of which I was about to experience in a very personal way.

———-ο———-

My fly line melted into the inky darkness, landing softly between the steep banks. The line, which was now my only connection to the creek, slowly slipped through my hands as I pulled the fly through the hole. The fly survived, unscathed by the energized waters. I tossed another cast upstream, and fly landed just a bit farther up. It didn’t last long.

The drift was slammed to a halt as a trout abruptly hammered the woolly bugger. The calm evening air exploded as the trout shot upstream, peeling line of the reel and leaving me to clench the rod and hope that my tippet would hold in the log-infested waters.

It was the first time I had ever genuinely feared for my leader on a trout stream.

Frustration Creek becomes an entirely different stream after dark. The calm, gentle flows become dark, bottomless holes brimming with the unknown. The soggy margins, eagerly waiting to swallow up the uncautious angler at the slightest misstep, deceptively hide the many undercuts. I cringe at the thought of taking a plunge in the dark, icy waters.

My trout charged upstream, and I stumbled along behind it, entirely at the mercy of the rugged streambank. The line strained as I tried desperately to pull the fish out of an undercut. Still full of energy, the trout headed back downstream towards one of the deepest holes on the creek, though it took me a moment to realize it in the inky darkness. He then buried himself in the muck.

I leaned precariously over the steep bank and fumbled with the net, putting as much pressure on the line as I dared in a vain attempt to crank the brown out of the weeds. For reasons unknown, the trout decided to abandon the weeds and head to the opposite bank. I jumped at the opportunity and pulled him to the surface, just hoping my tippet would hold as the brown flopped on the calm surface for what seemed like an eternity. In a move that was filled with far more serendipity than skill, I slipped him in the net just before he made it back to the weeds.

I was pumped. The brown stretched around seventeen inches – the first trout I’ve caught on Frustration Creek and the biggest I’ve fooled on a fly.

The picture doesn't do the fish justice...

The picture doesn’t do the fish justice…

The trout was far smaller than its tenacious fighting spirit portrayed. Even in revealing one of its secrets, Frustration Creek still hinted at deception, simply teasing with a glimpse of the mysteries still hidden beneath the undercuts.

Dark spots and buttery flanks flashed in the faint glow of my flashlight as trout slipped out of my hand and back into the undercut. The creek returned to normal, a gentle, black sheet of water weaving quietly through the marsh. Somehow, the accomplishment of catching and releasing a trout from the secretive waters did nothing to ease my curiosity and obsession with Frustration Creek. It only made it worse.

So It Begins

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.

There's a trout stream in there somewhere...

There’s a trout stream in there somewhere…

 

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.

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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.)

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