southeastern Minnesota trout fishing

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.)

Dry Flies and Driftless Tricos

The past few days have been a little chilly, but it was downright cold this morning when I hit the river before sunrise. I was freezing by the time I had waded a few yards upstream in my shorts, but the crisp morning air got me excited for the cooler fall days ahead. Fishing was a little tough this morning. I fished for about an hour and only pricked a fish, tangling a few rigs and losing a few flies in the process. I got my first trout of the morning indicator nymphing with a #20 pheasant tail in a sweet hole that brushed right up into a big logjam. Once I landed that first trout, things started to pick up. I managed a few nice browns in the riffles before coming upon a good run that flowed against the rip-rapped bank, very similar to the pool we found tricos in yesterday morning.101_5403

A few fish started rising against the bank and I spotted a few tricos floating downstream. The trico spinner fall was on again! I switched to a dry-dropper rig with a #20 trico spinner. I had a blast casting to selective trout in the run. Again, there were fish taking flies in the faster water along with slower eddies on the bank. It was a fun challenge to get the perfect drift through tough currents and hook the fish on the tiny dry when he finally ate it. I took half a dozen on the trico before the fish slowed down. Once the trout stopped rising, I tied on my dry-dropper nymph rig with the big orange stimmy as my dry, a #14 squirrel and copper, and a #20 CDC trico trailing a few inches behind the nymph.driftless brown on a trico

wild brown tailThe drowned CDC trico proved to be deadly. I kept hiking upstream and pulled wild trout from the riffles and seams. I think I’ve found the ultimate rig for this time of year in the Driftless. A small, dark mayfly nymph is always a good choice, and the fish get so accustomed to seeing tricos over the summer they eagerly sip the sunk trico, even late in the day. A big terrestrial dry for the indicator rounds out the rig and covers the other major food source in a trout’s diet during the late summer, terrestrials. Most fish ate the trico, but a few took the squirrel and copper in the fast water.

Wild brown with a trico stuck right in the corner of his mouth

Wild brown with a trico stuck right in the corner of his mouth

A few awesome pools flowed through the open stretch I fished.

log jam pool in the Driftless AreaI hiked way upstream to the confluence with a small spring creek where I found a sweet pool where the currents swirled together. I took a few trout in the big confluence pool on the nymphs. I ended up losing the nymphs and just fished the Stimmy. A feisty brown surprised me by smashing the big dry right in the riffle, a great way to end the morning.

The confluence pool

The confluence pool

This weekend was amazing. It was great to finally hit the Root and sample some of the excellent trout fishing it offers, especially the legendary trico hatch. There’s nothing like a solid weekend of relaxing and trout fishing in the Driftless.

Fall and hunting season is coming up quickly…should be a great season!

Secret Waters: Fly Fishing the Driftless Backcountry

As we started the hot, demanding hike down the steep canyon walls, I wondered if it would be worth it. I’d been here only once before, and caught brown trout, but that was in the cool weather of September when the trout were quite active, not the smothering heat of a July afternoon. Other rivers around here shut down in the midsummer heat, and I was worried I might find a similar situation down in the valley. But the thought of having a beautiful stretch of water all to ourselves was enough to make up my mind.

Most people don’t think of the Driftless Area having a “backcountry”. It’s certainly not the vast tracts of unbroken wilderness you’d find out West, but there are definitely remote, unpressured waters deep in the Driftless wilderness that seldom see a fly or a fisherman. A few have trails, but most require an often difficult bushwack down steep bluffs and through fields of stinging nettles. The best trout streams (the ones that are full of fish but void of fisherman) seem to guard themselves with their natural surrounding. Driftless creeks are protected by sizzling nettles and limestone cliffs and arduous hikes. Which is fine by me. Keeps out the gunnysackers and the casual fisherman, leaving it only to the dedicated angler that respects the waters.

Rugged country

Rugged country

The goal of our mission today was to further explore a stretch of backcountry creek and hopefully find a bunch of eager wild brown trout. Busting through the thick brush, we started our descent into the canyon and soon found ourselves on a small feeder creek studded with beaver ponds. Some spots looked very trouty for a small stream, especially for a creek way back in the sticks, but a quick stream temp read 68 degrees, a bit warm for shaded water in the morning. Further downstream the creek looked more promising as a few small springs poured into the stream, but I was hungry for the main river, so I decided to keep the rod in the pack. We pressed on through the valley, and after an hour emerged around the ridge to find the main river. It was gorgeous, one of the prettiest pieces of water I’ve ever laid my eyes on. The stream, about twenty feet wide, flowed turquoise blue with just enough stain to create the perfect conditions for fishing. It rushed through riffles and over boulders, carving its way through the rugged valley, occasionally forming the deep, dark cliff pools found mostly in a trout fisherman’s dreams. A few trout were gently rising in the big cliff pool. The best part was we had it all to ourselves. There wasn’t even a sign of other fisherman in the pristine valley. It was a trout fisherman’s heaven!

Cliff pool on a feeder creek

Cliff pool on a feeder creek

Braden and Noah chased the risers while I headed downstream. I rounded the bend to find a long, slow pool and a few trout dimpling the surface. I chopped off my nymph and grabbed a #20 black cdc comparadun from my pack. The fish were rising sporadically, but just steadily enough to float a dry over them. After repeatedly drifting the fly over the trout with what I thought was a good presentation, I didn’t get a response from the fish, so I tied on another nymph rig. The water was perfect for nymphing. The creek was just high and stained enough to give the trout some security and lose their typically stingy wariness, but clear enough to prevent the need for huge, flashy nymphs. The water was more reminiscent of a freestone stream than the average spring creek. Fast, riffled water plunged over boulders into little pools and runs for as far as you could see. The canyon had a wildness to it, not like the overwhelming awesomeness of the Rocky Mountain high country, but more of a gentle, intimate wilderness begging to be explored.

Honestly, the first hour of my fishing was pretty frustrating. I busted off a good half-dozen nymphs in the brush (must’ve been my casting the wind), and lost more trout than I care to remember. Fly fishing can be quite humbling. But then things started to pick up. I settled on a #14 hare and copper with a #16 frenchie ptn eighteen inches below, all under an indicator. I found a nice little pool with a riffle and a few midstream boulders and pockets, and tossed my nymphs into the whitewater. A few mends, a short drift, and my indicator dipped slightly. I set the hook and brought my first trout of the season to hand, a pretty little wild brown.

The fishing was quite good for the next couple of hours. I kept working my way downstream through the seemingly endless series of awesome riffles and pools and runs, hooking a trout in almost every fishy spot. I found the most productive technique by accident. The nymphs were starting to drag at the tail of the pool, and as I was preparing to recast a trout came flying out of nowhere and slammed my fly, but I missed him. Wondering if it was just a fluke, I dropped my nymphs near the head of the pool and just as they reached the middle, I allowed them to drag and swing in the current. Sure enough, another brown charged out from the depths and took my fly.

A small spring pouring ice-cold water into the creek

A small spring pouring ice-cold water from the hillside

I picked up plenty of browns (sixteen total), including a nice fifteen incher that took me a few pools downstream on my 6x tippet, but most averaged eight inches. A good chunk of the trout were taken with a twitch or slight swing of the flies over the deep holes and runs. I hiked back upstream to find the rest of the guys. Braden and Noah had camped out on the cliff pool and took a handful of wild browns mostly on dry flies. The little browns slashed aggressively at their #12 black ant, with only one coming on a pink squirrel nymph.fifteen inch Driftless Area backcountry trout fly fishing se MN

“Blue lining” and exploring new water is one of my absolute favorite parts of fly fishing. There’s just something about the adventure of finding a creek on a map, dreaming about it all winter, and then finally hiking in to find it full of trout that gets my adrenaline going. The Driftless Area is an awesome place that has a bunch of different experiences for the fly fisher, but the “backcountry” can be truly amazing if you’re willing to do some serious bushwacking (usually into a state forest or wildlife management area). So grab a map and your hiking boots, find a blue line, and you might just find your fly fishing heaven!

Next we’re headed up to the lake for some summer bassin, which should be pretty good with the late spring we had.

Tight Lines,

Conner

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