southeastern Minnesota

Fly Fishing the Root River

During the past long weekend, we camped on the South Branch of the Root River for a few days of good fishing and hiking. The Root is one of the premier trout streams of southeastern Minnesota’s Driftless Area (Fly Fisherman even ran an article on it). Winding through valleys bordered by limestone bluffs, the Root harbors a great population of wild browns approaching a few thousand a mile in the prime reaches. The river is born from springs in the headwaters after taking a trip through the subterranean passages of Mystery Cave, emerging as a cold, clear stream enhanced by the nutrients from the cave. We pulled in the campground late Friday night and set up camp in the dark. I had heard and read about the Root and it’s prolific trico hatches before, but we’ve never fished it, so I was pumped when we decided to head down for the weekend. I was so excited to get on the water I hardly got any sleep!

Mist blanketed the river when we arrived down the steep bluff trail early the first morning. The river was amazing. The sound of rushing water and the crisp morning air produced the tranquility and peacefulness only a trout stream at daybreak can create. I quickly tied on a small Trout Snatcher under a dry, setting up a similar rig for Noah. Despite the crazy heat we got in the past few days, the stream was icy cold when we hopped in at 6:30 in the morning. I started the morning by hooking into a feisty little brown out of a riffle, but he popped off after a few jumps. Noah picked off a few chubs in a side pool before we moved upstream.IMGP1520

I had hoped to see a few tricos, but they never showed themselves in the riffles and pools we were fishing. A few fish rose once in a while, and the odd trico would float down the river occasionally, but the hatch never materialized. The stretch of river we fished was gorgeous. The turquoise-blue water wound through a mature forested valley with mostly gentle, riffled stretches, but occasionally rubbed up against a bluff and formed a deep, blue hole you couldn’t see the bottom of. I waded up below a good riffle and started nymphing the skinny water. I caught my first trout of the morning along a root wad in the riffle, a pretty wild brown of about ten inches that ate the Trout Snatcher. I landed one more trout on the nymph and another on the big orange Stimmy. Braden found a sweet corner pool in a meadow section and had good success on the nymph. He pulled out half a dozen browns to twelve inches on the Trout Snatcher. A few came up and smashed his Bomber before we waded back to camp.

South Branch wild brown with some great colors

South Branch wild brown with some great colors

One of Bradens' browns

One of Bradens’ browns

Another wild brown Braden got on the MTMN

Another wild brown Braden got on the Trout Snatcher

 

Later in the afternoon I hiked up a small feeder stream. This little spring-fed creek was glorious, ice cold and super clear with a handful of deep, blue pools stacked with wild browns. Lined with burnweed and brush under the canopy of old trees, casting was difficult but a well-positioned cast seldom went without at least a strike. The trout were ultra spooky, so a stealthy approach and a reasonable, unobtrusive fly were a necessity. Just the kind of trout fishing I love.101_5389

I carefully began working the little riffles and runs, softly landing my trio of flies in likely spots, and sometimes in the trees :). My first wild brown was only about eight inches, but still a respectable small stream fish displaying some awesome colors. I found one particularly good pool where a riffle flowed into the opposite bank, creating a deep blue hole riddled with a few logs and lots of trout. I crept into position behind some tall weeds and enticed three browns on a #20 sunk trico spinner.

My rig consisted of a big #8 orange Stimulator followed by a #14 Mercer’s Micro May and a #20 sunk trico spinner. The sunk trico proved to be deadly, as the fish are accustomed to seeing these bugs get washed down the river all summer, even in the middle of the day. I ended the afternoon with around half a dozen wild browns. None were big, averaging nine or ten inches, but they made up for their size with some amazing red spots and feisty attitudes.

Today was a great day of trout fishing, and I really enjoyed it since I’ve been looking forward to a solid day of small stream fishing for a long time. I tied up a few sunk trico spinners by lantern light while sitting next to the fire before crawling into the tent. Tomorrow we’ll hopefully get into a trico hatch and some more wild browns on dries!

 

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

9-15…Watercress and Wild Trout

My fingers were already cold as I tied on a dry-dropper rig in the darkness of the early morning. Down here in the valley, the temps were almost as cold as the Driftless spring creek that carved it, around the mid fifties. We were camped out for the weekend way down in southeastern Minnesota, right in the heart of Driftless country. Our first stop was the aptly named “Big Spring”, where the creek literally poured right out the side of the steep bluffs, beginning its meandering trip through the narrow wooded valley. It was one of those numbingly cold, super clear spring creeks where wet wading is unthinkable. The stream flowed a wavy green, lined with watercress and thick weeds in the middle, with the occasional deep blue hole. We fished our way down from the spring, throwing streamers, nymphs, and dries to the pockets. The brown and brook trout are completely wild in this creek, and they haven’t been stocked for a long time. Just the way I like it.

The first good hole came a few hundred yards down. A huge moss covered boulder had been tossed in the middle of the creek, and behind it a pool had formed. I imagined it being ripped off the side of the bluff in some spring flood years ago, and randomly thrown in the stream. The first two fish of the day came on the trusty #14 brown MTMN, a 9″ brown and a smaller native brookie.

The best part of this spot was the miles of hiking trails that went right along the creek, so you could fish for miles and get into some un-pressured water. Once you got back in there, you could easily find solitude in the pristine valley. I hit the trail after breakfast and found a nice run with a bunch of trout stacked up in the tail. The nymph produced three more nice browns around 13″.

Later in the afternoon, Braden and Noah hiked up to try some fishing. Noah fished the tail with a MTMN under an orange stimmy. He got some good drifts and nymphed up two nice wild browns after losing one on the MTMN.

Fish on!

The average brown for this creek was pretty good, running 13, 14 inches. There were definitely some bigger fish in there, lazily sitting on the bottom, not even willing to look at a fly in the middle of the day. Water was low and crystal clear, which made the trout ultra spooky. Combine this with lots of aquatic weeds and thick brush, it got a little tough. Crawling on hands and knees was really the best way to go. I like this kind of fishing. Stalking the fish, figuring out the best angle, and shooting the perfect cast with the right fly make it a lot like hunting.

The next hole I came to was a dream. The riffle poured under a log and bottomed out to four feet, with a long, shallow tail. The trout were stacked up throughout the pool, drifting back and forth flashing their white mouths, and occasionally grabbing something off the top. They weren’t doing either of these with the consistency of a hatch, though. The browns completely disdained my nymph. My first thought was midges, so I tried a few midge patterns without more than a few turns. Next I tossed a caddis emerger under the stimmy. That got ignored too, but as it was drifting over I noticed a few trout float right up to the stimmy. Ok, they’re taking caddis. I switched to a #16 cdc and elk tied with some cdc from a duck I shot last year. First cast below the log and bang, a trout smacked it. Good little brown, about a fourteeen. I fished back to camp until sunset and ended with nine trout, a brook and eight browns.

On Sunday Dad, Grandpa and I started hiking mid morning. Grandpa fished the run I hit yesterday. He hooked a few on nymphs, but they all popped off. He moved up to the middle of the run and got a 10″ brown to eat his Bomber. Dad and I put some miles under our boots and hiked way downstream to the end of the trail. We found a huge pool where a creek of about equal size dumps into this one. It was about eight feet deep and the trout were thick. I could see some monsters finning around on the bottom from the old railroad trestle that spanned the creek. I threw a bunch of flies at them, but only hooked one for a second. It was right in the middle of the day by now, and most of the fish were sitting on the bottom. Dad caught a beautiful little brown on Mercer’s Micro May.

I love the parr marks on these little guys.

The valley opened up into a meadow, and the stream started meandering a little more. I bushwacked away from the trail through a field of nettles (ouch!) and thick brush. It payed off and I found some awesome bend pools with some old bank covers and habitat improvement. It seems like the best water on a trout stream is always the hardest to reach. The rock structures looked out of place way out there in the woods. Good for the trout, though. I hooked one good brown on the MTMN before I hit the trail again.

It was one of those days for me where nothing seemed to want to come to the net. A few caddis were fluttering around, along with some small mayflies, like BWO’s, and some midges, but not enough of any of these for the trout to really key in on them. I messed around with a bunch of flies before I switched back to the cdc and elk. I stuck two nice browns in the log pool before I ran out of daylight. Dad caught one more nice brown on his Micro May. Dad and I did about a five mile hike today, and it was totally worth it. I really should’ve pulled out my camera more, cause there was some sweet water, but its hard when there are so many fish. Great trip, and I can’t wait to do it again.

Looking downstream from the railroad bridge

 

Hunting season is here, and it’ll be a ton of fun. I’m practically out of cdc, so it’s good timing, because I’ll definitely be tying up some more cdc and elks. I can’t wait to get out in the duck blind or in the woods.

Tight Lines,

Conner

 

Driftless Hopper Fishing

Spring creek heaven

The pullout was empty as we drove up to the familiar little bridge over one of our favorite Driftless creeks. The hoppers were out in full force. I throw one into the creek and it gets absolutely destroyed by a brown. Noah and I quickly strung up and hopped over the stile while Braden started hiking the other way. The weeds have really grown up both on the banks and in the creek since we were here last. In some spots, the free-flowing center is only a foot or two across. The trout take full advantage of this and hide in the edges of the weeds, just waiting to pick off a juicy hopper or nymph that drifts by. Dodging cow pies and thistles, Noah and I headed upstream to some holes known to hold brook trout. I opted to take some pictures and let Noah take the first couple holes. His chernobyl ant was greeted with a few violent slashes, but nothing stuck. After the hole settled down, he switched to a #14 brown micro tubing mayfly nymph under an indicator. The weeds made casting a little tough, but after a few tries he delicately stuck it right in the middle of a channel and was rewarded with a gorgeous little wild brown.

Back into the icy water

Braden had hiked downstream and had some action on the chernobyl. He caught a really nice brookie pushing ten inches, and lost a monster that was at least a few inches bigger. A good brown around 16″ also came up and smashed his hopper.

Awesome brookie on the hopper

Braden's 16" brown

The MTMN was the hot fly for me today. I set up at the tail of one of the creek’s many sweet holes. A riffle spilled around the corner into a grassy undercut and deeper water, with weeds on the inside to give the trout lots of places to hide. First cast and a little brown exploded on my indicator. Should’ve been using a hopper dropper. I drifted my nymph rig along the undercut and landed this feisty little brown.The colors on these wild spring creek fish never get old for me. He still had some parr marks, along with intense red spots.The next drift along the bank produced similar results. A few more browns and a brook all fell for the MTMN. They were small, but made up for it with their attitude. Each raced around the pool and tried hard to get in the weeds, wiggling all the way to the net. The sun was going down fast, so we decided to pack up and hit a different creek that Braden fished a few weeks ago.

The next creek meandered through a wooded valley with steep bluffs on either side. A few fish were randomly rising in the deep blue pools. I hooked a few fish on a variety of flies, but nothing stayed on for more than a second. We fished hard into the night. Braden and Noah hooked a few browns on a little wooly bugger in the black of night, but nothing made it to the net. The browns really seemed to turn on right after dark, hitting the buggers aggressively, but nothing solid. Overall, our first night fishing experience was pretty cool, and I’ll definitely be doing some more of it. My hike out of the steep valley was a little sketchy though, stumbling through the unfamiliar woods.

Fall is definitely almost here, and there is only one more month until hunting opens and the end of trout season. It”ll be fun.

Fly Fishing the Driftless Area

This weekend Dad and I camped in SE Minnesota. I recently finished an online hunter safety course, so we were down there for the field day. I just happened to plan it close to a bunch of trout streams, so we obviously fished. We arrived Friday night and set up camp. The next morning it was off to the field day. After that Dad and I got a bite to eat at a small pizza place in town, and then we went to one of our favorite streams.Dad fished a pink squirrel, while I threw on a #16 ant. Three casts later I landed this beautiful brown.I kept fishing, but found that my ant wouldn’t float. I should have put another ant on, but, not thinking, I put on a deer hair hopper. Dad was fishing down stream in a hole that has produced for me before.

Hooked!

Dad's fifth of the day!

 Dad stayed in one spot and pulled out five nice brookies, while I walked around and didn’t catch any more. I also met a very nice fly fisher who gave me some flies. (Thanks Mr. Schulz) Definitely not a bad trip.

The next morning Dad and I hung out at camp for a while, but then got caught in the rain. So we quickly got packed up and hit the road. On the way home, we fished a new stream, and it was a good choice.

Very beautiful Driftless Area stream.

I tied on a bead-headed olive woolly bugger that I got from Mr. Schulz. The brown trout were nibbling it, but no solid bites yet. Then I saw a flash and moments later I brought this vibrant brown to hand.

Notice the bright red tail

Clear water

Dad opted not to fish, since the stream wasn’t very big. I fished my way upstream and lost quite a few flies on fish. Then I switched to a Chernobyl Ant, and got quite a few takes but missed the hook set. Finally I hooked one, but just as I was about to net it he threw the hook. I kept fishing and had a few more bites, but nothing stuck. It was a great weekend of camping and fly fishing.

Next we’re headed up to the lake for some warmwater fly fishing. Smallmouth on the fly should be lots of fun!

Tight Lines,

Braden

 

Spring Creek Brookies

Today we drove down to a Winona County stream for a day of fishing. We started the morning by fishing way up in the headwaters on an artificials only, catch and release section. The stream here is a classic meadow spring creek, very cold and weedy. Not a lot of holes up there, but when you find a good one it is stacked with trout. Despite being small, this creek holds some ridiculously large browns.

We got there around 10:30. Braden started the day by nailing four nice brookies and a brown, all on a #14 Czeched Out Hare’s Ear. It is basically a tungsten hare’s ear with a pink hot spot and some soft hackle (Hans Stephenson from Dakota Angler and Outfitter has a great video on this fly here). I hiked upstream and caught a gorgeous 8″ brookie and a brown out of a sweet hole on my brown micro tubing mayfly nymph (MTMN).

A dry dropper was the way to go this morning. I fished a #8 stimulator with a #14 micro tubing mayfly nymph dropper. Braden had a hopper dropper combo with a little pheasant tail and a Czeched Out Hare’s Ear on the bottom to get everything down. Braden got hits when he twitched his flies, otherwise they would get ignored. A few trout slashed at our dries, but nothing commited.

We stopped in a small town for a burger and then hit some different spots farther down on the river. It was really slow. Not even a bite. Even the bait fishers weren’t catching anything. The time of day and the bright sunny skies probably had something to do with it. We fished three different spots with no luck before we finally returned to the headwaters we fished in the morning. I tied on a stimmy followed by a #14 pink squirrel. I made a few drifts through an awesome bridge hole without a hit. I realized that I wasn’t getting deep enough, so I tied on a tungsten pink squirrel 16″ off the first one. That got me to the bottom and into some fish, two browns and two more nice brookies. Dad sneaked a few minutes of fishing in and caught a nice brookie. Pink was definitely the prefered color today. If you don’t have any pink squirrels in your box, TIE SOME UP. They’re amazing.

Tight Lines,

Conner

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