spring creek

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.

101_5689

 

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!

Tricos on the Root

September 1, 2013

Day 2 – I persuaded Noah to hit the river with me early Sunday morning. It was another beautiful morning in the Driftless as we hiked down the trail and started fishing. This time we headed downstream and hit some of the deep, turbulent pools that brush against the limestone cliffs. Both of us fished dry-dropper rigs in hopes of picking off a few browns, but didn’t have any luck. After fishing nymphs for a while, I noticed a few sporadic risers feeding in a slow tailout. I checked the river for bugs, and sure enough a few tricos were floating downstream. I quickly chopped of the nymph and tied on a #12 Pass Lake dry with a big white calftail wing followed by a #20 trico spinner twelve inches behind. South Branch Root River fly fishing The trout were still rising inconsistently, and the first few browns I floated my trico over didn’t eat. Noah and I moved downstream to a long, choppy run ending in an even longer slow pool. The fish were rising steadily by now, but not the finicky, slow water sippers you’d expect from a trico hatch. These trout were set up in the riffles, snatching the tiny mayflies with a splashy rise. Though most of these trout were smaller, it was a treat to cast #20 tricos to fast water where the fish didn’t have a ton of time to inspect your flies. There were, of course, a few stubborn risers sitting right on the bank sipping bugs in swirling eddies.

Small clouds of tricos fluttered over the river as I carefully crept up to the riffle. A good dead drift resulted in a rise and the first wild brown of the morning in the net. Noah quickly got in on the action and caught another trout in the riffle while I tied up another trico rig. The trout were hard, but not impossible, and a good dead drift with a reasonable fly did the trick. The good fishing continued under clear skies, and we stayed in the same pool casting to rising trout all morning. I switched flies a few times when I started getting refusals. I fished a CDC trico spinner, Double Trico Spinner, and CDC Trico Comparadun, and all caught fish. Noah stuck a few awesome wild browns on the trico spinner, and I ended the morning with nine trout, all on trico dries. The browns were small but feisty, jumping a few times before coming to the net. The fish stopped rising around eleven o’clock, so we headed back to camp for some lunch.

Braden also had a productive morning. He hiked upstream and caught ten wild browns up to twelve inches on a dry-dropper rig. Most of his fish took a brown #14 Trout Snatcher Nymph, but a few ate his Ausable Bomber. Interestingly, he didn’t have any rising fish or a solid trico hatch. I did notice the hatch was quite sparse and isolated, with fish rising consistently only in one pool over the morning. I’m not sure if the trout key in on different types of water when the spinner fall is spotty, or what the deal was, but the trout were just as eager to eat a nymph in stretches of the river just a few hundred yards away.

A nice wild brown on a MTMN

A nice wild brown on a Trout Snatcher

After lunch we toured Mystery Cave, the longest cave in Minnesota with over 13 miles of passages. The cave is the life source of the Root, providing the cold water and nutrients that are vital to its existence as fertile trout water. Upstream from the cave area, the South Branch of the Root is a warmwater stream, but it literally disappears in the summer as it takes a shortcut underground through the cave. It emerges several miles later in a few springs, greatly enriched and cooled from its trip. It was pretty awesome to see some of the water in the cave that eventually ends up flowing in the section of stream we had fished earlier in the day.

Pool in the cave

Pool in the cave

"Turquoise Lake"

“Turquoise Lake”

Cave bacon and limestone

Cave bacon and limestone

The three of us fished a bit in the evening, working our way downstream and casting to likely spots. Braden picked up two more browns in a riffle on a Trout Snatcher, while Noah and I didn’t interest any fish. I ventured up the same small creek I hit yesterday and pulled out one trout on a sunk trico spinner.

The red tail and spots are amazing on this brown Braden caught

The red tail and spots are amazing on this brown Braden caught

The fish started rising again just before dark. I tied on a #16 CDC and Elk, and tossed it against the far bank. A brown gently rose and sipped it as the light was fading behind the bluffs. I set the hook, and after a short fight landed a beautiful ten inch brown. Once it got too dark to see the dry I tied on a chickabou Wooly Bugger and started swinging it through the fast water. A heavy trout slammed it, but he popped off after a few seconds, so I decided to call it a night. I hiked back to camp in the dark and ended another great day in the Driftless.

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

 

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