It troubles me that I am going into this trout season with a genuine lack of enthusiasm. I’m still looking forward to walking the creeks, taking in the sights, sounds, and smells, but I just know the trout catching is going to be off. For reasons I’m not going to get into here, my two favorite streams [the Upper Kinni and the Willow] are seriously hurting in the trout population department, and it’s going to be a few years before it improves. So for catching, that leaves the Rush, or maybe the lower Kinni. Not that these are bad—quite the contrary, these are fantastic streams with wild trout and fishy riffles and pools. Also an abundance of trout anglers, [and %$##&@ kayaks on the Kinni] and I hate the fact that when I’m approaching a favorite access point I have to start deciding how many other vehicles I will tolerate. More than three or four, I’m off to the next spot. This is why the other creeks have been so dear to me, enough fish to keep me busy, and always plenty of water devoid of other anglers.
I know my favorite streams will come back, but in the meantime I’m going to share a few times when the fishing was truly outstanding. I’ve had a lot of great days on the local creeks, but these are some days that really stand out. Interesting to note that my very best, most memorable days were days I was fishing alone.
The first year of the “Early Season” [the one that would start March 1] was a great year. I really fished a lot in those days, and two extra months equated to a couple hundred more trout than before. I was on the Upper Kinni, it was March 20 [I forced myself to remember the date], and I think 1997. I’m working through some favorite water with the trusty UV scud tied on, when out of nowhere there is a very aggressive rise just above me—like someone threw a baseball in the water. Not one to switch to a dry at the first sign of surface activity, I kept dredging, and was catching a few. The big splashes continued, and were becoming a distraction. I stopped casting to try and determine what was happening. I had seen a couple of bugs flying around, but hadn’t really paid much attention to them. I soon realized that they were black stoneflies—they were starting to buzz on the surface, and I spotted a few crawling on logs. I looked up to the top of the run I was working, and here comes a stonefly buzzing down the center of the stream [they lay their eggs this way]. SPLOOSH—the bug gets chomped by a better than average trout, and I couldn’t get the nymph, shot, and cork off my leader fast enough. As I’m cutting off my nymph rig I am taking a mental inventory of all my fly boxes, trying to picture what I have to be a suitable stonefly imitation. Remember, this was the first year we could fish there this early, and no one was aware that the black stoneflies were such a thing on the Kinni. A big elk hair caddis would have to do, and I greased one up with floatant after it was tied on, and after a couple of quick false casts it was drifting toward where I has seen the last fish feed. It hadn’t floated a foot before it was eaten, and I was soon admiring the first of many trout I would catch that day. I didn’t count them [I always lose count after 2], but by mid-afternoon I had caught more than enough and headed home early.
Since this memorable day, I always try to get over there on a warm, sunny day around March 20. I have hit this hatch pretty good a few times since, and I have designed a very devious stonefly pattern specifically for it. It takes about 20 minutes to tie, but it looks really good. And it works exactly as well as an elk hair caddis that I can tie in about 3 minutes.
here’s the pattern:
Hook: TMC 100; Butt: Pearl Litebrite; Body: Clipped black deer hair; Hackle: Grizzly; Wing: Grizzly hackle tips
These bugs have what appears to be a glowing white egg sac on their butt when laying their eggs
Thinking about this day reminds me of another epic dry fly day on the Kinni. This time I was headed to the lower river, and as I crossed into Wisconsin I was anticipating my hike up the canyon from County Road F. It was midweek, so I wasn’t worried about crowds or kayaks, and I expected to have some decent nymph fishing before some mayflies would start hatching in the afternoon. I don’t remember the date, but it was around late May/early June in the early “Oughts”. [I’ve been dying to say that]. I’m not known to be a particularly fast driver, but my speed definitely will pick as I get closer to a stream. I was moving right along at about seventy, anticipating a great day. I’m always hoping for a good “inspirational” rock anthem to come on the radio to really get me fired up as I approach the stream. On this day, Rock and Roll [part 1] by Gary Glitter came on just as the old white Chevy began the descent into the valley. I cranked it up and cheered at the right parts until I pulled into the parking lot at the bridge. I’ve made this hike enough times to know that it involves about 45 minutes of steady hiking to get to where I start fishing. There is a long bluff pool with a great riffle that comes in at a sharp angle at the top. Similar to my previous story, I started out nymphing, and they were really hitting it good. I can still remember one that ate the fly and started jumping before I was even able to set the hook.
I fished all the way to the top of the riffle, probably caught a half dozen. I had been noticing some fish rising a bit upstream. I was keeping an eye on them as I headed up the path, and decided to sit on a big log laying across the stream and eat a sandwich while I watched the fish rise. There were some mayflies coming off, I think it was the light Hendrickson hatch, and as I paid closer attention I could see that the next riffle was ALIVE with rising trout. I was grinning a grin while I ate my sandwich, watching those trout rise, thinking about how many I was about to catch.
This next riffle where the trout were making a spectacle of themselves was really nothing special to look at. A small riffle came into a little run along the right bank, there were a couple big rocks, and it was maybe three feet deep tops—definitely not a spot you would think could hold more than a few trout. Despite the fact that it looked like a marginal spot at best, there appeared to be at least a dozen trout rising steadily. I had re-rigged while sitting on the log, I now had a trusty comparadun on my tippet, greased up and ready to go. After stepping in, I was hooked up within a couple of casts, and then almost every couple of casts after that. I can’t remember how many I pulled out of that little run, but it seemed like for everyone I caught, two more took its place. It really was bizarre, because it just didn’t seem possible that there could be that many trout in there, but no matter how many I caught, they just kept rising. I finally decided to move on, and every likely spot was the same—seemingly unlimited rising trout. They rose steady though the afternoon, and I never saw another angler. Throughout the day I changed flies regularly [I had to, they kept getting waterlogged from all the fish!], and I tried a little bit of everything. This confirmed to me than when trout are rising to mayflies, you just can’t do better than a comparadun. I caught some on other designs, but nothing worked better. It didn’t even seem to matter if it was the right color or size either, as long as it was a comparadun.
It was getting later in the afternoon, and I was working my way up through what we call the “Bread and Butter” run. There were trout rising all over the place, and I was catching them steady. I looked at my watch and it was 5:30. I decided I would catch five more and leave. I forced myself to keep track of the next five I caught and then I looked at my watch again. It was now 5:40. I made a few more casts, caught one more, then had a smoke while I watched them rising for another five minutes. Every run and riffle that I walked by on my hike out of the canyon had trout rising in it. I have never seen a river so alive with trout. How many did I catch that day? The rate at which I caught the last five were representative of how the action was all day, so figure conservatively 20 per hour for five or six hours.
The Willow River has long been my favorite stream. Light pressure, easy access, and while the trout population has never that impressive as far as numbers, due to warmer water and abundant forage, the average size can be impressive. And this was the case on a fine spring day sometime in the late 90s. Or early Oughts, I don’t remember. Rarely a place for good dry fly action, the Willow’s dark waters are better suited for dredging big wiggly nymphs or swinging bunny strip streamers or buggers. I had my favorite 6 weight rigged with a clear tip line. The clear tip is slow-sinking, and provides just the right amount of sink for the streams around here, and it allow for the use of a shorter leader for better accuracy when casting at close range around bushes and other cover. When the streamer bite is “on”, the exact fly hardly matters—what matters is that you cover water and show your fly to as many fish as possible. I was using a favorite pattern that is really nothing special. I call it the “Strip Club”, it’s got a bunny strip, lead eyes and some rubber legs. I tie this fly [and many other trout streamers] on a 4x long streamer hook, size 4. This is more important detail that what the pattern was, or what color the fly was. This hook is just the right combination of length and wire thickness for a trout streamer. [This is a also a good fly for steelhead and smallmouth.]
Hook: 4XL streamer; Tail: Flashabou; Body: Sparkle Braid with 3-4 sets of rubber legs; Wing: Bunny strip; Throat [optional]:Contrasting marabou; Eyes: Medium lead eyes
There are many days on this river when I might get a fish out of every 5th spot. This day, every big fish in the stream wanted to play, and by the time my session was done I figured I had had landed around 18 fish. I know, not exactly insane numbers, but the funny thing is the one I remember most was the smallest one of the day, and it was a foot long. I chuckled when I released this guy, ‘cause he was just a baby compared to most of the other ones that day. I don’t think I had any others under 15 inches, most were 16- 18 inches, and a couple were over the 20 inch mark. These were serious, “put-’em-on-the-reel” browns that could have just as well been measured in pounds. Not bad for a stream 30 minutes from St Paul.
I have had other great days on the creeks over there, and I hope there comes a day when it is again possible to have a “big day”. And to be fair, I have plenty of great memories of trout fishing where the things I remember most wasn’t the fish catching. For some reason this memory just popped in my head—I was over there with the Gunnar, we hadn’t brought any food with us [SOP in those days], so we subsisted on berries we picked along the stream. At one point we were both sitting on the ground off the trail, chowing all the wild raspberries we could reach. We probably caught a few trout.
I fished on the Wisconsin creeks the other day, it was pretty warm but windy. I visited the Rush for the first time in a few years. First thing I see is the Red Barn Cafe has turned into a Bar and Grill. Figures. What happened to the big metal bridge? I guess some would have called it ugly, the cement one that took its place is sure nothing special. And most importantly, where did all the trout go? I know there are trout anglers more skilled than me who are catching some fish there, but seriously—I can remember being there when a hatch was on and walking right by a riffle full of rising fish if there weren’t any big heads popping up. On this day I was “zero for zero” after nymphing through a bunch of good water that I have caught hundreds of trout out of. All I caught were a lot of memories as I walked up the canyon. I could tell stories about every pool in this section. Stories of fish caught, of people I was with, of bugs that were hatching, of big trout seen and big trout caught. There was a guy much younger than me working a streamer through the bottom end of a deep pool. I really wanted to tell him about the time when I was 15 and caught a 16” brown on a black ghost streamer around the boulders at the top of the pool. I wisely just asked how he was doing as I walked by on the well-worn trail. “No fish on the streamer, might try nymphs”.
This is the very Black Ghost streamer, my grandpa tied it in around 1980, and it has lived in my Perrine fly box since. He used jungle cock saddle hackle for the wings, the fly is about 2-1/2 inches long
I finally came to a canyon pool where there were what were obviously tiny trout rising to tiny bugs. I looked at them dimpling, and shuddered that it might come to fishing for them. I fished my nymph rig through the fast water at the top and then down through the meat of the run against a bluff with a few logs thrown in for good measure. Didn’t get a bite, and since the dinks were still rising I reluctantly re-rigged with the smallest fly in the box tied on to some ancient 7x tippet.I have never been so glad to land a five inch trout as I was when I brought in the first of a half dozen or so. At least I wasn’t skunked. I did catch one brook trout that was maybe 10 inches, and broke of a slightly larger fish. [I was using tiny flies on a 7x tippet, and the only 7x I had in my vest was some Seaguar that I KNOW has been in my vest since the 90s.]
I left the Rush to try a favorite “hit-and-run” spot on the Kinni, caught exactly zero. Drove to the Willow, not really planning to fish, just to “have a look”. I took one look at the water and knew it wasn’t going to happen. As you may know, a dam was removed last year and this released a lot of sediment. Now the Willow, not known for great water quality anyhow, was flowing a sickly greenish grayish tan color, with less than a foot of vis. The Willow hadn’t been fishing well for me for the past two years, I don’t know what to make of this. It will be a while before I go back.
Don’t get the impression that I’m only concerned with numbers of fish—I enjoy steelhead and muskie fishing, neither of which is known for non-stop action, and I’ve had plenty of nice days on the trout stream where I only caught a few fish. I’ve just become accustomed to being able to have at least steady action on these streams. Some days, steady may have meant five or more an hour. Other days is might mean one ever two hours. But I am hoping for some version of “steady”.
Any of you out there that have been fishing the local creeks for more than a few years must admit–we had it good. Those streams being what they were for the last 40 years really have a lot to do with who I am. There wouldn’t be four fly shops in the Metro Area if it weren’t for how the streams used to be. And I know things are cyclic. It may take a few years, but the streams will come back.
I do know that I will be learning some new trout water in Southeastern Minnesota this spring!