Will I see you give more than I can take
Well I only harvest some—Neil Young, from “Harvest”
There is something about the descent into a trout valley in Southeast Minnesota that puts me in a good mood like few other things can. I started my journey on Saturday with the hopelessly boring drive on the highway south of the cities. The only thing of interest is the occasional stream that is passed over; I make sure I’m in the right lane at every stream crossing so I can get the best view of the water below, helping to get a gauge on the overall water conditions for the area. I hit Rochester and find it to be more of an annoyance than anything [better watch your speed, cops have someone pulled over every time I’m though on 52]. At some point I get off the highway, at least now there are some interesting old farms and other curiosities but it is still a bleak landscape, painted by someone whose palette doesn’t go beyond gray and tan. Then suddenly the road is pointing downhill. Down a steep hill. The colors spectrum changes from mostly gray to mostly green. Usually as I get close to my fishing destination my speed increases in anticipation of getting there, but today I find myself riding the brake though the valley as I try to take it all in. There are several streams that come together here, and there are many people out enjoying the great day.
My destination is a stream I have not been on before, and actually had very little info on other than some very limited second hand accounts. One key feature is that it is lightly fished due to lack of access points. I had Google Earthed the crap out of this stream, and the parking spot I was looking for was easy to find. I was disappointed that there were three other cars there. One vehicle had three generations of trout anglers about to head up the trail, they shared a bit of info with me, assuring me I would like what I found up in the valley. I was probably five minutes behind them on the trail, but they were nowhere in sight. The trail paralleled the river which was a few hundred yards away. Eventually the trail and river converged, and there were my buddies form the parking lot. I quietly slipped past them, walked hard for about ten more minutes and decided to start fishing.
When I’m on a new stream I fish very poorly. Or at least very quickly. I had no way of knowing exactly what was around the next bend, where the best water was, or where any other anglers were. Having fished a lot of streams I have learned that all trout streams tend to “behave” in a similar manner, which means that the ways that pools and rifles are arranged on one stream will likely be repeated on a completely different stream. The stream had a strong “Lower Kinni” vibe. Part of this was likely due to the hike up the valley, but there were a few riffles that had a twin on a different creek a hundred miles away.
What flies worked the best here? I had no idea. As is usually the case, I had a black wooly bugger tied on from the last time out, and I made a few casts with it, but my MO on this type of water is to nymph my way upstream, and then bugger my way back. So, I changed up with a nymph and a cork but continued to fish fast. There was so much good looking water here that I just couldn’t slow down. I would make a half dozen casts into “the juice” [this is Gunnar’s name for the “spot-on-the-spot”, as in “Quit casting into that bullshit water and throw into THE JUICE!”] and then march on to the next spot. It is hard to describe what the juice looks like, as it is different in each riffle or pool, but anyone who is an experienced angler will know what I mean. It usually involves an edge near the top of a run where the riffle comes in, where the current speed and depth are just right. I found myself constantly alternating between looking back over my shoulder, anticipating other anglers coming upstream and straining to see what was up ahead. Eventually I started catching fish. Not sure if it was because I had slowed down, found the magic fly [I was using a one-of-a-kind beadhead thing], or if I just got into better water, but this stream appeared to be filthy with trout. Most likely looking water would give up a few, and in a couple of spots I left them biting. I got to a point where the tasty water changed to flat “gator water”, and I figured it was a good point to stop and start fishing back. A break was in order, and I took my time eating a sandwich on a grassy bank. I thought about how glad I was to be fishing alone this day. I had asked my kids if they were up for trout fishing, but the response was less than lukewarm. I had considered trying to hook up with a friend this day, but my schedule is unpredictable, and I never know what I’m going to want to do, or where I’m going to want to go. Getting someone to put up with my unpredictability, and is willing and able to keep up, will have their own gear, know how to use it etc. is tough. I like fishing with others, especially on known water, but on this day I was glad to have all the adventure to myself.
Despite all of my marching and fish catching, the spectacle of a mature hardwood forest on a spring day was not lost on me. The forest floor was a green carpet speckled with millions of white flowers, reminding me of stars in the night sky. I was wishing for a camera better than what is in my phone, but it would have to do. I was keeping an eye out for morels, but never did find a single one.
There were quite a few Pheasant Back mushrooms sprouting from dead logs though, and I decided today was going to be the day I would harvest some. I could already imagine cooking them up along with the five trout that I was quite sure I would catch on the way back downstream. And I figured I should dig up a few of the millions of ramps growing in the forest while I was at it, these wild relatives of onions were another thing I had never harvested before. [note to self—put a small shovel in your vest for ramp digging detail, digging them up barehanded is tough and dirty]
Sandwich eaten, bugger tied back on, let the trout harvesting begin. This stream has special regs like many other Minnesota streams, and there is no kill between 12 and 16 inches. The best ones for the pan are in the 9 to 11” range anyway. First cast- twelve incher, about as big as I had seen in this stream. I let it go, and was soon hooked to another, maybe a bit smaller. I put the tape measure on it to confirm it was under a foot, and it went in The Sack. The Sack is a mesh bag that mostly stays wadded up in the back of my vest, once in a while it gets to carry some trout. Soon there were a couple more in there. Funny thing, when I start fishing for trout that I’m going to keep it starts to be not as much fun. When I’m catch and release fishing [which is most of the time] and one gets away I don’t really care at all. When I’m keeping fish and a “sacker” gets off just as I’m about to grab him I can’t help but get pissed.
A few fish started rising here and there, despite the fact I had hardly seen a bug on the water all day. There must have been something hatching, as many unidentified warblers and songbirds were picking things off as well. The trout were hitting the bugger enough to get me to put aside any thoughts of dry fly fishing, but at some point they started coming up steady enough to get me to make the switch. The only bugs I had seen were a few caddis, so I put on the old trusty Henryville Special. They couldn’t get enough of it. At some point The Sack had five trout in it, and I stopped fishing to clean them in the style of my grandpa. He always gut and gilled his trout streamside, and I mostly keep the tradition alive, I have a little knife in my vest that is used only for this purpose. I figured that doing this was probably illegal, but then continuing to fish with a limit of five in The Sack probably is too. I took my chances with both, finally ending up in a run with 50 trout rising along the far bank. I did a time check as I got to this spot, knowing I was now at the point where I was going to be late getting home. How late was still debatable. After tormenting another dozen fish I decided enough is enough and I began the march back to the truck. I sent a text home indicating I was walking out of the valley. The hike out took about a half hour.
I cooked the trout as I always do, de-headed and de-finned, but otherwise whole, pan fried. I chopped and sautéed the wild mushrooms and ramps and mixed them into some brown rice for a great accompaniment to the trout. Wild trout, wild mushrooms and wild veggies, all harvest from the same verdant valley. Sometimes life is pretty good.
There was one trout left, which I ate for breakfast this morning with more ramps and over-easy eggs.
Dream up, dream up,
let me fill your cup…