Winter trout fishing is nothing like ice fishing. There are no huts or holes or hours of waiting involved. You do not pass the time sitting idly on an overturned bucket watching for a bobber to suddenly be pulled into the depths of the dark water beneath you. In winter trout fishing, you have to be the one to initiate that first bite and you must be precise; you cannot just drop a worm in the water and wait to see what will happen.
Justin Carroll is a self-proclaimed trout fishing enthusiast. He works three different jobs and devotes a hearty portion of whatever time he has left to trout fishing. Like any enthusiast of anything, Carroll is devoted to all aspects of trout fishing, from creating his own flies — the hooks disguised as insects — to the trout slime that sometimes finds its way onto him. “I love it,” he says as he smells his hand. “I can almost smell the slime from yesterday.”
Carroll, who owns and operates the blog Winona Fly Factory, loves fishing for trout year-round, but concedes that there is something fitting about doing it in wintertime when conditions are rougher and food for the trout is less abundant.
“I like winter because there’s a certain level of challenge,” he explains. “Fly fishing for trout alone is as much of a challenge for most people.”
Whereas the ice fishermen on lakes all over Minnesota typically use larger lures to entice and catch fish, fly fishing involves a weighted line to propel handmade flies to the fish. The flies used in winter trout fishing are meant to resemble midges, the tiny flies that are still active in winter and serve as a main source of food for trout.
“You’ll go to the creek and it looks like pepper against the snow,” Carroll says of the abundance of midge this time of year.
It makes sense then that Carroll and his fellow anglers use flies that resemble midge, tiny grey puffs made from feathers that carefully disguise hooks. When the weightless flies are cast they sit on top of the water, like real midge, waiting for a trout to snap them up.
According to George Spangler, who serves as chairman of the board of directors of the National Trout Center and is a professor of emeritus at the University of Minnesota in its department of fisheries, wildlife and conservation biology, another challenge of winter trout fishing is the physicality of it.
“When you are having to move bait past fish you are going to have to get down near the water,” Spangler explains. “You have to be mindful of your own circumstances and footing when you’re approaching the stream. Footing can be very uncertain and treacherous.”
Like Carroll, Spangler is a trout fishing aficionado. He knows about the diet and habits of trout, where they live and what they do. Spangler also knows why Southeastern Minnesota is one of the best places for trout fishing. The groundwater maintains and regulates the overall temperature of the water regardless of the season.
“Groundwater is the very reason why we have the trout streams that we do in Southeastern Minnesota. The water moving through subterranean aquifers takes on the average temperature of the region,” Spangler says. “Groundwater is the reason why we can have a winter trout season at all.”
Carroll agrees. “It’s why the creeks are open this time of year.”
Opening day refuge
On January 1, while most everyone else was inside nursing their hangovers and contemplating not making the same mistakes they had in the past year, Justin Carroll made his way out for the first day of the winter trout fishing season. He snowshoed for a few miles, hiking amid a scenic view of the bluffs covered with fresh snow and the skeletons of trees. After meandering for a while, he found a creek, steam rising from the top of the water, gin-clear all the way to the bottom. There in the little sanctuary of nature, he took out his fly fishing pole, attached a homemade fly and fished for trout.
On Saturday, January 4, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. the National Trout Center will host an open house at its temporary home in Preston (on the east side of the courthouse square). There will be hot beverages, snacks, fly-tying and more. On Saturday, January 4, from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. the Whitewater State Park, located three miles south of Elba on state highway 74, will be hosting a winter trout fishing gathering.