by CHRIS ROGERS
Sometimes late converts are the most fervent. Justin Carroll did not fish, period. Then, on a family trip to Colorado, his father-in-law-to-be told him, “You and me are going fishing.”
“Oh, really?” Carroll recalled thinking. He must have liked something about it, though, because now Carroll runs a blog full of a trout angler’s careful notes and closeup shots of delicate flies he ties himself and the jewel-like fish they lure. “I went to WSU [Winona State University] for four years. I had no idea where I was living,” he said, gesturing to the snow-dusted hills all around him and the “gin-clear” creek meandering toward Pickwick. “This is why I bought a house.”
For people like Carroll, nothing beats trout fishing, and Southeast Minnesota has some of the best in the Midwest. Though Minnesotans and Wisconsinites are better known for their other frigid fishing sport — ice fishing — Carroll has never missed a January 1 winter trout fishing season opener.
Jason Rieke went out for the opener, too, even though the high that day was around zero degrees. It was not any warmer last week. Garvin Brook was steaming and the sun had not yet come over the ridge when Rieke stepped out of his Blazer. The president of WSU’s fly fishing club does not have class until 9:30 a.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays — plenty of time to go fishing. “They’re tougher to catch. They’re really smart and spooky,” Rieke said of trout fishing. “I really enjoy the challenge,” he added.
Rieke cleaned ice off his rod’s guides a couple times before landing a brown trout and dipping his fingerless gloves into water to release it. Winter trout fishing in Minnesota is catch-and-release only, and in cold temperatures, anglers must be careful not to keep the fish out of the water for more than a second. “That’s what it’s all about right there,” Rieke said as the trout flashed out of sight. Later on, he puffed on his fingers and swung his arms around to force warm blood into his hands.
“They created winter trout fishing — the DNR [Department of Natural Resources] did — just to give people another option to get rid of cabin fever,” Winonan Jim Clark said. Clark goes winter trout fishing when it is not too frigid, but he said there are plenty of reasons not to. The rod guides keep freezing, fly fishing anglers need to bare their fingers to have enough dexterity, and the trout’s metabolism slows down, so the fishing is not that hot, Clark stated.
Carroll disagrees. There is great trout fishing in winter, he stated. The trout still need to eat, though they may be less willing to expend lots of calories chasing down a snack, Carroll said. “The key from my perspective is putting the fly in front of their face,” he stated.
Hunting and fishing of any kind requires people to understand animals and their ecosystem, and trout anglers pay careful attention to the lives of trout and trout streams. “In order to fly fish, you just have to get deeper into the whole environment that’s going on with the stream,” Clark said. On a scrap of paper, he sketched the layers of limestone, sandstone, and shale that produce driftless region springs. When groundwater hits the shale, it has to find somewhere to get out, he said. Those springs keep water colder in summer — a must for trout to breathe — and keep the streams from freezing in winter. “Without the springs, it’d be walleyes and bass for everyone,” Clark stated.
Little black specks in the snow are a give away, Carroll said. Tiny flies called midges are an important food source for trout, and seeing dead midges in the snow near a stream is a sign that trout may be active nearby, he explained. Clark showed off a fly he made, a mock midge no bigger than his pinkie nail. However, Carroll, Rieke, and Clark also used what Clark called “big bite bait” — flies that look like leeches, minnows, or large aquatic insects. After nibbling tiny midges for so long, trout may be more willing to take a chance on a big piece of food, Clark figured.
Clark, Carroll, and Rieke are all fly fishermen, but many people fish for trout with spinner lures or worms. One of Carroll’s good friends fishes with spinners. “Certain days he’ll beat the pants off me,” Carroll said.
In summer, trout are often active in riffles where tasty invertebrates live, but in winter, they tend to lie low in deep pools, the fishermen said. Rieke advised beginning winter trout anglers to fish “low and slow in deeper water.” Carroll said that tactic is more likely to catch fish, but he prefers to start by dropping a lure at the top of the water column. “I’m going to see if there’s an aggressive fish that wants to come out and play,” he said.
Garvin Brook and Big Trout Creek near Pickwick are both spots where the local Trout Unlimited chapter completed habitat improvement projects with the DNR. As a result of decades-old erosion, there are thick deposits of topsoil in valley bottoms, and trout streams often cut steep banks into that topsoil. Those banks continue eroding, making crystal-clear trout streams muddier and more prone to flooding. In habitat restoration projects, DNR crews and local volunteers push back those steep banks and put in slabs of rocks to serve as riprap.
Clark praised Minnesota’s Legacy Amendment and Outdoor Heritage Fund — a tax approved by voters to help fund creekside conservation easements — for improving the water quality of local trout streams. “We’re really, really fortunate here,” he said. “If you don’t have a good, high quality water source, you don’t have trout. They won’t live in polluted stuff,” Clark stated.
For Rieke and Carroll, just spending time on a trout stream is half the fun. “The scenery and beauty of winter is what makes it one of my favorite seasons,” Rieke said.