Over the past quarter of a century I have accomplished milestones that are achievable only when the landscape is locked within the icy tendrils of Jack Frost’s north. Angling on this day afforded me an achievement to likely be unparalleled for many years to come. Today’s accomplishment; 100 trout in less than four hours all on flies and between only two small plunge pools on a ribbon of a creek. 2013 marks 25 years of winter trout fishing for me.
"I find myself increasingly more in tune with the Trout creeks that I frequent. I have learned which creeks will be productive in February and which will not. I have learned which of those productive creeks will warrant the most competition from other anglers and which will be less competitive. I have learned how to best read the water, match the hatch, and present the fly to lethargic but hungry trout."
Today was no different. I had used up my entire preferred lead fly on my last outing. I had to tie more flies. I sat down with my three year old son, Starker, and tied a dozen of these effective flies. A quick glimpse at the hourly weather forecast lead me to believe that, as is normal this time of the year, the warmest part of the day would be midday to the afternoon. Further, with temps hovering below 40 degrees, I understood that run-off would likely not be an issue.
My preferred destination is nearly one hour from Winona. My experience leads me to believe that the bulk of winter anglers would not drive an hour to fish in the winter whilst passing up scores of miles of seasonably open and fishable water. I do not baulk at this distraction determined to have catch related aspects of fishing.
It is well known that late February can produce hatches of Blue Winged Olive mayflies and Black Midge. My target macroinvertebrate hatch today was the one that currently comprises the bulk of macro-invert biomass in the creek in southeast Minnesota, the Black Midge. I know a few spots where they can regularly speckle the snow en masse, where the white snow turns to the writhing mass of crawling Black Midge. The lack of wind in today’s forecast was in my favor to hike a mile from my car deep into the valley to a spot that is typically inhibits angling efforts even with a five mile per hour wind.
Anglers experienced in winter fishing enjoy a significant advantage over less experienced anglers. Knowing how to dress, what to look for in the snow, how to read the water, where the fish will hold, how to match the hatch, and how to present to the fish (once found) are all aspects of this advantage. Not surprisingly, I parked next to another angler's vehicle at the access and noted that this angler was walking was with an open toe. I passed this angler within a quarter mile of the vehicles.
On my hike I passed up typically productive holes searching for footprints in the snow that would indicate which holes had yet to be fished. One half mile from my car I found the end of the footprints headed upstream. I plowed upstream to the next pool that was subject to direct sunlight, exposed in the treeless section of pasture where I knew that hordes of Black Midges would be crawling on the edges of the creek and where lethargic trout would willingly eat my #20 Miracle Nymph. To what degree I would be successful had yet to be determined however assuredly I would have a spot in the sun, away from the highway, and no cell phone access.
"I have fished this creek for 10 seasons. I have watched it undergo significant natural change however I have learned to adapt as if I were a trout reliant on its spring flows. I know that certain spots in this creek stack up wild fish akin to a hatchery raceway. I expected to match my last outing on this creek of 20 fish."
My flies were still rigged to my tippet from last week. My seven foot five weight fly rod was adorned with a hand tied eight foot leader tipped with 4x, a the #16 purple sparkle dubbing gold bead head pheasant tail nymph and a #20 miracle nymph trailer. Additionally I pinched on a dulled BB size split shot eight inches in front of my lead fly. My presentation was simple, fish deep, slow, and on seams.
I have caught so many fish over the years that I no longer get excited when I catch a fish on my first cast. However today was one of those days. When I catch a fish on my second cast immediately after quickly releasing the first fish I think it’s interesting. However when I catch a fish every cast counting the first 20 fish in less than a half hour I think I should stop. I didn’t. I fished on. I didn’t stop until I had to change my camera battery and to get a snack and a drink. I then realized that I had caught nearly 50 fish in the first bathtub sized five-foot deep plunge pool that I sank my flies into.
I always carry a net when I fish. Fishing a five weight allows for me to lift fish under 10-inches out of the water. I lost a lot of fish doing this however still was able to photograph the bulk of my fish. Further, this method of quickly catching, photographing, and releasing winter trout is routine. The bulk of the browns I caught from this pool were under 12-inches. The largest fish being approximately 18-inches which was fooled by the #16 PBHPT.
I took a break to check my leader and tippet and my knots and to review my photographs. It was now 2:30 pm and the sun was still strong in this part of the valley. Further, the midge had begun to graduate past crawling and were taking flight. I decided to walk upstream to see if I could get my eyes on a larger trout for photographic purposes.
I walked no more than 100-feet above where I started catching fish. Deep in another bathtub size plunge pool I saw the gold and yellow flash of a fish that was significantly larger than the 12-inchers I had been catching, photographing, and releasing. I thought to myself, perfect, and this was not unfounded. On this creek nearly a decade ago I had a very memorable 20-fish day ending with a 20-inch rainbow trout. Last week whilst fishing this creek I had a similar experience where I caught 20-fish with the last one being a 20-inch brown, however last week it was on a size 20 hook, so not exactly repeating history. I had hoped that I could end today with about 50 fish and the last one being 20-inches, why not right?
I made one cast and watched the large brown’s mouth open up and take my fly. Fish on! Whoop! While the fish fought against my wishes of being photographed I noted how deep this pool actually was, further, this fish kicked up a swirling ball of hundreds of smaller Trout which made me think that this would not be the last fish of the day. “As long as I make it home in time for supper.” After taking the time to revive the 20-inch Brown and allowing her to swim away on her own I checked my knots and leader and made another cast and caught another fish. I repeated this over and over again for the next hour and a half not keeping track of the number of fish I caught. Most of the fish were 12-inches and browns however I did land a three inch brook char and long distance released at least a few more 8-inch brookies.
I was hungry at this point and noticed that my wrist was a bit sore, likely from catching a lot of fish. I was content and started on my way back to the car. I reviewed the images of trout I had captured and was blown away by the sheer mass of fish I had caught and released. As I cut across the feedlot to my car I counted almost 125 turkeys attempt to fly away to the bluff side frightened by my approach.
To summarize my day, I took the risk and parked at an access where there was another angler fully understanding that I know what I am doing and can still catch fish without disturbing the other anglers experience. I knew what to look for in the hourly weather forecast to pick my destination and how to appropriately dress to accommodate the day’s climate. Further, I quickly and quietly caught and released scores of trout from two pools only to find conflict with suppertime, my 30-minute hike and one-hour drive home.
For a full image gallery of the day please visit www.nationaltroutcenter.org