Night Fly Fishing the Minnesota Driftless
An area of approximately 2500 square miles in the southeastern part of Minnesota is part of the well-known unglaciated or driftless area, which also includes parts of southwestern Wisconsin, northeastern Iowa and northwestern Illinois. In Minnesota, this region borders the Mississippi River and is drained by the Root, Whitewater and Zumbro rivers. The counties involved include all or part of Dakota, Goodhue, Wabasha, Winona, Olmsted, Dodge, Houston, Fillmore, and Mower. Karst topography is found throughout this region and is characterized by caves and cave systems, disappearing streams, blind valleys, underground streams, sinkholes, springs and cold streams. These fertile waters provide superb trout habitat with many streams sustaining population counts ranging in the area of 2,000 to 4,000 trout per mile.
A great time of year to target the larger specimens within this incredible biomass of trout with a fly rod is during the summer. As the Mercury climbs, conditions are created that often put trout into a pattern of feeding early and late, reserving much of the day for resting and loafing. By staying hidden in cover not only are they protected from the heat of the day but also from predators. But when the sun drops below the limestone bluffs and night is ushered in the bigger, predatory Browns become less wary as they go on the offensive. They cruise the water for their prey under the protective cloak of darkness. Those small spring creeks that many may think are lacking big trout are apt to boil in the darkness and the mouse fly is the key to making that happen.
For trout, I can think of no other way of fishing that produces such violent and entertaining takes. The unrestrained sound of erupting water unravels the calm, still of night when a fish decides to take a mouse. Hearing a trout pummel such a pattern on the surface is not only one of the most thrilling moments in fly fishing but may just change your perception of trout. Gentle takes of nymphs, midges and mayflies may happen the majority of time in the streams of the Minnesota Driftless but when Browns reach a certain size, they can no longer survive by eating only tiny insects. Trophy trout require larger quantities of protein to maintain weight, so their attention turns towards baitfish as well as unfortunate rodents and amphibians that fall into the flow. I try to replicate with the “flies” I use the size and silhouette of these vertebrates found along the trout streams of southeastern Minnesota. Trout have superb night vision so I tend to use darker colored flies because of the way they silhouette against the dark sky. The following patterns have all been proven effective at producing larger Browns at night.
- Mouse Rat: This is a large fly for trout and tends to attract a lot of attention from fish by moving a sizable amount of water. It is nearly perfect in representing the size of an adult mouse.
- The Loco Mouse: These tend to ride a little lower in the water and with their smaller size will often coax a strike from trout that refuse a larger fly.
- Morrish Mouse: This is at the top of my list of night flies for trout. The wide body moves a lot of water and the tail makes it very appealing under water. The foam in its construction keeps it floating and the head shape gives it a “pop” that draws a lot of attention.
- Frog fly: Designed to look, move and float like a real frog
Since these Mouse flies are heavy and certainly if there is any wind, use a 5 or 6 wt rod as you will need that heavier line to get the fly where you need it. There is certainly no need for a long leader so since I regularly fish 5x or 6x I merely cut one of those down to a 4ft section. At night, fish are not going to see your line and you will be thankful you have something that strong if you tangle with a large Brown!
There are several ways to present a mouse fly and by using the following techniques, I have found success. Cast across the pool or run as tight to the far bank as possible then make slow, steady strips with frequent pauses. A variation of this is casting upstream close to the bank you are on and stripping the mouse back to you. While mice are proficient swimmers, they are still at the mercy of the current so the best retrieve cadence is a slow, natural retrieve. To skate your mouse, cast at a 45 degree angle to the far bank and let it swing creating a wake. By swinging mouse patterns, you are able to simulate a swimming mouse as it tries to fight the current while attempting to traverse across.
Although any water is certainly fair game to target, deeper pools with slow to moderate flow is where I have encountered the most action in terms of strikes and hook-ups. Fast moving water seems to conceal the silhouette of the mouse rendering it less effective. Cover a lot of water. Not all fish will eat a mouse, but those who will generally strike quickly, often times moving great distances to secure their prey. It is quite common for Browns to take a mouse shortly after the fly hits the water; therefore, it isn’t necessary to make more than one or two casts in a given spot. This is a game of “hide and seek” where we are searching for a few willing participants and not the overzealous masses.
A mouse represents a big meal to a trout, so they move to the mouse fly aggressively, so takes are generally violent marked by exploding water. Resist the urge to immediately set the hook! Keeping calm and continuing stripping will be the last thing on your mind but it’s the best thing. Strip setting is the key while “mousing”. If you set the hook by lifting the rod tip (trout set), you may pull the mouse from the fish’s mouth. Wait until you feel good tension on the line, make your move based on this factor, and not sound. Patience is the name of the game.
A few points in closing, to be successful fly fishing at night for trout you need accurate knowledge of the stream you plan to fish. Know where the deep holes, trees and other obstacles lie. Be mindful of the time because legal stream trout fishing hours in Minnesota are one hour before sunrise to 11pm. For safety, consider carrying a wading staff and if you’re alone always let someone know exactly where you will be. Also, if using a light to navigate the stream, never let it hit the water you plan to fish. This will surely send the trout back to the deep, dark abyss.
Several things about night fly fishing for trout keep drawing me back: the thrill of hooking into a fish after a fierce take, the very real opportunity to land a true trophy Brown and the quiet solitude of a summer night in the Minnesota Driftless Area. Try it for yourself; you just might enjoy the thrill just as much as I do!