The region’s distinctive terrain is the result of being bypassed by the last continental glacier. The term “driftless” indicates a lack of glacial drift, the deposits of silt, gravel, and rock that retreating glaciers leave behind. The area’s Karst topography is characterized by deeply carved river coulees with forested hillsides reaching down towards valley floors. Here one finds an elaborate labyrinth of clear, cold, highly oxygenated limestone creeks that snake their way through rich, rural farmland. Vegetation thrives on the alkaline nutrients in these waters and provides a habitat in which aquatic invertebrate insects flourish. Because these insects in pupal and winged form represent the principal diet of freshwater trout, the fish living in spring creeks have an ample food supply throughout the year. This aspect of spring creek ecology, combined with the advantageous water conditions, and countless stream improvement projects that are plentiful in the area thanks to conservation-minded landowners, fishery biologists, dedicated volunteers and the DNR create a remarkable environment for trout with many streams sustaining population counts ranging in the area of 2,000 to 4,000 trout per mile. There are more than 3,800 miles statewide with approximately 720 miles of designated trout streams in the area with nearly 230 of those being accessible through public easements and since these springs run at 48 to 50 degrees, providing cool water for trout in summer and preventing the water from freezing in winter, fishing this area can be a year round endeavor.
New state trout fishing regulations are now in place, which have created new opportunities for anglers and simplified the rules in southeast Minnesota. These regulations have extended catch and release seasons in eight southeast Minnesota counties and seven trout streams in three Minnesota state parks located in the driftless area—Forestville, Whitewater and Beaver Creek Valley. Within the boundaries of these state parks, this catch-and-release season runs the whole year. All southeast Minnesota streams open up for the winter catch and release trout season on Jan. 1. Therefore, when the temperatures drop and snow blankets the landscape, there is no need to store those fly rods to settle in for a hibernating slumber!
Winter fly fishing presents a unique set of challenges that anglers don’t have to deal with the rest of the year. These challenges include cold weather safety, when, how and where to find fish, and specialized fly fishing gear to make your time on the water more comfortable. For those that are willing to put a little extra effort into preparation and on the water tactics, fly fishing the Driftless Area of southeastern Minnesota during the winter can be an extremely rewarding undertaking that includes beautiful winter scenery and willing trout and you just might have the stream to yourself, experiencing solitude that’s harder to find when the hatches of spring and summer occur.
Clearing ice from the guides of your fly rod, trekking through snow to get to the stream, tying flies between warming your hands is all part of the experience when fly fishing the Minnesota Driftless Area during winter. I love it! A feeling that I cheated Mother Nature comes over me that I found a way to get out on the water in the depths of a season that often times drives people to loafing inside waiting for spring to arrive. If you are successful in catching something, it means you have achieved the perfect combination of fly selection, fly placement, and drift despite of the elements—something you can be proud of.
Fly fishing between December and March can be technically challenging but with that being said, here are some tips on winter tactics along with fly and gear suggestions to increase your odds of catching more fish.
When water temperatures drop, the trout themselves slow down as their metabolism decreases. They become more lethargic and generally won’t move more than a few inches for your fly. The most active feeding times for trout are when the water temps are rising or have reached the highest point of the day. Fishing is rarely very productive before 9 a.m. during the winter months. In fact, trout may not move much at all prior to 11 a.m. so relax and have another cup of hot coffee before heading to the stream. Aquatic insects also become a bit more active when things warm up which gives the fish a reason to “punch into work.”
In the winter, the success rate of a fly angler can be greatly improved if unproductive water is quickly eliminated. Efforts should be concentrated on slow runs and deep holes as these are the locales where trout stack up whereas, areas of shallow, fast water can be given less attention.
Once the likely winter trout holding water is located and identified, it must then be fished effectively and this means slowing down and taking a much more methodical and stealthy approach. Since you know the fish are there, jumping from pool to pool might give you a change of scenery but it’s doubtful your number of fish to the net will increase noticeably. Try covering every inch of the hole and then repeat. Just by slightly shifting your position, your drift may change just enough to entice a fish to eat. Streams are at their lowest and clearest in the winter and snow-covered banks reflect light and accentuate shadows. Be mindful of the lower winter sun as casting long shadows over targeted runs will send feeding trout darting for cover.
During the winter months, aquatic insect activity decreases with only a few varieties being present for trout to feed on. One must choose flies that mimic varieties the fish are looking for and then present them in such a way that fish will strike and a key element to this presentation is using light 5X or 6X tippet. While there are a few dry fly patterns that will produce fish, they are usually not as productive. Sub-surface nymph and streamer / woolly bugger patterns are what I primarily gravitate towards.
I have to include at least one dry fly to this list. Even in the winter months, midges will hatch and bring fish to the surface on warm days. When this happens, I’ve had great luck fishing this pattern.
While fly fishing during winter, temperatures and conditions will vary greatly. There are three major priorities—keeping warm and staying completely dry and safe. I like to take a head-to-toe approach as I ready myself to brave the elements. A quality cold weather cap goes a long ways towards keeping you comfortable on the water. There are many hat options out there, but in my opinion, one constructed of wool or a wool blend will help keep your whole body warm, as most of the body’s heat is lost through the head.
The key to keeping your core warm is to layer your clothing. Your base layer is your first level of clothing. The base layer serves two purposes – the first is to insulate your body’s natural heat and keep it from escaping, the second is to wick moisture away from your skin to the outside of the fabric so it can evaporate. A wind and waterproof jacket for your outer layer is necessary to combat the elements.
Fingerless gloves are also useful as they are designed to protect and keep the hands warm, but still allow free and unhindered dexterity. I wear gloves constructed of a windproof, highly water resistant softshell exterior designed to protect you from the elements. A landing net is helpful in keeping your hands and gloves out of the water.
A good pair of insulated socks is really just an extension of the base layer. When fishing, your feet do not move much, so it is very easy for them to get cold. As with the base layer, the moisture wicking capability of your socks is essential to staying warm. A good option is to have a thin liner sock that wicks moisture away and then a thicker sock to insulate your feet.
Just a quick word on fly rod care while on the water during the winter: the guides will ice up, which is not only frustrating but causes you to break from fishing to address the problem. I have found that by coating the guides with Chap-stick lip balm or other similar products, you can reduce, but not eliminate, ice buildup on them.