Southeast Minnesota’s Driftless Area

It is not well known that in the land of 10,000 Lakes there are also many miles of moving water, providing some of the best wild trout habitat in America, maybe the world.

This unique area is called “The Driftless Area” by those who study the land because it was missed by the glaciers in the last ice age. The smooth contour of most of the surrounding prairie is conspicuously absent here. As the ice receded, it cut the deep valleys and left the high bluffs of this beautiful area. This ancient process also created miles of awesome trout water.

It would be impossible to describe all of the magnificent trout streams within 100 square miles in one article, so hopefully, this one will give you a brief outline of the main drainages and opportunities. These watersheds include three of the top 100 trout streams in America as represented by the Trout Unlimited book of the same name. The three streams in TU’s book are The South Branch of The Root River, The Whitewater River and Trout Run (a tributary of The North Branch of The Root River).

These nutrient-rich streams produce many forms of aquatic insects year-round. The implementation of special regulations in 2005, extensive habitat improvements and a growing catch and release ethic among anglers has increased the size and numbers of trout in recent years. The area’s many creeks, fed by underground springs, create the habitat that can produce large trout in relatively small water. Mayflies and Caddis hatches can be intense throughout the spring and summer followed by fast and furious hopper and terrestrial action in late summer and fall. Bead head nymphs such as Bead Head Pheasant Tails, Gold-ribbed Hare’s Ears, Princes and scuds (18-12) behind an indicator produce fish year-round.

A fast action, 7-8-foot, four weight rod, armed with 6X leader/tippet is best in small streams and clear conditions. A delicate, accurate, presentation and extreme stealth are the keys to success in small spring creeks. With this outfit, anglers can target trout in tight spots like log jams and overhanging trees. In the main stems, a 9 ft. 5-6 weight and 5x leader can throw bigger flies and cover more water.

Changes in regulations in 2014 extended opportunities for catch and release from September 15 until October 15. In addition, this opened all three state parks with some of the best stretches of water, (Forestville/Mystery Cave, Beaver Creek, and Whitewater) for year-round catch and release. The regular season opens the second Saturday in April until September 15. Catch and release is open on all streams from January 1 to the second Saturday in April and September 15 to October 15. Winter season can be tough but some midges hatch on warmer days can be a quick respite from the tying bench and cabin fever. Because of the fairly consistent temperature of the underground springs feeding these streams they never freeze up completely.

Starting in early March, the Blue-winged Olives begin very small (22-18) and offer the first true dry fly fishing of spring. These continue through early summer and increase in size as the weather warms. Anglers greet the Caddis with great anticipation as the weather warms and spring flooding subsides. Tan Elk Hair Caddis (18-12) can take big fish on top most of the year. When they hatch in May and June, they can be intense and the best dry fly action of the year. The Black caddis follow and overlap. The Dark Hendricksons are one of the great mayfly hatches of the season and can begin in late May and last into June. The light Hendrickson also begins to ramp up in early summer. March Browns, Light Cahill and BWO’s can keep you floating dries all summer. Late summer ushers in the Hopper time. Much big fish are taken in the fall of each year on large foam or deer hair grasshoppers, especially in the meadows of the more eastern steams that drain into the mighty Mississippi. Foam beetles, ants, and streamers continue to be effective into the late fall.


The Root River

The Root River watershed includes The South Branch, South Fork, Middle Branch, and The North Branch which form the Main Branch of Root River at the confluence downstream from the small town of Lanesboro.

The South Branch – Think Giant Spring Creek

The South Branch is designated trout stream for its entire length. Starting in Mystery Cave and winding through Forestville State Park through meadows, wildlife management areas and agricultural land. The park provides good access and has two spring-fed creeks that join in the state park. Both Canfield Creek and Forestville Creeks have special regulations which have increased the size and numbers of fish. Downstream from the park is private land but can be accessed with permission. The river is floatable with a canoe or kayak, but some walking may be needed in low water years.

In the town of Preston, there is good access through town. In this section, a habitat improvement project by TU, City of Preston and the Driftless Area Restoration Effort completed in 2017 improved access and water quality considerably. The Root River State Bike Trail follows the river to Lanesboro and an angler/cyclist/hiker can access the many big pools along the way. Near the Old Barn resort and downstream can be crowded with canoes and kayaks after Memorial Day and some still water behind the dam in Lanesboro makes it less likely to hold trout. The lower stretch is best fished early and late season. Good access in the town of Lanesboro may surprise you with some nice fish from the dam downstream to the confluence with the North Branch. Designated spring creeks that join the South Branch are Willow, Camp, Watson, and Duschee. All have good public access except Watson which is mostly private. A private campground just north of Preston has access in the park. Check the special regulations on these creeks because they vary. Camp Creek is on The Harmony Preston Bike Trail and is designated catch and release only.

The Middle Branch and The North Branch are not designated trout streams but have good smallmouth populations and can hold big trout (catch and release only) especially early and late season. Some good designated trout streams that are tributaries of these two branches include Trout Run and Mill Creek.

The South Fork of The Root River

This beautiful, smaller neighbor to The South Branch emerges from The Dr. Johnan C. Hovslef Wildlife Management Area near Amherst. The headwaters are spring fed and usually very clear. This area is catch and release only and holds good populations of native brook trout and wild browns. Good public access for this entire stretch makes it prime for good early hatches and during spring run-off. Because it is mostly in The Richard J. Dorer State Hardwood Forest there is less tilled land and it does not get muddy as quickly as others. Further downstream there is no special regs and access at the small cluster of homes appropriately named Choice, it becomes larger. There is also good access at The Hwy. 12 Bridge locally known as The Million Dollar Bridge. Tributaries of The South Fork can be great, especially in the heat of summer with deep pools, high bluffs, shade and lots of springs. Wisel Creek has slot limits and excellent public access. (All trout between 12 & 16 inches are released-keep 3 under 12 and one over 16 daily) Vesta, Nepstad and Maple Creeks are small, designated trout streams that meet The South Fork near Choice.

East to Beaver Creek

Within the boundaries of Beaver Creek State Park are large springs and extremely cold, clear water. This amazing valley has good designated trails and is open to fly fishing, (catch and release) year-round. It also has some of the most beautiful scenery in SE Minnesota. It is a good place to set up base camp for many of these eastern streams which include Winnebago, Crooked Creek, Pine Creek, and Thompson to name only a few. West Beaver Creek, outside the park, can be easily accessed and productive. These far eastern streams tend to be slower, winding meadow streams as they drop into the Mississippi drainage but hold big browns in the deep pools and log jams. Nearby Caledonia has restaurants and a few motels.

Whitewater and North of I-90

Whitewater State park includes Trout Run and The Middle Branch of The Whitewater. This Trout Run is a small, intimate brook trout stream. The well-traveled trails of the park follow this tributary and The Middle Branch of The Whitewater. Trout Run is catch and release for most of its length Both streams provide easy access for those less mobile but will have lots of pressure in summer. Outside the park, The North Branch has a private campground and lots of public access to thin out the anglers. Trout Valley Creek is a designated minimum 12 inches for brook trout with a limit of one. Further east, Garvin Brook has plenty of good access and recent habitat improvements by Minnesota DNR and Trout Unlimited volunteers should only make it better in the future. North of the park is Indian Creek and Hay Creek which have plenty of public access.

There are way too many streams in SE Minnesota to fish in one lifetime, so explore, have fun, get the excellent maps from the DNR and please leave it as you found it for generations to come.

Sioux Falls to Preston-243 miles-3 hrs. 42 min.

Chicago to Preston-342 miles-5 hrs-5 min.

Minneapolis to Preston 123 miles-2 hrs.

Des Moines to Preston 218 miles-3 hrs. 17 min

The author Mel Hayner is and the owner of The Driftless Fly Fishing Company in Preston, “The Trout Capitol of Minnesota” He started fly-fishing at a young age in the Pacific Northwest and later honed his skills on the fabled Ausable of Michigan. Since 1993 he has fished the rivers and spring creeks of SE Minnesota and guiding others since 2004. The Driftless Fly Fishing Co. is the only Orvis Endorsed Guide Service in SE Minnesota.

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Top Ten Flies for The Driftless Area in SE Minnesota

  1. Blue Winged Olive/Parachute-First real mayfly hatch of the year, can start small (22) in March. They get bigger as it warms but not much. April and May can be great for 16-14’s. Check the rises to see which to use (classic or para).
  2. Bead Head Pheasant Tail Nymph-Best searching nymph any time or water if fish aren’t rising. Upstream with an indicator to drag the bottom of the pools.
  3. Bead Head Hare’s Ear-Number 2 nymph in SE Minnesota (or anywhere). If they aren’t taking the PT switch to this. Bigger is better but downsize if not getting strikes or hanging up.
  4. Adams Classic/ Parachute-Close enough may fly for many hatches. Small for midges, bigger for others. Look at the rises to determine the stage of emergence.
  5. Elk Hair Caddis-Best dry fly all year. The will take this even when they aren’t hatching or rising. Sometimes they only want the small ones (18-16) but when they are hatching, they can be large and abundant. This is the best time to be in The Driftless and can go all summer.
  6. Dave’s Hopper-Late August to fall can be your best chance at a big one on a dry fly. Look for sporadic splashy rises near cover in meadow streams.
  7. Baby Brown Trout Streamer-Swinging these in the fall can rile up the big boys. Yes, they eat their young
  8. Root River Special-Buggy, heavy and deadly in murky water. When they are hunkered down in runoff or hot sunny days, dig deep with the tungsten version of this one.
  9. Cone Head Wooly Bugger -Swinging down and across next to log jams and cut banks can get the biggest hookups of the year especially late season.
  10. Green Bead Head Driftless Sparkle Scud-Tied by Mel at the Driftless Fly Fishing Co. in Preston. This one is a grinder. When nothing is working the “something different” makes a difference.