There's something about the traditions of a good old-fashioned trout opener. Years ago, when my buddies and I started fly fishing for trout, our first stop was the pancake breakfast at the Chatfield Fire Department in the lovely Chosen Valley in Southeast Minnesota. It had everything you could ask for — small town flavor, giveaways, a fishing contest, and a warmish breakfast if you hit the line just right. All the pancakes you'd care to eat. There was even an appearance by the town's brass band.
We'd scarf down breakfast, peek in the trout tank, and head out to get a spot on the stream bank. Then we'd wait for the official opening of trout season at 10 a.m.
During that wait, in either my first or second year of trout fishing, I managed to create a giant rat's nest in my tippet at exactly 9:59 a.m., postponing my first cast to somewhere closer to 10:30 a.m. Otherwise, I actually enjoyed the ceremony of watching the minutes until we were legal.
In the years since, Minnesota dispensed with the 10 a.m. start time and introduced an early catch-and-release period. So we dispensed with the pancake breakfast and the catch-and-keep opener in a bid to beat the crowds. We were releasing all of the trout we caught anyway.
This year, my buddy Eric and I bet on the weather and hoped for reasonable stream conditions, and headed out for a few days the first week of April. For the past few seasons, we've enjoyed the comforts (and heat) of Eric's pop-up camper. But the tentative "we might be back by then" from our friends at Maple Springs Campground wasn't reassuring, so we tried the camper cabins at Forestville State Park. It was close enough to roughing it for us.
We started the trip with breakfast at Ma's Café in Plainview, Minnesota, a town that wishes you "Have a nice day" as you leave the city limits. Years ago, one of my fishing buddies drove past that sign with an old acquaintance who for some reason said aloud, "That's a powerful message." Right after his statement, a bee flew in the window and stung the guy in the leg, proving there perhaps is a price to pay for reciting and affirming an old cliché. And wearing shorts.
Our first fishing stop was at the Middle Branch of the Whitewater River. This can be a great time of year to fish this stream, with stained water potentially making a stealthy approach easier. On this day, the water was up a bit, a cold gray color, and just seemed off. We tried nymphs and streamers to no avail. We struggled to even spook a trout. We were hoping to have the river to ourselves, but not to that degree.
So we headed south to check in at the park and check out our cabin. It turned out to be sort of perfect. Small, with a couple bunk beds and table, heat, and electricity.
After getting settled, we tried a stretch of the South Branch of the Root River we call the "Anyways Stretch" — long story — and continued our run of bad luck. The river was up a fair bit with that same cold gray tint. I managed to land one trout among a few sporadic risers in a slower stretch, and that was it for day one. It turned out to be the only day I'd catch the most fish. Not that anyone was counting.
The next day, we found better fishing and clearer waters at Trout Run Creek. We'd mostly avoided this section of the stream since "stream improvements" ruined our favorite stretch of river, but it seemed like our best bet given the conditions. It proved to be a good choice. We again had the stream to ourselves, but this time, we caught some fish on pheasant tail and gold-ribbed hare's ear nymphs, and managed to coax a few to the surface on caddis patterns. There were a few stretches with rising trout, but not much of a hatch. The trout did seem interested in a poorly skated caddis pattern, however. Eric landed a dozen or so, and I managed 6 or 8 trout.
The next morning, continuing the theme of revisiting old haunts — which also happened to give us a better chance at clear water — we headed east to Pine Creek. It had been at least a decade since I'd fished here, but it all came back as we followed the stream through the grassy valley. This creek, too, had been improved. Which meant we caught our fish in unimproved riffles and runs, on nymphs and dries, "as God intended." The same nymphs and caddis worked for us here. Eric out fished me again, catching maybe 20 trout to my dozen or so.
It's an awfully pretty stretch of river that was nice enough to us anglers, as we shook off the early season rust. We were just glad find some clear water, greet some trout, and not have to fall back on "it's just nice to be out." It was nice to be out. But it was nicer have some luck.
In three days, we saw one fellow angler. And we had the park pretty much to ourselves, with just one other cabin with its light on, and one or two tents set up in the campground.
I'm thinking we'll keep making our own pancakes and getting out ahead of the official trout opener. And perhaps the "Owl" cabin at Forestville will become our new spring trout fishing tradition.