Saturday, April 29, 2017

A Classic Trout Opener – Crossing Fingers and Beating the Crowds

Spring trout fishing in Southeast Minnesota.
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. 

Brown trout caught on small stream in Southeast Minnesota.

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.

Cold spring small stream trout fishing in Southeast Minnesota.
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.

Trout stream improvement sign. Sigh.
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.   

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Soundtrack Leading up to a Fishing Trip

Me, my thoughts are flower strewn
Ocean storm, bayberry moon
I have got to leave to find my way …

I have got to find the river
Bergamot and vetiver
Run through my head and fall away

(From REM's Find the River)

There's a certain perfection in the days leading up to a fishing trip. For the optimist, it's all possibilities. Even poor fishing and unfavorable weather reports can be dismissed or turned into something that – you never know – could help in the end. 

One of my favorite "I'm going fishing" songs isn't about fishing at all. But it is (at least in my reading) about the pull of water and the need to leave in search of something. And if you key in on the word river, which some of us can't help but do, it fits in the way half-understood verse can. It's all about how you look at it.

Today, in addition to taking an optimistic reading of songs, stream reports and weather forecasts, I figured I could use a going-fishing playlist. For me that list requires a good tune, and the mention of the word river or fishing. The songs really aren’t necessarily about fishing. But some would say fishing isn't necessarily about fishing. And yet it is. And they are.

Find the River – REM

River – Leon Bridges

Down by the River – Neil Young

Big River - Johnny Cash

River Boy – Willie Nelson

I know I’m missing many songs. Add to the playlist by posting a comment. 

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Good Afternoon … Caddis

Elk hair caddis fly on cork of Fenwick FF70 beside a trout stream.
It had been far too long since I'd been out fishing. I'd started to doubt my credentials as an angler. Rains fouled the rivers on our annual early season trip, and they'd messed with my plans ever since. I started to worry that even the itch to get out fishing was starting to fade. Plus, it's May. There is no better time than the present when it's May in Minnesota.

I decided a slow start would suit me on this day. That was part duty calling and part weariness from a long short week. So I finished up a couple things I needed to get done, drank an extra cup or two of coffee, and finally got my stuff together after a brief incident with a misplaced reel.

I got to the river -- a favorite stretch of the South Branch of the Root -- around 1 p.m. (Okay, really slow start.) I cursed myself a little when I found a fellow angler in my favorite run. He was nice enough fellow, so I didn't curse him. And he had a fish on, so that gave me hope that the long walk to my second-favorite stretch of this river would not be in vain.

Looking downstream while trout fishing on the Root River in Southeast Minnesota.
The river was a bit off color, but the flow was normal, and I could see trout rising almost immediately when I reached the riverbank. There weren't many risers, but there were some big tan caddis on the water, and there were more rises than bugs. Things were looking up.

I started with a ridiculous choice that nearly always seems to work for me on riffled water in a caddis hatch. I call it the Super Bushy Adams (or SBA, when I feeling especially ridiculous). It's really just a poorly tied Adams in size 14 or so. I started using this, um, pattern years ago on a day when my poorly tied caddis patterns weren't working and my attempts at an Adams pattern looked like they could work in water where the trout didn’t get a good look at the fly. And, I found that they skated pretty nicely.

After a few refusals, I looked more closely at my super bushy Adams and realized it had a preposterously thick tail. I clipped that off and started catching them. 

A nice average brown trout caught while fly fishing in Southeast Minnesota.

I lost what would have been my best fish of the day after a pretty good fight. I even had an audience on the bridge just downstream. I couldn't get the fish to the surface, so I can't exaggerate its size with any certainty, but based on its weight and fight, I'd guess it went at least 16 inches.

The fish rose easily to the dead-drifted SBA placed barely above its lie -- I didn't want to give him too good a look. It ran into heavier current and bore down. Then it ran downstream. It put on a good show for the guy who'd stopped on the bridge to watch, bending my Fenwick FF70 to the butt. I went somewhat easy on the pressure, not having full faith in my tippet. And the trout shook himself off in the current downstream. I apologized to the guy on the bridge for my performance.

After a bit, I switched to a proper Elk Hair Caddis and did even better. No surprise, I suppose. What was a surprise is that I was getting them on the dead drift. If I were a decent student of hatches, I'd probably understand this. At least I was educated enough to know to try skating the flies when the dead drift stopped working.

Brown trout on an elk hair caddis fly while fly fishing in southeast Minnesota.
I caught 20-some trout (I'm a terrible counter) in a few hours on the water and missed many more -- especially while casting downstream and skating the fly. It was plenty of ammunition to taunt my fishing buddies who were working back home. I didn't even wait to get back to my truck to begin doing that.  

It's good to get out alone for any number of reasons. But I realized I desperately need to work on my solo fishing photography techniques. It's fun to take photos when fishing with friends. But when you have no witnesses, the need for good photos takes on a greater urgency. I mean, that guy on the bridge was only going to stick around for so long.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Brian Williams' Critics Probably Are Not Anglers

Telling fish stories about trout as long as your leg.
My cousin Jeff called me not long after the news broke about Brian Williams' inaccurate recollections of his now-famous helicopter flight. His question: Who is Brian Williams, and why is everyone on his case?

I gave Jeff the facts as I understood them, along with my impression of Mr. Williams, which admittedly was formed primarily through his appearances on The Daily Show With John Stewart. Then I shifted from my opinion of the newsman to my opinion about whether a guy could misremember such a thing.

I speculated about what the fog of a war zone and the effects of fear might do to total recall. Then I veered into an area where I have greater expertise: As a fisherman, I have a unique perspective on the accurate retelling of tales. 

We all know guys who are clearly lying about their fishing escapades. They're about as convincing as brother Neal in A River Runs Through It. ("Ronald Coleman!?") But most of us likely fit with the description John Gierach offers in his book Dances With Trout. "The memory of a fisherman is more like fiction than journalism," he writes. "It doesn’t ignore the facts, but it's not entirely bound by them, either."

There was a time I thought that was just a good one-liner. But I caught myself this last year in an act of what we'll now unfortunately always think of as "misremembering." (Likely also always placed in air quotes.) We were sitting around a campfire -- probably drinking coffee and smoking big cigars -- and retelling tales we've told dozens of times before but that somehow still make us laugh. During one such recollection, I pictured myself as being present for something that on further reflection more than likely was not the case. I started to chime in, and in a surprise flash of insight, realized I'd become part of the story only through its frequent retelling.

Just to make sure I wasn't "misremembering" my misremembering, I went back to something I'd written a little closer to "the incident." And sure enough, I was accurately recalling catching myself in an inaccurate recollection.

That may not be a parallel experience to Mr. Williams' recent incident. And I'm not even sure it relates. But at the very least, it does make me a little less likely to suggest someone's pants are on fire and assume the worst.

I wrapped up the soliloquy Jeff had unknowingly stepped into with what I'm certain were astute insights on how memory perhaps can't really be trusted and a comment about how I've personally remembered things that probably didn't fully line up with reality.

"Like that time you caught a big one," Jeff quipped. He didn't even hesitate. What hurt more than the sting of that comment was the speed with which he beat me to the joke. It wasn't even close. 

Of course, that may or may not be how I tell the tale in the years to come.  

Friday, December 26, 2014

Misty Trout Stream-Colored Memories … aka, The Way We Was

Fly fishing for brown trout on a Southeast Minnesota trout stream.
Certain experiences get etched in your memory. Like the time on a camping trip that a friend said he knew how to ride a dirt bike and then did his best Superman impression when he let out the clutch and the bike sped off leaving him suspended briefly in the air, arms outstretched. Or the time your tippet formed the world's worst rat's nest at precisely 9:59 a.m., back when Minnesota's trout season kicked off at 10 a.m. sharp on a Saturday in mid-April. Or the time a friend caught his first trout, on his first trout outing, while his fly line dragged in the river behind him while you were rambling on about the need for stealth and accurate casting. Or that time you and your buddy camped (for the first and last time) with two acquaintances who apparently liked to spend their downtime wrestling.

For some reason, my memory of my first trout-fishing trip remains a bit cloudy. Or, I should say, there are certain clear memories that don’t quite fit together as puzzle pieces.

There's the Trout Classic Pancake Breakfast in Chatfield, Minnesota, with trout anglers itching for the season to begin, passable pancakes and lukewarm breakfast links you sincerely hoped were of the fully cooked variety. And the muddy Root River blowing by at a rate that made it look nothing like the waters in "The Orvis Guide to Reading a Trout Stream." And that treacherous hill you scaled to get to Trout Run Creek that, it turns out, was just upstream from easy access at the Bide-a-Wee bridge and just downstream from the recess in the trees what would provide easy access for years to come. 

Fly caught in a tree on a Southeastern Minnesota trout stream.

On my own, I couldn’t quite put the pieces together. So on a trip this past summer with my accomplices, Jeff Finnamore and Eric Hjelmberg, I brought it up to see if we could recreate the event by putting our graying heads together. That trip was the first Minnesota trout opener for all of us. Eric had gotten the fly fishing bug during the previous winter, and it turned contagious. So we all bought the best cheap fly fishing gear we could find, did a bit of research, and went out to try our hands. It was April 1993.

As we reconstructed the trip, it became clear that there was, in fact, a Root River component. Jeff recalls walking the riverbank and muttering that it looked nothing like the trout streams his grandfather had taken him to as a lad. And a feeder creek, in which he finally caught a few trout and put them "on ice" using snow he found still sticking to a nearby hillside. And there was a Trout Run wrinkle. That hill. The long walk downstream past bait fisherman, easy access points, and water that looked a little flat and unforgiving for novices. I also recall nearly losing hope, while Jeff, the only real fisherman among us at that time, found a way to connect with a few willing browns. His fish sense clearly outperformed my book learning on that and many trips to follow.

As we talked about that trip and came up with a chain of events we could agree was at least generally accurate, we naturally drifted out of that current and into more ridiculous recollections from our collective past. There was the Jeep / dirt-bike race on a gravel road that ended with a flaming cycle and subsequent crash, followed by Jeff driving his Jeep off the opposite shoulder and into a lake. The time we were driving down a country road and the hood of that Jeep flew open. (Words may or may not have been said that shouldn't be repeated here.) And the time Jeff threw a camp table onto the fire when our supply of firewood got too low. (To the tune of Margaritaville, if memory serves.)

Practicing stealth on a small trout stream in Southeast Minnesota.

In the retelling of our tall but generally true tales, it became clear that some of these stories not only got better with age, but over time, I'd somehow come to feel I was an integral part of certain stories I'm not entirely sure I was there to experience firsthand. I guess over time, the retelling of the stories becomes as important as, or maybe even more important than, the experiences themselves.

I think it's time for an off-season bonfire and revisiting that conversation. Particularly because my memory of how the puzzle pieces fit together has already faded a bit since we last assembled them.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Closing it Down for the Season

Late September trout stream in southeast Minnesota ready for a day of fly fishing.
My most memorable last day of fishing for the season was the last day of my first year of trout fishing. It was a foggy, drizzly day in late September. Minnesota's trout season shuts down on Sept. 30. I'm not sure if I made it out on closing day or the nearest weekend, but I do remember a feeling of satisfaction, closure and the beginning of anticipation for what the next season might hold. I probably didn't hurt that it was the best day of fishing I'd had that year, even though that's not saying much.

The conditions, remarkably, left the stream wide open that day. I was still new to hatches and what fueled them, but it retrospect, it seemed to be perfect conditions for a blue-winged olive hatch. I somehow ended up fishing a tiny black fly. I don't recall whether it was a black gnat or a tiny trico -- of some poorly tied version of something else -- but it worked better than I expected any dry fly to work. I landed seven trout that day. It felt like an amazing victory to someone who'd started the year with little fishing history and no fishing sense, relying on what a couple good books could teach me, along with trial and error.

This year's season-ending trip was hastily arranged, and it took a couple buddies and me to a different spot on that same river with a similar hope for great success to carry us through the dark months of Minnesota's off-season. We were pretty sure it would be epic. The weather was perfect for enjoying a day on the water and the early fall colors, at the very least. We may have found better fishing on a gray and drizzly day, but the river was in great shape after a good dry stretch, so it was hard to complain about sunshine and warmth. 

Jeff Finnamore playing a September trout on a Minnesota trout stream.
As it turned out, rising trout were few and far between. But I managed to scare up a few here and there with a reasonably well-placed size 18 blue-winged olive. After stopping briefly at the first good runs to see how the river was fishing, we moved upstream. I took to a favorite stretch of moody dry-fly water while the fellas moved upstream to a slightly less moody stretch of river that fishes well with a nymph but can really light up when the hatch is on. It wasn't, but that didn't stop me imagining they were making a killing when fishing was slow on my stretch. 

The slow, methodical fishing we did find suited the mood of the day perfectly. I worked my way up my stretch of river hitting every likely lie, and a fair share of unlikely ones. Each fish was something of a victory and a reason to pause and admire it, rather than hastily, greedily moving onto the next victim.

A rainbow trout in the net during a day of fly-fishing on a Minnesota trout stream.

It's easy to lose yourself in this kind of fishing, although on this day, the absurd number of bikers crossing the bridge downstream was a bit distracting. It seemed like the whole population of Southeast Minnesota was pedaling their Schwinns on the Root River Bike Trail that day, many of them stopping to snap photos of the fly fisherman just upstream. (Maybe my casting looks more picturesque at a distance.) It was a relief to reach the first bend and get out of sight of the bridge.

I fished that day what has become my go-to trout rod — an old 7-foot, 5-weight Fenwick fiberglass rod that's perfect for small-stream fishing. In the shade, it's flat brown. But it lights up when the sun hits it just right, as it was wont to do that day. My cousin Jeff calls it a "glow-stick," which kills any possible pretension. It casts beautifully but is nothing fancy. Jeff had a couple of classier rods along on the trip that I could have fished if I had the inclination, but the simple, plain-spoken Fenwick seemed like the right choice to close out the season.

A Fenwick fiberglass fly rod resting on a log beside a trout stream.
There's something about shutting things down for the year that I like. I wouldn't mind the chance to get out another time or two, but hanging it up for the year and starting to look ahead is not without its virtues. I could go on about anticipation, taking stock (and restocking), and seasons of life, but mostly I just like what a certain note of finality does to that last day on the river. It feels important, somehow.

However the fishing had turned out, it was good just to get out with old friends, enjoying one last shot at our favorite river and the hope that a fish will rise. 

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Fishing The Test - A Sweet Little Hardy Fiberglass Fly Rod

The Test, a fiberglass fly rod from Hardy Rods.
A couple years ago, I spotted a sweet House of Hardy fiberglass fly rod on eBay. My buddy Jeff had sent me a link to show me some other fly rod he'd been eyeballing. I don't recall if the one he was after was fiberglass or bamboo, but what I do recall is my reaction to this lovely deep-green Hardy fiberglass rod that showed up in the "other options" portion of the page.

It was new, but that didn't take away much of the appeal for me. It was a Hardy, and it looked the part. Just as impressive as the perfectly detailed rod were the accouterments: a matte green rod tube with a real cork plug, a sleeve to protect the rod tube (really), a shiny ferrule plug, and a sleeve for the rod itself. All with the fetching House of Hardy mark. I was smitten.

I had to point the rod out to Jeff. In the spirit of sharing, you know. I wasn't actually expecting him to buy it, but I wasn't surprised either when he told me it was on its way to his house. I'd have been jealous, but I knew the only way I was going to enjoy that fly rod was vicariously.

The rod is called "The Test." It's a perfect small-stream number -- a 7.5-foot, 4-weight, with a cork reel seat.

Brown trout caught on The Test fly rod by Hardy in Southeast Minnesota.

Some time later, Jeff informed me that he'd (somehow) stumbled on another Hardy fiberglass rod -- this one an 8-foot, 5-weight called "The Trout Fisher." He went on a bit about how it was going to be hard for him to decide which one of the rods to fish on his favorite stream. I was thinking (and may have mentioned) that we should fish them side-by-side sometime. 

Jeff fishing and catching a nice brown trout with the Hardy Trout Fisher fiberglass fly rod.

We finally got around to doing just that. We planned a couple days on Southeast Minnesota streams in early September with fishing the Hardys as a focal point. The weather seemed to have something different in mind, however. After nervously watching the rainfall totals, river gauges and forecasts for a good week before the brief excursion, we scaled the trip a one-day adventure. We hoped the smallest of streams, at least, would be fishable. And that even if it was sketchy, it would be good to get out. As it turned out, there was plenty of fishable water.

The Hardy Test fiberglass fly rod bowed to the butt with a nice brown trout on a southeast Minnesota stream.

Our first stop was at a favorite stretch of the South Branch of the Root River -- a roll of the dice -- where we hoped for a decent flow and a good trico hatch. The river was up, as we expected, and we knew it wouldn't fish well. We hopped back in the truck and headed a fair piece upstream. Our guess was better this time. In the river's upper reaches, the water clarity was good, and we could see rises from the bridge. Though this is skinny water upstream from Forestville State Park, it offered good space for casting, so at the very least we could air out the rods.

Jeff making short precise casts with the Hardy Trout Fisher fly rod on a small Southeast Minnesota trout stream.

It turns out that the casting was excellent, but the catching left something to be desired. I fished The Test, and Jeff, The Trout Fisher. (I'd done some lobbying in advance.) In a couple hours, we tried a range of nymphs and dries, but nothing seemed to click. It appeared that we'd missed an early trico hatch (or so said the streamside spiderwebs), and the tiny blue-winged olives were spotty. The rises were few, mostly confined to flat water, and brought only refusals. Nymphs didn't do any better. We appeared to have neatly tucked ourselves between hatches. It wasn't until we decided to move on to another stream that Jeff picked up a couple on nymphs while fishing back to the truck.

Jeff picking up a brown trout on The Trout Fisher by Hardy Fly Rods on a Southeast Minnesota stream.

I did get to drop a few casts with dries in front of a riser in a braided current, which I thought might give me a shot. It was a nice idea. I don't believe had ever cast a smoother rod. The Test has a slowish, smooth action that let me put delicate casts right in that trout's feeding lane. For once, my presentation wasn't the problem.

Casting The Test fiberglass fly rod by Hardy on a Southeast Minnesota trout stream.

But this fish was perfectly placed behind a sunken branch, making it nearly impossible to get the right drift. After too many casts, I got a refusal and gave up on him. I started casting to a spot a few feet away that looked suspicious, but by then I was just casting, so with the fish hit, I fumbled the hook set and missed it. He felt it, and that was that. It was particularly tough to miss like that on a day that was by all indications going to be a slow one.   

Our next stop, even smaller water, put us in front of a few more rising trout. I picked up a couple brown trout on a size 18 BWO and missed a few others. We caught a few, and that seemed like a victory. When we'd fished the stretch we wanted, we moved back to the Root, in the park, to hit a couple last spots before hitting the road. 

After picking up a few trout and watching me miss some (almost as fun) on a couple lefthander pools, Jeff caught a nice fish and called it a good one to end on. I was fishing just upstream and started to feel the pressure of catching a decent fish to end on myself.

About to give up on that spot, I suddenly felt a fish. Barely. I was sure it was a small one, until it stopped moving toward me and instead put its nose to the bottom of the river looking for a sunken log. This was a real fish. And it bent the Hardy Test way into the butt. There was enough behind this rod to keep it away from the log and keep it from running. We measured the fish at about 16 3/4 inches. Jeff put the tape measure to it, so I had a real measurement and a witness. That's a good fish for these waters, and I was able to get past the thought that there might be more in that drop-off, and we called it. 

A nice brown trout caught on a Southeast Minnesota stream with the Hardy's The Test fly rod.

A good fish to end the day can turn an otherwise uneventful outing into a great day on the water. And this one gave me a chance to put The Test to the test. I may need just one more day with it, however, just to be sure.