Trout Fishing in Minnesota: Many Miles of Fun

By Mark Melotik, Executive Editor ScoutLook Weather

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April in Minnesota brings the warm promise of spring, the sweet music of migrating waterfowl and gobbling turkeys, and some of those near-legendary “hour-to-hour” weather changes. All can add spice to another long-awaited April tradition: the state stream trout fishing opener, which kicks off an action-packed six-month-long season.

A Variety of Trout Opportunities

What makes angling for trout in Minnesota so special? Plenty. Among the most obvious are the many miles of quality, well-managed creeks and streams, and the wide variety of scenic terrain in which they can be found.

Southeast Minnesota’s bluff country holds an impressive 700 miles of designated trout streams, many of which flow through some of the most-stunning river valleys in the nation. Southeast Minnesota’s streams hold some of the healthiest, most beautifully marked brown, rainbow, and brook trout you can find anywhere, and trout populations in this region are currently at or near all-time highs. That experience is a nice contrast to the dark and secret brook trout spots you can find along the many winding northwoods creeks that can require some adventurous bushwhacking (and maybe a daypack loaded with drinks and lunch).

Still more opportunities exist for hardy trout anglers who just can’t wait until the April opener, and those who seek to continue their trout quest after the traditional Sept. 30 stream trout season closure.

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Beginning in January, eight southeastern counties feature a special catch-and-release season that stretches until the mid-April opener, and those same eight counties hold a late-season catch-and-release season that stretches until mid-October. Another bonus? During both of these special seasons, even the most-popular streams see relatively little pressure. But their strong fish populations remain.

One of my first Minnesota stream trout experiences occurred during a spring turkey hunt several years ago, on a dark and dreary rain-soaked day near Lanesboro. The early morning found the local gobblers not only silent but scarce. But the midday trout fishing? Near-epic. Still dressed in camouflage but now wearing waders and toting a 5-weight, 9-foot fly rod rigged with a small olive-and-white streamer, I spent the afternoon battling literally dozens of healthy brown trout measuring 10 to 17 inches, which seemed to inhabit nearly every pool and riffle. As far as I was concerned the turkeys could wait.

Another unique Minnesota adventure is the state’s spring steelhead run. Beginning in late February and March, these large, sleek rainbows begin gathering along the northern shore of Lake Superior for their annual spawning run up the state’s many rocky-bottomed tributary streams. If spring rains cooperate and stream flows remain manageable, the good fishing can stretch well into May. There are dozens of steelhead-friendly creeks and streams, and plenty of lodging opportunities, found along the roughly 100-mile stretch of lake shore stretching between Duluth and Grand Marais.

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Unquestionably wild and unique, Minnesota’s North Shore of Lake Superior offers the avid trout angler a playground full of angling possibilities. It’s almost hard to believe that an area filled with stunning rock cliffs, fast-flowing rivers and picturesque forests studded with century-old white pines could deliver even more visual gifts for adventurous anglers. Yet the silvery, hard-fighting steelhead—the area’s crown jewels—are more stunning still.

“Fish on!” came the welcome shout from my buddy Lane this past April, although the high-pitched whine of his reel drag seconds before had already clued me in. The two of us had been standing maybe 30 feet apart on a narrow rocky point, casting shiny ¾-ounce spoons near a river mouth emptying into Superior. Now we were hoping to see the first fish of our North Shore steelhead adventure.

Ten full minutes and a half-dozen long runs later, I was squinting through the waves at what appeared to be a very strong spring Chinook. But a king salmon it was not. Seconds later I stooped to slip two fingers into the gill plate of a monster, salmon-sized steelhead and the celebration began. Neither Lane nor I could believe the size of the thick-bodied hen, easily 12-13 pounds and 32 inches, and likely a few more. But we’ll never know for sure. During the ensuing photo session the fish gave a huge kick and Lane lost his gentle grasp; the fish—which had always been targeted for release—catapulted back into the gin-clear lake. We laughed and high-fived—awestruck.

The Best Trout Gear? Match It to Your Quarry

Another nice aspect of Minnesota’s stream trout is the wide variety of effective tackle and techniques. Whether you prefer fly or spinning gear, flies, artificial lures or drifting live bait, a stealthy approach and lifelike presentation will help ensure consistent success.

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When it comes to line, lighter is often better. For most stream trout statewide, a light- or ultralight-action spinning rod measuring 6 to 7 feet long and loaded with 4-pound monofilament (newer low-visibility fluorocarbon lines are highly recommended) is nearly ideal for a variety of proven presentations.

Smart presentations include casting small lures such as Mepps and Panther Martin spinners, 1/32- to 1/8-ounce twister tail jigs and small floating Rapalas, and even drifting live bait such as redworms, nightcrawlers or minnows. Most stream trout fly anglers are best served by 3- to 5-weight rods measuring 7.5 to 9 feet in length.

Steelhead gear is another matter altogether; these larger, more-powerful fish will typically run 4 to 15 pounds. Many smart North Shore anglers arrive packing both fly and spinning gear, to help ensure success during varying water conditions.

North Shore steelhead will hit a variety of standard steelhead flies; in my experience you can’t go wrong with fluorescent egg-imitating glowbugs, especially shades of orange and chartreuse, and it’s always wise to have a few darker flies such as small black stonefly nymphs, or black/brown/olive woolly buggers.

Another time-honored North Shore killer is a simple (and inexpensive) yarn fly made by looping fluorescent glowbug yarn into a snelled hook. Prepare to lose several to the rocky-bottom streams. As for flyrods, I prefer a 9-foot 7- or 8-weight, loaded with a weight-forward floating line that should handle most all you need to get done on North Shore rivers. If you have an extra reel spool fill it with a sinking-tip line that might be useful on larger rivers such as the Baptism. For more info visit minnesotasteelheader.com

A wide variety of spinning gear is useful for steelhead fishing the river mouths, but you’ll see longer-casting, and fish-fighting benefits from using longer medium-action rods measuring 7.5 to 9.5 feet, paired with medium-sized reels able to hold 200-250 yards of 8-pound line. This is a good combination for casting relatively light spoons (1/4- to ¾-ounce) and soaking bottom rigs baited with spawn sacs. Proven casting spoons include Little Cleos, Kastmasters, and Krocodiles, which seem to closely imitate smelt, one of the primary lake forage species. In April these silvery, high-protein baitfish are also making spawning runs up area rivers, and along lakeshore areas.

So Many Streams, So Little Time…

Whatever trout species you target in Minnesota, opportunity abounds. Statewide, Minnesota holds an impressive 3,817 miles of designated trout streams, plus another 2,699 miles of designated trout stream tributaries. Solid fish populations are the rule, the product of both natural reproduction and aggressive stocking. In 2015, the state’s five coldwater hatcheries produced 1.7 million fingerlings, yearlings and adult fish for stocking in 75 streams and 158 lakes–roughly 201 tons of fish.

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