Hot Tips for Cold Weather Trout Fishing in Minnesota’s Driftless Area

By Brian Schumacher, Fly Fishing Guide at The Driftless Fly Fishing Company

Winter Trout Fishing Driftless 2
Winter trout fishing in the driftless region of Southeast Minnesota;
photos courtesy of Brian Schumacher

The “driftless” area of southeastern Minnesota contains one of the greatest concentrations of limestone spring creeks in the world—creeks that offer extraordinary trout fishing year-round, in a beautiful setting, where deeply carved river coulees with forested hillsides reach down towards valley floors.

The region’s distinctive terrain results from 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.

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 form the principal diet of freshwater trout, the fish living in spring creeks have an ample food supply throughout the year.

The plentiful food supply, advantageous water conditions, and countless stream improvement projects headed by conservation-minded landowners, fishery biologists, volunteers and the Department of Natural Resources create a remarkable environment for trout, with many streams sustaining 2,000 to 4,000 trout per mile. The area boasts approximately 720 miles of designated trout streams, nearly 230 of those accessible through public easements. Since these springs run at 48 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit, 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, Simplified Regulations

New state trout fishing regulations have created new opportunities for anglers and simplified the rules in southeast Minnesota. Catch-and-release seasons have been extended in eight southeast Minnesota counties and seven trout streams in three area state parks—Forestville, Whitewater and Beaver Creek Valley. Within the boundaries of these parks, the catch and release season runs the whole year, aside from the harvest season running from mid-April through mid-September.

Certain waters that lie roughly within the city boundaries of Spring Valley, Preston, Chatfield and Lanesboro will be open to trout angling from Sept. 15, 2018 through April 12, 2019, with all southeast Minnesota streams opening up for the winter catch-and-release trout season on Jan. 1.  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, including 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 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 extremely rewarding, with beautiful winter scenery and willing trout. You just might have the stream to yourself, experiencing solitude that’s harder to find when the hatches of spring and summer occur.

Breaking ice from the guides of your fly rod, trudging through snow to get to the stream, tying flies on with cold hands is all part of the experience when fly fishing the driftless area during winter. I love it! If you catch something, that means you have achieved the perfect combination of fly selection, fly placement, and drift despite the elements—something you can be proud of.

Tips and Tactics

Winter Trout Fishing Driftless 1When water temperatures drop, the trout 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 temperature is rising or has 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 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 get active.

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 where trout stack up, whereas areas of shallow, fast water can be given less attention.

Once the likely winter trout-holding water is located, it must then be fished effectively. This means slowing down and taking a 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 cold winter months, aquatic insect activity decreases, with only a few varieties 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. 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 good choices. Here are a few key flies that consistently produce fish in the cold winter months in the area:

A Few Key Flies

1. Zebra Midge (size 14-16)

One of the most productive patterns is black and purple with a silver tungsten bead head, which gives it sufficient weight to get down in those deep holes.

2. Bead Head Pheasant Tail Nymph (size 14-16)

3. Bead Head Gold ribbed Hare’s Ear Nymph (size 14-16)

Both of these should be fished dead drift in the current and can be very productive. Fish slowly and methodically on a floating line with a strike indicator. Takes can be subtle so you have to remain vigilant.

4. Pink Squirrel Nymph (size 14-16)

Good winter fly patterns often times need a little extra color to draw strikes. This fly combines the natural “bugginess” of hare’s-ear dubbing with the “flash” coming from pink chenille or yarn.

5. Woolly Buggers (Brown or Black)

Woolly Buggers are incredibly versatile patterns that will consistently catch trout. I personally have incredible success fishing these. In winter, I slow my strip cadence down instead of the aggressively fast retrieves I make other times of the year. I have found that trout, especially larger browns will expend the energy to chase down a Woolly Bugger when a large meal is the perceived reward.

6. Griffiths Gnat (size 16)

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.

Keeping Warm

Winter Trout Fishing Driftless 3While fly fishing during this coldest part of the year, 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.

Winter and early spring fly fishing the driftless area of southeastern Minnesota doesn’t have to be just for the die-hard angler. Proper planning, dress and technique will allow even the novice to be successful and possibly turn some of those winter blues into browns, brookies or rainbows.

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