By Drew YoungeDyke (Originally published in the July 2020 issue of Wood-N-Water News)
The three of us loaded our fly-fishing gear into my loaner Toyota Land Cruiser and set out from the hotel in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, crossed the Mississippi River into Minnesota, stopped for gas, packable lunches, and fishing licenses with trout stamps, and followed a maze of two-lane and country dirt roads to a public access trout stream through private property in the Driftless Area.
The Driftless Area encompasses parts of western Wisconsin, southeastern Minnesota, and northeastern Iowa, deriving its name from its limestone geography and lack of glacial deposits – “drift” – left by ice age glaciers which covered the region just north of the Driftless Area. Coldwater streams fed by groundwater filter up through the limestone and flow down through a hilly, pastoral landscape of forests and farms. While most of these streams flow through private property, Minnesota boasts 221 miles of trout stream easements in the region which allow public fishing access.
My fishing partners were Scott Mackenthum, an outdoor writer and Minnesota fisheries biologist, and Buddy Seiner, host of Fish Stories, a web-based audio chronicle of fishing tales. Both are more accomplished anglers than me and I looked forward to learning from them. We were staying in LaCrosse last September for the Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers conference, and we all had the same inspired idea to skip the range day to fish the Driftless for secret public trout. Scott knew just the spot but the location is classified (I’d like to be invited back). However, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) publishes maps of all the public access trout streams in southeastern Minnesota through a print booklet available locally and digitally online.
We unloaded our gear from the Land Cruiser and discussed our strategy while assembling our rods. We’d enter the stream near the road crossing and fish upstream through the private property parcel which had granted easement access for anglers, staying within the stream corridor permitted by the easement and all practicing catch and release.
Buddy caught the first few fish, little brown trout from a shallow pool at a bend using a hopper-dropper. They weren’t giants but it was good to be on the board. He landed them in his net and released them quickly. I had never fished with a dropper before, so Scott showed me how to tie on a beadhead nymph from the hook of my foam hopper. He had fished the stream before and wanted to get further upstream where the brook trout were more likely to hold, so he moved quickly ahead of us to skip the browns and get to the brookies.
Like northern Michigan, the Drifltess Area of Minnesota holds brook, brown, and rainbow trout. Brookies are the only natives. Brown trout are non-native but wild and reproduce naturally, and rainbow trout are stocked by the Minnesota DNR in areas with high angling pressure. This stream held browns and brookies.
Buddy went ahead of me and I fished slowly to give him time to get some space. For what seemed like most of the morning, I had no strikes, no luck, no catches. Par for the course; trout fishing with a fly rod for me is often a wade through the stream in a beautiful setting with the occasional practice cast while spooking fish and snagging flies in the tree branches on the back cast. While usually I am perfectly content in spending time in the setting, I’d been practicing my cast more than usual in the prior months and really wanted to catch a few Driftless trout while I was there.
The setting was worth it almost on its own, though. The small stream was cool and clear, winding downhill through a sunlit forest, riffling over rocks and forming relatively deep pools at the bends. It was hard to believe that this was publicly accessible even though it was private land; the stream was much too small to be deemed navigable.
The Minnesota DNR purchases public angler easements like this, marked on the roadside with a tan sign, through multiple funding sources including trout stamp revenue. The easement allows the public to fish the trout stream within set corridor boundaries on each side of the streambank. The easement is permanent and attaches to the land even if it is later sold to another owner, similar to a conservation easement. The Minnesota DNR can also conduct fisheries habitat projects on the stream and prioritizes publicly accessible streams for stocking. While the public can fish the stream, that is all they can do: no hunting, no camping, and no dogs. Packing out any trash either brought in or found goes without saying.
I lost my dropper nymph somewhere along the way and switched to a dry fly. I caught up with Buddy and he had caught a few more since we separated. We decided to fish together and try to find Scott to make sure we made it back to the conference in time to shower and change before the Awards in Craft ceremony, where I was giving out the National Wildlife Federation’s Asian Carp Writing Contest Awards and all of us had submissions in different categories.
Buddy spotted a promising pool at a bend of the stream but told me to fish it. “I’ve already caught a few, let’s get you a fish,” he told me. He handed me his St. Croix rod with a hopper dropper already tied and instructed me where to cast it and where to mend to drift the dropper in the deep channel of the pool. I felt the tug within a few casts, set the hook and guided the brown trout into Buddy’s net. It was beautiful, maybe 12 inches, golden brown with black spots and a perfect mottling of red dots outlined in white. I caught three more, then Buddy caught a couple, and then we moved on.
It seemed like we waded, fished, and hiked forever without running into Scott, and we all lacked cell reception, but our search was fast forgotten when we came upon a sandy stretch with dozens of brown trout visible holding in the current. Buddy tried one cast and they scattered but regrouped. They never left the stretch, but darted with every cast and never betrayed an inkling of taking our flies. We settled for watching and marveling at them.
As time was getting late it dawned on us that we may have missed Scott if he went back to the Land Cruiser along a streambank trail within the easement while we were in the river; the riparian vegetation was thick enough, especially with stinging nettle, which Scott warned us about since were all wet-wading in shorts and wading boots. We turned back, hoping we were right, and along the way my shins and calves began to sting from exposure to the invasive weed when the fine hairs covering it stuck into my skin as I must have brushed against it. As Scott warned, I didn’t itch it, but instead got back in the stream and let the water soothe it.
Scott was waiting for us back at the Land Cruiser. He’d hiked back over an hour earlier after the sole of his wading boot blew out, but not before catching a few brown trout of his own, though not the brookies he was after, which eluded all of us. No matter; we all had a fine day of fly-fishing for trout in the Driftless Area, catching and releasing a few beautiful brown trout in an idyllic setting on a sunny mid-September day. To top it off, we made it back to the awards ceremony and each placed in the categories we entered. We couldn’t have had such a day without Minnesota’s angler easement program which allowed us access to that private stream to catch secret public trout.
Drew YoungeDyke is an award-winning freelance outdoor writer and a Director of Conservation Partnerships for the National Wildlife Federation, a board member of the Northern Michigan Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, and a member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America, the Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers, and the Michigan Outdoor Writers Association.
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