Driftless Trout Fishing and Visitors FAQs
Where should I fish to have the best chance to catch a trout? A big trout? A brook trout? etc...
This is both a difficult and easy question to answer. It’s difficult because the small and intimate nature of our streams means that a handful of people fishing on one each day may be all it can truly handle (sometimes even less than that). For example, one of my favorite streams has only two access points and if I see a car parked at either one of them, I usually move on since there are only about a dozen fishable spots on the whole thing which can all easily be reached in about 2-3 hours of fishing. Because of situations like this, giving the names of specific streams is usually frowned upon - many streams just can’t take the pressure of having a bunch of people heading there based on a hot bite or a good year-class of fish. That being said, it’s an easy question to answer because there are dozens of streams in the Minnesota Driftless to choose from, and the majority of them hold decent to world-class numbers of trout with a terrific range in size. Sure certain streams hold more fish, bigger fish, or a certain species you may be after, but figuring that out on your own is (not quite) half the fun. Here is a link to the DNR maps that will get you started in your quest. If you are desperate for a place to start, the South Branch of the Root River is our largest trout stream and can handle the pressure better than the smaller streams. It holds brown, rainbow, and some brook trout ranging in sizes up to 25”+. There is easy access to it in and around Forestville State Park, and within the towns of Preston and Lanesboro. You will cross over other great water on your way there though, so be sure to stop at a few bridges and check out those streams as well.
How do I access trout streams in the Minnesota Driftless?
(Photo Credit, Rochester Post Bulletin). Here I will summarize accessing trout streams in southeast Minnesota the way I understand it. This is not legal advice, but a general guide. When I first got started, this was one of the things that intimidated me the most. Private property, easements, state property, access corridors, navigable waterways, high water marks, meanders, etc. are all things that you will read and hear about when trying to research our stream access laws. Most of it is well defined and straightforward. Other parts are murky...
The first and most important concept you’ll want to understand are angling “easements.” These are your best friend and provide you with miles upon miles of stream access without needing to ask for permission. These areas are usually marked with a little 5x7 brown sign, or a larger, older sign, or sometimes nothing at all. Check out the
DNR maps so you know for sure. Easements provide access for anglers on streams that run through private property. The state DNR purchases easements from landowners (many of which are farmers) with a sum of money. This land then has a theoretically eternal “easement.” The easement creates an “angler access corridor” generally 132 feet wide centered on the stream; that is, 66 feet on either side. You are free to walk within the easement as long as you’re intention is to fish. Yes you can walk through someone’s yard if it’s in an easement. Yes you can crawl under that fence inside an easement. Yes you can park your car along the side of the road. Just use common sense. Stay inside the easement. Don’t block access to private property with your car. Leave Fido and Rover at home. Walk right along the bank or in the stream if you can. Pack out your trash and other people’s too. Stop at the end of an easement - sometimes they’re right in the middle of a stretch of river, sometimes marked, sometimes not. Although easement access can’t be taken away once established, grumpy landowners or rumors (or truths) about careless anglers can dissuade others from selling an easement on their property, or offering access to those who ask for permission.
Another easy, simple option is to use public land to gain access to a trout stream. A relatively small percentage of streams have this type of access, but there are some great stretches of water if you look hard enough (or sometimes not that hard at all). Your best bet here is to check out the
Minnesota State Parks in the area.
Forestville, Whitewater, Beaver Creek Valley, and Carley State Parks all give access to some prime, often popular (but just as often not) water. There are also scattered state forests, wildlife management areas (WMAs), Scientific and Natural Areas (SNAs), and Wildlife Refuges that also offer access to a variety of trout streams. These public areas are well defined on the DNR Trout Maps in varying shades of blue, yellow, and green. Locate them and use them along with the easement corridors mentioned above and you have years of fishing ahead of you.
At some point, you will have your eye on water that is not eased or a part of public land: a stream running through private property. Fishing this type of water takes a little more work. Here you have a couple of options. The best is to figure out who the landowner is and knock on their door. Start with the closest house and if it’s not them, they can probably refer you to who it is. Be polite and you may be granted access. If you are, be a good steward. If you’re not, respect their right to denying you access to their property or risk the consequences of trespassing. Another option, and this is where things get a little murky, is to access the stream on public land like a ditch, bridge, park, or easement somewhere else on the stream and then walk and stay in the stream. As my understanding goes, as long as you keep your feet wet, you should be ok. Although, in a recent email, I couldn’t get one of our DNR fisheries managers to commit to this as he said “I’m not a lawyer. It’s always best to ask permission.” He referred me
here - go ahead and read it for yourself… Murky, right?
The moral of the story: you already have permission to fish a lifetime’s worth of water by way of public land and easements - go fish!
Can I use either a fly rod or a spinning rod to catch Driftless trout?
Yes! Either will work and there are pros and cons to both depending on your experience and the stream conditions. If you have a spinning or spincast rod, grab some worms, small crainkbaits, or inline spinners and head to a nearby stream. Fly rods are also great fun and you can fish dry flies, nymphs, or streamers to catch our trout.
What kind of fly fishing setup (rod, reel, etc.) do I need for the Driftless?
The sweet spot for fly rods (and matching line weights) in our streams are in the 2-5 weight range, with 3 and 4 weights probably being the most common. Six or 7 weight rods are occasionally used by those hunting big fish with weighted streamers. Rod length sweet spots are in the 7.5-9 foot range. Shorter rods will help keep you out of trees in densely wooded areas but tend to get your line tangled in streamside vegetation in more open areas. Longer rods in the 10’ range are great for specialized nymphing tactics, but aren’t ideal as all-around rods. Graphite rods are most commonly used, but our streams can be a great place to try a little slow to moderate action fiberglass rod as well, especially if you’re fishing a single dry or nymph. The same could be said for bamboo rods. To get a rod with specs above, you can spend anywhere from $25 to $1,000 - but remember, you’ll be casting to the same fish. You can get a great rod for $100-$250, and there are good rods for less. In our streams, the reel really doesn’t matter much as you will rarely have the space or need to get a fish on the reel, and if you do, there won’t be burning runs that you’ll need to stop with a fancy drag. There is no need to spend more than $100 for a reel, and the $50 and under market is probably a more efficient use of your budget.
Which spinning rod setup is best for trout fishing in the Driftless?
Just about any rod in the ultra-light to medium range that is between 5’ and 7’ long will work. The rod I use most often is a 6’ “light” action. It casts lures in the ⅛ to ¼ oz. range very well and will even throw slightly smaller and larger lures in a pinch. Ultra-light rods allow for the best fight and help you cast small lures, but if you hook into a 20” fish that’s headed for a log jam, cut bank, or that faster water downstream, you may wish you had a little more power to turn it around. A medium action rod will allow you to turn that big fish easily, but will overmatch the vast majority of the trout you’ll be catching. Even if you’re after the biggest fish and throwing ⅓ oz. spinners, a medium-light power is probably the biggest you’ll want or need. When it comes to rod length, shorter rods in the 5’ range are handy in tight spaces, but give you a little less reach over obstructions and can restrict your casting distance. Longer rods nearing 7’ allow you a little better leverage, reach, and distance, but can get hung up on your hike through the undergrowth or catch your lure in that tree branch above you. In summary, the stream you’re fishing, the size of the lures you’ll usually be using, and the size of trout you hope to catch will all be factors in selecting your rod. I use a small spinning reel - a “2000” size and 4 pound test monofilament. Reels in the 1500-2500 size range will work, as will any fishing line from 2-8 pound test.
What color/size lure should I use for Driftless trout?
Truth be told, there are no magic sizes or colors for catching fish - and trout in the Driftless are no different. There are days when neither matter because they will hit anything you throw at them. Of course, there may also be days when you can’t buy a bite no matter what you tie on. And then there are days when changing up the size and/or color might make or break your day. So, here are a couple tips.
First, carry a variety of sizes and colors. Lures that are trout colored are always a good choice because bigger trout will always eat smaller trout. Other colors, such as orange, chartreuse, and green serve as attractors, as do holographic designs, and are preferred by many in stained or high water. Simple silver or gold are often very effective on their own. When it comes to size, smaller lures - ⅛ oz. and below - will usually attract the most fish, but larger lures - ¼ oz. and above - are the ticket if you are specifically targeting bigger trout. Personally, I like to split the difference and fish lures that are in the ⅕ to ⅙ oz. size range. These tend to keep the smallest of trout away, but still allow you to catch decent quantities of fish, while still being large enough to attract the attention of the big ones. Lastly, the more I fish, the more I realize that fishing a lure that I like and have confidence in is more important than any of the factors above. If it looks good to you, tie it on and give it a try!
Where can I get fishing gear and other supplies for my Minnesota Driftless fishing trip?
While you’re in the area, be sure to support our local businesses. Lanesboro has a great all-around fishing shop called “
Root River Rod Co.” Steve carries everything you need to outfit your Driftless fishing adventure whether you are spin or fly fishing. He carries rods, waders, flies, lures, clothes, books and even fly tying materials. He also offers guide services, builds bamboo rods in-house, and carries a selection of Flowstone Lures. Preston has an Orvis endorsed, full service fly shop and guide service named “
The Driftless Fly Fishing Company.” Mel also rents fishing kayaks and usually has a selection of Flowstone Lures behind the counter if you ask. Preston, Spring Valley, Red Wing, Wabasha, Winona, and Rochester also have more traditional “Bait and Tackle” shops as well, and many small town gas stations have a small fridge full of worms.
What are the seasons and regulations for stream trout fishing in Minnesota?
Seasons and regulations have changed over the last few years and will continue to evolve in the coming years. To make sure you have the latest up to date information, visit the
DNR trout stream main page. In addition to regulations, this page offers a ton of great information on fishing our rivers and streams for trout.
What other adventures await in the Minnesota Driftless?
Most of us who trout fish also enjoy other outdoor and recreational activities (or we need something for the rest of the family to do while we fish!). Luckily, our area has an abundance of things to do for the outdoors oriented person or family from camping, hiking, and biking to birdwatching, golfing, and kayaking, as well as an above-average selection of shops and restaurants.
Many visitors who have this type of trip in mind make
Lanesboro their headquarters for the duration of their stay. Within the city limits of Lanesboro a visitor can fish, golf, bike, hike, tube, and canoe/kayak. The main outdoor attractions in and around Lanesboro are the south branch of the
Root River and the
Root River Bike Trail. These can be used to connect to other towns and campgrounds in the area (bike to Whalan and have pie at the
Aroma Pie Shoppe). All manner of bikes and watercraft can be rented right in Lanesboro to take advantage of the river or trail (check out
Little River General Store,
Root River Outfitters, or
River Rats Outfitters), or of course you can bring your own. Restaurants, shops, and Bed and Breakfasts abound, and don’t miss the opportunity to take in a play at the professionally-staffed
Commonweal Theatre. Of course
Root River Rod Co. is a must stop for the fisher person.
Within a half-hour’s drive of Lanesboro, the possibilities are almost endless.
Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center is worth a visit, as is the
Old Barn Resort which has camping, golf, a restaurant, and access to both the Root River and the bike trail. The
town of Preston is only a few miles away and is the self proclaimed trout capital of the state of Minnesota. Here you will find the
National Trout Center and
Trout City Brewing, along with the
Driftless Fly Fishing Company. The
city of Fountain, know as the
Sinkhole Capital of the world, also has a popular brewery named
Karst Brewing and the
Fillmore County Historical Society and Museum. The
town of Harmony isn’t too far either, and a trip down into
Niagara Cave (as well as a round of mini golf right on site) is not to be missed. On the weekends, take in a
$5 movie at the JEM Theatre. The towns of Chatfield (
Paw Print Brewing) and Houston (
International Owl Center), as well as many other area small towns offer their own unique adventures.
Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park (between Preston and Spring Valley) is fantastic for fishing, hiking, camping, birdwatching, and even horseback riding. History buffs will love
the old town of Forestville. A trip through Mystery Cave and the adjoining visitor’s center are worth the drive.
The rest of the Driftless is great as well and includes
Beaver Creek Valley State Parks. On the east side of the Driftless lies the Mississippi River and all the recreation and history that goes along with it.
Red Wing is a great river town and is the home of
Red Wing Shoes.
Wabasha is the home of the
National Eagle Center and
Slippery’s Restaurant of Grumpy Old Men fame. Just south of Wabasha is
Lark Toys and visitors with kids needs to make time to visit. Handmade toys, mini golf, and a fantastic carousel are the highlights.
Winona is another town with lots of things to do right along the river.