Spinning Lures, Trout, Fly Fishing, and Other Adventures in the Minnesota Driftless
Minnesota Driftless Fishing Resources
Streams of the Driftless
The streams of the Driftless are the threads of the underlying fabric of the region. Without them, there are obviously no trout. So they are, first and foremost, our most precious and important resource. In Minnesota's portions of the Driftless alone, there are dozens of trout streams totaling over 700 miles of designated water in which trout can be found. Many of these streams contain world-class numbers of fish. Trout can also be found in many Driftless streams which are not designated as trout streams by the DNR. The resources below are meant to help you start to explore these waters or get to know them even better.
DNR Trout Stream Maps - This link takes you to the DNR maps of the the trout streams of Minnesota. Maps 1-11 encompass the entirety of Minnesota's portion of the Driftless region. The maps detail the location, access, and regulations of each designated trout stream.
TroutRoutes - This is an app (iphone and Android) created using the DNR maps which gives you access to the trout stream maps when you are out and about. I consider it essential!
Troutspotr is a web-based program similar to Trout Routes that shows detailed maps and accesses to the streams of the Driftless. It is useful for scouting from your ipad or PC the night before you go fishing.
DNR Cooperative Stream Gauging - Here you will find real-time information on stream flows for select Driftless streams. Even if the exact stream you would like to fish isn't monitored, you can usually triangulate data from surrounding streams to estimate the flows of other area streams. If you click the "Site ID" number for the stream you selected, you will be taken to a graph that shows recent trends in that stream's flow.
24-hour MN Rainfall Report - When used in conjunction with the stream-gauging link above, these county-specific rainfall reports will help you determine whether or not the area you wanted to fish is worth going to. More importantly, lower totals in a specific are will point you toward fishable water.
Where should I fish?
The sheer number of streams (see above) and the various amounts of access to these streams (see below) can leave many people, especially newcomers, asking "Where should I fish?" 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 easy 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 - so you really can't go wrong. 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 another link to the DNR maps that will get you started in your quest. If you are still 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 of all sizes. There is easy access to it in and around Forestville State Park, within the towns of Preston and Lanesboro, and along many stretches of the Root River Bike Trail. 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. Below are a few other resources if you are looking for a place to fish.
MN DNR: Where to Fish - This link gives you some valuable information on specific streams of the Driftless area broken down by counties. There are some interesting history nuggets in the descriptions and it's fun to see what other species are present in each of these waters. Many of the descriptions, however, contain some dated information - for example some of these streams have seen habitat improvements, increased access, or changes in trout populations.
Trout Stream Access
(Photo Credit: Rochester Post-Bulletin) When I first started trout fishing in the Driftless, 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 a little 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 DNR purchases easements from landowners. 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 and 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 (and 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…
Trout Seasons and Regulations
Both the trout seasons and regulations continue to evolve in the MN Driftless area. Artificial lure regulations, slot limits, and extended seasons on some streams are a few of the changes that have been made. To make sure you're up to date on the latest information pertaining to trout fishing, check out the info and links from the DNR below (current as of October 2019).
The DNR has in recent years greatly expanded the seasons for trout fishing in southeast Minnesota. All trout streams in Houston, Fillmore, Dodge, Mower, Olmsted, Winona, Goodue and Wabasha counties are open for catch-and-release fishing from January 1 until the harvest season opener on the Saturday closest to April 15. Once the harvest season ends September 14, catch-and-release fishing is resumes until October 15. For select streams located in state parks (Beaver Creek Valley, Whitewater, and Forestville), as well as within the city limits of Chatfield, Lanesboro, Preston and Spring Valley, catch and release fishing is allowed from October 16 until December 31. Any day of the year there is a place to trout fish in Southeast Minnesota.
All trout regulations and season dates can be found in the trout fishing regulations. Additional information is available in the general fishing regulations
Trout of the Driftless
The Minnesota Driftless is home to three species of trout: brown, brook, and rainbow. Each species is important for different reasons.
Brook trout have the distinction of being the only native trout to the region. That is, they were the only trout species present before European settlement. The descendants of these original fish, however, were wiped out by these settlers through over fishing and poor land-use practices. Brook trout were (and continue to be) restocked and in some cases have managed to revert to self-sustaining populations. Brook trout are easy to identify as they have dark backgrounds with light colored spots. They are considered the easiest trout to catch and, by many, the most beautiful. They average 6-8 inches in size, with "trophies" up to 16 inches.
Brown Trout are the most common and widespread trout currently inhabiting the Driftless area. Introduced from Europe in the late 1800s, brown trout have thrived due to their adaptability and tolerance of slightly lesser quality water than the brook trout. Although still stocked in some streams, many populations of brown trout have become self-sustaining and therefore are considered "wild" trout in those streams. They average 8-12 inches in size, with "trophies" in the 20-25 inch range.
Rainbow trout are the most commonly stocked fish in the Driftless area. Rainbows are unable to spawn in our streams and therefore are neither "native" nor "wild." But the ease of raising them in hatcheries means that they can be stocked all over the region, even in places that do not naturally support trout populations. They are commonly stocked at about 10 inches in length and are usually either caught or killed in that same year. Occasionally rainbows "hold over" and can reach sizes up to 16-18 inches in our streams.