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A winter wonderland awaits Driftless trout anglers

Richard Goodkind, St. Louis Park, Minn., painted this brook trout, which will appear on the 2019 Minnesota trout and salmon stamp. Image courtesy of Minnesota DNR

The traditional trout season in the Driftless area of southeastern Minnesota and western Wisconsin opened in mid-April and ran through mid to late September. In recent years, though, natural resource agencies in both states have created catch-and-release seasons during winter to expand angling opportunities across the region.

In Minnesota, all trout streams in Houston, Fillmore, Dodge, Mower, Olmsted, Winona, Goodhue and Wabasha counties are open to catch-and-release fishing from Jan. 1 until the regular season opens on the Saturday closest to April 15 (April 13, 2019). When the harvest season closes on Sept. 14, a monthlong catch-and-release season continues until Oct. 15.

For select streams within the boundaries of Beaver Creek Valley (East Beaver Creek), Forestville (Forestville Creek, Canfield Creek, South Branch Root River) and Whitewater (Middle Branch Whitewater River, Trout Run Creek) state parks, catch-and-release fishing is allowed from Oct. 16 to Dec. 31. That same year-round season also applies to streams within the city limits of Chatfield, Lanesboro, Preston and Spring Valley.

In Wisconsin, trout streams in the western part of the state are open for catch-and-release fishing on the first Saturday in Jan. (Jan. 5, 2019) until the regular season begins on the first Saturday in May (May 4, 2019). Regulations vary widely in the rest of the state, with select streams in some counties open to catch-and-release fishing and others closed until the harvest season begins. Follow the link to the Wisconsin DNR website at the end of this article for more information.

Fishing tips

Since water from limestone springs maintains a fairly constant water temperature throughout the year, Driftless area streams are warmer than freestone creeks during winter. Resident trout still get lethargic during winter, though, and anglers should target deeper pools and fish more slowly in cold water than they would during the regular trout season.

Most fly anglers opt for a dead-drift presentation. A small bead-head nymph fished beneath a strike indicator ranks among the most popular fly-fishing presentations. Classic patterns like the pheasant tail, hare’s ear and prince nymphs in sizes ranging from #14 to #20 imitate a variety of aquatic invertebrates that trout eat throughout the year. Small midge patterns are also effective, and midge larvae imitations are often used in conjunction with a larger weighted nymph pattern.

Flies that imitate scuds are among the most productive patterns throughout the season on area streams, including winter. And don’t overlook streamers. The classic wooly bugger and other baitfish or leach imitations account for some of the largest brown trout caught each winter. Cast down and across to swing streamers through deep pools, or cast upstream and slowly strip them back along the bottom. Again, low and slow is one key to cold-water fishing success.

Anglers wielding spinning gear should follow the same guidelines. Inline spinners are the most popular lure option, but small spoons and crankbaits are also effective. Weighted minnowbaits can be “counted down” to a specific depth then slowly retrieved through deep pools, runs and other trout-holding habitat. Big trout usually ignore minuscule insect imitations, but often pounce on anything resembling a fleeing baitfish.

Whether using flies or lures, consider pinching down hook barbs to make them easier to remove from fish. This is especially important during the catch-and-release season, but it’s a good practice throughout the year. And while you’re at it, replace the treble hooks factory rigged on most lures with round-bend single hooks a size larger than the stock trebles.

Livebait is allowed on some streams during the catch-and-release season, but anglers should exercise caution. Stream trout take natural baits with confidence, and the hook is often lodged deep in the gullet where it’s difficult to remove without causing mortal harm. Flies and lures result in much lower post-release mortality rates than bait.

Here are a few additional tips from the Minnesota DNR to safely handle and release trout:

  • Release trout immediately.

  • Play and land trout quickly. Tired, stressed fish don't survive well when released.

  • Handle trout gently, keeping it in the water as much as possible. Unhooking the trout without lifting it from the water is best.

  • Remove hooks with needle-nosed pliers or forceps. Using barbless hooks makes releasing trout much easier.

  • If a trout is hooked deeply, cut the line and release the fish. The hook will eventually dissolve, leaving the trout unharmed.

For more information about trout fishing regulations, stream access and more: