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Driftless Blue Lines

Trip Report by A.J. Moore
Southeastern Minnesota: 2/27/22

I swore I wouldn’t go trout fishing in the winter. I’ve got no interest in clearing ice off of frozen lines to chase elusive feeding periods of sluggish depressed fish. For me winter is for ice fishing, tying flies, catching up on reading, and cooking and eating copious amounts of food. But, when my brother called me on a warm Saturday afternoon with tall tales of unnamed sylvan streams stacked dozens-deep with trout, I set my prejudice aside and found myself shopping for knee boots at 7:00 at night.

The story really starts with my uncle Ronald “Toby” Erickson, who grew up just outside of Peterson, Minnesota fishing the tributaries of the Root River for trout. When I was a kid, he was the epitome of one of those rural Midwest trout fishermen straight out of Lt. Colonel Blake’s playbook, and a true Minnesota Scandinavian with black coffee running through his veins, wicker creel and green hip boots and plaid shirts, and the ability to catch trout out of a storm drain. My brother Dave and I have always looked up to him as an angling authority, especially on those little unnamed blue lines that run through the woody valleys of Fillmore and Houston counties. It was his description of the idyllic magic of one of those little streams that broke me away from my self-imposed hermitage. Time to see if the tales were true.

We met at the end of the little service road at about 8:30 and picked our way through the trees and brush to the stream. I rigged up my new Tenkara USA Amago, and Dave had his Daiwa Kiyose 43. There was some recent logging or clearing of trees so getting to the first hole was pretty easy going. That wasn’t going to be the case for much of the day. Many of the banks were still guarded by shelves of ice, and even more of them by tight overhanging brush and trees. The water was crystal, it was almost windless, and the sky was bluebird clear.

Driftless Blue Lines - A.J. Moore - Tenkara Angler - Bow & Arrow

We cautiously approached the first hole, and true to the legends, it was stacked dozens deep with trout, all lazily holding their positions on the bottom. I had rigged up a large foxy zonker and made a few practice strokes before letting the fly land just short of the ice on the opposite bank. In a flash a large brown shot out from an unseen sniper’s hide under the bank and hit that chunk of bunny like it insulted his mama… and just as quickly it was gone. The smaller trout in at the bottom remained undisturbed. On the second cast, the fly landed with an awkward splash, and the school immediately panicked and dispersed. No amount of casting or delivery was going to bring them back.

The brush got thicker, and access got even more difficult as we moved our way back through the valley. Each hole we approached continued to be stacked with trout, more than there should have been. Too many to count,  but each school was more neurotic and skittish, scattering when the first fly hit the water. We had to start getting tactical.

Driftless Blue Lines - A.J. Moore - Tenkara Angler - Tactical

We took turns making long detours away from the stream to remotely scout the layout and approach of holes for one another, minding each other’s shadows, and doing our best to not disperse our intended quarry before we had a chance to put some tempting morsel in front of them. It was tough on the approach, and every hole was a process of rigging and unrigging to thread our 14 foot rods among the brush and branches. I was covered with burdock and beginning to think my prohibition on winter fly fishing was a better instinct.

I switched over to a size 10 dark peacock and red marabou bugger, and Dave had changed to a rubber band version of a killer bug that was a perfect clone of a wax worm.  A few holes later, Dave connected on a small brown with a banana yellow belly and beautifully precise parr marks. We continued to fish our way about mile upstream until it turned to a mere trickle among rocks. I switched down to my Tenkara Adventure Outfitters UNC, and found the 8 foot mini much more amenable to the conditions.

Driftless Blue Lines - A.J. Moore - Tenkara Angler - Dave's Fish
Dave’s fish

About a third of the way back, I had an epiphany of sorts: That first strike wasn’t from those torpid schools of neurotic fish, it was hidden in a spot I wasn’t considering. We were fishing the fish we could see, which also meant with this crystal-clear water we were fishing the fish that could see us. Another tactical shift was in order. I started to put my fly into the spots where fish should be that I couldn’t see: behind rocks and logs, under shadowy shelves of ice, on the other side of weedy structure. I planted the fly upstream and on the other side of a rock, and when the suck pulled it forward, the shift in tactics paid off with another small brown, this time with less pronounced parrs, but brilliant blue rings.

Driftless Blue Lines - A.J. Moore - Tenkara Angler - Blue Halo

We’d continue to work our way back over the next hour as the shadows of the western hills started to cross the valley. As the lore of winter fishing for trout goes, the tales and the old rules of thumb held up. The fish were piled by the dozens in a stream barely wider than my couch. Winter trout are skittish and require extreme attention to tactics. They respond to streamers or really small nymph-ish baits. And, when what’s supposed to work doesn’t work, try something else.

We sat in the car for a little bit and deconstructed the day and all we’d learned, and in the end agreed to call it a success. I’d like to think we’d done Uncle Toby proud.

A.J. Moore is a tenkara angler, fly tier, woodworker, homebrewer, game designer, and writer who has fished the streams, rivers, and reservoirs of the Driftless Region for more than 40 years. Follow A.J. on Instagram @kebarikaiju.

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  1. I can’t imagine slugging it out with the trees on those beautiful but narrow streams. An 8-footer, whether a Tenkara rod or not, seems much more effective.

    1. Like a lot of tenkara, it’s a patience game. You just can’t rush through it. I hate it and I love it because I know it’s good discipline for me. It forces me to slow down, be present, and focus.

      1. I know what you mean. I fish a very small spring-fed creek in Missouri that holds a sustaining population of McCloud Redband rainbow trout. They are so skittish in the clear water and even seem to detect your footsteps on the bank let alone when your profile is in view. It’s a great challenge.

  2. Really enjoy and appreciate your posts. Was out yesterday on Mill Creek and fishing a #10 yellow Bully Spider that already was tied to a floating line I was using because of the wind. Surprise – caught a nice Rainbow in a long, slow pool. Made my day.

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