Larry Haugen stopped his car by what appeared to be a large trickle of water winding along a remote Fillmore Count road.
Obviously too small, too insignificant for trout fishing. What trout angler would bother?
Haugen, for one.
For him, that small stream is one of the kinds he loves to fish in his beloved blufflands.
Such waters are also a place others can fish when the bigger water, such as the Root or Whitewater, are crowded on the regular trout-fishing season opener April 17. When the big guys are high and muddy, the tiny ones are often the only ones fishable. One cold, sludgy opener in the Whitewater Valley, the Whitewater River was nearly unfishable; only those who fished small streams such as Beaver caught fish.
Yes, it takes a bit more experience and technique to fish such streams. Yet any fish you catch is a trophy and many of the tiny streams do have larger pools here and there so they aren’t only slim enough to jump over.
For those wanting to avoid crowds, and still be able to fish with live bait, spinners or crank baits, the region is full of streams bigger than the tiny one Haugen was preparing to fish but still much easier to fish and less crowded than the big guys. Let’s call them medium waters.
The trick to finding the tiny and medium ones is scouting - or knowing someone like Haugen.
After he fished in that tiny stream, in fact, we moved to Wisel, a gem of a medium stream that is big enough for all kinds of fishing, but still not as nearly as large as the Whitewater or Root and a bit more remote.
First, however, Haugen wanted to show me the one (no name, please, he said) he’s talked about for years and I’ve been eager to see.
“This is my home territory,” he said while rigging up his rod. “I grew up in Harmony. We used to go visiting on Sundays … Nobody had much money so we would go visiting.” One thing he noticed was the small streams; his uncle would take Haugen and others to fish the streams that had at least one advantage: “Usually they were clear when everything else was muddy,” he said. He liked what he saw: “I saw some rises down here and that’s all it took.”
What of that adage: small waters, small fish; big waters, big fish?
“No, no, no, no,” he said. “I catch bigger fish out of here than larger streams.”
Vaughn Snook, Department of Natural Resources assistant fisheries supervisor in Lanesboro, agreed. Some of the biggest fish use small streams at different times of the year, he said. The key is that the smaller ones have more water directly from springs that are always around 48 degrees so stream temperatures don’t fluctuate as much.
In summer, they are much cooler than the big streams so fish big and little find refuge there; in winter, they are comparatively warmer because the bigger waters cool down more, he said. In fact, three of the four biggest fish I’ve hooked in the past two years have been on tiny streams. In early April, I saw the biggest fish I’ve ever seen in the region, easily past 20 inches, in a stream no wider than 10 feet.
Many of the smallest streams are well known for not only some big fish but a lot of fish. Some of the highest numbers per acre the DNR has found have been in those tiny streams. A few years ago, I watched the DNR do a shocking demonstration in the Wells Creek Watershed on a stream that was so small grass growing on the banks touched over the middle. I was stunned to see the DNR shock about 20 browns, including a 14.5-incher, and a brook trout.
While he’s a believer in the small streams, Haugen is also an observer and thinks that more farm chemicals these days has meant fewer insect hatches (except for mayflies) on the streams, And the small streams are also notorious for getting overgrown with vegetation in and along the water later in the season, he said. They are gems but they aren’t perfect.
When Haugen began fishing that special stream in late March he knew it would be a real challenge because water was low and clear. “You have to be really stealthy, extremely stealthy,” he said. Cover and water are more limited so fish are hyper alert and swim for shelter at the slightest hint of danger.
As he moved up the stream, he began seeing small rises, and we could see tiny blue-winged olive mayflies in the midair at mating time. Trout feast on the mayflies, while anglers feast on such days. But anglers have to be really good because trout are keyed on one insect; anglers have to match not only size, shape and color, but also how they their flies flow with the water. To make things tougher, anglers have to compete against all the real bugs on the water.
Conversely, a good thing for anglers on the tiny streams is food is more limited, he said, so the trout tend to be more aggressive.
Haugen tried several pools on his stream, casting well but not getting a take. In one place, he could see ripples from two rising fish but when he peeked over the vegetation, they spooked. Fishing was tough.
He worked the stream for a half hour before casting to rises below a tiny waterfall.
Boom! Fish on.
It was a nice brown, fat and feisty. Haugen landed and released it.
Okay, he said, let’s fish Wisel because it’s bigger and if the mayflies are also hatching there, it’ll be a blast.
It didn’t take us long to see rises on Wisel. I fished a beautiful riffle/pool where fish were rising and even jumping. I could feel that eager/anxious jolt I get when I hear a tom turkey gobbling nearby or geese honking closer and closer.
I cast a tiny dry fly that matched the mayfly well. But with so many real bugs, trout weren’t eager to notice mine. A few did and I caught four or five, missing at least one, in about 45 minutes. Haugen came back and reported taking twice as many.
The hatch shut down, leaving me agape and eager to do it again, maybe on Haugen’s special little stream, maybe on a few tiny or medium ones I’ve grown to love over the years.
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Here are a few of the tiny trout streams Haugen and other trout-fishing heavyweights suggest people check out: Beaver both in the Whitewater Valley and Beaver Creek Valley State Park, Crooked, Vesta, Nepstad, Canfield and Forestville. Some of the medium-sized streams: Wisel, Trout Run, Camp, Duschee and Cold Spring.
Beware: just because a stream has easements doesn’t mean it’s a breeze to fish. I’ve been scouting tiny streams over the past several months and found some were great, but on others I spent more time looking for places to fish amidst the debris in and along streams than actually fishing.
• • • • •
A few notes on the trout opener.
- Anglers can legally begin keeping fish an hour before sunrise April 17. The limit is five daily, no more than one larger than 16 inches. BUT many streams have special regulations that limit the size or number you can keep and the tackle you can use. Details are in the DNR’s regulations booklet and are posted along streams accesses.
- If you wade one stream and move to another, it’s recommended you clean your boots first to avoid moving any contaminants or invasive species. The recommendation is to brush any vegetation of debris off your boots and squirt them with a mixture of 10 percent bleach, 90 percent water. Do it away from the stream. I timed myself doing it and it took a shade under five minutes.
- Clean up after yourself. It’s common courtesy, and the law, to pick up worm boxes, pop cans or other garbage on the banks.