John Weiss: Small streams pose big challenge for trout anglers
PLAINVIEW — Thoroughly sick of chest-high nettles, itching hands, buzzing gnats and mosquitoes, and upset that I hadn't caught more trout, I slashed my way out of the streamside tangle.
Oh, the wonderful freedom to walk without tripping over downed logs or vines.
Oh, the rapture of being free from fearing I would break a leg and not be found for days or weeks.
But I wasn't free from the desire to figure out how to fish West Indian Creek north of Plainview.
It's one of many small trout streams in the region that can be miserably exciting to fish. They are wild with trees, deadfalls and brush along them, and the trout are incredibly spooky. You have to be a hunter/stalker as well as angler. Banks are often steep and a few feet high, so it's hard to quietly get down to the water.
Just about any pool or riffle that holds fish has thick vegetation around it. One great-looking stretch with old habitat improvement work totally flummoxed me, I could see no way of getting a prince nymph down it. I tried from the opposite shore but the current kept whipping my line out of the way and I gave up.
Then there were the bugs, lots of them. To ward off gnats, a woman I met at the Rochester Farmers Market suggested vanilla. She swore it worked. I tried it and it seemed to help (a word to wise husbands: DON'T use your wife's precious pure vanilla). But the mosquitoes and other bugs were still around.
Don't forget the stinging nettles. They are everywhere and make your hands itch like crazy for 10 minutes, though dunking hands in cold water helps.
And finally, there's the danger of fishing alone amid tangles of fallen logs. If I'd fallen and broken a leg, there would have been no way to call for help because cell phones seldom work in those valleys.
Yet that stream is oddly satisfying to fish. As one angler once said, any fish you catch in a small stream` is a trophy, not because of size, but the difficulty of hooking it.
I have been concentrating more on trout this summer because my favorite streams for smallmouth, which are my other fishing vice, have been so high and muddy. Many of the best and biggest trout streams have also been a bit hard to fish, but the little ones tend to have smaller watersheds. They rise less and clear faster.
And I love the challenge of fishing West Indian, Beaver in the Whitewater Valley or Torkelson near Lanesboro, my three favorite small streams. West Indian and Beaver have miserable jungles along most of them, while Torkelson is more open, at least part of the ways.
And it's not like they're impossible to fish with a flyrod. I did OK that day a few weeks ago on West Indian, landed two trout, missed two, in about three hours.
When I'm on those streams, I can also dream I'm fishing a stream primeval, one that is like what streams were like before Europeans.
It's just a dream.
"I doubt any of the streams here look like they did 150 years ago," said Mel Haugstad of Preston, an expert trout fisherman who worked for many years as the Department of Natural Resources fisheries manager.
Streams banks gradually sloped back and were covered with native prairie. This region was primarily prairie before European settlement. Trees were much more scarce because they were kept at bay by fires, or bison and elk grazed along the streams, he said.
There were probably fewer beaver, which dam streams leading to warmer, slower water, because of fewer trees. The trees that did grow weren't the kind beavers liked, he said.
"And then we have all of those heavy, erodible layers of silt in the floodplain that keep moving every time when we get that abnormally fast rise," he said. That soil came from tilled land in the top of the watershed, he said.
Haugstad wants government programs to reward landowners who plant clover, oats and hardwoods instead of those who plant large field of corn and soybeans, he said.
He's right, things could be a lot better. But they aren't, so we're forced to deal with, and fish, what we have. For me, that can mean heading for the smaller streams, fighting gnats, catching a few fish and enjoying those small pleasures.