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Weiss: Advice for wintertime fishing while on foot: Go low and slow

This is the second of two columns by longtime Post Bulletin Outdoors writer John Weiss about fishing in the wintertime, on foot. The first, which was published on Saturday, was about fishing through the ice.

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Dean Flugstad of Lake City holds a brown trout he caught earlier this month along the Whitewater River. He continues fishing into the cold-weather months, but changes tactics. Contributed photo / John Weiss
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An odd thing happens in winter with trout streams, when they become warm-water streams.

Trout are cold-water fish because they need cooler water than panfish, bass and walleye. Streams around here are fed mainly by springs where water is approximately 48 degrees. Hence, cold-water fish.

But there’s the thing -- in winter, relative to the Mississippi or the Root and Zumbro rivers, they are warm-water streams because those springs are still releasing 48-degree water, while the others are barely above freezing. The best trout streams stay open year-round (OK, there may be a bit of ice around the edges), though water temperatures do drop to the upper 30s or low 40s.

In the past few decades, the Department of Natural Resources gradually allowed more and more trout fishing in winter -- all catch-and-release. It’s legal through the end of the year in Whitewater, Forestville and Beaver Creek state parks as well as in Chatfield, Lanesboro, Preston, Spring Valley and Rushford. As of Jan. 1, all streams are open, catch-and-release only, until the regular opener in mid-April.

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When asked their advice for how to catch winter trout with fly rods, John Stoeckel of Rochester and Dean Flugstad of Lake City, said the best advice for where to find trout, and how to approach streams, is think: Low and slow, low and slow, low and slow.

Around now, trout get lethargic and seek places away from current and predators, he said. That usually means deeper, quieter, pools instead of fast-moving shallow riffles.

Anglers should also move low and slow because trout in riffles can’t see us easily in summer, but those in calmer winter water, which is usually also clearer, can see us easier.

“Winter is a great time to work on your nymph fishing” because of the fish being low and slow, Stoeckel said. He likes to fish with orange scuds and imitations of cased caddis. Baetis nymph patterns or midge larva are great all year as are zebra midge or miracle midge. He often fishes a scud with a midge dropper.

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John Stoeckel of Rochester casts for trout earlier this month. He enjoys fishing in cold months but knows fish change as water temperatures drop so he has to change too. Contributed / John Weiss

He wears waders but “if you can fish out on the banks, that’s better.” It’s warmer on the bank and lessens chances of spooking fish or ruining a redd (scooped out area where females lay eggs).

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The bite might be very subtle. Stoeckel likes to fish with a shorter tight line; if he has to cast farther, he uses an indicator. He also may uses strike indicators as a bobber, letting line slowly drift across a pool while held up by the indicator.

Lower your expectations, he said. Yes, at times you can really get into some fast fishing but chances of super days are slim.

Some of his final thoughts:

• He only fishes when it’s 25 degrees or warmer; otherwise, you fight cold hands and iced guides.

• Keep trout in the water as much as possible and release them as soon as possible.

• Enjoy the beauty. “It’s a little bit almost magical,” he said.

Incidentally, he sent me a study done on trout winter feeding habits in this region’s streams. Here is some information from the study published online in 2016: “larger trout consumed greater amounts of Trichoptera (caddis) and Physella (snails) and smaller fish ingested more Gammarus (scuds) and Chironomidae (midge) larvae…. When considered across all streams, trout preferentially selected Trichoptera and Chironomidae and maintained size-selective predation throughout the winter, selecting larger Gammarus and Chironomidae larvae than typically found in the environment.”

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These are some of the cased caddis flies John Stoeckel ties and uses in winter. Contributed / John Weiss

Flugstad fished in Whitewater last week and had a great day with about 25 fish -- like his friend Stoeckel said, you can have those kinds of days. Some of Flugstad’s fish were still in riffles, others in deeper areas. Like Stoeckel, he likes to tight-line fish, letting the nymph or other bait slowly drift along near the bottom. The right speed and presentation are critical, he said. Get it right and you can find some good fish; otherwise, you’ll just get cold hands. “You have to put it right in front of their nose,” he said.

He’s also a huge fan of orange scuds and other nymphs (I like a green nymph because trout are feeding on caddis and many are greenish). Caddis often let loose from rocks and move around more in earlier morning or later evening, so fish might be more active then.

He also likes fishing when it’s a bit warmer, which is a relative term in winter. But tying knots can be hard no matter what. He has several kinds of gloves for winter, most with only the bottom half of the finger part.

Bill Plantan of Rochester has this to say about fishing winter trout with spinning gear. “I enjoy the winter season as much I enjoy the trout season in the canoe,” he said. “I’m a fisherman, a 365-day guy.”

He began talking about his fishing by talking about gear.

“Dress for the conditions,” he said. He begins with insulated waders. “The bottom half is critical to the winter season,” he said.

“I’m an early bird,” Plantan added. “I think the trout get up when the sun gets up and they want to eat.”

After two hours, he’s had enough exercise and fun.

Look to the wind, he said. “The wind plays a huge huge difference.” It really messes up casting and ices guides so find streams out of the wind.

In summer, he fishes with Power Pro, a braided line; in winter, he switches to monofilament, but never stronger than 6 pound.

His rods are shorter and stouter to help with accurate casts. “You have to be accurate,” he said. “If not good enough, you aren’t catching fish.”

He rarely wears gloves, which is pretty unusual. It’s easier to put a snap on the end of the line to attach the lure, but he only ties on directly.

As for lures, he love the new Choppo or Whopper Ploppers and he prefers the larger size-9 baits. He really likes the stick baits, though others go for in-line spinners.

Which way to cast the lure -- upstream or down -- varies with the day, Plantan said. “You don’t really know unless you try both ways,” he said.

Ideally, he likes a slight breeze. But when he gets down to it, “an ideal day is the day that you are out there,” he said.

John Weiss has written and reported about Outdoors topics for the Post Bulletin for 45 years. He is the author of the book "Backroads: The Best of the Best by Post-Bulletin Columnist John Weiss"

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