As an avid fly fisherman with a serious jones for large trout, living in the upper Midwest can have its challenges—well, at least in comparison to the legendary big water found out West, rivers such as Montana’s famed Madison or Yellowstone, where big streamers and “double-digit” trout have become almost synonymous.
And while it’s true Midwest big-trout hunters can find solace in spring and fall steelhead and salmon runs up Great Lakes tributaries, still another option rears its head in May and June: hunting for big brown trout in the relatively small northwoods streams of Wisconsin and Minnesota. Over the years these relatively overlooked northcountry waterways have become a favorite both for their consistent action, and healthy populations of well-above-average-sized trout.
Maybe most appealing is that these streams fish best in May and June, when water levels are consistent and the larger fish can be tempted with streamers, a favorite tactic. Some of my go-to flies are 3- to 4-inch Clouser minnows (with white bellies and darker olive, brown or black backs), and white, black and yellow marabou muddlers. All are tied to incorporate some type of flash and mimic local chubs, dace, and immature trout, on size 8 to 2 long-shanked streamer hooks. And while the Clousers have their lead dumbbell eyes that help provide a fish-attracting jigging motion, I also like to add weight to standard streamers to help lure the larger fish from the deepest holes, while using my typical rig of a floating line and 7- to 9-foot leader.
Over the years I’ve used several different fly rods on these small streams in search of the ideal small-water stick, finding that most of these skinny, forested waterways fish best with shorter 4- and 5-weight rods measuring a near-ideal 7.5 feet. Anything much longer quickly becomes a liability. The largest challenge along most streams is simply finding innovative ways to get the fly to the fish under the forested canopy without losing too many flies, which is just one reason why I like to tie my own. You will lose flies so bring plenty. I also like a rod with enough backbone to turn large fish from woody/brushy snags, which are plentiful. I’ve often longed for a 6-weight rod measuring 7.5 feet—a rare beast in today’s premium rod market—but recently came close with a sweet and powerful 6-weight Redington Predator measuring 7 feet, 10 inches.
How large are the fish you can expect? When you consider the streams of which I speak are mostly under 20 feet across, with some stretches about half that wide, I guess the answer would be, larger than you might guess. Each spring I have mornings when I’ll land a handful of browns measuring 14 to 17 inches—solid hard-fighting fish—and the odd lunker brown will reach into that 18-20-inch range, bruisers most anywhere. The morning of Wisconsin’s May 2017 opener, my largest brown measured 16 inches, one of about a dozen trout landed over a four- or five-hour stretch that also included four bonus brookies measuring to 12 inches, while moving another 10 or so trout that swiped at my streamers without getting hooked. It was actually a below-average opener (given the ideal water conditions) that I blamed on picking a stretch of stream I hadn’t fished in years. But once on the water I was pot-committed, and so made the best of it.
Which brings us to what I believe is one of the most important aspects of my northcountry small-stream success: Covering lots (several miles) of water. Critical to this approach is a pair of stocking foot waders and hiking-style boots with good gripping soles; my favorite streams are littered with rocky bottoms (ever try walking on wet bowling balls?) that are waiting to twist ankles and knees.
You’ll also want a backpack with enough water (or water purifier) to fend off dehydration, another potential pitfall. I like to cover lots of water because it puts me in contact with more of the most aggressive fish. When using the relatively large streamers I like to employ, I’ve found that more than likely, I will hook (or at least see) a large trout on the first pass through a given spot. If a fish shows itself but does not get hooked, I will make several more casts to the same spot, with history showing I have a relatively good chance of hooking it with subsequent casts. But if nothing shows, I’m off to the next spot, more or less constantly moving along.
With this preferred “shotgun casting” strategy it’s surprisingly easy to cover four or five miles of water (while moving several dozen fish) over a few hours, but then comes the hard part: Getting back to your vehicle. Before I leave I like to completely plan out my route to include a preferred take-out point, which, ideally, will offer at least a somewhat clear path back to the truck. If nothing else, at least the walk back will be on flat roadway. Sometimes, though, you’ve just got to grit your teeth and go for it.
Sometimes I throw sandals in my pack and stow my gear and waders for an easier hike back on level roads, more typically it’s a long hot walk and hopefully I’m hydrated enough to fend off cramps. In the end, I will likely have fished backcountry stream stretches that rarely see another fisherman the whole season long, and hooked several bragging-sized brown trout that will make all the sweat and effort worthwhile.
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