Winter in the Driftless

(Originally featured in MN TU winter publication)

When cold air moves over a warmer body of water, it creates “sea smoke.” Currently the air is 60 degrees colder than the water passing by our feet, resulting in sea smoke so thick, it’s hard to see the opposite bank.

There are few places where water can be 60 degrees warmer than the air, but we are in one of those places. The Driftless area of Minnesota and Wisconsin is home to dozens of spring-fed creeks where the water coming out of the ground is between 48 and 50 degrees; so even though the wind chill is -10, the water remains in a liquid state.

The morning starts like most this time of year—the sound of a coffee grinder fills the kitchen and the table is covered in flies and warm weather gear. It is 8:00 am and the straight air temps are hovering around 0. During these cold winter months, there is no reason to rush to the stream at first light. Instead, we wait for the warmer parts of the day, knowing that we won’t need to fight crowds for our spots. We make sure to cover all exposed skin and put on our waders in the warmth of our house before leaving.

My 21-year-old truck sings a bit when I turn the key, but it’s a trusty old truck and fires after a few seconds. We drink lots of coffee during the ride down and discuss the various fishing tactics we are going to try upon arrival. It’s hard to know how trout will act in these temps, so every approach is considered.

Fly fishing in our area is a niche sport. We frequently get confused looks when we tell people that we are “going fly fishing” and their faces are even more confused when we say this in January and February. Fishing this time of year isn’t uncommon—seasonal shanty villages pop up on the thousands of frozen lakes, as ice anglers drill holes in hopes of pulling walleye, pike or hand-sized pan fish through—but we prefer the solitude of the woods, and the sound of the running water.

The scenery we experience on days like today is breathtaking, quite literally. Even though the weather is harsh, the days are peaceful. Our surroundings are quiet with the exception of the crunching snow heard after each step we take. The snow settles like a white blanket over everything and creates a sense of purity and freshness, symbolic of the new year we have just entered. With the start of the new year comes a distinct excitement—each cast we take is filled with anticipation as we wait for our first fish of the year.

We are quickly reminded of the freezing temperatures by the frozen rod guides that require our attention every few casts. We avoid letting our reels slip under the water to prevent them from becoming ice cubes, rendering them useless. Our breath blurs our vision as we focus intently on our floating line, looking for the slightest twitch. In these temperatures fish tend to be lethargic and their strikes can be very subtle.

As we work our way upstream, our focus is on the deeper pools. Where there are pools, there are almost always fish stacked on the bottom. We cast our weighted streamers up into these deep holes as we approach, and swing them back through as we continue to work our way up stream. Within minutes, a brown trout grabs Abigail’s black streamer.

Once the trout figures out what has happened, he puts up his best fight, but it’s too late. Abigail fights him well, keeping tension on the frozen line, and I’m able to scoop him up into our net. It’s a nice-sized fish, dark brown with a slight hookjaw and an abnormally large caudal (tail) fin. We high five each other in excitement, realizing what a beautiful first catch this is for the new year. With the temps being so cold we make sure to keep the fish submerged in the net. After slipping the barbless hook out of his mouth with ease, she lifts him out of the water just long enough for me to snap a few pictures before releasing him back into the 48 degree water.

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We continue upstream, only to find that most of the pools are frozen over. A few small brook trout find themselves in our nets, but the day didn’t end with the same excitement as it began. Nevertheless, this was a day to remember—any day spent fishing is a good day—and in the dead of winter, the taste of success seems sweeter.

Rarely do we see other anglers, and when we do we greet each other kindly. The challenges that need to be overcome, with no promise of success, prevents many anglers from putting the waders on when temps are below freezing; but for those that dare to brave the cold, some great memories and experiences are in store. Winter is a beautiful time in the Driftless that few take the time to appreciate—and in a selfish way, I’m okay with that.

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Photo by @isaiahphoto

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