HART TOWNSHIP, Minn. — Justin Carroll knelt in the snow and slowly scooted forward to the stream’s edge. He flipped his line into the dark current, flowing easily despite the freezing air temperature. Carroll, 27, followed the water’s course with his eyes and recast upstream.
“You have to go slower,” Carroll said. “The water is so clear right now they can spot you from a mile away.”
Carroll is one of hundreds of anglers who flock to the spring-fed streams of southeastern Minnesota for the winter trout season, which runs from Jan. 1 to March 31. Warm groundwater keeps many waterways in the Driftless Area flowing through the year — a feature unique to this part of the state, said Steve Klotz, the area fishery supervisor for the Department of Natural Resources.
The department opened a small section of the Whitewater River in winter 1988 to trout anglers. Now, those willing to brave the weather can cast along nearly 135 miles of waterway that criss-cross the area. Anglers must use barbless hooks and abide by catch-and-release laws.
Before heading to his first spot, Carroll pulled on two snowshoes. The four-hour outing called for more than a mile of hiking across packed snow and around fences.
“Winter is so cool for me because you don’t get to see the stream like this in the spring,” he said.
The state issues between 85,000 to 88,000 trout stamps each year. Stamps sold in the spring carry over into the winter months, but it’s often the dedicated who continue to hit the streams in the snow, Klotz said.
Carroll is completing his third full season and makes between 50 and 75 trips a year. He never quite took to lake fishing, but fly fishing grabbed him. Carroll found a creative outlet in the interactive art of stalking finicky stream trout and hesitated to put down his rod for the winter months. The Winona State University graduate studies local insects and ties his own flies — part of the fun, he said.
“When you know what they’re eating and you put it in front of them, they’re going to eat it,” Carroll said. “Almost every time.”
Less vegetation makes it easier to scare a hungry trout. For the winter angler, that means walking from spot to spot, instead of making a straight line up or down stream.
Trout act differently in the winter, too, favoring deeper water and staying close together, Carroll said.
Preparation is important to a successful trip, Carroll said. Anglers can stay warm if they wear proper gear and track the weather. He spent more than a week watching weather reports and eventually picked a small arc of Rush Creek because nearby bluffs blocked the wind, he said.
Eventually, white frost covered his line. Carroll pulled in his rod to break ice off the top guide.
“It’s not easy,” he said. “That’s one reason why some people don’t come out here.”
On the web
Carroll writes about his exploits and shares photos of nature on his blog at www.winonaflyfactory.com. Plus, head there for seasonal help on hooking trout.