Going Foot-to-Fin: Prying Trout Out of the Woods in Small Streams

Many of us remember those long, pretty casts – the ones that catch fish on the far side of the stream. But a recent trip was memorable because I caught fish with less line outside the rod tip than I ever thought possible. What made the trip even more memorable was that the stream itself was in a completely unexpected location.

My girlfriend Deb and I were planning to do some biking on the excellent trails around Bemidji, Minnesota. Naturally, we wanted to do a little fishing and I typed “Fly Fishing Bemidji” into Google. In that part of Minnesota walleye are king and I thought I might find some good warm water opportunities. Nevertheless, the first hit was a complete description of the Clearwater River – a trout stream just outside of Bemidji. Access points, stocking information, and stream characteristics were discussed in detail. I was thrilled. I live in the Canadian Prairies and any opportunity to fish for trout in moving water is not to be missed.

Fly fisher in Minnesota

When we arrived at the Clearwater River in late May, it was a cool, cloudy day. The water was quite high and stained, with a visibility of maybe 18 inches. Calling it a river was a bit of a misnomer because 20 feet was likely its maximum width. We headed off downstream and found a typical meadow creek with lots of undercut banks and a fairly gentle gradient.

There were no rising fish so we tied on weighted nymphs and indicators. However, stream improvement work had anchored old Christmas trees to many of the of undercut banks. As a result, it seemed that much of the stream bottom was a tangle of brush. Our nymphs were constantly snagging and we switched to lightly-weighted Woolly Buggers. Slow sinking streamers are a great choice when fishing around snags. Lift your rod up and they rise up over the cover. Let your rod drop and they sink into deeper water.

Holding a trout caught in Minnesota

The trout definitely liked the Woolly Buggers. They were 10 to 12 inch rainbows that came from a hatchery. Even though they weren’t big and wild, they hit hard and fought with enthusiasm. Most of the takes of were visual. Watching a fish – even a smaller one – charge out of the depths is always exciting.

After a lunch break, we headed upstream of where we parked our car. That portion of the stream was much narrower and tightly wooded. There were no meadow sections to afford a backcast. The prime lies were eddies and slots deep within tangles of branches. The only way to present a fly was to let it dangle a foot or so below the rod tip and jig it up and down as it drifted. Naturally, this meant wading up to within a rod’s length of the target and reaching the rod through tangles of branches. A long drift was maybe 2 feet.

Fly fisher in Minnesota

Again, the rainbows – and even a bonus brown – were all over our Woolly Buggers. The 10 and 12 inchers seemed much larger as they almost attacked our rod tips. The stained water definitely helped out with this type of close combat presentation. A rod less than 8 feet long also helped in the tight quarters. It was definitely a fun, productive, and informative day on the water.

Although stealth and long casts definitely have their place in trout fishing, a more “in-their-face” approach can also work! I have since learned there are three or four other small trout streams in the vicinity of Bemidji…