Thursday, November 05, 2020

My (Almost) Troutless Trout Season (Habitat Report, 2020)

Gabby, a young friend of mine, posted a meme on her Facebook page that read, ""2020 is like looking both ways before you cross the street, and getting hit by an airplane."" It's an excellent assessment of what was probably the most unusual year I can remember experiencing. Things started out fairly well, and we in the Minnesota Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers were getting ready for the Great Waters Fly Fishing Expo when the Novel Coronavirus COVID-19 that had been festering in the background since late 2019 took a turn for the worse and became a full-fledged pandemic. Great Waters was canceled, along with a host of other activities in what was supposed to be a two-week shutdown. Our much anticipated Bikefishing Workshop at Trailhead Cycle in Champlin was postponed twice before we finally decided to try again next year. The shutdown ended up being more like five months, the effects of which are still on hand, with numerous restrictions still in place.

As the governor slowly started allowing people to do things again, specifically urging Minnesotans to get outside, one of the activities that was allowed was fishing. Travel was still restricted both in Minnesota and next-door in Wisconsin, but we could go to nearby lakes and fish for bluegill, crappie, and other continuous season species. Mid-April rolled in with the inevitability of taxes postponed for ninety days. That same weekend was the opener of Stream Trout Season in the majority of Minnesota outside of the Driftless Region, and it was our first chance to get out and try chasing rainbows. My wife and I traveled up to St. Croix State Park east of Hinckley for the trout opener. We fished Hay Creek (Pine County) in the park, and Crooked Creek in the Chengwatona State Forest, not catching anything but enjoying the opportunity to get out and on the water. 

Because of the pandemic restrictions, we decided not to invest in Wisconsin fishing licenses this year, (a decision we would later regret) and initially decided to stay in Minnesota, focusing on the North Shore, Superior National Forest, and the Chippewa National Forest. Over the course of the next few weeks, we made fishing excursions to Silver Bay, fishing the Beaver and Baptism and Nemadji Rivers, Bensen Lake in the George Crosby-Manitou State Park, and Kremer and Doctor Lakes in the Suomi Hills Non-Motorized Area of the Chippewa National Forest before finally breaking down and heading to Wisconsin. 

The first and foremost observation I have to make about fishing this year, and its possible effect on the habitat, is people. People were everywhere. Cabin fever was taking its toll, and when the governor allowed us hearty Minnesotans to get outside, we went fishing. The Minnesota DNR reported an 11% overall increase in fishing license sales with sales on the opening weekend reaching a record 27% higher than in previous years. Similarly, in Wisconsin the DNR there reported over a 104,000 more license sales over 2019's numbers. (Interesting note from the Minnesota DNR was a 17% increase in youth license sales.) 

One of the reasons I concentrate on ""Backcountry"" angling is due to the lack of people around while in fishing. During those first few weeks when I was primarily lake fishing, in places where I would normally have found him one or two other people, I sometimes found it hard to even find a spot by the water. Finland and Eckbeck State Forest campgrounds on the Baptism River were full to overflowing each of the times we drove through them, and the river had been heavily fished and was unproductive. Fortunately, or unfortunately, the US Forest Service chose to not open our favorite Superior NF campground, Little Isabella River, so we never had the chance to fish there this year. Superior National Forest and the Arrowhead Region in general have been receiving less than normal amounts of precipitation, and accordingly, stream levels were low. One spot that I had hoped to fish was already occupied by a young black bear, so I didn't catch anything that day. 

Probably my best fishing weekend was Independence Day on the Chippewa National Forest. Although I was angling for trout, my wife and I came up with a half-dozen nice sized smallmouth bass. The Chippewa has seen more precipitation than its neighbor to the east, so the vegetation was lush, and trails into the interior were in very good condition for my Cogburn fat bike. There, as on the Superior, anyplace that was accessible by vehicle was heavily overused. Additionally, many of the people taking to the outdoors were inexperienced, with no knowledge of Tread Lightly or Leave No Trace and they left copious amounts of litter behind for others to clean up. In some cases, restrooms (vault latrines) remained shuttered until after July 4th, and in those locations, visitors left more than just litter. Interestingly, however, less than a mile into the interior at Doctor Lake, there was no crowd, no litter, and no conflicts. 

By the middle of July conditions had improved enough in Wisconsin for us to start visiting Chequamegon National Forest again, and we spend our vacation at Beaver Lake USFS Campground near Marengo. Fishing Whiskey Creek, the Marengo River, 18-Mile Creek, Porcupine Creek, Johnson Springs Pond, Beaver Lake, Lake Three, and the Namakagon River, we had numerous strikes but didn't bring anything to shore, with the exception of a minuscule trout fingerling that hooked onto my fly as I was retrieving it at the end of the day on Porcupine Creek in the Porcupine Lake Wilderness Area. (That's why I included the ""almost"" in the title.) Again, we saw more people in the backcountry areas than I could remember seeing in my thirty plus years visiting Chequamegon. Even in the Wilderness Area, the trailheads were full of cars, and there were people on the trails. However, going only 50 to 100 feet off the trail following the creek, and you were alone again. Of the lakes and ponds that we fished, Johnson Springs was the most enjoyable, even though we didn't catch any fish. Although the surface of the lake was placid, casting the fly would almost always result in it looking like the fly line hit a wall and dropped. Wetting your finger and holding it up in the air, I realize that 8 feet or so above ground/water there was a light breeze blowing directly towards me onshore. The fish were and are out there. We could see them hitting the surface, but without spin casting gear, we couldn't reach them. Our biggest regret came in not buying a seasonal husband-wife fishing license, opting instead for two-week licenses on each of our trips up there, which cost us thirty-five dollars more than a regular license would have. 

Western Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest has received far more rain than Superior National Forest. Vegetation is lush, and the streams are flowing free and deep. Water is by in large, clear and there is an abundance of fry, fingerlings, and aqueous insects for fish to feed on. One angler showed me pictures on his phone of three 15-inch or better brown trout he caught on the Namakagon River between Cable and Hayward. Water levels had reduced during our last visit in early October, but the fall colors were beautiful due to the early frost the area received in September. 

Hopefully, 2021 will see a return to some sort of normalcy. Although it may mean a decline in license sales, we can hope that the inexperienced and ""slob"" fishermen (and hunters) will have found other avenues for their favorite activities reducing human impact on the forests. Although as previously mentioned, I am primarily an angler, wildlife is abundant, particularly on the Chippewa and Chequamegon forests, and seasons for turkey, game birds, small game, deer and bear should be quite productive. 

Our goals for next year, presuming that things are more normal than they were earlier this year, are to conduct at least one and as many as three bikefishing workshops starting with our friends at Trailhead Cycle, and possibly even a Bikefishing booth at the Great Waters Fly Fishing Expo in St. Paul. We also are looking forward to opportunities to visit with Minnesota High School League fishing teams to talk about fly fishing, backcountry angling and bikefishing. We are also hoping to play a role in the establishment of a fishing team at Jordan High School and promoting a qualifier for the Fly Fishing Team USA in the Driftless Region later in the spring. 

Wishing everyone a good winter season, whatever your favorite outdoor activities may be, and we will keep you posted on our plans here at