March–April 2024

Bucket List

Fly Fish for Winter Trout

750 miles of southeastern Minnesota trout streams are open in winter.

Ashley Peters

My wading boots crunch noisily on the snow as I approach the Whitewater River in southeastern Minnesota. Chickadees cheep and whirl past me, seemingly in rhythm to the burble of the stream’s riffles. Otherwise, all is quiet. The leafless trees have settled into their winter sleep, and the wind is busy somewhere else. A friend and I have already achieved our goal of leaving warm homes to explore the ice-laden river with fly rods. Now we seek a fish in the net.

Wriggling under the water’s surface are brown, rainbow, and brook trout. Minnesota’s Driftless region boasts 750 miles of trout streams open for catch-and-release fishing from January 1 to the second Saturday in April. Whitewater State Park is a favorite of mine, with stunning scenery, well-stocked stretches of river, and a few plowed parking spaces, allowing for an easier approach than more remote streams. I can also readily find the river level on the DNR website.

Midwestern trout spook easily, so I have my fly rod ready for a quick cast at the bank. My nymph fly disappears into the seam of the river’s flow but brings no luck, and I know I need to move. First, though, I pause to appreciate the ice formations that drip from downed branches and glossy boulders. Mini ice castles are built from small waterfalls and juncos hop about, wearing fluffed uniforms. The cold nips at my back and I crave hot chocolate as I clutch my hand warmers.

As I punch ice from the eyelets of my rod, my friend shouts as she pulls in a trout. I congratulate her on the catch. A little black streamer did the trick for this 12-inch brown, and we admire the tenacity of the gemlike creature before releasing it.

Tips for Success

  • Fly anglers should bring a variety of flies such as midges, nymphs, emergers, and streamers. Local fly shops are also often helpful in sharing which flies are currently successful on-stream.
  • Lighter-weight rods and line, such as 3, 4, or 5 weights, work great for the 10- to 12-inch trout that are the average for winter catches.
  • Wool fingerless gloves are a must-have for enduring the chill. Fishing midwinter is often slower than other times of year, taking as much patience and perseverance as warm-weather fishing, and then some.

Plan Your Trip

  • Bathrooms, drinking water, cell coverage, and other amenities may not be available; plan accordingly. Always let someone know where you are going and have an emergency plan.
  • Most state parks are partially plowed in the winter; call to check. In state forests and at wildlife management areas, winter roads might be impassable or unsafe for travel. Always err on the side of safety when navigating icy, snowy, or muddy roads.
  • A Minnesota fishing license and a trout stamp are required; check for other regulations and know how to spot DNR trout stream signage. Note that regulations vary depending on location. See regulations at