Walking a quiet trout stream is one of my favorite ways to spend a cloudy spring day. Cloudy, cool spring weather might turn off other WI and MN species, but it is prime for great trout action. Watching large trout suddenly appear, ripping after a well-made presentation, is a thrill, and the challenging nature of fishing in a river environment is always engaging.

The Fertile Driftless Trout Streams

April and May are a productive time to chase stream trout in the driftless region of WI and MN. The driftless region is the non-glaciated portion of southern WI and MN. Driftless trout streams are part of the Mississippi watershed and have high fertility for streams with the correct water quality and seasonal temperatures to indefinitely sustain naturally reproducing populations of brook and brown trout. The cause of the fertility is mostly due to the leaching of calcium carbonate and other nutrients from limestone that is prevalent in the watershed. The additional nutrients cause trout to grow relatively fast, and brook trout over 14” and brown trout over 20” are not uncommon. This phenomenon also results in an aesthetically pleasing blue/green hue in many of the region’s rivers and streams. There are thousands of miles of driftless trout streams to explore and find underutilized gems.

demonstrating trout fish on hands

Spinning Gear for Driftless Trout

Fly fishing, while popular in the driftless, can be extremely prohibitive due to narrow streams and brushy banks. Therefore, many successful driftless trout anglers (myself included) use spinning gear. It is also much more cost-effective, especially when using high-quality, value-priced rods and reels from Piscifun, for those who like running straight mono on spinning reels, that will work. However, I recommend running Fireline in 6, 8, 10, or 12 lb., depending on conditions. It casts further and tangles less than mono, in my experience, and casts better off a spinning reel than a traditional braid. I recommend Piscifun spinning reels sizes 1000, 2000, or 3000. Typically, the 1000 and 2000 sizes are more practical, but on larger rivers, when using larger lures, I will switch to heavier tackle, especially when I want to get the best action out of larger jerk baits; their erratic action will often outproduce anything else. 

Lure, Line Tactics

I use a 6-10 lb. low-vis green mono leader connected to the Fireline with an Alberto knot. I avoid fluorocarbon; its harder properties, unfortunately, make it more brittle, and thus, I find connection knots are stronger and more reliable with mono over fluorocarbon. I use mono leaders in 8, 10, or 12 lb. I will use six lb. on occasion, but stream conditions (i.e. rocks and wood) are brutal on line. Retying more often becomes inefficient and losing a big trout in a log jam, for lack of a better phrase, really sucks. Anything heavier than 12 lb. often prevents line shy larger trout from committing to a strike unless water clarity is significantly reduced. Heavier line will also often kill the action of smaller lures, especially lipped minnow baits. I usually go lighter with smaller lures in smaller streams and heavier with larger lures in larger streams. Finding the best balance is critical, and the best weight tackle tends to vary from river to river. Quality spinners, spoons, jigs, and minnow plugs that have good, reliable action will all catch trout. Personal preference plays heavily in lure confidence and overall success. Making the best cast possible from the longest distance possible will avoid spooking fish and lead to greater success.

Spring Trout Temperature Windows

Brown and brook trout are fall spawners. So, unlike most of our gamefish in WI and MN, which spawn in the spring, reproductive migrations are not in play. Trout are considered cold-water gamefish and, as such, feed heavily and are much more active at colder water temperatures than our warm-water species. In spring, trout begin to feed heavily at 42 F, and action will remain good up to 64 F. Spring melt and rain can make the water turbid. Crystal-clear water is pretty but makes for spooky trout. When clear water is reduced to 2-3 feet of visibility and has a chalky blue or light brown appearance, this can create some of the best action of all and will also result in some of the best conditions in which to catch big trout. Once visibility drops to 1.5’ and below, fishing gets tough and usually only live bait will produce. Rivers and streams that are high, turbid, brown, and have debris floating down are typically not worth fishing. Some spring-fed headwaters of small streams will often stay fishable when everything else is not, but these require some searching to find. After heavy run-off, small streams usually clear up faster than larger rivers. 

demonstrating brook trout on hands

Finding Prime Spring Trout Conditions

Groundwater in the driftless, regardless of season, enters rivers at roughly 45 F. Rivers with a higher percentage of groundwater are usually on the smaller side and are more stable in terms of temperature (warmer in the winter, cooler in the summer). Brook trout need more stable water conditions. That is why brook trout are often associated with small streams (often tributaries), though in spring (when water is cooler), they will often head downstream or into larger connecting rivers in search of greater food supplies. Brown trout will tolerate and thrive in a much broader range of temperatures and much warmer water but are rarely very active past 66 F. Often, the largest browns will be found in larger areas of rivers with pike, smallmouth, walleye, even carp, and channel catfish. The most likely larger rivers will have smaller spring-fed streams as tributaries. In waters with strong naturally reproducing populations of both brown and brook trout, wild tiger trout (a brook trout/brown trout hybrid) can exist and make a truly rare and memorable catch.

Trout fishing is more approachable and affordable than many people think. Especially when the quality and price points of rods and reels purchased from Piscifun are considered, the addition of chasing trout will increase overall spring fishing enjoyment. 

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Adam Glickman

Adam Glickman

I am a field editor with MUSKIE Magazine, and have put hundreds of muskies in the bottom of the net.

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May 07, 2024 — Adam Glickman
Tags: Fishing Tips

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