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2020 - A Trout Season in Review

I know it's cliche but 2020 has been a year like no other. This trout season was like no other. There were more people fishing (COVID, fishing, and the future) and it seemed like they were fishing more often. I have no way to quantify that but I'd see five or more cars on Coon Creek and its tributaries before I got to where I was going - ON A TUESDAY!

Had you asked me about my trout season before October, I'd have probably had more tales of woe. I'd fished less, in fewer places, stayed closer to home, and I'd fished alone a lot more often than usual. However, the season ended on some great high notes that mostly revolved around seeing and fishing with friends, amazing colors, and a seasonably warm fall.

Fall fishing in the Driftless Area
Mike Kuhr on a Coon Creek tributary the last weekend of the season.

This year seemed to be highlighted by what didn't happen rather than what did happen. I didn't travel far from home - I think the furthest trip took me less than an hour from home. My first camping trip of the year was in mid-August. In a more typical year, I'd have been working on 3 full weeks of camping by the time we do our annual "Last Hurrah" in August. Though I've praised Smallmouth Bass in the past, I didn't catch a single one this year. In more typical years, I get in at least a couple of trips to some of Wisconsin's or the Upper Peninsula's better smallmouth streams, the trip to Andy's on the Wolf River, or at least I'd have caught a few on the Mississippi River. Not a one this year, in fact I didn't fish non-trout waters this year. And lastly, I am NOT looking for sympathy here but I probably barely fished more than 50 days this year. Most years, I probably double that and this is after fishing more often than usual during the early season thanks to good weather and much needed distractions.

Fishing a flood damaged stream
Fishing early season on a stream showing the effects of the 2018 floods.

There seemed to be two main themes this year. A lot of streams damaged by the August / September 2018 floods - and hit again in 2019 still show those scars but they are gradually healing and in a few cases, their healing is being helped along. Second, little was normal. What didn't happen this year was plentiful. The Women's Fly Fishing Clinics run by Southern Wisconsin Trout Unlimited were cancelled. As mentioned above, I didn't camp until mid-August, I didn't catch a single Smallmouth Bass this summer, and I didn't fish outside the Driftless and I probably didn't fish more than 40 miles from home all season. At that, I'd guess that 90% of my fishing was within 20 miles of home. Of course I am fortunate to have a lot of good trout streams within 20 miles of me - "as the crow flies".

Limestone placed along a stream
Bohemian Valley in the winter - rock was placed for summer renovation.

Winter was generally milder this year than in the previous few years and nice-ish days in January and February provided some pretty good fishing. I say "nice-ish" as the really nice days - those much over 40*F - are some of the worst for fishing once the snow begins to melt. In March, a group of us have been getting together in Viroqua for nearly 15 years for our "opening weekend" trip. The C&R opener once was the first Saturday in March but with the current early season, we stuck with a March "opening weekend" trip as the weather is more likely to be fishable. We had no idea that it would be the last get together in some months. And that these later meetings would be quite different.

Newly improved trout stream
A "new" stream this year - many improvement occurred in the Driftless

Early season fishing was pretty good and it made for a great distraction from all that was happening, which I'm sure is a lot of why so many people bought licenses this year. March was a tough month, a month full of uncertainty. However, fishing wise, March was pretty solid. It was warmer and wetter than usual so most of the precipitation was rain rather than snow. Fishing was a great diversion in March and April. Mid- to late April might be my favorite fishing of the year. The black caddis hatch on many Driftless streams has been the best and most consistent hatch of the season. This year, like most recent years, I found a few days where the fish were just stupid and you have a day or two where you can't help but have a 50 fish day, on dry flies. Those days more than make up for the really tough ones.

Pinch those barbs!
The low-light of my season, burying a #14 Hippie Stomper in my face. Pinch those barbs!

Let's blow by this one quickly (it's damned embarrassing) - I've fly fished for 30 years and this is the first time it has required a trip to urgent care (well, by me - I have driven a friend or two to the hospital). It was on my first few casts after having walked in a mile or so. I couldn't get the damned thing out so I fished on for a couple of hours, fished my way back to the vehicle, caught a bunch of fish, and then drove to the hospital where my insurance would help take care of things. Fucking wind (and laziness)! Pinch down those barbs, including on store-bought flies. Fortunately, my doctor was a musky guy and has pulled several hooks - much larger than a size 14 dry fly hook - out of others as well as himself. He packs lidocaine on his Canada trips. My only concern was that he may have thought me a giant wimp for having a fine-wire #14 dry fly hook "surgically" removed.

Brush lined Driftless stream
Fishing a brushy stream with a good friend (no, that's not BigFoot).

For a variety of reasons, mostly work related, I fished a lot less this summer than in more typical years. May and June are the prime months in the Driftless. The tan caddis (Hydropsyche), sulfurs (Ephemeralla spp.), and craneflies, which have not so slowly become the most consistent hatch in the Driftless, are on the docket. I mostly forwent these days and hatches due to work. This is a choice no fly angler would like to make but sometimes we have little choice. I got in a bit of fishing but I fished less of this prime time than in a "normal" year. There was no camping trip around the State Council meeting and Women's Fly Fishing clinic which meant less hanging out and fishing with friends. Other than the little black caddis, I mostly missed the hatches this year...but I still fished plenty of dry flies.

One of the many new knick point waterfalls after the 2018 floods. It looks much different today.

I think we should learn something while we are out fishing, spending some time observing and reflecting about what we saw. I didn't learn a hell of a lot this year. But that is not to say I didn't learn anything.

Fishing with friends is always a good way to learn some new ideas about how to catch fish. I learned about Duke's "toe-bitter" flies that imitate giant water bugs and saw it work. I watched Chris (RiparianLife) do quite well on wet flies, a technique I don't think to use much in the Driftless Area but it works. Or at least it works when someone that is good at fishing in that manner does it. I learned when my friend Ben (608 Community Supported Kitchen) says, "hey, come out to our campsite for dinner", you go! That one I've known for some time, I suppose. And the last weekend of the season, had an unexpected two days of fishing. I met up with a former student on Saturday. On Sunday, Mike Kuhr (Wisconsin Trout Unlimited State Council) I had a chance to meet up on what might have been one of the last really nice days of 2020.

I learned I miss fishing with friends, something I did a lot less of this year than most.

A muddy stream
2020 in a nutshell - off to a good start then it all got pretty muddy and messed up.

The image above is 2020 in a nutshell. It started out so promising and then it sort of all went to hell. I had fished for a couple of hundred yards and was having a pretty nice day, including catching a few above average fish. It is not a place I fish often but knew it would be unoccupied because it is not the easiest place to access, it's a little brushy, and there is no "out" other than walking back downstream to your car unless you plan to fish 4 miles or so. I was pretty happy with myself. Then, as I'm changing flies because I'd worn out my CDC and Elk fly, I look back up and instantly I am looking and this. Yuck. Sort of like 2020, things were going so well before it turned to shit.

It is not like the 2020 season lacked redeeming qualities. We could talk about getting to know my home waters better. Having a couple of semi-regular fishing partners was great and I picked something up from all of them. And, of course, being around people and interacting with them was nicer than usual this year. Fishing wise, 2020 ended on a pretty high note, mostly fishing with friends, enjoying some amazing fall weather, and having some really good days of fishing. And to end the season on a high note, I ended 2020 with a fish on my last cast.

Driftless colors were quite spectacular and the end of the season weather could not be beat.

For better or worse, 2020 is in the books. It is a year we won't be forgetting any time soon. Here is to a better 2021, not just on the fishing side of things.

How was your season?

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