By Javier Serna
The popularity of trout fishing in Minnesota has been on the rise for a decade now. But what exactly is behind the trend – whether it’s an increasing population or the sport itself improving with increased access and higher catch rates – is a hard thing to determine.
“I have seen the trends,” said Jamison Wendel, the Minnesota DNR’s stream habitat supervisor. “I don’t think we can pinpoint any one specific factor that can be correlated to (an) increase in (trout stamp) sales.”
In 2019, 108,095 anglers purchased trout stamp validations. In 2009, 90,106 purchased the validation, and in 2015, 100,922 purchased the stamp.
Carl Haensel, a trout-fishing guide on Minnesota’s North Shore, said it’s the state’s many opportunities that have increased participation and drawn visitors from outside the state.
“I think sometimes we take it for granted that we have so many incredible resources in Minnesota,” Haensel said. “I have people come visit to fish here from as far away as England and Argentina every year.”
Increased catch rates and trout numbers
Wendel said trout populations have been on the rise in the state’s Driftless Area, that portion of southeastern Minnesota noted for its bluffs and coulees that keep constant ideal stream temperatures and have proved to be excellent hosts for brown trout.
Brown trout fishing in the Driftless Area has only gotten better.
“We have the highest catch rates for brown trout now, going back to the 1970s,” Wendel said.
Some of that is due to precipitation trends being on the rise, as well, he said. With more water in streambeds, there are fish in places that generally were too dry to support the fish in the past, he added.
“Our surveys (find) trout in those smaller reaches,” Wendel said.
“These are the good old days of trout angling,” Wendel said Ron Benjamin, the Lanesboro DNR area fisheries manager, once told him.
Mel Hayner, who owns The Driftless Fly Fishing Company, credited regulation changes in the area for improved fishing.
“We’re getting more wild fish,” Hayner said, referencing things like protected slots. “In some of these prime streams now, you are targeting bigger fish.”
That’s been a change from some streams that in the past seemed to have only smaller fish, he said.
“The big fish eat the small fish,” he said. “That keeps the natural balance. Before, none of them grew very big. There was a high density of smaller fish.”
Hayner said he believes water quality is better, with clearer water, thanks to less erosion and fewer row crops.
“They are doing a better job with the buffers,” he said, referencing former Gov. Mark Dayton’s buffer law and also adding that stream habitat projects have done a better job of preventing erosion. “Rain events don’t have as big of an impact.”
All of the folks interviewed for this story mentioned an increased number of stream easements. Since 2010, 161 easements have been acquired regarding more than 57 stream miles, according to a recent DNR GIS query.
Those easements are paid for with trout stamp dollars and also other funds that Minnesota has available, such as the Outdoor Heritage Fund.
Those are important financial resources that have allowed the sport to grow.
“People do find their way up here and they do find lots and lots of miles of rivers,” said John Fehnel, of Great Lakes Fly Shop in Duluth. “It does get a little bit (busy) during steelhead season, but not so much that you are going to get too crowded.
Added Haensel, “People have the ability to explore these waters whether it’s on the North Shore but especially on the Driftless. There are opportunities for access that are not that far away from the (Twin Cities) metro. … I think the fact that we have put a lot of money into habitat improvements is huge.”
Fehnel said the two destinations in northeast and southeast portions of the state also draw anglers from opposite regions.
“People go from here down there,” he said. “And we get people from down there coming up here. It is all trout country.”
Haensel said he’s noticed a lot of young anglers fishing together lately, and it’s something he is glad is happening.
“If we don’t have anglers, then we don’t have advocates for our natural resources,” he said. “I was so excited to see the youth on the water this spring.”
Haensel noted that the state’s Trout Unlimited chapters also have seen an increase in participation, something they had been striving for with initiatives such as the Trout in the Classroom program, where school kids get to stock trout grown in the classroom into public waters.
The sport also has been helped by an expansion of opportunities to nearly year-round fishing, with three southeast state parks – Forestville, Whitewater, and Beaver Creek Valley – offering expanded opportunities, as well as five nearby towns – Rushford, Preston, Chatfield, Lanesboro, and Spring Valley – also providing expanded fishing above and beyond the normal seasons.
“We do have year-round fishing,” Hayner said. “I don’t go out in that 10-below stuff, but if it is a 40-degree day in February, it’s nice to go.”
Hayner noted that his business has grown quite a bit since he opened in 2013. He adds that Eagle Cliff Campground in Lanesboro, a favorite of fly anglers, has expanded.
“When I came here 10 years ago, there were eight or 10 campsites and now there are like 200, and people have permanent sites there,” Hayner said.
He pointed to the Great Waters Fly Fishing Expo, which Trout Unlimited took over a few years ago. It’s been taking place at Hamline University in St. Paul.
“It has increased in size, in attendance, within the last five to 10 years,” Fehnel said.
Fehnel said his business in Duluth has seen a 15% to 25% increase in sales over the years, with an increase in interest in fly tying.
Hayner said he’s expanding the size of his fly-tying area in his shop.
“We are doubling the size of it,” he said, adding that he’s gotten into selling fishing kayaks as well. His guide service has also expanded over the past few years, to its current staffing level of four guides, including himself.
“In the last few years, it’s really taken off,” he said.
That should bode well for the future of trout angling in Minnesota.