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Inside the Outdoors 0327: Spring arrives in fits and starts

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Spring officially arrived in Minnesota at three minutes before noon on Thursday, March 20. After a winter more brutal than most in recent memory, spring was awaited with more than usual enthusiasm and winter-weariness.

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But, just as the comic strip character Charlie Brown forgets from one year to the next that Lucy will break her promise and jerk the football away when he tries to kick it, we tend to forget that spring can break its promises, too. Spring is as much an evolution as it is an event.

My son and I saw this first-hand during a two-day adventure down to the southeastern corner of Minnesota on the Friday and Saturday following that first day of spring. Weary as we all are of snow drifts and frozen lake-scapes, we trekked there in search of one of the limited open water fishing opportunities available now.

For us, it was an opportunity to plant our feet in flowing water and cast our lures for trout in one of the handful of streams with special regulations that allow fishing starting Jan. 1.

One of the most powerful themes in print and on the silver screen as I was growing up was discovering a “lost world.” That’s the impression that struck me when I first discovered the Whitewater Valley east of Rochester, through which several rivers and streams flow on their descent from rolling farmlands high above, to their rendezvous with the Mississippi far below.

Instead of driving upward into mountains from plains and foothills, when you enter the Whitewater Valley you do the opposite, following a sharp decline from rolling plains above, dropping down into a world with dramatic limestone bluffs that rise above you as you follow the steep path downward that was carved by the retreat of ancient seas, and meltwater from the glaciers retreating at the end of Minnesota’s ice ages.

At the bottom you find yourself looking upward at “mountains” that have few parallels within the borders of our state. Most of the water in these streams comes out of the limestone that is the chief component of the towering bluffs.

Springs maintain a generally constant stream flow and temperature, save for spring with its snowmelt, and the rainstorms that periodically flood these rivers.

True to the season, as my son and I walked the trail to our first hot-spot, we encountered a state park naturalist and a group of elementary school students, there with their teachers to learn about the making of syrup and sugar from the sap of the many maples in this hardwood forest landscape.

This stretch of stream had been good to us before, but as in all fishing, past success is no predictor of what will happen today, and we moved on, fishless, to the next stop on our “hit list.”

In summer one wouldn’t imagine fishing in 40-degree temperatures to be comfortable, but in March — especially after the winter of 2013-14 — it seemed downright balmy, and I was soon shedding some of the layers I had piled on to start the day.

One of the worries that besets all anglers is the fear of being “aced out” by another who has designs on the same fishing spot. But in our case the competition we found at our next stop was a pair of Canada geese. This is, after all, the time when waterfowl are migrating north and staking out nesting areas, particularly so here, more than 200 miles south of where I call “home.”

Unlike most waterfowl, Canada geese are known to take a mate for life, and for being especially protective of their young. This pair had staked their claim to a broad, grass-covered flood plain extending out into the river.

Most likely they were still in the nuptial stage of their spring rite, prior to nesting, for they put up no defense and took wing with loud protesting honks as I worked my way upstream.

The water was higher than when we were here in January, thanks to the melting occurring now on almost a daily basis during daylight hours; if not due to above-freezing temperatures, then as a result of the more direct rays of sunlight on the rotting, crystalline snow.

In this stretch of river we had more success, our two fish being that many more than the “goose eggs” at our first stop of the day.

Winter-to-spring trout fishing can be feast or famine, and knowing that, it’s best to be thankful for the minor victories. As is often said, a bad day on a lake or stream can be better than a good day at the office.

The early trout season is all catch-and-release anyway, but like most honest anglers we DO want the thrill of the catch, so we can have the satisfaction of the release.

“What a difference a day makes,” so the song and the saying go. Next morning we awoke to temperatures in the mid-teens, nearly 30 degrees colder than at quitting time the afternoon before.

To add insult to injury, a fierce north wind howled down the Whitewater valley, in gusts that dropped the wind-chill to zero, and below.

To our further surprise, the snowmelt of the day before had poured so much new water into the river that it was much deeper and faster, and nearly the color of cream-laced coffee, due to the clay soil runoff. Under these low-visibility conditions the trout are much less likely to even see your offerings, and more likely to seek shelter from the heavy, energy-sapping current.

After several hours of fishless self-abuse we figuratively cried “uncle,” took down our rods and pulled off waders, and enjoyed warming moments under the influence of the car’s heater. We then pointed our compass northward, eventually parting company in the Twin Cities, and I continued on solo toward home. And what should I find the next morning, despite wintry subfreezing temperatures? A trio of robins were feeding in our backyard crabapple trees. If they’re so optimistic about spring, how can we humans not be?

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