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Bluff Country Wild Browns of Minnesota's Root River

Innumerable springs produce excellent conditions for aquatic insects and the trout that hunt them.

Bluff Country Wild Browns of Minnesota's Root River

The Root River watershed offers more than 100 miles of trout streams, with thousands of wild browns per mile along the best reaches. 

Minnesota's Root River and its numerous branches snake through the heart of the Driftless Region, a landscape of limestone bluffs, caves, sinkholes, subterranean rivers, and wild trout. Southeast Minnesota and adjoining portions of the Driftless Region in southwest Wisconsin, northeast Iowa, and extreme northwest Illinois encompass one of the largest collections of freshwater springs in the world. The nooks and crannies of this region shelter more than 2,000 miles of trout streams, including some of the most productive and accessible spring creeks in the country. Among these riches, the Root River watershed is arguably the best, offering more than 100 miles of trout streams, with thousands of wild browns per mile along the best reaches. Despite national attention, the Root watershed still offers plenty of solitude and includes more than a dozen prime tributaries to explore.

Unlike much of the Upper Midwest, the Root drainage and the surrounding Driftless Region was missed during the last period of glaciation in North America, 12,000 years ago. The area was deprived of glacially deposited drift (hence the term "driftless"), but its sedimentary bedrock was deeply dissected by streams carrying enormous volumes of runoff from retreating glaciers along its perimeter.

The calcium- and carbonate-rich limestone that stimulates the Root's high aquatic productivity acts as an enormous sponge, absorbing moisture and then releasing it in steady, trout-friendly increments. Innumerable springs percolating through the limestone moderate stream temperatures and pH levels, producing excellent conditions for aquatic insects and the trout that hunt them. The glacial runoff left relatively steep stream gradients, creating numerous riffles and short rapids that supercharge the water with dissolved oxygen. As a result of these natural factors, the Root watershed offers superb wild trout habitat, which decades of conservation work has steadily improved.

South Branch Root River

The South Branch of the Root is the largest and most diverse trout stream in southeastern Minnesota. In a region rife with small spring creeks, the South Branch is one stream that actually fishes like a small river and in its middle and lower reaches is large enough to float a canoe. The river can generally be divided into two distinct segments, with the town of Preston forming a logical transition point between the upper and lower sections.

Upper South Branch. The South Branch rises in agricultural areas south of the small towns of Grand Meadow and Spring Valley, before gathering additional spring water infusions and cutting a winding path through sedimentary bedrock west of Forestville State Park.

During low flows, the upper reach of the South Branch sinks into its porous limestone bed, bypassing a five-mile meander and taking a shortcut through the labyrinthine passages of Mystery Cave, Minnesota's longest cavern. The river reappears downstream at Seven Springs, sufficiently chilled from its subterranean excursion to become prime trout water.

The headwaters above the park provide good habitat for wild browns, and much of the water is under Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) public-access easements. Under normal flows the upper South Branch is a small creek until enlarged by Canfield Creek just inside the park boundary, beginning the most productive and popular stretch of the river. Two miles downstream it is augmented by another spring-fed run, Forestville Creek.

Both of these creeks, excellent wild brown trout waters in their own right, flow from cliff-side caves at a temperature of 47 degrees F. These cold, stable flows keep the upper South Branch cool even on muggy August days and provide excellent spawning habitat.

Upper South Branch. The Upper South Branch around Forestville has better water quality and hatches than the lower river, and more wild trout. Under normal flows the stream is easy to wade, although there are scattered deep pools, logjams, root wads, and undercut banks. These lairs occasionally surrender browns over 4 pounds during low-light conditions. Because the park has a popular campground and picnic area, the river here can get congested on prime weekends, but mid-week you can have excellent water all to yourself. Forestville Park also contains an historic ghost town, a pristine hardwood forest, miles of hiking and equestrian trails, and abundant wildlife.

Rolling down Fillmore County Road 12 below Forestville, the fertile valley widens and the river twists through a mix of forest, dairy pastures, and cornfields. There are public easements downstream from the park, but you'll need to ask permission from local farmers to access much of this stretch until the river hits the outskirts of Preston. Fortunately, the DNR is planning an extension of the popular Root River bike trail from Preston to Forestville, providing new opportunities to fish this first-rate water.

Lower South Branch. Above Preston, wild browns are the norm, but as the river gradually broadens, warms, and becomes more silty, the DNR compensates for the less-than-ideal habitat by stocking browns as well as some rainbows. The reach running through Preston holds some fine fly water, with strong trout populations and good public access. Below town long, deep pools become more common and good holding water is more widely spaced. Bolstered by Willow and Camp creeks, also trout streams, the South Branch below Preston becomes floatable under normal conditions. On warm summer weekends wading anglers begin to encounter a few canoes and local teens cooling off in inner tubes.

The lower South Branch remains excellent trout water, with better opportunities for larger fish. From Preston to Houston the Root River Trail parallels the river, providing many opportunities for explorers who like to cycle and fly fish. In addition to the main trail a spur route runs from Preston to Harmony, affording access to Camp Creek.


Another draw along the lower river is the historic village of Lanesboro, tucked below limestone bluffs. Much of the downtown is on the National Register of Historic Places and offers a tempting selection of restaurants, hotels, bed-and-breakfasts, and shops. The town was once a sleepy farm hamlet with few tourists, but completion of the bike trail in the 1980s revitalized its economy. Lanesboro has also become well known for its theater and has twice been acclaimed one of the country's hundred best small art towns.

But don't get too sidetracked: A fine stretch of the South Branch with easy access loops through town. In particular, a city park beneath an old mill dam provides popular access to a large plunge pool, with some nice riffles and runs downstream.

Below Lanesboro, the South Branch winds along the bike trail, finally merging with the North Branch to form the main stem of the Root and ending the designated trout water. According to Steven Klotz, a DNR fisheries biologist based in Lanesboro, the stretch from town to the main branch can be a sleeper. While it doesn't hold as many fish as the upper river above Preston, it still has excellent trout populations. Warmer water in the lower river contributes to a larger forage base of minnows and crayfish, helping the trout grow large.

Fly angling opportunities don't end at the mouth of the South Branch. The main stem of the Root, along with the Middle and North Branches, provide good action for smallmouth bass and other warmwater species, along with the occasional large brown. 

Fly Fishing Root River Driftless Area Minnesota
(Jeff Erickson photo)

Root River Insects

In March and April Dark Hendricksons and Blue-winged Olives (Baetis) jump-start the early season mayfly action. Good patterns to imitate the adults are Parachute BWOs and Sobota's Quads. (Sobota's Quads have a trailing Z-lon shuck, a turkey quill biot body, a thorax dubbed with Super Fine or Wotton's SLF, and a parachute hackle wound around a Z-lon or Hi-Viz wing post.)

Grannoms (Brachycentrus) hatch in late April through early May. Apple green and sometimes tan Lafontaine's Sparkle Pupa, Peeking Caddis, and CDC caddis emergers (#18) are good subsurface patterns. On the surface Iris Caddis, X-Caddis, and E/C Caddis do well, as does skating an Elk-hair Caddis across the surface.

From late May to mid June streams are often in superb shape, wildflowers are blooming, and the Light Hendricksons are popping in the afternoons, with some caddis action in the evenings. Sulphurs, Blue Duns, March Browns, and lingering Baetis round out the late spring mix. Use parachutes and Compara-dun patterns on the ultra-clear, slicker upper reaches. Sparkle Duns with Z-lon shucks and CDC emergers tied on scud hooks also perform well.

Midsummer weather on the Root can be hot and humid, but because of the many springs, the upper South Branch and prime tributaries run cool and fishable during the hottest days. Beginning in July the South Branch has a terrific morning Trico hatch, especially on the upper river. After the hatch #16-20 olive and gray patterns that imitate the scuds that are prolific in slower, weedy reaches work well.

Ant, beetle, cricket, and inchworm patterns excel during the midsummer heat, particularly in shaded areas. Size 18 black foam beetles and ants, Harrop's CDC Beetle, and Lafontaine's Black June fished alone or as a dropper work well. One midsummer wildcard on the South Branch are the Hexs that emerge late in the evening for about a weekbring your headlamp.

Tiny Blue-winged Olivesthe hatch formerly known as "Pseudos"provide a bridge between summer and fall. Local guide Andrew Sobota has had good success matching these with #18-20 Rusty Spinners and cripples.

In early fall on the Root the hardwoods explode with color and hoppers and other terrestrials bring up fish, along with the remnants of the Trico, caddis, and tiny olive hatches. And Baetisthe bookends to dry-fly action all over the countryare beginning to reassert themselves.

Fall provides the chance to lure a real beast out from a cut bank with a streamer.

"I love streamers on the South Branch," says Sobota. Because big browns don't always stay where they are supposed to, he sometimes floats the main branch of the Root between Whalen and Peterson. Fishing full sinking lines with Sobota's Blood Leeches, Zoo Cougars, T&A's, and 5-inch articulated streamers will move the occasional brown over 20 inches.

Root River Tributaries

A trout stream is only as good as the water flowing into it. The Root River benefits from an excellent array of fertile tributaries, providing exceptional small-stream fishing. Here are some of the best.

Forestville Creek. Forestville (North Branch) Creek gushes to the surface from a cliff-side cave located on private land. Its lower reach runs through Forestville State Park before joining the Root's South Branch. The entire stream corridor from the park boundary to the headwaters is under a public fishing easement. The privately owned Maple Springs Campground provides access to one of the best upper runs, including an easy-to-fish pasture stretch below the cave.

Canfield Creek. Canfield (South Branch) Creek runs through a heavily timbered portion of Forestville State Park, from Big Spring to its junction with the South Branch. The entire creek is accessible from a good hiking and horse trail. Canfield presents the ultimate challenge in spring-creek fishing for wild, easily-spooked browns and clear water.

Rush Creek. Rush Creek joins the Root's Main Branch at Rushford and offers miles of outstanding water with wild brown trout. Much of the best water is under DNR public easement; if in doubt, ask permission from the landowner. Rush tributaries, including Pine and Hemmingway creeks, hold native, wild brookies.

Trout Run Creek. Trout Run Creek (there are two in southeastern Minnesota) is a major tributary to the North Branch of the Root River, located east of Chatfield and bisected by Highway 30. With thousands of wild browns per mile, it is one of the most prolific trout streams in Minnesota, an attraction enhanced by abundant public access, various habitat projects, and the pastoral beauty of its valley. Its entire course is lined with springs.

Beaver Creek. There are two excellent Beaver Creeks in southeastern Minnesota. One is located south of Caledonia in Houston County and is a tributary to the South Fork of the Root River (not the South Branch). My favorite is East Beaver, which runs through a valley protected by Beaver Creek State Park. A hiking trail follows the creek and the watercress-filled spring where the stream begins is adjacent to a pleasant campground.

Other fine wild brown trout options include Duschee Creek near Lanesboro, Pine Creek northwest of Rushford, and the previously noted South Fork of the Root River, northeast of Canton. And these are just the larger options; if you really like to hunt wild trout in intimate settings, investigate Diamond, Gribben, and Big Spring creeks.

When You Go

A trip through the Root River valley is tied together by three ribbons: a winding trout stream, the panoramic road that follows it, and a world-class bike trail tucked between the two. Minnesota Highway 16 has been designated the Historic Bluff Country National Scenic Byway for 88 miles, from the Root's junction with the Mississippi River near Hokah west to I-90, near the river's headwaters.

The river, road, and bike trail link a series of quiet, scenic townsPreston, Lanesboro, Rushford, and Houston being the largestthat offer historic town centers; refurbished, century-old hotels and bed-and-breakfasts; quiet campgrounds; canoe and bike rentals; shops offering Amish antiques, crafts, and tours; and chatty cafés and fine restaurants.

The 42-mile Root River Trail is one of the best bike trails in the state and follows an old rail line from the small town of Houston to the hamlet of Fountain. An additional segment runs 12 miles south out of Preston to Harmony, the center of southeastern Minnesota's Amish country. Along the way the trails afford excellent stream access, as they run through forest and pasture, over restored railroad bridges, and ascend through blasted-out bedrock.

The Minnesota DNR publishes an excellent map of southeastern Minnesota trout streams and a booklet illustrating public lands and stream access easements, both free. The DNR also sells a detailed set of Public Recreation Information Maps (PRIM) for a modest fee, several of which (Caledonia, Austin, and Rochester) cover the public lands and recreational resources in southeastern Minnesota in more detail. A state highway map and Delorme Minnesota Atlas and Gazetteer make navigating easy.

There are fine fly shops in the Twin Cities, Madison, Rochester, Red Wing, and elsewhere in and around the Driftless Region that can fix you up with some of the hot local flies. For guided trips in Minnesota's Root River watershed, contact:

Andrew James Sobota
Rural Route 2, PO Box 592
Lanesboro, MN 55949

Melvin Hayner
The Driftless Fly Fishing Company
(507) 893-4849

Jeff Erickson is a photographer, writer, and planner for Lewis and Clark County. He lives in Helena, Montana.

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