Kinnickinnic River, WI
A Natural Beauty Hiding in Plain Sight
By Jeff Erickson
The Kinni is nicely proportioned for fly anglers, often running around 100 cubic feet per second. It’s small enough to readily wade and reach all the water, yet large enough to create casting lanes and hold larger trout, especially in the lower reaches. ALL PHOTOS BY JEFF ERICKSON
For me, coming of age in the Twin Cities, northern Minnesota was the promised land for fishing and outdoor recreation. On Friday afternoons as the clock made its tortoise-like creep toward 5 p.m., coworkers routinely gathered around, asking each other, “Where you going this weekend?”
The usual answer was “up north,” meaning a lakeside cabin in Minnesota or Wisconsin, a state park or national forest campsite, or perhaps the rugged Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. “Maybe catch and fry up a few walleyes, if they’re biting.”
From an angling perspective, the walleye was and remains the upper Midwest’s omnipotent king. The crown prince would likely be razor-toothed northern pike. Others in the royal family include largemouth and smallmouth bass, panfish, and—for eccentrics with the patience of Job—shark-like muskies. When I was a kid, trout were relegated to the piscatorial periphery; for a time, as my interest in fly fishing grew, I thought I might have to venture to Montana to finally catch one.
Gradually, I learned that wasn’t true. Browns and native brookies finned in watercress-fringed spring creeks in southeastern Minnesota and southwest Wisconsin. And—as I was confidentially advised by a high school biology teacher—there were trout riches much closer: in the Kinnickinnic River, just across the Saint Croix River border, near River Falls, Wisconsin. Despite being on the fringe of a major metropolitan area, the diverse Kinnickinnic was and remains one of the Midwest’s best trout watersheds.
Because of the Kinni’s inherent productivity and decades of conservation work, trout stocking was discontinued in 1974. Parts of the stream support more than 5,000 trout per mile.
Kinnickinnic is a Cree and Chippewa word referring to a popular smoking material composed of tobacco and the inner bark of willow or dogwood trees. Locals wisely dispense with the tongue-twisting full name and simply say “Kinni.”
The Kinni was originally famed for prolific native brook trout; browns were introduced in the 19th century and eventually established thriving populations. Due to the stream’s inherent productivity and decades of conservation work, stocking was discontinued in 1974. The Kinni can support more than 7,000 trout per mile—exceptional numbers— gradually tapering off below River Falls to under 2,000 near the mouth as the water warms and slows.
The Kinni is really two streams in one, each offering wonderful but distinctly different opportunities. The stream rises from springs in bucolic, rolling farm country 30 miles east of Saint Paul, just north of Interstate 94. Between I-94 and River Falls, the upper river is fed by a profusion of additional spring water; compared to the lower river, this reach is colder, slower, and more intimate, with stable flows and exceptional water quality. The bottom is mainly silt, sand, and gravel, with abundant aquatic vegetation. Wild brookies thrive in the headwaters and icy tributaries. Most trout in the upper river, including browns, are less than 12 inches long, although larger specimens haunt the depths.
For decades, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has done an excellent job of securing public access along this reach. Anglers can reach the river from locations off State Route 65 north of River Falls, and from a network of local roads branching off from the highway. There is private land where public fishing is not allowed, but in many respects the Kinni is a people’s river.
River Falls is the dividing point between the 15-milelong upper Kinni and the 8-mile-long lower water. Below two small hydroelectric dams in town, the Kinni has incised a twisting gorge en route to the Saint Croix River. The river below town rushes over limestone rubble and through fallen trees—prime fish habitat—below forestclad bluffs.
Several primary public access points deliver anglers to the lower Kinni. At Glen Park in River Falls, hike past the lower dam to the forested valley below. A trail below River Ridge Road west of town affords similar access. A path follows the main river for at least a mile downstream from the dam; you can bushwhack farther downstream to find more solitude. In the less heavily fished middle gorge, hike down to the Drewiske Family (formerly Jackson) Preserve, owned by the Kinnickinnic River Land Trust (KRLT).
Two small hydroelectric dams in River Falls mark the transition between the upper and lower Kinni. Discussions are underway to possibly remove the dams, which would decrease water temperatures in the lower river, making it even more trout friendly.
The Kinni coulee, below River Falls, is a popular reach, where the river flows through a wild, pristine corridor, a haven for approximately 40 rare plant and animal species. White pines tower over the stream along limestone cliffs, along with pockets of prairie and oak savanna on ridges. On spring days, riverbanks undulate with wildflowers and tiger swallowtails, and anglers hiking out in twilight glimpse whirling bats and glimmering fireflies.
Warmer water below River Falls allows denser populations of minnows, leeches, and crayfish, so browns over 14 inches aren’t unusual. Aside from the prospect of bigger trout, the lower river offers a wider, scoured-out floodplain that allows more casting room, with flows often averaging around 100 cubic feet per second (cfs).
Near the mouth, Pierce County Road F crosses the river at Kinnickinnic State Park. Anglers park here to access prime water near the bridge. Below County Road F, the Kinni runs a couple more miles through the park before joining the Saint Croix River, but this reach is slower and sandier, with increasingly less trout habitat (but no doubt sheltering some lunker browns under massive logs). The Kinni’s delta offers excellent smallmouth bass fishing and beach camping for boaters.
Of the Kinni’s tributaries, the South Fork arguably offers the most. You can access the lower South Fork glen from River Falls, where the small stream cascades over waterfalls and below moss- and fern-clad cliffs, obscuring the fact that you are in the heart of the city. The waterfalls prevent the upstream encroachment of brown trout; native brook trout preside upstream. Marty Engel, retired DNR fisheries biologist and current KRLT land stewardship director, says the best reaches hold 4,000 to 5,000 trout per mile, “the only significant Class 1 brookie population in the watershed.” Earlier in his career, Engel worked on securing the South Fork Fishing Access upstream from River Falls, offering plenty of room to roam. He says the KRLT and its partners will pursue more South Fork access in the future, making this little gem even more attractive.
Kinni Techniques and Strategies
Doug Swisher—coauthor of the groundbreaking flypattern book Selective Trout— honed his skills on the Kinni. “The Kinnickinnic,” he says, “is one of my favorite spring creeks. It has everything you could ask for: it is challenging, scenic, productive, and easily accessible. It was the home of my early fly-fishing schools.”
Before it slides into the Saint Croix River—a federally designated Wild and Scenic River and smallmouth bass haven—the Kinni loops through the forested bluffs of Kinnickinnic State Park.
The stream’s educated trout have had ample opportunity to scrutinize parades of fake flies, and learned from the experience. Precise presentations and imitations are important. Nonetheless, there’s a treasure trove of trout; anglers with their mojo working often enjoy spectacular action, and the trout aren’t always that picky.
Hatches and strategies in the Kinni’s multifaceted, 240-square-mile watershed vary, particularly between the upper and lower portions. Be adaptable: walk the banks in the afternoon and you may see scant evidence of trout; return for the evening hatch and the same water may be boiling. In either case, light rods and long, fine tippets are appropriate unless you’re chucking streamers on the lower river. Brian Smolinski, owner of Lund’s Fly Shop in River Falls, observes, “Kinni trout are extremely spooky. If you can catch fish here, you can catch fish anywhere.” Stealth should be every Kinni angler’s mantra.
The abundance and diversity of Kinni aquatic life is impressive, including at least 20 species of caddisflies. To help navigate this profusion, pay a visit to Smolinski at Lund’s; he has the pulse of the Kinni and other local trout streams, and offers sage advice about choosing the right flies, which might include a series he developed starting with the prefix “B Smo’s.”
Beyond caddisflies, three of the most important hatch groups are midges, Blue-Winged Olives, and light-colored mayflies commonly known as Sulphurs and Light Hendricksons. Blue-Winged Olives and midges spark earlyseason surface action in March and continue to hatch throughout the season.
In April and May, Grannoms trigger excitement on the Kinni. The river’s most abundant caddisfly, the Spotted/ Speckled Sedge spurs summer-long surface activity. Smolinski swears by a caddisfly pattern developed by a shop employee, the Bread and Butter Caddis. “That thing just cleans up,” he says. He also likes a pattern called Skip’s Wet Soft Hackle, which, he says, “Looks like anything—just a simple fly—but is really deadly.”
The Kinni can fish well any time of year, but according to Smolinski, “May and June are pretty awesome, with caddis, Sulphurs, March Browns, and Blue-Winged Olives.” Low-riding spring-creek-style mayfly patterns will boost your chances during the hatches, although fully hackled, old-school Catskill patterns work in the faster water. Simply drifting a small Pheasant Tail or Hare’s Ear Nymph before a mayfly hatch is productive, with Rusty Spinners tempting post-hatch fish. “Nymphs and streamers work too,” says Smolinski. “Everyone’s happy!”
Brown trout were introduced to the Kinni in the 19th century and eventually established thriving populations.
Summer afternoons on the Kinni are often sweltering, so it’s time to focus on mornings, afternoon shade, and evenings. Beginning in late June or early July, morning Trico spinner falls demand attention. Ant, beetle, cricket, and inchworm patterns take fish even during midday heat, particularly in the shadows. They can even work when a more realistic imitation fails during a hatch. On July and August evenings, Slate Drakes or Mahogany Duns may provide spinner action on the lower river.
Stoneflies don’t play the prominent role they occupy in brawling Western rivers, but they are present, fishable, and biological indicators of high water quality. Little Black Stoneflies provide early-season action. Several species of Little Yellow Stoneflies occur from April through June. And formidable-looking Giant Stoneflies also prowl the lower river, in relatively small numbers.
Tiny Blue-Winged Olives can appear throughout the summer, providing a bridge to autumn. If a small dun doesn’t work, try a Rusty Spinner. Early fall is a fine time to visit the Kinni, as hardwoods explode with color, and hoppers and other terrestrials entice fish, mixed with fading hatches of Tricos and caddisflies. Blue-Winged Olives—seasonal bookends—reassert themselves. Autumn also provides the opportunity to test a hook-jawed, lower river brown’s anger management training with a streamer.
Because of the river’s fecundity, fly anglers often spot Kinni bugs they can’t identify. That comes with the territory, so cover your bases by bringing an ample selection of nymphs, emergers, cripples, duns, and spinners. But you can keep it simple, too: an Adams with a Prince Nymph dropper often works magic. And scuds pay dividends all season, as these crustaceans are plentiful. One pattern that triggers a scud response but works well generally is the Lund’s Pink Squirrel. “We sell more of these than anything else,” observes Smolinski. He has also developed a variation—B Smo’s Pink Princess—that shows a bit of Prince Nymph wings. “There are multiple reasons it works so well,” he says.
A Conservation Showcase
The entire Kinni watershed is part of the U.S. Census Bureau’s 16-county Minneapolis–Saint Paul, MN–WI Combined Statistical Area, with an estimated 2019 population of over 4 million people. Saint Croix County, which includes the upper Kinni watershed, grew from a sleepy 29,164 people in 1960 to an estimated 90,687 in 2019. Between 2000 and 2010, it was Wisconsin’s fastest-growing county. Often, this kind of population growth might serve as a death knell to a superb trout fishery, but the Kinni has become a national case study on how to preserve a great trout stream in a rapidly growing area.
The Kinni was once famed for prolific native brook trout. Brown trout predominate today, but wild brookies still thrive in the headwaters and icy tributaries, such as Parker, Kelly, Ted, Nye, Rocky Branch, and South Fork Creeks.
Development in and around River Falls has led to concerns involving thermal impacts and contamination from nonpoint source runoff from streets, parking lots, and other surfaces. A thunderstorm can quickly wash pollutants and sediment into the river. If the storm occurs on a hot day, the deluge of warm, unfiltered runoff from roads, roofs, and parking lots gushing from storm sewers increases flooding and creates a thermal spike, harming aquatic insects and trout. Impervious surfaces also inhibit infiltration of precipitation into aquifers, affecting springs. Solutions include maintaining wetlands and native vegetation buffers; utilizing retention basins, infiltration swales, and rain gardens and barrels that store, filter, cool, and slow the release of stormwater into aquifers and streams; and employing pervious pavers and permeable concrete on sidewalks, driveways, and parking lots.
Even with these protective measures, flooding remains a concern, one likely exacerbated by climate change, which appears to be bringing more frequent, intense storms. A dramatic example of extreme flooding on the lower Kinni occurred on June 28 and 29, 2020, after the River Falls area received more than 7 inches of rain in 24 hours. Before the storm hit on the 28th, the river was running around 160 cfs. By the 29th, the Kinni peaked at more than 5,000 cfs.
Regionally, the storm washed out bridges and roads, damaged houses, and killed a man who was flushed off a road. While this would have been a major storm under completely natural, undeveloped conditions, there’s no question that impervious surfaces contributed to the flow spike, in spite of all the good work River Falls has done.
Cataclysmic floods might seem tailor-made to devastate the trout population, but that’s not always the case, especially over the long term. Young trout and eggs are vulnerable to being swept downstream, but adults are adept at sheltering. According to Engel, “A river and its fisheries may survive a catastrophic flood in good shape over time,” even benefiting from new habitat creation. “But repeated huge floods can be very damaging,” he adds. “Trout populations can handle the loss of one year class. Multiple floods can wipe out several year classes, making recovery much more difficult.”
Generations of local conservationists have worked tenaciously to preserve their beloved river, what KRLT executive director Charlene Brooks describes as “a remarkable story of restoration.” The first stream-improvement projects were started in the 1940s by the River Falls Rod and Gun Club, cooperative work continuing today between landowners, local governments, the DNR, Trout Unlimited (TU), the University of Wisconsin, and other partners. The Wisconsin Legislature designated the Kinni an Outstanding Resource Water, the highest protection classification in the state, in addition to its DNR status as a Class 1 trout stream. As a result of these efforts, the upper Kinni today is running significantly cooler than it did in the 1940s, when it had degenerated into largely a put-and-take fishery.
The 23-mile-long Kinni offers a diversity of water. Here, an angler enjoys a perfect early summer day not far from the town of River Falls.
Beginning in the early 1990s, the Kiap-TU-Wish Chapter of TU established monitoring stations to document how development was affecting the lower Kinni, generating specific baseline data rather than relying on conjecture. The monitoring demonstrated that runoff was having both thermal and chemical impacts. During summer storms, stream temperatures could rise 10 degrees in just 20 minutes as warm, dirty runoff hit the river. The data collected established a foundation for moving forward with the city and other partners to develop solutions.
In 1994, River Falls completed a stormwater management plan, working with TU and others. Two years later, the city established a utility fee to pay for stormwater management projects, the assessment to be based on a development’s amount of impervious surfaces. In 2002, River Falls implemented a stormwater ordinance that applies to new development and specified redevelopment; it requires that the first 1.5 inches of precipitation from a storm infiltrate into the ground. Overall, the ordinance prevents more than 90 percent of precipitation on affected parcels from pulsing into the river. Work on these efforts is ongoing.
Founded in 1993 and based in River Falls, the KRLT has been a major player in Kinni conservation efforts, helping to preserve more than 2,800 acres of land in the drainage, including 9.5 river miles. The land trust’s mission statement says, “We work in cooperation with landowners, private organizations, and governmental units to conserve the resources we value— clean water, wildlife, recreation, natural areas, wild trout, scenic beauty, and family farms.”
Progress continues. An exciting new project is the purchase of a 44-acre forest tract on a popular reach on the lower river. The acquisition will protect 3,000 feet of shoreline where the Rocky Branch joins the Kinni, and will close a gap with other community river properties. The closing date was January 1, 2021. Brooks says, “Our organization has more capacity than it has had in a long time. We have a great group of supporters, both local and from out of state.”
Meanwhile, another community-led, nonprofit organization—the Kinni Corridor Collaborative— is tasked with implementing the Kinnickinnic River Corridor Plan, which has been approved by the River Falls City Council. One issue on the horizon is the likelihood the River Falls dams will be removed—the lower dam in 2026 and the upper dam possibly in 25 to 30 years. Smolinski observes, “Temperatures continue to go up in the lower river as sediment levels rise in the reservoirs.” If removals are accomplished, it will eliminate heat sinks and significantly reduce water temperatures in the gorge. This will continue decades of many positive trends: “The lower river has improved dramatically since the 1960s,” says Engel, noting that in the distant past River Falls’ raw sewage was dumped directly into the river.
That the Kinni remains one of the Midwest’s finest trout streams hasn’t happened by accident. The key is shaping how development occurs, sustainably. In the face of relentless housing and business pressure, it is uncertain if the Kinni’s superb trout fishery will survive without ongoing conservation measures and intelligent land-use planning. It’s worth fighting for. As Brooks observes, the Kinni exudes “a remarkable beauty that a lot of people don’t expect, with well-intact resources, close to an urban area.”
In Wisconsin and Minnesota Trout Streams, Joe Humphrey and Bill Shogren offer these accolades: “These marvelous miles are the precious jewels of the fly-fisher’s memory. We’ll give 2 hours of our lives, anytime, to fish our separate 100 yards of the Kinni on a sultry summer evening with rising expectations when the bats begin to play.”
And, in an age when there is much to be disillusioned about, decades of Kinni conservation work offer grounds for hope. As a KLRT motto states, “Cold, Clean and Free . . . Forever!”
Jeff Erickson is a Midwest-raised, Montana-based
freelance writer and photographer, and a frequent
American Fly Fishing magazine.