The Root River of Southeast Minnesota


The Root River

The Root River is located in extreme southeastern Minnesota, not far from the border with Iowa and Wisconsin. The Root winds its way through one of the most unique and beautiful landscapes in the country: the Driftless Region of the upper midwest. Unlike most of the land in the north country, the Driftless was skipped by the last ice age. Because of this, its landscape was not ground flat by ice or covered with glacial drift (the name given to the deep soil and rock deposits left behind by retreating glaciers). The bedrock is very near the surface, and layered rock outcrops hold fossils from the ancient seabed that once covered the area. Fertile bottomlands are flanked by towering limestone cliffs, sinkholes and caves pierce the bluffs, and winding streams have carved and dissected the landscape into hundreds of steep-walled valleys. Farms have been built in many of these rich valleys, and also on the flat bluffland on top, but the slopes here are too steep for farming. Much of it is now forested, with thick stands of oak, maple, cottonwood, and shagbark hickory. Because of this unique habitat, many species of animals and plants here are of special concern to biologists because this is their only stronghold in the region. The gravel chub (also known as shoal chub) is a threatened species that lives in the riffles of the Root, while the endangered crystal darter is a spiny-finned fish that lives in sandy habitats farther downstream. The black redhorse, a species designated of special concern by the state of Minnesota, is also found in the region, so it's best to learn how to identify this fish if you'll be fishing in the Root or its tributaries and plan to keep a meal of suckers. Please practice catch and release with any black redhorse you may catch to help preserve this unique and special native fish population.



image ourtesy of wikimedia commons


There are four minor branches of the Root, each a pocket-sized river in its own right, plus the main stem. This causes a great deal of confusion when talking about this river with other anglers, not to mention when trying to fish it. The section between the North Branch and the South Branch, in particular, is named differently depending on which map you look at. Some maps call it an extension of the Middle Fork, some call it the Middle Branch, and other simply call it the Main Root River. I've chosen the last definition, as it's the most prevalent amongst anglers. I add "Main Stem" to the name to refer to the Root's large, central channel, and use "Root River" to refer to the entire complex of forks, stems, and branches. There are special regulations on some sections of the South Fork and the South Branch, so be sure to fully understand the fishing regulations for the specific branch or fork you are fishing.


Map of the Root River and its Major Tributaries

(Click image for larger version)


Greater Redhorse from the Root

The North Branch of the Root River

The North Branch of the Root flows west to east, just south of Rochester, MN. It flows through the towns of Stewartville and Chatfield. This is a surprisingly quick little river, with riffles and runs scoured clear of sand and exposing gravel and cobble. Most of it is shallow and rocky and filled with shiners and chubs. You'll find predators lurking in any deeper area, as well as some of the better suckers in the entire system. The North Branch supports a very diverse warmwater fish community. The chief large fish species you'll find in this river are white suckers, quillbacks, northern hogsuckers, smallmouth bass, rock bass, and five species of redhorse (silver, golden, greater, shorthead, and black). The extremely rare gravel or shoal chub, a small riffle-loving fish that is very intolerant of pollution, is found here. You'll find a few hard-fighting common carp, but these beefy invaders stick to the scattered slow pools in this reach and are very spooky in the clear water. There is a canoe launch in Chatfield that offers good access to the North Branch, plus some state forest parcels. Angling easements on the north branch a few miles upstream from Chatfield allow public walk-in access to two very nice riverbank sections near Cummingsville, MN. Much of this river is wadable in the summertime and it's a fun river to kayak. You can canoe from Chatfield downstream, past the confluence with the Middle Fork, to another canoe access at a rest stop on the Main Stem of the Root at the Highway 52 bridge, a total distance of around 9 miles. 


Nice Rock Bass from the South Fork of the Root River


The Middle Fork of the Root River

The Middle Fork is formed at the junction of Deer Creek, Spring Valley Creek, and Bear Creek. Bear Creek pours in just a mile or two after the first two, adding considerable water volume and forming a large, deep pool at the confluence. This steep, heavily-forested watershed is typical of the driftless, with cobbly gravel bars littered with ancient fossils and swift runs that switchback across the valley floor, hugging the cliffs on the outside bends. Deer Creek, Bear Creek, and the Middle Fork are all similar, so we'll treat the three of them as a single unit. These are small rivers that are easily wadable in the upper reaches, although access is spotty. The Middle Fork and its warmwater tributaries all hold good numbers of the five species of redhorse the region supports, along with white suckers, northern hog suckers, smallmouth bass, quillback and highfin carpsuckers, and rock bass. Rock bass, in particular, are a dominant member of the fish fauna. These are big, brash, and pugnacious fighters that can top eight inches in length and are always willing to dash out from their ambush points near rocks and sunken logs to grab a jig, fly, or small bait. These streams are chock-full of forage for predatory fish: huge shiners, stonerollers, dace, six species of darters, and chubs. Brown trout occur in these waters sporadically, and the Middle Fork is designated as catch-and-release only for trout (but thankfully, bait is allowed). Trout grow large on the abundant forage. The Middle Branch joins the North Branch east of Lumpy road, just upstream from the Juniper Road Bridge southeast of Chatfield. According to most sources, these two join together to become the Main Stem of the Root, although some maps call that section part of the Middle Fork. A portion of what is labelled as designated trout water on the Middle Fork of the Root may actually be the lower part of Deer Creek. Be sure to check the regulations carefully!



Fishing the South Branch of the Root River


The South Branch of the Root River 

The South Branch of the Root begins on the fertile bluff tops as a warmwater stream. Hogsuckers, Rock Bass, and Creek chubs, along with some surprisingly large Greater Redhorse, make up the majority of the fish community. The river then plunges underground, into an extensive limestone cave system, where strong, ice-cold springs chill the water and augment its flow. When it emerges from the caverns, it is cold enough for trout year-round, and is designated trout water by the DNR, so you must purchase a trout stamp to fish it. The South Branch is one of Minnesota's premiere trout streams, providing consistent action for trouters year-round. The mineralized water pouring out of the cave system helps the growth of aquatic insects and crustaceans, so fish feed well and grow quickly. Access to the trout water is plentiful, with several stream easement sections as well as the expanse of Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park. From the park, the South Branch runs through private lands to Preston, where a canoe access and a state trail provide several opportunities to fish from the bank or to jump in the water for a wading excursion. Flanked by the paved public trail, it then flows to Lanesboro, where an old, historic dam backs up the river to form the Lanesboro Millpond. The dam creates a picturesque waterfall, right in the middle of town, but it also unfortunately blocks all fish passage into the upper south branch. There's good access at the dam for both floaters and anglers. The millpond occasionally gives up a monster trout, but the still, deep water makes for tough fishing. The fish population in the river above the dam consists mainly of wild brown trout, native white suckers, and stocked rainbows. The south branch is stocked heavily by the state. Some of the rainbows are stocked as fingerlings and naturalize to the point that they almost act like wild fish. Below Lanesboro, suckers of several different species become more prevalent. Northern Hogsuckers and Golden Redhorse are probably the two species most often encountered. The stretch from the dam down to the confluence also has several lively rapids that make it a fun float trip in the high water of springtime. The South Branch joins the Main Stem three river miles downstream from Lanesboro. An old railway bridge spans the main stem here, and the Root River State Trail gives good access to the confluence for walking, paddling, or biking anglers.



The South Fork of the Root River

Downstream from Houston, the South Fork of the Root augments the flow of the main stem.  The South Fork starts out as a small warmwater stream, dominated by white suckers, green sunfish, and creek chubs. Then it picks up several cold tributaries and springs and becomes a coldwater stream, designated trout water, near Amherst. A portion of the designated trout water has special catch-and-release only regulations, so consult your regulations book before creeling any trout. The cold waters only last about seventeen miles, give or take a few, and after that it switches back into a fine warmwater fishery with only seasonal trout populations. The lowest twenty miles or so is the domain of the hogsucker. Crystal clear, shallow, rocky water makes sight-fishing for hogsuckers possible in this part of the river. Additional species available are smallmouth bass, carp, hefty rock bass, and mooneye. A few redhorse eke out a living in this area, but in general it's too shallow for their liking in the summer, so they tend to evacuate the South Fork after spawning, to return to the Main Stem of the Root or possibly even the Mississippi. Beaver Creek, one of the state's premiere trout streams, feeds the South Fork. Beaver Creek Valley is a beautiful state park located on the headwater spring of Beaver Creek's East Branch. Beaver Creek pulls in several small but surprisingly productive brook-trout streams on its way toward the South Fork, flowing past historic Sheck's Mill before emptying into the South Fork just downstream from Houston.



The Main Stem of the Root River

Depending on who you talk to, the Main Stem of the Root runs for 55 or 65 miles to the Mississippi River.  Here the river takes on the character which makes the Root such an excellent roughfishing stream. The main stem of the Root is nestled in a wide valley filled with farms, small towns, and wide swaths of untouched hardwood forest. The upper section, from the Middle Fork to Rushford, has abundant public access. The first is at the highway 52 crossing. From there, the river makes a few sweeping bends covering ten river miles before it meets Trout Run (called Trout Creek on some maps). Trout Run, one of the best trout creeks in the area, dumps into the Root halfway between the Middle Fork and the South Branch, after passing through the tiny hamlet of Bucksnort. Several miles downstream from Trout Run is the Moen's Bridge access. Below that the river forms a couple of big, deep, lakelike pools before entering a large forest area with walking trails around the Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center, near the crumbling remains of an old power dam. Black, Golden, Shorthead and Silver Redhorse live here in good numbers, along with smallmouth bass, plenty of quillbacks, and mooneye. Several campsites exist for waterbourne camping before it joins the South Branch west of Whelan. At this confluence, the river nearly doubles in size. This section is famous for its huge runs of silver redhorse.  Big silvers stack up like salmon on the spawning riffles. Trout, hogsuckers, and hornyhead chubs line up behind the spawning silvers to gorge on sucker eggs in the springtime. You can also catch mooneye, nice-sized smallmouth bass, and many other fish. At night, hordes of stonecats swarm out of their hiding places to attack baits anywhere near the rocks. Carmine shiners are one of the more abundant forage species. Down past Rushford, the species mix changes, with the trout and hogsuckers being largely replaced by drum, carp, catfish, goldeyes, and shovelnose sturgeon. A few large lake sturgeon have been seen ascending this river in recent years, suggesting that these great fish are beginning to return to the Root for spawning. The Minnesota State record goldeye and golden redhorse were both caught in the main stem of the Root. River access is good, and travel by canoe is popular. Portions of the river are wadeable, but even in low water the river is almost impossible to cross on foot. This is the only area in the state of Minnesota where you might run into a poisonous snake - Timber Rattlesnakes are occasionally found in this country. Though the rattlers are very few and far between, it's best to be on the lookout for them. A small spillway just upstream from Rushford presents a hazard to canoists, but thankfully does not block fish passage. Rush Creek, another designated trout stream, enters the river downstream from the spillway. Rush Creek is rapidly becoming one of the more productive trout streams in the state, as easement acquisition and habitat restoration have helped its population of wild brown trout expand. The Root River State Trail follows the river all the way to the nature center at Houston. Below Houston, many species of fish from the Mississippi River may be found.  Channel Catfish are a popular target, and white bass, sauger, walleyes, smallmouth buffalo, and longnose gar stray into the lower Root at certain times of the year.  The river bottom in this area is entirely composed of shifting sand, which makes it the perfect habitat for the Western Sand Darter, a tiny, transparent fish that hides by burrowing into the sand. Finally, the Root joins the mighty Mississippi in the Upper Mississippi Wildlife and Fish Refuge just across the river from LaCrosse, Wisconsin.  Here, an endless maze of running sloughs stretches for miles, and the flood plain forest is thick and rarely explored.


The Minnesota DNR produces an excellent River Guide to the Root, which can be downloaded at the link below:





Species Covered:


fiddleFish's picture

This is a nice compilation of information on this beautiful river and a great resource for anglers learning their way around the Root.  I wish something like this had existed 40 years ago when I was learning my way around this system.   Thanks for putting this together.

Eli's picture

Sounds like a dream of a river to me.