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Home > Magazine > River > Trouting in the Driftless

Trouting in the Driftless
April 16, 2012

My pal Chris and I just got back from a weekend of trouting in the Driftless area of SW Wisconsin. Beautiful valleys, farms, and cold limestone creeks galore.

The creeks seem like they should be warm, due to all the greenery and cows, but there's all this limestone shelving -- and cold springs upwelling. Neat! It's a worldclass trout area, thanks to the clean, cold spring water from the many valleys in this unique area. (Hmmm, maybe good bourbon could be made here, too?)

We got amazing action on a goofy puffball fly called the Pink Squirrel. I can see why they have a t-shirt about it. It's a clever design, too -- available at the Driftless Shop in Viroqua ... www.driftlessangler.com/estore/details/26588/0/2827. My hunch is that it matches hatchery food -- matches the pellet hatch.

That was a nice shop. Fishing is hip now, y'all. They had nice Social Realism fishing pride art, too. Tasteful -- no Che hats.

The used-to-be-progressive gov't of WI seems to encourage the water-lashers around there, with many valley farms allowing trouters to (courteously) wander their lands like 2-legged livestock, thanks to gov't fishing rights leases. I suspect it takes a healthy chunk of change to make that happen.

(We saw plenty of both "keep" and "recall" signs.)

It's more of a social trouting scene than we get in MI, where rivers cross roads then head out to wilderness. The valley land is developed, but not in a sprawly way, altho where there aren't farms there are small-tract houses. It's neat to see birches in farmland. The uplands are limestone craggy, so it can't all be tamed.

There was quite a bit of Scandanavian culture in at least one town and valley, complete with a couple big and scary ski jumps and at least one Nordic Retreat.

The term "driftless" comes from the fact that the area -- which drains into the Mississippi -- was overlooked by the last glacier so its surface is 500k years old. Actually, I tried reading the wiki on it and couldn't follow it but I think I got that first part right.

Coincidentally, I've been reading a book called "The Last River Rat," about a guy who lives on a huge bayou of the Big Muddy just a bit north of the Driftless area. I didn't realize this until we stopped driving last Friday night. I didn't see the term "Driftless" in the book. His story is about his life living off the land and the river in the area. I loved reading about his catfish trotlines. That's the way to do it!

I also have been refreshing my memory of the houseboat community of Winona, MN, that's also near the Driftless. People can live cheap and picturesquely on houseboats. "Where's the tax, Drew?" The Latsch Island community there was in limbo for decades as nobody could settle who had the right to hassle them. Houseboat living is perhaps mostly thought of in terms of Sausalito or Seattle. I really like it that there's a low-rent hold-out in our world. I think they recently settled the "who gets to bust people there" angle and they're letting the houseboats stay. The "Big River Reader" has a great story on them: www.bigrivermagazine.com/br.story.b.html.

So on to our fishing!

CB is just getting started, but he's really liking it. He caught his first honest-to-goodness trout on this trip! And then did even better than that by catching more! For a beginner he sure has his act together. I lost, well, ALL the ones I hooked. Still, I was happy to get any action at all and to have things work out as well as that.

I do like the slow pace of fishing, and the creek exploring. And I love the feel of playing a fish on a bamboo rod. The two fit together. Casting a carbon rod is nice but playing a fish on a bamboo rod is the best. I also like the flies -- both natural and artificial -- the flying ones and the sharp ones. "Make Mine Muskrat," as Grant Petersen once said (a fellow-traveler of the stream). I like the idea of using natural materials, glue and thread to create little fake-outs for the fish. But I'd have to say, in sum, that I'd probably enjoy setting out a gill-net or trotline even more. I do like a trap. It was nice doing a fishing weekend, something I haven't done much since I was a teen. I'd only lost about 2/3's of my skills. ("I've forgotten more about *x* than you'll ever know. The problem is I've forgotten it all.")

We did catch'n'release on our fine weekend, as it was still the Early Season and that's the rules. I just haven't done that enough to see the point. Well, I suppose when there are a lot of trouters and not enough trout to go around then that's the rub. So we need to take turns exercising the fish. Still, I'm not totally sold on it. It's more like vexing the fish. I wouldn't deer-hunt with paintballs (though I recall reading that it's being done in some fashion).

I really also like the idea of getting nutrition from the land. ...But sustainably.

The blog for the hip Driftless fish shop says to treat fellow anglers like zombies. That'll cover the etiquette side. Yeah, we did see a lot of people out there, leap-frogging their crossovers from bridge to bridge down the valley. We kept our distances nicely and everyone got along. The fish cooperated, too.

We asked a local guy what the size limit was the rest of the year. He said he didn't know as he'd never kept a fish.

As Chris said, most folks probably separate their sport from their food.

It was kinda neat seeing how much fly-fishing has changed since my days. Well, mostly it's just that all the flies are new and different. They use artificial materials more now, but not so much. One could go natural. There's foam, sparkly, beads. The shapes are a bit different, too.

Most folks we ran into were fishing dropper rigs. Not done as much back in my 1970's teen fishing days. -- A bigger, bolder fly (maybe even a dry or terrestrial) would be rigged with a quieter, littler one a foot or so behind it.

When I was a teen my pal Tim I. and I were pretty pleased to be part of the first scientific trouting scene, courtesy of Michigan innovators Swisher and Richards. Matching the hatch started in earnest about then. As did weird casting skills for natural drag-free drifts. We practiced for perfect "candy-canes" and mending our lines. We got into netting aquatic bugs and stomach-contents checking. We learned Latin bug names and life-cycles. Ephemeroptera! Hexagenia! Trichorithodes! We'd even bring our tying vices to the river, just in case. Probably not too many teens doing that then (now?).

Now that I'm old and grey I had a blast taking a break after I'd spooked a pool and sitting and reading and puffing my Full English. One could also sketch, say. I can tend to get into a performance mode so it was fun to just disengage from time to time. Like, when I finally hooked one on one of my own high-school era dry flies (of my own design -- a fuzzier Adams with pale yellow fur body -- there were pale caddis hatching) I was pleased and happy to call it time for a break.

Apparently early season with its cold mornings isn't so snappy for the sunrise fishing. Back in the day we went trouting at o'dark-thirty as if it were deer-camp or other gung-ho outdooring. We enjoyed the chance to dawdle a bit. Chris played the guitar and harmonica some. See, it doesn't have to be all about fishing.

It was nice hiking up, down and all around. My calves were a bit sore the next day. That's good. I love a fresh muscle. Hiking really should be our root activity. It's the original sustainable mode of travel, after all. (I read a guy in a bike magazine who was saying that he was trying this fun new way of getting around: walking. He was even getting to work this way. A new way to commute? Ya know how they say most car trips are 3 miles or less. This is the prime directive rationale for bikifying the nation. Heck, it's walking territory, too! Although 1-2 miles is perhaps more like it.)

Chris has a little Scamp trailer which slept two pretty well, though I was in the kiddy bunk -- still, it wasn't worse than a submarine. Easy to tow with a minivan. Most other dudes in the campground were in tiny backpack tents which might've been a little lacking in comfort in the morning after the hard rain.

It was a bit of a dashed-off trip in terms of packing and getting the trailer ready. Considering the number of helpful things which were forgotten, it made us wonder how we could always remember to bring what we need. (Trailer hitch -- whew that was a close call; kitchen supplies; coffee maker; lighter; ice.) The only answer seemed to be to go camping more often.


Hip sticker for the coolest local trout fly ever. OK, maybe the Hex ties from up north have even more local impact, but still. The art angle here rocks much harder -- don't forget the t-shirt! ...Both available at the Driftless Angler, Viroqua. Tell 'em I sent ya! :)


The budding trees had a bold autumnal look on some hillsides, what with all the yellow, red and orange. This pic is one of the more drab views but I wanted to at least show you a little bit of the neat look.


I heart toads. This one was really chirping. Nice, big and orange. My camera was acting up here, it seems -- too much green/blue.


Valley farm and creek. Most of the rivers were bigger than this -- but not by a whole lot! I only needed rubber boots, not even hippers.


A little rascal. (Camera glitch again: too blue. I'd had some family "help" with settings before the trip.)


I was just snapping some pics when CB caught one.


Nice casting at a favorite bend -- two holes for the price of one.


I really enjoyed my lunch break, and all breaks.


A pool that we heard held some big ones. Looked good for summer swimming, too.


Hmmm, what to bring...


"Tying one on."

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