Fishing in the Driftless Region of Wisconsin

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Well I finally got there – the Driftless. It’s been a kind of mirage to me. I’ve gotten close, but it has always faded and receded as I approached due to plans that have fallen through. Or I have driven past or flown over on my way further west (mistake!) This time we were able to get it done.

And it was more than I could have ever hoped for. Really. Much more.

A little background: I have been an angler as long as I can remember. It’s just something that my family did. But I didn’t take up a fly rod until college when I was attending Penn State. I was, as many college students, low on cash. I’d go to the library and read the magazines. One day I opened up a fishing magazine that changed my fishing life – I think it was Trout Unlimited’s Trout Magazine. There was an article about Pennsylvania’s limestone streams – pictures of meandering meadows streams, watercress, elodea, weeping willows, old limestone houses, and of course wild trout. It captured my imagination.  There was something like cognitive dissonance going on in my brain. Trout were supposed to be in tumbling mountain  streams – in the shady woods – not in weedy streams meandering lazily through cow pastures.

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I also had no idea of the rich history of fly fishing in Pennsylvania.  Anglers like Vince Marinaro, Charlie Fox, Ed Shenk, George Harvey and Joe Humphreys had mastered these limestone streams, innovated there and advanced American fly fishing on their banks.  I wanted to fish them and it was obvious to me that you had to fly fish them. So I became a fly fisher.

Sadly though, many of these streams are only shades of their form selves. Battered and abused. But those limestone sting creeks have always had a hold on my heart.

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Fast forward to just a few years ago – I started hearing rumors of spring creeks in the midwest. Someplace called the Driftless Region encompassing parts of Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota. This region was spared the glaciers of the last Ice Age and so was left “driftless”, free of glacial drift. Glacial drift is all of the silt, rocks, gravel, sand, boulders, etc. that glaciers drag along with them and drop behind them as they melt and recede.  The Driftless is also a region of karst topography with the limestone formations and the cool, rich limestone waters that flow out of them. The combination of the karst topography and lack of glacial drift has created a wonderland for the trout fisherman – hundreds of cool, rich limestone spring creeks.

We focused our recent trip on the area of Wisconsin near the small (but pretty cool) town of Viroqua in Vernon County WI. We camped about 15 minutes out of town at Sidie Hollow County Park. This county park has three campgrounds two of which feature flush toilets and showers. The Ridge campground is the woodsiest and most private, but doesn’t feature flush toilets or showers.

Viroqua has all of the amenities that you need – motels, restaurants, grocery stores, wally world, and most importantly a fly shop (and guide service) – Driftless Angler.  As strange as it seems – not all fly shops are so pleasant to visit. I’ve had several bad experiences in fly shops with grumpy or just plain unhelpful owners. Mat of Driftless Anglers was happily neither. He was great to chat with and happily marked a regional map with numerous streams for us to try. Mat told us that Vernon County alone has 65 trout streams with over 200 miles of water. That’s a lot of stream to fish. And that’s not including the miles of streams in other counties (and other states).


What about access? Well Wisconsin has that rule that allows you to fish through properties as long as you keep your feet wet (in the water). But – I personally didn’t feel the need to fish where I’m not wanted – especially with so much well-marked public access. Wisconsin has done a great job of maintaining access through purchases and leases. If you want to do some research ahead of time on places to fish the Wisconsin DNR has plenty of helpful documents. Here’s a good place to start: Inland Trout Fishing. What I did was check the maps for Vernon County and those in the immediate vicinity (see THIS page for a clickable state map which shows all of the streams, as well as all of the stream classifications and regulations). I also used this search page to search find more detailed maps for the public fisheries in Vernon and surrounding counties. In addition to the acquiring access many of the streams have been improved with bank stabilization and lunker structures.

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The big question is…what about the fishing? In one word it was – OUTSTANDING! STUPENDOUS! UNBELIEVABLE! Ok that was three words. We basically showed up and started catching fish. Every stream that we visited yielded plenty of action. Some streams as little more than others – but not a single stream of the eight that we fished was a dud. We caught fish all day long on any stream that we tried. There were storms the day before we arrived so many (but not all) of the streams were off-color. Being spring creeks though – most were back down to very fishable flows. Seeing the higher, off-color water I went to black ,size 8, bead-head wooly buggers. Most were tied with peacock bodies (some with marabou bodies). I’ve really given up on chenille bodies for buggers – just an extra supply that I don’t need – plus I like the attraction of peacock and it seems to sink better than chenille. The buggers worked.

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A little word on the fish and the streams. The streams are small – the fish not so much. Many of the streams are very small (some that you can easily jump over, some that you can straddle.) But in spite of the small streams the fish can get pretty nice. Our fish probably averaged over 12 inches with some pushing 18 inches and a few bigger that I didn’t bring in. I’m not suggesting that you’ll be fishing for a bunch of hogs like below the dam on the Taylor or in the Toilet Bowl on the Frying Pan – but for small stream fishing – it’s pretty darn good.

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Also – the accessibility of the streams is very good to. Many meander through cow pastures – so the walking is very easy and there aren’t even many casting obstacles to speak of – just a big willow now and then. Some are through pastures or valleys without cows and are much brushier along the banks. But still fairly easy to travel along. I would recommend against felt sole wading boots though. Some of the banks and trails are pretty muddy and my father was slipping and sliding like crazy in his felt sole boots. I had studded rubber soled boots and had a much easier time of it. So if you have felts – you might consider some chains for them.

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You are not fishing in wilderness. But you may be fishing alone. I’m sure the weekends get a little busier but during the three days we were there we fished with one other angler. And only saw a handful of others.  All of the anglers that we saw were on the very well known Timber Coulee system  – we did not see anglers on any of the other lesser known streams. However the fishing was great on the other streams too. With the sheer number of stream miles available It seems like finding open water is never much of a problem. And even though you may be fishing near roads – the roads are very lightly used country roads – with only a few cars going now and then. If you or your fishing companions have trouble getting around this situation is perfect. You can spend a whole morning or afternoon fishing a stretch of stream and never get more than a short walk from your vehicle.

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On day two – the meadow streams were clearing a bit more and I figured I’d switch to nymphs. I started fishing with a variation of the Shop-Vac (the shop vac was created by Craig Matthews of Blue Ribbon Flies). The variation being that I like to add tails and also sometimes a peacock collar. Well – the Shop Vac lived up to its name and it worked so well I never used any other subsurface flies. I spent three days fishing nothing but black buggers, Shop Vacs and, in the evenings if there was a hatch – sulphur parachutes.

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And there were hatches in the evenings. We encountered Sulphurs and caddis (the caddis coming back to the water to lay eggs as far as I could tell). We only fished two evening hatches of the three evenings that we had in Wisconsin. On both evenings the bugs were popping and fish were rising like mad.

A few other things that you need to know. The main trout season in Wisconsin is pretty short and “traditional”. From the Wisconsin DNR:

The early inland trout season on selected waters runs from 5 a.m. on the first Saturday in March (March 1, 2014) through the Sunday preceding the first Saturday in May (April 27, 2014). The regular inland trout season runs from May 3, 2014 to Sept. 30, 2014. Be sure to check the current trout regulations and season dates to determine which regulations apply on the waters you plan to fish.

I fished tenkara the whole time and my father fished regular western style. Both worked of course – but I have to say that you will not find more tenkara perfect water. I would not hesitate to recommend this as a tenkara perfect destination.

a brushy stream

The only thing that I did not anticipate was the need for a net. I might even consider a long handled net next time. The reason is that often I found myself fishing from a high bank – and hauling the fish up with a tenkara rod was probably not a great idea.  Even on the small meadow streams a long handle net would be nice because the streams were so small but pools or runs might hold a bunch of fish. I tried to stay back from the bank and not step in or otherwise disturb the water – a long handled net would have been very nice for landing fish without stepping into the water or stressing the tenkara rod by lifting heavy fish.


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One last tip – watch out for the weeds. There is of course plenty of poison ivy but there was also a lot of wild parsnip. Wild parsnip is particularly nasty and the photo sensitive sap can cause severe burns and scarring.

wild parsnip

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on the shop vac



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14 Comments on Fishing in the Driftless Region of Wisconsin

  1. Nice read. Sounds like you had a great time. I live so close, but I haven’t been over that far since 2006. I just remember the water boiling from the trout rising from a hatch. I caught so many fish that day that I got sick of it, and now that whole area is suppose to be even better. Anyways, good write up and nice pics too.

    • Thanks. I did have a great time. I hope to get out that way again. Of course there’s the trout – but I really looked the area too. Beautiful farm country and friendly folks.

  2. A great report on fishing the Driftless, Anthony. I miss the region a bit, having lived in LaCrosse during my long ago high school days (when we often hunted small game around Viroqua). I wasn’t fly-fishing much in those days, but maybe I should try to make a visit someday and cast a line.

  3. Looks like a great place to fish! Never heard of it until now, Anthony.

  4. Dave Southall // June 17, 2014 at 10:23 AM // Reply

    Very interesting. Somwhere to consider next time I come over to the USA.

  5. Very Nice write up……I am glad you had a Great Time.Hope to meet up with you next time.

  6. Wow, that looks beautiful and perfect for tenkara. I want to fish there! Thanks for putting it on my radar Anthony!

  7. Anthony. Glad you got to fish the Driftless. It is a special place, I try and get up to NE IA at least a half dozen times a year. Unlike WI, our season never closes. So you got to experience the Wild Parsnip. Don’t feel bad though, because I don’t know anyone who has fished the region, no matter how careful, who hasn’t got burned. On your next trip, you’ll need to bring some Pink Squirrel nymphs. Size 16 is all you need. I’ve also tied them in 14 & 18, but 16 seems to be the ticket.Anymore I only tie them in that size. Also, Dennis Potter’s Lightning Bug, size 16, are also another nymph you want to have in your box.

  8. Anthony: Just discovered blog/site while looking up Driftless region. Enjoyed the report on spring creek fishing the area. Great photos. Best off all liked your writing style; your voice. Will check out more stories. Thanks for the info on the Driftless.

what say you?