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Thread: Fishing in the Driftless

  1. #1 supporter and plankowner
    Join Date
    Nov 2009
    Lawrence, KS

    Fishing in the Driftless

    I have a problem--a deep addiction to see and experience, first-hand, the rise of trout.

    This is particularly vexing for me because I live in a state that does not have a year round, stream-based wild trout population. To feed this need, I focus my attention on Colorado in the summers and Missouri during the other three seasons. The problem is that there is simply not very many wild-trout streams in Missouri and for the smaller streams there is pretty limited access. More and more I've come to cherish a new destination--the spring creeks of the Driftless region of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and NE Iowa. It takes twice as long to get there but the fishing resource is world class (don't tell anyone) and there is mile upon mile (100's) of stream access. It would take more than a lifetime to explore this resource but I'm willing to give it a try.

    Last year Randy and I made a trip up to Driftless in April hoping to catch a hatch and get on the streams before the stream side vegetation got too high. We missed the caddis hatch by two weeks but still had great fishing on Friday. What we failed to account for was that the weekend we chose happened to be the opening of the Catch and Keep season so we got to experience "the opener". Fishing season never closes in Kansas so this was a first for me and a bit of a shock. On Friday we had barely seen another person let alone someone fishing but by 6 a.m. on Sat. the river was crawling with anglers of all types. We vowed to come back a bit later to get the caddis hatch and to avoid the crowd.

    A couple of weeks ago, I heard through the interwebs that the caddis might be early this year. That info set things in motion. I took a couple of vacation days and Randy and I headed up north early Thursday morning. We arrived at our campsite by mid-afternoon, checked in, got our camp wood and set up camp.

    This is the view from camp.

    We didn't even try to go anywhere else that evening, we hopped right on down to the creek and got started fishing. I hadn't rigged up yet but Randy had and before I could get my fly tied on, he was already taking a photo of this monster. Really, there's a fish in this picture. I've got to admit, Randy is fearless with his phone camera.

    I thought this was a good omen but you know how omens go.

    We ended up with about a half dozen each over the next hour--all on elk-hair caddis although we experimented a bit with some droppers. Most of the time we focused on riffles and runs--above, below or right down the middle.

    Randy documented that even I can catch a one once in a while.

    We ran out of light and riffles so we headed back to camp and cooked up some bison and brats to go with some canned apples. Randy was there again to document that I wasn't going hungry.

    I spent the rest of the evening wandering around marveling at the weather, the fishing and the woodland spring wildflowers which are particularly lush here. Carpets of False Rue Anemone.

    Virginia bluebells


    Appropriate for our mission: Trout Lilies.

    There were others like spring beauties and wild ginger but we were here to fish. One of the things I'm really looking forward to in my retirement is the chance to take a bit more time to savor places like this in all seasons--to really get to know the flora and fauna.

    Since the next day was Friday we thought that if we got there early we might get some sections of a famous stream to ourselves. We were wrong. We tried 4 different access points and counted 13 cars. So much for the uncrowded Driftless streams. We decided to make different plans and this is the real advantage of the Driftless--there is always another option. We headed off to another popular stream that has a good population of trout and insects but the trout run a little small. We didn't see another angler the entire day.

    The place was alive with caddis laying eggs. This particular type of caddis was laying eggs by flying up stream in the riffles and runs and dropping down momentarily to the surface lay their eggs. The stream would take them downstream a bit and they would quickly take flight again and kind of hop back up stream to lay more eggs. Kind of like leap frog but with a net movement downstream. There were not clouds of caddis but enough to keep the trout looking up.

    If I'm going to catch fish with my lack of skills these are the types of days I need--Caddis flies hopping all over the water so that my poor attempts at mending actually work in my favor--making my fly hop around on the water like the naturals. Fish rose to the fly, fish were hooked and fish were caught all day long.

    None of the fish caught were large but they were eager and plentiful. This was just what I needed. The image of these trout rising through the clear water, jumping clear out of the water to catch this crazy, skittering elk hair caddis is burned in my memory. Each time I close my eyes I can see a specific fish rise out of a particular hole. And to make the day even more perfect, the biggest ones were only hooked and released from afar. In this stream there is a slot regulation where fish between 12 and 18 inches have to be returned to the stream. Otherwise you can keep your trout up to your limit. The management goal is to get the average size of the trout up in this stream. Perhaps we should have contributed by keeping some of these smaller trout. Of course, we weren't that reasonable. Instead we went into town to a restaurant and ordered fish for supper--I had walleye and Randy had Northern Pike. Good stuff.

    We fished another stream that evening until dark and each caught another half-dozen or so before heading back to camp.

    The next day we decided to fish much of the same water but this time there were other anglers about. We still managed to catch fish but not quite like the day before. Later in the day, I chose to try a really small and brushy tributary while Randy continued on the big stream. So after walking in about 3/4 of mile this is what I tried to fish. It is a tiring, frustrating, maddening kind of place to fish but I keep coming back.

    I spent most of the first half hour in snagged on trees and roots. I finally decided to just move on from places like this to more open areas and then I was able to pick some up in the close quarters.

    Right about where this run ends up below the downed tree where the creek disappears in this photo I saw a riser. I snuck along the left bank downstream to get into casting range but the smaller limbs of the tree on the opposite bank blocked my way to the fish. I had been hung up so much at this point that I intentionally cast my fly over the top of one of the branches so that the fly was just suspended on the surface of the water. The trout immediately came up within a fraction of an inch of the fly like an alligator--and he held there eyeing the fly. His back was out of the water and I could see his eyes looking over this fly--at least I imagined I could see his stare. Naturally, I gave the fly a tug and the trout decided this must be food. The strike freed the line and I had another fish but really at that point the coolest part was that predatory approach that I remember. I don't remember anything about bringing him in and I didn't take a photo. It was the take that I can't get out of my head. This is what I seek.

    We wrapped up the fine weekend on the trip home with something that is becoming all too much of a rarity in the restaurants of America--Cherry Pie. After stopping at three different location, we were able to finally find some cherry pie to celebrate a successful trip.

    Trout fishing in the Driftless and Cherry, Cherry doesn't get any better.

  2. #2
    Thanks for the fine report. The trees continue to leaf out now. The water is warming and the fishing is even better.

    I live near enough to make long day trips to the central Driftless. It's a special place. Some of the biggest fish (and they really are big) are in small streams that see very little fishing pressure, or even in streams that have yet to be designated as trout water.

    I don't like to fish in a crowd, but a person can usually find water that is free of other fishermen. If there's a car at a bridge, there's another trout stream just over the hill.

    Rather than make too many long day trips, I usually fish the northern Driftless, closer to the house and with excellent fishing, or I fish some freestone streams to the north. There it's not unusual to be the only one fishing a stream; the last boot tracks on the bank are mine, from ten days earlier.

    Thanks again.

  3. #3 plankowner ofuros's Avatar
    Join Date
    Oct 2009
    The Great Southern Land, Australia
    Enjoyed your fluff chucking trip, ksbioteacher.
    Never tried cherry pie but it looks delicious.
    It's good to see someone adding to the smallstreams story database.

    ...and the world just keeps on getting smaller when I can type in 'Driftless Region' into my smartphone
    and be instantly transported across the world to give me a rough idea of where you & Randy
    were fishing, all from warmth of my bed with the steady noise of long awaited rain outside my window.
    Last edited by ofuros; 04-30-2016 at 05:52 PM.
    Out & about....looking for trout.

  4. #4 supporter and plankowner
    Join Date
    Nov 2009
    Lawrence, KS

    "... If there's a car at a bridge, there's another trout stream just over the hill...."

    captures why I put in the extra hours to drive north--that and there is something that up there in those hills and streams that keeps inviting me back and giving me a real sense of peace when I'm there. I don't know why but I really feel at home.

    Thanks for all you do to share the wonders of where you fish and live. I'm just an appreciative visitor.


  5. #5 supporter and plankowner
    Join Date
    Nov 2009
    Lawrence, KS
    I should have included descriptions of the restful sleep I had on the last night as the gentle rain fell throughout the night. Cool but not cold, the air smelling of spring and rain, and the quiet sound of the rain---buried deep and warm under my sleeping bag....hmmmmm.

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