We recently took a trip to the Driftless area of Wisconsin for some early season trout fishing. It’s not a far drive for us, but enough that it’s not a day trip, so we made a weekend out of it. We’re no stranger to extended periods of windshield time, and the diversity of land use and natural communities across Wisconsin never disappoint, so there’s no arm twisting here to make the drive.
Typical of a Midwest spring, the weather has been all over the map, and while we escaped something of a small blizzard, temperatures were cold and the wind was blowing. That didn’t stop us from catching fish, however.
It’s been a number of years since we’ve been fortunate enough to fish this beautiful region, so we devised a plan to fish streams unfamiliar to us, but well-known to others. Access and easements down here are a blessing and established due to the cooperation of countless individuals, organizations, institutions, and land owners. It is certainly a privilege, and we respect the landowners accordingly, which means among many other things, printing out maps to ensure we don’t assume access in areas where easements are not in place. Trespassing only makes a landowner’s case to not enter into negotiations for future easements.
We begin on the Blue River. Water and air temperatures matched, hovering near 40 degrees. Approaching the stream, it’s clear how it got its name. The limestone dissolving groundwater now passing by creates almost a milky opacity, enough to hide the trout from us, but also us from them. Given the time of year, we had certain bugs in mind to keep an eye out for, but it was morning and it seemed we were the only ones awake. Working downstream slowly, swinging wet flies yellow to brown, we picked up fish and missed as many. Clearly, the fish were hungry.
Last year’s incredible floods have left their mark. Some areas received 19 inches of rain in a matter of hours. Banks and habitat work, not to mention local homes, across the region were destroyed. Some streams appear to have fared better than others, but sloughing banks is a shared theme, and it will take years for the tremendous slugs of silt and sand to work their ways down and out to the Wisconsin River.
By mid-morning we were encouraged enough by our success to anti up to some streamers. Young-of-year brown trout patterns and dark wooley buggers all produced more, both in terms of size and numbers, than the wet flies swung earlier. We even caught some other species!
We didn’t set any records that day, but the fish sure were consistent. A few bugs popped off the water late afternoon, but not enough to interest the fish. After a full day on the water, it was time to figure out where we were going to stay the night.
We were originally planning to camp in the area for the weekend, but with the chance of impending snow, we opted for something indoors. We’ve tented through worse in the past, but you don’t have to put yourself through the ringer on every trip, right? Easily enough, we called one place and ended up at the Fenway House in Fennimore, and what a delight! Darn it all, what nice people we met there, and the place is very charming. Go check it out if you’re in the area.
Something nice about early season fishing, is we don’t feel rushed to get to the water incredibly early. The fishing benefits from letting the sun warm the stream a bit while we finish our coffee. So, up and off to Castle Rock Creek we went. To be honest, we initially wish we would have settled on a different stretch. Much of the area was wide, deep, and flat and appeared to be old, poorly managed pasture. A wide open valley, the winds howled down the hillsides and were not happy to see us. The steep hike back up to the car with no fish to hand was our counter to dealing with the wind. The riffle-run sequences here are short and shallow, and not exactly fishy looking. Until the Blue Winged Olives starting hatching. Seeing a few bugs come off and a few splashy rises, we snuck up to a tail and knelt down to change out leader and fly. A few fish were had and a few more lost, but it was a relief to finally see some bugs and action on a stream we’ve heard so much about over the years. Being a small tail, we worked through the area rather quickly and decided to keep working down through the easement. By the time we got to the bottom of the public land, we found a nice long run, two to three feet deep with pillow sized rocks scattered throughout. Now, that looks fishy. Too bad the bugs weren’t hatching. Until just then, when they began. Steadily, fish began to rise up and down the run as waves of tiny mayflies hatched and flew off, only to be blown back down into the waters by a gust of wind. Having seen something of this nature many times over, we took a seat on the bank and proceeded to pick off each trout, lay by lay until we had brought easily over fifty fish to hand. When fish got snobby, we sized down from size 18 to 20 to win them over.
After the hatch died down, it was midday and we had fished the entire run. Back to the car. We gathered our thoughts and headed east to the Green River. Now, we were really out in farm country, crawling through and over fences at easement points to fish through the pastures. Cows are generally not a problem, but it is calving season and they can sometimes get a little ornery during then, so we opted for some pastures rotated out of use.
Of course, down here farm land does have to look ugly or of a different taste. Many of the area farmers are well educated in conservation and understand the benefits the streams they abut bring to the area in form of tourism and economic investment; this trip is case-in-point. In this perspective, many streams in the area are protected with riparian buffers that reduce agricultural run-off and stabilize banks. Although, rock outcrops such as this one are most likely pretty difficult for cattle to stomp down.
This was the fishiest stretch we found all weekend, with well spaced, moderate depth, naturally meandered riffle-run-pool segments. At 48 degrees, it ran much warmer than the streams to the west. It’s one of those stretches where all the fish are exactly where an experienced fisherman expects them to be. They were there, but catching them is admittedly another conversation. Still, we caught fish. The BWO’s showed up on and off for most of our stay. When they were on, we sat and caught fish on the rise. When they were off, we shortened up the leader and stripped in chunky streamers. The fish were fine with both.
We fished through this section of the Green River rather quickly and still had daylight left. So, we skipped over to another stretch. It’s amazing how much a river can change in the course of a few miles, and land use undoubtedly plays its role. This next section is bounded by row crop agriculture as opposed to pasture. The river becomes very incised, with tall, eroded banks, and the runs have for all practical purposes given way to shallow riffles dumping into plunge pools. This is big trout waters. The afternoon hatches were done and the light was getting low. No messing around here, we’re tying on streamers, and with the rush of catching the hatch and with plenty of daylight still left, why not crack open a Corona on the beach and soak it all in while we figure out the game plan?
Fly fishing can get overly technical at times, and it’s easy to want to rush through your day and see everything you can see and catch every fish you can catch. But it’s so much more than that, and at it’s simplest, it’s an excuse to be there and be outside. So, sit down and breath it in once in a while when you’re out there. We relaxed on this bar for a good half hour before continuing, and when we did we landed this nice fish on our second cast.
A few more bends of the stream and the rod and we plenty had our fill. Not sure where we’d end our day, we had checked out of the Fenway House in the morning, but it was close enough and pleasant, so we headed back over to retire for the evening and that was that.
How great it was to be back in the Driftless, and we’ll be back again soon with our annual Trout Unlimited chapter outing. What a party and caravan that is surely to be. Stay tuned!
Until next time, and as we like to say, the catching was good, but the fishing was better.