Fly Fishing Iowa Driftless Region
WHEN I SAY “IOWA”..
..a lot of folks think of CORN.. Big bucks.. And flat open land.. Personally.. When my mind drifts to the Hawkeye state, my thoughts go to a MUCH different place. I close my eyes and I find myself looking up at hills that reach higher than mountains. Miles of fields and forests stretch well into the horizon any direction you look. Quiet spring creeks and powerful cold water rivers cut deep through isolated valleys and cow pastures alike. You are swallowed up by the sights and sounds of the upper Midwest.. You are in Iowa. Each of the four distinct seasons offer such great opportunities for new and experienced anglers alike. On top of all that, the trout season NEVER CLOSES. This is truly a magical place. Could this be the best kept trout fishing secret in the Midwest? Without question.
I have spent many sleepy eyed hours white knuckling my way West in hopes of beating the sun to my favorite fishing spots. Much like its neighbors East and North, this corner of Iowa has a rich sporting culture. Miles of prime time muddy Mississippi backwaters are home to the best bass fishing and waterfowl any grown man can handle. Oh and on top of that, Iowa is THE big buck capital of the Midwest (allegedly). Needless to say a lot of the outdoor enthusiasts in the area aren't too concerned with a few measly trout.. At least not yet! The secret of the Iowa Driftless is going to slip (most likely my fault) and flocks of rabid anglers will be coming from all over the land to target the gems Iowa hides in her hills.
You can expect to be chasing the triple crown in most of the popular rivers in Iowa. The DNR does a massive stocking push from April to October. Now even though there is a massive influx of cannon fodder cement raised trout, you can still find a ton of wild trout. I would argue that the majority of the fish I catch are wild. You just have to know where to look. Much like Wisconsin, Salmo Trutta is king on this side of the Mississippi as well. Wild brown trout can be found all over in both number and in size. These populations are extremely healthy and have been self sustaining for many years. Now in saying that, every coin has two sides. On the flip side of that coin would be the native Brook trout. Between the stocker rainbows and the more aggressive brown trout, the brookies have lost the majority of their home range. There are still a handful of strongholds that hold Iowas only native trout species. Getting to catch a wild brook trout on the furthest western edge of its native range is something any serious fly angler should achieve. If you are in it for the meat, in it for the lunkers, or just looking to find a few ice age relics, Iowa has it all.
The rivers and streams that you will be running into are going to be fairly similar to a lot of the other Driftless streams in the area. Relative to the Western United States, most of these bodies of water could be considered in the medium-small range. However it should be noted that some of the spring creeks in the area can get quite wide (20-30 feet at times). As far as gear needed, you should be more than fine rocking smaller rods. I think a solid 3wt and 5wt will have your needs covered in almost any situation. Now I will say, there are some bigger rivers in the area.. I have good intel that there are some MASSIVE fish that will migrate in and out of the tributaries depending on the season. So if you are trying to get real cheeky with it don’t be afraid to get out that 8wt and slang some big bugs!
Many of Iowas trout streams run through private farms and pastures. This is very inconvenient because their water laws are a bit more strict than their neighbors to the East. (No bridge access on private land folks RIP) This may seem like a big bummer but you should not even start to sweat. From Dubuque in the South to Lansing in the North and all the way over to Decorah in the West there is so much public access dedicated to anglers. Parks, National Forests, and big wilderness preserves spread far and wide throughout this Northeast corner of Iowa. You could spend years trying to explore all the public land available to anglers. Let’s just say I have NEVER had an issue finding good water and plenty of fish.
You need to get up here and get on the action while the gettin’ is good! I am not the kind to play when it comes to fishing.. And I don’t like secrets.. I seriously cannot overstate how much I love fly fishing Iowa. My loyalty to Iowa trout has made many of my (proud) Wisconsin friends quite upset.. They ask me all the time: “Mike what do you like about living in Wisconsin?” Expecting me to say something awesome about their dairy state.. Without fail I always say: “My favorite part about living in Wisconsin.. is living so close to IOWA”.
No matter where I am in my fishy adventures, I always seem to beef hard with spring. Spring is this weird transition period that can bring extremes on either end of the spectrum. The temperatures and weather can wildly change on a dime which will greatly affect the places you plan on fishing. With that said.. Spring in Iowa has treated me quite well so I should not complain at all. When the vice grip of that northern winter finally gives way, those warm afternoon winds are the kickstart that breathes life back into this region. There are so many reasons a fly angler should be out and about this time of year.
Once the snowpack of the year melts, you can start your timers because the race is on. All of the riverside rip rap has been tamped down nice and flat which makes for extremely easy walking. But keep in mind there is a shelf life to this. Early Spring is a great time to get out and explore new water before the underbrush starts to blanket the banks once more. I like to think of it this way, even if you are not catching fish you are covering ground. Easy walking means you can go and see so many new streams and bank important knowledge for the next fishy adventure.
As spring moves on the hills will change from a drab brown to a vibrant green seemingly overnight. It is a photosynthesis fuse that burns fast the longer the sun is in the air. With the healthy mix of rain and sun the hillsides and banks will become nothing but blooms and sprouts. A warm late spring evening can make for some of the most exciting fishing around. There is a good chance you will start running into Caddis and BWO hatches that will get those trout sipping! Spring time hatches can come hot and heavy and you should really keep a wide range of bugs in your box! It would be a good idea to have the entire lifecycle of midges, BWO’s, Caddis, and even Stoneflies! Outside of you dry fly hatches, spring has always been a time where I like to throw big streamers and big nymphs. It never hurts to tie up a few of your favorite patterns in a slightly larger size for those high water conditions. I personally love a size 10 copper J with lots of rubber legs and all the flash.
My fishing bag always tends to be a bit heavier during spring. Rain jackets, extra layers, and lots of fly boxes can really pack on the weight. Spring time conditions can bring you lots of rain with high water or turn around and be freezing cold with gin clearwater. You have to be flexible and willing to fish in some less than ideal conditions. As a young lad I gravitate heavily toward bad weather days, especially the rain. My biggest tip for anyone looking to find some big and bad fish this spring would be to fish in the rain as much as you can. Now obviously this has diminishing returns. You can’t be fishing a river that is chocolate milk and blown out 5ft past its banks. Timing has to be right, but I have always had some of my best days fishing in the rain as the water is rising. The cloudy water and disturbance on the surface is good for a few reasons. First would be that the fish can't see you anymore so you can be a bit more up close and personal. This means easier casting and less spooking. Second would be that there will be a lot of life being pushed into the river system. These fish are lined up for the buffet and it is munch time. No specific patterns are needed when the water is high. Fish big generic patterns and get ready to ice down that shoulder.
With the prospect of higher water, the normal prescription of a 3wt might run you into some trouble. You wanna sling the meat? You gotta bring the heat. If there is a storm and I know that water is high, I will not hesitate to bring out the big rigs in the broomstick armada. I love to throw big streamers and even big deep nymphs setups on my 8wt this time of year. Even when the water is low I tend to gravitate toward my 5wts this time of year. With all the stream banks being clear of underbrush, you really have a lot more space to back cast. The 5wt will offer a bit more range and accuracy than your 3wt.. But let's be real, it's also a boatload of fun bombing some casts way up the river!
“One more step.. Maybe two.. Slow slow slow.. Don’t let em know you’re here.. Deep breathe.. Find your balance.. Jeez this mud is slick.. You only get one cast.”
*Swish* *Swish* Pause.
Let that hopper plop down..
As soon as that hopper connects with the surface, time has now slowed down considerably.. Frame by frame your eyes can make out the silhouette slithering inches away from the brush filled bank. The large figure takes notice of the disturbance on the waters surface and slides in the direction of the commotion. The audible *SLURP* and the abrupt disappearance of your plump hopper pattern will let you know its happening. It’s the hopper bite folks and this is why you need to experience a Driftless Summer day. The spring creeks in Iowa have solidified themselves in my mind as some of the most rewarding and memorable summer time experiences.
I am a BIG fan of the warmer months. Really the hotter the better in my opinion. Growing up in Missouri meant for HOT and HUMID summer days. The weather in the Driftless, even on the worst dog days, is so unbelievably mild it makes me laugh. The summer months from dawn til dusk are some of the most enjoyable temperature ranges one can hope to find in a Midwest summer. With longer days and extremely nice weather I don’t understand how places like the Iowa Driftless aren’t jam packed every day of the week. Most weekends I can roll up to any parking lot in the state and have the entire stretch of river all to myself.
Most of the trout streams in Iowa are either spring creeks, or are at some point fed by springs. This makes for a refreshing wet wading season from around June until late September. It should be noted that there is a slight difference in a true “Spring creek” and a “Spring fed” creek/river. Spring creeks will maintain a certain temperature all year round. The water coming from underground will be the same temperature with only slight deviation. Rain storms or droughts can cause a slight shift, but nothing significant. Spring FED creeks however are a different story. If a river/creek is spring fed, most of the time in the very headwaters, there can be wider shifts in temperatures. Why is this important? Well trout like their water like you probably like your beer. COLD. Now to find this cold water, trout will actually migrate in the summer months. This is for two main reasons. The first, and most important, is to seek out colder water to survive. Trout will move into all the tiny tributaries and spring creek headwaters to seek refuge from that hot summer sun. They will also do this, especially later in the summer, to get to spawning grounds in preparation for the fall. So if your favorite creek isn’t fishing as well as you would have hoped, try and find some smaller headwaters!
Summertime in the Iowa Driftless can bring some challenges to an unprepared angler. The rip rap and underbrush this time of year can be THICC (Yes 2 C’s). Most days I find myself knee deep in the silty water all day. Staying in the water can keep you safe from getting your cast stuck as well as avoiding any unnecessary poison ivy. Another thing to be aware of is the lovely bugs. They come in the biting and non-biting variety. If you are not used to the persistent dive bomb attacks of these nasty critters, it can make for a long day. The final thing to be aware of would be the sun. I blow smoke and say I am a tough kid from Missouri, but in all seriousness the sun can get warm. Pack sunscreen, lots of water, and maybe have a shirt or two with sleeves. Also don’t be afraid to jump in the water to cool off! I do it all the time to cool off and seek a little refuge from that dog day heat.
Like I had mentioned earlier the “Hopper Bite” is really what the Driftless is known for. If you think of the epic sulphur hatches out east or the salmonfly hatches synonymous with the west, the hopper bite is the Driftless equivalent. With a lot of these streams being in or near pasture & agricultural land, these fish get so keyed in on terrestrial bugs. Grasshoppers, crickets, katydids, and cicadas are always dancing on the water's edge (especially late into the summer). Big plops and large silhouettes are enough to drive any salmonid insane! I am not joking folks the hopper bite is so epic and can make for some of the craziest visual dry fly eats you can ever imagine.
I personally prefer to always fish the dry dropper this time of year. I hold a great deal of confidence in my nymphing abilities and more days than not I feel like confidence is going to catch you fish. I will say that the “hopper/dropper” or “FAS ADD” rig is ALWAYS on one of my rods during the summer time. I love having the ability to work both the top and the bottom of the water column. It allows you to be flexible and productively work a piece of water from every angle. Plus you can’t even begin to debate how wild it is when they do go for that dry fly.
Some of my favorite streams in the summer time would have to be Clear Creek, Bloody Run, Coon Creek, Bankston Creek, and South Pine Creek. There are so many great streams spread across this corner of Iowa, I am just noting a few. The Iowa DNR does a great job managing them as well as putting up a whole host of information with regards to what is public and where you can find the wild trout streams. When I go on adventures into the Iowa Driftless Region I tend to use “hub” cities as my staging point. I like knowing a place I can go to get fuel and a cheeky bite to eat whenever I need. My go to “hub” cities in Iowa would have to be Dubuque, Marquette, Doorchester, and Decorah. These are super fun little towns with great personality, all on top of amazing fishing down the road.
Fly fishing the Iowa Driftless in the summer months could honestly be one of my most favorite guilty pleasures. The number of streams and the healthy populations of fish make for such a rewarding experience. You could weave your way through the scenic byways and get truly lost in the beauty and majesty of this landscape. There might not be much on this world that can beat the sights and sounds of a Driftless summer sunset fading off into the night. It can only be described as magic. I would highly recommend that anyone out there reading this that has not yet made it to the NE corner of heaven, to book their trip quickly.
There are a few dead giveaways that will let you know the seasons are changing in the Driftles Region. The earliest signs will be the slight frosted coating of ice on your windshield as you get to packing up your truck in the morning. As we continue on, the trees will start to blush with the dropping temperatures and shorter days. The crack of rifle fire echoing through the cold hollow air will be the final sign that lets us anglers know summer has truly passed. Make no mistake, as the season changes so will the fishing. Change can bring challenges, but nothing too large to overcome. I have had some of my best days fly fishing Iowa in Autumn.
I personally spend a lot of time in the Iowa Driftless Region the cooler the weather gets. Late fall and well into early winter there is a good chance you can find my boot trail somewhere on the muddy banks of every Driftless stream in Iowa. States like Wisconsin and Minnisota will shut down their inland trout season late in October to help facilitate a successful breeding season for the non-native brown trout. (TBH I think this is a ploy run by the DNR to reduce the number of anglers getting shot by deer hunters.. But thats just me..) The spawn of any trout species can be a controversial topic in the fly fishing world. Bass fisherman and salmon anglers mark the spawn on their calendars and specifically target spawning fish. When it comes to trout.. It is a whole different world.. Even just the inclination that you are targeting spawning brown trout (Again NON-NATIVE) will bring the wrath of the internet police to your social media feed. Ethically I can see where the internet police are coming from. The fish are in a heightened state of aggression and stress. This is taxing on their physical strength and it all goes toward creating the next generation of trout. BUUUUT practically I just would like to know where the line is.. Especially for non-native game fish like the brown trout here in the Driftless region. Because at the end of the day aren't we just assaulting fish with metal hooks for nothing but our own sick pleasure? Just kind of makes me scratch my head and laugh a the perceived hierarchy of certain critters (especially non-native game fish species) I personally do not target spawning fish because I PERSONALLY do not want to add any extra stress on these critters. (More stress than a hook to the face and fight for their life already is..) Spawning is just something you need to be aware of! Watch for redds and don't cast at tailing fish. Easy as that folks.
Much like Spring, Fall is one of those weird transition periods where you really just don't know what to expect. Read that farmers almanac until your eyes pop out, it won't help you in a Midwest fall. You can catch a nasty cold snap as early as September, then get hit with a brief but glorious Indian Summer before the cruel winter's grasp tightens up. I mean its the Midwest people what did you expect? The weather is going to always be all over the place and never easy to predict! I fear that I may be repeating myself… Regardless, you have to be flexible! Both in your gear and your tactics, you have to buckle up and be ready for the wild (& fun) ride this transition period offers!
After spending an entire summer throwing big dry flies at rising trout, it can be hard to want to watch a bobber drift by a seemingly empty pool.. It may not be glamorous but I can say with confidence that nymphing is going to get you on a great deal of fish in the fall. Many of the resident trout are going to be congregating in deep pools and packing on the weight in preparation for winters impending doom. If you only have one rod to rig up I would highly suggest making that a nymph setup. You will still experience the occasional dry fly hatch however those might be few and far between. BUT if i had to bring one dry fly to the party, pack a wide selection of midges.
Like much of the rest of the Driftless Region, I am not picky when it comes to where I go in the fall. I will say that I try my best to avoid some of the rivers that are dominated by the brown trout, just to avoid the spawn as best as I can. Places like Paint Creek, Waterloo, N&S Bear and Cold Water Creek have a larger population of stockers and fingerling rainbows in them throughout the year. Those silly stockers will have one thing on their mind.. NO not trout pellets.. REAL FOOD. The stockers will pool up in the deep holes and I have had a lot of luck chaining up 3-4 in a row on the good days. If you do find yourself running into those brown trout, don’t sweat it. From early October to late January you can be running into pre and post spawners. Just get them back swimming and they should be more than fine. (Trout are pretty resilient believe it or not.)
Jack Frost is not a friend of mine. I have spent more than my fair share of frozen days on Iowa’s trout streams. I am by no means saying you shouldn’t go out there and get after it in a winter wonderland.. I am just saying you should really weigh out the risk vs reward. Days are short, lines are frozen, and the fish are moving so very slow. This isn't to say that the fish aren’t biting.. Because they are always munching.. By no means is winter ugly.. You can see some pretty incredible things.. I would just heavily taper your expectations on a day. When I am stream side, actually netting a fish is just the cherry on top. I consider it a big fat win if my guides don’t freeze, if I can maintain my core temp, and not fall in the water.
Low and slow will be the game plan here. Load up on hot hands and make sure those neoprenes are THICC. I have had many chilly days fighting the cold and fighting the fish. A cheeky dual nymph setup slow drifted through a deep pool and be the trick to help cure those winter blues. Fish heavy and fish deep. Target those pools and you are bound to catch fish.
Is it cliche to say that the silence of the winter is what speaks to me the most..? Too deep? Maybe.. The lack of sound adds an entirely new element to the experience. Every crunch of the snow, snap of a dead twig, and echo of a lone raven is amplified. It is such a strange contrast to the summer buzz. Everything seems to be moving all at once in a beautiful symphony of life. The winter time makes me appreciate that life so much more purely because of the absence of all life.