Fly Fishing Wisconsin Driftless Region
Wisconsin, the "West" of the Midwest..
The rich history and culture of the outdoors is alive and well in the frigid North. White tail, Walleye, and Waterfowl are the three crown jewels of this Packer loving state. In my experience, the trout fishing scene takes second fiddle to a lot of these other outdoor pursuits (which is totally fine). But when I say that the Driftless Region is the finest fly fishing to be had this side of the Rockies.. I MEAN IT. What is the Driftless Region you ask? I get that question a lot, I am working on a separate blog post specifically on the Driftless Region to help better understand the origin and history behind this unique corner of the world. If you are only in it for the fish, well you really only need to know is that it has hundreds of miles worth of trout streams. Prime spring creeks and rivers running through isolated valleys and cow pastures alike. Oh and Wisconsin makes up the majority of this amazing geological wonder.
When we start talking Driftless trout, Mr. Salmo Trutta is the big boss here. Brown trout were introduced to these waters many years ago. They have since become "Naturalized" to these Drifless spring creeks even though they are TECHNICALLY European immigrants. The Wisconsin DNR has an amazing management plan in place which has resulted in countless wild trout streams teeming with big nasty brown trout! But just like most places that see introduction of non-native species... the native brook trout have taken a massive hit. The brown trout outcompete the locals and you can now only find brook trout still thriving in the headwaters of these Driftless streams. It is not the easiest thing to do, but once you find a few brookies, boy are they something else. The last trout species that swim in these streams would be the rainbow trout. The cannon fodder of the trout world.. Due to temps and seasons, you will be hard pressed to find any real strong population of wild rainbow trout. These are mostly stocked for.. lets just say recreational purposes..
When you boil this region down to its base elements.. hundreds of miles worth of cold water streams, angler friendly water access laws, and little to no pressure from crowds of anglers.. This is fly fishing heaven! Even though there is a lot of private land, walk in access and easements are a dime a dozen. You are surrounded by amazing scenery as you weave your way through tiny dairy communities in your search for the next bite. The fishing (in my opinion) can be really easy but is still extremely rewarding. I will say it again.. this is the best fly fishing you can find in the Midwest.
Most of these Driftless streams are going to be small/medium sized bodies of water (depending on what you are used to of course). If you have a 5wt rod of any length you should be in the money. I personally like to carry a 7' 3wt alongside a 9' 5wt. Each rod will allow flexibility depending on what the river is doing. You will find a lot of tight spaces mixed into wide open and longer sections. I preach this all the time but... BE FLEXIBLE! I would argue you might catch more fish that way.. But what do I know? I am just some guy! These creeks and rivers can get deep but a floating line should get you where you need to go in almost every situation! So leave the sink tips at home this time. Again personal preference but I like to fish short & heavy leaders. There seems to be a slight stain in most of the rivers and the trout are not that spooky. Also if you take into account all the log jams... You need something strong so you won't break off!
April showers bring May flowers.. This might be true! But to me April showers means high water and hungry trout! Now being that spring is a transition period, from winter to summer, conditions can be all over the place. You might think spring has sprung with a few days of gorgeous weather. You might get the illusion that Jack Frost has officially moved on for the year.. But because this is the Midwest.. it can all turn on a dime and be raining and cold for weeks on end.. These wild swings of both temperature and water levels keeps the fish on their toes.. or tails rather. Some outings can be frustrating but I have always seemed to have a great deal of success no matter what the conditions seem to be doing. One thing you can be sure of however, is that the Red Wing Black Birds will be singing the sweet song of warmer times to come! So at least go listen to the birds.
With the weather warming up, EVERYTHING is moving (Whether they like it or not). Nymphs like Blue Winged Olives are both staging to hatch or are starting to hatch. The increase in water levels cause bait fish to move and big invertebrates to get displaced. What does this mean? THE FEED BAG IS ON. You will find that trout are more willing to eat and are more willing to move for a meal. Knowing this, keep plenty of big heavy nymphs in the box to be able to combat the high/fast water. On the flip side make sure you are tuned in to all the hatches that could emerge during these spring months. Once fish get keyed in on one specific bug, you better hope you have a good imitation!
Spring Hatches: Midges, Caddis, Blue Winged Olive, & Stoneflys
Constants: Scuds/Sow Bugs, Leeches, & Bait Fish
ONE FLY TO BRING : Mini Meat Whistle
As far as where to fish? I might be the wrong person to ask.. I bounce around so much it is not even funny.. That is usually why I pick a city to go to rather than one specific stream. This way I can build up a solid Plan A, B, and C on the off chance that conditions switch up on me. Each valley will be affected in a different manner by the bipolar weather patterns the Midwest loves to toss at us anglers. If one valley is blown out? Go check out the other one across the holler! My favorite cities (towns) that I like to frequent are Richland Center, Fennimore, Viroqua, and Coon Valley. Summer traffic has not hit yet and you can usually find yourself all alone on any beautiful spring day!
There is absolutely nothing quite like the HUM of a Driftless summer. From dawn until dusk everything is moving and everything is so alive. The shackles of the frozen North have been lifted and all living organisms are off to the races trying to make the most of these warm months. The days are long and that sun is giving a steady stream of warmth and light all summer long. Now when I say warmer months I really mean warm, not HOT. I am a Missouri boy... 90 degrees and 100% humidity.. that is HOT.. A Wisconsin summer might be the most enjoyable range of temperatures one can hope to experience in a Midwest summer. At the lowest point on either end of the season it might be a crisp 60 degrees and at the peak of the Dog Days it might scrape the 90's. Wet wading can get you where you need to go from early June all the way to late August and even September! Starting the day off in a hoody or flannel and stripping down layers as the sun comes out is fairly common. But just because the temps are nice does not mean you can ignore that sun! Pack plenty of sunscreen! (Or just buy shirts with sleeves) If you are a not a fan of bugs make sure to pack some bug spray. Summer time can get quite buggy with a mix of biting and non biting bugs. They don't seem to like the way I taste but still it can be bothersome to most folks. Again this is coming from personal experience, but I have never had a day that was just too dang hot to fish. Even in the heart of the Dog Days!
A little sunshine and humid air doesn't phase this Missouri boy, but it could really affect your local trout populations. As the larger rivers in the area naturally start to heat up you will start to see a lot of movement in the fish. This has to do with two main things. First would be they are trying to escape the heat. If you are a big nasty brown trout there is no better way to beat the heat than to swim in to your favorite spring creek tributary that flows into your home river. You will see a huge increase in not only numbers of fish but also size of fish in these feeder streams! Those spring fed tributaries are not only going to be running strong and cold but they will be absolutely loaded with all the trout munchies. The second reason they begin to move up these smaller tributaries if to stage for spawning in the fall! These kinds of streams are perfect rearing grounds for the next generation of wild trout in Wisconsin!
With Summer being one of the best and busiest times to hit the Driftelss region I would advise sticking to the small stream game. You can drive past all the main river sections of your favorite Driftless river and hit 3 or 4 small streams and have just as much if not more luck! Plus on top of that you can avoid all the other anglers that are visiting the area. You may be fighting super heavy rip rap on the bank which is not fun.. BUT! With the warmer weather don't be afraid to be a river rat and just jump on in! I spend the majority of my summer days with my feet in the water away from all the grass and shrubs! This time of year there are really no specific river or creek I can give because I would recommend them all! Even though I am a weekend warrior I was still able to hit 20+ different streams in one summer! I would be willing to argue that you could spend an entire lifetime fishing this part of Wisconsin and seldom hit the same river twice. But that is all personal preference right?
No matter which direction you look there is going to be a bonanza of bug activity! You will have significant hatches throughout the summer on top of all the bugs moving in the water. But as the Summer gets closer to Fall, those all take a back seat to the absolute best hatch the Driftless can offer... HOPPER SZN!! Throwing big terrestrials of any kind is one of the best things to do in my opinion. I am a HOUND for a cheeky dry dropper rig! We are talking hoppers in the front & coppers in the back! Seeing a late summer brown come up from an undercut grass bank and smash an oversized hopper will make your butt pucker. This "Hopper Bite" will run from late June to damn near October if the weather plays nice. Grasshoppers, Crickets, Katydids, Ants, Beetles, and even Cicadas are present in and around the waters edge in almost every stream. Anything big and buoyant is going to catch all the smoke from these fired up summer time trout!
*WISCONSIN TROUT SEASON CLOSES OCTOBER 15th*
Reference: Trout Fishing Regulations - Wisconsin DNR
The crunch of fallen leaves and the far off echo of flocks flying South can give any sportsman a sense of urgency. That feeling in your gut that pushes you out the door with a few extra layers and a hot cup of joe. Seasons are changing and you have to do everything you can before the bitter and dark take hold. This is a transition season. You could be met with crisp mornings and hot days deep into October. ORRR (knowing the Midwest) you could be met with an unseasonably cold and wet period that jumps right into winter before Halloween decorations make it out on the lawn. But these wide ranges in temperature and differing levels of precipitation can really throw a wrench into your fishing success.
By the time the first frost hits the underbrush, that marks the end of the wet wading season. I hope you are ready for lots of layers and neoprene's. This season also just so happens to coincide with the brown trout spawning season. You really only get about half of the season to fish because the Wisconsin DNR closes down the inland trout season every year in October. Even though this is kind of inconvenient for the anglers, it is really good for the fish. Folks wonder why the Wisconsin Driftless is so loaded with healthy wild fish. Well let me tell you, the DNR and their management plan can be thanked for the thousands of healthy wild fish swimming in these streams.
Now I don't want to be all doom and gloom when it comes to fall fishing in the Wisconsin Driftless. There are still so many amazing things to look forward to. Jack Frost brings a blanked of shimmering ice that not only kills the biting bugs, but also the underbrush! The overgrown weeds and rip rap will really start to wither down which makes covering ground on your favorite trout stream a lot easier! So besides the brush and bugs, a good fall rain storm can really make for some killer fishing. Early in the Fall a lot of the fish in the system will be really close to spawning. This means that they will be a lot more aggressive and willing to eat bigger meals. (Yes pack those streamers folks)
When it comes down to fly selection for this short season, I would suggest having a little bit of everything at all times! This is especially true early into fall. Fish will still be keyed in on terrestrials and late Caddis and BWO hatches. But at the same time all the fish are a bit more aggressive and willing to each bigger nymphs and streamers. Pack it all and pack it good. If I had to choose one fly to bring along with me for the fall, it would have to be a bait fish pattern like a muddler or a double deceiver! Even if fish aren't hungry there is a good chance they will be VERY territorial to other fish. You can get a lot of solid fish that are only eating out of aggression.
Again there is no point in naming exact rivers because everywhere should be fishing about the same. HOWEVER some of my favorites this time of year come out of the Richland Center area like Mill Creek. Access should be fairly easy and pressure should be low. The further into fall we get, the more outdoorsman will start to get distracted with getting ready for big bucks and waterfowl. The only thing I would really keep in mind would be water levels and water clarity. A dry Fall can make for some really tough fishing in the smaller streams. This is where fishing bigger rivers like Timber Coulee, West Fork of the Kickapoo, and the Big Green River would be advantageous. But really at the end of the day it is your own adventure and you should not let some internet guy tell you what is right or wrong!
By the time you get your fill of rich food, cozy nights by the fire, and holiday bickers with the family the early trout season in Wisconsin will be open and you can finally get your butt off the couch! Do you like cold hands? Do you like cold toes? Tell me you like your guides freezing up?? Well.. Nobody does, so grab you baby oil and start lathering up!! This is no time to fall into a beer fueled depression that is only slightly haltered by tying handfuls of garbage flies that will never see the water... NO! I refuse to adhere to Jack Frost and his frigid rule.. Well unless its just too cold. Then there is really just no point.. So if that thermometer even touches 30+ degrees in a day, you better take that and run. Just because the air is silent and the landscape is barren does not mean fish aren't munching. The Driftless is comprised of mostly spring creeks. This means that the water flowing out of the hills comes from geothermal springs. They pump out cold clean water that maintains a certain temp all year long. So even though the wind might be whipping up top, the fish are nice and cozy in their deep winter holes.
From the end of October to the very top of January, these fish have had free range on the stream. They have been able to eat and live undisturbed for a few good months and they are comfortable! You can really find some great fish who are willing to munch down hard depending on the right conditions. I will note that Winter will be the season where almost every single element is stacked up against you. The wind, water, sun and snow are all about as bad as they can be and WILL test your resolve. When water levels are extremely low and there is a fresh snow on the banks.. set your expectations low. Fish can see you from a mile away with the clear water and contrast of the bright snow.
Low and slow is my go to game plan when approaching any of these streams in the dead of winter. Dredging heavy nymph rigs is not glamorous.. trust me I know. But it is going to be a really effective way to get on these winter trout. Even though the water temps stay fairly consistent, water levels can vary. That is why you will see fish start to congregate into the deepest holes in whatever body of water you are fishy. I call it "pooling up". A deep nymph rig is such a great way to target these fish that are sitting deep and aren't moving a whole lot for a meal. My triple threat this time of year comes in the form of the Midge, Copper John, and Sow Bug. These heavy hitters are the perfect slice of pie for any trout looking to put on that winter weight. These bugs are going to be present in the system year round and the fish are very familiar with these morsels.
Even though the nymph is king this time of year do not forget your dry fly box at home! If there is even the slightest sunshine or a decently warm day you could be finding yourself in the middle of a midge hatch. It sure would be a shame to miss out on the only rising fish you've seen in months! Midges will consistently be hatching throughout mid and late winter. This can make for some challenging stalks and extremely rewarding hook ups!
Check out this lifecycle video for the different phases of a Midges life!
Winter in Wisconsin can be a really love/hate sort of ordeal. When the temps stay above the negatives you can really find some nice fish. This time of year is basically run by ice fishing, so there is next to no pressure on these streams. Even when the weather is nice enough to get out, you will seldom see another fly angler. I use this time of year to hit some of the major watersheds in places like the Kickapoo and Coulee watershed. Places that would be busy in the Summer are quiet and empty in the Winter. Do not be afraid of the winter months, just be aware of the risks that come with. Layering up in the most efficient way possible will keep you safe from the bite of Ol Jack Frost. I would also suggest not exploring too far away from your vehicle on most days. If you were to fall in and soak yourself to the bone that could be a MAJOR issue..