Updated: Apr 10, 2020
So many times on Facebook I see posts in fishing groups that say something like, “Hey I’m coming to the Driftless and want to catch trout. Where should I fish and what flies should I use? GPS coordinates are appreciated!” What follows are usually terse passive aggressive replies that sound something like, “Hire a guide. Do your own exploring. Don’t you dare ask for details and stay in Illinois. Go Packers and F%^k the Bears!” (Full disclosure: Before I moved to Wisconsin 20 years ago, I lived in Illinois. My son was born there, but he seems to have fully overcome that.) This post is meant to help answer some questions about getting a start on fishing the Driftless for trout. I am not an expert on trout fishing, but I like to play one on Facebook. I also had my friend Mike Juran help with this post. He has lived in the area and fished it a lot longer than me.
The Driftless is a geologic region in the Midwest in the states of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and a little bit of Illinois. It is called “driftless” because it lacks glacial debris left in the topsoil (boulders and gravel) from the last ice age. There is likely a fancier explanation than this, but that’s good enough for now. The region is known for lots of limestone land features and spring-fed streams. This is what leads to excellent trout fishing as there is a constant source of cool clean water. I know the Wisconsin Driftless best (compared to the other states), so keep that in mind when you are reading this.
Know the rules and regulations
Know the regulations from the Wisconsin DNR. Make sure you are appropriately licensed and have the additional trout stamp. You can find the regulations on the DNR web site. It is also a good idea to get one of the regulation books and keep it in your vehicle. Know the differences in regulations between the early catch and release season and the traditional season which begins in May. If you plan to keep fish, then pay attention to the stream you are on as there are different limits (bag limit and size limit) for the various streams. Often those limits are posted on a sign near an entry point to the water, but not always. Keep that trout regs book handy so you keep yourself out of trouble and honor the research developed by the DNR biologists and wardens for that particular stretch of water.
Stream access information
Know the stream access laws and respect the rights of landowners, even if there is a public easement on their property. An easement is a legal right to use another person’s property for a specific purpose. Most of the streams in the Driftless run through private property, but in many cases the landowner has allowed legal access to the stream for the purpose of angling. The best tools for knowing easements are the Wisconsin DNR Easement online mapping tool and the apps TroutSpotr and Trout Routes. These two apps are great, but make sure you pay attention to the easement locations from the DNR. The app developers are good people and try to get things accurate, but sometimes easements expire or may be inaccurate on one of the apps.
Even if the water is eased, stay close to the stream, be mindful of livestock, and clean up after yourself. If nature calls, bury your business and pack out your toilet paper. If you bring snacks and drinks with you on the stream, take your trash with you. You can also be a good steward of the resource by picking up trash that wasn’t yours. Same thing goes for the parking areas. Clean up after yourself and pick up trash that someone else may have left behind.
This video gives a fantastic explanation about finding new places to fish in Wisconsin.
What kind of trout are in the Driftless?
Photo credits to Len Harris
The native fish in Driftless streams is the brook trout (actually in the char genus known as salvelinus fontinalis).
The most common trout is the brown trout (salmo trutta). The brown trout is not native to North America, but comes from Europe. You will hear the term “German brown” because the first browns to come to North America started from eggs from brown trout in Germany. Brown trout have done well in Wisconsin and around the world, and most of the browns here are now naturally reproducing in the streams.
Rainbow trout can also be found in the Driftless, but most of them are stocked fish or have escaped from private ponds.
You will also hear about tiger trout, which is a naturally occurring hybrid of brook and brown trout (naturally occurring in the Driftless, but hatchery created in other states). These rare fish get the name tiger because of the distinct vermiculated markings they often display. I fished a lot for trout over the past 15 years and never caught a tiger until last fall, and then happened to catch 3 of them in the course of one month.
Check out this article from Len Harris about identifying fish in the Driftless. Len is a great photographer, story teller, and angler. The trout photos above come from his blog The Stream of Time. Keep his blog on your reading list to learn a lot about fishing in the Driftless.
Where to fish
How do you know if a stream is any good? If there is an easement in place for angling, then likely there is good fishing. The online sources named above also have classifications for the different streams (class 1, 2, 3). Class 1 typically means the stream section has plenty of naturally reproducing fish. There are fish in classes 2 and 3, but some of them rely on stocking or have fewer fish. This is a brief explanation of the classes, but feel free to read more about how streams are classified. I know that there are some excellent streams that are not classified at all or are Class 3 but produce some excellent fish. Upper Giraffe and Nunya are two examples of such streams (these streams will come up again toward the end of the post).
Scout out where you want to fish ahead of time and have plans A, B, C, D, and beyond in mind before you arrive. The Driftless has a lot of water and fish, but it brings out a lot of anglers. If you plan on fishing on the weekend, assume there will be other anglers out there. If you see a vehicle at the spot you planned to fish, take a look to see if there are anglers up or down stream from that location. Some courteous people will even put a note on their dash or under their wiper to let you know how many people are in their fishing party. “One angler fishing upstream,” is one example of this. A few sneaky anglers will go with “Rattlesnake release operation in progress,” to keep the stream all to themselves. If you see multiple vehicles parked at an entry point, move on down the road. There are plenty of places to fish in the Driftless.
Practice positive stream etiquette
Don’t crowd another angler on the water or jump ahead of them on the stream. This is called high-holing and it is a bad move. (Another full disclosure: I did this to my friend and co-author Mike last fall when I caught my first tiger trout. "Here Mike, you fish this junk water and I am going to jump ahead of you 20 yards to that good looking bend section." One cast later, I landed a tiger. Some day he will get over this, but he was gracious and took nice photos of me and my fish. Those photos are toward the end of this article.)
If you do come across someone on the stream fishing the same direction as you it’s OK to ask how far they plan to fish. It could be they are near the end of their day and it may not interrupt their plan if you walk up a few hundred yards past them and fish. But ask first! If you do go ahead with permission, don't walk right next to the stream. You will spook the trout, so walk out of sight of the stream. Sometimes people will jump ahead of you on the stream. It’s annoying but not worth a big argument. We are out on the water to have a good time. Grumble to yourself and remember not to do that to anyone else. Some people who do this aren’t trying to be jerks. They just might be naive with no bad intentions.
If you see people at their vehicles at a spot you want to fish, it’s OK to stop and chat to see if they are starting or finishing. It’s a good opportunity to meet someone new and also find out how their outing went. Be friendly. Many angling relationships started by sharing a favorite craft brew or finest vintage Diet Coke. Some people will go on and on and tell you every detail about their day and even give you flies that were working for them. Some folks won’t say much at all, pretend like they were only bird watching, and keep detailed information to themselves.
But where exactly should I go?
Hire a Guide. Seriously, hire a guide to really help you understand the area. Guides don’t just take you to the stream and say “That there is water. Fish live in it. Good luck!” They make their living by ensuring people have an enjoyable time and catch fish. Their best marketing is you telling all your friends how many fish you caught and what a great guide you were with. You will learn how to read water, identify bugs, select the right fly, and pick up tips on your casting abilities. If you have planned a 5 day trip to the Driftless, it is money well spent to hire a guide for at least the first day and then use that knowledge for the remainder of your trip and in the future. There are lots of great trout guides in the Driftless. If you know which county you want to fish in, post in one of the trout Facebook groups and say you are looking for recommendations.
Ask The Right Way. If a guide is not in your budget, go to a local fly shop, buy some needed gear/supplies and then inquire about where to fish. I am familiar with the Driftless Angler in
Viroqua and they will absolutely help you find success on the water. Also pay attention to the DA web site and look at their fishing report. It is updated daily and will give you insight into good times of day, hatch types and times, and water conditions. Island Outdoors in La Crosse is another great resource in the Wisconsin Driftless. Please support our local fly shops and bait shops with your business. Ask about what flies have been working and then buy them, even if you have similar ones already in your fly box.
A recent non-scientific study showed that customers who bought a dozen flies, a t-shirt, and some leaders were given more detailed information than the visitor who only asked to use the bathroom and then wanted a list of 6 spots to fish.
Publications. There are also several books about trout fishing in the Driftless. Fly Fishing the Midwestern Spring Creeks is a good one. So are the books by Jay Thurston. A couple others are Fly Fisher’s Guide to Wisconsin and Iowa and Trout Streams of Wisconsin and Minnesota. Google is your friend, so do a search and see what else is out there for reading material. One resource that I really love is YouTube. Rich Osthoff has some excellent videos there. Winona Fly Factory is probably my favorite channel because of the cinematography and music choice in his videos. Wisconsin Trout Fishing is another great channel, especially if you want to learn how to use spin gear to catch trout.
Trout Unlimited. Join your local TU chapter. The yearly dues you pay help to do great work for stream improvement and protection. Go to the local chapter meetings to learn from the presentations that typically happen as part of the meetings. You will also meet other anglers and that is an excellent way to learn about techniques and locations to fish. There are also plenty of work days on the stream led by TU chapters. Do you think those work days take place on junk water? Nope. Typical work days look like labor from 9 a.m. to noon, brat lunch at noon, and then fishing for the rest of the day. We call it a "work day" because that makes it sound more legitimate and it makes it easier to get away from home for the day.
I’m an active member of Coulee Region TU in SW Wisconsin and it is made up of many high quality men and women of all levels of fishing expertise. I have met many outstanding people in TU and it is a great way to get connected to other anglers even if you travel away from home and want to get insider tips on catching fish. Reach out to the TU leaders where you are headed, let them know you are a TU member and are looking for some general information on finding fish.
Support my TU chapter by buying a decal (same one featured in the photo above) or one of these sweet caps. Decals are just $1 and caps are $20. Buy them here.
What equipment do I need?
I like using a 4 or 5 weight rod/reel with floating line. A good all-purpose length is 8-9 feet. Some people like to go with a 10 footer for euro nymphing, and some go as small as 6 feet for tiny creeks with lots of vegetation around you. You don’t need to spend a lot of money on a fly rod. One of my favorite rods is an Echo Carbon (4wt 8’) that I bought for $160 from the
Driftless Angler. You don’t need to spend much on a reel as for the most part all it does is hold your line. I rarely ever have fish on the reel on Driftless streams. (Full disclosure: I also have a high dollar Orvis Helios 3D rod/reel that was a gift. It is glorious, casts like a dream, doesn’t talk back, or eat all the food out of the fridge. If you sell a kidney or win the lottery, get one.) For a leader, go with a tapered one. A 9’ 5x is a good standard leader that will do well with some tippet on the end of that. If you mainly fish streamers or buggers, then a 7.5’ 3x leader will do. Again, I’m no expert on any of this, just sharing my own preferences.
Waders are nice to have when the weather and water are cooler. It is possible to fish streams without getting in the water, but it will limit you from reaching some water. It is very helpful to be able to cross or stand in the stream to get the right casting angle on a stretch of water. For wading boots, don’t get felt bottomed boots. They are a haven for aquatic creatures that you don’t want to transmit from stream to stream and they are super slippery when walking on a grassy or icy bank. Wading boots with a rubber sole are the way to go. You don’t need to spend a lot of money on boots and waders, but you get what you pay for. If you are dedicated to fly fishing and are in it for the long haul, invest in a good pair of waders and boots. They will last longer and are more comfortable for a long day on the stream. Buy them from your local outfitter or fly shop. Jeff Bezos at Amazon has all the money he needs so help out your local businesses. Know any rich fly shop owners? Me neither. Buy a nice pair of waders and boots from the local fly shop and you have guaranteed yourself quality fishing advice from them for at least as long as those waders will last. Plus, quality manufacturers like Simms (my preferred wader brand) have amazing warranties on their gear.
When the weather gets warmer, many anglers like to “wet wade” which means you get in the water with no waders. I start wet wading about the end of May, but I still wear my wading boots with neoprene socks. The boots are made for constant exposure to water and will last longer than if you wear regular shoes in the water. The boots have built in drain holes so you will feel more comfortable when you leave the water. Even though the weather is warmer, wear pants when you wet wade. You’ll be tromping through weeds, tall grass, and brush and the pants will save you from getting scratched up.
If you like looking into the sun and glare off the water, leave your sunglasses at home. But if you prefer the ability to see your line, fly and a better picture of the bottom, a good pair of polarized sunglasses are in order. It will help you see all the trout you are spooking on a sunny blue sky day.
I will spin fish once in a while for trout, so I don’t have a lot of knowledge here but my son prefers to fish with a 5.5’ light action Ugly Stik rod with Spider Wire line on a small spinning reel. He likes this line because it helps him pull lures out of snags. I like this line because I usually pay for his lures and I prefer he pulls them out of snags rather than losing the lure. He likes Mepps spinners and Panther Martins. In clear water, he prefers gold bladed spinners and silver for when there is some color to the water. For more information on spin fishing for trout, go see Ron Schmidt’s YouTube channel Wisconsin Trout Fishing.
What flies should I use?
Some general tips that work for me. If you don’t know the water, don’t tie on a fly at the car without first seeing the water. Approach the stream quietly and slowly and look for fish activity at the surface. If you see feeding fish, then that is a clue to fish mayflies, hoppers and other terrestrials, midges, caddis (just depends on the time of year). If you don’t see much happening on the surface try using a streamer (minnow imitator) until you figure out a different pattern. Lots of streamer patterns to choose from, but common go to flies are woolly buggers, leeches, Frick’s Fix (weighted barbell eyes on a jig hook), and muddler minnows. Nymphs are always a good fly to try. There are thousands of different nymph fly patterns, but size #16 is a good place to start. Fish them in the film (surface area of the water) or deeper until you figure out what works. Common nymphs in the Driftless: Pink Squirrels, prince nymphs, scuds. Some nymph patterns are tied to look exactly like a natural insect in the water, whereas other patterns are tied to get the angler’s and the fish’s attention. Both types work. Some days the fish are very picky and will only take a fly that is very similar to the naturals on the water. Some days the fish are in a feeding frenzy and will eat anything. I have had many days when fish will eat my strike indicator that is an obnoxious color that doesn’t look like any natural food. If you can handle it, try fishing a dry/dropper combo. This means you fish a floating fly and a trailing fly at the same time. That dropper can ride close to the surface or you can go heavier to get down deeper.
Check out the fly explanation video below from Tim Landwehr, owner of Tight Lines Fly Shop. (For those of you who know Tim, he looks like he was 12 years old when he did this video.) There are many helpful introduction videos on Tim's YouTube channel.
Spin fishing is also very effective for catching trout in the Driftless region. Lots of fish are taken on different types of inline spinners like Mepps and Panther Martins. Stick baits are also effective. During the regular season, a simple worm will catch a lot of fish. Make sure you pay attention to regulations for each stream section as there are some that are restricted to artificial lures only. If you plan on catch and release fishing, knock the barbs off your hooks and consider switching out the treble hooks for single hooks. This will keep the fish healthy for the next time you come back. Barbless hooks also increase your chance to stay healthy should you accidentally get a hook through your finger or face.
Use a net, take a photo
Even though many of the fish you catch you can easily handle with your own hands, a net is a great idea. It is a very healthy way to land fish and keep them in the water if you want to take a photo. Land the fish in the net, remove the fly and then snap your photo. The nets with the measure marks are very nice. Helpful tip: Find a way to label your net with your name and phone number. They are often left along the stream or entry point and most anglers are quite honest and will get in touch with you should you lose some of your equipment. I lost a nice custom made net along Secret Creek in Vernon County in 2013. Went back to look for it a day later with no luck. Did not have my name on it at all.
Nets help you take quality photos and keep the fish healthy. Some people get downright picky and mean about how to handle a fish and aren’t shy to share that opinion when you post a photo of a great fish on your perfect day. “Nice fish, but it likely died a painful sad death 49 seconds later because you didn’t give it a heartfelt reassuring monologue and handle it with a wet organic lambskin glove.” In general, keep your fish wet and in the water and only lift them out of the water for 10-15 seconds for the photo. Put them back in the net to make sure they are ready to swim and then dip your net down to let them swim out.
I like how this little girl talks to her fish. She needs to work on gently holding it, but she scores high marks for reassuring the soon to be released swamp trout.
Sharing your success
If you do catch fish, share your pictures on social media. For people who can’t get out to fish, it is enjoyable to see what others have caught. When you do share those photos, don’t name specific streams on social media. That is called "hot spotting" and people don't like that. I think it is fair to share what county you were in, but
that is up to you. If you share too much, then your favorite “secret spot” will become the secret spot for many others. If someone asks you where you caught your fish, have fun with it and make up a stream name. My favorites are Upper Giraffe Creek, Nunya (Business), and then some general vague reference to “that stream up near the old Olson farm, just past where that big oak used to be.”
Social media photo tips. Keep the fish in the water in your net. Get your camera or photographer ready and then snap a quick photo. Be careful about what landmarks might be in the background of your photo so you don't give away too much information. Some sharp eyed people will figure out where you are no matter what. Take a look at the photo below as it is a good example of a quality social media photo with the exception of my face in the photo. The fish was in the net until the camera was ready. The fish is held above the water in the event the fish flops it falls safely in the water. The background of the photo doesn't show any landmarks to give away the location of the stream.
[Side story: The photos below are from the infamous "Tiger Trout Incident of 2019" with me and Mike Juran. His version of the story goes something like, "I was fishing this stream all by myself and Curt had a GPS on my truck and followed me to the stream. He then ran up to me, kicked me in the back, broke my rod, and then high-holed me to catch this tiger trout that I knew was just waiting for me." My version of the story is that Mike is old, his back hurt and I was tired of slowly walking with him so I kicked him in the back, broke his rod, and then fished ahead of him for a trout that I did not know was there. I caught this same fish about 2 weeks later just a few yards from this photo. I caught a different tiger in this same hole a week after that. I can't tell you what stream this is, but the section is now known to me and Mike as Tiger Corner.]
Not everyone will have success right away. When I first started fishing the Driftless, I was skunked my first three outings, while the people around me were catching plenty of fish. If you aren’t catching fish, but are doing everything you think you should be doing, that is the time to reach out to more experienced anglers or those who you know have experience on that body of water. Do that with a text or phone call and let your acquaintance know where you were fishing and what you tried. A polite request for information will usually turn into what you need to know to find success.
No matter if you are catching fish or not, be sure to appreciate the beauty of the scenery around you. Trout live in scenic locales, so pay attention to everything else that is going on around the stream. Just yesterday my son and I were on a Driftless stream and the fishing was slow. As we sat on the side of the stream to catch our breath and plan our next move, a muskrat came coasting down the stream and didn’t even notice we were there. We both said, “That looks like fun.” On this particular day, the muskrat watching was the highlight of the outing for us.
Congrats if you made it this far down in the article. What started out as an attempt to share some brief advice turned into a few hours of work, but enjoyable work. This is not intended to explain every detail of fishing in the Driftless, but it should help the newcomer or visitor get started. Comments, critiques, corrections, and compliments are welcome.
Curt Rees is a stay at home rodeo clown and passionate trout angler who lives in La Crosse, WI. Find him on Instagram @curtrees.
Mike Juran is retired from something to do with computers and lives in La Crosse after having lived along the banks of West Watermelon Creek in Chaseberg, WI.