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Dispatch: The Driftless Area of Wisconsin

June 16-18, 2019

My son, Peter, and I spent 3 days fishing “the Driftless”, as they say, near Viroqua, WI, and boy was I impressed.  Blown away would be a better description.  Beautiful scenery, western style spring creeks, plenty of water to fish, easy access, nice people, and best of all, tons of hungry trout.  On our second day my son and I fished the morning with local guide, Pete Cozad and had a banner day, catching 30-40 fish.   Being my first time to visit the Driftless, I kept wondering How in the world did I miss this for so many years?   The Driftless just might be the best small stream trout fishing area in the Midwest.   

220 Miles of Trout Streams

The Driftless fishery has over 600 spring-fed streams from which to choose.  In fact, Vernon County alone has over 220 miles of trout streams.  As our guide Pete said, “I’ve been fishing here 14 years and I still have yet to fish all the streams”.   With so much access, it’s easy to find a stretch of water all to yourself, which is a rarity in today’s crowded trout fishing world. 

We found most Driftless trout fishing streams were easily accessible for fisherman.  Some had ladders over fences, zig-zag gates that anglers, not cows can get through, and easements to walk alongside streams.    In speaking with Geri, one of the owners of the local fly shop, The Driftless Angler in Viroqua, WI, the State DNR has a long history with the landowners and farmers.  One hundred percent of Wisconsin trout stamp dollars go to stream work or purchasing easements.  In fact, the first watershed project goes back to 1930’s.  Several Trout Unlimited chapters are highly involved as well with stream improvements and access.  

The week before we arrived, this area of the State received 5 inches of rain, so most of the Driftless trout fishing streams were quite muddy.  As one local advised, “If one stream is muddy, just try one valley over”.  Lo and behold, that’s exactly what we did and found a stream that was just slightly stained and very fishable.  And the streams cleared quickly.  By the next morning they were gin clear.  

Cabin near Viroqua,, Wisconsin in the Driftless Fishing Trout area
Typical cabin setting in the Driftless

Fishing Timber Coulee Creek & Black Flies

Our first stop was Timber Coulee Creek near County Road P and Oakdale Ave.  Within minutes, we were into brown trout.  Scud patterns (#14, 16), PT’s (#16), and San Juan Worms were working very well.   The “Pink Squirrel” scud pattern worked the best.  It’s tied with a hot pink tungsten bead right in the middle of the fly.  We each caught 5 or 6 trout that evening, which was pretty good considering the stained water and our newness to the area.   Water temps were high 50’s and air temps were 58-60 degrees with overcast skies and a high-pressure system moving in.

June is black fly season up here, which we found out the minute we stepped out of the car.  Regular Deet does not work.  Lucky for us, we ran into a few very friendly local anglers who gave us a local bug spray called Buggins that saved the day.  Be sure to pack a bottle before you come.

Buggins bug spray is a must in Wisconsin
A must have

A Spectacular Morning with Our Guide

I always try to hire a guide the first time I’m in a new area to learn the best flies, waters and techniques.  As much as you think you know about trout fishing, you can still learn something new.  And I always do better with a guide on new water than I do poking around on my own.  Matt, one of the owners of the local (and only) fly shop in the area, The Driftless Angler, hooked us up with Pete Cozad, his head guide.   Pete was one of the best guides I’ve ever had.  We met at the shop at 7am where he asked us a bunch of questions about our experience to gauge our skill level and to “match the water to us”.  “Have you fly fished quite a bit?   Have you fished out west?  What do you want to get out of the day?”.  My answer, “I’d just like to learn something new”.  A learn we did.  

Driftless trout fishing and another Brown Trout
Another Brown Trout from the Driftless.
Fishing Guide, Pete Cozad, Driftless trout fishing, Wisconsin
With Pete Cozad, Guide

Can it be this Good?

By 8am we were waist deep in a beautiful little Driftless trout fishing stream 15 minutes south of Veroqua casting a #16 CDC wing comparadun to rising trout!  Pete was a great teacher and taught us to slide our dry across the surface to provoke a strike.  To dry out our fly after every cast by pushing the fly against our shirts to absorb some water, then to drop the fly in a bottle of shake and grease our leaders with floatant after EVERY fish.  That was key.  The pool I was fishing was slow moving so Pete cautioned me to wade slowly to “not push a wake” which could put down the fish.  

After catching and releasing several fish, we switched over to a hopper dropper set up with a small hopper and a #16 black and purple bodied nymph with silver bead.  Peter (my son) and I and spent the afternoon probing riffles, pools, glides, and deep holes which seem to hold aggressive and hungry fish.  It was one of those days where just about every spot you thought there might be a fish, there was a fish.   We caught and released 20 or so and stung another 10.  I kept asking myself, Can it be this good?   Fish after fish after fish.   It was a banner morning. 

I can’t say enough good things about Pete.   With 14 years of guiding experience in the area Pete was incredibly knowledgeable, courteous, easy going, generous, and a great teacher.   It’s no wonder Pete’s the head guide.  At the end of the morning, Pete dialed us into some great spots to try that afternoon and the next day. 

Fishing Bohemian Valley Creek

Thanks to Pete’s great tips and where to fish, my son and I had an equally spectacular afternoon.   We fished another Driftless trout fishing stream, Bohemian Valley Creek, which was just beautiful.  We found a section of stream meandering through a large pasture with runs, pools, riffles and cows!   Going with the same Hopper Droppper set up, we were into fish within minutes.  With good cloud cover and warmer temperatures in the 70’s, we found eager trout in all the likely places.  By dinnertime, we caught and released another 15-20 fish and lost quite a few more.  Water temps were still in the 58 degree range which made for a great afternoon.

Here’s a video of us catching a nice brown on a hopper dropper.

Did I say cows? 

Wisconsin’s not known America’s Dairyland for nothing!  There are a lot of cattle in the area, to say the least.    We encountered quite a few streamside.   If you are a suburban dweller like us with limited experience around cattle, my advice is to be aware of your surroundings when you enter a pasture.  It’s a lot like fishing in Yellowstone National Park where you should always be vigilant for Bison.  While entering a fishing area take note of their movements.   Don’t block their runs or stream crossings.  Be patient if they are around you and take your time moving from spot to spot.  Cattle don’t seem to mind strange looking guys in drab clothes with fly rods too terribly much, but give them a wide berth and respect they (and their farmers) are due and you should be just fine.

Driftless trout fishing cows in Bohemian Valley Creek
Lots of em!

Fishing Rullands Coulee Creek

With only a few hours to fish in the morning before heading home, we hit our final Driftless trout fishing stream, Rullands Coulee Creek, right across the road from our cabin.  This stream was muddy on day one but was gin clear and beautiful on day three.  Rullands Coulee, like many Driftless trout fishing streams, has some fantastic stream improvements which made for some great water.  The character of the stream included open meadows with riffles and pools, high banks, undercut banks, long runs, and meandering sections in tight S-curves.  Fishing was a bit slower, probably due to the thunderstorm / low pressure system that came rolling in about 10am, but we still did well. 

Bucket List

If you’ve never been to the Driftless trout fishing area, I highly recommend you check it out.   While the fish are smaller than what you might find in a typical western stream (our largest was 14” and average was 10-12”), these wild browns fight HARD and you catch lots of them.  Some of the streams in the Driftless are stocked but you can easily target streams that hold wild fish by referring to the State of Wisconsin maps system.  Fishing pressure was low.  We had large sections of rivers all to ourselves most of the time.  In fact, the morning with Pete, we never saw another angler.  

If you like wild brown trout, miles of streams to choose from, and great scenery, there’s nothing in the Midwest that compares to the Driftless trout fishing area!  I plan to come back often and hope to see you there too. It should be on every trout angler’s bucket list. 

Resources:

  • Cabins: In checking around for places to stay, there are certainly plenty of options.   The Driftless Angler has a great list of places to stay.  And VRBO shows a wide assortment as well. We stayed at the Stein Vatten Cabin which is a Nordic cabin with a kitchen, family room, and roomy upstairs loft with two queen beds for 4.   The cabin is just across the road from Rullands Coulee Creek which is a wonderful little trout stream and the owners are as nice as can be.
  • Maps:
    • Map Guide to Improved Trout Waters of Wisconsin by Todd Hanson is an excellent resource if you are new to the area. It includes very detailed maps of every stream with access points.  Amazon sells it or you can pick up a copy at the Driftless Angler. 
    • State of Wisconsin website has color coded maps of the area showing which streams are stocked and which are wild.
  • Videos:  check out my YouTube Channel for Driftless videos

Tight lines!

Steve Haigh – Founder, GuideShareAngler    

Driftless trout fishing stream improvements to Rullands Coulee Creek
Stream improvements

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