August 10, 2014
The Driftless Area – Not many of us Western Fly Fishermen know about it and the literally thousands of trout laden rivers, streams and creeks that encompass it.
From Wikipedia: The Driftless Area or Paleozoic Plateau is a region in the American Midwest noted mainly for its deeply carved river valleys. While primarily in southwestern Wisconsin, it includes areas of southeastern Minnesota, northeastern Iowa and extreme northwestern Illinois.
I’m certainly no geologist, but my interpretation of what happened here is that during the glacial period this area did not have the travelling glaciers that caused massive geological changes like we have in the west; this area simply experienced runoff that carved the river valleys.
What does it mean to me? Awesome fly fishing. And when I get a business trip anywhere remotely close to the driftless area (Minneapolis, Madison, Milwaukee, etc.) I jump on the chance. And on this particular trip I flew to Madison, WI. Which put me 1.5 hours from the famous Timber Coulee Creek; often listed as in one of the top 100 American trout streams.
This area of the US is beautiful. And it is in the middle of nowhere. And the state of Wisconsin is one of those states that has its act together in terms of protecting its native waterways. WI also has the most elaborate internet mapping system of fishing of any state in the union. Which means I didn’t have to call a fly shop to locate precise directions to the river and where to park. I did call the Driftless Angler Fly Shop and I am so glad I did. Isn’t it always the case that a 5 minute call to a local fly shop is an eternity of valuable information? My only regret is not being able to get to Driftless Angler because of time and location. I owe them. And I will find a way to repay them by spending money in their shop. It may take a year or so, but I will. Not only did they tell me what to throw and how, but most importantly warned me about the dreaded yellow parsnip.
Had I not talked to driftless angler I would have come back with two years or more of what effectively is poison ivy. It’s everywhere. It’s almost impossible to miss. And it is riverside. You know that nasty plant that lines hot creek? I think it’s called the Stinging Nettle. And when you fish hot creek you invariably get your fly stuck in it. well, stinging nettle is an hour long nuisance. This non indigenous yellow parnship is 2 years of misery.
Back to fly fishing. From where I parked I could see the creek. And there was a sign warning about C&R single fly barbless; perfect. It was about the size of the upper owens. It’s Wisconsin in the summer so I was wet wading and because of that I could get ready quickly. It occurred to me, because of the nightmare of commercial airline travel I was fishing at the exact wrong time of the day; but I had therest of the day. I hopped the cow fence and walk down to the creek. Size 2 grasshoppers were jumping and flying everywhere. “oooohhh” I said to myself. Unlike the upper owens this creek had no river trail that lined it. hmmm… that cannot be possible for a fly fishing paradise.”, I said to myself. “There are no cars here. It’s Sunday. I have this river to myself. Maybe I am in the wrong place.” Also unlike the Upper Owens this river was overgrown on both sides, so it was going to be a technical casting day. From where I approached the river it was clear it was a cow crossing…disappointing. But the water was still clear and cool. Then I noticed a handmade sign: “Bull in Pasture – beware.” Great. I looked upstream and saw encouraging signs of structure in the banks which had to be a Trout Unlimited project. I looked downstream and there was a bend with a deep pool.
“Well, there is only one way to find out if there is fish in this river.” I said to myself or outloud. I was in the middle of nowhere and no one was within miles. Even though the logical thing would be to fish up river I just could not resist starting at that big bend below me. It was overgrown with trees so I had to make a difficult cast downstream at it. I tied on a Huck-Hopper. Whack! First cast. Big fish. It surprised me and I farmed it. uggghh…. And we all know what the jinx of the strike on the first cast means… but, I couldn’t contain my excitement. I threw a few more times at that pool, but that first strike scared the pool and it needed to be rested. So I moved up stream. Within 5 minutes I landed my first little brown; just 100 feet from my rental car.
Within 30 minutes I had landed two big browns. One of them was a female that was an absolute battle with me steering it out of the danger areas (sticks, trees, boulders) all over that river. The other was a big male that rose viscously for my hopper. It was in still, deep water surrounded by danger and nowhere to land the fish. I immediately thought I would have to purposely snap him off (5x) so as not to hurt him. But, the fish gave up quickly. It was one of those older fish that are just tired and no longer strong. We have caught them through the years. the older, bigger ones just don’t have the fight in them anymore. So, I literally walked the fish downstream 100 fish to where I could enter the river and let him go quickly.
Now, I was starting to think, “40 fish day!” And oh how wrong I was. I moved up stream basically bushwhacking and it seemed like every run I came on I took one too many steps and 50 rainbows scattered which means I ruined it. I tried to be stealth. But, I didn’t know the river so I had to take a look before casting… and taking a look required me to get to close and scatter the fish. Also there were large froggy sections that did not seem to hold fish. So, I went about an hour as I pushed into the wilderness without any strikes. At this point I tied the dropper on. but, after hopping a cow fence it was also becoming evident of something I have only experienced when hunting the big rainbows on Kauai: bushwhacking through thick vegetation that was 10 feet tall and full of thorns and other dangers. Little did I know the great thing about fishing the pasture was that the cows ate their way to nice casting areas. In the wilderness there were no cows to trim. I pressed on and saw big fish but casting was impossible. At the high of frustration I looked at my cell phone to see the time. Later than I thought, of course. And I had a cell signal! I can’t even get a cell signal in my office in Carlsbad, CA, but in the middle of nowhere Wisconsin you can. I had a txt that my buddy Loren, a beginner, was on his way with an ETA of 30 minutes. Perfect excuse to hike back.
When I got back Loren was there just yet so I fished the spooked areas I couldn’t before. And I landed another nice fish.
Check out the Huck-Hopper in that bad-boy’s face. When Loren showed up I lost my Huck Hopper to a branch in the river with one of those impossible casts. But, you are not going to catch the quality fish unless you try. And that is why I tie flies.
I rigged loren’s brand new sage up. we did a litte casting lesson and his stroke was good. even though I wanted to I wouldn’t have to do much guiding with Loren short of tying on his flies and helping him read the water. In fact, by the end he was totally self sufficient and didn’t need me.
It was 4pm now and normally this would be the perfect time to fish. For some bizarre reason I tied big ass commercially tied hoppers on both me and Loren even though my size 6 huck-hoppers were working great. my thinking was it matched what I was seeing in the naturals better. I was wrong. The fishing went dead.
Loren and I fished downriver in some awesome stretches of water with hopper-dropper. I dropped everything off me and Loren from prince nymphs, to flash back pheasant tails, to rainbow warriors, to midges…. Nothing. Both of us were making good drifts too. Bizarre.
After a couple miles we turned and fished our way back up. Awesome runs and our drifts were good, but, nothing. It was the curse of the commercially tied hopper when a badly tied huck hopper was working great. It was all my fault. I screwed with fly fishing karma and now not only was I being punished, Loren was too. Frustrated I started fishing more quickly and giving up on the good runs more quickly after one cast. So, I got about a quarter mile in front of Loren. And, of course, that is when I heard him yell. In shock I looked down stream and he was on. And doing everything wrong trying to land that fish and I was not there to guide him. My curse was official. He was going to lose that fish and it was going to be my fault. So I started running… when I got there he landed it! and he had beached the brownie and had forceps shoved into it’s face trying to unhook it. I quickly unhooked it with fingers and said, “we have to take a picture quickly.” We did.
By the time I got him into the water he had to be revived, but he did swim away. “Woo!” high fives. Then I fished the rest of the way back, skunked in my 2nd session and I knew why.