The Blessing of the Driftless

Fishing in the Driftless is a unique experience. 

Wonderfully cold spring creeks run past your feet, carved deep into the ground. Sharp, undercut banks scream for a fly to drift past. Feisty brookies and belligerent browns sit waiting to attack. And the intoxicating aroma of cow shit. 

But none of that is what makes the Driftless blessed.

One of the creeks that I enjoy fishing, or should I use the appropriate local term, "coulee," runs through a pasture right behind a church. The easement is located in the fence bordering the small gravel parking lot parishioners use to attend weekly service. I wonder how many of them are distracted by the trout right outside the window while praising the Lord. I sure know I'd be. That afternoon, my "Sunday Best" was a pair of waders.

It was eighty-five degrees around high noon. In Wisconsin? I was told it snowed ten days prior. There was no reason to expect that change of events. The weather service assuredly stated highs were to be in the upper sixties. Never trust a weatherman.

Fortunately, the water was flowing well, with a bit of color remaining from a rainstorm earlier in the week. Just how I like it. The cloudiness in the water made up for the general lack of clouds in the sky. Fishing conditions rather ideal for that bright, sunny day.

The first pool was a gift. With my third cast, a fish was on. Not a particularly large specimen, but a very spirited fighter. One could only hope this was a good sign of things to come.

About 50 yards upstream was a nice deep run. No visible structure on top, but you could just tell it was fishy. As I tied on a "Coulee Killer" nymph and made a few casts... drift... drift... drift... nothing. Might this be a disappointment? Like many an angler before me, I whispered "one last cast" and sent the nymph on a final journey... that's all it took to arouse this lightly freckled brown.

Continuing to walk along the banks, a few more fish were taken a bit upstream beneath a large tree. The water pooled to a calm and slightly twitching a small leech pattern seemed to be the proper meal ticket.

Then the storm came. But I'm not talking about the weather.

The next feature on this fishing course showcased some slow moving water along the far cut bank, but quite a bit of faster-moving water rushing right beneath my feet. Since I still had the leech on the line, I was lazy and tried fishing the slack water first to no avail. About a dozen retrieves of various tempo produced nary a nibble. 

Switching back to the nymph, I took about 10 steps back from the bank and fished the closer, faster water. BOOM. Fish on, and it might have well behaved like one of its cousins from the ocean. This brown trout didn't just run for cover, it jumped clear out of the water at least 3 times! The fight felt like it lasted a few minutes, although I doubt it did. Adrenaline tends to mess with your sense of time.

Finally subdued and in the net, I reached for my camera. 

Battery dead.



Fortunately, I did have my cheap cell phone on me to snap a quick, but awkward photo of the fish. Despite the reverse forced perspective of this picture (aren't you supposed to hold the fish close to the camera to make it look bigger?) it was a beautiful butter bellied brown. It's not like it was 20 inches or anything, probably 14 or 15 at best. It was more the jolt of electricity this surprise catch sent through my body as it exploded out of the water that made it memorable.

Frazzled, a nearby tree was calling to come take a rest. A nice fifteen-minute break would be time well spent to calm down, eat a Clif bar, and gather oneself before fishing the rest of the afternoon.

As I started to rise to fish for another hour or two, I was greeted by a friend. Random yips from the distance quickly materialized into a curious beagle that wanted nothing more than to follow along at my feet the rest of the day. Tossing her what was left of my snack, we continued to fish together for the next 300 yards.

A few more fish were caught in the much shallower, clearer water that greeted the two of us ahead. Fishing wet flies like the Pass Lake as well as larger, brown sakasa kebari produced some aggressive little fish. The kind that act like pickpockets to sneakily steal your fly then run.

After being in the field for about four hours, the sun really started to get to me. While I live in Northeast Florida, this Wisconsin heat wave still would have been considered an uncomfortably hot day for this time of year back in Jacksonville. I was sweaty, sticky from random applications of sunscreen, and just a little bit tired. 

Fish tally well in the double digits, and a particular memory to hold on to for quite some time, it was hard not to consider the mission complete on this stream. Figured it'd be best to head back to the car to cool off, perhaps take a quick nap, and then hit another stream not that far away once the sun decided to fall a bit.

See, that's the true blessing of the Driftless, at least to the trout angler. There's always another stream nearby as good as the one you just fished...


  1. Does Lilly read your articles ?

    1. C'mon God, you already know the answer to that question.

  2. Michael, it was good seeing you again. Take care and tight lines.

  3. Nice post. I'm jealous....that pretty much sums it up from me. I'm going to be in your neck of the woods in July, I'm praying it it won't be brutal temps when I get there. Hershey PA was already too far south for my liking in the summer when I used to live there.

    1. It will be brutal, if you mean Florida. If the heat doesn't get you, the critters will. :)
      Coming down to do Disney? If so watch out for the mice, they're known to steal all the money out of your wallet.

  4. nailed it. I've parked by that church several times :)

    1. I love that stream. I need to try it a little further up the next time.

  5. Sure looks like a beautiful area to spend some time Mike. Your Mr. Brown was great!

    1. Thanks Howard. It's definitely a unique place to fish, much different from the mountain west when it comes to accessibility. Fortunately, I've always found the fish to be quite cooperative too.

  6. Michael
    My kind of stream, no back cast problems and lots of trout to nail your offering. Just curious is this a private stream or open to the public? Great post thanks for sharing

    1. All water is public in Wisconsin/Minnesota but there are plenty of streams with out streamside easement. Those photos that I recognize are public easement sections. Lots and lots of water. Just like he said, there is almost always another stream just as good in the next valley

    2. David nailed it, so no need for me to answer. They do a great job in Wisconsin making streams accessible. In my experience most landowners are fine with you crossing their property as well as long as you ask first.

  7. To this day, I can not understand why the driftless never came up in my fathers or my fishing lives when we lived in Wisconsin. In this day and age, I'm sure Lilly has heard far worse. Way to knock them dead, so to speak.

    1. Ha, Lilly has heard a lot in her 12 short years. Especially when her Dad watches football.

      It's definitely a great place. Should you even get back to the Midwest, might be worth checking out. Many of the streams run right through meadows and pastures, so you don't have to wade, trailblaze, or rock hop. Just a simple stroll alongside the water.


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