June 17, 2023

Five Days in the Driftless

My flight landed in Minneapolis at 830am local time, about fifteen minutes ahead of schedule. The checked bag was among the first to emerge from the darkness and take its place to be claimed upon the conveyor belt. I watched it circle once before lunging to snag the handle. A short tram ride found no line to pick up my rental SUV. I paid for a Toyota, but they gave me a Mercedes. A bit fancy for my tastes, but so far everything was coming up roses.

Day 1: Why is it So Hot?

After an almost 3 hour drive through what seemed like endless construction I found myself in the heart of the Wisconsin Driftless. Hastily lacing up some wading boots and stringing up my tenkara rod, the harmonious melody that was my trip was interrruped by an abrupt record scratch. I couldn’t help but notice how hot it was. 92 degrees. In Wisconsin? The high in Florida was at least ten degrees cooler. It really didn’t matter. Well it did, but not that much. One of my favorite spring creeks lazily flowed before me. And I mean lazy. The water was low, the sun was high, but there were no other anglers to be found, and I was going to catch some fish.

Luckily, enough browns cooperated to make the back sweat worth it. You know the kind of humidity-induced perspiration that begins as a few individual drops rolling down your sides but evolves into a drenching so much that your shirt clings to your torso? Some might even call it moist. That’s a fun word to type. I may have shed the fishing skunk, but I’m sure by this time I smelled ripe.

Needing to check into my cabin, I cut the fishing a smidge short and headed over to the farm on which it was quietly located. Left a nice wet mark on that Mercedes’ haughty leather seat along the way. Did I mention how hot it was?

Now settled in the cabin for the night, a few of my friends (and roomates for the week) began to file in as well. Exhausted, I thought I was feeling the ill-effect of sunstroke. A blur of orange took over my eyes as they rapidly went in and out of focus. Fortunately, it was only Luong Tam walking through the front door.

Day 2: Cowtown

I met up with my friend Dave early this morning. You know Dave. Or likely know Dave’s voice. He’s the James Earl Jones of Tenkara Angler. We decided to drive a bit to fish a creek that is typically quite productive. I mean what kind of jerk would take his friend to a creek that sucks?

Much like the day before, the sun was high and the water low, but we found some riffles and deepish pools during our creekside meander. I’d pick up a fish, Dave would pick up a fish. This continued for about 45 minutes… and then some lifeguards on four-wheelers called an “adult swim” for the cows. All anglers out of the pool! I’ve never known livestock to be cognizant of stream etiquitte, and almost predictably they decided to seat themselves right in a pool Dave was working up to fishing. These were not the browns we came here for.

So, upstream we proceeded and each caught our fair share over the next 3 hours. The fishing wasn’t prolific, but it was good enough to keep our rods bent frequenly enough to avoid too many awkward, fishless silences. Note that I had said this creek was typically quite productive, not always quite productive. Happy with our morning of catching, we exited the stream and walked back to the car. Dave mentioned that his dermatologist would have been proud of him today. If you look at the photos, you’ll recognize why.

Day 3: North of the Border

I have a favorite creek in the Driftless. It’s a good drive north from where I usually fish. It might as well be in Canada. By name, it practically is. It’s lightly wooded and holds both brown and brook trout. It was still to be above 90 degrees this day and the shady spots were going to be welcomed.

This was a solo trip. Not that I keep the location of this stream under lock and key, rather I just wanted a bit of solitude. Growing up an only child, I don’t mind being alone, particularly in nature. Seclusion often authors the most interesting inner monologues. Well, I guess I wasn’t totally alone, as I did find constant companionship at the end of my line.

Later that evening was the main gathering of the Great Driftless Tenkara Campout. It was the total opposite of the morning’s tranquility. There were probably close to fifty people in attendance, eating, drinking, and talking about tenkara. There were raffles, presentations, casting contests, and story telling. I even had an extended conversation about ice fishing of all things. (Note, I’ve never ice fished in my life.)

I like being around people, but if I was to be recklessly honest, I don’t really enjoy group gatherings. They can be a bit much. A group of five is awesome. Ten is okay. But, fifty… well… Perhaps it goes back to that only child dynamic. But I attended for a bit, talked to some, and tried not to be too socially awkward. If I recall, my new acquaintance Bob characterized such activity not as antisocial, but rather nonsocial. That sounds good to me. Type As were seemingly too many to count. I’m fine with sitting back and being a Type X, Y, or Z. That said, my dysfunction should not take away from the fact that the organizers held an absolutely wonderful event!

Day 4: Put a Fork in It

This was by far the best morning of fishing of the trip. Chunky browns and some stray brookies were situated neatly beyond the pastures of a Mennonite farm.

If the water looked like it held fish, it did. Likely, two or three from the same run, given you coaxed them out of hiding just right. Lightly twitching, twitching, twitching, before feeling the sharp rebound of a take and the subsequent mounting pressure. You were nothing more than a flexed forearm away from fourteen inches of butter. It was glorious. And still hot. But I didn’t feel the temperature at all. Being distracted by the tugging of brown trout can do that to a person. I can’t say the same for the yogurt covered raisins stashed in my fishing pack.

A change of location and several hours later, my cabinmates and I decided to take a night out on the town and hit a local restaurant, and then try our hands at fishing the early evening that followed. As one might expect, there aren’t a lot of options to go out and eat on a Sunday night in the middle of mostly nowhere, but we found a welcoming establishment and ordered food. It eventually even got served, and obviously quickly eaten.

The fishing that followed was pretty good for the limited time we were out. A strange haze filled the sky. They said it was due to wildfires in Canada. (The real Canada, not the one from the day prior). It made for a surreal backdrop, not only for the evening, but for the rest of this trip to the Driftless in general.

Day 5: Donny Osmond Creek

Donny Osmond? If you’re familar with the area, you can figure out where we fished. Or just play Sherlock Holmes and look at the road sign in the picture below. This morning I paired with my friend Matt and we both found regular success early on. The cool water flowed through some high banks above and beautiful structure below, while the braided riffles seemed to produce section after section. Matt was fishing wet flies, I was fishing nymphs. The surf & turf combo seemed to be the perfect entree for several hours… until it wasn’t.

As with most mornings, the fishing faucet turned off as the sun rose to its apex in the sky. I picked a final brown out of a narrow section of water before collapsing my rod and exiting the creek by the roadside. There was a gentleman standing by his pickup truck watching me scale the bank. He asked, “how they biting?” I replied, “okay, I caught a few.” As with most fishing conversation, it was neither fully the truth nor fully a lie.

It was probably for the best to stop at that point, as we were going to meet up with our friend Mike, who was dropping in for an overnight stay. Sadly, he was arriving virtually at the same time as I was departing. Even though we squeezed in a brief nightcap that evening, the morning’s outing with Matt was essentially my walkoff for this trip.

The Postscript

Before I knew it, this year’s Driftless angling adventure was over, relegated to but a fond memory. I found myself hurriedly packing my bags and getting ready to depart early the next morning. Delta Airlines was calling me. But not before one final breakfast sandwich from Kwik Trip.

Five days of fantastic fishing. Five days of fun with friends. Five days of fattening food. Five days of fucking hot temperatures. These were my five days in the Driftless.


  1. Hi Mike. You mentioned "endless construction" at the beginning. Many years ago I worked for a company out of Indianapolis and my first stint was at the branch in Minneapolis. The manager told me that Minnesota has two seasons. Winter and road repair. Seems you found the second season. I've also found that California has those same two seasons. Always in line for those flagger guys. Glad you had a great time. Some nice fish and great friends. Makes a 5 day stint on the Driftless awesome.

    1. LOL! The construction just went on and on for what seemed like forever. In reality it was mostly just a highway shut down to one lane with no real workers in sight. In any event, had a great time and hit none of that traffic on the way back.

  2. Mike
    Just now getting around to reading about your Driftless adventure. The trout there seem always to hit most all flies. Did you land any trout using dries? I may never make the trip, but I can always relate to the place through reading your post. Thanks for sharing

    1. I didn't fish many dries. Got a few, but mostly fished wets and nymphs. The fishing was just too much fun to switch it up. It's a great place to visit (and with those pastures, generally an easy place to fish in terms of physical fitness).