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World Class Fisheries - The Driftless Area

This is the third post in the series on world class fisheries in Wisconsin (see posts on the Lower Wisconsin River and Northern Wisconsin Warmwater rivers) and the first on trout fishing.

A Wisconsin Spring Creek
A classic fall spring creek setting in Wisconsin's Driftless Area. My favorite time of the year is either late spring as the bugs are stating to hatch or in the fall when the instream weeds make fishing challenging.

At some point in time I probably had to write this one. I have held off on doing it for about as long as I could. The question was, how can I do this without reinventing the wheel? There are no shortage of magazine articles, videos, blog or social media posts, podcasts, etc. about the Driftless Area. What I think I have to offer is some perspective having lived and fished other spring creek regions and having fished the Driftless for over 30 years.

If you are interested in the "How To" part of the Driftless, there is nothing better out there than the blog post that Curt Rees and Mike Juran wrote for Coulee Region Trout Unlimited's blog, Getting Started on Trout Fishing in the Driftless so I have no reason to trample that same ground as they did such a good job covering how to fish the Driftless. Go read it, I'll wait...

What is the Driftless?

My friend John "Duke" Welter I think says it best - the Driftless might be the only place on Earth defined by what it is NOT rather than what it is. The Driftless Area lacks glacial drift, the material moved by glaciers and "the Driftless" covers parts of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois (listed in order of how much of the Driftless occurs in each state). In other parts of the Midwest, there are glacial features - drumlins, kames, eskers, and moraines - along with the glacial till planes that make Illinois so flat. Instead, the Driftless area is dominated by erosion rather than deposition as most of the rest of the Midwest is. The Kickapoo River - the "crookedest" river in the world - is the longest river entirely within the Driftless Area and is a great example of the erosional nature of the Driftless Area. The upper river has cut through the sandstone and dolomite rock forming impressive bluffs whereas the lower river gives the river its name, from the Algonquin word for "one who goes here, then there" which tells of the river's meandering nature. Old rivers like the Kickapoo have two choices; erode more deeply into the valley or dissipate energy by meandering within the valley. The Kickapoo has done both because it has had the time to do so.

While I really enjoy the geology and think it is really cool to think about how the Midcontinent rift system that Lake Superior lies in helped to deflect glaciers away from the Driftless or any number of other interesting facts, but alas, others have done the geology better.

Karst Geology

Karst is a dissolution landscape - features such as sinkholes, caves, and springs are created by the dissolution of soluble rocks. In the Driftless, carbonate rocks - limestone and dolomite - are gradually and rather gently dissolved by slightly acidic rainwater. The grand features are caves and large sinkholes. More subtle but for trout, exceedingly important features are the springs that are created in karst landscapes. If we look at spring creek regions across the world, we find them in karst landscapes. For more on springs, Where the Trout Are: The Geology of Wisconsin Springs.

You probably noticed that much of Wisconsin and the neighboring states are underlain by karst geology. What is more difficult to see in that image is that the lighter blue is where the bedrock is near the surface - this occurs in the Driftless Area and along with the Niagara Escarpment in Wisconsin. Karst geology in most of the rest of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois is buried deeply by the glacial till that the Driftless is lacking.

Most of the springs in the Driftless Area occur where two different rock layers come together. This often occurs where a more soluble rock (dolomite) meets a less soluble rock layer. These springs create the spring creeks of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois. For more about Wisconsin Springs, I wrote a post about "Where the Trout Are" where I linked to the Wisconsin Geological & Natural History Survey's Springs Inventory.

Watercress on a Driftless stream
A Driftless stream lined with watercress - a sure sign of spring inputs to streams.

I have provided the view from 30,000 feet - others have written much more thorough treatments of karst geology (see links below).

Spring Creeks of the Driftless Area

While I am sure that some will cringe a bit because we certainly see plenty of anglers but I think we often take the area for granted and it is vastly underappreciated by fly anglers outside of the area. And I sort of understand it. The streams are not large - the best description I have read of Driftless streams is that they are sidewalk to street wide. Nor are most of the trout you will catch very large. The average fish might be between 8 and 12 inches and you may catch more on the smaller side. A really good fish is 16 inches and 20 inch fish are few and far between on most streams. And while the densities of wild trout are probably as high as anywhere in the world, the fishing is not always easy. More fish equal more eyes - and lateral lines - on you. And as I will write about later, the fish can be pretty difficult.

Duke fishing a Driftless stream.
Duke Welter fishing a Driftless stream - short accurate casts are required.

The Driftless is one of the highest concentrations of spring creeks in the world. Spring Creeks are a bit of a misnomer as most trout streams, even what we call "freestone" streams, are dependent upon groundwater to keep them cool. The name really comes from two things - first, spring creeks are dominated by groundwater flow, typically from relatively few large springs, and second, they occur in calcium-rich rocks like limestone and dolomite so their water is high in calcium and hardness and thus have a high buffering capacity. And generally, spring creeks occur in wide valleys with relatively low gradients so these streams tend to meander slowly through their valleys and typically grow a lot of aquatic vegetation. These things together mean that there is a lot of aquatic macroinvertebrate food and in the slower flows, fish can afford to be "picky". This is what draws anglers to spring creeks, the challenge.

Mike fishing a small Driftless stream
Mid-summer on a small Driftless spring creek - this one has only Brook Trout, the native salmonid of the Driftless.

Comparison to Other Spring Creek Regions

In a word, most Driftless spring creeks are small compared to the "limestoners" of Pennsylvania or the spring creeks of the West. Maybe the word "intimate" is a better descriptor? If you are to ask someone not from the Midwest, they would probably have a difficult time naming a stream in the Driftless Area. And that sort of makes sense, it is more of a "distributed" fishery - there are a lot of streams and relatively few really stand out. Pennsylvania spring creeks are larger and often start from massive springs. Big Spring Creek begins at a spring of about 25 cfs (cubic feet per second) and springs like the one that forms Penns Creek is even larger. Boiling Springs, which creates a tributary to Yellow Breeches Creek, has a spring that is nearly 41 cfs that is joined by six other springs that are over 10,000 gallons per minute (about 22 cfs). In comparison, the first couple of Wisconsin's really large springs that come to my mind are the ones that enter the Springville Branch of the Bad Axe (9.5 cfs), Castle Rock Spring (8.4 cfs), and Big Spring that starts the trout water on Big Spring Creek (1.7 cfs).

Falling Springs Greenway, near Chamberburg, PA
Falling Springs is a relatively small spring creek for Pennsylvania but would be one of Wisconsin's largest spring creeks.

This is not to say that Pennsylvania streams are better - they are just different. They are larger but they also are more crowded and more likely to be stocked - even those with natural reproduction. Pennsylvania has a lot of trout stream miles - their state Fish and Boat Commission states just under 16,000 miles of trout streams with 5,000 miles of those being stocked. Using 2018 - before COVID-19 hit and changed everything - Pennsylvania had seen a decrease in license sales but sold over 440,000 salmon and trout permits. In 1999, that number was over 750,000. While the comparison is not a 100% direct comparison due to the stamps being different, Wisconsin sells about 130,000 to 140,000 inland trout stamps a year (and 170,000 in 2020).

I have fished Penns Creek, the Letort, Falling Springs, Fisherman's Paradise (Spring Creek), Spruce Creek, Yellow Breeches, Big Fishing Creek, Big Spring Creek, the Little Juniata, and a few other streams that anglers outside of Pennsylvania may know due to their history and fisheries. All are quite good in their own ways.

Dry section between the Slaty Fork and Elk River.
"The Dries" between Slaty Fork and the Elk River. Slaty Fork goes underground for several miles under normal flows before re-emerging as the Elk River at a massive spring complex.

Other spring creek areas are smaller, or at least have fewer streams. You may certainly know the names of some of the famous regions and streams. Montana's Paradise Valley is home to a number of "pay to play" spring creeks - Armstrong, Depuy, and Nelson spring creeks. Idaho has Silver Creek and Henry's Fork, the Metolius and Williamson Rivers are in Oregon, and California has Hat Creek and Fall River, to name a few of the better known spring creeks of the West. In the East, aside from Pennsylvania, West Virginia's Elk River and Second Creek; Virginia's Mossy Creek; and even Long Island New York has a number of excellent spring creeks.

Elk Springs, West Virginia
One of the spring channels that come together to form the Elk River in West Virginia. A spring at least twice this size begins the Elk River.

Here in the Driftless, what our spring creeks may lack in size or fame; they more than make up for in their abundance and access provided to anglers.

Driftless Spring Creeks

What makes the Driftless different in my mind is, 1) the density and number of spring creeks (we have more), 2) our streams are smaller and begin from more, but smaller spring inputs, and 3) the density of trout. Pennsylvania is really the only other state that has anywhere near as many spring creeks but they are certainly less dense because Pennsylvania springs are larger but fewer in number. Driftless spring creeks occur in an agricultural landscape. Because the valleys and the ridge tops are the only flat lands around, roads tend to follow the streams and run along the ridge tops. The major highways of the Driftless do the same. Highways 14, 18, 151, and I-90 along with Highway 33 which runs west from Baraboo to La Crosse - are the main east-west roads. There are fewer major north-south highways - from "the River" (the Mississippi River is "the River" in the Driftless) east, they are highways 35 - the Great River Road, 27, and 61. Do not expect to make great time driving Driftless roads. There are few bypasses around cities and you will run into your share of farm implement and Amish buggies. Take your time and enjoy the views from the ridge tops and along the stream corridors; just keep your eyes on the road as you move up and down the steep sections connecting the valleys to the uplands.

Bohemian Valley Creek (Coon Creek)
A Timber Coulee (Coon Creek) tributary that flows through a cow pasture - as do many (most?) Driftless trout streams. This reach was recently improved after 2018's floods.

The names of the better known Driftless streams are probably not much known outside of the Midwest. Maybe the Kickapoo River is known outside the area, mostly because it was the second of Trout Unlimited's Home Waters Initiative projects which evolved into the TU Driftless Area Restoration Effort (TU-DARE on Facebook). A few Driftless streams - the West Fork of the Kickapoo in Wisconsin and Trout Run Creek and Whitewater River in Minnesota - did make it into Trout Unlimited's 100 Best Trout Streams book. Outside of the region, Black Earth Creek, Timber Coulee, the Big Green River, and the Blue River or the Rush and Kinni Rivers in the northern Driftless are little known but are some of the better known (aka sacrificial lamb) streams in Wisconsin. Same with Waterloo Creek, Bloody Run, or Bear Creek in Iowa and the Root and Whitewater rivers and others in Minnesota. I think in large part it is that few of the streams really stand out among the hundreds of streams in the area.

Blue River, Wisconsin
A Grant County (WI) spring creek in August. A small channel along the bank provides for great terrestrial fishing. Again, notice the watercress on the right edge of the image.

That is one of the things about the Driftless that makes it so good - there are SO MANY good streams. I have to admit I have little patience for those asking online where to fish. Literally pick a stream, any stream, and if you are not catching fish, it is almost certainly not because there are not trout there. Even the streams with lower fish densities have quite a few fish, particularly if you were to make that calculation per acre. According to WDNR data, the Driftless median - across all streams surveyed over time - is 338 trout per mile. On the low end, there are a hundred or so trout per mile and on the high end, I have seen upwards of 5 to 6,000 trout per mile. A pretty significant number of trout streams range between 5 and 30 feet in width and a 50 foot wide Driftless stream is relatively huge so the density of trout is pretty high. In comparison, the Box Canyon of the Henry's Fork River in Idaho has a average density of 3,000 per mile and in 2019, had a density of about 5,000 Rainbow Trout per mile (source). However, the Box Canyon averages about 200 feet in width so the density of fish is much greater on many Driftless streams.

The Driftless is a Brown Trout fishery for the most part, although Brook Trout are native and are present in many streams. Brook Trout have thrived in waters where Brown Trout have been removed and the central part of the Driftless has more Brook Trout than other parts of the Wisconsin Driftless. Some might even consider Brown Trout to be an invasive species and it is certainly true if you look at how they negatively impact Brook Trout. Rainbow Trout are rare and I know of no self-sustaining Rainbow Trout populations in the Driftless (they may exist...) but there are a few places you can catch stocked 'bows or those that have escaped from spring ponds. Driftless streams tend to have pretty low fish species richness - in part because of the cold water but also because of the density of piscivorous Brown Trout. As you move downstream and the water warms, the number and biomass of forage fishes - sculpin, minnows, and suckers - increases.

Presented as an example - the Big Green River has high fish densities.

In general, trout densities are highest in the middle reaches of streams. Upstream reaches often have lower densities, at times with higher densities of young-of-the-year (YOY) trout. Downstream reaches - like the section of the Big Green River in the figure above - generally have fewer trout but they have the potential to get larger. If there is one common criticism of the the fishery it is that the trout run small - and they do. You are very unlikely to have a day where you catch more than a couple of 16 inch or better Brown Trout. It can happen but it is not common and would be a quite memorable day for most anglers. However, I would suspect that is true for all but a tiny percentage of wild trout streams and rivers in the US.

Driftless Brown Trout
A legitimate 16 inch Driftless Brown Trout with some "shoulders". This fish would have a relative weight over 100 (better than average).

Trout density and average size tends to be inversely proportional - that is when trout numbers go up, average size tends to go down. Another way to put it, a stream can only support so much biomass and that same biomass can be distributed over more or fewer fish. This is obviously a bit of an over-simplification but the general idea holds. And while I do not have data to back it up (I will work on that...), anecdotally, I have seen the average trout size and relative weight - a measure of the relationship between length and weight compared to an "average" fish - increase as trout numbers have declined over much of the Driftless Region. To use the Box Canyon of the Henry's Fork as an example again (I was able to find good data easily), the average fish ranged between 10.1 and 11.5 inches. And in 2019, when the trout densities were among their greatest, average size went down. We see the same relationship here in the Driftless (I think...).

Normally, we might be a bit concerned about declining fish populations but here it might be a good thing. Why exactly trout numbers are declining in some reaches, I am not sure why. If might be some declining environmental quality - in particular organic pollution and maybe a decline in aquatic insects that is not yet totally understood. It may be the floods that have occurred too often as of late or other climate change related affects. It could be harvest related - but probably not. Or it could be just natural population dynamics. Wild trout are now the norm in the Driftless and there is very little stocking. I call it the "Montana model" - the cessation of stocking to allow wild fish to thrive. Brown Trout may be evolving to better fit the conditions of Driftless streams - a landscape they have been in for many decades but have only reached high densities in the last three or so decades. It could just be natural variation. We really do not know but at this point it certainly seems to be of little concern and it not occurring across the entire region.

Across the Wisconsin Driftless

My experience in the Driftless is mostly in the southern part of the Wisconsin Driftless - Grant, Iowa, Lafayette, Green, and Dane counties south of the Wisconsin River and Sauk, Richland, Crawford, Vernon, Monroe, and La Crosse counties north of the river but south of Interstate 90. I have fished Iowa and Minnesota as well as a number of Wisconsin Driftless streams north of I-90. But most of my fishing has been in Grant County - where I learned to trout fish - and then in an hour or so radius from Viroqua - in the heart of the Driftless. I am going to tackle mostly this part of the Driftless in a rather abbreviated way.

One of the most distinctive features of the Driftless is Military Ridge - the ridge that highway 18 runs along. This cuesta - Spanish for slope - slopes gently to the south and more sharply to the north towards the Wisconsin River. While there are some good trout streams on the southern slope, the northern slope streams are excellent as they are steeper and have more spring inputs.

North of the Wisconsin River and south of I-90, there are a mix of tributaries to the Wisconsin River or to the Mississippi River. The largest tributary is the Kickapoo River but the Bad Axe River, Coon Creek, and the La Crosse River are but a few of the larger stream systems. Within the Kickapoo River watershed, there have to be hundreds of miles of trout streams across four counties (Monroe, Vernon, Richland, and Crawford). Literally throw a dart at the map and go fishing and it is hard to go wrong.

A northern Kickapoo River tributary
A Bad Axe River tributary - sort of the classic mid-sized Driftless stream.

As you move to the northern Driftless - north of I-90 - many of the streams are sandier and to be honest, I know them much less well. The streams just north of I-90 have more Brook Trout and climate change models show that they are the streams that are likely refuges for Brook Trout in the Driftless. There are some good streams and they tend to be less pressured than the streams south of I-90. That is until you get closer to the streams that are close to the Twin Cities (Minnesota). The two sacrificial lambs in this area are the Rush and Kinnickinnic (Kinni) Rivers. These get fished hard but that is not necessarily a reason to ignore them. I have done well on both of these rivers.

What Makes the Driftless World Class?

I do not think I have made the best case for the Driftless being a World class fishery - the streams are small as are the fish - not a great endorsement thus far. It is not a place for drift boats and booming casts are not only not required but they are generally counterproductive. Anglers that are slow and deliberate and able to make accurate casts of 15 to 30 feet will be successful. The streams are small so "the spot" is small. In casting to a current seam, four inches may be the difference between hitting the edge of the seam and landing on fishless water or a place where the current is sure to create drag instantly. I spend a lot of time getting into position to make casts easier and removing troublesome current seams from the equation. The streams will test your stealth and accuracy, particularly late in the season as the weeds confine the stream to a few channels with some "wonky" currents and the fish have seen a lot of anglers. It is not mindless fishing, it will challenge you in many ways.

A small Driftless stream
There is not a lot of room for error on a small stream like this - a few inches makes a ton of difference so cast accurately.

What makes the Driftless World class is that it is a fantastically productive - probably one of the most productive trout fisheries in the world thanks to the amount of calcium rich groundwater. I have had a hard time finding a source on this but I will take Kip Vieth's word that there are more spring creeks in the Driftless than anywhere else in the World (source). The access, particularly in Wisconsin, is fantastic as are our stream access laws. The shear density of fish can be a problem. The fish are often spooky and because there are so many of them, not spooking a pool or run can be difficult and require some stealth. Having moved east for graduate school and fishing some of Pennsylvania famed - and heavily fished - spring creeks, I was surprised by how much less "spooky" the trout were. As a native Pennsylvanian had told me one day on Spring Creek's famed Fisherman's Paradise section, if trout went scurrying for cover every time a person was around, they would never be able to eat during the day. By comparison, fish in the Driftless, even on the most heavily pressured streams, are skittish and do not allow for heavy feet, careless wading, or the cardinal sin of putting yourself above the trout and sky-lighting yourself to them.

Maybe the greatest thing about the Driftless is the plentiful access afforded to anglers. Wisconsin has an amazing easement program and many watersheds have most of their stream miles eased for public fishing. Add in the sports club, county conservation departments, and others that hold easements and access is plentiful. And when it is not, Wisconsin's Public Trust Doctrine assures that anglers and others have access to our state's navigable streams. Our stream access laws allow anglers to keep their feet wet and fish - they can even get out to go around obstacles including deep water (but no fishing from land) - and get back in to keep fishing. Public access in Wisconsin is fantastic.

Driftless morning
A hazy morning in a Driftless Area valley. Maybe not the expanses of the West but it has its own, more intimate, beauty.

The Driftless is a dry fly fishery - or at least it is for me. It is not as "hatch driven" as it used to be - at least in my experiences - though there are still some very good hatches. Terrestrial fishing is quite spectacular as the streams are not particularly deep and they are narrow enough that terrestrial insects can fall on most of the stream, at least in the waters I like to fish. These small streams fish well with a prospecting dry fly - and a dropper if you wish. This past season, after the fish started looking up, I fished a dry fly nearly 100% of the time. It is how I prefer to fish and the Driftless helps enable this personal preference. It is probably the finest dry fly fishery I have experienced.

With so many streams to choose from and the fact that they generally start from relatively small springs, everyone can find water that suits them. My favorite reaches are probably smaller than what most people prefer. Want to fish larger water, just keep moving downstream to the mid-reaches where trout densities tend to be the highest. Others prefer throwing streamers on the larger streams of the Driftless. While it is not my thing, increasingly I see anglers "Euronymphing" the deeper riffles and runs. The diversity of streams and their shear number mean that Driftless streams are rarely crowded - at least not in a way anglers in many other states would consider crowded.

Junction Pool - Rullands and Timber Coulee.
After effects of the 2018 and 2021 floods. This is "the Junction Pool" which has been re-arranged a few times in recent years.

Like anywhere, the Driftless is not without its issues. Increasingly, agriculture has gotten bigger - as it has everywhere - and organic pollution and fish kills have been issues. Climate change has affected us all. Storms in the Driftless have been quite frequent. We experienced a pretty significant flood early this August and in 2018, we experienced a flood for the ages. We had some warm temperatures by early June this year - a rarity - but by July and August some water may be too warm to fish. The flooding may have exacerbated the issue and stream improvements and the slower natural healing are working to fix the issue. To be sure, it is not like what we have seen in much of the Western US in recent summers with "hoot owl" restrictions and stream closures. In the Driftless, the smart angler simply moves upstream and find a greater spring density. There is ALWAYS fishable water, if you know where to look.

Driftless sunset
Sunset from my campsite at the West Fork of the Kickapoo River in Avalanche, WI. Life gets no better in my mind.

What is not to love about intimate streams, warm and welcoming communities, amazing public access, and fantastic dry fly fishing surrounded by expansive views? The Driftless will challenge you. Yes, there are a lot of fish - the densities rate up there with those anywhere. But the fish are not pushovers - you need to wade or fish from the bank with care and make your casts count. It really is a spring creek paradise.

Resources for Fishing the Wisconsin Driftless Area

Previous Driftless Posts I Have Written

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