Forgotten WI trout streams

By Judy Nugent - November 1, 2006
The Upper Midwest has thousands of miles of trout streams especially in southeast Minnesota and northeast Iowa. But the best of the best is in southwestern Wisconsin. In an area known as the Driftless Area, clear, cool limestone creeks cascade through rolling hills and under sandstone cliffs. Located between Chicago and Minneapolis, this area was untouched by the many glaciers that came through the region over the millennia. The result is breath taking bluffs, steep hillsides that defy tractors, and spring fed creeks teeming with native trout.

In this quaint part of the state driving is punctuated by unmarked, dirt roads and the Amish driven horse and buggy. It is an area that is still rural, where farmers meet at the local co-op to talk of rain and crops, and where women hand stitch quilts through the winter months. Stop in one of the local restaurants where pies are made by Norwegian descendants and chocolates are hand-crafted by local Amish.

In nearly every valley you will find a stream and most of them have the same characteristics. "Our streams are very unique in that they are spring fed," says Jeff Hastings of the Land and Water Conservation Office whose department improves 7 to 9 miles of stream a year. "What makes them great is that they are spring fed, have high gradient, contain lots of macro invertebrates, have a desirable rock rubble substrate, and are in an area with a strong conservation ethic, so for the most part water quality is high." In addition, vegetation, abundant insects, pH, and a high oxygen level all contribute to the healthy population of trout.

Yet, despite this abundance, most fishermen doggedly return to the same four or five streams trip after trip. On your next trip avoid the high profile streams like the West Fork of the Kickapoo, Timber Coulee, and the Big Green. These streams have received the most stream improvement, public access, and media coverage. As a result, there has been a dramatic increase in fishing pressure to the point where it is hard to find parking, let alone fish. Many of these streams are being loved to death. When Wisconsin has 2,674 trout streams and 9,560 miles of trout water, this concentration on a handful of streams defies logic. The following is a profile of a few overlooked streams that are the same caliber as the big name streams. In fact, in many ways they are better because the fish are not schooled, their numbers aren't dwindling due to over fishing, and you can find a place to park. Look for those smaller streams and you are more likely to have a fishing trip worth remembering. Here are some suggestions that will make Wisconsin your premier trout destination.

In the western part of the state in Pierce County lies the Rush River. Over 33 miles long this river snakes its way through the county and into Lake Pepin on the Mississippi River. The trout fishing begins at the county line and goes all the way down to a half a mile above where it dumps into the Mississippi. No one road parallels the stream. South of Wonderland Road there is no intersecting road for nearly two miles. The same is true out of Stonehammer Road downstream to the town of ElPaso. The stream is full of native brook trout, stocked and native browns, and stocked rainbows. It is classified as a class II stream, but with over 28 miles of stocked water it is anything but marginal water. Fish #18 black stone flies, #16 BH Prince, and #18 black copper john during the early season. Expect to see #16-18 baetis hatching. Crane flies, #22 Hendrickson, and #22 Blue Winged Olives work well as the season progresses. In the larger water around the Hwy 10 bridge expect to catch fish in the 12 to 14 inch range with the occasional 12 in. brookie and 18 in. brown. Lost Creek is a tributary to the Rush and also full of trout. A road parallels the stream giving ample places to pull over.

Cady Creek is also in Pierce County yet it is not as expansive as the Rush. For a purely native brook trout experience, try the 7 miles of class I trout water. It is in the extreme northeast corner of the county, yet only minutes from the Rush. Here you will find smaller water that is likely to be clear when larger waters are muddy. Fish from Hwy 29 south to P. Below P the water is marginal and eventually dumps into the Eau Galle River, yet a few big browns are waiting under the banks. They are rarely fished and more likely to take that big leech at the end of your line.

Further south, in Richland County, Willow creek is starting to garner its own attention. Traveling up and down Hwy. 58 you'll have several opportunities to check out the main stem and its 6 tributaries, all of which have trout. Overall there are 20 miles of class I water to explore. On the main stem, start at Hollow Road and fish upstream through Loyd. You'll find parking at Hollow Road and also at Smyth Hollow Road both off of Hwy. 58. Concentrate on deep undercut banks and under dead-falls to find monster fish. If you are patient, you'll be rewarded. There are rumors that large, brood stock rainbows have been released into the river, otherwise expect to catch native brook and brown trout. Beyond the usual cattle, you'll find donkeys on the land around Loyd to add to the fun.

The first tributary to try is the Little Willow on NN. Other spots to try are Smith Hollow, Lost Hollow, Wheat Hollow, Jacquish Hollow, and Happy Hollow. Fish the small creeks in March and April before the bank vegetation gets too high, and then again in September when grasshoppers pelt the water.

If you are in the area, pack a picnic lunch and stop at Pier Natural Bridge Park on Hwy. 80. The river runs underneath a rock wall and is a cool site to see. Lodging can be found in the village of Richland Center, which also has a good number of antique stores and restaurants.

The Blue River in Grant County is an excellent stream with a catch and release section that is hard to beat. The most famous stretch is near Castle Rock so named because of a beautiful outcropping of rock atop a bluff. Fishing these streams on weekdays in May can be an absolute joy. Cast a #12 or #14 Hare's Ear nymph into the deep pools and get ready to set the hook. Castle Rock has had its trouble over the years, but with improved management the river is coming back. There are six miles of class II water and five miles of class III with the only native trout being browns. Brooks and rainbows are stocked. For a better fishing experience, go to the class I waters of Big Spring that has native brooks and browns, Doc Smith with native browns and rainbows, and Sixmile Branch with native brooks and stocked browns. Like the other streams, this watershed has miles of fishable water, public access, and several tributaries. When you're done with one stretch, just hop over the ridge to the next creek.

The best fishing in Grant County is outside the town of Boscobel on Crooked Creek. Located off of Hwy. 61, this stream is so full of wild trout that the DNR uses these fish to supply the genetic material for their stocking program. If you are a purist looking for only wild, native trout, this stream is a must. It is a classic Wisconsin stream in that it meanders through pastures with high banks and shady woods. The water is generally very clear and cold. In the five miles of stream you are likely to catch mainly browns, but rainbows are also present. It is only a six mile jog over the ridge to the Big Green, and yet Crooked is in general less crowded than other streams. Park at several of the bridges that cross the river and you'll find access. It is a tremendous stream that is bound to attract attention once the word gets out.

There is no need to limit your fishing experience to these few waters. Exploring is what Wisconsin trout fishing is all about. Jeff Hastings says, "If you want big trout 26 to 30 inches, we have them. If you want a lot of action and trout in the 12 to 16 inch range, look to the tributaries feeding the large rivers. If you want brook trout, look to the upper heads of the watersheds." Drive around to the different streams, see the abundance the coulee region has to offer, and don't judge a stream by what you see at the bridge. Water that might look too narrow or too full of obstructions can have terrific pools just upstream. There is one stream in particular that looks awful at every bridge that crosses it. On a beautiful spring day I decided to make an adventure out of exploring this creek. I didn't go out expecting to catch a thing; I was just going to enjoy the sunshine and the singing birds. Not more than 50 yards upstream from the first bridge, and I came upon a deep pool the size of an average closet. On the first cast I had a 16 inch brown, and caught similar fish on the next 5 casts. I had to keep tight casts and change flies once they stopped hitting, but that day still remains one of my best on the water.

Pay attention to the lower stretches of these watersheds. There may be fewer fish but they are worth the wait. The largest fish I ever saw on a coulee creek I never had on. I was fishing with a #10 Hare's ear in a deep pool next to a mature Willow tree. Under the knot of roots in the river I caught a 10 inch brown and was enjoying the fight. As he fought back, a 5 to 6 pound trout came out from under the roots in an attempt to eat the 10 inch trout! Now that was an experience. I quickly landed my fish, cut my 5x leader back to the 2x, tied on my biggest streamer and went after him. Cast after cast I coaxed the fly under the roots. Nothing. I have been back several times for that trout, but I never saw him again.

A general rule to follow when exploring one of these streams for the first time is to avoid the shallow flat water. These areas are the first to warm up and offer no cover for wary trout. Often you will see chubs and other rough fish dimpling the water. Don't be fooled; these are not trout. Instead look to the pools at the foot of riffles, deep water, in the rapids, and under cut banks. Don't dismiss rock walls. Fish hold tight against the wall and often can't be seen even with Polaroid glassed. Any fish with a forked tail is not a trout, but if you catch one, don't throw it on the bank. These bait fish are food for the trout over 18 inches. The more chubs the bigger the trout.

For dry fly fishing, cast upstream a few inches above where you saw a rise or expect a fish to be. Let the current direct your fly and pull in the extra slack so you can react when you get a strike. If your dry flies aren't working, let them sink slightly under the water or fish emergers just under the film. When nothing else seems to work, switch to a terrestrial. Small crickets fished on and under the surface do well.

When nymphying, fish downstream and let the current pull your fly through the water. On water that has been improved, try to sneak the fly underneath the lunker structures. Some of these structures can go three feet back under the bank, so allow for extra line. The DNR and local chapters of Trout Unlimited have put in countless dollars and man hours putting lunker structures into hundreds of miles of stream. The Blackhawk Chapter and the Harry and Laura Nohr Chapter have brought many streams back from the brink of destruction by combating poor land practices, erosion, animal waste problems, and fertilizer runoff. Thanks to a join effort between fisherman and farmer, these waters are reaching their prime.

Detailed maps of all the Wisconsin trout streams, including regulations, minimum size, bag limits, and stream designation are provided by the DNR and can usually be found where you buy your license. The season starts the first weekend in March with special regulations including catch and release only, and barbless hooks. The regular season starts the first weekend in May and goes until the last weekend of September.

Rods - 3 weight for the most action and for small flies, 4 and 5 weight for heavier nymphs and large terrestrials, like grasshoppers. Rod length should be around 7 ½ feet. The streams are narrow and require no long casts. Plan on bringing a rod that can keep your line out of the tall vegetation on the banks.

Flies - Although some streams allow for all kinds of artificial lures, flies are most common. Pick up a stone from the river bottom, see it covered with the tiny stone houses of the caddis nymphs, and you'll know why. Luckily, most sportsmen see fishing as a sport and religiously practice catch and release. This has helped to keep the populations healthy. You might even catch a trout with sore mouth, alive and recovering from being caught before.

The best wet flies to bring are bead heads, scuds, Pheasant tail nymphs, Woolly Buggers, leech, and crayfish. Biodegradable strike indicators can help you set the hook, and won't leave a mess. For dry flies bring Caddis, Blue Winged Olives, Tricos, Renegades, mosquito, and terrestrial imitations. At dusk try a #10 Wulff for the really big browns. Some fishermen stay well into the night using mice flies and June Bugs.

Line - To start use 5x and 6x tippets on the end of floating line.

Leader - Use 9 or 12 foot tapered leaders down to 5x.

Waders - Hip boots are sufficient for most of these streams. Rarely will the water be chest high, and often you will have better fishing if you stay out of the water all together. Neoprenes are necessary only in the very early season. Otherwise plan on bringing breathable chest waders or hip boots. Felt bottoms are not necessary and will only cause you to slip in the mud.

Stealth - It is not uncommon to see fly fishermen kneeling next to the stream while they cast. Keep a low profile and use accurate casts for the best results. Consider putting all flashy clippers, hemostats, and zingers inside a pocket to keep from flashing in the sun.

Etiquette - The DNR has worked hard with local landowners to obtain easements for public fishing. Look for the public access signs. If you don't see any, move on. There are hundreds of miles of public stream to choose from, and you will hinder the efforts of the DNR by upsetting the landowners. When in doubt, ask the landowner for permission. If you see stream improvement, take the time to thank the landowner. It will go a long way in increasing the fishable water in the state.

If you see a car parked at a pull-off or if you see fishermen in the stream, go to a different stream. The golden rule always applies. If you have ever gotten up at 5:00 am to be the first at a stream and then had a guy walk in front of you and cut you off at 7:00 am, you know what I'm talking about. Treat others as you want to be treated. Let's keep this a gentlemen's sport.

Fly Shops - Local full service fly shops are few and far between. You best bet is the new Gander Mountain near LaCrosse. There are also two in Madison and one in Eau Claire. In the heart of the good fishing, there are a few guys who sell flies out of their bed and breakfast or out of their house. Occasionally you'll see a homemade sign at the end of a driveway offering flies. A few gas stations sell a limited selection of tackle in the town. Other than that, you're on your own (Of course you can always try and bum some off a fellow fisherman.)

Lodging - You will find traditional hotels in the major towns, but there won't be a lot of selection. Instead, get the directory of Wisconsin Bed and Breakfasts, a publication produced by the government and found in most rest areas along the major highways. More and more of these are opened every year and they give you the opportunity to sleep next to a stream. For camping, Wildcat Mountain in Ontario, Governor Dodge in Waunakee, Blue Mound in Blue Mound, and Nelson Dewey in Cassville are all state parks with camping facilities.

The best part of fishing in Southwestern Wisconsin is that you are surrounded by the most picturesque land in the state. Drive down country roads with names like Peaceful Valley, Waterfall, and Irish Hollow. See the knotted meanderings of a coulee stream and the picturesque pioneer churches on its banks. With high bluffs and clear streams, that brown trout tugging on the end of your line will just be an added benefit. So grab your fishing gear and your camera, and explore new water. You just might be surprised at what you find.

Author Judy Nugent
Judy Nugent
Judy Nugent has been writing for several years. Her work can be found in Wisconsin Outdoor News, Wisconsin Outdoor Journal, Wisconsin Sportsman, Midwest Outdoors, Fly Fisherman Magazine and Snowshoe Magazine among others. She is also on the TV show OUTDOOR WISCONSIN. Judy has experience in radio with the show Great American Outdoor Trails where she does a weekly segment called Women on the Trail.