Native Brookies Return

By Judy Nugent - November 1, 2006
As the fog slowly lifted from the valley floor, I heard a turkey gobble from the ridge above. The brook trout didn't seem to mind as I silently landed my sixth fish in the past hour. For those of you who haven't visited southwestern Wisconsin, you're in for a treat. Concentrate on native brook trout and you're sure to have a trip worth remembering.

My obsession with native trout happened after I graduated from college. Before then I was happy with dumb stocked browns, after all I was a kid with a short attention span. But as I got older, I wanted a more sophisticated fishing experience. Unfortunately, thirty years ago I was hard pressed to find native brook trout in Wisconsin. They were there, but not in any numbers. Poor land management, excessive erosion, agricultural pesticides, and animal waste killed the natural reproduction and the DNR was forced to stock. I am happy to report that the state has made a turn around, in fact in recent years stocking has been on the decline because of the success of natural reproduction.

Located between Chicago and Minneapolis, the best fishing can be found in an area known as the Driftless Area. Look on a topographic map and you'll see the southwest section of the state is filled with high sandstone bluffs and deep valleys. This area was missed by all of the glaciers of the recent millennia and is reminiscent of the rolling hills of the eastern U.S. It is here, in Coon Valley, that the Soil Conservation Service and the University of Wisconsin partnered with local landowners in 1933 to start the nation's first watershed project. Today, that conservation ethic is stronger than ever.

The best brook trout fishing can be found in the upper reaches of the many watersheds. These spring fed creeks have a sustained temperature between 33 and 50 degrees F and are fed from a relatively silt free aquifer. Many streams are able to sustain natural reproduction because of an abundance of small gravel and crystal clear tributaries filled with watercress and insects. Vegetation, insects, pH, and high oxygen levels all contribute to a healthy population.

For the best fishing, avoid the high profile streams. Although brook trout may be present, they are heavily fished and reluctant to hit. The intense fishing pressure is to the point where you can't even find parking on these streams let alone fish. When Wisconsin has 2,674 trout streams and 9,560 miles of trout water, this concentration on a handful of streams defies logic.

When you buy your Wisconsin fishing license, ask the dealer for a map of all trout water produced by the DNR. All the streams will be marked showing classification, bag limits, and lure restrictions. The best native brook trout waters will be the upper tributaries. 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.

Most of the good brook trout water is best fished during the early season. Not only will you experience less fishing pressure, but many of the best waters are narrow. By the middle of July, the vegetation has grown so high that the grasses fall over the water and prohibit you from getting in good casts. Things don't pick up again until late September. By then the fish are moving into their spawning territories and you can catch vibrantly colored trout.

The Wisconsin DNR has worked diligently with local landowners to buy easements along the trout streams. Drive along the roads looking for the telltale green signs marking public access. Next to these is often a yellow sign listing any restrictions. Look for the streams that have catch and release only. Most of these streams also have an artificial lures requirement as well. 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.

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 surface. 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.

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.

The best flies to bring when insects are hatching are #22 Blue Winged Olives, #16-#18 beatis, crane flies, and #22 Hendricksons. Other good dry flies are Caddis, Tricos, Renegades, mosquitoes, and terrestrial imitations.

For wet flies bring #12 -#16 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.

Wisconsin native brook trout fishing has come a long way and you won't leave disappointed. Yet the best part will be fishing in the most picturesque land in the state. Drive down country roads with names like Peaceful Valley, Breezy Hill, and Irish Ridge, sample some of the handmade Amish chocolate, or stop in town for a fresh slice of pie. The charm of rural Wisconsin is reason enough to make the trip. Of course if you're lucky enough to hook a 12 inch brook trout, you just may stay on the stream until the proverbial cows come home.

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.