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Coulee Trout

By Judy Nugent - November 1, 2006
My fly rod thumped vigorously as I stripped line on a native trout that had engulfed my homemade fly. I was in Grant County in late April casting for trout on the last day of the early season. I spent the night in a tent next to the gurgling brook and was awoken at first light by a rousing chorus of gobbling turkeys. The cool morning air soon gave way to warm breezes and a heavy hatch of insects. I heard this trout before I saw him. Fishing just downstream I heard the loud splash as he aggressively inhaled an unsuspecting insect. Even as I fought this trout, his cousins continued to feed, greedily taking advantage of nature's spring bounty.

Trout fishing in southwestern Wisconsin hasn't always been this good. There were days thirty years ago where I'd be lucky to get two fish a day. Now, thanks to the efforts of the DNR, local Trout Unlimited chapters, landowners, and others, I can catch and release ten times that number of trout. And the best part is most of them are native.

Native trout need the right habitat to naturally reproduce, and the great recovery of these streams in due to conservation efforts. A Historical Marker west of Coon Valley on Hwy. 14 commemorates the nation's first watershed project. In 1933 the Soil Conservation Service and the University of Wisconsin partnered with local land owners to develop and use better land management practices. They focused on reducing erosion, flooding, and fertilizer run-off, while meanwhile improving timber stands and wildlife habitat. It is during this time that farmers were encouraged to use the now ubiquitous contour stripping for their crops. The growing land ethic that Aldo Leopold so supported is alive today and stronger than ever. It is not uncommon to drive through the area in March and see sportsmen doing volunteer work to stabilize stream banks or improve trout habitat.

Stream Improvement Methods
A key to improving water quality is to control runoff. Dry dams help to control floods as well as stop pollution before the deluge reaches the stream. The water slows behind the dam and the water drops most of its sediment load and pollutants before they can enter the stream.

What about fields right next to the stream? The new Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program is buying 160 foot easements on both sides of the stream in order to plant a buffer to filter harmful pollutants before they reach the water. Cooperating landowners are compensated with an upfront payment as well as a yearly payment as long as the land is in easement. The cost of planting is reimbursed 100% to 110%.

Another specific improvement deals with soil stability. The combination of erosion and cattle can send hundreds of tons of soil downstream. Stream bank stabilization involves putting up rip rap on the stream banks to prevent damage. The rock is then covered with soil and seeded with grass seed. Often the bends in the stream will have a Lunker structure underneath. This provides cover and shade for growing trout. The structure is composed of several long, oak boards secured to the bank with rebar polls and heavy face rock. Special crossings are set up for the cattle, generally in a shallow straight section that is convenient for the farmer. In this way conservation practices and pasturing can work hand in hand.

Another specific habitat improvement is the addition of spawning gravel. In streams where adequate habitat has been lost or degraded, shovels of pea sized gravel can be added to help reproduction. However, it is important to ensure that there are no obstructions downstream like dams that will impede migration upstream to the spawning ground.

Once the DNR has finished stream improvements, it usually takes two years or so for the land to heal and for the fish to move in. Sometimes the DNR will stock the area to encourage the recovery. Teams will come back in subsequent years to do monitor fish density, survival, and reproduction.

When you are planning your fishing trip, it is best to avoid fishing the newly improved streams. For one, you'll run into many more fishermen who also read about the newly publicized improvements. Second, the numbers of fish won't be what you expect. The reason why the DNR improved it in the first place was because it was marginal water that needed help before it could hold significant numbers of trout. Instead, keep a log in your trout maps. Mark down the date when streams were improved. Go back two or three years later and you are more likely to find fish.

Types of Trout
The most prolific trout in the region is the brown trout. Brought from Germany and introduced in the U.S. in the 1880's, brown trout were more adept at dealing with warmer water, lower oxygen levels, and more sediment in the water. These beauties can vary in color especially when comparing them to Great Lakes browns. In general, they have olive green to brown color on their backs, and a golden yellow on their sides. On most of their body they have black spots surrounded by a light circle. Red spots occur along the lateral line. Their tails are square with few if any spots. But these aren't your Great Lakes brown trout. Fishing these trout requires stealth, cunning, accuracy, and light tackle. They tend to live longer and grow larger than the brook trout, but it is rare to see a trout larger than 22 inches and a 26 inch trout is one of a lifetime. Most tend to be between 12 and 16 inches, but with light rods and many hungry fish, it is an experience that will keep you coming back for more.

Brook trout differ from browns in appearance and water preference. Brooks have worm like markings on their backs and red spots surrounded with a bluish halo. The most distinguishing features are the white tipped fins along the bottom of the trout. These fins will also have a distinct red, orange, or yellow tint depending on the season. During mating season, the colors will be their most vibrant. Brook trout need clean, cold streams to survive and reproduce naturally. They are most abundant in the headwaters and upper tributaries of the streams.

When looking for trout on a stream you have never fished before, wear Polaroid glasses to cut the glare of the sun, and look for fish with square tails. Concentrate on pools under the bridges or in deeper pools at the ends of riffles. A general rule to follow when exploring 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.

For spin fishing, bring spinners (size 0-2) and small floating crank baits. Use an ultra light rod with 6 lb line.

Live bait is best avoided. The season is much shorter, and often the undersized fish don't survive after being gut hooked.

Planning a Trip
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. There is no need to limit your fishing experience to a few waters. Exploring is what Wisconsin trout fishing is all about. 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 was one I was never able to hook. 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.

Most modern trout fishermen practice catch and release religiously. These people understand the fragility of the system and know how to keep the sport in sportsman. They are encouraged by foresighted DNR officials who have legislated a barbless, catch and release early season, and an artificial bait restriction. Proper release guidelines include: don't play a fish to exhaustion, handle a fish in a net gently, turn the fish belly up to remove hooks, don't remove swallowed hooks - just cut the line, and don't keep a fish out of water for more than 10-15 seconds.

Wisconsin is made up of some of the friendliest people I have ever met. If you see trout water you would like to fish but you don't see a public access sign, ask the landowner for permission. If you see DNR improvements, thank the landowner for allowing the DNR to help the stream. Courtesy will go a long way in promoting farmer and fisherman cooperation as we strive to improve our waterways.

The best part of trout fishing in southwestern Wisconsin is exploring one of the most picturesque areas of the state. Trout water can be found in nearly every valley so there is very little pressure to find good water. You could fish every day in the summer and never need to fish the same place twice. And the joys go beyond fishing. Traverse this area of the state like Chief Black Hawk did almost 200 years ago. Taste hand made Amish chocolates and warm Norwegian fruit pies. Bid at a quilt auction or take home a country antique. That large brook trout at the end of your line is just an added benefit. So grab your rod and your camera, and explore coulee country.

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.
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