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Driftless Area Road Trip -- Fishing And Travelogue

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It had been a long time since I had taken an extended fishing trip, and the stars lined up right at home for a four day trip over Memorial Day weekend. Inspired by troutnt69's report from a few weeks ago, I decided I'd head up to northeast Iowa and give the Driftless area another look. I'd been there one other time, but it was a whirlwind trip in the dead of summer and I didn't really get to give it a good working over. With a little help from troutnut69, I was able to narrow it down to a few streams that sounded more to my liking than what I'd fished before.

The Driftless area gets its name from the absence of glacial activity, which left a hilly region with lots of spring-fed creeks in the valleys. It covers a portion of northeast Iowa, southeast Minnesota and southwest Wisconsin. The soil is rich and farming is mainly terraced corn fields and dairy cattle. In a lot of ways it's similar to the Ozarks, but there's a definite difference. The area was settled by German and Scandinavian immigrants who were mostly Lutheran and Catholic. Beautiful country churches, typically with an adjacent cemetery, are everywhere. Farming looks to have been pretty good to these people -- the farms are well kept and have a prosperous look to them. They're obviously proud of their European heritage.




I left early Friday morning and rolled into Decorah, Iowa in the early afternoon. I dropped my stuff off at the motel and headed for the stream I had decided to fish first. I knew there were several miles of stream and three well-publicized accesses. The parking lot at the first access didn't look too bad (2 cars) so I figured I'd start there. It was a small stream, about like Crane Creek in size and character. Water levels were excellent due to heavy spring rains. There were fishermen's trails on either side of the stream which made navigating the brush pretty easy, but it also reminded me this place got a lot of pressure.

The water was pretty clear, and the were frequent sections of good holding water to fish. I tied on a small Stimulator with a Copper John dropper and headed upstream. At the first s-bend I missed two fish in close succession, then landed a 12-inch brown. Saw a guy coming downstream, so I skipped around him and went on up. I caught another brown and a rainbow on the same setup. Missed a couple more that slashed at my dry. I ran into a couple folks on the way up sitting on the bank fishing spinning gear in the deepest pools. No worries, I just kept walking.

I came across a fly fisherman parked at the edge of a pool and asked if he was heading down or up. He said up, so I told him I'd skip well above him, to which he replied he was fishing up to the next bridge -- hoping I'd give him the next 3/4-mile of stream :D. (I didn't.)

Typical fish:

The next morning I decided to hit another access farther up the same stream I'd fished day 1. The second access had a couple of campers parked there and several folks and their kids sitting on the bank. I probably could have gone past them and been fine, but I headed to the third access instead. No cars in the lot, but three pulled in before I had my stuff ready to go. I'm not quite sure what official arrangement, if any, exists with the farmers, but at most of the accesses there are stiles (ladder-like steps to help you get over the fence) and signs that say private property/public fishing. It was a zig-zaggy meadow stream that came out of a wooded valley. I couldn't get any takers, so I switched to a black bead-head wooly. Trolled and dead-drifted that through a few of the deepest bend pools and landed a couple rainbows and a brown. I also had a few more misses.


Later that morning I headed over to another creek that was supposed to be pretty good. It was what they call 'meadow fishing' in the brochures. I'd call it 'pasture' fishing. I didn't see any cows, but they had clearly been there very, very recently. I headed upstream with a small Adams on 7x tippet. I stayed well back from the stream, keeping my eyes peeled for likely-looking water, fish moving and pasture patties. Not too far up, I heard an unfamiliar bird call from behind me. I turned around and it turned out to be a bald eagle. I fumbled for my phone but he took off. I didn't see a fish, and even tried to move some just to see if they were in there. Nothing. So I headed back to the car. Just as I arrived a couple guys and a kid pulled up. He asked how I'd done and I told him I hadn't seen a fish. His less-than-diplomatic reply was 'You're kidding, they just stocked this yesterday.' We chatted for a while and he gave me several suggestions for places to try. Surprisingly, when I left, they did too (even though they had 'just stocked this yesterday' :D ). I spent a chunk of the afternoon scouting around and looking for a particular creek I wanted to fish. Between road closings and lack of signage it wasn't going well. My car was telling me I had 20 miles worth of gas left, and my Garmin was telling me it was 17 miles to the gas station, so I bailed out.

At the gas station I told a guy I was having trouble finding the creek, and he chuckled saying, 'Yeah, the signs are down'. He gave a some directions and I got there fine. Turns out I'd been past the two accesses and just didn't realize it. Fished a little, but I was pretty tired and only gave it a half-hearted effort then headed back to town.

The third day I headed back to the stream I'd fished the first day. I hit the third access and there was a truck and a camper parked there. The man and woman with the camper had two huskies and a lab tied up. Nice folks. I headed upstream and got a chuckle in a couple minutes when the dogs started to howl. Clearly the folks had just walked away to fish and the dogs didn't like it. Caught a couple browns along that stretch that morning in the rain. It really started to pour, so I decided I'd do something else for a while.

As I was pulling on to the main road back to town, services at the Big Canoe Lutheran Church were just letting out. Earlier in the week I had toyed with going to the service there, but didn't. I pulled in, de-wadered and headed up to the door, told some folks I had been admiring the church all weekend and asked if I could see the inside. Well, an older lady spoke up and said she'd show me around. I got introduced to everybody in there as 'John from Kansas City'. The inside was as beautiful as the outside, and the folks were all very nice. I was a little self-concious because I was wet, sweaty, stinky and had a three-day growth. Got a lot of stories about the surroundings and the history. Very cool.

Big Canoe Church:

Later that day I hit Heritage Farm, home of Seed Savers Exchange. SSE collects and preserves heirloom fruit and vegetable seeds, and publishes an inch-thick 'Yearbook' each year in which members list thousands of seed varieties for sale or trade. SSE also sells a small selection of the listed varieties through a catalog and website. They also maintain a seed bank, historic orchard and vineyard, and heirloom poultry and cattle. Pretty cool place.

Heritage Farm:


Apples just beginning to blossom:

White Park cattle:


Driftless Area is about seven hours from home, but for some perspective -- the Eleven Point is about 5. So, I'm not stretching too much for a trip like that. Nice part of the country and some really good small-stream fishing.


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Great TR John! Sounds like you had a good time exploring the beautiful countryside and were able to find a few willing fish to play with as well. I'm a little surprised at the number of people you saw but then again it was a holiday weekend I guess. I'm pretty sure you probably saw fewer fishermen in three days there than you would have on most Ozark streams in one day.

Like any area , after a few visits you really get the feel of the water and the fish ,which greatly improves your success rate. Each time I go I learn a few new spots and get the feel for which areas fish best during certain conditions.

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Troutnut69 -- People were never an issue. Lots of folks out and about because of the holiday. It was pretty rare to see somebody on the stream though.

Thanks KCRIVERRAT -- yes it is beautiful country up there. Did this trip solo -- kinda nice to just get away sometimes.


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Great report. Thanks for the info on the area. It sounds like a trip I'd like to make one of these days.

If fishing was easy it would be called catching.

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Another thing to mention -- the locals I ran into seemed to be mostly focused on hitting just the big pools near the access with spinning gear and there were more at the close accesses than at the more remote ones. The trails always seemed to peter out at just about the right distance from the access too. There's a lot of water to fish up there, so for me it was a non-issue.

Iowa regularly stocks a lot of these streams, but doesn't announce the time or place. The guys I ran into and talked to were apparently hopping from stream to stream trying to figure out where they'd been stocked. I mentioned a couple places and they poo-pooed them, but they were excellent for what I like.


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Interesting fishing destination, thanks for the report. The driftless area is moving further up my short list.

His father touches the Claw in spite of Kevin's warnings and breaks two legs just as a thunderstorm tears the house apart. Kevin runs away with the Claw. He becomes captain of the Greasy Bastard, a small ship carrying rubber goods between England and Burma. Michael Palin, Terry Jones, 1974

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That was a great report Ness! I'm guilty of concentrating so hard on the fishing when I take a trip that I forget to stop and smell the roses!

"Honor is a man's gift to himself" Rob Roy McGregor

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