My opportunity to fish the Driftless area of western Wisconsin was more like a homecoming than it was a clear response to all the good angling press the region has received over the last few decades. I spent my high school years in La Crosse, Wisconsin but had to leave the area after graduation, before I could fully appreciate the outdoor benefits that came with living there.

Surprisingly, I can still remember some of my existence in Wisconsin. I hunted small game near Viroqua in 1967, and even trapped muskrats that year in the Mississippi River sloughs. I still have my stamped fishing license from ’67 but I don’t recall ever casting a line for Driftless trout when I was young. Clearly, in 2018, it was time to make amends.

The last wave of glaciation never drifted into the southwestern part of the state, so the soil is rich and loamy, a boon for dairy farming, especially in the past century. I don’t think the brook and brown trout fishing was much to get excited about when I was in high school– if it was good, I was too preoccupied with other things to really care– but the angling took off later when environmental issues came to the fore, when landowners, state officials, and groups like Trout Unlimited started working for stream improvements and the benefits derived from recreational pursuits.

We left our Wildcat Mountain campsite early in the morning and visited Viroqua, Wisconsin and its Driftless Angler Fly Shop where the help that we received for my ensuing day was excellent. The folks at the shop have everything for the visiting fly-fisher, and their guidance for my first look at the Driftless water was… essential. We were soon on our way to Coon Valley and the charming coulees where fly-fishing with barbless hooks not only makes good sense for many of us but also is required as part of the catch-and-release regulations established for particular sections of the streams.

The weather on that July day was horrible– hot and humid, with the morning punctuated by thunderstorms that only seemed to irritate and madden the mosquitoes and blackflies while enhancing the sultry air and darkening sky. I had asked a local dairy farmer if I could fish his pastures, and he was fine with that, but I got turned around and frustrated with fencing obstacles that barred me from trout rising in the pools, so I hastened a retreat from the barnyard and its herd of inquisitive Holsteins.

Leighanne and I went for lunch in Coon Valley, and after that our situation improved. The weather remained hot, but the afternoon looked better for a friendly get-together with the trout. I found an attractive stretch of meadow stream (sometimes reminiscent of a spring creek in the East), with pools and riffles, and a water temperature of 62 degrees. A stiff breeze seemed to banish all the biting insects, and the streamside cows acknowledged me as just another crazy angler. I was wet-wading, and all was sanguine with the world.

I quickly caught and released six wild browns on a small Black Ant. Several of the fish were not only colorful but easily a foot in length. A couple of larger browns were hooked and lost, as well, and I had a feeling that some hefty trout inhabited the stream. Chester the fly rod had a healthy work-out on this Driftless afternoon, and I’m glad I didn’t need him to intimidate an angry bull. It was time for us to head on home, with a brief stop for some local wine and cheese, and even a photo op with sandhill cranes.

I’m glad I drifted into the Driftless after all those years away. Although you might suspect I’m prone to understatement, I will say, it was better than a class reunion.

About rivertoprambles

Welcome to Rivertop Rambles. This is my blog about the headwaters country-far afield or close to home. I've been a fly-fisher, birder, and naturalist for most of my adult life. I've also written poetry and natural history books for thirty years. In Rambles I will mostly reflect on the backcountry of my Allegheny foothills in the northern tier of Pennsylvania and the southern tier of New York State. Sometimes I'll write about the wilderness in distant states, or of the wild places in the human soul. Other times I'll just reflect on the domestic life outdoors. In any case, I hope you enjoy. Let's ramble!
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24 Responses to Drifter

  1. Bob Stanton says:

    Great post, Walt. Remember that quote I had once left in a comment, by Jack Gartside? The one to the effect of “You can’t make much of a living fly fishing, but you can make one hell of a life.” You are, to me, the epitome of that. Always a pleasure to read of your travels and experiences, my friend.

    • So good to be reminded of that quote, Bob, because it hits the mark– a dash of sadness, a cup of humor, and a barrel of truth! Gartside got it, saying one could make a helluva life by fishing deeply, and probably more so if one could pull it off with just spare change. I’ve still got a few more streams to fish before I’ll assess my angling accomplishments, but I’m honored by your compliment and so damn thankful to have you as a long-standing, forward-casting pillar of the Rivertop Crew.

  2. Thanks for some interesting reading this morning Walt! Nice to see you had a pleasant reunion even if the weather was hot and humid (sometimes those conditions encourage an ant hatch).
    Lovely country out there somewhat reminiscent of the South Central PA meadow streams that I grew up fishing as a young boy

    • Thanks Mark! I agree; the Driftless is reminiscent in some ways of the PA limestone waters. It reminds me even more so of the wooded hill country here at home. It seems like a blend of sweet locales, ideal for a small stream angler.

  3. Brent says:

    I’ve read a lot about the Driftless lately, and its underappreciated qualities as a unique environment and geological history. Many people even believe that well-preserved portions of the area would be a valued addition to the National Park System, which attempts to preserve at least one good example of every biome or landform found in America. The streams you fished look well-watered AND clear, so I imagine even the water was enjoyable to be on.

    • Indeed the streams were enjoyable for me despite the lousy weather conditions at the time. I think you’re right that the region is underappreciated from environmental perspectives and deserves protection for its natural uniqueness. I don’t know enough about it to really judge, but the Driftless that I saw seems more vulnerable to the push of commerce and of industry than the wilder areas that I’ve seen. It would be interesting to learn more of what the residents of the region think of that.

  4. plaidcamper says:

    I’ve enjoyed reading about your drifting across the continent this summer, Walt, and the ups and downs in this one had me smiling. Every now and then I think maybe I’ll dip a toe into the fishing world, and then you’ll write a paragraph about storms and mosquitos on a summer morning! I know it shouldn’t come easy if it is to be a worthwhile pursuit, but…
    As for a school reunion, my thoughts on that are reflected in the fact that I’ve avoided them all to date!
    Thanks again, from this armchair fisher.

    • Yep, just trying to keep it real, Adam. As you say, nothing worth pursuing is gonna come real easy; if it does, we’re probably doing something wrong. And thanks for being an armchair angler, I couldn’t ask for more. One clue in knowing we relate in many ways, neither one of us has ever hit a school reunion!

  5. A wonderful read, as always. I often wonder what it would be like to return to the places I called home as a kid with my fly rod in tow. I suspect I’ll regret not having fished more at the time.

    • Good to hear from you, Douglas. Hope you’re enjoying a good summer. Yeah it’s fun to speculate on what it would be like. I see it all as an evolutionary process. If I wasn’t fishing then, the other activities might have been essential steps before taking the plunge….

      • It’s been a great summer, but a very busy one. Luckily, I’ve been sneaking in all kinds of fishing. I just don’t have time to write about it at the moment. I’m also dangerously behind on my blog reading, but I’m grateful to know that when I’m ready, I can sit down and read your adventures as they played out this summer. Almost like a book.

      • Douglas, Will look forward hearing more….

  6. Absolutely love the Driftless, and the fact there is so much accessible water pretty much everywhere! Fishing alongside cows is pretty interesting too. Would have probably opted for the stream over a reunion too!

    You’ve got me jonesing for the annual spring trip to Coon Valley, thanks for taking me back vicariously through this post.

    • Glad to be of service, Michael. Yeah I know that you’ve enjoyed fishing in the area before, and I’m sure that Coon Valley will embrace your return in spring for another enjoyable session. I may need to make another visit, too.

  7. JZ says:

    Since I’ve never been to my class reunion, staying driftless is right on course Walt. Although, looking back like you have, its nice to see areas and regions that have prospered from neglect in the past. It does the soul good to see improvement in that way. Glad you’ve got to visit places Walt where conservation/restoration is a constant and not some passing whim. Watch your step in them meadows Walt, or you could step into a pie haha. Also, glad to hear you didn’t try out for “running with the bulls..”

    • Thanks JZ! Yeah I’m glad for this retrospection and the sign that progress is being made in some areas of environmental concern. God knows we need all the help that we can get. As for those reunions of social/academic nature, I think it would be more comfortable to wade through fresh bull pies– at least we could wash ourselves clean with a little effort.

  8. loydtruss says:

    This is one place that I HAVE to fish before I hang up the fly rod. What intrigues me about the Driftless is the open casting areas all along the different streams; no worry of losing favorite flies in trees. I assume cooler temps would eliminate the bug bites.
    Walt I felt I was there fishing along side you, thanks for sharing!!!

  9. Ross says:

    Walt, have really enjoyed your posts from your tour of the west; you have seen and experience much of this great land.

  10. There are few places that hold my attention more than the Driftless. I’m sad that I hadn’t visited when I was younger. Thanks for the tour Walt. I for one would love to see a new book about your latest adventure West. This post is one chapter!

    • Thanks Howard! You didn’t realize this, but I’ve been working up a new book this summer, and just hours ago finished a segment that actually deals with the Driftless. Because you’ve been so supportive, I want to include you in my Acknowledgements page! But that’s down the road a ways. Hopefully I’ll be ready to roll it out by next spring. And, like you, I kind of wish I’d visited these waters at an earlier time, but better late than never.

  11. Les Kish says:

    Ah, so you really do use the ant!

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