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.