Midwest Spring Creeks
by Ross Mueller
Year-round hatches and large native trout await the do-it-yourselfer in this spring-creek paradise between Chicago and Minneapolis.
The Upper Midwest contains one of the greatest concentrations of limestone spring creeks in the world that may be compared to the chalk-stream region of England, the limestone country of Pennsylvania, or the spring-creek valleys of the American West. Known as the Driftless Area, this territory includes more than 2,500 miles of water that carpets portions of southwest Wisconsin, southeast Minnesota, and northeast Iowa.
There are hundreds of miles of these spring creeks near where the states of Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin meet; Many of them accessible through public fishing easements or by asking landowners for permission.
The Driftless Area
The Driftless Area of the Upper Midwest is a unique geologic region–an unglaciated (no glacial deposits or limestone “drift”) area of limsestone bluffs, valleys, and spring creeks encircled by rolling, glaciated terrain. This area is known as the “bluff country” or “coulee region.”
Since the springs run at 48 to 50 degrees F., providing cool water for trout in summer and preventing the water from freezing in winter, fishing this area is a year-round proposition where regulations permit. Vegetation thrives on the alkaline nutrients in the streams and provides a habitat in which insects such as Baetis, scuds, and cressbugs thrive. Brown trout and brook trout reproduce successfully in many of the area’s streams because of good supplies of gravel for redds and oxygen-rich, silt-free groundwater sources for egg and fry development.
Exploring is the best way to discover the fly-fishing potential of these streams, which offer a variety of fishing environments from meadow streams with plenty of room for backcasts to tight, brushy streams that often bring big rewards to those who cast in their cover. Miles of public water are accessible by either fishing easements or government-owned land. On private stretches, most landowners allow access if you ask for permission to fish.
If you want a taste of Driftless Area streams before you begin exploring, DNR, area shops, and experts recommend the following streams.
–Spring Branch near Manchester
–Bloody Run near McGregor
–Waterloo Creek near Dorchester
–North, South, and Middle Branches of the Whitewater River
–South Branch of the Root River & it’s tributaries.
–Big Green River
–Willow Creek near Loyd
–West Fork of the Kickapoo River
–Coon Creek tributaries out of coon valley
Each state’s Department of Natural Resources and fishing-license outlets have maps readily available that include every trout stream in the state. Choosing a stream to explore is easy; all streams in the Driftless Area have potential. I’m still finding productive creeks I’ve never fished before.
The lower, marginal reaches of trout water are especially good choices. This is larger water, having received more tributaries, with less current due to less gradient. Due to the slower current and greater width, these waters are warmer and tend to support more forage fish, which in turn attract and support large brown trout. Furthermore, many of these reaches have not received a significant amount of habitat work by Department of Natural Resources crews and are not as publicized. Fewer streamside easements have been obtained–thus the lower regions are private–and the trout are less disturbed. Because much of this water flows through private land, you need fishing permission from the landowners. I’ve found that most are willing to provide it to courteous fly fishers.
Spotting trout. Plan to explore on a sunny day with clear water. Wear polarized sunglasses and look closely for trout. If after a stealthy approach you do not see any fish, kick beneath undercut banks or logs to flush them and mark the spot for a return visit. Trout may be absent for fairly long reaches of river; then one area may hold a pod of several fish.
Under bright lighting conditions, seeing into the deep pools is easy and you will almost certainly see fish. Learn to recognize rough fish, so the large suckers, carp, and red horse do not mislead you. If a fish has a forked tail, it is not a trout. Brown trout have square tails that often appear dark at the tip with a lighter band in front. Rough fish move their tails with a looser “wiggle” or sway than trout. Suckers can show a mottled appearance, and often the leading edge of the pectoral fin is light and contrasts sharply with the body color. At times, you can spot the white mouth of a brown trout.
Small creeks in the Driftless Area can hold large trout.
Finding trout. Learn to recognize the characteristics of water that holds trout, usually a riffle with a drop-off of good depth and often in the vicinity of a submerged log or large bankside tree. Cobble bottoms with some larger stones are good; silted areas are poor. Look for a nearby “feeding flat.” Make note of small cold feeders and wooded areas, especially those with riffles. These areas will be cool in mid and late summer and large trout may congregate in them, making the area worthy of a return visit.
Don’t overlook the upper stream reaches. Some creeks that are just a trickle under the bridge may have some impressive pools farther upstream. Because these headwater creeks receive less fishing pressure, your chances of encountering large brook or brown trout are excellent, especially in September as browns and brookies migrate upstream in preparation for spawning.
Iowa streams have no closed season for fly fishing. Wisconsin and Minnesota streams close at the end of September. Some southeast Minnesota streams open January 1 to catch-and-release, while the regular season opens in April. Most Wisconsin streams open for catch-and-release fly fishing beginning in March, and the general opener is in early May.
Brown trout are the most common catch in Midwest spring creeks, but rainbows and wild brook trout are also present. Caddis, small mayfly, and terrestrial imitations are effective.
Winter. The spring creeks do not freeze during winter and midges, black stoneflies, and Baetis hatch through the winter months. Trout become less selective then because they have fewer food choices. Scud and leech imitations are productive during nonhatch periods.
Midges hatch daily on Driftless Area streams during winter, and at times even large trout feed on them. Most midges are dark, either black or gray, and can be as large as #18. Cloudy, windless days when the water is clear are the best conditions for fishing midge hatches. Trout routinely begin their day feasting on midge larvae, then follow the hatch upward for ascending pupae, film-bound pupae, and adults. As the day warms, scuds or Baetis nymphs become active. Simple, straight-forward imitations tied on 6X or 7X tippets work well.
I find Baetis nymphs in my stomach-pump samplings of winter-caught trout. Hatching Baetis duns are common in February, and I use Pheasant-tail Nymphs and #18 parachute adult imitations to match them. A particularly valuable dun/emerger pattern is the Fuzzball, because it can be used both as a buoyant and highly visible indicator dry fly (that will support a small nymph or pupa) or as a single fly.
In streams with stonefly populations, dark stonefly nymphs in #10 to #20 are important. Dry-fly fishing with an adult pattern, or even a black caddis imitation, is great fun on a winter afternoon when trout are not particularly selective about patterns.
Spring. March and April are especially good times to explore because you can avoid the heavy snow of winter and the vegetation of summer. In spring the minimal aquatic weed growth enables you to see the streambed and fish without catching weeds, but by August the lush aquatic vegetation has narrowed and deeply channeled the streams. Also, in March and April the snow has flattened bankside vegetation, making walking and backcasts much easier.
Constant water temperatures and the fertile limestone ecology of Midwest spring creeks produce heavy mayfly and caddis hatches and large wild trout.
Trout-feeding activity increases with the coming of spring and its insect hatches. Baetis and midge hatches continue and the black stoneflies persist. Brachycentrus caddis, (also known as Grannom), begin hatching around the second week of April, continue heavily for about two weeks, and offer the best surface fishing of the year. These insects, like Baetis and midges, hatch on all Driftless Area streams. When Brachycentrus are hatching, trout take the larvae early in the day then switch to ascending pupae in mid to late morning. Trout rise aggressively to the adult caddis, which are usually on the water before noon. You can make a reasonable estimate of a stream’s trout population when the fish are up and feeding on caddis.
I tie my larval patterns on weighted, #14 scud hooks with an olive abdomen ribbed with copper wire and a head of any spiky, black dubbing. For the adult, I use a #16-#18 dry-fly hook with a thinly dubbed charcoal Antron (or muskrat fur) abdomen and thorax, black hackle, and a charcoal colored wing of swiss straw, deer hair, or poly yarn.
Sulphurs aren’t as common as Baetis or Brachycentrus. Some streams have excellent populations of Sulphurs, while others have only sparse hatches. Sulphurs begin hatching in mid-May and last through June. The three main species range from #14 through #18. Hendricksons also hatch sporadically on some streams in the spring.
A much more widespread and long-lasting hatch found on all streams is the Yellow Crane Fly, which begins hatching in late May and continues through the summer. Trout seem to be especially fond of these insects, which flutter over the water in the evening. Not many bugs need to be on the water to start trout feeding. A #16 Yellow Crane Fly imitation skittered over the surface in the vicinity of rising fish works well.
The Brown Hackle Peacock (BHP) Beetle is an excellent choice as an early-season searching pattern. The BHP Beetle suggests a beetle or stonefly and lands on the water with an insect-like plop. Trout willingly rise to this fly, or at least take a look. Start with the beetle about mid or late morning; use a 5X tippet, and stay with it.
Summer. The major summer hatches, which appear daily on all streams in this region, are the “tiny olives” (formerly Pseudocloeon), caddis species, terrestrials, and midges. Baetis may appear on some days, while crane flies persist along with Light Cahills and yellow stoneflies. Tricos appear in July and continue through September on many streams. Hexagenia limbata hatches are limited to only a few streams. Isonychia species and Ephoron leukon hatch in August and September in certain areas.
Fishing with tiny flies, such as the tiny olives, Tricos, small ants, and beetles, in mid and late summer with low, clear streams and educated trout will give you a real flavor of fishing the Driftless Area spring creeks. If you tire of such fishing, remove the 7X tippet, tie on 4X or 5X, and add a terrestrial pattern such as a grasshopper or beetle.
Fall. While the Wisconsin and Minnesota regular trout seasons end September 30, the limestone spring creeks of Iowa remain open and provide good fall and early winter fishing. The streams then are usually low and clear and the native trout are wary.
Through fall, fish feed on Baetis, midges, tiny olives, and terrestrials. Baetis hatch on gray, blustery days, generally in the afternoons. Various #20-#22 Blue-winged Olives continue hatching into November.
Trout do not forget terrestrials, and grasshopper patterns will produce into December. Even without risers, a BHP Beetle or grasshopper will catch fish all day. Dimpling trout beneath trees in fall may be taking #20 Leaf Hoppers, imitated by pulling a wingcase of one or two tan goose biots over an abdomen dubbed fluorescent green. Scuds, nymphs, and larva imitations do well. Stream channels in watercress are fun to fish with an unweighted San Juan Worm. Cast the worm along the edge of a channel and allow it to sink slowly and drift with the current. Often you will see the flash of the fish as it darts from under the cress to take the fly. Brown cased-caddis flies are common in the stomach-pumped contents of fall-caught fish and are best imitated with a Peeking Caddis or Beadhead Pheasant Tail. Minnow imitations such as the Yellow Fox and leeches are always productive.
Remember that the various hunting seasons are open in fall. Wearing a blaze orange hat or vest is a good idea. Also, do not disturb the native brown and brook trout spawners on their redds from late October through November.
For fishing the tiny headwaters of streams such as the West Beaver in Minnesota, or the mid-sized reaches of the Waterloo in Iowa, a 3-weight rod is ideal. Medium- to fast-action rods at least 71/2-feet long are capable of handling weighted flies and keeping your backcast out of the bankside vegetation. Casting distances are generally short and rising trout usually are taking small flies, #18 and smaller, from the surface and film. For fishing larger rivers with minnow imitations, leeches, and large terrestrial patterns, a 4- or 5-weight rod with medium to fast action is best.
For these small, intimate creeks, I prefer a quiet reel. Judging by the reactions of small birds and animals nearby, a loud reel must sound like an alarm call. On these streams, I also prefer a dull gray or green fly line that does not frighten fish. A George Harvey-style leader with a stiff butt and terminal section of softer material with tippets 4X through 7X works best for me on these streams.
Waist-high, breathable stocking-foot waders, kneepads, and wading boots that have the sticky rubber soles (such as Aquastealth from L. L. Bean or Simms) are a good combination for coulee-area streams. The waist height rarely limits stream crossing, yet it allows you to sit on the bank (even in the stream on hot days) without getting a wet butt as with hip boots. The sticky rubber-soled boots perform well on wet, grassy banks and snow.
The limestone spring creeks of the Driftless Area have great appeal to the fly fisher who values high quality streams, challenging fishing and beautiful surroundings.
David Siegfried Photo
HOOK: #14 Tiemco 2487.
THREAD: Olive 8/0 UNI-Thread.
ABDOMEN: Antron dubbing, kelly green mixed with fluorescent chartreuse rabbit.
RIB: Black 3/0 UNI-Thread.
WINGLET: Charcoal Swiss Straw.
LEGS: Duck wing covert feather, dark gray.
HEAD: Black Hare’s Ear Plus.
HOOK: #6, #10, or #14 Daiichi 2220 or Tiemco 5263.
THREAD: Black 6/0 UNI-Thread.
HEAD: Black 8/0 glass bead.
TAIL: Yellow marabou.
BODY: Kreinik gold braid (#2000).
UNDERWING: Yellow marabou.
OVERWING: Fox squirrel tail.
HOOK: #18-20 Tiemco 921.
THREAD: Rusty dun 8/0 UNI-Thread.
TAIL: Wood duck flank fibers.
ABDOMEN: Olive-gray beaver.
WING: Snowshoe hare’s foot fibers.
THORAX: Same as abdomen.