Exploring For Western Wisconsin Trout
September 30, 2010
If you are willing to overcome a few obstacles, this part of our state offers some of the best trout fishing in the Midwest. Here's a quick guided tour. (May 2007)
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
The Upper Midwest boasts thousands of miles of topnotch trout streams, but some of the best creeks can be found right here in the western part of our state. Sure, you'll have to deal with unpaved roads, a horse and buggy or two -- and cattle -- but hey, this is Wisconsin!
Cool limestone creeks cascade through rolling hills and glide under sandstone cliffs in western Wisconsin. This "Driftless Area" was untouched by the many glaciers that rumbled through the region many years ago. The result is a rugged landscape of breathtaking bluffs, steep hillsides that defy tractors and spring-fed creeks loaded with native trout. In nearly every valley or coulee or hollow, you will find a trout stream, and most of them have the same characteristics.
"Our streams are very unique in that they are spring-fed," said Jeff Hastings, director of the Trout Unlimited Driftless Area Restoration Effort (TUDARE). "What makes them great is that they have a high gradient, contain a lot of macro invertebrates, have a desirable rock-rubble substrate and are in an area with a strong conservation ethic. So, for the most part, water quality is high."
Despite the abundance of creeks, most anglers doggedly return to the same four or five streams trip after trip. On your next outing, avoid the high-profile streams like the West Fork Kickapoo, Timber Coulee and the Big Green. These rivers have received the most stream-improvement projects, have the best public access and get plenty of media coverage. They have also seen a dramatic increase in fishing pressure to the point where it is often hard to find parking, let alone a stretch on which to fish. With Wisconsin having 2,674 trout streams and 9,560 miles of trout water, this concentration of anglers on a handful of creeks defies logic. Get out and explore!
The following is a profile of some overlooked streams that are of the same high quality as the more popular creeks. You may have to navigate unmarked dirt roads traveled by Amish-driven horse and buggy, but you'll catch trout when you get there. Just be sure to know the difference between a cow and a steer standing in a streamside pasture.
Life moves a little slower out here in these parts. Farmers meet at the local co-op to talk about rain and crops, and women hand-stitch quilts. Be sure to stop in at one of the local restaurants where pies are made by Norwegian descendants, and the chocolates are handcrafted by local Amish folks.
The Rush River gets its start in St. Croix County and snakes along for about 33 miles through Pierce County before emptying into Lake Pepin on the Mississippi River.
The trout water begins at the St. Croix-Pierce County line and stretches down to a half-mile above its mouth on the Mississippi. No single road parallels the stream. South of Wonderland Road, there isn't an intersecting road for nearly two miles. The same is true from Stonehammer Road downstream to the town of El Paso. However, access can be gained at several road crossings, including highways 29, 63, 72 and 10, plus county roads N, G, BB and A, which somewhat parallels the Rush between Highway 10 south to the mouth.
This stream is full of native brook trout, stocked and native browns, and stocked rainbows. It is a Class II stream, but with over 28 miles of stocked water, it is anything but marginal.
Early in the season, fly-fishers should try No. 18 black stoneflies, No. 16 beadhead Princes and No. 18 black Copper Johns. Expect to see Baetis hatching, and you can match with about a No. 16 to No. 18 fly. Craneflies, No. 22 Hendricksons and No. 22 Blue-Winged Olives work well as the season progresses.
In the larger water around the Highway 10 bridge, you could catch 12-inch brookies and 18-inch browns.
LOST & CADY CREEKS
Lost Creek, a tributary to the Rush River, is also full of trout. A road parallels this stream, giving anglers ample places to pull the vehicle over to fish.
Cady Creek is another Pierce County stream. It is just minutes from the Rush River in the county's extreme northeast corner. For a purely native brook trout experience, try the seven miles of Class I trout water. Here you will find smaller water that is likely to be clear when larger waters are muddy. Fish from Highway 29 south to Highway P. Below Highway P, the water is marginal. The creek eventually joins the Eau Galle River.
Now we are moving much farther south to Richland County and Willow Creek, which is starting to turn some heads.
As you travel up and down Highway 58, you will have several opportunities to check out the main stem of Willow Creek and its six tributaries, all of which hold trout. Overall, there are 20 miles of Class I water to explore.
On the main stem, start at Hollow Road and fish upstream through Loyd. You will find parking at Hollow Road and also at Smyth Hollow Road, both of which are off Highway 58. Concentrate on deep undercut banks and under deadfalls to find trophy trout. There are rumors that large broodstock rainbows have been released into Willow Creek, but otherwise, you should expect to catch native brookies and wild brown trout. Beyond the usual cattle, you'll find donkeys on the land around the town of Loyd to add to the fun.
The first tributary to Willow Creek that you should try is the Little Willow on Highway NN. Other spots to try are Smith Hollow, Lost Hollow, Wheat Hollow, Jacquish Hollow and Happy Hollow. Fish the small creeks early in the season before the bank vegetation gets too high, and then again in the fall when grasshoppers pelt the water.
If you are in the area, pack a picnic lunch and stop at Pier Natural Bridge Park on Highway 80. The river runs underneath a rock wall, and it is a truly fascinating sight.
The Blue River in Grant County is an excellent trout stream, and it has a catch-and-release section that is hard to beat.
The most famous stretch is near Castle Rock, so named because of a beautiful outcropping of rock atop a bluff. Fishing these streams on weekdays in May can be an absolute joy. Cast a No. 12 or No. 14 Hare's Ear nymph into the deep pools, and get ready to set the hook.
There has been some trouble with poor water quality and manure spills over the years, but with improved management, this river is coming back.
There are six miles of Class II water and five miles of Class III, with the only wild trout being browns, while the brookies and rainbows are stocked.
For a better trouting experience, go to the Class I waters of Big Spring, which has native brookies and wild browns. Doc Smith has wild browns and rainbows, while Sixmile Branch has native brookies and stocked browns.
Like the other rivers, this watershed has miles of fishable water, good public access and many tributaries. When you're done with one stretch of stream, just hop over the ridge to the next creek.
The best fishing in Grant County is found outside the town of Boscobel on Crooked Creek. Located off Highway 61, this stream is full of wild trout. In fact, the Department of Natural Resources has used these fish to supply the genetic material for their stocking program.
If you are a purist looking for only wild native trout, this stream is a must for you to fish. A classic Wisconsin creek, it meanders through pastures with high banks and shady woods. The water is generally very clear and cold. In the five miles of stream, you are likely to catch mainly browns, but rainbows are also present.
While it is only a six-mile walk over the ridge to the Big Green, Crooked is less crowded than other creeks. Park your vehicle at any of the bridges crossing the river and you'll find access.
This is a tremendous stream that is bound to attract a lot of attention once the word gets out.
The DNR and local chapters of Trout Unlimited have spent countless dollars and man-hours putting lunker structures into hundreds of miles of Crooked Creek. 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.
"When I first started, it took us all morning to make three lunker structures," said Dave Patrick, president of the TU Blackhawk Chapter. "Now we make 50 cribs between 9 and 11:30 a.m. I have a saying that we like to use: 'Keep the main thing, the main thing,' and for us that means keeping good trout habitat our priority."
Thanks to volunteers like this, these waters are reaching their prime.
WHAT YOU WILL NEED
Here are some things you should know for planning your trip.
Choose a 3-weight fly rod for the most action and for small flies. Use a 4- or 5-weight rod for heavier nymphs and large terrestrials like grasshoppers. Rod length should be around 7 1/2 feet. These narrow streams require short casts, so plan to bring a rod that can keep your line out of the tall vegetation on the bank.
Although some streams allow for all kinds of artificial lures, flies are most common. Pick up a stone from the river bottom, see it covered with the tiny stone houses of the caddis nymphs, and you'll know why.
The best wet flies to bring are beadheads, scuds, pheasant tail nymphs, Woolly Buggers, and leech and crayfish patterns. For dry flies, bring Caddis, Blue-Winged Olives, Tricos, Renegades, mosquitoes and terrestrial imitations. At dusk, try a No. 10 Wulff for the really big browns. Some die-hards stay well into the night and use mouse flies and June bugs.
Biodegradable strike indicators can help you set the hook and won't leave a mess behind. For line, start with 5X and 6X tippets on the end of a floating line. Use 9- or 12-foot tapered leaders down to 5X.
Hip boots are sufficient for most of these western Wisconsin streams. Rarely will the water be chest high, and often you will have better fishing if you stay out of the water altogether. Neoprene is necessary only very early in the season. Otherwise, bring breathable chest waders or hip boots. Felt soles are not necessary and will only cause you to slip in the mud.
It is not uncommon to see fly-fishers kneeling next to a stream while they cast. Keep a low profile and use accurate casts for the best results. Consider putting all flashy clippers, hemostats and zingers inside a pocket to keep them from flashing in the sun. Stealth is a key on these creeks.
The DNR has worked hard with local landowners to obtain easements for public fishing. Look for the public access signs. If you don't see any, move on. There are hundreds of miles of public stream to choose from, and you will hinder the efforts of the DNR by upsetting the landowners. When in doubt, ask the landowner for permission. If you see stream improvement, take the time to thank the landowner. It will go a long way in increasing the fishable water in Wisconsin.
If you see a car parked at a pull-off or if you see anglers in the stream, go to a different creek. Trouting's golden rule always applies here. If you have ever risen at 5 a.m. to be the first at a stream and then had a guy walk in front of you and cut you off at 7 a.m., you know what I'm talking about. Treat others as you want to be treated.
As for lodging, you will find traditional hotels in the major towns, but there won't be a great selection. Instead, get the directory of Wisconsin Bed & Breakfasts, a state publication found in most rest areas along our major highways. For camping, good facilities can be found at Wildcat Mountain State Park by Ontario, Governor Dodge State Park by Dodgeville, Blue Mound State Park between Mt. Horeb and Barneveld, and Nelson Dewey State Park by Cassville.
Detailed maps of all Wisconsin trout streams -- with regulations, minimum-size limits, bag limits and class designation -- are provided by the DNR and can usually be found where you buy your license. The early season starts the first weekend in March in western Wisconsin, but with special regulations, including catch-and-release-only fishing, and the use of 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 those few streams you go to every year. It is the joy of exploring that brings anglers back for more.
"If you want big trout from 26 to 30 inches, we have them," Jeff Hastings said. "If you want a lot of action and trout in the 12- to 16-inch range, look to the tributaries that feed the large rivers. If you want brook trout, look to the upper heads of the watersheds."
Drive around to the different streams, and don't judge a creek by what you see from a bridge. Water that looks too narrow or too full of obstructions can have terrific pools just upstream. One stream in particular -- which shall remain unnamed -- looks terrible at every bridge that crosses it. On a beautiful spring day, I decided to make an adventure out of exploring this creek. I went out expecting to catch nothing. I was just going to enjoy the sunshine and the singing birds. Not more than 50 yards upstream from the first bridge, I came upon a deep pool the size of an average closet. On t
he first cast, I had a 16-inch brown, and I caught similar trout on the next five casts. That day still remains one of my best on the water.
Pay attention to the lower stretches of these watersheds as well. There may be fewer fish, but they are worth the wait because they are trophy trout. The largest fish I ever saw on a coulee creek, I never had on. I was fishing with a No. 10 Hare's Ear in a deep pool next to a mature willow tree. Under the knot of roots in the river, I hooked a 10-inch brown and was enjoying the fight. As he fought back, a 5- to 6-pound trout slid out from under the roots and took a swipe at the 10-incher! Now that was an experience! I quickly landed my fish, cut my 5X leader back to 2X, tied on my biggest streamer and went after the big guy. Cast after cast I coaxed the fly under the roots, but nothing came out. I have been back several times for that trout, but I never saw it again -- yet.
The best part of fishing in western Wisconsin is that every valley looks like an old-time postcard. Drive down country roads with names like Peaceful Valley, Waterfall and Irish Hollow. See the wild meanderings of a coulee stream and the picturesque pioneer churches on its banks. With high bluffs and clear streams, that big trout tugging on the end of your line will just be an added bonus.
(Editor's Note: Author Judy Nugent owns a farm in southwestern Wisconsin, and she spends her spare time fishing for trout. You can also hear her every week on "Outdoors With Dan Small and Judy Nugent" on your local radio station or at www.lake-link.com/radio.)