May 26, 2022
I was 38, sitting in a Trout Unlimited meeting, when I first heard the word "Driftless." New to the group, I was caught off-guard by the electricity in the air as planning ensued for a fishing trip to the “Driftless Area.”
As a Wisconsin native who grew up 40 miles north of Milwaukee, I was a bit embarrassed to learn of its proximity to my hometown. Phrases like “world-class trout water" and "7,000 trout per mile," caught my attention that day.
However, it wasn’t until I drove up a hill and gazed down on this area that the glaciers missed that I realized what I’d been missing.
Unless you’re familiar with the region, you might have visions of flat farmland when you think of this part of the Midwest. That’s fair, as much of the Midwest is just that.
As an angler, you’re likely familiar with the great warm-water fishing nearby. However, the Driftless Area is something altogether different and unique for this portion of the country. It’s an assortment of cold-water fisheries nestled amidst the farms—a trout angler’s unexpected paradise.
FINDING A BASECAMP
During the last Ice Age, as the glaciers were hard at work flattening the Midwest, they left behind sediment and debris called "drift." However, the glaciers receded before flattening an area where the states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois meet—a region now known as the Driftless Area.
Comprising approximately 24,000 square miles, the landscape is characterized by deeply carved river valleys, steep hills and vast forested ridges. Among its beautiful terrain you’ll find spring-fed waterfalls and 13,000 miles of spring creeks, all teeming with trout.
While the entire area boasts remarkable trout fishing, the majority of the Driftless Area is found in the state of Wisconsin. Work done by Trout Unlimited chapters from Wisconsin and Illinois has greatly improved the water in the Badger State, and the Wisconsin DNR has worked hard with landowners to create public access throughout that area of the Driftless.
Because of these two factors, it is my opinion that if you’re traveling to the Driftless Area to fish, you should focus your efforts on Wisconsin, particularly the tiny town of Viroqua.
A stroll down Viroqua’s Main Street will bring you to a co-op full of locally harvested produce, a fine selection of local beer and wine and even a great little sandwich counter where you can order up lunch for your day on the water. While the downtown area boasts small and unique shopping of all kinds, my first stop is always The Driftless Angler. This small fly shop is chock full of everything you’ll need to be successful fishing the Driftless. Mat and Geri, the fly shop’s owners, are quick to open a map, show you where the fishing is hot and offer up fly selections.
The entire area is wade-fishing only, and you can easily plan out a DIY trip on your own. However, I suggest hiring a guide through the shop on your first trip, even if it’s for half a day.
Because the area has so much accessible water, it is the perfect location for anglers of all ages and all levels, but some areas are more technical than others. In addition, because of the sheer amount of fishable water, it can be overwhelming when you open the gazetteer for the first time. Hiring a guide helps you be successful at the start, and from there you’ll be able to do it yourself for years to come.
Brown trout are prolific throughout the area, so expect to find some beauties. While the typical size of Driftless browns is 8 to 12 inches, you can find some monsters lurking in the deep holes and in undercut banks. There are also possibilities for rainbows and brookies, as well as a rare tiger trout, but you’ll probably put more browns in the net than anything else.
CHARTING A COURSE
So many great streams surround the Viroqua area that it’s difficult deciding what to fish first. You can stay for a week and never fish the same stretch twice. My journey usually finds me donning my waders and heading to an area called Coon Creek, home to the fabled Timber Coulee Creek. Located straight north of Viroqua and at the meeting points of La Crosse, Vernon and Monroe counties, this stretch of water holds 7,000 trout per mile.
That may sound like an exaggeration, but take one step too close to the stream and you’ll see the bottom change color as trout scatter. While most of Timber Coulee is privately owned, the Wisconsin DNR has leased access from landowners along the stream.
As a result, anglers can fish almost the entire length.
Timber Coulee can be fished by any number of methods. I’ve had success with dry flies, wet flies, streamers and nymphs. If you love top-water action, the bug hatches throughout the Driftless are prolific in spring and summer, especially at Timber Coulee.
I’ve found that rigging up two rods—one with a dry fly and one with a streamer—has suited me well. I like dead-drifting an attack midge pattern in purple through the stretch first. Then, I follow it with a yellow fox streamer once I’ve covered the water thoroughly. I always drift the dry fly first to avoid spooking fish by ripping a streamer through the hole.
The West Fork
From Timber Coulee, I normally head southeast to the West Fork of the Kickapoo, affectionately known simply as the West Fork. Located just outside the hamlet of Avalanche, this is the widest of all the area’s streams. Finding a parking spot along the West Fork should be easy. Because of the stream’s size, expect to catch bigger browns here, often in the 12- to 15-inch bracket. It’s also probably your best bet at a tiger trout, but don’t hold your breath.
Because of its width, the West Fork makes for easy wading. You can also catch more fish in a smaller area, meaning you don’t have to cover a lot of water to find a great day of fishing. This is perfect if you have difficulty walking a long way. The width also makes casting easier, so this stream is great for newer anglers. On the West Fork, the Pink Squirrel, a locally created and tied fly, never disappoints. Grab one at the local shop and tie it on under a hopper. It’s a killer pattern here.
I usually end my day on the South Fork Bad Axe River, southwest of Viroqua. The Bad Axe is my favorite place to fish into the evening hours. At night, I turn on my headlamp and head to the riverbank with a mouse pattern. Popping a mouse off the shore in the dark is a surefire tactic for big browns. Just check out the section you intend to fish during daylight hours so you know where to park and enter, and look for any obstacles that might trip you up in the dark.
As stated earlier, many of the stream banks in Wisconsin’s portion of the Driftless Area have been improved. While this makes for spectacular fish habitat, it also means you should be aware of the riverbank. In some places, fish hole up just a foot or two under the bank’s edge. Tread lightly when you approach the stream, or you’ll spook fish you want to target.
Many streams have yellow signs that say “Public Access Fishing Only.” You’ll see breaks in the fences created for anglers to enter. Be courteous. Pack in and pack out so farmers continue allowing access.
Many dairy farms also allow public access. Unless a sign says “Bull in Pasture,” you should be safe walking to the river near cows. No doubt they’ve seen hundreds, if not thousands, of anglers grace their pastures. Use caution all the same.
Also, consider donning long sleeves and pants or waders when fishing the Driftless, even during the heat of the summer. Wild parsnip is abundant and is phototoxic. If you brush against the yellow flower when the sun is shining, it will cause blisters. Avoid this by fishing in the spring or fall, or by covering yourself from head to toe.
The Driftless Area has so much water that it would be impossible to cover even the highlights in one article. Instead, I suggest simply experiencing it for yourself. Once you do, you’ll be planning yearly trips.
After you arrive and get your wading feet under you, crack open a locally-brewed Spotted Cow, take some time to appreciate the scenery and consider what the world would be missing had the glaciers continued just a little farther.
Where to stay, eat and explore around Viroqua
If the Wisconsin Driftless is calling your name, there are many places you can call home for the duration of your trip. The Driftless Angler has a large apartment above the shop with all the comforts of home, including a kitchen, two large bedrooms and a big living room. It’s perfect if you’re bringing the family because it’s conveniently located near great shopping and dining, and you can hang out at the fly shop.
For those who love a good ol’ Wisconsin supper club, a stay at Old Towne Inn and Supper Club down the road from Viroqua in Westby is the ticket. While not the fanciest of stays, it’s clean and warm and within walking distance of the best supper club in town, complete with great steaks, a huge salad bar and a good Wisconsin Brandy Old Fashioned.
If camping’s more your speed, nice campgrounds throughout the area offer a spot to pop your tent. A favorite is the West Fork Sports Club. This members-only campground will set you back a whole $30 per year to join, but it offers spots for motorhomes and tents and even has cabins for rent at reasonable prices. It’s right along the West Fork of the Kickapoo, so you can literally walk out your door and fish. In recent times, this area has been prone to flooding, so check the weather before you book your stay or be prepared to stay in town should the weather look wet.
Depending on the time of year you visit, Viroqua offers plenty of events, from flea markets to farmers markets and even the county fair. There is a abundance of Amish furniture stores and markets to visit as well.
There are 200 certified-organic farms in Vernon County alone and The Driftless Café—located just off Main Street and within walking distance of The Driftless Angler—utilizes those farms to craft a menu that changes nightly. Foodies will appreciate the creative, seasonally focused menu concepts, and all will love the cozy interior. Belly up to the bar that has a trout inlay on top and order a local cocktail while you wait. Get reservations early, though, because The Driftless Café can be difficult to get into during peak season.