I feel like a kid again, pedaling a single speed bike down a county road just outside Viroqua, Wisconsin. There’s a spring creek along the road, one I fished with friends a couple of days ago. Every so often I catch a glimpse of its flows through the roadside thicket.
I’ve got my fly rod in my backpack along with a couple boxes of flies. The sweat is trickling down the back of my neck as I push up a hill in the sweltering heat. I keep guessing the next rise will crest and reveal the open pasture we fished. But I’m wrong and wrong again.
Finally, I round a corner and the woods break and I’m there. I ditch my bike in the tall grass beside the road and walk to the bridge to rig up my rod.
The brown trout are still rising in the pool a few hundred feet upstream. It seems as though the day past was just a dream. Something feels timeless here.
And Wisconsin’s Driftless area may be a land time forgot. Or better, a place to forget about time.
I came here from Bozeman, Montana, not exactly the most high-stress place I’ve ever been. Still, the country drive to Viroqua through rural farmland along the languid banks of the Mississippi River felt like a long embrace. And this bike ride, a remembrance of youth and innocence and things not too distant.
Viroqua is a mix of Amish farmers and hippies and trout bums, at least that’s what my old college buddy Mike Kallock told me when he invited me to come east to fish.
How could I resist?
It’s also got miles and miles of intimate spring creeks loaded with brown and brook trout. Spared the scouring of the last ice age, the Driftless Area looks like no other region in the Midwest. Its rolling hills, heavy vegetation and hidden waters a virtual wonderland for the inquisitive angler. A maze of valleys, glens and hollows, nearly every one is bisected by a spring creek. Norwegian Hollow, Hornby Creek, the South Fork of the Bad Axe, Timber Coulee … each valley and each water a world unto itself.
My good friend Pete Cozad took the time to show me some of the best the Driftless has to offer. While I didn’t catch a trout on the area’s fab pattern – the pink squirrel – I did pick up some fine fish on a variety of dries, nymphs and streamers.
The fishing was nothing if not fun. The sight of trout slashing from their bankside burrows to smack a streamer or down a dry fly never gets old.
We fished for three days on a number of enchanting creeks. In the bush we battled gnats, wild parsnip and stinging thistles, netting trout along the way. Wisconsin’s Driftless Area requires tight, accurate casts and the patience to untangled a fly or two, but the trout are healthy and eager to take a well-presented imitation.
Terrestrials make up a large portion of the Driftless diet. These trout like ants and beetles and crickets as much as mayflies and caddis and midges. Crayfish patterns and small wooly buggers stripped or dead drifted will also draw strikes.
If your fortunate enough to catch a hatch, the fishing can be phenomenal, Cozad said. The occasional baetis or caddis hatch can turn the tiny creeks to a tumult of activity.
For as much fun as the fishing is, the countryside and people of the Driftless Area are equally appealing. Dotted with small, picaresque farms, the region is home to a significant Amish population, a large organic agricultural community and a variety of trout bums and assorted characters.
Get in good with the locals and you might find yourself treated to some of the best meals of your life, two Blatz too tipsy at a barn dance or red faced with ripe Amish strawberries.
As I dropped into Reads Creek on my last day fishing the Driftless, I scanned the water for a rising fish. He wasn’t hard to find, just a few yards upstream along the bank.
I cast a slow loop over the water and let my fly drift above the trout. He turned down my offer and I cast again. Same result.
A few more casts and I was sure he’d spooked, or certainly quit feeding.
But I just kept casting. For almost an hour. That same slow loop.
To enjoy the wash of water on my bare legs, the sticky heat of summer’s embrace, it was enough just to be there for a moment, alone and at home in the Driftless.
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