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Driftless Cows

Updated: Feb 19, 2023

After a year of living the lockdown life, I finally ventured back out into the real world. Admittedly, it was a little weird, but as COVID infections drop along with masks, I decided I could wait no longer. I deferred my 2020 trout fishing trips to Wisconsin’s Driftless Area and I was not going without again. It was great to be back.

Most trout anglers are aware of the Driftless Area, a geologically unique area that includes portions of Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. An area of hills and coulees with hundreds of miles of spring fed streams and creeks running between and through communities deeply connected to the land.

For years I have used the town of Viroqua as my base, travelling out each morning to old standbys or exploring new creeks for future reference. A late afternoon arrival gave me time to loosen up my joints from the seven-hour drive, and time for a few stops. I first checked with the folks at the Driftless Angler fly shop. Mat and Geri run a sweet little shop on the main drag and they are always tuned-in and helpful, and while I’ve never fished with a guide out of their shop, I always hear favorable reports from clients I encounter on the water. After grabbing a few pink squirrels and other need them or not supplies, I headed for a walkabout in Driftless Books and Music, a massive operation contained within one of the old Viroqua Leaf Tobacco Company buildings. An hour later I walked out de-velocitized, with a couple new titles for my home library and ready to strategize tomorrow’s deployment.

Morning means a good breakfast as I typically fish until I drop on my first day. Borgens Café in Westby is among the area’s many eateries worth the time as the food is always good and they keep the coffee coming. The café was still opting for masks and reduced capacity seating, but even with a few minor restrictions, things felt relaxed and the food was good as usual. These trips to the Driftless are always about more than fishing to me. I always look for ways to experience the community beyond the shuttle between streams and motel. Westby, a community with Norwegian roots, offers several interesting diversions like the obligatory Viking statute, Westby cheese factory, Dregne's Scandinavian Gifts, the old tobacco barn, antique shops, and the Old Towne Supper Club. Uff-da!

The first time I fished the Driftless I stayed at a private home above the North Fork of the Bad Axe River, so for sentimental reasons, I often begin my trip in this area. I remember sitting outside drinking my morning coffee watching the valley below, listening to the cloppity-clop, cloppity-clop of buggies on the pavement below; the proprietor of the lodge called it Amish rush-hour. The large Amish community intermingled with modern dairy and organic farming operations is another reason this area so unique. A merging of mostly compatible agriculture, conservation, and recreation, the area has tremendous beauty and character. Add to this mix a diversity of values, views, and lifestyles among the locals and you see a place that flourishes at many levels.

Using one of the many public access easements that can found in the area, streamside confirmed what I observed on my journey, water levels were low and clear. As long as the clouds would stay, fishing should be challenging but productive. Few fish were rising this morning, so I opted for nymphing through the first several pools and along the undercuts. The trek up stream was nice as early Spring means manageable vegetation and the low water allowed me to bounce from side to side with ease as necessary. Within an hour I had caught a couple 10-inch browns, and little further upstream produced a couple smallish brookies. Tough fishing but I was happy to be there with the water and early flora at my feet. I was also happy to see substantial streamside vegetation control was initiated the previous year providing much improved access through a tangle of trees and brush that had become unmanageable to fish.

My evening trek involved a stop along a 100-yard stretch of the West Fork of the Kickapoo River. The river is extensive and a popular stop for anglers, but with a little work, you can easily separate yourself from others. Footprints told me that other anglers had recently passed through, but I have never actually encountered another person on this particular stretch while fishing. The meandering Kickapoo offers lots of nice holes and undercut banks and when a hatch is lacking, stripping a wooly-bugger or leech deep always produces some nicer browns. The background music is nice too as crowing pheasants and calling sandhills fill between the sounds of geese, various songbirds, and the chatter of an annoyed nearby mink.

I should also point out for those of you who don’t already know, everything is connected to everything, and this is especially true of birds and trout. I know this because when my eyes and mind shift to the sight and sounds of a particular bird, my indicator disappears and there is a tug on the line. I’m still working on this puzzle of nature as classes in ornithology and ichthyology failed to uncover this mysterious link in the ecological web of life.

Day two was a more relaxed version of day one. An early stop at the Viroqua Food Co-op, a wonderful place for locally raised and freshly prepared foods, provided me with great coffee and a fresh breakfast sandwich for the road. On this day I would spend a few morning hours on the well-known Timber Coulee. Even though this stream is popular and heavily fished I like to hit a stretch early before most other anglers arrive. The fishing is usually decent and the drive into the valley is always a visual treat.

As is the case on many of the streams in the area, you will likely have to navigate some fencing and there may be a few cows here and there. A few years ago, a large hand painted sign at an access point reminded me that bulls and trout fishermen may not be compatible, and on another creek, a herd of Jerseys followed me upstream. Not sure if their vocalizations were encouragement or a warning, I decided to keep ‘er moving, as they say. Fencing kept them from following my truck as I drove away.

The evening of day two was an exploratory trip to a stream that had recently benefited from some improvement work. Many area landowners recognize the benefits of these projects and often team up with the local Trout Unlimited folks and Department of Natural Resources to create habitat or improve public access. On this evening, I would discover new water and experience a nice hatch that resulted in a few brookies on dry flies.

Day three was completely exploratory fishing, driving the backroads with my map in hand, jumping in and out of the truck to fish and making note on locations and future possibilities. Others have reported that the COVID experience has pushed more folks outdoors. I can confirm that the waters were a little more crowded than what I usually experience for the time of year, but a little etiquette and coordination with other anglers minimized conflicts and also made for some nice conversation.

Except for a few minor inconveniences here and there, it was clear that people were putting COIVD in the rearview mirror, and four days in the Driftless was a critical step in restoring my life back to something that seemed normal. I look forward to returning in the fall before waterfowl fly. See you in the coulees, and maybe at the Driftless Café. If I’m not there yet, order me a Spotted Cow. I may not live there, but I am indigenous.

Originally Published, Driftwood Outdoors, June 24, 2021

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