As summer putters out with the occasional warm day, thoughts of fall fishing is almost constantly on my mind. In Iowa’s driftless region, fall fishing is one of the best all-around times of the year to fly fish. Warm sun and cool temps give way to some of the most comfortable fishing all year. Cozy layers allow the angler to stay warm, yet adequately move. I relish a day on the stream with a nice cool breeze and warm sun on my back. Lying in the dried grasses near the stream, knowing that the snow that will soon cover the landscape is on the way, is a treat. Even the drive to the stream is a simple pleasure, looking upon the changing colors of the leaves, wildlife, and the farmers harvesting their crop.
Trout fishing can be phenomenal this time of year in the driftless. Baetis hatches are frequent, and nymphing becomes an effective tactic to land big browns as the season wears on and temperatures cool.
While I love to fish for trout in the fall weather, unfortunately my schedule doesn’t always afford me the ability to pick up and go. When pressed for time, I have found some of the best all-around fly fishing can be found within a mile of home. During the fall, Walleye begin their run up our local rivers, and smallmouth are still to be found. These heavy, hard-fighting fish can provide some of the best fight on a fly rod. Walleye seem to begin to eat as the sun sets in the fall. The fish become aggressively predatory, and much like when a trout takes a fly, the feel of the fight is addictive. Walleye fishing gives me the chance to cast my 8wt and does a great job getting that fly out there, but when I want to have a little fun, I’ll bring along my 6wt. There’s nothing like wrapping your rod over on a warmwater fish- and walleye can feel like hooking into a unhappy log. Do be careful fishing as the sun sets. Casting a weighted fly requires you take your surroundings into account (as well as yourself-ears, eyes, etc.) Find a spot that affords you and others some safety.
Depending on water conditions, a weighted or sinking leader might be useful to get that fly down into a feeding zone for the fish. You’ll want to try various water depths dependent upon temperature. The end of a pool or a run in the river seem to be practical places to find walleye. As far as flies, clousers, buggers, and zonkers stripped in at varying speeds can produce some great fish. I’ve found baitfish patterns work best in the river I fish. These are patterns that readily available for purchase and/or are easy to tie.
I use a non-slip mono loop connection for my tippet or leader to fly connection. This simple knot gives the fly a lot of play in the water and is durable as well. You may have to experiment in your own water to determine what strategy works best to hook into your fish. I cast upstream, pause to allow the fly to sink, and then use short strips to give the fly movement as the current swings the fly downstream. I vary this of course, on river conditions and structure.
I feel one of the best aspects of fishing for walleye or smallmouth is the simplicity. For me, it’s a short drive that allows me to be casting in a matter of minutes, which I consider therapy. I can take along minimal gear- a puck of flies, my mitten scissors or nippers, some tippet, and I am fishing.
We all dream of fishing on these beautiful days in fall, though it’s is a very busy time for almost everyone. Next time the fly fishing fever hits this fall, take a quick trip to the river. A short outing can provide an exciting and inexpensive experience.
Over the past two years, it’s been fun to see the increasing interest in fly fishing the spring creeks of the Driftless region of the Midwest. Those of us who live here and regularly fish this area have known of its natural beauty and incredible angling for years, but as the allure of small stream fishing has taken off around the country, media has helped uncover this rich fishery in the agricultural Midwest.
The Driftless region is an area of land that encompasses Southeast Minnesota, Northeast Iowa, Southwest Wisconsin, and Northwest Illinois. It’s named for an area of land that millions of years ago, avoided a glacial drift, flattening the surrounding landscapes into fertile cropland that is stereotypically thought of when you think of the area. The result is a pocket of land that geologists refer to as karst topography- land that is characterized by sinkholes, towering limestone bluffs, ridges, deep valleys, caves, and coldwater springs. The region is a stark contrast to the area that surrounds it, the landscape changing abruptly as one travels into the area from the flat farmland to the rolling hills then deep bluffs as you near the Mississippi River valley. Historically a farming region, the area has given way to a host of “locally-grown” tourism options, recreational opportunities, cultural and art events, organic farms, wineries and microbreweries, and unique businesses. The cold water springs, numbering easily in the thousands throughout the region, feed streams that maintain temperatures in the low 50s, supporting a healthy environment for trout, making it a year-round destination trip for those who love fishing spring creeks.
Throughout most of the Driftless region, 3 major species (brook, brown, and rainbow) of trout are to be found. Iowa has over 50 streams in the Driftless region that sustain trout and many other “put and grow” streams where stream-raised fish grow and mature. This makes for a variety of fishing options dependent on location, physical ability, and skill level. Many of these streams rely on a stocking program with the hard work of the DNR, with an increasing number of them sustaining wild populations of trout. Groups like Trout Unlimited and other conservation organizations work to increase public awareness of these fisheries, help with project workdays, and promote conservation education. The result is world-class fishing in our own backyard. It’s been said that skill-wise, if you can effectively fish spring creeks, you can effectively trout fish anywhere using techniques that allow the angler to break-down water, cast to difficult areas, and get a fly to where a fish is feeding on the surface or below.
Fishing spring creeks during spring in Iowa means some interesting water conditions and new opportunities. Like waters in other places, snow melt, run-off, and rains mean varying water levels and clarity. This can be a challenge sometimes, but carrying streamers, bwo patterns, hendricksons, adams, and some attractor nymphs is almost always the answer. Streamer fishing almost anytime the water is off-color can bring up big fish, and the flashes of yellow or silver through the cloudy water is nothing short of exciting. Easier walking and wading without the lush grasses that make casting and negotiating streams in the summer a little more difficult makes up for the uncertainty of weather in the spring.
Summer and fall are one the best times of the year to fish due to a variety of different hatches and bugs on the water. Caddis are a staple of trout diet here throughout the summer, but as the season rolls along, terrestrials like beetles, ants, crickets, and hoppers offer some of the most exciting fishing of the year. These are sometimes simple patterns but offered in the right environment and time can mean explosive takes and beautiful fish. A personal favorite is a foam cricket pattern skittered across pocket water on some of our wooded streams. A dark seam of water comes alive when a brown trout keys in on a well-drifted terrestrial. Even mouse patterns, a fly that swept the fly fishing world after the epic fly fishing film Eastern Rises was released, fished at dusk in late summer can produce some hungry brown trout. Be warned: big fish on quiet water in near darkness is not for the faint of heart when a fish decides to eat.
Because the streams remain a constant temperature and flow, fly fishing the Driftless (in states that permit it) is possible and fruitful through the winter. Granted, telling folks that you are going fishing on an 18 degree day with windchill takes some explaining and maybe some convincing. However, fishing the streams in the winter has been some of our most productive time on the water, with brilliantly colored, eager to eat fish. During this time, nymph fishing is the way to go, with small midge nymphs and attractor patterns. When the sun pops out and temperatures warm to the 20s and 30s, some risers can be taken on small dry patterns with accurate casts and light leaders. Even on a bad day, and we’ve all had them, winter fishing with the cold and breaking ice out of the guides if for nothing else makes you appreciate the warmer weather that is inevitably ahead.
What makes fishing these places in the Driftless special isn’t always the fishing, but the scenery and sometimes journey to get there. The local charm of out-of-the-way restaurants, casting beneath towering bluffs, watching the fog roll off a cool stream or through a valley during a humid day in summer, or fishing under the watchful eye of a Holstein cow adds to the experience as much as catching fish
Two years ago, the staff at our middle school began to think creatively about activities we could get students involved in. Our goal was to connect students to fitness and promote healthy choices and lifestyles. We considered a wide array of clubs that promoted wellness and fun- snowshoeing, running, tai chi, and yoga. The idea was to give the students a choice and make it fun, and it’s more likely that the activity and healthy choices will become a permanent part of their life. The same philosophy applies to adults. As a track and cross country coach, I sponsored a “run club” and was pleasantly surprised by the number of students that came early to school to run. The clubs were a wonderful outlet for kids who had varied interests who may or may not already belong to a team sport and a place to make new friends. Feeling, however, that I had omitted one of my life’s great passions, I introduced a “fly fishing club.” I recruited my friend and seasonal guide to come help us out.
The club generated some immediate interest from a few skeptical/curious students. I can’t blame them; in our corner of the world, if you casually mention “fly fishing” it either conjures images of fishing for or with houseflies or among adults, “A River Runs Through It,” the only connection to fly fishing they have thanks to Hollywood. I guess if they have us fly fisherman equated with Brad Pitt in some form or another then we’re doing alright.
The club met every Friday morning and we had three students that showed up regularly. We covered setup, knots, casting, even some fly tying and entomology. Kids are much better students than we sometimes give them credit, especially when they are interested. I say this with experience as a classroom teacher and a former swim lessons instructor for both children and adults. Adults would come to lessons with pre-conceived ideas or things they have seen which resulted in muscle memory habits that are often difficult to break. The same applies to fly fishing. Kids are interested and new to these skills and are often in the mindset of being a student, that is to say, teachable and willing to learn. It seems we sometimes lose this ability as we grow older.
We culminated the year with a casting competition for a puck of flies that my friend had tied. Nearly all the weeks of casting skills we had taught flew out the window as the students worked to hit the target we had placed out in front of them. They laughed, struggled, and had a great time. The skills didn’t matter- they were having fun, and that’s what it’s about. Eventually one of them, slowed down his cast, hit the target, and was beaming with his new prize. Those are the moments that you do this kind of thing for: the look on his face was reward enough and reassurance we needed to keep the club going.
When school started in August of this year, students were already asking about when Fly Fishing Club would start. A fall coach, I planned on November as a good time to begin, allowing fall sports and that “settling in” time to expire. The club had generated more interest this year, a few newcomers that had talked to me in hall. My favorite line, “Hey Mr. R, I’m kind of interested in fly fishing club this year. I don’t know- fly fishing- it just seems like it would be something good for me to know.”
When November came around we had five attendees show and have had near perfect attendance since. We started with the same skills as last year, spending some Fridays in the classroom on knots and some at our pool, working on roll casts with hookless hoppers. We put our focus on fly tying this year, however. Tying, as we know, involves some tools and some expense, and being no money in the school budget for vises and the pieces of various animals we require, we sought out a grant from our state DNR.
The grant provided us funds for a trip and materials. In the meantime, we reached out to various TU chapters and fly fishing associations across the state for help. These are amazing groups of people when it comes to helping kids. Days after requesting help, I was sent an email from a man across the state who wanted to help out by sending us his old vise and tool set. He shipped it that day (which must have been pricey to do) so that a student could have the opportunity to learn to tie. It’s been used every Friday since. More recently, a man sent us homemade bobbins and threaders to use in our club, and another chapter is setting us up with used rod/reel combos for next year’s club. The generosity we’ve had bestowed on our group is incredible and speaks for the generous attitudes of fly fishermen and women.
With tying, our emphasis has been on making it fun. We chose some beginner patterns to start with and let the students decide the colors. We try to repeat the pattern the next time, so it sticks. We’ve tied a lot of wooly buggers and beetles, flies they can use around town on the river and ponds. Quick learners, they have learned how to use the tools and ask questions when they need help. I’ve been amazed with their excitement and enthusiasm. Every Thursday afternoon they make sure we’re still on for Friday morning and ask to borrow copies of Fly Fisherman magazine or the Feathercraft catalog to look at on weekends. The Friday before spring break, they convinced their study hall teacher to host an impromptu fly tying session during the last half hour of the day. It’s fun to hear them talking about fly fishing in the hall or during free time in class. They talk gear, flies, and where they want to fish. A few of them have really found their creative niche with fly tying, bringing in patterns they’ve tied and the stories of their experiences. They find patterns they like, ask questions, and experiment with hooks and materials they are finding everywhere. It’s refreshing and inspiring to see their ingenuity. I’ll never forget the mouse pattern one student brought in a few weeks ago. He had seen it in a magazine and did a great job replicating the pattern down to the shoestring he creatively used for a tail. He told me how he had glued it, and as I held it, I could still feel some moisture. I quickly asked, “Is this wet glue?,” not wanting to pry my fingers apart. His reply, “No, I just tested it in the sink before I came to school!”
I don’t believe that these kids have a real understanding of how excited we as instructors are to be a part of this club as much as they are. Introducing them to a new skill, helping them to tie a fly and be proud of what they created, and seeing their reaction to a technique has been a rewarding experience. At the end of April, we’re taking our club on one of our first club fishing trips to trout streams north of us. We’re all very excited to put their skills to the test and looking forward to a memorable day on the water.
I think I’ve read every reason that has been written to explain why someone fly fishes. Many are cliché: to get away from it all, to enjoy the solitude, to spend time with friends and family, the serenity, or perhaps the spiritual experience of connecting to nature. Everyone comes to fly fishing for different reasons and under different circumstances. Those who have fallen under its spell know that it becomes more than a hobby or a sport. It’s a passion, a livelihood. It’s something that transports you from the mundane routine of everyday life to a world of excitement, appreciation of nature, and a challenge to your skill. We envy those who get to fish often, and look forward to the next cast. As a former avid golfer-turned fly fisherman, I liken the feeling in your hands of a good golf shot to the feeling of making a physical connection with the handle of your fly rod when you hook up with a fish. The feeling never leaves your hands and draws you back time and again.
I am a restless person. Since I was a kid, I have had a hard time sitting still. I was constantly rearranging my room, building “forts” in the backyard, or inventing something. My grandpa taught me to be a fisherman. Trips to the river, ponds and lakes, and Minnesota taught me the first skills I need to hook a sucker, a bullhead, and later a crappie, bluegill, walleye, or bass. Before the day of the Internet I read books published in the 50s from the public library to learn more about species of fish I only dreamed about catching. I loved to learn about something I was interested in and still do. When I was 12, my grandpa gave me a fIy rod he had no use for. Fly rods in the flat farmland of Iowa are few and far between. I loved the idea of fly fishing, but had no idea what I was doing. I read all I could, but without someone to show me, I did my best to mimic the actions I had seen. Despite catching a few bluegills in a local pond, casting in the backyard was about as far as I got with my fly rod, which was soon “benched” for a more practical spin reel. I loved fishing, but as I grew up, time on the water took a backseat to sports, cars, girls, and college.
I returned to fly fishing through two individuals at just the right time in my life by means of a high school friend and a former athlete-turned-best-friend. In my early twenties I went on a summer camping trip with some friends from high school. One morning, my buddy and his wife left to try trout fishing a nearby stream, and on a whim, I decided to join them. On light tackle and a spin rod, I landed my first trout in years. The excitement of the possibility of catching such an intelligent creature and fishing a dark, cold, unknown stream drew me in. The next 3 months turned into the “summer of trout fishing,” a 2-3 times/week affair that afforded me the best distraction from the reality of my life and the purpose of the initial trip: getting away with some friends after a sudden divorce had turned my world on end. My life as I knew it had been ripped apart, but trout fishing gave me a new definition and a new identity.
Spin fishing was productive, but the restless side of me wanted a challenge. I turned to an athlete of mine, a runner who loved fly fishing and who was the only person I knew that could help me get a handle on what I needed to invest in, knots, set-up, etc. He patiently taught me everything I needed to know, and my enthusiasm filled the gaps with reading and research in books, magazines, and the Internet. He helped to fix my mistakes, took me along on trips to our spring creeks, showed me places to fish, showed me how to get a good drift, set the hook, tie flies, and how to be a more efficient fly fisherman. The friendship lasted well past his high school days, through his guide school in Montana, and into his first guide job in Maine, then Montana. Our friendship has afforded me the opportunity to fish for landlocked salmon on Grand Lake Stream, steelhead on the Brule, big browns and bows on the Madison, Box Canyon, and the tricky Henry’s Fork. Though I’ll never be the technician that he is, our mutual passion feeds off one another. He’ll be incredibly successful either on his own or to a business in the industry and I envy the courage it took him to seek out a career that is unheard of in our school system and the passion that keeps him always dreaming and moving forward.
Amanda and I got married in June a few years ago. Our first date we spent at a large, ponded, natural spring, watching a BWO hatch, tiny trout feeding at a free buffet. She was eager to learn to fly fish, and turned out to be a natural. When I proposed, I surprised her at that spring during a fishing trip this time, in waders, with a ring. Her and I have spent many days on the water. I savor every moment. She is a quick learner, and fishing has been competitive whether it be on our annual steelhead trip, on vacation in Montana or Colorado, or home on our spring creeks. Her and I and now our guide friend are practically family, spending winters tying, and warm summers on the stream or river. In our small town, I feel like the three of us have an exclusive fly fishing club. Walking into our downtown coffee shop, I wonder if anyone thinks twice about what my Simms hats mean. Then again, it’s probably as cryptic as the snowmobilers’ jackets are to me.
I somehow feel “richer” as a fly fisherman. I have never made an income from it, but it has enriched my life. I often think about what fly fishing has given to me and how I can begin to give back, or “pay forward” what I have been given. As a teacher, I have had that chance. Each year, I take students to a spring creek north of our town during an activity day. Prior to the trip, we talk about what trout eat, their habits, and the importance of catch and release. They always have fun and learn how tricky catching a trout can be. For some, it’s their first, maybe only, experience fishing. I like sharing that. Last year, with a partnership with my local TU chapter, we started Trout in the Classroom, a TU program where students learn about watersheds, raise and care for trout eggs in the classroom, and release them in the spring. The kids loved it, were sad when a few died, and got to experience nature first hand. We’re set to begin our second year of TIC this January. With the help of my friend, we started a fly fishing club at my school. A devoted group of 5 students came each Friday morning to learn about set-up, casting, tied flies, and put their skills to the test with some casting contests. This year, we’ve earned a grant for fly tying materials and a fishing trip for the club. It’s given some of the kids involved an identity and an activity to be involved in that they may not have had otherwise. I love to teach, to help people discover something new. It’s the reason I became a teacher in the first place. Combining that and a personal passion has been a lot of fun for me. Maybe someday I’ll try my hand at guiding.
A person has no idea what life has in store for them. That’s the adventure. All the experiences- good and bad- help to shape a person. We’ve all made choices we’d take back, but that’s not part of the deal. Becoming a fly fisherman has been one of the best choices of my entire life. It gives me peace of mind, an outlet to creativity, an escape, friendships, happiness, and humbling experiences that keep me coming back. I look forward to someday sharing my passion (the good with the bad) with my own children.