Tag Archives: summer

Green Grass and Dry Flies

Fly Fishing the Driftless

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

Epic Hatches and Other Rural Legends

Results

“The hatch is just above the bridge!” said the voice from the phone.  While this may be a rather innocuous phrase to the non-angler, in me, it induced an involuntary fist pump, a silent whoop, and a sudden onset of Steve Martin’s Happy Feet in the middle of my office cubicle.  I was calling the fly shop in Ashton for the sixth consecutive day, asking about the salmon fly hatch.  Ignoring the strange looks from my fellow office workers, minutes later my friend and I were escaping the gopher farm and racing our way across the Idaho desert toward an afternoon of casting orange bellied behemoths, more akin to miniature Goodyear blimps, than the delicate creations normally presented to Henry’s Fork trout.

The guy in the shop answering the phone each morning understood completely and likely would have had a similar reaction to mine if the roles were reversed. Surely he had been tolerating the daily inquiries, in anticipation of the fulfillment of the unspoken agreement that we would be stopping into the shop to purchase a few of his handmade creations in exchange for the information we anxiously pursued.  It is my adherence to this type of arrangement that helps to explain the many boxes of “local flies” that continue to fill every pocket, pouch, and sleeve in my fly vest.  Indeed, you can never have too many flies. You just don’t have to carry ALL of them with you everywhere you go. Last year, I consolidated some of these into boxes that would only be inserted for a trip to that specific locale.  The alternative being a vest more suited for combat training than fly fishing.

Eventually, every angler decides to target a specific hatch of insects.  Sometimes it is on local waters; sometimes great distances are traveled in hopes of fishing the often finicky, always ephemeral, and like most things in nature unpredictable, and yet potentially epic insect hatches.  I once shared a flight home to Idaho Falls with a couple from New Zealand who were targeting the Mother’s Day hatch on the Madison.  We all found it amusing that we both wanted to circumnavigate the globe to fish each other’s home waters.

Some believe that these epic hatches are nothing short of urban legends; or perhaps rural legends as it were.  My wife has yet to experience a true dry fly hatch of any kind.  Last June, in an effort to remedy this situation, I scheduled a guided trip for us in Yellowstone National Park.  The week preceding our trip it rained nonstop causing the rivers in the park to swell well beyond their banks.  I still remember the look on our guide’s face as he implored us saying “please don’t make me take you into The Park today”.  We gladly changed our plans to float the Madison and had a fantastic day throwing rubber legs.  While my wife landed countless trout that day, an insect hatch remained in the same category as our elusive friend Sasquatch.

Trout Food...I find it interesting that while trout play a critical role in this pursuit, the primary focus is on a species of insect. This change in focus allows anglers to tolerate what, under other circumstances would be considered unbearable conditions.  Combat fishing; which is normally avoided by all but the most oblivious, some might say imbecilic, of anglers, is suddenly kosher.  It seems that when the fish are eating flies as if they were a bunch of skittles that have been strewn about the floor of a day care center, an occasional tangle with another angler is abided by all.  The solitude so often sought in our sport becomes a party where proximity is only limited by the propensity to catch each other, wasting precious fishing time.

Ed and I had a blast splashing down sofa pillows that day on the Henry’s Fork.  Despite having wings, salmon flies are clearly not designed for flight, especially in the windy conditions of Eastern Idaho. I have to admit that having giant bugs crash land into your head and proceed to crawl up your body in search of who knows what, is a bit unnerving.  Eventually I discovered that the brim of my hat is their preferred vantage point.

Whether it be cicadas, green drakes, salmon flies, bikinis, stones, or sallies, chasing something that may or may not happen when and where you end up adds another dimension to an already fascinating obsession.   I just heard that the green drakes are coming off on the Middle Provo and my happy feet are shuffling toward the truck…

Montana Thunderstorm

Yellowstone – A Multi Part Series – 6 of 6

The passage of time is a peculiar thing. It seems that if we are involved in something we don’t particularly like, the seconds pass thick and slow with now rhythm or pace, everything is laborious and clunky. Then there are days when we are so full of what we enjoy and what we love that it is as if time were racing away at warp speed. It was with this thought in mind that I found myself looking square into the last two days of the tour. I had completely abandoned any concept of time to the point that most days it could have been Tuesday or perhaps Sunday and it would have made no difference. Light and dark, awake and asleep…that pretty much summed up existence in Yellowstone, and by the time I had realized what was happening, I was looking into the face of the one thing I hadn’t taken into account. The trip was coming to an end.

 

After leaving Slough Creek, we drove across the amazing chaos that is Yellowstone and up into Montana. One thing that never ceased to amaze me about this National Park was the quick change of the geographic, geologic, and topographic nature of the landscape. Drive a few miles in one type of terrain, cross a hill, and it is as if someone has plucked you out of one place on the planet and deposited you in another location thousands of miles away. Surreal would be an easily overused word here in this majestic location.

So with the disorientation of time and the sensory overload of the terrain, Bruce Smithhammer and I drove west…our destination was to be the last stop on the trip. We would be spending the next two days in Big Sky Montana and fishing the Gallatin River. Basing my expectations of Big Sky upon what had transpired throughout the week was not wise. Every second of rustic living, every moment of wild and unpredictable environments, every old building and historic structure were in another world altogether upon our arrival in this small Montana locale. We were staying for two days in a two story penthouse of Big Sky Lodge, a place in which the President had stayed a few months earlier. I don’t know the exact square footage of our sky high lodging, but I feel very safe in guessing that we had at least three thousand square feet of living space to enjoy. But, just so we didn’t think we were completely removed from the wild, a big bear was wandering around the parking lot as we were unloading our things. It is moments like these that will enamor you with this part of the world.

After gawking at our dwelling for a while, I hit the rack and fell into the kind of sleep that can only come when the perfect bed meets unreal fatigue. It seemed that I had only closed my eyes and it was morning, and with the rise of the sun we headed out to fish the Gallatin.

The Gallatin is a meandering river, much smaller than I pictured it, but an excellent fishery…with one problem…the fish were nowhere to be found. Six anglers, all accomplished in their craft, were pretty well skunked. My only fish on this day was a complete accident. I was fishing a hopper up against the far bank without luck. I misjudged my distance; hit the bank, pulled it free, and bam…a ten inch rainbow smacked it as soon as it hit the water. My only fish.

Back to the lodge. We were all beyond tired. The week that was had begun to catch up with us. Gathered around the television that evening, we watched the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, laughed, and told stories until late into the night. We had started the week as strangers, just names, people who for the most part only knew of each other from what we had read. I looked around the room and was amazed at who I was with. Kirk Deeter, Chris Hunt, Bruce Smithhammer, Rebecca Garlock…Field and Stream, Trout Unlimited, The Drake, Outdoor Blogger Network. Wow. But the cool thing about it is that the accolades and accomplishments of these people were secondary to the fact that Steve Zakur and I were hanging out with friends.

Often on trips like this, when the people don’t know each other, the potential of a train wreck of interpersonal issues is always a potentiality. However, on this particular trip, we just hit it off…everything meshed. It was as if we had done this trip together for years. To say that lifelong friendships were formed would be a gross understatement.

The last day of the tour started with a trip to a local fly shop and an event that will forever define the attitude of Big Sky Country in my memory. After a night of libations and more than one David Allan Coe song being sung loud and out of key, I was parched. Just as you walk in the door of this particular fly shop, there is a soft drink machine. So I stopped there and started digging in my pocket for a buck to feed. I drop in my money, select my favorite citrus laden beverage…and out came a Pabst Blue Ribbon. It was then that the guy behind the counter told me that he could not remember the last time that machine had soft drinks in it. I looked at him and smiled, then I spotted some fly shop hats…one had a PBR style logo with the fly shops name on it. Sold. I still wear it with pride.

Another tough outing on the Gallatin as storms moved in from the west with a ferocity that put every fish in the river down for the day. So we spent the remainder of the morning just hanging out by the truck and talking. Perhaps that was the best way for things to end. In conversation with people who had become friends and may see years pass before their paths would cross again.

This trip and the amazing events that I experienced have forever changed me. It did not make me a better angler, but it did change the way that I go about the craft. The skillset remains, but in some ways the philosophy behind it has been forever altered by this great bunch of people.

Roughly five months have passed, and I am still in consistent contact with these folks. Sometimes it is business, and sometimes it is just to say hi. In the early part of the fall, Steve found himself in my neck of the woods and I took him to the South Holston. I told him where the trout would be, and what they were likely to be keyed on, then I stepped back, cast into water that has never yielded fish, and watched as he pulled multiple fish from the water. It made me happy to play guide for my friend, and in a way it was my gift to him. As we left that afternoon to once again go our separate ways, we said goodbye as if we would be together the following week…because we both knew that eventually we would meet again on a river somewhere.