January 05, 2023
By John van Vliet
Catherine Smith and I bounce along a narrow washboard gravel road that roller-coasters the rugged karst hills of northeastern Iowa, our already strung fly rods chattering with every bump in the road. From atop each succeeding high ridge and hogback we can trace the courses of the cold spring creeks below by the serpentine layers of morning fog that fill the deep wooded valleys. On a particularly narrow hogback ridge, I slow down and pull the truck off the one-lane road as far as I can, though I doubt there will be another vehicle along here anytime soon. I kill the engine. Through the trees on either side of the road we can glimpse what we’ve come to see: the great bend of the Upper Iowa River as it makes a roughly 5-mile sweep around a horseshoe meander. at the base of 300-foot limestone bluffs dotted with ancient burial and effigy mounds, We follow an unmarked but well-worn trail to a precarious rocky outcropping. We stand in silence as a pair of eagles glide below us, and we listen to the sounds of the Iowa Driftless Area.
Wait. This is Iowa? When you think of the Hawkeye State, you think of cows and corn and fertile cropland stretching to the horizon. And you think flat. But here, tucked away in the northeast corner of Iowa, is a little-known region of rugged hills, deep valleys, and cold rushing trout streams called the “Driftless Area.”
Thirty years ago, a popular guidebook to the streams of Iowa never even mentioned the word “Driftless.” Today, there’s a cachet to the word and the region. Call it a mystique. And fly anglers around the world are taking notice.
Montana fishing guide and Iowa native Beau Strathman says he hears it all the time these days. “My clients will find out I’m from Iowa and they’ll ask, ‘Have you fished the Driftless? Tell us about the Driftless.’ It’s suddenly every fly fisher’s bucket list destination.” Then he adds, “I would love to get out and fish the Driftless sometime.”
One of Strathman’s good friends and a frequent client on the Missouri River is the Iowa-born singer-songwriter with a bone-deep voice, Greg Brown. To Brown, the Driftless is at once his home and his muse. The streams of the Iowa Driftless, where he’s lived and fly fished for decades, flow through his songs “like a trout moves through a pool,” as he croons in his song, “Sleeper.”
So, what makes this corner of Iowa so unique? And why is it called “The Driftless?”
Iowa’s limestone ramparts, rugged valleys, and more than 500 miles of cold spring creeks are the result of a geologic anomaly few people outside of “flyover country” have any idea even exists. And it’s all due to ice. Or, more precisely, the absence of ice.
End of the Ice Age
Ten thousand years ago, the last of the four major ice advances—the Wisconsin—receded slowly toward Hudson Bay and the Arctic Circle, leaving behind a vastly altered landscape. But like the previous three glacial periods (the Illinoisian, the Kansan, and the Nebraskan), whose fingers of ice had reached as far south as Kansas, this ice sheet inexplicably split in its advance and flowed around a 24,000-square-mile area of sedimentary rock in the Upper Midwest. When the ice was gone, this island of rocky uplands covering parts of Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Minnesota did not resemble the vast and scoured plains surrounding it. Spared the grating effects of the ice, it retained the landscape common to uplifted areas of former sea bottom: deeply eroded limestone strata.
Geologists who studied the Northern European landscape centuries ago attributed glacial features—moraines, eskers, drumlins, and the like—to the effects of water, and called them “drift,” the remnants of what early geologists imagined was the Biblical flood. The name stuck, and the term “glacial drift” was applied to features on the landscape left by glaciation. But geologists found no such glacial features in this unique region of the Midwest, so they called it the Driftless Area.
From the porous limestone strata of this Driftless Area, and fed by the melting glaciers, flowed streams that carved deep valleys in the soft sedimentary rock as they sought the level of the Mississippi River, which bisects the region.
Water percolating into and through the limestone strata carried minerals that dissolved the limestone and created voids or cavities in the strata. As the groundwater levels dropped, some of these voids collapsed, forming sinkholes, which dot the landscape throughout the region. Many of these voids survived as caverns, the largest of which—Coldwater Cave—is in Iowa. Some of these caverns have become popular tourist stops in the four states that are home to the Driftless Area. No doubt countless others remain undiscovered.
Where you find this limestone, or karst, topography, you generally find limestone spring creeks and, if you’re lucky, trout. The constant water temperatures of generally 45 degrees to 55 degrees F. provide sufficiently cool conditions to support trout throughout the hot summers and keep the streams free of ice in all but the harshest of winters. The limestone produces the relatively high alkalinity required to sustain the critical biomass: aquatic plants, insects, and invertebrates essential to a trout’s diet.
Iowa’s trout region is actually two distinct geologic zones, the Paleozoic Plateau and the Silurian Escarpment. The Paleozoic Plateau, which is made up of sedimentary layers of former sea floor laid down during the Paleozoic Period approximately 300 to 550 million years ago, extends north and eastward, making up the majority of the Driftless Area in Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.
The Silurian Escarpment, which defines the western edge of Iowa’s Driftless, is a meandering line of high, steep bluffs comprised of harder, less erodible dolomite and limestone strata. This winding escarpment runs eastward through northwestern Illinois and forms Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula, the western edge of Lake Michigan, and the northern shore of Lake Huron. It stretches all the way to the eastern shore of Lake Erie, where it forms the dramatic ledge of Niagara Falls. It’s doubtful many tourists at the rim of Niagara Falls have any idea the rock under their feet stretches clear to Iowa.
This formation of Silurian dolomite also forms the prominent geologic feature in many of the most beautiful and sought-after trout-fishing destinations in Iowa—Echo Valley, Brush Creek Canyon, Backbone State Park, White Pine Hollow, Bixby State Preserve, and the reputedly haunted Mossy Glen.
Today, the Driftless Area remains an island of deep valleys, wooded bluffs, limestone caverns, and rushing streams in a sea of flat Midwestern farmland, and makes up one of the highest concentrations of spring creeks in the world. It may not be what most people think of when you mention Iowa, but to trout anglers, the Driftless remains a mystical vestige of the last Ice Age, and a mythical utopia for fly fishing.
From the overlook, we drive to the tiny settlement of Highlandville, and pop into the historic Highland General Store to pick up some snacks and to chat with Bev, the affable owner of this iconic store and the nearby campground and rental cabins. Highlandville stands near the junction of North and South Bear creeks, two of the most popular and productive blue-ribbon trout streams in Iowa.
We head east from Highlandville, following South Bear Creek past the confluence of North Bear, navigating the gravel roads to the top of another high ridge topped with a cluster of farm silos and then back down a steep grade leading to a quiet gravel lane and a pair of old stone gates that once marked the entrance to private property, but now leads to an Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) fishing access parking area. The property, formerly Girl Scout Camp Tahigwa, was purchased by the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation in 2017 and then transferred to the DNR. It includes nearly a mile of outstanding trout stream.
“We haven’t really promoted the acquisition,” Brian Malaise, DNR hatchery biologist at the Decorah fish hatchery told us a few days earlier. “There’s still work to do on that property and Covid-19 has slowed us down.” That work includes removing the few remaining structures on the property.
We park and hike in a quarter mile to an abandoned iron bridge that predates the Girl Scout camp tenure, when a public road ran through the property. The wood planking is rotting away now, and the streamside weeds have grown tall. This once-manicured property is slowly returning to the wild. The creek here lingers in a long pool above the old bridge, then tumbles through a quick riffle and piles up against an exposed limestone wall crowned with towering old white pines. Catherine wades to the top of the riffle and hooks a spunky 10-inch brown on her first drift with a Copper John fished below an indicator. For some reason, the trout here like copper. I throw a Partridge-and-Green soft-hackle that conjures up a 12-inch rainbow, no doubt one of the 300,000 rainbows stocked annually by the Iowa DNR.
Beginning with the stocking of 800 brook trout in a nameless creek in 1875, Iowa’s trout program was all about put-and-take. As increased settlement and burgeoning agriculture took a toll on the fragile creeks of the Driftless Area, the stocking of trout became the accepted method of stream management. When the Manchester Fish Hatchery was built in 1896, it was only eight years younger than the oldest fish hatchery in the United States in neighboring Missouri. By the 1950s, only Loch Leven brown trout and Shasta rainbows were being stocked. Efforts to reintroduce brook trout, once native to the Driftless Area, were abandoned in the 1970s.
Then in 1994, biologists identified a strain of brook trout in South Pine Creek in northeastern Winneshiek County that appeared to be distinct from any brook trout ever stocked in any Iowa stream. The DNR began harvesting eggs and milt from these trout in an effort to create naturally reproducing populations of this strain in other Iowa streams. Despite initial setbacks, their efforts were successful, and today the South Pine Creek strain has successfully been stocked in eleven Iowa streams.
Similarly, in the early 2000s, a strain of wild brown trout distinct from the hatchery browns developed by Manchester hatchery managers in the 1970s was identified in French Creek, in Allamakee County. Since 2006, only fingerling browns derived from the wild population in French Creek have been stocked in Iowa streams.
Although the DNR still stocks over 300,000 trout annually in a number of the Iowa Driftless streams, there is growing emphasis on wild fish and habitat improvement in many of Iowa’s premier streams.
Catherine and I first fished Camp Tahigwa a decade and a half ago with the generous permission of the property caretaker. Back then, it was a sanctuary of hulking holdover rainbows and huge browns that spawned in the many undisturbed gravel beds that underlay most of the riffles. The former property manager, who still lives nearby, tells us the big fish are gone. But he doesn’t know if the big fish have been harvested by trophy hunters now that the property is open to the public, or if they’ve simply moved to the relative safety of the miles of still-private stream beyond the property lines where the water is not accessible to the public.
Unlike the neighboring states of Minnesota and Wisconsin, Iowa’s stream laws are, well, complicated. It’s generally accepted that landowners along most of Iowa’s small streams own the banks and the streambed, so you must ask permission to fish any stream running through private property. But I’ve never been turned away when I’ve sought permission from a landowner, and most Iowa riparian landowners recognize their role as stewards of a natural resource that should be preserved for the benefit of all.
We work the water a little longer, but the fishing is slow. For a moment, I watch Catherine upstream throwing lovely loops to uncooperative trout. As a board member of the Fly Fishers International Women Connect, Catherine shares her passion for fly fishing with women fly anglers around the world. And she cherishes her precious time on the water. But when I lose my soft-hackle in a tangle of wild parsnip, we agree it’s time to move on.
Bloody Run Creek
The abundance of spring creeks in the Driftless means that it’s never a long trip to the next stream. If the one you’re fishing is unproductive, crowded, or muddied up from a recent rain, you can simply drive over a ridge and be fishing a new watershed in minutes.
We decide to point the truck southeast toward the town of Marquette, a lovely and historic old river town on banks of the Mississippi about 40 miles away. We’re heading for Bloody Run Creek, one of Iowa’s premier trout streams whose waters are classified as Outstanding Iowa Waters by the DNR. Named for a tragic deadly feud between a white settler and a native chief that led to the murders of at least half a dozen people along the creek in the 1840s and 50s—and may have laid the groundwork for the Dakota War of 1862— Bloody Run is now the focus of a legal battle between a massive corporate cattle feedlot at its headwaters and conservation groups fighting to save this blue-ribbon stream from groundwater contamination.
We descend the 500-foot bluffs down the steep twisting two-lane highway past Effigy Mounds National Monument, and thread the narrow flat between the towering limestone cliffs and the broad Mississippi River that the roadway shares with the busy railroad track just a few feet away. This is the Great River Road, often referred to as “the best drive in America,” which follows the Mississippi from its source at Minnesota’s Lake Itasca to the Mississippi Delta in Louisiana.
On the south end of Marquette, we turn onto gravel again past an active railroad yard and enter Bloody Run County Park. A few pop-up campers and a scattering of tents dot the grassy campground, each decorated predictably with rods and waders and coolers.
The park road crosses the railroad tracks three times in less than a quarter mile. It’s not unusual to be fishing Bloody Run and have a freight train come rumbling around the bend and practically overhead in this narrow, wooded canyon.
The park road peters out at a couple more rustic campsites overlooking a deep pool fringed with large boulders. The warm sun barely reaches the surface of the creek here through the old trees and steep walls of the valley. Catherine wades upstream toward a large boulder where a couple of trout are rising lazily to the tail end of a Trico hatch we seem to have missed. She lays out a lovely cast with a tiny Parachute Adams, a reliable classic that seems to fit the timelessness of the Driftless itself. A chunky foot-long brown trout sips her fly and seems as startled as we are that he was so easily fooled on this popular stretch of water. And at 13 inches, it’s barely half the length of the biggest trout Catherine’s caught in the Iowa Driftless. And it won’t be the last fish we catch today.
There are no fabled rivers here. No expensive fly-fishing gear bears the name of a Driftless stream. This rugged intimate landscape, a dendritic quilt woven with spring creeks, may not be famous, but those of us who call these streams our home waters prefer it that way. Is this heaven? Well, you know the movie line.
John van Vliet is the author of more than a dozen books, including The Art of Fly Tying and Trout Fishing in Southeast Minnesota. He’s a writer, filmmaker, and sailor whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Big River Magazine, and many other publications. His latest book is Trout Fishing in Northeast Iowa (2022). The spring creeks of the Driftless Area are his home waters. Instagram: @John_van_vliet. Troutrunpress.com