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Coulee Country: Exploring Wisconsin's Driftless Area

This island of deep wooded valleys and cold rushing streams in a sea of Midwestern farmland boasts one of the highest concentrations of spring creeks in the world.

Coulee Country: Exploring Wisconsin's Driftless Area
The Kickapoo River, together with more than a dozen of its tributaries, provides more than 500 miles of trout water in Wisconsin’s Coulee Country. The 12-mile-long West Fork of the Kickapoo River (shown here) and two of its tributaries—Bishop Branch and Seas Branch—receive most of the angling attention and have been the focus of decades of restoration and habitat improvement by Trout Unlimited and the West Fork Sports Club. (John van Vliet photo)

At the narrow pull-off along the quiet two-lane county road, where a weathered wooden ladder stile stands as an “anglers welcome” sign, my friend Cliff Gately lets out a low whistle. “Check this out,” he says as I wander over to see what he’s found. He’s pointing at the pasture beyond the stile, where Billings Creek meanders between limestone outcroppings, but I don’t see anything.

“Exactly,” he says. “Not a blade of grass disturbed. No worn path. Nobody’s parked here or crossed this stile in, what, maybe weeks? How can that be?” Then, a few minutes later, on a still pool below a small riffle, where I lay out a short cast, something suddenly pulls my indicator under, shakes its unseen head with authority, bends my 4-weight rod nearly double, then parts my leader and breaks me off cleanly. It might be something you’d expect on the Bighorn or the Madison, but here on a seldom-fished spring creek meandering through a cow pasture in rural Wisconsin? Well, welcome to Coulee Country.

Wisconsin boasts the largest share of the Driftless Area, the 24,000-square-mile unglaciated region that covers parts of four Midwestern states, including Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois. This geologic anomaly, essentially an island of deep wooded valleys and cold rushing streams in a sea of Midwestern farmland, boasts one of the highest concentrations of spring creeks in the world.

The Wisconsin Driftless goes by many names, as authors Curt Meine and Keefe Keeley explain in their book, The Driftless Reader (University of Wisconsin Press, 2017), “It has been called, in part or in whole, the Coulee Region; the Little Ozarks, Little Appalachia, Little Norway and Little Switzerland; the Ocooch Mountains, Bluff Country, Bluff Lands, the Ridge and Valley region, the Uplands, and the Paleozoic Plateau. It has even been designated (quite in earnest) as ‘the veritable Garden of Eden’; in 1886 the circuit-riding Reverend D. O. Van Slyke self-published a treatise providing evidence that the biblical Paradise was in fact Trempealeau, Wisconsin.”

A blond woman at the tailgate of a pickup taking off boots and waders.
Wisconsin’s portion of the Driftless Region has been called many things including the Little Ozarks, Little Appalachia, Little Norway, Little Switzerland, the Ocooch Mountains, Bluff Country, and some have even claimed it is the literal location of the Garden of Eden. (John van Vliet photo)

The word coulee, which refers to a deep ravine carved by water, comes from the French verb couler, meaning “to flow.” And within the Wisconsin Driftless flow more than 10,000 miles of trout waters. To the fly angler, Coulee Country is Trout Country.

If there’s a nexus to Coulee Country, it must be the little town of Viroqua, which stands on a high patch of uplands straddling several spring-fed watersheds. To the west of Viroqua, the waters run to the broad Mississippi River, which bisects the Driftless. To the east, the serpentine Kickapoo River and its many tributaries flow south to the Wisconsin River and drain a watershed of more than 800 square miles.

Viroqua is a pretty little town with a historic downtown perched on the crest of a hill and lined with old brick buildings occupied by thriving businesses, including restaurants and coffee shops, a beautifully restored 1922 theater, art galleries, and, for traveling anglers, an ideally situated fly shop appropriately called The Driftless Angler. Viroqua’s Main Street is also U.S. Highway 61, the legendary “Blues Highway,” which meanders through the Wisconsin Driftless on its historic and musical course from the Canadian border in Minnesota to New Orleans, Louisiana. There are plenty of places in Viroqua to spend a few nights, enjoy a very good meal or two, and top off your Thermos and your gas tank. If this is your first visit to the Driftless Area, there’s no better place to begin than this vibrant little city surrounded by trout streams in the heart of the Wisconsin Driftless.

For many Driftless anglers, the Coon Creek watershed to the northwest of Viroqua, with its many excellent tributaries, is their go-to fishing destination. And you can’t really blame them; the cold spring creeks that form the Coon Creek watershed—including Timber Coulee, Spring Coulee, Rullands Coulee, Poplar Creek, Rundahl Creek, Bohemian Valley Creek, and Coon Creek itself—offer more than 40 miles of exceptional fishing, abundant access and beautiful scenery.

But it wasn’t always this way. The early European settlers exploited these fertile valleys for cropland and grazing land. Deforestation, overgrazing, and cultivation of the steep, highly erodible valleys led to catastrophic flooding and siltation of the river bottoms. In some cases, eroded topsoil raised the valley floors more than 15 feet, through which the next heavy rains carved deep gullies that carried away the rich soil to the Mississippi River and ultimately to the Gulf of Mexico.

Pioneers in Conservation

In 1935, conservationist and author Aldo Leopold wrote, “Coon Valley, in short, is one of a thousand communities which, through the abuse of its originally rich soil, has not only filled the national dinner pail, but has created a Mississippi flood problem, the navigation problem, the overproduction problem and the problem of its own future continuity.” Leopold successfully lobbied the Roosevelt administration to allow the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to establish camps in the Coon Valley, which led to the nation’s landmark first watershed project.

But that landmark watershed project wasn’t the only groundbreaking conservation effort. Begun in 2004 as the brainchild of John “Duke” Welter and Jeff Hastings, the Trout Unlimited Driftless Area Restoration Effort (TU DARE) was conceived as a way to shift the focus of stream improvement efforts from a singular concentration on individual streams to an expanded approach across the entire Driftless Area, encompassing the many watersheds of the four-state region. This groundbreaking approach led to improved fundraising, increased national and local partnerships, and greater volunteer participation. TU DARE has become a national showcase and an inspiring example of what can be done on a large scale to improve and protect trout streams across the country.

Unfortunately, the flood-prone lands that gave rise to the recognition of the need for a national strategy for soil conservation in the 1930s remain prone to flooding nearly a century later. And on August 27, 2018, more than a foot of rain fell on the Coon Creek watershed, causing three flood-control dams to fail, overtopping the remaining dams, inundating the valleys, and causing millions of dollars in damage to homes, farms, bridges, crops, livestock, and infrastructure.

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The devastation of the 2018 floods is still visible on the landscape today, though the scars are slowly healing. The fishing has mostly returned to its pre-flood quality, while the insect populations and shorelines will take a little more time to fully recover. But it’s anyone’s guess when the next 1,000-year flood will ravage these valleys again.

The Wisconsin Driftless is not a homogeneous geologic region. In fact, the Wisconsin Driftless can be divided into roughly five smaller regions: two regions south of the broad valley of the Lower Wisconsin River extending almost to the Illinois border, a region just north of the Lower Wisconsin River, the La Crosse River and its tributaries, and the region north and west of the Chippewa River, stretching to just east of the Saint Croix River Valley and the populous Twin Cities metropolitan area.

A collage of Wisconsin Driftless Area fly fishing photos.
Wisconsin’s Driftless Region is more than just a geological phenomenon. Today’s high water quality and good fishing are the results of extensive conservation work by nonprofit groups and the efforts of individuals including Duke Welter, Paul Hayes, Jeff Hastings, and others. (John van Vliet photos)

On a rare day off, my friend and local guide PJ Smith joins me for a morning of fishing on Tainter Creek, another tributary to the Kickapoo River south of Viroqua. Smith, a transplant from Illinois, has been fishing and guiding in the Coulee Region for nearly three decades, and today he’s led me to a stretch of Tainter that I’ve never fished before. It’s skinny water that winds through a disused pasture with wild grasses so tall they almost close over our heads in places. Despite the heat of the late summer day, the water is scarcely over 50 degrees and the shadows of trout dart from under the banks and disappear in the swift current. The creek piles up against a limestone outcropping in the shade of a stand of old cottonwoods at the edge of the field, and it’s here that we each catch and release a handful of 12-inch wild browns. PJ is in his element, laughing and relaxed, reveling in the challenge of the tight quarters and tall weeds. The Driftless is in his blood now, and days like this seem to recharge and restore him.

“I can’t imagine being anywhere else,” he says as we linger in the shade and chat as the creek tumbles noisily past us. Somewhere downstream, there’s bigger water and bigger fish. And when he’s not walking the small creeks with clients, he’s at the oars of his drift boat chasing smallmouth bass on the Lower Wisconsin, the Kickapoo, and a handful other rivers. But today, on this cold and narrow spring creek, he’s tapped in to what brought him here more than two decades ago.

Kickapoo River

I leave Viroqua and drive east to La Farge, site of an abandoned federal dam that once threatened to inundate this lovely valley, then turn north, following the main stem of the Kickapoo River.

Tumbling out of the rugged hills called the Ocooch Mountains near the town of Ontario, the Kickapoo River gathers its waters from countless springs and more than a dozen tributaries, with a combined total of more than 500 miles of trout water, and flows southwest through the heart of Wisconsin’s Coulee Region for roughly 125 miles before emptying into the Wisconsin River near the town of Wauzeka. The longest tributary to the Wisconsin River, the Kickapoo is also one of the most popular canoeing rivers in Wisconsin. It meanders through deep, wildly carved limestone ramparts and dripping outcroppings topped with majestic white pines and hemlocks, and twists through broad river bottoms, doubling back on itself repeatedly as it winds through the ancestral lands of the Ho-Chunk Nation, the breathtakingly scenic Wildcat Mountain State Park, the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, and beyond. Just north of Readstown, the West Fork of the Kickapoo joins the main branch, and the combined waters continue down the beautiful Kickapoo Valley.

According to the Wisconsin DNR, “‘Kickapoo’ is an Algonquin word meaning ‘that which goes here, then there.’” Surely this is a good name for the river, which flows for 125 miles over 65 miles of land, with a fall of nearly 350 feet through what are called the Ocooch Mountains of western Wisconsin. The name “Ocooch” came from a small band of Indians related to the Winnebagos called the “Ocoche.” The tribe was wiped out by smallpox brought by the earliest white people. The mountains are high castellated bluffs, sometimes referred to as “The Dells of the Kickapoo.”

The Kickapoo River watershed drains over 750 square miles of the Driftless, nearly twice the area drained by the nearby Bad Axe and Coon Creek watersheds combined. But like the two watersheds to the west, the Kickapoo flows through steep-walled valleys prone to flooding. And in the 2018 floods, two flood control dams on the West Fork of the Kickapoo failed—the Jersey Valley Dam and the Mlsna Dam, both built in the mid-1950s—inundating the valley and leaving large debris fields of stone and silt.

Almost half the length of the main stem of the Kickapoo River, including the roughly 60 miles from the town of Ontario (which seems to derive its entire economic existence from the business of canoe rental) to Gays Mills is designated trout water. And while many anglers float the Kickapoo by canoe or kayak, it is the outstanding tributaries that really establish the Kickapoo as a popular trout-fishing destination.

Among trout anglers, the 12-mile-long West Fork of the Kickapoo River and two of its tributaries, Bishop Branch and Seas Branch, have historically attracted more attention than the main stem of the Kickapoo. Perhaps that’s because they’re a bit closer to the towns of Viroqua, Westby, and Coon Valley. But more likely it is the remarkable success story of the West Fork and how far the river has come through a series of challenges over the last century to become the trout stream it is today. Like the nearby Coon Creek watershed, the West Fork was overgrazed, overtilled, and deforested by the early European settlers. Then, also like the Coon Creek watershed, repeated floods devastated the steep, narrow valleys, carrying away topsoil, homesteads, and livelihoods. By the 1950s, it seemed the West Fork was doomed as a viable trout stream.

But through the efforts of Trout Unlimited, the West Fork Sports Club members, and a number of other individuals and organizations, the West Fork received extensive restoration and habitat improvement. And by the 1990s, the West Fork had become a shining example of what stream restoration and conservation efforts could achieve, with ample public access, high trout-per-mile counts, and steady reports of really big fish. The icing on the cake—though arguably a double-edged sword—was Trout Unlimited’s selection of the West Fork as one of America’s 100 best trout streams.

Despite its many successes, the West Fork continues to face challenges, as the 2018 floods clearly demonstrated.

Today, the West Fork remains a very popular fishing destination, offering a variety of shoreline and water. The West Fork lacks the dramatic rock outcroppings of the main stem of the Kickapoo, but still offers great fishing in classic Driftless scenery.

The center of all angling and conservation activity on the West Fork is the West Fork Sports Club, just south of the town of Avalanche. This traditional gathering place for anglers has been around since 1966 and offers very reasonable membership dues that entitle you to access the half-mile stretch of water or to reserve a rustic camping spot or a cabin on the bank of the creek.

Just south of Wildcat Mountain State Park, I swing west on County Road P through the heart of the Kickapoo Valley Reserve (KVR), an 8,600-acre National Natural Landmark saved from the abandoned Army Corps dam project and established on ancestral Native American lands. Today the KVR is jointly managed by the State of Wisconsin and the Ho-Chunk Nation.

At a bend in the road, I take a right on a side road and cross a narrow bridge over Weister Creek. My friend Cliff is already wadered up and standing on the bridge watching the trout feeding in the shaded creek below. I mumble an apology for being late, and we head upstream single file.

Weister Creek tumbles southeast from the height of land that divides the main stem of the Kickapoo from its West Fork tributary and the tributaries to the La Crosse River to the north, and joins the Kickapoo River in the heart of the Kickapoo Valley Reserve. Along the way, it is fed by springs and small tributaries in a lovely valley that feels delightfully remote and unspoiled.

If you visit Weister Creek today, it will be difficult for you to imagine that not long ago this lovely little gem was an overgrown tangle of willows and box elders, with deeply eroded banks, a heavily silted streambed and very little promise. It was the vision of one man, Paul Hayes, a retired schoolteacher from Illinois, that led to the restoration of this pretty little creek. Working closely with the Trout Unlimited Driftless Area Restoration Effort (TU DARE), under the supervision of Jeff Hastings and Duke Welter, and in cooperation with the Wisconsin DNR, Hayes secured funding and rallied an army of volunteers to restore the creek. Today, Weister Creek is a model for how a properly restored Driftless creek should look.

But Cliff and I aren’t thinking about the conservation work that’s made this creek such an exceptional fishing destination. We have come for the wild native brook trout, the state’s only native trout, that thrive now in its bright waters. And Weister Creek—like the rest of Coulee Country—doesn’t disappoint.


John van Vliet is the author of more than a dozen books, including The Art of Fly Tying and Trout Fishing in Southeast Minnesota, and Trout Fishing in Northeast Iowa. 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 Southwest Wisconsin (2023, troutrunpress.com). The spring creeks of the Driftless are his home waters.

troutrunpress.com | Instagram: @john_van_vliet




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