July 22, 2015
By Jeff Erickson
The Great River Road is America's iconic heartland highway. One of the nation's longest and most storied scenic byways, this fish-infested route runs from the Mississippi's creek-sized source in northern Minnesota to a mile-wide murky gumbo at New Orleans. Some of the most alluring stretches wind through the peaceful pastures, forests, and limestone bluffs of northeast Iowa. There's a treasure trove to explore here, in a region rich with charming river towns, manicured farmsteads, wonderful parks and trails, and quirky roadside curiosities.
If you drive the entire Great River Road, you'll encounter many of America's best fly-fishing opportunities, from the upper Mississippi's superb smallmouth bass fishery to Gulf Coast redfish, and everything in between. Yet many anglers don't realize that the Mississippi and Great River Road also cut through one of the world's finest spring creek trout fisheries, rivaling more famous waters in Pennsylvania or England's chalk streams. This unique corner of the Upper Midwest, known as the Driftless Region, includes northeast Iowa, southeast Minnesota, southwest Wisconsin, and a part of northwest Illinois.
The verdant valleys and craggy cliffs of the Driftless Region shelter some of the most publicly accessible spring creeks in the country, roughly 2,500 miles of trout water draining into the Mississippi. If the best of these streams looped through a private pasture in Montana's Paradise Valley, you might fork over $100 a day to test them. While the superb Driftless streams in Wisconsin and Minnesota have received some public attention in recent years, northeast Iowa's creeks have largely flowed under the radar.
According to Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) fisheries biologist Dan Kirby, "People don't necessarily think of Iowa as being trout country. But our streams offer fly fishers the opportunity for some solitude while catching trout. We have wide variety, both in terms of our coldwater resources and in the way they are managed."
It gets better: Kirby's DNR colleague Bill Kalishek adds, "We've got the fish, a beautiful landscape, and public access—everything comes together here. We're in as good a place as we've been in the last 50 years."
The Driftless Region's singular geology created northeast Iowa's prolific trout fishery: Unlike much of the Midwest, the area wasn't planed down by the last wave of glaciers 12,000 years ago.
The region lacks glacially deposited drift (hence, it's "driftless"), but it was dissected by serpentine stream valleys carrying runoff from melting glaciers along its fringes.
Floodwaters of Biblical proportions roared through the incipient coulees, carving the vast Mississippi River valley. At the same time, fertile, wind-blown glacial material called loess accumulated on the uplands, making them attractive to future farmers.
The glacially fed deluges cut deeply into sandstone, shale, dolomite, and limestone bedrock. The porous sedimentary layers deposited by shallow seas 400 to 500 million years ago now act as a giant sponge, soaking up moisture, and then releasing it in hundreds of watercress-fringed, 48- to 50-degree F. springs.
The result is one of the planet's largest concentrations of freshwater springs. The relatively stable stream flows, cool water temperatures, and the alkaline, calcium carbonate-rich chemistry of the streams are perfect for aquatic insects. The glacial runoff also left relatively steep stream gradients, generating numerous riffles and short rapids that inject the water with trout-friendly dissolved oxygen.
The rugged karst topography is unpredictable and mysterious, evoking a scaled-down version of the Ozarks. Labyrinthine caverns wind through the subterranean limestone. Parts of the landscape are pocked with sinkholes dissolved by percolating rainfall, and from the air they look like ancient bomb craters.
Streams vanish into bedrock, only to gush full-blown from cliffside caves miles away. Paleozoic era marine fossils turn up underfoot along stream banks. It's a perfect metaphor for the transformative cycle of life: The rich mineral remains of ancient sea creatures are dissolved by water to enhance today's aquatic fecundity.
For naturalists, the stream valleys shelter species found at the northern edge of their ranges, like the shagbark hickory, black walnut, giant swallowtail butterfly, and reclusive timber rattlesnake. Alternatively, northern species like white pine remnants from the last glacial cooling—find their southernmost reach here. And native brook trout reside near the western edge of their original range.
Adding additional complexity, the region marks the intersection between Western prairie and Eastern hardwood forest, making it a bio-geographical crossroads. During the course of the year, you can observe more than 200 bird species here. Spring unleashes an exuberance of wildflowers and evening firefly explosions, displays that might restore wonder to even the most jaded cynics.
When 19th century settlers poured into northeastern Iowa, they encountered clear streams pulsing with Eastern brook trout. As the forested hillsides and prairie uplands were plowed and planted, powerful thunderstorms cut enormous gullies in the highly erosive loess. Hundreds of tons per acre of prime soil were eroded annually, with yards of silt deposited on some valley floors.
Amid the muddy torrents, Iowa's wild brookies were nearly eradicated. Browns were stocked in the late 19th century, and because they were more tolerant of siltier, warmer water, they managed to survive and eventually thrive. Rainbows were also widely stocked, although they experienced more difficulty establishing wild populations.
When environmental conditions reached a nadir in the 1930s, catastrophic floods were routine. Because of the flooding and natural resource damage, pressure grew to curb and repair the destruction. Government acquisition and restoration of Driftless watersheds accelerated during the Great Depression as farms were abandoned. Dozens of conservation projects were implemented by Civilian Conservation Corps men laboring for a dollar a day, work that often remains viable. Meanwhile, agricultural practices improved, and with assistance from government agencies and nonprofit organizations, an entire menu of better techniques was implemented.
Local Trout Unlimited (TU) members—working in concert with the DNR and private landowners—have rehabilitated miles of degraded streambanks, narrowing channels, increasing velocity, and flushing decades of silt accumulation. TU has also spearheaded a collaborative multi-state conservation effort to enhance trout streams throughout the Driftless Region, among the most ambitious projects in the organization's history.
Collectively, these efforts have gradually improved habitat, water quality, and angling opportunities. According to the DNR, 25 years ago only six streams in the area supported naturally reproducing trout. Today, approximately 40 of Iowa's 100 trout streams hold wild populations, mainly browns.
The DNR has also reintroduced brook trout in select headwaters from stock taken from South Pine Creek, a small stream where a relict population may have survived from the last Ice Age.
While this resurgence has been remarkable, the quality of the fishery ultimately reflects the overall health of the landscape. According to Kalishek, "good, healthy farming practices, watersheds, and water quality all contribute to good fishing."
The excellent Iowa streams that anglers enjoy could one day be reversed by energy and agricultural policies set in Washington D.C. (e.g., ethanol incentives), or poor local land use decisions. But make no mistake: The Golden Age is now.
Where to Start
Iowa's trout streams are generally categorized three ways: special wild trout fisheries; creeks stocked with catchable-size fish; and "put-and-grow" streams typically planted with fingerlings and running through private land (where permission is required). Most trout are pan-size, but larger bruisers aren't unusual.
The creeks are scattered through nine counties draining into the Mississippi River upstream from the Great River Road, from the Minnesota border to south of Dubuque. On many streams there is good public access. The best way to plan is to obtain the DNR's Iowa Trout Fishing Guide, which includes stream information and detailed maps (call 515-281-5918 or see iowadnr.gov/fishing/troutfishing). Another tool is the guidebook Iowa Trout Streams, by Jene Hughes.
With these two resources, you could spend the entire summer happily rambling from one stream to another. But without a good map illustrating the maze of local roads, you might spend more time lost than fishing.
In exploring northeast Iowa, it pays to consider a principle applicable to many Driftless streams. Headwaters often begin in agricultural uplands along the valley perimeters. Where these drainages have perennial flows, they are often warmwater streams. As the creeks slice into bedrock aquifers, their gradient increases and temperatures drop while they gain volume from springs.
Consequently, it is often the deeply incised middle reaches that are most productive. These stretches offer an enchanting mix of riffles, runs, pools, and undercut banks—the larger creeks average approximately 20 feet in width, flowing at a moderate pace. Lower down, valleys and streambeds widen, gradients decline, silt increases, and water temperatures warm, resulting in fewer but often larger trout, or smallmouth bass.
For fly fishers visiting northeast Iowa for the first time, the number of options make one's head gyrate like a bobble-head doll, with hundreds of miles of trout water available. Here are some tips on where to start investigating.
Waterloo Creek. Among the oddities here is the theoretical possibility of hooking a brown trout in southeastern Minnesota's Bee Creek and landing it in northeastern Iowa's Waterloo Creek. While tiny Bee Creek has some prime reaches, it collects additional spring water after changing names and crossing the border, becoming larger and more fishable.
According to Kalishek, "Waterloo Creek is one of the best brown trout streams in Iowa, with consistent hatches." During peak years, the stream has held more than 4,000 trout per mile, the highest numbers ever documented in Iowa.
Waterloo browns are wild, but the upper stretches are supplemented with stocked rainbows and brookies. In order to enhance opportunities, catch-and-release regulations are in effect below the Iowa 76 bridge.
The town of Dorchester—located near the junction of Iowa 76 and Allamakee County Road A16—is an approximate dividing point between the upper and lower water. Along the way, there are ample public parcels and access easements, interspersed with private property.
North and South Bear creeks. My wife, Mary, and I once fished North Bear in April during a spectacular Dark Hendrickson hatch; the water was carpeted with bugs and seemingly every brown in the creek was on them. On an earlier trip, we camped on South Bear one excruciatingly cold and beautiful full-moon October night. Alas, the hard freeze ended the exciting hopper action we had enjoyed.
I can't promise the same seminal events every visit, but I can guarantee two beautiful creeks with great water, willing browns, and abundant access. Return excursions have only enhanced my fondness for the Bear watershed.
Located in Winneshiek County near tiny Highlandville, these streams loop through a mix of pasture and woodland, occasionally edging around a limestone cliff. Start hiking the trail winding up from the lower North Bear parking area, and the water and scenery will be so enticing you won't want to stop.
You can purchase licenses and basic supplies in the old general store in town, where there is also a private, streamside campground. Primitive, free camping is allowed on public land the DNR has purchased along the creeks.
French Creek. Kalishek says "French Creek is one of the best examples of a good Driftless Region stream in the state." I concur, but suggest that it can also be challenging due to ultra-clear water and tight casting quarters.
Kalishek explains that because the watershed is inherently in such good shape, "there has been very little need to improve the habitat." The creek was among the first streams in Iowa to support naturally reproducing brown trout.
In addition, brookies have been reintroduced to the headwaters, and have also established wild populations. According to the DNR, prime middle reaches support 2,500 wild trout per mile, excellent numbers for such small water. The entire stream is under special regulations.
French Creek is located northwest of the scenic Mississippi River town of Lansing, and is accessed via several county roads, including X6A and French Creek Road. Much of the stream loops through the French Creek Wildlife Management Area, which provides angler parking areas and camping.
On my last visit to French Creek, I was largely striking out while the light was on the water, even with long 7X tippets. Then, on a perfect spring evening, the sun finally sank behind the surrounding bluffs.
As rises proliferated, I knotted on a size 18 Elk-hair Caddis with a Sulphur Compara-dun dropper. As often happens if you fish long enough, my fortunes dramatically improved. After catching more than a dozen browns, I happily hiked back to camp in the lingering twilight.
Bloody Run Creek. The best parts of Bloody Run support wild browns. In addition, the DNR stocks brookies and rainbows. Just upstream from the Great River Road, a prime public stretch near Bloody Run County Park is under special regulations, where browns under 14 inches must be released.
Bloody Run is one of the largest trout streams in the area, with deep pools, appealing runs, and insect-rich riffles. It doesn't demand quite the spring creek finesse of crystalline French Creek: A Woolly Bugger plunked next to a log jam, root wad, or undercut bank is more than likely to entice one of the stream's large browns.
Although there is public access via local roads farther upstream, the county park offers a terrific starting point. For campers, there are excellent streamside sites under towering cottonwoods. There is additional public land upstream, part of the state's Bloody Run Wildlife Management Area, where anglers can hike up a railway winding through the forested valley to find solitude and access the special-regulations reach.
Iterations of old steel truss bridges cross the stream, adding a hint of mystery, especially in the firefly gloaming when fog is rising and trout are hungry. When trains creep along the curving track, they screech and moan like a 1950s free-jazz combo. My fishing journal describes one such evening: "The last half-hour before dark, hot action in the first run above the camp railway bridge. They were fools for a skittered Elk-hair Caddis . . . almost too easy!"
Paint/Little Paint Creeks. For fly fishers who enjoy camping within casting distance of trout, Yellow River State Forest makes a compelling destination. Located near Harpers Ferry, the expansive, 8,500-acre forest is bisected by Paint and Little Paint creeks. The former is longer and larger, the latter fully encompassed by the public forest—may be better.
Paint Creek holds wild browns, stocked rainbows, and brook trout. More than six miles of the stream is stocked, including a reach upstream from the forest boundary near Waterville. Unfortunately, warm water temperatures can impede angling success during the summer.
Colder and more intimate, Little Paint harbors wild browns and brook trout, in addition to stocked rainbows and brookies. Excellent water is accessible from the large campground hugging the stream. A smaller campground is also located on the main stem. After dinner one night at my Little Paint campsite, I snuck down to the stream as bats began their aerial maneuvers. I kept it simple: sandals, shorts, a box of flies, and my 4-weight. As trout emerged from their hideouts, I took one after another within a double-haul of my truck.
The watersheds above are merely an appetizer. Other short-list streams I recommend include Spring Branch Creek (gradually recovering from a recent floods), Coldwater Creek (gushing spectacularly from a cliff-side cave), Richmond Springs (a marquee attraction in beautiful Backbone State Park), and the aptly named Trout River (where I enjoyed some of my most surprising success last spring).
Tactics & Menu Items
Fishing strategies and hatches in northeastern Iowa vary depending on water temperatures, seasons, gradients, and other characteristics. However, unless you're hurling mouse-size streamers, there's little need for more than a 5-weight rod, with lighter wands excelling on smaller creeks.
Floating lines usually suffice. Success on larger, slick, clear reaches is improved by leaders of 10 feet or longer, but on smaller stretches closed in by vegetation, cut back to 7 to 9 feet to reduce snags. Under normal conditions, plan on using 4X to 7X tippets, small flies, and considerable stealth.
Upstream presentations work best on the clearest water, although larger reaches, riffles, or murky water can enable successful downstream strategies. In general, anglers can get away with larger flies and heavier tackle lower in watersheds, where trout grow fat on minnows and crayfish.
Hatches generally mirror those in the Minnesota and Wisconsin portions of the Driftless Region. One difference is that Iowa's regular trout season lasts all year.
While there's good action during the winter and midsummer, the most appealing times to fish are April through June for great hatches, and again from mid-September through October for spectacular fall colors.
Throughout the season, nymphs like the Prince, Pheasant Tail, or Hare's Ear (#14-20) perform a yeoman's service. Scuds and cress bugs in various sizes and shades are also excellent, as these crustaceans are prolific.
For fly fishers brave enough to test winter or early spring conditions, midge patterns like Serendipities, Brassies, or Griffith's Gnats (#18-24) are flies that work all year. Stoneflies don't play the important role they occupy in Western rivers, but Little Black Stones spark late winter and early spring action—a black caddis pattern (#16-20) takes fish on the surface, a dark stonefly nymph below.
A welcome sign of pending spring, Blue-winged Olives (Baetis) begin Iowa's flotilla of mayfly hatches, triggering a couple months of surface activity beginning in March. (Baetis resurface strongly in the fall, and sometimes provide periodic action throughout the summer.)
As with other mayflies, a #18-22 Parachute, Compara-dun, or No-hackle dry enhances the odds on flat water, while Catskill-style duns float well in the riffles. In or below the surface film, an RS2, CDC emerger variation, or small Pheasant Tail draw hits.
While winter releases its hold from late March into early May, Dark Hendricksons (Ephemerella subvaria) begin afternoon emergences in faster stretches, with spinner falls later in the day. In addition to traditional Dark Hendrickson or Red Quill drys, fish this hatch with a size 12 to 14 Parachute Adams, and a Hare's Ear or a Brown Hen Spinner dropper.
Come late April or May, squadrons of caddis appear, providing afternoon and evening action through September, in sizes 14 to 22. The spring burst of Little Black Caddis (Chimarra) and Grannoms (Brachycentrus) can be especially fruitful. Throughout the season, Elk-hair Caddis, X-caddis, and Henryville Specials work well on top. For a dropper, try a CDC Caddis Emerger, Cutter's E/C Caddis, LaFontaine Deep/Emergent Sparkle Pupa, or Peeking Caddis. Pulsating soft-hackle wets swung down-and-across also work magic.
An especially inviting time to visit is mid-May well into June. Flows usually drop and clear, and Light Hendricksons (Ephemerella invaria and rotunda, #14-16) and Sulphurs/Pale Evening Duns (Ephemerella dorothea, #16-18) hatch in the afternoons and evenings, respectively. Parachutes and Sparkle Duns work on top. To cover more bases, add a CDC emerger or Rusty Spinner dropper.
Sparking additional excitement on spring afternoons is the mayfly variously matched by a Blue Dun, Blue Quill, or Slate-Wing Mahogany Dun (Paraleptophlebia adoptiva) in sizes 16 to 18.
Completing the late spring/early summer mayfly extravaganza are periodic sightings of Stenonema, Stenacron, and Ephemera mayfly species known as March Browns, Grey Foxes, Ginger Quills, Light Cahills, and Brown Drakes. All of them are sizes 10 to 14.
Around the summer solstice, Tiny Blue-winged Olives (Plauditus punctiventris, #20-28) begin picking up the slack; after ebbing in August, they strengthen again in September.
The Little Yellow Stonefly, or Yellow Sally (Isoperla), produces fishable action from May to late July, in sizes 12-16. Sunny July mornings sparkle with levitating swarms of Trico mayflies (Tricorythodes, #20-28), with spinner falls bringing up fish into September.
The bomber-sized antithesis is the Giant Michigan Mayfly (Hexagenia limbata, size 6-10), which appears on lower, slower reaches from late June through July. Other large, brownish-gray and light-colored mayflies sporadically emerging regionally through late summer include Isonychia, Potamanthus, and Ephoron in sizes 10 to 16.
Ants, beetles, and crickets become critical in the summer; some of my best days have been with small black terrestrials fished below banks, ledges, and cliffs. Hoppers also take nice fish.
In late September, hardwoods begin detonating with hallucinogenic hues while terrestrials still catch trout, along with remnant Tricos, caddis, tiny olives, and rejuvenated Baetis.
Shorter days and cooler nights unleash amorous spawning desires, with large, aggressive browns falling for Woolly Buggers, Muddlers, or leech facsimiles. This is one of the best times to catch the hook-jawed bruisers often seen leering down from the walls of Driftless Region bars.
Driftless in Iowa
Northeastern Iowa provides a restful glimpse of life before mega-malls, eight-lane freeways, "reality" TV, addictive texting, and constant cell phone chatter. The region affords a Norman Rockwell-like lost vision of what America—and American fly fishing—used to be.
In addition to exceptional spring creeks, the area has a rich array of other attractions, including state parks, stately hotels and bed-and-breakfasts, Amish crafts, excellent hunting and wildlife viewing, canoeing and bike trails, scenic backroads, and 19th century river towns. Visiting fly fishers could spend several reincarnations exploring, and still have plenty to lure them back. And if you're traveling with non-anglers, this is an area that will keep everyone smiling.
The picturesque college town of Decorah lies near the geographic center of the Driftless Region, and has cozy places to stay and dine, elegant Victorian-era mansions, and a city-run campground with the Upper Iowa River (one of Iowa's most popular canoeing rivers) and a trout stream (Twin Springs) running through it.
If that weren't enough, there is another popular stream (Trout Run) on the outskirts of town, paralleled by a bike trail that runs to a state trout hatchery and public fishing area.
Spending some time along the Great River Road next to the Mississippi is another good nonfishing option. The massive river is lined with venerable towns like Lansing, Harpers Ferry, Marquette/McGregor, Guttenberg, and Dubuque tucked beneath 500-foot bluffs.
In particular, Lansing provides good access to French Creek, Harpers Ferry is near Paint Creek, and Marquette/McGregor are bisected by Bloody Run.
Four miles north of Marquette is Effigy Mounds National Monument, with ancient, animal-shaped figures perched high above the Mississippi. On another soaring bluff south of McGregor rests Pikes Peak State Park, with hiking trails, a shady campground, and expansive views overlooking the junction of the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers. Also nearby on upper Bloody Run, the large spring flowing out of Spook Cave provides the unusual opportunity to take a subterranean boat tour.
After fishing Bloody Run on my last Iowa trout trip, I stopped by McGregor's Old Man River Restaurant & Brewery for a good meal and German beer, just a stone's throw from the Big Mississippi. Outside, hordes of enormous Hexagenia mayflies were collecting on the windows; lots of fish would also be eating well tonight.
As I nursed my beer and marveled at the bugs, I contemplated the next morning's drive home. If anyone still isn't convinced that "Iowa" and "trout" belong in the same sentence, consider where "home" is. This native Midwesterner now lives in Helena, Montana, near one of the world's best trout tailwaters, yet eagerly anticipates returning 1,200 miles to the Hawkeye State's beguiling spring creeks.
Northeast Iowa's undulating panorama is an old flame that's never relinquished its hold on my angler's imagination. I'll be rolling down the Great River Road again soon.