I learned how to fly fish in Michigan. I chased brookies, browns, and steelhead on the Au Sable, Betsy, Little Manistee and Maple rivers in Northern Michigan, and I fished for smallmouth bass on the Huron near my home at the time, Ann Arbor. The fly fishing in Michigan is famous and storied, and I absolutely loved it.
My wife Bette (pronounced “Betty”) and I are originally from Iowa, but we lived in Ann Arbor for 14 years, which is where both of us began our careers. But soon after we had kids in the early 1990’s, we realized that Megan and Sam weren’t going to see much of their grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins if we stayed in Michigan. So we needed to find jobs closer to home. At the time I was obsessed with fly fishing in Michigan, and the thought of a move back towards home left me feeling disappointed and empty. Yes, it was the right thing to do for our family, but I was going to have to give up the pastime that I had grown so passionate about. After all, what kind of fly fishing could they possibly have in Iowa?
After an extensive job search and interviews in Eau Claire, Madison, and La Crosse, Wisconsin, I accepted a job offer from a small software company in the La Crosse area, just about 45 miles from the Iowa border, which put us within striking distance of both of our families. Not so close that folks could drop in on us unannounced, but close enough to drive down and back in a day. Just after my interview with my new company, I started looking into what kind of fly fishing they had in the southwestern part of the great state of Wisconsin. Remember, this is just before the Internet took off, so my research was confined to libraries and the books and articles I found there. After some research, I discovered that La Crosse was in an area known to geologists as The Driftless. The area has this name because during the last round of glaciers that covered the upper midwest, the glaciers didn’t quite cover this one spot, and so didn’t leave behind any of the rocky rubble known as “drift.” Hence the name, Driftless.
Why is this important? Because the glaciers didn’t grind down the land and instead left the region with countless little valleys, each sporting a spring-fed limestone creek, many of which support populations of stocked or wild trout. The area is roughly egg-shaped and is bordered by Red Wing, Minnesota to the north, Rochester, Minnesota to the west, Dubuque, Iowa to the south, and Madison, Wisconsin to the East. Unknown to me at the time, La Crosse was smack dab in the middle of all of these trout-filled valleys. Hot damn!
My daughter Megan was five years old when she and I made the move to La Crosse in September of 1995, while my wife Bette and son Sam, two years old at the time, stayed back in Ann Arbor to sell our house. Trout season is over at the end of September in Wisconsin, so I didn’t get to go trout fishing in my new home for seven months. But that didn’t really bother me; I was too busy lamenting all of the wonderful fly fishing I was missing in Michigan. And I was darned sure that the fly fishing in Wisconsin couldn’t compare with what I had had in Michigan for so many years. But that didn’t stop me from doing a little scouting. A kid or two in car seats, I would head out on weekend days to look at streams that I had heard or read about. I remember the first time that I actually had an inkling of how lucky I was about to be, I had stopped at a little bridge over a small stream called Timber Coulee Creek. I walked up to the edge of the bridge, careful to keep my shadow off the surface, and saw crystal clear water with a bottom of bright green weeds. I was used to fishing rivers in Michigan that were 30 to 100 feet wide, and this little thing was almost small enough to hop across. Despite its small size, I saw dozens and dozens of fish, racing up and down this little creek. Despite my best efforts, I had spooked them, and I stood there amazed at all of these fish, speeding up and down the stream, frantic to find hiding spots behind rocks or among weeds.
Hmmn. I walked back to my car, and that’s all I could think of was “Hmmn.” Were all of these fish trout? Perhaps they were suckers, or maybe some species of Wisconsin fish that they didn’t have in Michigan? Cheesehead chubs, or perhaps bratwurst bullheads? I just couldn’t figure it out. But over the off-season, I continued to read, continued to scout streams, and most important, made friends with several guys at my new job who fished for trout. And, based on what they said, yeah, those fish in that first creek I saw—and probably in all of those other creeks I had scouted—were indeed trout.
And so I went out and bought a Wisconsin fishing license for the trout opener, which was on a Saturday in May. With wife and kids at home, and rods, reels, waders, and vest in the trunk of my car, I headed out mid-day to a stream that was about a half hour away from our apartment. Most of the fishy looking places along the county road I was on had a car or two parked on the shoulder, so I settled for a not-so-fishy-looking place on a little stream called Bohemian Valley Creek. I parked, rigged up my rod, donned my fish costume, and headed into the trees, looking for a place to fish. I walked along the stream, trying to be quiet, peering into the water, looking for fishy-looking deeper pools and trout. At one point I heard a tiny splash, and spied a trout chasing caddis flies at the tail of a long pool.
I carefully moved into position downstream from the pool and gauged how much room I had in the tunnel of trees I needed to cast through. Tan caddis flies were in the air, about size 16’s, so that’s what I tied on. And I cast to that feeding fish and landed him, just like that. He was a small brown trout, and looked wild to me. I cast a few feet further up in the pool, and caught another brown, a bit bigger than the first. I ended up catching six wild brown trout out of that one pool. I never had to change my fly, and barely had to move my feet. I was dumbfounded. And really excited.
The last fish I took at the head of that pool was a chunky 14” wild brown. Not a monster, but my goodness what fun it was to catch my first half dozen trout in Wisconsin on a single dry fly on opening day. Catching those six trout took less than an hour, but I stopped fishing that day, not wanting to end on a possible sour note, anxious to get back and share the story with my family. That was 17 years ago, and on only a few outings in The Driftless has the fishing been so effortless and rewarding. Many outings have been worse, but several others have been even better. I love fishing this area, and over the years I have branched out to fish all corners of The Driftless. Most years, if you look in my vest, you’ll find fishing licenses with trout stamps from not only Wisconsin, but Minnesota and Iowa, too.
I still miss the fishing in Michigan, which is a beautiful state that sports a multitude of fishing opportunities. I have managed to get back there from time to time over these past 17 years to fish many of my old haunts, with many of my old friends, and both are still very special to me.
But now I am also blessed to be in the heart of The Driftless, which offers an intimate fishing experience—on small streams with wild trout—that is unlike any other.