Tucked in the west-southwest corner of the Driftless Region just a few miles west of the Mississippi River, it’s easy to overlook Iowa’s Yellow River State Forest. With over 8,500 acres of mixed hardwood and conifer forest, it boasts three trout streams (the Yellow River, Paint Creek, and Little Paint Creek), four campgrounds with 168 campsites, 40 of them equestrian, and trails for hiking, backpacking, horseback riding and snowmobiling. I had driven by various pieces and parts of this recreation area several times before, but had never taken advantage of it. After doing a little research online, I took an afternoon off from work and headed south out of La Crosse to go find Little Paint Creek.
The Paint Creek unit of the Yellow River State Forest is just a few minutes southwest of Harper’s Ferry, Iowa, on State Forest Road, which crosses the Little Paint and the Paint. The largest campground in the state forest is spread out along the valley floor to the west of State Forest Road. The primitive campsites here are large and grass covered, with many sites smack dab on Little Paint Creek. The creek is small, perhaps 10-25 feet wide, much of it running right next to limestone rock faces. The water here is gin clear, and turns an indescribable blue/green color in the deeper pools.
The Iowa DNR website says that the stream is stocked with rainbows, browns, and brook trout April through October, with some fish reproducing naturally. The fish were taking midges and tiny Blue-Winged Olives on the surface, but it was breezy and I didn’t want to mess with tiny flies on light tippets so I went subsurface with black/brown leaches and bead head nymphs. I caught one small brown and quite a few rainbows all around 12″ long. If I had to guess, the brown was wild and all of the rainbows were stocked, although one of the rainbows was a couple inches larger than the others, so this fish could have survived last winter. The rainbows weren’t picky, and this would be a good place to step away from your smokey campfire, catch a few fish, and throw them in your cast iron skillet a few minutes later.
After a couple hours of fishing the Little Paint, the sun was setting behind the bluffs and it was cooling off, so I went to explore Paint Creek to see fishy it looked. But I got sidetracked by a sign advertising a scenic overlook. After driving up a steep gravel road for what seemed like forever, I finally got to the overlook, which had a great view of the valley through which Paint Creek flows several hundred feet below. There were too many trees in the way to get a photo of the creek, but I did get a decent shot of the ridge across the valley.
On the way back down the bluff I took a different route and got thoroughly lost. My phone didn’t have a signal, so that was no help, and the Iowa county mapbook I had didn’t include any of the names of the roads I was on. I think. After a good half hour of random turns on gravel roads running through some very pretty hardwood forests, I emerged on top of a ridge and the name of the intersecting road was actually on my map. With the sun heading down in the west, I was getting a bit nervous. I decided to explore Paint Creek another time.
This is definitely a place I will return to. The Little Paint by itself is reason enough, but I’ve also got the Paint and the Yellow River yet to explore.