The last stop on an eleven states in eleven day tour of the west for my son Harrison and I was northeast Iowa, Decorah to be exact…we would pause for a couple of days to fish an area known as “The Driftless” which encompasses parts of four states; northeast Iowa, southeast Minnesota, southwest Wisconsin and northwest Illinois. Drift is a term used to describe ‘debris’ left behind by the withdrawal of the glaciers during the last ice-age some 20,000 years ago…thus this area is without such drift and the topography is spectacular, giant rolling hills with fertile valleys between…oh, and miles upon miles of cool, clear water that is loaded with brown, brook and rainbow trout.
This area of Iowa is simply like no other. I know this is a bold statement…but the wildlife and scenery here needs to be experienced. This little corner of the Hawkeye-State has become my favorite place to fish and truth is I have just begun to understand the immensity of the water available for a fly-guy like myself. Over the course of a day and a half we were able to see several bald eagles, a golden eagle, deer by the droves, birds of various types in huge numbers, pheasants (including an up close and personal encounter with a clutch of about a dozen week old pheasant chicks), groundhogs, ducks, geese, herons, well…the list could literally go on and on. If you love nature and the outdoors then please do yourself a favor and put this area on your list…I promise you won’t be disappointed. The video below shows me landing several nice trout as well as some shots of the wide array of wildlife in the area. I need to give credit for many of the outstanding still photos and videos to my son, Harrison, who was along with me while I fished.
From a fly fishing standpoint there are few places that have several positives like the driftless; when I say miles of water I literally mean miles. One of my favorite areas is north and a bit east of Decorah; Highlandville is a little burg in the middle of no-where that has a general store and a campground. This is where we set up our camp and it was perfect for us because while we didn’t fish it, my camper was literally ten feet from the south branch of Bear Creek…there were rainbow trout slurping up goodies at any glance!
Our first afternoon started with a bang as after fishing a short stretch of South Bear Creek I eased my truck along the gravel roads up and over hills and into another valley that contained Waterloo Creek. We parked, climbed over the fence using a walk-over provided by the state of Iowa, walked due north towards Minnesota for about ¾ of a mile where I stripped out about forty feet from my 3-weight rod, tied on an olive bitch-creek nymph, made one accurate cast against the far side of the stream and was rewarded with a very large brown trout on my first cast. By large I mean one well into the 20 inch class…I don’t know for sure because he was able to slip me after a few seconds of pounding and thrashing on the end of my line. I stood in disgust as Harrison walked up and asked me what just happened and I replied with the best answer I knew, “The fish won this time”! Never daunted for too long, in a matter of less than a couple of minutes I was hooked up for good with another nice brown as the fish were lying in wait for anything to drop off of the over-hanging trees, limbs and grasses that bordered the edge of the stream.
The conditions were as perfect as could be asked for…the water was about half stained which allowed me to cast over the pools, but wasn’t so stained or moving so fast that the fish couldn’t see or follow my presentation. The next couple of hours was nothing short of amazing as we slowly moved along the creek where casts after casts I hooked up with browns, rainbows and brook trout. During our slow migration downstream and back toward the truck we were privileged with an abundance of wildlife as at one point we stopped and watched a pair of bald eagles fly to and from a nest that was about the size of a small car; as they did they chirped, trilled and simply talked to each other, including the very large eaglet that was in the nest. On another occasion a chubby groundhog made his was out from the adjacent woods to the stream whereby he gorged himself on the ‘greens’ that bordered the water…while literally just below him was a muskrat that was collecting the same ‘greens’ for her young that was waiting eagerly within a hole just below the groundhog. These were times whereby Mother Nature was in her shining glory…and fortunately we were there to witness this first hand, not within our home on the TV, but there, in this meadow that was so green you might have thought you’d slipped off to Ireland. I was staggered by the sheer volume of animal life that was on display…not to mention the fifty or so cows and calves that shared the stream with us.
The next morning I was up at 4:30am and off to French Creek where just after sun up I was once again casting to and landing native brown trout…as I learned from State Fishery Manager Brian Malaise…they hadn’t stocked any browns in the area’s waters for over a decade. For over three hours we eked and sneaked along making casts to pools and riffles where these predatory fish await a helpless baitfish. French Creek meanders through the midst of another cow pasture that on this day made a little more sense; on one side of the creek was a Black Angus calf who was running and sprinting about…standing on the other side was his mother. She was patiently trying to get him to cross the creek and join her as evidenced by her slow methodical bellows. We fished and watched as this little life drama unfolded and it so reminded me of the many times I had tried to get my boys to follow, to cross the stream…but as in life, mama cow finally had to cross back over, comfort and coax here little fella along. Nature, for me…is a microcosm of life and on this day I witnessed some great parenting, all while enjoying my own little fella…who would soon be returning to his life in Arizona…but not before the two of us spent some father-son time all while Enjoying the Great Outdoors.
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