Tenkara Trip Reports Trout & Char

Iowa’s Holy Grail

Article by Gary Mineart

When one hears “Driftless Region” an angler usually thinks of the cold water trout streams of the southwest Wisconsin Paleozoic Plateau, and justifiably so. The adjacent bluffs of Minnesota and Iowa are often afterthoughts. In Iowa specifically, nearly half of the 50+ publicly accessible trout streams support naturally reproducing fish. Among these there is one very special place that stands out from the rest.

South Pine Creek in Winneshiek County supports the last remaining undisturbed population of surviving, native brook trout in Iowa. Genetically unique, they originate here and nowhere else. Some scientists claim these brook trout have persevered in this stream since the end of the Pleistocene Epoch, over ten-thousand years ago. The allure of these incredibly special trout combined with my recent infatuation with tenkara and its perfect fit to our local waters led to my first-ever expedition to the South Pine in late April, despite the trailhead being a mere 20 minutes from my home.

Iowa Tenkara Holy Grail - Gary Mineart - South Pine Creek

The vacant parking area upon arrival at the access point mid-morning on a Friday left me giddy with delight and anticipation. It’s not a stretch to assume the mile-plus hike over moderate gradients from the road to the stream and the artificial-only, catch-and-release regulations pose a disincentive to all but serious anglers who are on a mission. The creek revealed itself to be a series of narrow, fast runs punctuated by slow pools of varying depths. I observed almost no surface activity in the pools and no prevalence of insect activity, likely due to the cold temperatures over the previous evening. The crystal clear water, blue skies, and light breezes quickly became a frustration as I found myself constantly spooking the trout before I could make a presentation.

I worked upstream after a quick lunch and came upon a fallen tree along the bank of a large, clear pool with multiple, easy to spot fish. Perfect! Crouching behind the log, I drifted a #12 Killer Bug downstream to the closest suspect hovering over the bottom and the deed was done. Landing that rare brookie was the most satisfying fishing experience I’ve had in a long time. That same spot yielded ten more nice trout over the subsequent hour before I declared final victory and headed back to the car. I didn’t see another soul the entire day. Blissful solitude.

As I continue to slay my tenkara addiction seeking the naturally reproducing trout of northeast Iowa, I’m amazed at how well suited this style of fishing is to the Driftless Region. I think I may have retired my western fly rod for good. Whatever I do, it will be hard to duplicate the thrill of that first South Pine Creek brook trout.

Gary Mineart is a retired Earth Scientist and Space Systems Engineer, a native of Iowa’s Driftless Region, and a recently minted tenkara addict.

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  1. I had no idea brook trout were native trout in Iowa. Thanks for sharing! I’ll have to add that spot to my list, for sure.

  2. I went to South Pine with a friend this past Monday. A gorgeous walk, a pretty stream with beavers really starting to dam up a large area. We caught some brookies but not enough to go back, although I did land a 17″ brown. I have better brook trout much closer to home.

    1. I wasn’t even aware South Pine had brown trout. A 17 incher would have thrown me for a loop. As far as “better” brook trout, in this particular case my objective was not size or quantity but the extreme rarity of the sub-species there.

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