Fixed-Line Fly Fishing Location Guides Rods Trout & Char

A Beginner’s Guide to Fixed Line Fly Fishing the Driftless Area

Frequent readers probably notice that we mention the “Driftless Area” often here at Tenkara Angler. Perhaps it’s because Matt considers it his home waters, or maybe because so many of our contributing authors just can’t keep quiet about this unique region of the upper Midwest. Any way you look at it, the trout fishing (and pastoral setting) makes it well worth visiting for any tenkara or fixed line angler.

We hope the following article will serve as a simple “start up guide” for those that have never fished the Driftless Area, but would like to give it a try. Whether it’s tagging on an extra day to the end of a business trip or wanting to spend a long weekend in a new fishery, our goal is to give you a taste of what to expect, and more importantly, get you on some fish!

fixed line fly fishing driftless - tenkara angler - scene
Beautiful Driftless streamside setting

Note: While the Driftless Area refers to portions of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois, we will be focusing on Southwestern Wisconsin in this guide (although much of the general information will hold true throughout the region). And if you’ve never understood how the Driftless got it’s name, here is a great reference article.

How Do I Get There?

Destination: Viroqua, Wisconsin

One of the first things you’ll notice about the Driftless is that it is an escape from big cities. Most of the streams meander through the rolling hills of Southwestern Wisconsin’s agricultural lands. Think cow pastures and crops. As such, there’s not a “big city” airport to fly into if you’re traveling from afar. The La Crosse Regional Airport (LSE) is the easiest and closest option to reach the Driftless. It’s small, but recently renovated and rental cars are available on site. It’s also fairly accessible from across the country, most likely via a connection through Chicago. Other airport options (with more distant drives to the Wisconsin Driftless) are Rochester International, MN (RST) and Dane County Regional, Madison, WI (MSN).

Our base camp for this guide to Driftless fly fishing will be Viroqua, WI.

Mural on the side of The Driftless Cafe, Viroqua, WI

Viroqua is about a 45 minute drive southeast from La Crosse and has small town charm, with a nice “main street” featuring shops and restaurants. However, it also has some bigger conveniences such as a Walmart, various fast food options (be sure to stop by Culver’s), and reliable cell phone service. (You’ll find cell service can definitely be “hit or miss” throughout the more rural areas of the Driftless). Viroqua is also home to the Driftless Angler fly shop, a resource we’ll revisit a bit later.

Accommodations

There are several options to consider for lodging while in Viroqua (or neighboring Westby).

If your preference is a roof over your head and a comfortable bed, two excellent options are Vernon Inn and Suites and the Old Towne Motel. Both are relatively spartan but cozy with clean rooms and Wi-Fi. I usually stay at the Old Towne, which also shares a parking lot with the Old Towne Supper Club, a restaurant that serves wonderful meals on the weekends. However, if that’s not your thing, both motels offer rooms with full kitchenettes, so preparing your own meals is also an option. For something less commercial, Airbnbs are also available in Viroqua, although not plentiful.

Old Towne Motel, Westby, Wisconsin

The last visit the Tenkara Angler team paid to the Driftless involved some tent camping in one of the nearby Vernon County parks. We happened to select Sidie Hollow Park for our camp, but Esofea Park is also close by. Both have several different campsite options, from full electric/water to primitive. They also both have access to hot showers and flush toilets. And the best part, both have trout streams that flow right through the properties. Campsites are generally inexpensive and can be researched and reserved through this website.

Where to Fish

The best part about the Driftless is that there is no shortage of water in which to fish. If you’re staying in Viroqua, you can literally drive in any direction and find some really fishy water, and none of it is a secret. On our last trip we fished streams that were all highly visible, clearly marked with pull-offs or parking lots, and all posted by the Wisconsin DNR. You’d think this might make for poor fishing conditions or highly crowded waters… however it was quite the opposite. We were able to spread out and all catch more than our fair share. Weekends are obviously more crowded than weekdays, so if you have the option to fish Monday through Friday, it’s not a bad consideration.

fixed line fly fishing driftless - tenkara angler - bohemian valley
DNR posted access point

The specific streams I’ll note in this article will give you good “bang for the buck” in terms of being able to fish very productive water, different sized streams, as well as catch multiple species of trout (mainly brown and brook) all more or less in one area.

fixed line fly fishing driftless - tenkara angler - map

This particular cluster on the map is a short 15 minute drive from Viroqua and features Timber Coulee (possibly one of the most popular and prolific waters in the Driftless), Spring Coulee, Rullands Coulee, and Bohemian Valley Creek. Coon Creek, which flows right through the small town of Coon Valley, has the most convenient access of them all (including handicap accommodations) in a beautiful community park. The majority of this water follows Highway P, and then branches off along highways G, H, and X.

All of these waters flow primarily through farmland making for easy casting and little to no overhead canopy in which to deal with. It’s a very surreal experience to be fishing among cows with barns or even churches serving as a backdrop. Makes for some nice photos as well…

fixed line fly fishing driftless - tenkara angler - antunez cows
Jonathan Antunez targets a brown?

Tackling Gear

In terms of rods, any 11 to 13 foot tenkara rod will be more than adequate for Driftless waters. As previously mentioned, much of the fishing does not require the consideration of canopy, and most “hang ups” will result from an errant cast finding a stray piece of tall grass. Thus, the longest rod you are comfortable using is probably the best option. The Nissin Zerosum Oni Honryu 395 served me well for the majority of my last trip. It’s a powerful rod that can also be fished with quite a bit of finesse. However when tackling a smaller stream no more than 6 feet wide, I opted for the Oni Type III 340, sizing down to the environment. The only rods I wouldn’t recommend would be models on the extremely short end of the spectrum, as you’ll likely find yourself regretting not having that extra length while fishing.

fixed line fly fishing driftless - tenkara angler - oni honryu 395
Nissin Zerosum Oni Honryu 395

Five Very Capable Driftless Area Tenkara Rods

Similarly, line selection probably does not require much scrutiny. Pick a line that matches the rod and flies you’re looking to fish. (More on fly selection will be covered in the next section.) I find 3.0-3.5 level line as a solid choice, as well as some of the newer floating tenkara fly lines, especially if you want to fish dry flies.

You will probably want to bring waders (or at least some sort of leg covering such as gaiters or quick dry pants) even in the heat of summer. I wouldn’t recommend fishing in shorts because even though most of your fishing will be done from the bank, rather than in the water, there can be some really nasty things lurking in those cow pastures. Thorns, stinging nettles, or even varieties of parsnip, which can cause blistering all can be hidden in the tall grass. In addition to who knows what sort of agricultural run-off that might flow into the water, so it would be wise to bandage any open cuts. If you have creaky knees, I’d also recommend investing in a good set of knee pads, as kneeling to keep a low profile (as not to spook the fish) is a common stalking technique.

fixed line fly fishing driftless - tenkara angler - anthony naples
Anthony Naples combines a long rod and low profile

Early season weather in the Driftless can also be very erratic. My annual trip to the Driftless is usually in May. Sometimes it’s on the cold side, complete with snow flurries; sometimes it’s hot, in the mid-80s or low-90s. However on every occasion it has rained. So, at minimum make sure to bring layer-able clothing as well a packable rain jacket. Sunscreen and sunglasses are also a must, for obvious reasons.

Flies

Now I can cite the typical tenkara refrain and say that “the fly doesn’t matter”… and while I wouldn’t be lying, I don’t think I would necessarily be truthful either. Kebari will catch fish in Southwest Wisconsin, however the waters of the Driftless are neither high gradient or typically fast, so many of the impressionistic characteristics of kebari may lose some of their effectiveness. “Western” style flies and techniques typically work well here. You’ll note the title of this article references “fixed line fly fishing” rather than “tenkara.”

Two tried and true patterns of the Driftless Area are the “Pink Squirrel” (a beadhead nymph), and the Pass Lake (a wet fly/streamer).

Initially a skeptic, I found the Pink Squirrel to be extremely effective. There definitely is truth to the mythology! I also found other beadhead nymphs with brightly colored hot spots to be almost as productive. A killer bug tied with a black tungsten bead and yellow dubbed collar seemed to be quite attractive to the local browns when my supply of squirrels ran low. No matter the nymph, sizes 12-16 seem to be the sweet spot.

Some of my fishing companions were equally as potent using the Pass Lake wet fly almost exclusively. The Pass Lake is a very versatile pattern that can be drifted, swung, twitched, you name it. Just keep it in the water and you’re bound to find success. Anthony Naples wrote an article for Tenkara Angler about the Pass Lake which goes into great detail about both tying and fishing this fly.

fixed line fly fishing driftless - tenkara angler - brown trout
Jonathan Antunez’s beautiful brown

Other patterns to consider for your Driftless fly box are Elk Hair Caddis (dry), Hippie Stompers (terrestrial), and Tungsten Leeches (for rainy conditions). Jonathan Antunez even had success with a micro mop fly he calls The Abomination.

Strategies

If you are visiting the Driftless as a mountain stream tenkara angler, you’ll find a different world of fishing. The streams often look flat and featureless, a far cry from the waterfalls, plunge pools, and clearly defined pocket waters that you’re probably accustomed to fishing. Fortunately, all of the same structure is there, it’s just underwater. Paul Vertrees explored this conundrum for Tenkara Angler in a Spring 2017 article.

fixed line fly fishing driftless - tenkara angler - rob worthing
Rob Worthing eyes some technical water

It’s been said the most valuable strategy you can have in the meadow streams in the Driftless is stealth. That is where the aforementioned longer rod and kneepads come into play. You’ll have far more luck initially sneaking up on fish in those calmer waters, so staying a bit back from the bank’s edge and keeping a low profile will prevent the trout from scattering. It is also wise to not enter the water unless necessary. Minimal wading is definitely a winning call in the Driftless playbook.

fixed line fly fishing driftless - tenkara angler - matt sment stalk
Matt Sment in stealth mode

Additionally, it is wise to fish the water completely and thoroughly, even sections you may not be able to see. You’ll notice that many of the Driftless streams carve out deep sections of earth with significant cut banks. Big fish like to take advantage of the protection of these cut banks, hugging the walls waiting to ambush any prey item that comes by. So make sure to fish both sides of the stream thoroughly, especially if approaching perpendicularly. That may require you to fish the near bank somewhat blindly as you’re keeping low, but believe me, the aggressive take will be well worth it!

Odds & Ends

I referenced the Driftless Angler fly shop earlier, please make sure to stop by during your visit to Viroqua. You will not only be able to fill your fly box with Pink Squirrels or get a fresh spool of tippet, but you’ll be greeted by a knowledgeable staff that can get you up to speed on current fishing conditions and perhaps suggest a trick or two that was not covered in this primer. These are the local experts, take advantage of their smarts while putting a few dollars back into the Driftless’ fly fishing community.

Fishing access is generally very liberal in Wisconsin, but please be cognizant of when you are on public vs. private land. Many farmers will have egresses built into their fences that clearly allow and encourage angler entry, but don’t assume that every property owner wants you fishing their stream. Access shouldn’t be an issue for the streams mentioned in this article, but make sure to visit the Wisconsin DNR website for the latest on those rules. And if you’re not certain, find a stream that is more clearly marked.

fixed line fly fishing driftless - tenkara angler - access
Angler access

Unlike in other parts of the country, trout fishing season in Wisconsin is not year round. Trout season begins January 1st as catch & release only, transitions in May to include catch & keep, and closes in October for three months. Trout fishing is generally dark through December. Now this could change by the time you read this article, so make sure that when you get your Wisconsin fishing license, you also check the current year’s fishing season dates and regulations.

If you’ve read this article and are interested, but don’t consider yourself a do-it-yourself angler (or want to make the most of limited time), we highly recommend Mike Warren’s Trout Buddy Driftless Guides. Mike has been a friend to the tenkara community for several years, and operates trips throughout the Driftless specifically catering to fixed line fly fishers. He can certainly navigate you safely to not only the best waters as well as through the rules and regulations.

In closing, I hope you found the above information not only helpful, but inspirational in giving trout fishing in the Driftless Area a try. There’s so much fertile water, enough to keep an angler busy for months, if not years! It’s the reason the Driftless Area is one of the Tenkara Angler’s Editors’ favorite places to fish. It might not be “tenkara” by definition, but it sure is a bunch of fixed line fun!

fixed line fly fishing driftless - tenkara angler - jason sparks timber coulee
Jason Sparks fishing Timber Coulee

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4 comments

  1. Great article Michael! Of course, I’m not impartial, being a native to the area. Even though most Driftless waters are exactly as you describe (i.e., open pasture with little overhead canopy) there is a noteworthy subset of creeks and streams in the area that do not fit this description. For example the lower half of North Bear Creek in northeast Iowa and the Middle Fork of the Whitewater River in southeast Minnesota, just to name a couple, are relatively fast waters and immediately adjacent to dramatic, 200-400 ft vertical limestone cliffs surrounded by dense forest giving one the feeling of being in the mountains (albeit without the mountains). Cell service in these deep ravines is almost always zero. Coon Creek in Iowa has enough dense, overhanging branches to drive me to a 240 cm rod and lots of bow and arrow casting. One of the great things about the Driftless is the wide diversity of trout habitat and the fun involved in exploring them. Thanks for your superb content!

    1. I love some of the waters you describe Gary. There’s one I’ve fished before that definitely feels a little more tight & “mountainy” than most of the others… but can’t give away all those secrets. 🙂 Absolutely some variety to be found in the Driftless if you know where to look!

  2. Great article Mike. Another technique that worked well for me was downstream presentations like gyaku-biki (or reverse pull) with english style wetflies or jun kebari, and just the regular old wetfly swing. Such a fun place to fish. I would go back in a heartbeat.

  3. Great article Mike. Hopefully, when I get back to Wisconsin in April 2022 I’ll be fishing the sh** out of the Driftless! One point on mobile coverage in Viroqua and all of the WI Driftless no phone (voice) on Cricket Wireless which runs on the AT&T network SMS seems to work OK.

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