Ah, the Driftless… It’s been written about quite a bit here at Tenkara Angler, and with good reason. In late Spring and early Summer this region located in parts of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa has some of the best (and most unique) trout fishing you’ll find anywhere in the United States. When people ask me why I travel to seemingly the middle-of-nowhere to fish each year, my answer is that the Driftless is a “cheat code” to make me feel like a competent angler.
Joking aside, the Great Driftless Campout, hosted by the Tenkara Wisconsin Facebook Group, is a wonderful (mostly) annual event and certainly worth checking out for those that want to make in-person connections with other anglers in the tenkara community. Not to mention the opportunity to catch a lot of fish! In fact this past year’s Campout, which was held from June 2-5, hosted dozens of anglers from as far away as California, Utah, Texas, and Florida.
Anthony Naples had this to say about why he makes the long drive from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania each year.
“Fishing the small spring creeks of the Wisconsin Driftless is heaven. I’ve fished in the Rocky Mountain west, in Maine, in the Appalachians and more. But the small limestone streams meandering in pastures and meadows… it’s just right in my wheelhouse. The size of the streams, the quality of the fisheries and the beautiful gentle, rural setting.”
Co-organizer Zoan Kulinski is one of the driving forces behind the event.
“David Noll and I organize and run the campout. It all started way back in 2016 I believe for the first Badger Midwest Tenkara Fest. Other than the COVID year of 2020 we have had it every year since. My favorite part of each year is greeting everyone as they arrive, and holding the group meals that Dave and I and put on.”
One of those welcomed by Zoan for the first time was tenkara newcomer Chase Meidam. Chase traveled 4 hours from Green Bay, Wisconsin to attend the Great Driftless Campout.
“When Tristan Higbee’s YouTube channel ‘Tenkara Addict‘ came across my feed in late winter of 2022 I hadn’t fished trout in 10 years, had never western fly fished, or even heard of tenkara. Tenkara really appealed to me, so I immediately started researching and getting myself prepared for the season. Then Tristan mentioned in one of his videos that there was a tenkara campout happening in Wisconsin. I figured this was a great opportunity to get out and meet people experienced in tenkara, learn from them, as well as experience some great fishing in the Driftless region.
The Driftless region is not only a beautiful part of the country, it has great trout fishing. Each day I fished, my total was 10+. Given I had only ever fished tenkara one time previously, and ended up with only one brook trout, this was a blast.”
While the Campout is not an overly scheduled event, each evening the various anglers reconvene at the campground to enjoy a bit of food, drink, and camaraderie. Some tell fishing stories from their activities earlier in the day, while others take the opportunity to learn some new skills. Some just can’t put their rods down, fishing the stream that flows right through camp. Iowa angler Dave Rosset, a multiple-time participant, shared his most recent experience:
“I had the opportunity to work on long line casting with Rob Worthing and Erik Ostrander. Although I don’t need to cast a long 20′ line for the waters that I fish, the casting instruction and mentoring will help with the shorter lines that I am used to fishing with.
I also got to spend an afternoon fishing with Erik. He was in “guide mode” and wore a fly fishing vest. I’ve worn a fishing vest off and on for the past 50 years. It reinforced for me that minimalist fishing is fine, but when not fishing my home waters, being prepared for different conditions is essential. Each of us has our own method of fishing. While I enjoy fishing traditional tenkara flies, I’m more of a “fixed line” angler. I left behind some flies that I could have used. Did I catch enough fish to satisfy me? Yes! But going forward I will fish more the way I am used to and plan accordingly.”
Personally, the thing I enjoy the most about the Great Driftless Campout is just hanging out with likeminded anglers and solidifying long-term friendships through those joint experiences. And believe me when I tell you that those evening conversations around the campfire do not only include the topic of tenkara.
Madison-area angler and YouTube creator Jared Willadsen expressed a similar sentiment:
“My favorite part of the campout was getting to know everyone and hear the stories of when tenkara came to the States. And of course fishing with new friends. I made several new friends that I’m going to keep in contact with; too many names to list. I also learned about the endless number of great Japanese rods that I don’t have. Haha!”
Tom Bayly, proprietor of Tenkara Adventure Outfitters was also in attendance. In speaking with him, I found he put a wonderful perspective on the entire weekend.
“Life is all about gathering experiences. I ran into so much variety of wildlife this outing, in part, because of the peacefulness and low impact surrounding tenkara. I helped a stuck fawn, ran into (almost literally) a large juvenile redtail hawk. Witnessed circling bald eagles, turtles , trout, beavers and so much more. The way I see it simplicity gives you those experiences.
You don’t fall asleep to the sound of rain in a hotel. However you can in a simple tent for example. You don’t have a racoon raid the chips you left out if you’re dining at 5 star restaurants. In 10 years will you remember the restaurant? Or that racoon? Which story will you tell others? Which one will they want to hear? Stories are not told about nice hotels, fine dining, and high dollar fishing gear. Stories are told from unique experiences.
I wish I could remember the exact quote however I once heard simplicity defined as “what you need to complete the task at hand and nothing more.” Living close to that as much as possible allows great experiences to just naturally follow.”
If you missed this year’s Great Driftless Campout, don’t worry, 2023’s iteration is in the works according to Zoan Kulinski.
“We are already in the planning stages for next year, it will again be the first weekend in June 2023! I really enjoy putting this together each year and look forward to seeing everyone, both those I know and those new folks I meet every year.”
So if you’re interested, consider joining the Tenkara Wisconsin Facebook Group, or simply subscribing to Tenkara Angler in your preferred form of social media. We’ll be keeping everyone up to date as the event gets closer and more details are released.
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