scenic valleys of southwestern Wisconsin harbor dozens of
cold, fertile spring creeks. These are my home waters that I began
fishing with my father and grandfather as soon as I could walk.
Ongoing habitat projects continue to increase the amount of
productive trout water. Most streams hold strong populations of wild
brown trout, and the angling for adult browns of 11 to 14 inches is
exceptional by any standards. Browns of 17-inches and larger are
present in modest numbers and can be targeted with special strategies
when conditions are right. Native brook trout inhabit some streams.
Wild rainbows are rare in the Driftless, but the Wisconsin DNR stocks
surplus “brood stock” rainbows, which average 20 inches, in some
Trout season in
Wisconsin’s Driftless Area is nearly 10 months long (early January
to mid-October), so you can fish in every season of the year.
Following is a breakdown of what to expect throughout the angling
My busiest guiding
times are early April to mid June, and Labor Day to mid October, so I
recommend booking in advance for those periods. However, I usually
have a few open dates at busy times so don’t hesitate to call on
Videos, click here, will give you a feel for
the Driftless fishery.
February Beginning in 2016, winter trout fishing
opportunity in Wisconsin’s Driftless Area was greatly expanded.
Catch & release fishing with artificial flies/lures now begins on
the first Saturday in January. (Prior to 2016, catch & release
fishing began on the first Saturday in March.)
In winter most
trout vacate skinny water and congregate in the larger runs where
they avoid predation and conserve energy by lying on bottom in the
slower, deeper slots. Dead-drifting weighted flies along bottom
through the deepest slots is productive, but we trigger many strikes
from sluggish winter trout by subtly teasing nymphs and
Buggers upward from bottom within these slots.
temperatures plunge for a week or more, streams ice over in all but
the riffles. In moderate to warm winter weather, streams are mostly
ice free and fishable. Throughout winter concentrate your efforts on
the midday hours when streams warm a bit and trout are most active.
Major winter thaws
do occur. For example, on February 22, 2017 air temps climbed into
the low 70’s—the warmest February day ever recorded in
much of southwestern Wisconsin. Better yet, several preceding days
above 50 degrees blew most of the snow out of the hills giving
streams a chance to settle and clear. On the 21st and 22nd
we had superb nymphing from midmorning into late evening—in
shirtsleeves. Not surprisingly, on February 23rd we got blasted with
wet, heavy snow. My advice: In late winter have your fishing gear set
to go in the event that spring stages a sneak preview. If you want
guided fishing in winter, I’m probably available.
March & April Catch & release fishing with artificial flies/lures continues
right up to the general trout season opener on the first Saturday in
May. NOTE: The 5-day Monday-thru-Friday closure preceding the
general trout season opener has been eliminated, which
is good news for fly-fishers because
spring caddis hatches often peak in late April, which is a prime
fly-fishing window overall.
March can bring
another blast of winter or the kiss of spring, but in recent years
we’ve fished many warm and productive March days with little
competition from other anglers. If March is spring-like and you’re
interested in a guided outing on short notice, my March schedule has
plenty of openings.
Be aware that rapid
snowmelt suppresses water temperatures and dirties streams. In early
spring I look for snow to be mostly gone from all but the shaded
slopes and for afternoon air temps topping 45 degrees. Then streams
warm at least a few degrees by late morning and trout activity spikes
until streams begin to cool in late afternoon. A rule of thumb for
evening fishing in early spring: If the sky is clear, the fishing
usually shuts down as soon as the afternoon sun dips behind the
hills. If the sky is overcast good fishing extends into evening,
especially if temps are unseasonably mild.
trout of 16-inches and up are taken subsurface, but as spring hatches
get rolling, dry-fly opportunities abound for adult browns of 11 to
about size 12, hatch primarily on sunny March afternoons.
weather with air and water temps approaching 50 degrees are ideal for
Blue-Winged Olive hatches, and March and April have many such
afternoons making spring BWO’s the most consistent mayfly hatches
of the year. Spring BWO’s average about size 18; fall BWO’s run a
Spring midges are
generally the largest, darkest midges of the year. A Griffith’s
Gnat in size 18 is often a productive dry, but we usually catch more
and bigger trout by dead-drifting or subtly teasing my Beadhead
Pheasant Tail Midge (in black) just subsurface. Spring midges can
hatch throughout the day; we often see trout midging in morning when
we first hit the water. It’s common to see midges and BWO’s
hatching simultaneously midday. And big, dark spring midges sometimes
pop right into evening.
Charcoal and Black
caddis hatches can fire up in early in April, especially in warm,
sunny weather. These spring caddis hatches peak in late April to mid
which peak in May, begin in April.
yo-yo up and down. Even when days are warm, April nights often dip
below freezing in the valleys, which makes for slow fishing until
midmorning when streams begin to warm. Following frosty nights, many
anglers make the mistake of hitting their preferred water too early
in the morning while trout are still sluggish. That said, on mild
spring mornings trout can be highly charged at daybreak. Especially
if you awake to a warm spring shower, scrap your breakfast plans and
hit good water early, as trout will likely race to nail your nymph or
days with stained water or light rain are ideal for running and
gunning with a Bugger or your favorite streamer on neglected lower
watersheds where trout are few but relatively large. Cover each
potential lie with a presentation or two and move on. On a good
Bugger day I typically work a few miles of stream and catch a
dozen or more browns of 15 inches and up. If you like to explore
lightly fished lower watersheds for larger browns, April and May are
prime time as trout are active much of the day and walking is easy in
places that will be jungles by June.
May & June On the first Saturday in May the majority of streams open to bait
fishing and trout harvest. Fly fishers who want to avoid the opening
day crowd can head for
artificial lure/no kill special
regulation waters, which are mostly deserted. After opening day,
bait-fishing pressure drops sharply throughout the region.
Personally, some of the best fly-fishing days I’ve had in the
Driftless have been during the first week of the ‘kill’ season,
so don’t hesitate to book a guided fly-fishing outing in this
Overall, May is my
favorite month in the Driftless. The hills are in full bloom. For
much of the day water temps register from the mid 50’s to low
60’s—ideal feeding temps for trout. Prospecting with nymphs and
streamers is consistently good. And aquatic insect hatches are
Hatches of Charcoal
and Black Caddis can run well into May. By June evening egg-laying
flights of Tan Caddis are dipping low over the water.
As BWO hatches wind
down in early May, other mayfly hatches kick in. Sulphurs emerge from
mid May into June, mostly in afternoon, although hatches can go well
into evening. Most Sulphur duns range from size 14 to 18 with light
creamy to yellowish bodies. Hendrickson mayflies, sizes 12 to 14,
typically hatch in early afternoon from mid May into June.
Cranefly hatches rank among the most
consistent and productive hatches we see in the Driftless. In April
most Craneflies have drab olive bodies, but as hatches peak in May
the dominant body color is buttery yellow. Many days cranes trickle
off in modest numbers from late morning into evening, but warm,
overcast conditions in May can produce ‘blizzard’ hatches. During
cranefly emergences we routinely take more and larger trout by
dead-drifting or swinging my Fox Squirrel Beadhead Nymph subsurface,
than we do on dry imitations.
By mid June most of
our major aquatic insect hatches are finished, but terrestrial insect
populations are just building. Beetles and ants are already abundant.
And some years trout respond aggressively to hopper and cricket
imitations by late June, a good month before naturals are abundant.
July & August Angling pressure and guiding demand drop sharply throughout the
Driftless in mid to late summer, but there’s good fishing to be
had, especially in relatively cool, wet summers when streams flow
strong and cold. One bonus to fly-fishing the Driftless in summer—you
pretty much have your pick of prime water. Most summers I fish the
Rockies for a few weeks in late July/early August, but otherwise I’m
available to guide in the Driftless.
In summer a sound
strategy is to work our larger waters from dawn to late morning while
they’re at their coolest. In afternoon and evening work smaller
headwaters that remain relatively cool all day long. Keep in mind
that as summer advances many trout move upstream seeking cooler
Summer is prime
time to prospect with terrestrial imitations. On narrow, overgrown
creeks my Splat Cricket in size 10 is my workhorse terrestrial; I
often fish it on 3X tippet, or even 2X, to withstand abrasion from
weeds and grass. I tuck cast this chunky foam cricket to hit the
water with an audible splat that pulls fish from under vegetation and
cutbanks, and I often settle for a short drift of just a few feet
before picking the fly up and plopping it near the nest likely
holding lie (on narrow streams striving for long drifts mostly spooks
and lines a bunch of fish). On larger, more open streams I often
drift a dropper nymph about 15 inches below a hopper (which is a more
visible ‘indicator’ fly than a cricket), and I strive for longer
When I encounter
multiple trout sipping opportunistically on a big, glassy flat (a
common summer scenario), I often target individual risers with a size
14 Beetle—a subtle approach that produces multiple hookups on
spooky flats fish.
To boost your
strike rate in summer try prospecting with smaller nymphs than you
use in spring. In summer I often run a size 16 or 18 nymph as a
trailer (usually my Beadhead Pheasant Tail midge in black) about 15
inches behind a size 12 Beadhead Fox Squirrel. The larger nymph gets
the rig down in the deeper slots while the small nymph generates most
of the takes. When active trout invade riffles, I often fish my
Beadhead PT Midge alone.
From late July well
into September some Driftless streams see morning spinner falls of
small Trico mayflies. If you hit a Trico spinner fall it will likely
occur at the same time and place the following day.
prevail from mid June to mid September, so learning to fish the
Driftless effectively in summer will greatly expand your season and
fishing in Wisconsin’s Driftless Area now runs thru October 15th
(prior to 2016 the season ended on September 30th).
shorter days, cooler nights and a return to the springtime pattern of
good midday fishing. Trico mayfly hatches run into late September. By
mid September BWO mayflies reappear. Terrestrial imitations produce
well right into October, especially on warm days.
By October true
fall conditions prevail. Brown and brook trout are in peak physical
condition and adopting their vibrant spawning colors. Many good
browns of 16 inches and larger move upstream into relatively small
water, which makes mid September to mid October a great time to
target our larger fish. Fall browns often respond aggressively to
Buggers and streamers, so definitely give streamers a try, especially
if water is stained from recent rains or you’re looking for our top
In October we often see a tremendous
strike rate to my Fox Squirrel Beadhead nymph fished a foot below a
buoyant hopper. The hopper suspends the nymph at a productive depth
on extended drifts through the gravelly riffles where fall browns are
beginning to congregate.
Come fall there’s
a lot to do in Wisconsin besides fish for trout, but fall is
definitely prime time to fly-fish the Driftless.