Seasons of the Driftless

The 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 streams.

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 year.

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 short notice.

My YouTube Videos, click here, will give you a feel for the Driftless fishery.

                                              January & 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.

When winter 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.

Most Driftless 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 14 inches.

Black stoneflies, about size 12, hatch primarily on sunny March afternoons.

Blustery, overcast 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 bit smaller.

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 May.

Cranefly hatches, which peak in May, begin in April.

April temperatures 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 Bugger.

Overcast spring 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 window.

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 running strong.

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 water.

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 drifts.

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.

Summer conditions prevail from mid June to mid September, so learning to fish the Driftless effectively in summer will greatly expand your season and enjoyment.

                                                September & October
Trout fishing in Wisconsin’s Driftless Area now runs thru October 15th (prior to 2016 the season ended on September 30th).

September brings 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 end browns.

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.