Drifting the Driftless Trout Streams

Now that the weather is starting to get nicer and it’s more pleasurable to explore the Driftless, one of the hidden-in-plain-sight treasures are the trout streams. 

Forgotten by the glaciers that swept the Midwest thousands of years ago, these little watersheds that cut our coulees are full of clear clean water, and diverse fish populations including: brook trout, rainbow trout, white suckers, and chubs; as well as unique to our area fauna, and the edible plant- watercress. 

When exploring the Driftless, one doesn’t have to go far to find one of these special streams. According to the DNR websites of the combined Driftless states, there are roughly 17,000 miles of trout streams; many of them are class A, which means “High quality trout waters that have sufficient natural reproduction to sustain populations of wild trout, at or near carry capacity. Consequently, streams in this category require no stocking of hatchery trout. These streams or stream sections are often small and may contain small or slow-growing trout, especially in the headwaters.” (Wisconsin DNR). In Wisconsin alone, there are roughly 5,000 miles of class A trout streams. (Click here for WI Area Trout Maps)

One of the interesting things about the trout streams is how diverse in character they are.  Some streams are as wide as a sidewalk, barely noticeable; while others are as wide as a highway; some streams are easily accessible from the road and others one has to wade through thick brush and woods to find.

How do I find these streams?

Wisconsin has a map available at any place fishing licenses are sold. There is also an interactive map found on the DNR website: https://dnr.wi.gov/topic/fishing/trout/streammaps.html

Iowa DNR has a list of streams on their website: https://www.iowadnr.gov/fishing/where-to-fish/trout-streams/trout-stream-map

Minnesota has a list of streams on their website: https://www.dnr.state.mn.us/fishing/index.html

How do I fish the streams? 

Fly fishing is synonymous to trout fishing, many believe the two go hand in hand; but trout fishing can be as simple as setting a worm on a straight hook under a log jam.

I prefer to use a spin rod with Panther Martin spinners or Clam Leach Spoons. I focus on undercuts in the bank where fish lay, or ripples where fish look for drifting food. 

Sound travels well in clear water, and trout have sensitive lateral lines; so when I shore fish, I have to stay back, away from the stream, so the fish don’t sense me. If I spook the fish, I’ll often come back a half hour later and take another try at them. 


If one is unsure how to find or fish the Driftless, one can always hire a fishing guide:

From Viroqua, Wisconsin – Driftless Angler covers most of the Driftless area including parts of Iowa and Minnesota. Driftless Angler offers fly fishing lessons and hands on guided trips. 

Located in Lanesboro, Minnesota, Root River Rod Company offers fly fishing lessons and hands-on guided fishing trips throughout Minnesota and Iowa.

North Eastern Iowa Fly Fishing guide services offer fly fishing lessons and hands-on guided fishing trips throughout the Driftless region of Iowa.


What’s in these streams?

Most of the Driftless streams have natural reproducing brook and brown trout; but some will have stocked rainbows along with brook and brown trout. All three states have aggressive stocking programs, and their stocking reports can be found online.   


A list of my favorites

Being a “Driftless Drifter” myself, I have a few of my favorite go tos:

La Crosse River – Multi-species fishing located right in the I90 corridor, just outside of Sparta. This easy to fish stream offers a diversity of species including brown trout, small-mouth bass, pan-fish, large-mouth bass, and rainbow trout. 

Coon Creek –  flows through Coon Valley, WI is an easy to fish river that contains naturally producing brown trout and several miles of public access.  

Pine River – LaCrescent, MN is filled with brook and brown trout. Easy to fish and lots of public access points.

Yellow River – Allamakee County, Iowa; a unique stream located in an equestrian park. Public access with well laid out trails and access to restrooms makes this stream a family friendly event that’s easy to fish with brook, brown and rainbow trout.


Whether one “drifts the Driftless”, hires a guide, or goes for a drive, all these streams give the personality and splendor that makes these areas special and unique.

By: Anthony Larson