My trip through Illinois with my dad was really much more of a “fish and run” scenario. Following a fun few days on the Menominee River in Wisconsin and Michigan, we ventured down to Iowa to fish the Driftless Area. We had a full day’s drive and an afternoon to kill. What better way to fill it than with more fish? At some point while sitting in construction traffic in southern Wisconsin (I’m told there are two seasons—winter and construction), we looked at the map and realized we could take a “scenic route” that would skirt the northeast corner of Illinois. We began to question how quickly we could throw together a plan to find some fish. With rods at the ready, all we needed was to get our feet into public water.
Thinking it could be fun to simply find a spot off the internet, I began Googling waterways in the region and called the state’s Fish and Game Department. After a few conversations, we were directed to Apple River Canyon State Park. Not far beyond the state line, we hit a local hardware store to purchase fishing licenses and asked if they knew of other spots we could fish in the area. They echoed that Apple River might hold some small mouth bass, as well as recommended that we try a drainage creek on the way to the park.
We set out with some pins on Google Maps and first hit the drain, which was alleged to hold bass. After some casts into the high and murky run, we came up empty handed and decided to go to Apple River. As we drove down gravel country roads to eventually find the stream, passing cornfield after cornfield, the adventure of coming to an area without a lick of fishing knowledge was so exciting for me, knowing it is possible to find fish anywhere there is water.
We pulled up to the stream, threw on wading shoes and put together a 5 wt. rod. I did not have any intel on the fishing other than that we might find some smallies, so I put on arguably the most versatile fly known to man: a wooly bugger. Upstream from the bridge and pull off where we were parked, a large rock wall rose above the left side of the river with grassy banks and rock shoals running down the right side. There were riffles here and there. It was not a big river but appeared to have a mix of nice runs and slow, shallow flats along the bank. I saw lots of little grasshoppers falling in the water. The bottom line: it looked fishy.
The water was clean and clear under a grey lit sky. Dad and I walked upstream a ways, brushing through the tall grass and busting deer wading in the shallows. I approached the water where it carved a bend in the rock wall to a deeper pool that I assumed may hold some fish. After a few casts, swinging my fly through the faster water, I felt a little bump and quickly raised the rod, setting the hook. I sent a little sucker fish flying through the air, still stuck to the end of my line. It was not very big, but it counted! Dad and I both chuckled at the eagerness of the little critter, overjoyed that our last-minute plan worked.
After a few more casts in what I thought was the best-looking water with no luck, we walked around a bend and came to some flat water. As I walked the bank, I noticed some fish spooking through the shallows. Pausing to let my eyes adjust, I discovered this slower, flatter water was filled with bass. I spotted one just out from where I was standing and casted the fly across him, slightly up from his point of ambush. The stream brought the fly down into his zone and he effortlessly sucked it in! After releasing that fish and catching another, I realized I could simply walk the bank and pick out the bigger fish, sight cast to them, and catch them. For about an hour, we had a blast watching these little smallies chase my bugger through the calm, clear water. As the sun began to set, we hopped back in the car and carried on our venture west through corn fields and cattle farms to Decorah, Iowa. Though the fish were no giants, we had much to celebrate in reflecting on our unexpected but fruitful detour.
What was so special about this venture was how it spoke to Catch50’s overall mission: to show that fly fishing can be done anywhere by anyone. Though there are areas of our country that have more points of water access than others, all it took was a simple internet search to find a place to fish, providing for a great afternoon on the water. I am certain there were other streams or lakes in the area we could have found with some more digging as well. This is the treasure of fly fishing and why we are so lucky in America to be able to enjoy public lands and rivers. It is vital that we continue to maintain access to and conservation of public resources now and for generations to come to be able to enjoy places like Illinois’ Apple River Canyon State Park.
For more information on camping and fishing Apple River, see the Illinois Department of Natural Resources website: https://www2.illinois.gov/dnr/Parks/Pages/AppleRiverCanyon.aspx