The midwestern United States is widely stereotyped for a few things: corn, flat land, and down to earth people. Every trip I have ever made through the heartland has reaffirmed this perspective. Driving across the country on I-70 or I-80 takes you right through the middle of it all, and it seems to go on forever: endless monoculture, center pivots, cows, and oil pumps. Some version of this scene is what I anticipated finding when dad and I planned our trip to Iowa. But, as with many stereotypes, I found my prior perceptions to be false.
“Trout Fishing” …really? In Iowa? I had trouble believing it when I first read the tag on my Google search. Had I been wearing glasses, I would have taken them off and rubbed my eyes to clear my vision like a character in an old cartoon. Surely, I had typed something wrong. Maybe Google had autocorrected my state selection to Idaho when I punched out “fly fishing” following the state name, as I often did to research fishing opportunities in a new state.
Undoubtedly, when I typed in “Iowa fly fishing,” guide Google told me I would be chasing trout. At the time, I was shocked that trout even lived in Iowa. I figured it was too warm, too low in elevation, and too corny to have healthy habitat supporting a viable trout population. It turns out, trout not only inhabit the streams of northeast Iowa, but the fishing is pretty darn good.
The Driftless Area is a zone of the Midwest covering portions of northeast Iowa, northwest Illinois, southeast Minnesota, and southwest Wisconsin. During the last glaciation of North America, this small area of the Upper Mississippi River Valley was left uncovered. The lack of glacial drift or gravel deposits, which are often left behind by retreating glaciers, is the reason for the area’s title. Because of its karst topography, featuring shallow sandstone and limestone, the glaciers were prevented from covering the area. However, rapid deglaciation and runoff from the surrounding region induced holes and fractures in the limestone, creating a proliferation of springs and streams throughout the zone. Hundreds of spring creeks flow through the Driftless Area, making the name a bit ironic when considered from a fly fisher’s perspective. Because of the spring water, the year-round mean temperature of these streams is about 47 degrees Fahrenheit. Trout love it.
The area is home to what is believed to be a native brook trout population as well as stocked browns and rainbows. Many of the streams now host wild populations of browns and brookies in their cool waters. While 85% of the Driftless area is within Wisconsin’s territory, a trout fishing treasure exists just outside of Decorah, Iowa.
Dad and I pulled into Decorah after a weekend of fishing the Menominee river, which runs the border of Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. We were delighted to find the town a midwestern version of our own home of Thomasville, with a bustling downtown, lively restaurants, and a variety of hotels. It was a charming little spot, and certainly was at one time considered to be a “best kept secret.”
On our first day of fishing we met our guide, Ryan Rahmiller, co-owner of Driftless on the Fly, a guide service focused in the Iowa portion of the Driftless Area. Ryan greeted us with a smile, springing with energy to share his home fishery. Ryan is a teacher by profession, and it certainly shines through in his love for fly fishing. He has been involved in a number of instructional programs, from TU’s Trout in the Classroom program to developing and leading college level “learn to fly fish” courses. He exudes passion as he sets up his mentees, myself included, on fish. There is something so deeply meaningful about sharing the sport of fly fishing with others, passing on one’s own passion for the sport, the fishery, and the experience of being on the water. It can lead others to what may become their greatest hobby, an outlet for engaging with nature, or even a profession, building a future generation of anglers and stewards of the watersheds vital to the fish we love to enjoy.
Dad and I hopped in Ryan’s truck and headed out of Decorah, winding through country roads shaded by overhanging hardwoods. Along the route, we passed thick wooded areas, open meadows, and some of the most pristine waterways I have laid eyes on. It was not the Midwestern fishing venture that I initially envisioned.
When we arrived at our first stretch of river, we put rods together, got to know each other a bit, then headed down to the water. We were wet wading on the hot summer day, but the water felt as advertised: COLD! I was amazed by the clarity of the stream, the gravel spread out across the riverbed, and the health of aquatic vegetation along the river’s edge. Had I been blindfolded and dropped into the scene, I would have guessed we were in Pennsylvania or some other trouty state. The water was gorgeous. Ryan set me up with a hopper-dropper, anticipating that some fish may be interested in top water terrestrial action.
As we waded up the winding river through pastureland, we began catching small rainbows on the nymph. I was amazed by how healthy they appeared, especially as stocked fish in the heat of summer. Their health is largely attributable to the health of the ecosystem and conditions of the watershed. We moved up and down stream, heading into wooded and shady areas, casting around boulders and fallen limps. In some areas, the fish were particularly technical. They would spook with an overthrown cast or shadow on the water. But there were certainly lots of fish! I was happy to see the population so strong.
I remember one instance, just before lunch, when we snuck along the bank to a long, deep run. Ryan pointed out an area under some overhanging trees as particularly well suited for holding a bigger trout. We tied on a beetle fly. I got excited. I love a beetle fly. Why? Because so do the trout.
I bent down on my knees, made a few false casts to get my line length just right so that it wouldn’t hang on the brush across the stream, and shot the fly just upstream from the limbs. It landed nicely on the water, drifting slowing over the darkness of the depths. The moment when a fly suddenly vanishes into the subtle nose of a trout never loses its appeal. I experience a brief sense of breathlessness, often accompanied by a genuine feeling of surprise that I fooled a fish into eating. It is the release of anticipation, the gratification of success. I raise the rod and all my premonitions that a fish did indeed eat the bug, and no, my eyes were not just deceiving me, are confirmed, followed by a flighty second of chaos. The line comes tight, the fish begins to jump, and I begin to laugh and smile, usually accompanied by the same declaration, “I got ‘em!”
As I dragged the trout into Ryan’s net, we were all cracking up with excitement for the perfect ending to the morning: our first wild brown on a dry. Though it was nothing crazy in terms of size, that fish stands out with the most beautiful of the entire quest, colored a caramel brown with big, red spots. That combination of colors is one of my favorites. We snapped a pic and let him slide back into the green water.
Fishing Iowa was a quintessential example of the remarkable places fly fishing introduces to anglers. I cannot say I ever would have travelled to Decorah or the Driftless Area, much less learned about the geology and topography of the area, had it not been for a desire to explore with a fly rod in my hand. Now, it is certainly a state I look forward to returning to someday. When people ask me about the “biggest surprise” from my journey across the country, I share that Iowa ranks high on the list. If you ever find yourself in Northeast Iowa, check out Decorah, the surrounding trails, forests, and rivers, and give Ryan a call. I think you will be thankful you did.
For more information on the Driftless Area or Driftless on the Fly, check out the following links:
Driftless on the Fly
National Trout Center