Seasons of The Driftless Area

Written by: Mel Hayner, The Driftless Fly Fishing Company

Wild brown trout are the real prizes in most Driftless Area streams.
All photos courtesy Mel Hayner

The Driftless Area of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa got its name from the fact that it was never covered by the glaciers of the last Ice Age and therefore features none of the sedimentary deposits known as “glacial drift.” As a result, the landscape is dramatically different than surrounding areas, and the limestone was not compacted and remains porous. Water flows underground through the limestone, creating springs, sinkholes, and an abundance of cold-water streams, which support healthy populations of wild trout. The Driftless has long been a favorite of Midwestern fly fishers and its appeal as a fly-fishing destination is bolstered by 700 miles of public-access streams, many of which are often uncrowded.

Since 2015, many streams have been designated year-round, catch-and-release-only, and artificials-only. Due to improved management science and many habitat improved streams (in collaboration with local Trout Unlimited chapters), the trout fishing is better than ever. I’ve fished these beautiful waters for more than 30 years, 20 as a guide, and have owned a fly shop and been an Orvis-endorsed fly-fishing outfitter for a decade. One of the most frequently asked questions I get is, “When is the best time to come there?”

Spring: March, April, May

May is a great time to introduce kids to fly fishing because the trout are so willing.

Anticipation of the first real mayfly hatches is a big part of March. When the snow begins to melt and sunny days warm the water just a little, the first blue-winged olives appear. The trout can be hungry, weeds are sparse, and sight-fishing to rising, spooky trout is a wonderful cure for lingering cabin fever in the North Country. Of course, you may have to deal with the occasional blizzard, below zero temperatures, or rainy blowouts. But wild trout on a dry fly in March can be like a buffet to a starving man after the long winter. All streams are catch-and-release until April 15, which also makes for few people and solitude. Abundant hatches and hungry trout make April the best month for numbers, but you can lose some days to blown-out streams or snow. May kicks the caddisfly hatches into high gear, and it’s a great time to target larger fish on dries. This is also the best time to take beginners out to catch a bunch of trout. BWOs, March browns, and various other mayflies overlap the caddis hatches to provide some of the easiest and most productive fishing of the year.

Summer: June July, August

Terrestrial season offers your best chance to catch big browns on a dry fly.

Ahh summertime! June can see a continuation of the best dry fly fishing of the year, but heat and humidity start make trout lethargic and reluctant to rise. This is when you need to get up early, stay late, and focus on nymphing. Tungsten beadhead nymphs, such as Pheasant Tails, Hare’s Ears, Princes, and Pink Squirrels presented slowly and deep in pools can still be very productive through July. Weeds can be chin-high along the banks, and you need to look out for noxious plants like nettles and wild parsnip. Campgrounds and motels fill up, and it pays to walk farther from the access or bridge to find unpressured water. High-traffic areas such as state parks and resorts can be hammered. This is when a good guide might be helpful if you are unfamiliar and have limited time. In August, trout start to focus on terrestrials. Look for intermittent risers in meadows and below overhanging trees.

Focus on stretches below riffles with plenty of oxygenated water with larger hopper, ant, and beetle imitations. One of my favorite times of the year here is “hopper time” because it offers your best chance at larger fish on a dry fly. When a spring-creek trout hits hopper pattern in late August, they want to kill it. Trout will move a long way for a larger meal, darting out of the cover to snatch it. Hot, humid days and low, clear, water call for a stealthy approach and search for shady pockets. Late-summer fishing can be almost like work, but the payoff is worth it.

Fall: September, October, November

Fall fishing is a subsurface game, for the most part.

After Labor Day, everything slows down. School is in session, the campgrounds empty out, and “vacancy” signs on the motels tell us that the tourists have gone. It is much easier to find a stretch of water to yourself, and terrestrials, nymphs, and streamers can all be effective on a given day. Floating the bigger rivers in a drift boat, canoe, or kayak is a great option even into October. Many trophy brown trout are taken in the pre-spawn days of early October, but keep an eye out for redds and avoid them. Some streams are closed to all fishing after October 15, but selected streams in state parks and city limits are open for catch-and-release fishing year round. (See below). Throwing streamers can draw aggressive strikes from bigger browns, while stocked rainbows are still munching nymphs and are many times your most abundant catches. November can begin to get cold and nasty in Minnesota, but watch for warmer “Indian Summer” days. It’s a mixed bag of weather, and days above 40 can be great to get out and explore where the weeds are down and leaves are off the trees for improved visibility both above and below the water. Iowa is also an option and has year-round water on all streams.

Winter: December, January, February

The rivers are remarkably uncrowded from late fall through March.

Since 2018, all designated trout streams within the city limits of towns—Preston, Lanesboro, Rushford, Chatfield and Spring Valley—are open for catch-and-release all year. All three state parks—Whitewater, Beaver Creek, and Forestville/Mystery Cave—also have excellent, easy access streams that are year-round. The spring fed streams of the Driftless do not freeze up in winter because the water coming out of the springs remains constant at 42-45 degrees. Ice shelves develop and low, clear water prevails. The beauty of winter in The Driftless that stream are uncrowded and many allow for easy walking near bike trails and roads. Weeds are non-existent and allow spotting and sight-fishing opportunities that are not available any other time of the year.

Safety is a concern if it is cold, but I rarely fish when it’s below 30 degrees. Use a wading staff, stay near the car, and carry a change of clothes in the car, just in case. Hypothermia can overcome a person quicker than you expect. Icing of the rod guides can be difficult, but many anglers use a Tenkara rod or just a flip cast to overcome this obstacle. Above-freezing days can produce excellent midge hatches. Any trout in Minnesota winter is a gift, and getting outside is its own reward. On January 1, all streams open again for catch-and-release fishing. February is usually a snowy month so tie flies, get out when you can, and know that spring will come, eventually.

Each season in the Driftless Area has its pros, cons, and challenges, and each offers different puzzles to solve. That is one of the many reasons we fly fish. No matter when you visit the Driftless, you’ll find some kind of fishing opportunity, as well as something to capture your imagination.

Mel Hayner is the owner of The Driftless Fly Fishing Company, a fly shop and Orvis-endorsed outfitter in Preston, Minnesota.

5 thoughts on “Seasons of The Driftless Area”

  1. Growing up in Wisconsin and having the privilege of being the outdoors editor for the Winona (MN) Daily News for many years, I’m very familiar with this area. It’s an under appreciated gem. Nice report.

  2. Thanks for the info I’m from pacific NW. Started fishing the driftless area last year I live in Iowa now , and love this area for its beauty and abundance of different species of trout . IT’s September and will fish till December again thanks for your knowledge of this area .

  3. I got started fly fishing in NE Iowa some 45 years ago. I found leech patterns and wooly buggers to be especially productive as were weighted nymphs drifted into pools and gradually lifted to the surface. Muddler minnows also brought good action.

  4. Looking forward to fall fishing the Driftless! Love setting up ‘base camp’ at Forestville State Park — nice streams can be just a short walk from your camp site with others just a short 20 minute or less drive away.

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