Story and Photos: Learning to Love The Driftless Area

Written by: Len Harris, Jr.

The tiny spring creeks of the driftless hold some of the most colorful browns you could imagine.
Photos by Len Harris, Jr.

Many folks don’t know the meaning of the term driftless. It is an area in the Midwest–comprising parts of Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin–that was not flattened by the last glacial period. The largest part of the driftless is in southwestern Wisconsin.

This headwater stream in Vernon County epitomizes the beauty of the Wisconsin Driftless.

Geologically speaking, when glaciers cover an area, they typically flatten the hills and scour the land. This process picks up sediment and rocks, and then deposits them elsewhere when the glaciers recede. The sediment and rocks are the drift left behind. Because the area was not flattened and the sediment was not left behind, it is called driftless. The area is unique in the region because of its bluffs and deep valleys. Just 100 miles to the south and the west, the landscape is flat and non-descript. These deep valleys hold many fish and wildlife.

Wisconsin’s Driftless Area is home to some world-class brook trout streams, as well.

Southwestern Wisconsin is sometimes called “The Heart of The Driftless” and is world renowned for its trout fishing. It is loaded with many cold springs and rivers. Surface water is purified and cooled when it filters down through layers of karst and ultimately ends up in our aquifer. Thus, the springs in the area flow at a constant 40-42 degrees year round and cool the streams in the area.

Driftless anglers treasure the deep and dark places that could produce a monster.

I was introduced to trout fishing by my father when I was five years old, in the spring of 1962. I his “caddy,” carrying the rod that my father was not using at the time. He typically carried a fly rod and spinning rod, and he hit each hole with both methods before moving on. Since I was too young and not quite coordinated enough with the rods, I watched and listened to my father throughout the entire year. The last day of season, my father found the perfect run to cast in, handed me the rod, and I retrieved with all my worth. Dad had scouted the run and knew there was a large trout in there. I hooked and landed a Driftless monster brown with my dad’s help. The result was a lifelong obsession with brown trout in the beautiful streams and valleys of the Driftless.

The remarkable habitat in these small streams can produce very large predatory browns.

Many people go to church to feel spiritual and be in touch with the universe. I go into the outdoors to cleanse my soul. All the things in life that bother me are melted away about a hundred yards from the truck. The fish are only a bonus in the whole scheme of things.

Len Harris, Jr. is a former fly-fishing guide in the Driftless Area. Check out his blog, The Stream of Time.

Iowa County offers some wonderful bluff-cradled streams that are home to some sweet browns.

15 thoughts on “Story and Photos: Learning to Love The Driftless Area”

  1. Learned to fly fish in the Driftless, mostly in Iowa. Wonderful place and good small stream fishing. Wisconsin has more streams, but Iowa’s trout season lasts all year.

      1. start with Backbone State park, by Strawberry point (east of Independence . Wild browns in park (Richmond Springs). just north of there is Joy Springs, also good. north of there is ensign hollow, which you’d get lost trying to find

  2. Personally never seen Len kill a fish, he used to fish with a guy who killed big fish(mainly brood stock bows and browns that were smoked or on wall) but non the less I would love for you to show us a recent picture( last ten years) of Len with fingers in the gills of a trout…fished with Len numerous times and also with a bunch of guides in the driftless, I would have to say Len takes better care of these streams and the fish in them then any of those I have fished with…keeping a trout or two out here is not a sin, nor should it be considered one…there is streams that the dnr has had 10 fish a day limits to thin out small fish…there are streams that carry more fish per mile then some of the blue ribbon streams of montana…with that being said I don’t care for the taste of stream trout all the much and have kept maybe 5 in my life to eat with morels…other then that I’m 100 fly fishing and catch and release fisherman for these stre trout

  3. I’ve seen lots of Len’s work over the years and heard him speak at an outdoors show. He takes incredible pics and has a great love for the sport. I’m pretty sure he C&Rs the overwhelming majority of what he catches. I occasionally keep stocked trout now and then to eat.

  4. I fish with Len regularly and have NEVER seen him harm, kill, or treat a caught trout with anything but respect. His knowledge and devotion to the trout steams of the Driftless is without question. There will always be haters, but Len is the real deal and the perfect steward for S.W.Wisconsin’s trout streams.

  5. Sad to see the ugliness that is stock-in-trade for the ‘Net come to the Orvis fly fishing blog.

  6. What are the streams like to wade ?
    Spring creeks are usually easy
    Firm but smooth bottom and slow current. Is this typical of the waters in the driftless ?

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