When Wisconsin trout season is closed, we head to Iowa's Driftless streams for excellent Tenkara fishing.
Iowa stockers make for easy tenkara nymphing in Wisconsin's "off season".
When you think of road trip fishing destinations, you probably don’t think of Iowa. But the North East corner of the state is home to the southern edge of the Driftless region, and that means excellent tenkara fishing! The landscape will be familiar to those who have fished the Driftless region in Wisconsin: rolling hills and valleys with small to medium-size limestone spring creeks winding their way towards the Mighty Mississippi. This little slice of the Driftless is about two hours from our home base in Madison, Wisconsin. Making the Iowa run is do-able for a day trip. Their trout season is open year-round, so when the weather cooperates, it is our choice destination for off-season trout fishing.
Can "solar eclipse magic" help counter the challenges of small Driftless streams when tenkara fishing in late August?
Driftless small streams in late summer mean high grass, and that means you better be ready to dial your game in tight.
Nope. Badger don't believe in any "solar eclipse magic" nonsense! That being said, I hit the water on Monday hoping that some extra darkness would give me an edge for tenkara fishing, but the truth is I don't think it made a lick of difference. Maybe it looked a little more like a gloomy February day then a gloomy August day, but the fish didn't seem to care. They were tucked safely into rocky cut-banks protected by tall grass overhangs that blocked most of the clear casting lanes. It was a good opportunity to hone my skills, so despite extremely overgrown condition of the stream, I got to work.
The target zones were small. 1-3 feet wide, and 2-4 ft long. Depths maxed out around 3-4 feet, but that was only on a few holes, mostly I was working water about 18 inches deep. Every space had cut-banks and overhangs for the fish to dive for once hooked, so all of the fights were short and focused on landing as quickly and cleanly as possible. It was sweaty, hot, and tiresome pushing through tall grass looking for spots to cast to - but I brought close to 20 brown and brook trout to hand in about 3 hours! Sizes ranged from 6-14 inches. How did I make my tenkara fishing produce in such restricted terrain?
1) I fish a rig I am well practiced with. I can sense the casting range, balance, and weight shifts very easily because I am highly familiar with it. Practical Consideration: Get to know your rod and rigs, introduce disruptive system changes slowly and as a last option. Learn the feel of the casting range of the rig. This is critical and extremely useful!
2) I've developed confidence in dealing with snags. In many cases now, I can gently pull and lift most grass snags back and recover them. Practical Consideration: The key to this may be found in the cast and the way your fly presents. If you are watching it present and it falls on grass - don't yank or pull back hard, causing a "hard snag" that requires an up close and personal recovery. Instead, freeze - then bring it back softly and see how many less snags spoil those nice bends you are targeting.
Brook trout caught at the time of Eclipse totality.
3) Using the system familiarization from point #1 to dial in my tenkara fishing, I do a of casting to target zones that I simply cannot see. But If I know the zone looks clear, then I can stay out of fish sight lines to deliver the cast and work the drift. Practical Consideration: Using your ability to sense balance and weight on the system, and watching your line to maintain proper tension, you can still get excellent drifts in the in the top water column. A secondary consideration to this is knowing just where to stop your cast to make sure you do not lay too much line down and spoil the drift, or too little and leave the fly dangling in the air.
4) I work shorter drifts and accommodate for obstacles. Practical Consideration: Focus on delivering solid technique, and make those presentations count for the short amount of time you have. Be prepared to alter your drift and technique to address obstacles as your line navigates the course. I have executed drifts were I guided the fly slowly through a 4 ft section, moving the rod tip gently to ensure that the line stayed clear of grass overhangs along the way, and picked up fish 3/4 of the way through the drift. You have to steer without disturbing the fly's drift or action, and maintain proper line tension while doing it.
This hefty 14-inch Brown was the best of the day.
Like most things in life, there is no magic shortcut to productive tenkara fishing in challenging conditions. It requires a focus on the fundamental skills, attention to detail, and a willingness to push your limits. The cool thing is, if you work hard on that - it may start to feel like you ARE working magic!
Summer brings unique challenges and joys to tenkara fly fishing on Driftless spring creeks.
By late June, the conditions on Driftless spring creeks have changed dramatically from the easy going days of Spring. Grass and weeds along the banks grow jungle-thick and face high. Pesky insects like gnats can swarm thick enough to make you run screaming back to the truck. Heat waves can drive water temps so high that we often stop trout fishing for weeks at a time. But sometimes things line up perfectly for a spectacular day of tenkara fly fishing - which is exactly what happened on the Summer Solstice!
Remember to think on your feet when tenkara fishing
I was losing the fight. In the moment, I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong. In retrospect, it is all terribly clear. The fight in mention was a sparring match during a recent Tae Kwon Do tournament. My first round opponent was a good guy that I have beaten a number of times. I certainly was not taking him for granted, but I was perhaps a little too certain I would make it to the next round. This time, though, he came at much more aggressively than I anticipated and I immediately went into defensive mode. To paraphrase Mike Tyson, everyone has a plan until they get hit in the face.
Attention to detail helps sharpen the fundamental skills of successful Tenkara fishing
When we say "small water tenkara" we mean it!
I had a few extra hours to spare on the first day of spring, so I swung by one of my favorite "small water" gems to sharpen up my game. This tiny, spring fed stream barely registers on most angler's radars. Averaging about 18 inches deep and 2-3 feet wide, the water is crystal clear and rarely moving fast enough to break up the surface. It is best to fish early in the season before overhanging brush clogs the casting lanes, but I visit it on and off throughout the year when I want to polish my casting and stalking skills. Because make no doubt - fishing small water will push your abilities to the limit!
Hard to reach blue lines can make for excellent tenkara water
It is not like we record these conversations for posterity, but I think it went something like this: “Hey Matt, I found a pretty little creek that I think will be loaded with brook trout and sees almost zero fishing pressure. You interested?”. Not surprisingly, Matt responded in the affirmative. He always does.
Druid Creek had actually been on my radar for several years. While we mostly fish the Driftless region in Wisconsin, some of our best times are had along a stretch of billion-year-old worn down mountains not too far from our base of operations. Little creeks trace the divides on these ancient hills. Some of them are little more than a seasonal trickle, others have wiped out bridges during spring flooding. So far, everyone of them we have explored has held fish. Native brook trout are the usual inhabitants, but we have also found browns and warm water species. The problem with Druid creek is the access. It largely runs through private land, and while the creek itself is in the public domain, getting to it proved vexing. Ultimately, I found a creative and legal solution. Not all of our creek gambles pay off, but this one did!
Fishing tenkara on a well known producer during early spring
"I was finally blessed with a mostly responsibility-free day with decent weather this week. I went to one of our favorites, Wolf Creek. If I were to code name that creek today, I think I would call it “confidence creek”. It nearly always produces. This creek really lends itself to Tenkara. It is fairly narrow for the most part, seldom more than about 8 feet wide, but can be quite deep. There are sections that are nearly chest deep. It is absolutely loaded with structure. With a little bit of stealth, it is pretty easy to stalk up and down the creek without disturbing the fish. It can get overgrown in the summer, but in the early season it really shines."
Touring WI Driftless trout streams for end-of-season Tenkara
What better way to close down Wisconsin trout season, than to bum around camping and fishing the Driftless for three days? I loaded up the Jeep on Monday morning and hit the road, headed for new water in Crawford county...
Its been a busy Spring here at Badger Tenkara. We hosted the Midwest Tenkara Fest, launched two new rod models, and we've done a whole mess of presentations, shows, and guide trips. Its been fun, but it hasn't allowed as much fishing time as we'd like. For a while there, the weather seemed bent against us too - high winds and bright sunny days made the times we did make it out a bit frustrating. Luckily, circumstances and nature seem to be loosening up and we are finally getting some good fishing in!
Last Friday looked perfect on the weather reports, and I was anxiously peering out the window all day at my "day job", smiling at the cloud cover and lack of wind. Of course, by the time I broke free and rolled into the pullout at Wolf Creek, the clouds had opened and the sun was shining merrily. Not ideal, but I honestly couldn't care less. The breeze was light, Redwing Blackbirds were chirping territorial warnings, and the stream was slightly colored from the previous night's rain. It was a perfect spring day and I was thrilled to be out fishing it!
I rigged up my BAD AXE rod with 12 feet of BADGER LITE floating line and another 6 feet of 5x tippet, choosing to start with a #12 bead head Black and Olive Woolly Bugger. Not knowing where the fish were feeding yet, and seeing that the water was a little clouded, I figured that something fished deep and that offered a bold profile was a good place to start.
It wasn't long before I had one on the hook. Using a little rock outcropping to conceal my cast, I drew a solid strike from a dead drift and it was on! I brought him to the surface after a few short runs and could see he was a good sized Brown. And this is where a few things became readily apparent. First, I was pretty slow in getting myself into position to land the fish. I was so excited to be fishing that I hadn't really planned that far in advance. Secondly, my hand-lining technique was slow and sloppy. Both of these combined to lose me what turned out to be the biggest fish I would hook that day. My best eyeball put him at about 14 inches, definitely on the larger size of what Wolf Creek holds. Disappointed but not feeling down, I moved on upstream...
The day continued to impress, as the sky clouded back up, and it was one of those times when it just felt right to be in the water. A strange shape floating downstream turned to be a good sized turtle. I watched him float closer, then bolt for shore as soon he noticed me. As I leaned in to try and get him on camera, a solid thump against my leg told me a panicked trout had just flushed and ran downstream too! I chuckled and moved on.
Where I started getting lots of creek bed snags on the bead head pattern. The bugger wasn't drawing strikes either, so it was time for a change. I hadn't seen any surface feeding, but I still wanted to something with a little bulk to give the fish a clear target. Being early season, I wasn't sure that it was time for bulkier patterns on top, but what the heck - I just happened to have a fresh supply of Dale's increasingly famous Pass Lake with me. It worked so well last year, why not?!?!
It didn't take too long before the Pass Lake worked its magic. I started drawing consistent strikes, and getting into some good fish! Problem was, I was losing A LOT of them after a few seconds on the hook. Here is the third thing about the day that became readily apparent - my hook set and timing was way, way out of practice. Even though I brought about a dozen decent trout (and at least as many creek chubs!) to hand, I had a solid dozen trout get loose after a few shakes.
And that is why this post and video is called "Spring Cleaning". It was a good day to knock the dust off of my skills and tidy up my technique!
After a slow start to the Wisconsin early catch and release trout season, things have really started to pick up in the last week. Today, I was able to get out and fish "wolf creek", one of our favorite little trout streams on the eastern edge of the Driftless region.
Wolf creek is very narrow for the most part. Parts of it are only 5 or 6 feet across and I would venture there are few sections more than 8 feet wide. It benefited from some stream restoration work many years, but according to a contact at the DNR, it has not been stocked for quite a long time. Despite being a relatively narrow creek, sections of it run quite deep. It always surprises me when I have to worry about my sling pack getting wet in such a small creek. It also has incredible structure, thanks to the restoration work and the machinations of nature. Accordingly, it is absolutely brimming with trout. Most of the fish you will catch in the creek are in the 7 to 9 inch range. They are not all that big, but they are wild and feisty. If you play your cards right, though, you can hook into some much larger fish.
For today's outing, I used the Badger Tenkara Bad Axe. I really like this rod for smaller streams, and I thought I might want to use the shorter setting in certain sections. Having an adjustable rod is kind of like having four wheel drive: you don't need it very often, but when you do, you're really glad you have it. I used the Badger Lite line, which is perfectly suited to the rod. Given the tight casting quarters, I shortened up my tippet section to about 4.5 feet, about a foot and a half shorter than my typical set up for our driftless creeks. The fly of choice today was a size 12 leech pattern.
Conditions were about perfect. Temps were in the 50-60's with overcast skies and only a light wind. I'm not sure what the water temp was as I forgot my stream thermometer in the truck. Again. There were quite a few stoneflies hatching today (and crawling on the streamside brush). Trout were feeding on the surface, but I decided to stick to the leech pattern so I could probed the deep nooks and crannies in the creek.
I caught a nice little 8 inch brown in the first run, and then donated my first fly to the brush. A couple of other similar sized trout were picked up in the next run, and then I lost a fish pushing 14 inches at my feet. This pattern seemed like it was going to repeat itself: catch a couple of nice 8 or 9 inch fish and then lose the big one at my feet. In fact, it happened a total of three times.
Despite losing some nice fish at my feet, I was having a great time. I was tempted to switch to a surface fly, since I saw several trout presumably eating the stoneflies on the surface, but stuck to the leech mostly out of laziness. Somewhat to my surprise, I managed to catch several rising fish on the leech pattern. I do believe there are such things as selective trout, but I believe their existence is exaggerated.
Once I reached my usual turn around point, I had to decide whether to head back to the truck and head to new creek or explore unknown territory. I had been further upstream in the past, but found it was mostly silty and shallow, not very trouty. I decided just to press on and at least lay eyes on sections of the creek I have not seen before. I'm glad I did.
There were portions of the creek that were just not trout friendly whatsoever, but there were also pockets and bends with just about perfect trout habitat. I don't think this little creek gets a lot of fishing pressure, but I would venture this section gets almost no pressure at all. Every favorable segment of the creek held trout, and they were seemingly all naive and eager. As I approached on nice corner, I said to myself "Mike, I think a big trout lives there. Here's what you need to do: step 1, approach with stealth. Don't spook the fish. Step two, don't blow the cast. Step three, catch a big fish". I love it when a plan comes together!
I was thrilled to land this guy (pictured above), especially after losing three nice sized fish at my feet. After releasing him, I thought "I bet at least one more nice trout lives in that pool". I cast again just a little further upstream, and sure enough, I caught his slightly smaller but still impressive counterpart.
Those two fish were certainly the highlight of the trip. I managed to hook a couple more as I hopped from pool to bend, and then finally called it day. In a way, it was bittersweet. It was certainly a great day, but sadly, a day like that could be my best all season, and the season just started!