Imagine a May morning: you’ve just finished your first cup of coffee as you lace up your wading boots and eye the surface of South Bear Creek for clues to what its browns, brooks and rainbows are chasing. Cool air, thick with the scent of thawing loam, rises from the water as you toe in. You’re at the head of more than 11 meandering miles of spring-fed trout water, tucked between towering bluffs a stone’s throw from the Mississippi. A bald eagle drifts low—so close you can hear its wingbeats. Just then, above a murmuring riffle, you glimpse an enviable brown trout rising, its telltale spots visible, clear as day, as it feeds. This world-class trout habitat is Iowa’s hidden treasure. But sshhhh! It’s our secret.
Winneshiek County, in the far northeastern corner of the state, is home to 19 spring-fed creeks and 32 miles of fishable water. This topography is known as the Driftless, a region in the adjoining corners of Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois that was not in-filled by glacial drift in the last Ice Age. Glaciers left behind flat, rich farmland across other parts of the Midwest, but here, in their absence, karst bluffs and rare water features remain.
“As soon as we get some warmer days in late winter, early spring, I like to fly-fish Winneshiek streams,” says Bill Fanter, a former firefighter, now a physician’s assistant from Des Moines, Iowa. Introduced by his dad, William, to fly-fishing as soon as he could manage a cast, Bill says Northeast Iowa fishing rivals any in the Mountain States. “The number of fish I catch easily rivals western water,” he says. “Plus, there’s no need for drift boats or complicated access scenarios. I really like the simplicity of walk-in, wade fishing.”
Iowa’s Department of Natural Resources stocks these sparkling streams with more than 76,000 catchable rainbow and brook trout, along with more than 30,000 fingerling brown trout between April 1 and October 31. The DNR also releases excess brood trout from a state fish hatchery in Decorah. These adult trout measure between 14 and 24 inches and weigh two to eight pounds.
Northeast Iowa communities deserve credit, Fanter says, for protecting these trout resources and supporting amenities that attract the angler who wants a well-rounded experience, whether for the weekend or for a week-long adventure.
“I can recall thinking, after a morning of catching trout in the spring creeks, then riding the awesome mountain bike trails around Decorah and, finally, having a great beer or two at one of the local breweries — that I could have done a lot worse. Northeast Iowa is awesome,” he says with a knowing nod, “but you didn’t hear it from me.”