Winter trouting in the Driftless

By Captain Ted Peck

With over 600 spring-fed streams in the 24,000 square miles of the Driftless area covering parts of four upper Midwestern states, we live in the midst of truly world class trout fishing.

Charles Darwin’s theories can be challenged on several fronts. But his treatise on “survival of the fittest” is spot on. Another way to state this observation is “death of the dumbest.” January has provided the starkest illustration of this fact since humanity first started stumbling through winter in the Driftless area.
When wind chill is factored in to -15 degree ambient temperatures those who boldly go into the great outdoors for extended periods without adequate preparation are referred to as “statistics: footprints in the snow which become footnotes in history.”
There are a few precious days this month when winds are calm and temperatures sneak above 32 degrees Fahrenheit where getting outdoors is a joy for most folks. But for outdoor types communing with the natural world is an unqualified necessity. 
Ice fishing on backwaters of the immortal Mississippi is an extremely popular pursuit in the Driftless outdoors, especially for those who enjoy fishing in a crowd. Open water options with long rods are limited to jigging for walleyes in tailwaters below dams or chasing trout in the nearly 1,200 miles of inland streams with public access.

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With over 600 spring-fed streams in the 24,000 square miles of the Driftless area covering parts of four upper Midwestern states, we live in the midst of truly world class trout fishing.
Those who have called northeast Iowa home for generations seldom – if ever – consider the little streams out the back door as “world class” fishing water. Statistics compiled by the DNR say otherwise.
In 2014 nearly 39,000 Iowans and over 4,300 non-residents spent 430,000 days trout fishing in the Hawkeye state. Those fishers who don’t call Iowa’s Driftless Area home travelled an average of 138 miles to get here. Economic impact of sport fishing in the Driftless Area in 2016 was $1.6 billion, up from $1.1 billion in 2008.
All of these numbers have risen since 2016 as more Americans discover this very special place, due in part to ongoing habitat improvement and an aggressive stocking program which continues to evolve.
DNR fisheries biologist Mike Siepker said trout hatchery facilities in Decorah and Manchester no longer stock brown trout in Iowa streams because of “prolific success in natural reproduction. The Decorah facility raises only rainbow trout now, stocking 180,000 fish in local streams from April through October.
Recent research has revealed a native strain of brook trout – arguably the most beautiful freshwater fish – in South Pine Creek northeast of Decorah. Only artificial lures are allowed on this water.
“When most persons think of trout, they imagine flyfishing,” veteran fishing technician Teresa Shay said. “In reality just over 50 percent of fishers use a flyrod. A little black Panther Martin spinner is incredibly effective on these trout.” Shay continued, “The average 12-year-old kid has little difficulty placing a lure on target with ultra-light spincast gear.”
Iowa law requires fishers over age 16 to have both a fishing license and $14.50 trout stamp when angling for trout. A trout stamp is required for persons of any age if they intend to keep fish.
Shay said her top picks for catching January trout are Big Bear, Coldwater Creek and Trout Run creek – which is born at Siewers Spring at the Decorah hatchery. Birth of any kind creates a sense of awe and wonder. To a person seriously addicted to fishing the birth of Trout Run creek at Siewers Spring was a nearly sacred experience.
North Bear has become a personal favorite winter trout fishery with ongoing habitat work resulting in better fishing with each passing year.  Both Coldwater and Trout Run have revealed profound revelations on the natural bounty found in the Driftless.
The birth of Coldwater Creek had even greater personal impact. Origin of this stream is now blocked by iron bars.
Back in 1967 three intrepid anglers chasing rainbow trout near the origin of this stream wondered why their lures would never reach the bottom.  Donning scuba gear they investigated, discovering Iowa’s biggest cave.
To date, cavers have mapped 17.4 miles of Coldwater Cave, including over 100 domes, many with significant waterfalls.
Today the only access to Coldwater Cave is down a 94-foot ladder in a 36-inch tube inside a small, padlocked building surrounded by razor wire on private land.
I had a chance to explore the majesty of this place with the Iowa Grotto cavers in late winter 2015. It was a life changing experience. Temperature is a uniform 56 degrees year-round, providing a different aspect of “the great outdoors.” But that’s another story.

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