The Driftless

May 6, 2024 By: Richard Donnelly

Image by Eric Harvey

One day I up and moved to the Midwest’s Driftless Region, which is blue ribbon trout country. I’m not bragging. And I don’t expect an award. Well, maybe I do. I talked my wife into moving from a city of four million to a town of four thousand. There ought to be some kind of award for that.

Driftless is a silly name, I know. Someone ought to change it. Glaciers create drift, which is geology-speak for the gravel left behind by receding glaciers. Even experts don’t understand why the glaciers encircled southeast Minnesota and southwest Wisconsin, and snippets of Iowa and Illinois, but never invaded it. Hence, the Driftless Region.

 Never let geologists name anything.

Unlike the boring, glacier-flattened prairie, the Driftless is made up of limestone bluffs and gin-clear, tumbling creeks. The water, recharged by ancient aquifers, runs clean and clear year-round. While trucks are out plowing ice roads on the Mississippi, Gilbert Creek, just outside my town, is plunging through chutes and gurgling between boulders, just like July.       

This is some strange territory.

The brook trout is native here, inhabiting the upper reaches of smaller creeks. This is the Gilbert, where fly casting is tough. The water is only twenty feet wide, and by mid-summer the banks are overhung with that great fly-snagger, foxtail grass. Nothing has ever been cut back or improved. You have to be good with a fly rod or you’ll spend your day in the trees. But if you pay attention there are “lanes” under the cottonwood canopy, and approaching carefully you will catch fish.

Gilbert Valley is a sort of wonderland. I’ve had butterflies perch on my hand. One steps carefully over ladyslipper orchids and yellow touch-me-nots. You watch ruby-throated hummingbirds feed on honeysuckle blossoms.

I never see anglers, but one day a pair of men carrying expensive rods surprised me. I stood in the water over a bubbling run working a dry fly, an Adams with barred wings. After twenty casts with my little two weight I had caught nothing. But the pleasure of seeing the fly wander along, the unhurried pace of the water, the perfection of the drift kept me there.

 The men stomped right to the edge of the high bank and stared in. That isn’t going to help anything.

“Caught any trout?” one demanded.

“Can’t say I have.”

He took off a red baseball cap. That wasn’t helping, either. “Nothing much going on here, is there?” He wiped his forehead with a sleeve.

“I wouldn’t say that.”

“We’re going to the Whitewater,” he said, referring to a big, well-known river an hour south. His fly rod looked about ten feet long. “I’m tired of getting hung up in branches.” Off they trudged, grumbling.

After a couple more casts I saw a splash, and my fly vanished. I brought the rod tip up, and had him. Letting the fish run I checked for my neighbors. Then led him into the net, a fine twelve-inch, dusky-backed brook trout. Nope, nothing going on here.

I made friends with the farmer who owns this land. I also made friends with the farmer’s German shepherd, although we started off on the wrong foot. One evening I heard the dog crashing around, enjoying himself. He burst through the weeds and seeing me jumped about five feet straight up. He ran off in a panic, and no amount of whistling slowed him down.      

Since then we kissed and made up. Or rather he kissed me. If he sees my truck he joins me creekside. He is very quiet, sitting well-away and watching me cast, tipping his great black face as I hook and release another fish. He’s a good trout dog.

The brookie is our only native trout, and technically a char, or cousin of the far more common rainbow and brown trout. The char is a sort of tough northern trout, and includes lake trout, Dolly Varden, and arctic char. Instead of dark spots on light bodies, the char has light spots on dark bodies.

Peculiar fish. Peculiar country.

I’m waiting to get tired of the Driftless. The slow pace of the little towns, the fly fishing minutes away, almost too easy. But then I hook another brook trout, this time a “dandy”, in the parlance of the locals. An eagle gives its high, feminine cry. The sun drops behind a bluff. Baetis flies appear, and the whole world exhales.

Releasing the trout, or char if you will, I think, nah. Not yet.