It may come as a surprise to anglers that the northeastern corner of Iowa—part of the Upper Midwest’s “Driftless Region”—offers some of the most productive, picturesque trout streams anywhere in the country.
Sometimes referred to as “Little Switzerland” thanks to abundant valleys, hills and limestone creeks, the trout streams of Iowa’s Allamakee and Winneshiek counties are transected by a labyrinth of unpaved country roads where an angler can easily get lost.
Keep your eyes open for the glimmer of Iowa Gold—morel mushrooms—while you're walking streams. Keep an onion bag, or any mesh bag, in your pocket because there's no better side dish to fresh caught rainbow trout than morels!
But it’s good to get lost in Little Switzerland, as long as you keep a full tank of gas, a few cold-cut sandwiches and a thermos of hot coffee on the ready.
Consider that nearly half of the region’s forty-something streams offer naturally-reproducing brown trout; some with the bonus of healthy, foot-long and better brookies, as well as “put-and-take” rainbows for consistent action and table fare. There are good numbers and trophies to hunt, too, with browns in the 20-plus-inch category present.
Following winter, the longer days, warmer temperatures and more frequent insect hatches of spring can spell fantastic days on Iowa streams. Likewise, access is easier prior to the verdant bloom of summer, which can weave almost impenetrable streamside vegetation. Exploration is definitely made easier without the angry sting of summer’s sinister nettles. Good for tea, bad for skin.
As a bonus, plan your trip for mid- to late April and it’s likely you’ll pair fried trout with morel mushrooms, which often appear around dead elms. It’s no hyperbole that there is no finer meal than fresh trout sautéed in butter with morels, ramps and fiddlehead ferns collected by streamside.
The Northern Triangle
Perhaps the best place to start exploring Little Switzerland is by putting down stakes in Dorchester or Highlandville, allowing easy access to North and South Bear Creek, Waterloo Creek and French Creek to the east. Former fly fishing guide Jene Hughes, author of the definitive work The Complete Guide to Iowa Trout Streams, coined the term “The Northern Triangle” to describe this network of fantastic waters, which can all be fished in the same day punctuated by short, fifteen minute drives.
North and South Bear Creek are prized by anglers for wild-reproducing brown trout and pockets of brookies. Waterloo has perhaps the highest numbers of browns in the region with some large fish present and French Creek features numerous bends amidst fallow surroundings where precise casts are required—and rewarded.
Local guide Ethan Pole of NEI Fly Fishing agrees. “Those streams are what we call the ‘trilogy’—lots great trout fishing not far apart.”
First, do not consider fishing the area without a copy of Jene Hughes’ book and the Iowa Trout Fishing Guide (both which include maps), the latter available from the Iowa DNR.
A short 3- or 4-weight fly rod in the 7- to 8-foot class is perfect for the small limestone creeks, although many anglers give the nod to a 2-weight for dry fly fishing. A 7.5 to 9-foot 6x leader is perfect for most situations. Do yourself a favor and leave the 5 weight at home—don’t worry, though, you’ll need to need it down here come fall to pound banks with streamers and bigger bugs for bruiser-sized brownies.
Personally, the 7-foot, 9-inch, 3-weight St. Croix Legend Elitehas become my go-rod for Midwest trout fishing. It’s taken me a couple decades to graduate to a rod of this caliber, but I’m glad I did. At 2.2 ounces, it’s like fishing with an eagle’s feather. Plus, the abbreviated length is absolutely perfect for some of the region’s smaller streams. Even on wider stretches, it’s about strategic casts, not Olympian “A River Runs Through It” histrionics.
An assortment of nymphs in sizes 16 to 22 and biodegradable putty weight are requisite gear for fishing trout near the bottom of runs and pools. Some anglers will use strike indicators to more easily detect bites.
“I would say 80 percent of your fly box should be size 18 to 22 bead head and non-bead midge and Pheasant Tail nymphs with some larger size 16 Prince Nymphs and Hare’s Ears thrown in,” says Pole.
On the dry fly side of things, Hughes recommends size 16 and 18 Black Caddis and Stonefly imitators for spring trout, as well as the same size Blue-Winged Olives, which he says almost always catch fish. Pole agrees with the BWOs and adds light-colored Adams and Cahill patterns are solid choices.
Both Hughes and Pole recommend anglers practice casting at home prior to fishing Iowa’s limestone creeks, paying attention to accuracy, making repeated, short casts without unnecessary false casts.
“Everything we do on Iowa trout streams is under 30 feet; the typical cast is 18 to 20 feet, a lot of times much less,” says Hughes.
Pole agrees. “Set up some hula hoops at home and practice short roll and flip casts. The idea is to get your fly in the water with minimal gymnastics. You’ll catch a lot more fish.”
Non-fly anglers should pack an ultra-light spinning combo with 4-pound fluorocarbon or monofilament, a selection of in-line spinners, small minnow baits and tiny spoons. If dunking garden hackle, choose a small circle or Kahle-style hook, which will prevent gut-hooking these gorgeous fish. Again, I’m partial to St. Croix sticks on the spinning side. Their new Trout Series packs a lot of bang for the buck. There isn’t a rod in the family that costs more than $130.
Quality chest waders, boots and polarized sunglasses are also must-have items. Stick with amber, bronze or rose lenses, which perform the best under the gamut of light conditions. After losing a pair of high-buck Costas, and going back to gas station glasses, I decided to give Maui Jim a shot after reading the perfect 5 star rating on their Spartan Reef. Their HCL Bronze lenses are high-contrast, just the thing for picking out moving fish among rocks and riffles. No matter what kind of polarized glasses you favor, just don’t leave them at home.
Where To Stay
3497 Highlandville Road
Highlandville, Iowa 52149
Big Joe’s Little Campground
351 Willow Drive
Dorchester, IA 52140
Sportsman’s Motel and Campground
2753 Hwy 76
Dorchester, IA 52140
Although NE Iowa streams are easily explored and fished without a ton of help, Bear Creek Anglers or NEI Fly Fishing can help decrease the learning curve if your visit is limited.
My advice? Take extra days off work and just put in your time. You’ll be glad you did.
Decorah Fish Hatchery
2321 Siewers Spring Road
Decorah, IA 52101
Bear Creek Anglers (563) 419-4433