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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Native trout need quality habitat to reproduce. © Judy Nugent
Native trout need quality habitat to reproduce.
© Judy Nugent

April 2005

Coulee trout

Lose yourself exploring the valleys and trout streams of southwestern Wisconsin.

Judy Nugent

Lots of tools improve streams | The fish you'll find
Angling tactics | Planning a trip
Savor the whole region when you fish

My fly rod thumped vigorously as I stripped line on a native trout that engulfed my homemade fly. I was in Grant County in late April casting for trout on the last day of the early season. I spent the previous night in a tent next to a gurgling brook and was awakened at first light by a rousing chorus of gobbling turkeys. The cool morning air soon gave way to warm breezes and a heavy hatch of insects. I heard this trout before I saw him. Fishing just downstream, I heard his loud splash as he aggressively inhaled an unsuspecting insect. Even as I fought this trout, his cousins continued to feed, greedily taking advantage of the spring bounty.

Trout fishing in southwestern Wisconsin hasn't always been this good. There were days 30 years ago where I'd be lucky to get two fish a day. Now, thanks to combined efforts of DNR staff, local Trout Unlimited chapters, landowners and others, I can catch and release ten times that number of trout in a day. And the best part is most of these fish are homegrown.

Native trout need quality habitat to reproduce, and the great recovery of these streams is due to sustained conservation. A historical marker west of Coon Valley on Hwy. 14 commemorates the nation's first watershed project started here, in 1933. The Soil Conservation Service and the University of Wisconsin partnered with local landowners to develop and use better land management practices. They focused on reducing erosion, flooding and cutting fertilizer runoff while improving agricultural practices, timber stands and wildlife habitat. Farmers were encouraged to use the now ubiquitous contour stripping for their crops. A growing land ethic only grew stronger. It is not uncommon to drive through this area in March and see volunteer sportsmen working to stabilize streambanks or improve trout habitat.

Lots of tools improve streams

A key to improving water quality is controlling polluted runoff. Some practices include engineering like dry dams to help control floods and slow pollution before the deluge reaches the stream. The water slows behind the dam and slow moving water drops most of its sediment load and pollutants before it enters the stream.

Other strategies include putting in vegetative buffers. The Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program is buying 160-foot easements on both sides of streams to plant buffers to filter harmful pollutants before they reach the water. Cooperating landowners are compensated with an upfront payment as well as a yearly payment as long as the land remains in an easement. The cost of planting buffers is reimbursed 100 to 110 percent.

Other improvements aim to stabilize soil. The combination of erosion and cattle can send hundreds of tons of soil downstream. Streambanks are stabilized by placing riprap to prevent damage. The rock is then covered with soil and seeded with grass seed. Often the bends in the stream will have a lunker structure underneath. This artificial structure provides cover and shade for growing trout. The lunker is composed of several long oak boards nailed to form a wooden pallet with a hollow center area and a top lip that extends over the water to create shade. The lunker is anchored to the bank and streambed with rebar and heavy face rock. Then soil and vegetation are restored on top.

Stream crossings are set up for the cattle, generally in shallow straight sections that are convenient for the farmer. In this way conservation practices and pasturing can work hand in hand.

Vegetative buffers along the stream banks filter harmful pollutants before they reach the water. © Judy Nugent
Vegetative buffers along the stream banks filter harmful pollutants before they reach the water.

© Judy Nugent

In streams where adequate habitat has been lost or degraded, pea-sized gravel can be shoveled on the bottom to simulate the natural substrate that fish choose to use when reproducing. Rocky bottoms in fast-moving current provide plenty of oxygen, food and spaces where fertilized eggs can lodge and develop. Fisheries biologists also look to ensure that there are no obstructions downstream like dams that would impede upstream migration to the spawning ground.

Once DNR crews and partners have finished stream improvements, it usually takes two years or so for the land to heal and for the fish to move in. Sometimes the Department of Natural Resources will stock the area to encourage the recovery. Teams will come back in subsequent years to monitor fish density, survival and reproduction.

When you are planning your fishing trips, it is best to avoid fishing the newly improved streams. For one, you'll run into many more fishermen who have also read about the new improvements. Second, it takes a while before fishing will meet your expectations. Those stream segments were improved because they were marginal waters that needed help before they could hold significant numbers of trout. Make a note in your logbook or on your trout stream maps. Mark the date when streams were improved, wait two or three years and you are more likely to find fish when you return.

The fish you'll find

The most prolific trout in the region is the brown trout. Brought from Germany and introduced in the U.S. in the 1880s, brown trout were more adept at dealing with warmer water, lower oxygen levels and more sediment in the water. These beauties can vary in color especially when compared to Great Lakes browns. In general, stream fish are olive green to brown color on their backs and are golden yellow on their sides. Most of their body has black spots surrounded by light circles with red spots along the lateral line. Their tails are square with few if any spots. Fishing these trout requires stealth, cunning, accuracy and light tackle. They tend to live longer and grow larger than brook trout, but it is rare to see a brown trout larger than 22 inches. A 26-incher is a once in a lifetime experience; most tend to be between 12 and 16 inches, but with light rods and many hungry fish, it is a fishing experience that will keep you coming back for more.

Brook trout differ from browns in appearance and water preference. Brookies have worm-like squiggly markings on their backs and red spots surrounded with bluish halos. The most distinguishing features are white tipped fins along the bottom of the trout. These fins will also have a distinct red, orange, or yellow tint depending on the season. During mating season, the colors will be most vibrant. Brook trout need clean, cold streams to survive and reproduce naturally. They are most abundant in the headwaters and upper tributaries of the streams.

Angling tactics

When looking for trout on a stream you have never fished before, wear polarized sunglasses to cut glare on the water as you scout for fish with square tails. Concentrate on pools under the bridges or in deeper pools at the ends of riffles. don't spend time exploring the shallow flat water. These areas are the first to warm up and offer no cover for wary trout. Often you will see chubs and other rough fish dimpling the water. don't be fooled; these are not trout. Instead, look to the pools at the foot of riffles, deep water, rapids and undercut banks. don't dismiss rock walls. Fish hold tight against a wall and often can't be seen even with polarized glasses. Any fish with a forked tail is not a trout, but if you catch one, put it back in the water. These bait fish are groceries for the trout over 18 inches. The more chubs, the bigger those feeding trout grow.

For dry fly fishing, cast upstream a few inches above where you see a rising fish or expect a fish to be. Let the current carry your fly back downstream and reel in the extra slack so you can react if you get a strike. If your dry flies aren't working, let them sink slightly under the water as fish rise just under the surface. When nothing else seems to work, switch to a terrestrial imitation. Small crickets fished on and under the surface do well.

When casting nymphs, fish downstream and let the current pull your fly through the water. On water that has been improved, try to sneak the fly underneath undercut banks and lunker structures. Some of these structures can go three feet back under the bank, so allow for extra line. The DNR and local chapters of Trout Unlimited have invested both dollars and hours putting lunker structures into hundreds of streambank miles. They've brought many streams back from the brink of destruction by combating poor land practices, erosion, animal waste problems, and fertilizer runoff. Thanks to a joint effort between fishers and farmers, these waters are reaching their prime.

For spincasting, bring spinners (size 0-2) and small floating crankbaits. Use an ultralight rod with 6-lb line.

I think it's best to avoid fishing with live bait. You can't use it in the early season and undersized fish are more often gut-hooked after swallowing live bait.

Planning a trip

Detailed maps of all the Wisconsin trout streams, including regulations, minimum size, bag limits, and stream designation are provided to DNR license outlets and usually can be found where you buy your license.

don't limit your fishing experiences to a few waters. Exploring new places is what Wisconsin trout fishing is all about. Drive around to the different streams, see the abundance the coulee region has to offer, and don't judge a stream by what you see at a bridge. Water that might look too narrow or too full of obstructions can have terrific pools just upstream. I know one stream that looks awful at every bridge that crosses it. On a beautiful spring day I decided to have an adventure exploring this creek. I didn't expect to catch a thing; I was just going to enjoy the sunshine and the singing birds. Not more than 50 yards upstream from the first bridge, I came upon a deep pool the size of an average closet. On the first cast I had a 16-inch brown, and caught similar fish on the next five casts. I had to keep tight casts and change flies once they stopped hitting, but that day still remains one of my best on the water.

Pay attention to the lower stretches of these watersheds. There may be fewer fish but they are worth the wait. The largest fish I ever saw on a coulee creek was one I was never able to hook. I was fishing with a #10 hare's ear in a deep pool next to a mature willow tree. Under a knot of roots in the river I caught a 10-inch brown and was enjoying the tussle. As he fought back, a 5- to 6-pound trout came out from under the roots and attempted to eat the 10-inch trout. Now that was an experience! I quickly landed my fish, cut my 5x leader back to the 2x, tied on my biggest streamer and went after him. Cast after cast coaxed the fly under the roots. Nothing. I have been back several times for that trout, but I've never seen him again.

More and more trout anglers religiously practice catch-and-release. They understand the fragility of fisheries and the pressure of more and more anglers. They are committed to keeping the sport in sportfishing. They are encouraged by foresighted DNR officials who have recommended barbless hooks, a catch-and-release early season and an artificial bait restriction. Proper release guidelines help too: don't play a fish to exhaustion, handle a fish in a net gently, turn the fish belly up to remove hooks and don't remove swallowed hooks – just cut the line and don't keep a fish out of water for more than 10-15 seconds.

Savor the whole region when you fish

Wisconsin is made up of some of the friendliest people I have ever met. If you see trout water you would like to fish but you don't see a public access sign, ask the landowner for permission. If you see DNR improvements, thank the landowner for allowing the fisheries crews and volunteers to help the stream. Courtesy will go a long way in promoting farmer and fisherman cooperation as we strive to improve our waterways.

The best part of trout fishing in southwestern Wisconsin is exploring one of the most picturesque areas of the state. Trout water can be found in nearly every valley, so there is very little pressure to find good water. You could fish every day in the summer and never need to fish the same place twice. And the joys go beyond fishing. Traverse this area of the state as Chief Black Hawk did almost 200 years ago. Taste handmade Amish chocolates and warm Norwegian fruit pies. Bid at a quilt auction or take home a country antique. That large brook trout at the end of your line is just an added benefit. So grab your rod and your camera, and explore coulee country.

Avid trouter Judy Nugent writes from Waukegan, Ill.