Fishing on a Driftless Summer Day

June 30, 2017 by Eric Frydenlund

Authors note: I wrote this story for Tapestry Magazine ten years ago, but it could have happened yesterday.


Rivers have had their say again, and seldom have they spoken so loudly.  Halfway through summer, people throughout the Midwest are still wrangling with the aftermath of June flooding.  As rivers return to their banks, life, as it must, returns to summer.

Children, of course, have summer’s best perspective. While the rest of us lift our responsibilities and tote our problems, children actually get around to living.  Two teenagers with nothing of importance pressing on their young lives, other than a life and death struggle with a virtual villain, while away a sultry afternoon in Gays Mills playing computer games.  “Ridiculous” says one to a sinister-looking warrior in a virtual forest that materializes on his 14-inch screen.

When I was his age – yes, I can remember that long ago – I recall fighting an equally fearsome but imaginary battle among friends in a real forest behind my house.  White pines provided cover for our gorilla warfare, with the winner securing bragging rights for having captured our fort with a “ridiculous” but crafty move.  Whether in virtual or real forests, thirteen-year-old warriors don’t like to be beaten, unless properly compensated for such ignominious defeat with pizza and soda.

Perhaps it was the child in me that set aside my worldly concerns on a recent summer weekend and went fly fishing with my son.  Guided by Daniel Boggs of the Driftless Angler in Viroqua, we descended from Highway 27 into Timber Coulee to do battle with brown trout.  Descending might be too generous of word, for it felt like we were plummeting.  Besides having a nose for trout, Dan has the foot and feel for navigating narrow, steep roads that lead to fish.  We flew by the Snowflake Ski Jumping hill, which might be the only quicker way to the bottom of Timer Coulee than Dan’s jeep.

But the drive along coulee roads, notched into verdant hillsides that drop like table linen into meandering creek beds filled with trout and lined with pastureland, might be as stunning as any in the Driftless area.  Never will you find such balance with the world as when lost among the myriad coulees coursing through the Driftless area.  Trivial concerns vanish behind impenetrable horizons as you reach deeper into these pockets of paradise.

Explaining that a trout stream can be broken down into the kitchen, dining, living, and bed room; each room serving a different purpose for resident fish, Dan took me to trout school.  And showed amazing patience for someone incapable of casting across the bathroom.  As a novice fly fisherman, I did more battle with my rod and line than with any lurking trout.  Looking like a little leaguer flailing at high-and-away pitches, I eventually succeeded in casting my fly in the general vicinity of the dining room, and was rewarded with a nice-sized brown trout.  Dan stuck the successful fly in my cap as a sign of fishermen’s rank, but I’ve not noticed anyone saluting me of late.

Two weeks later and armed with a new sense of self worth – I have a notorious reputation among family and friends as a bad fisherman – I decided to cast my luck on the backwaters of the Mississippi River.  My wife and I set out from the landing on our sixteen-footer for “Dillman’s Pit,” a backwater stretch with a precipitous drop off where fish have been known to hangout in the basement of this multistory “house.”  My first cast netted a 14-inch large mouth bass, and judging by the look on its face, was as surprised as me at my good fortune.  I released him so that he might spread my reputation far and wide, telling his kin of a crafty fishermen lurking on the surface with more fishing tackle than he knows how to use.

Luck or skill – I make no judgment here – prevailed that evening, until I went to start the motor.  The 40-horse Johnson apparently failed to recognize my growing repute as a no-nonsense river man, and refused to go back to work.  It protested my pleas for cooperation with each turn of the key with an indifferent cough.  My wife, who had spent the last hour casting for words in her crossword puzzle, was unimpressed.  “Where are the oars?” she dubiously asked.  “I think they’re hanging in the garage,” I sheepishly replied.  Silence.  There’s not a lot to talk about when seated in a boat lacking necessities and half-full of ignorance.

But if necessity is the mother of invention, then ignorance is the father of desperation. Two quick pulls of a starter rope fashioned from our anchor line sent me back to good graces and us back to shore.  Relief begets appreciation as I surveyed my rediscovered luck; and the sun setting over the Iowa hillside.  The entire western horizon had been set afire, and the embers were still glowing.  I could have sat beside that fire all evening had the fire stoker allowed me.  Summer is the time for celebration in the Driftless area, whether it’s battles won with dumb luck, or paradise found with luck given.

More Driftless for less dollars

June 2, 2016 by Eric Frydenlund

More Driftless for less dollars.  So says our promotion, which offers visitors many of our most popular activities and attractions at discounted prices through June 15. 

An observant reader pointed out that it should read “fewer dollars” or “less money.” As an English major, I felt the grammar lesson hit home; as when our history teacher in seventh grade threw a chalkboard eraser at those of us who were not paying attention.  Suddenly, history made an “impression” on us.

And so – grammatically correct – “with fewer dollars, you can experience more Driftless.”  The important word here is “more.” 

Fishing 144x144As in more of the incomparable scenery of a region shaped by rivers and left untouched by glaciers.  More fishing on world-class rivers and trout streams.  More history of early exploration and settlement.  More canoeing and kayaking on the Kickapoo River.  More shopping in our small-town, big-hospitality stores.  And more family fun for the kids and the child in all of us.

As someone who has lived in Driftless Wisconsin most of my life, I find the prospect of more Driftless appealing.  I can’t get enough. I have fished the Mississippi, cast a fly on a trout stream, canoed the Kickapoo, woken up in a cabin overlooking the river, shopped in a Scandinavian store, and discovered my Norwegian heritage at Norskedalen Nature and Heritage Center.  Yet there are always new discoveries awaiting. 

I spent all yesterday fishing and boating on the Mississippi River, enjoying every last minute of daylight squeezed between the Wisconsin and Iowa bluffs. Every passing boater offered a wave of the hand, a sort of secret-handshake sharing of our good fortune of a day on the river.

Indeed, if you search our discounted itineraries, you’ll find as many ways to spend a day as there are days in the week. Seven itineraries, each with a different focus, each in a different region of Driftless Wisconsin. 

Whether it’s with less money or fewer dollars, you’ll get more of what makes Driftless Wisconsin such a special place.

Boating and fishing in Driftless Wisconsin

May 6, 2016 by Eric Frydenlund

Time to get my boat in the water. Driftless Wisconsin may be best known for its soaring bluffs and plunging valleys, yet it’s the tranquil rivers and streams that tame this rugged land; and offer its most popular recreation; boating and fishing.

Boating, canoeing, kayaking, game fishing, and fly fishing attract enthusiasts from across the country. And for locals like me, from across town.

Sliding the boat off the trailer marks for me the “official” start of summer. Like planting the garden or mowing the lawn, launching the boat sticks a bookmark into the pages of my calendar through which winter cannot return. Just seeing my boat sitting in the driveway, retrieved from winter storage; presents a seasonal sign as welcome as the leaves unfurling on the trees outside our window.

With the first of May behind me, I’m watching the thermometer and river depth with the passion of an amateur meteorologist. Of course the hardcore fishermen pay no attention to cold weather and spring flooding, having already launched their boats and tried their luck fishing the cold waters below the lock & dams for walleye.

General trout fishing season opens on May 7, giving fly fishermen an opportunity to test their skills. Walking a trout stream in springtime in a pair of hip boots offers a communion with nature just short of religion. Something about feeling the tug of a fish against the pull of the current that puts life’s struggles into perspective.

Back to my boat. As good as it looks in the driveway, it looks better in the water. Fortunately, Driftless Wisconsin has more boat landings than I have hairs on my balding head. Every village along the Kickapoo River has a landing, and several are scattered along the Mississippi.

The Kickapoo is known for its canoeing and kayaking adventures. No need to bring your own.  There are excellent outfitters in Ontario, Readstown, Gays Mills, and Boscobel that will provide you the gear.  You provide the fun, which is not hard to find on a river snaking through some of the most scenic settings in the Midwest. 

tugboat 2I’ll be finding some of that fun along the Kickapoo soon. But my pontoon is best suited for the river, and there’s no shortage of entertainment on the Mississippi.  Cruising the river framed by the bluffs, watching the tugboats glide by; anchoring in a quiet backwater while eagles soar overhead; pulling up to a snag and dropping a hook and worm to coax in a pan fish.  An evening on the river settles in your mind as peaceful as the sun sinking into the Iowa bluffs.

It all seems too good to be true, as if we didn’t deserve this much of the good life. But true it is.  If you don’t believe me, time to get your boat in the water.

Dreaming of summer activities in Driftless Wisconsin

February 28, 2015 by Eric Frydenlund

It’s usually February when I start dreaming about summer. Maybe it’s the noticeably longer days that prompt me to look out the window expecting to see leaves unfolding on the trees. Or maybe, having just fallen on the ice last week and landed on my head, I’m just a little confused.

Fortunately, with so many things to see and do just a click away on our Driftless Wisconsin website, we don’t need to be dreaming; we can start planning for summer activities in Driftless Wisconsin. Ask for a Driftless Wisconsin Map to plot your course through the region.  Because hey, spring is almost here!  And summer is never too far behind.

Summer activities in Driftless Wisconsin

Do you like fishing? Three major rivers and their tributaries in Driftless Wisconsin lay claim to some of the best trout fishing and game fishing in the world. The region is sewn together by a myriad of small streams offering up brown and brook trout to fly fishers amid stunning scenery. Ask Mat at Driftless Angler for a guided day trip to that little-known hotspot for trout.  And the Mississippi River and its backwaters provide perfect habitat for smallmouth bass, white bass, walleye, catfish, northern pike, and pan fish.

summer activities in Driftless WisconsinDo you like boating?  The Mississippi River presents boaters with wide-open waterways for cruising, water skiing, or camping on islands.  Drop anchor, pull out that fishing rod, and watch the tugboats rumble by.  Meanwhile, the Kickapoo and Wisconsin Rivers provide canoeists and kayakers unforgettable days on the river, with the serenity broken only by the stroke of your paddle.

Do you enjoy exploring history?  Driftless Wisconsin presents an intersection of history, where the story of Native Americans, European explorers and traders, the American military, riverboat gamblers, frontiersmen, and immigrants give us a cross section of our past.  Visit Norskedalen, near Coon Valley, that preserves the heritage of 19th century Scandinavian immigration and settlement. See the Villa Louis, in Prairie du Chien, an authentically restored Victorian mansion where the Dousman family made their fortune in trading and real estate.

Do you revel in local food and culture?  Farmers Markets will be opening in May, offering fresh local foods and crafts.  The Farmers Market in Viroqua is one of the finest and largest around, with over 50 vendors on display. Explore the Amish culture, which is well-established in Driftless Wisconsin. The Amish enjoy a simple life that reminds us of our own simpler times.  Take home some Amish crafts to keep the memory fresh.  A number of artists also make Driftless Wisconsin their home. Inspired by the topography, they display their creations in studios, stores, and the annual Driftless Area Art Festival in September.

To complete your planning, I suspect you’ll be looking for a place to stay and eat.  Check out our lodging and dining pages. With the Driftless topography as a backdrop, our inns provide cozy comforts for the weary traveler.  And our eateries offer hospitality second to none.

So the thermometer shows it’s still cold outside. Warm your hearts with a little warm-weather dreaming.  And planning.

Driving the Great River Road in Driftless Wisconsin

July 15, 2014 by Meg Buchner

Wisconsin Great River RoadThe Great River Road National Scenic Byway is 2,069 miles long and travels along the Mississippi River through ten states. Voted the most scenic drive in America by Huffington Post, the Great River Road is a journey not to be missed, whether by car, bicycle or motorcycle.

In Driftless Wisconsin, summer scenery on the Great River Road is spectacular. The rich green bluffs, dotted with limestone rock faces soar on one side of the road while the bright blue Mississippi stretches out sparkling on the other. As the road gently curves, majestic hills frame both sides of the river, creating a panorama of blues and greens. The view changes daily. Sometimes the far hills are shrouded in a blue mist; other days the water is as smooth as glass, reflecting the white puffy clouds and azure blue sky.

Through Vernon and Crawford Counties, the road encompasses 52-miles of highway, winding through the towns of Stoddard, Genoa, De Soto, Ferryville, Lynxville, and Prairie du Chien. Boat landings, fishing guides, watering holes, lodging, quaint restaurants and friendly folk can be found along the entire route.

Barge traffic, fishermen, and pleasure craft travel down the Mississippi daily. Visitors can watch boats and barges lock through in both Genoa (Lock & Dam #8) and Lynxville (Lock & Dam #9). People can enjoy a rest or a picnic at any of the parks adjacent to the River Road. Bird and nature lovers will enjoy the nearby state natural areas, such as Rush Creek near Ferryville. Those interested in history can stop at any of the roadside markers along the way that detail the history of the area, including the Battle of the Bad Axe near Victory. History buffs will also enjoy the museums and historic buildings of Prairie du Chien, the second oldest city in Wisconsin, established as a fur trading center in 1783.

The Great River Road in Driftless Wisconsin is more than just a simple drive. It’s a way to experience the breathtaking splendor of nature and America’s greatest river. As Mark Twain once said, “Along the Upper Mississippi every hour brings something new.”

Sights and sounds of Driftless Wisconsin

May 20, 2011 by

The full moon hung above the river bluffs like a stage light casting a soft glow on the river’s surface.  I expected dancers to enter stage right, but only the tugboats were moving, guiding their cargo-laden barges between the buoys with amazing precision.  

The irresistible charm of Driftless Wisconsin lies in the variety of landscapes seen from every possible angle, whether hiking up a bluff or paddling down a river. 

I hiked with my four-year-old grandson up the bluff to what he calls “the top of the world.” He followed close behind on the narrow horse trail, carrying a rifle-shaped stick and backpack of provisions – Goldfish crackers.  I’m not sure if he was big-game hunting or “fishing,” but he seemed prepared for either. 

The valley was aflame with an emerging green as buds and blossoms exploded with life.  We sat on a limestone rock sharing Goldfish crackers and watching over the valley from which sights and sounds rose like a fine smoke. 

From up there, anything is possible.  You can imagine boating down the Mississippi, casting for bass hidden in the weeds or cruising the backwaters looking for a spot to anchor for lunch.  You can imagine canoeing down the Kickapoo River taking in the scenic backdrop of the valley or stopping in one of the small towns nestled along its banks. 

Or you can imagine exploring the river valleys for places to hunker down for the night, much as the French and Indian explorers did hundreds of years ago.  These days you can camp along the river or take refuge in one of the many B&B’s, cabins, or motels tucked into your favorite Driftless nook. 

Better than imagine, you can do these things in Driftless Wisconsin.  If you need an excuse to begin your exploration, check out our events, attractions, and shopping experiences; then hop in the car and come. 

When you arrive, hike to “the top of the world” and see all this special place has to offer.  Be sure to bring your backpack of provisions for a long stay in Driftless Wisconsin. 


Spring Is Coming

March 12, 2011 by

I went down to one of our many boat landings on a sunny Sunday afternoon in late February.  Perhaps I was thinking wishfully or maybe making sure I remembered the way.  I found no anglers checking their lures, kids donning their life jackets, or boaters waiting their turn to put in.  There were no boat trailers sitting patiently in the lot waiting for their masters to return. 

But spring was so close you could feel her breath blowing across the water.  The eagles were soaring on that gentle breeze and I suspect they’ll be gliding till spring.  Leafless trees sat still as sculptures, waiting to get busy.  Ice sheets still plied the river; the water between them troweled so flat you could carve your initials. 

With a patience fitting for the seasons, nature is waiting for spring to arrive. I suspect you are as well and for good reason.  You may not be prowling the boat landing, but you’re checking your lures and counting the life vests to get ready. 

Meanwhile, Driftless Wisconsin is waiting for you.  We have more outdoor activities than a weekend can hold.  Better plan for a week.  

If you’re interested in boating, the Mississippi River is your Midwest playground, bigger and longer than any lake you can imagine.  If you’re an angler, we have more fish than you have stories, with walleye on the main channel, bass and pan fish in the backwaters, and world-class trout fishing on our secluded streams.  If it’s a quiet afternoon paddling, you won’t forget a trip on the Kickapoo River.  And if you’re a modern-day explorer, Driftless Wisconsin has trails to discover and history to explore.   

If you must wait for spring, use our website to start planning.  Or come over now and sit on the river, and watch spring come in for a landing.


Dreaming about Vacations

December 29, 2010 by

I’m wrapped in my wife’s quilt watching a ninth-tier bowl game.  Riley, our golden retriever, is curled at my feet and Boris the cat sleeps sprawled over a heat vent.  Seems like a good time to plan a warm-weather vacation. No, not Florida; Driftless Wisconsin, where spring and summer are just around the turn of the calendar. 

If you’re like me and many others, the internet provides a good test drive of vacation destinations and weekend getaways. Let’s cruise and visit a few locations and things to do. 

If fishing’s your thing, pick a valley and choose a river.  The Mississippi River along our western coast offers the best game fishing around. You can snare a bass in the weeds and catch a sunset over the Iowa bluffs in the same cast.  And the Kickapoo Valley and tributaries offer world-class trout fishing, where a brown trout pulled from the eddy of a stream is as pretty as the walk in from the bridge.  

Boating and canoeing our waterways rivals any pleasure you can dream up for an afternoon.  For power-boating enthusiasts, the Mississippi makes for a grand playground, framed by towering bluffs and scattered with sandbars and islands for your midday picnic.  Canoeists will find nothing more relaxing that a day on the Kickapoo River meandering through pastureland and canopy-lined woodlots. 

The topography adds certain reward to your hiking and biking expeditions. Summiting a river bluff or rounding a ridge top to discover a never-before-seen panorama will take your breath away, if you still have one left from the climb. 

Weekends get pretty busy around Driftless Wisconsin, so you’ll want to make your lodging reservations early.  The area has a wide assortment, from large hotels with all the amenities to small motels with mom and pop friendliness; and from cozy B&B’s with their own special charm to secluded cabins tucked into the landscape.  

We’ve only visited a few places and activities, and I know you can imagine more.  Start at the beginning on our homepage and use the menus and your imagination to cruise Driftless Wisconsin.  See you soon!