S_outheastern Minnesota’s Trout Run is a classic Driftless Region spring creek, filled with thousands of brown trout per mile. Public access is plentiful._
We were surrounded by bugs and rises in the most intense hatch I had ever seen. It seemed like every trout in the stream was feeding aggressively. It had to be a famous event and location, like the Green Drake hatch on Idaho’s Henrys Fork or the evening caddis explosion on Montana’s Missouri, right? Wrong. I was in a state better known for corn-fed hogs than trout—Iowa.
The fertile spring creeks of the Upper Midwest’s Driftless Region make up some of the best trout water most anglers have never heard of. This unique area—sheltering wild browns, native brookies, stocked rainbows, and smallmouth bass—includes southwestern Wisconsin, southeastern Minnesota, northeastern Iowa, and a sliver of northwestern Illinois.
In this Alice in Wonderland–like terrain, you can drive through an upland cornfield, then unexpectedly plunge down the proverbial rabbit hole into a 400-foot-deep trout-stream valley, road twisting though a ravine of hardwoods, limestone outcrops, and wild-turkey heaven. Although the Driftless holds more than 600 trout streams, these eight gems are sure-fire favorites.
Whitewater River, Minnesota
▶ The Whitewater watershed offers dozens of miles of prime trout water, most of it public. The web of streams includes the North, South, Middle, and Main Branches, and tiny tributaries like Beaver Creek. Access is readily available in Whitewater and Carley State Parks, as well as the sprawling Whitewater Wildlife Management Area, which also affords excellent fall hunting. The parks offer camping, hiking, and other outdoor recreation opportunities—good places for the entire family.
South Branch Root River, Minnesota
▶ The South Branch encompasses one of the most expansive trout watersheds in the Driftless Region, large enough to canoe in its lower reaches. Two wonderful spring creeks feed the South Branch in the park—Canfield and Forestville Creeks—gushing full blown from cliff-side caves.
Trout Run Creek, Minnesota
▶ Trout Run has long been lauded as one of Minnesota’s most productive wild brown trout streams, winding through a bucolic landscape that evokes the famous spring creeks of Pennsylvania and England. While most of the adjacent land is private, the Minnesota DNR has done an admirable job of acquiring angler easements, so much of this superb stream is open to the public.
Kinnickinnic River, Wisconsin
▶ The “Kinni,” as it is known locally, is one of the Midwest’s most popular and beloved trout streams, hosting strong populations of wild browns and brookies that often exceed more than 7,000 per mile. The congenial college town of River Falls divides the Kinni into two reaches: a slower, colder upper portion, and a faster canyon run below town. Public access is good throughout.
Rush River, Wisconsin
▶ Located southeast of the Kinni, the Rush is renowned for producing some of the Midwest’s largest browns, bruisers that fatten up on crayfish and minnows. A good place to access this stretch is a mile downstream from the hamlet of El Paso.
Waterloo Creek, Iowa
▶ Many anglers might be surprised to see “trout” and “Iowa” in the same sentence, but the rugged northeast corner of the state hides many fine spring creeks. Waterloo is one of the best. It’s also a geographical oddity, beginning as Bee Creek in Minnesota, then changing names as it flows south into Iowa, toward the flea-sized town of Dorchester. Here, one might accomplish the unusual feat of hooking a trout in one state and landing it another.
North and South Bear Creeks, Iowa
▶ The two upper branches of Bear Creek are similar in that the Iowa DNR has purchased substantial portions of land along each, offering fishing and hunting access along with primitive camping. North Bear, however, is one of my true Driftless loves. I grew up fishing these streams, have prowled them for decades, and they’re the primary reason I still point my fly-rod-loaded truck east on I-90 at least once a year to go Driftless.