The Driftless Area or Paleozoic Plateau is a region in the American Midwest noted mainly for its deeply carved river valleys. It includes areas of southwestern Wisconsin, southeastern Minnesota, northeastern Iowa and extreme northwestern Illinois. The region’s distinctive terrain is the result of being bypassed by the last continental glacier. The term “driftless” indicates a lack of glacial drift, the deposits of silt, gravel, and rock that retreating glaciers leave behind. The area’s Karst topography is characterized by its steep, rugged landscape, and by one of the largest concentrations of cold-water streams in the world. The absence of glaciers gave the rivers time to cut deeply into the ancient bedrock and create the distinctive landforms. Cave systems, disappearing streams, sinkholes, springs, and cold streams are all hallmarks found in the Driftless Area of southeastern Minnesota. These cold, highly oxygenated waters provide superb trout habitat with many streams sustaining population counts ranging in the area of 2,000 to 4,000 trout per mile. When targeting this incredible biomass of fish in autumn, a number of specific challenges face the angler armed with a fly rod. Streams are typically lower and clearer than other times of the year, hatches have tapered off and falling leaves start coating the water.
Although these changes are ones that must be addressed by the fly angler and require a change in approach in order to have continued success, fall also brings the spawn for Brown and Brook Trout that call southeastern Minnesota home. With this comes two key aspects – they become much more aggressive as a result of behavioral changes related to spawning that creates increased territoriality, and for several weeks prior to the spawn and again after the eggs have been fertilized, trout appetites are immense.
Anglers who are mindful of these unique circumstances stand a very good chance of not only experiencing some incredible fly angling in terms of number of fish caught but of hooking up with a true trophy specimen as the fall pre-spawning / spawning season makes normally hard-to-catch trophy brown trout more vulnerable to anglers who follow these suggestions.
The low and clear water conditions that so often times accompany the fall season make it easier for trout to see things above the water’s surface thus making them all the more vigilant for the threat of danger. Clothing is always an important factor in maintaining stealth as a fly angler in the Minnesota Driftless, but its importance is crucial in the fall. Trout can be extremely sensitive to bright colors, so wear clothes that are muted. The intent is to blend as best you can with your natural surroundings and to minimize your presence while on the stream. Use natural occurring camouflage like foliage, brush and bank side trees to your advantage by using them to break up your profile.
It is also paramount to “mind your shadow”. The autumn sun appears lower in the sky than during the summer months resulting in lower sun angles. Longer shadows will be cast on the water so one must be mindful of this when approaching the water. Use a stealthy approach as the ability for your shadow to spook fish is increased, as they know death often comes from above and you can’t catch fish that you’ve chased off with a careless and unthoughtful approach.
Anyone who has fished in the fall knows how covered the water can be with fallen leaves, twigs and other wind-blown debris. This detritus on and in the stream can add to the confusion for any upward looking trout. Since fall is still an excellent time to fish terrestrial patterns, imparting some movement to your fly can help it appear more food-like. Giving your fly an occasional little “twitch” can grab a trout’s attention and often times is enough to trigger a strike.
Just as important as being aware of aforementioned aspects that come with fall fly fishing in the Minnesota Driftless area is knowledge of the top flies to have on hand and how to effectively use them during this time of year.
It’s still terrestrial time. Aggressive top-water feeding isn’t limited to the warmer, drier period of summer, in fact, late September and early October can offer up some of the best terrestrial fishing of the year. These patterns are most productive from mid-morning until late afternoon. This is generally the warmest part of the day when the insects are most active making them more susceptible to falling or accidentally jumping into a stream. Terrestrials are an important trout food source since they boast a lot of protein, an aspect that becomes extremely important as the fish up their caloric intake as they head into the spawning season. Be sure to carry a few ants, beetles and grasshopper patterns in your fly box.
Fall fly fishing has become synonymous with throwing streamers in search of larger, predatory Browns. Trout become more territorial and aggressive in late summer / early fall. The spawning urge and the coming of winter creates a fly fishing situation that can turn fish that normally key in on small midges and mayflies into predators willing to attack flies several inches long. Sometimes these trout are eating the fly out of hunger and other times it is an anger induced territorial response to a smaller fish invading their holding area and threatening potential offspring. When choosing streamers for your fall outings think about size, profile and color with the aim of irritating an already hungry and cantankerous fish. There are thousands of streamer patterns out there, ranging from the many effective variations of the Woolly Bugger, to newer patterns like the Sculpzilla and Slumpbuster. The most productive patterns tend to have a profile that generally represents a food source, like a sculpin and contain materials like marabou that undulates in the water. Desirable color schemes can range from natural olives and browns to bright chartreuse or yellows with a little flash.
Although your terrestrial and streamer patterns may see more use during the fall season in the Minnesota Driftless area—don’t leave your nymph fly box at home! On streams with significant summer weed growth, fall represents a time of expanding nymph opportunity as those slower seams and slots are finally free of green and once again are open for business. Bead head flies like the Pheasant Tail, Gold Ribbed Hare’s Ear and Prince nymphs can be very effective fished dead drift in the current on a floating line with a strike indicator. Trout will move, and sometimes move a good distance, for these relatively “meaty” offerings.
Fall in the Minnesota Driftless is a special time for fly anglers. Tree foliage hangs like a multi-colored “tapestry” along stream edges, which serves as a backdrop for some of the best fly fishing of the year. As temps start cooling off the fishing starts heating up. It’s no secret that fall is one of the best times for trout fishing activity as cooler surface water temps create a more comfortable environment for trout and cooler air temps make it more pleasant for the angler. If you enjoy challenging yet potentially rewarding fly angling amongst beautiful surroundings, then be sure when Autumn rolls around you make it a priority to fly fish southeastern Minnesota. I’m sure you will “Fall” in love with the area!