fly fishing the Driftless Area

Top Flies for Driftless Area Trout: Guides, Fly Shop Owners, and Trout Bums Pick Their Favorite Patterns for Driftless Spring Creeks

 

Under-the-radar flies that will help you catch more fish in the spring creeks of the Driftless Area…

The Driftless is an amazing and unique fishery, and it arguably holds some of the most fascinating spring creeks in the world. Though standard trout flies catch their share of fish, a few unique patterns have sprung up from the special set of circumstances a spring creek brings a trout fisherman. A few guides, fly shop owners, and avid trout bums have graciously agreed to share some of their favorite trout patterns for the spring creeks of the Driftless Area. Some are standard trout patterns that have been tweaked for local waters, but most have been tied, tested, and developed specifically for the trout of the Driftless Area.Top flies for the Driftless bros small

Dave Anderson, On the Fly Guide Service

Dave Anderson is a veteran guide on the streams and creeks of southeastern Minnesota’s Driftless Area. After guiding on local Driftless streams for over a decade, he has great knowledge of the bug life and the most productive flies on the area’s unique streams….

Really, most guys do not need a ton of flies in the Driftless to be successful outside of hatch specific patterns. Right now (August), I’m still fishing scuds, but it is a #14 with a very specific dubbing: ice dub and corgi fur.

Another scud...Fly and pic from Dave Anderson, On the Fly Guiding, ontheflyguiding.com,

Another scud…Fly and pic from Dave Anderson, On the Fly Guide Service, ontheflyguiding.com

  • Hook: TMC2487 or TMC2457 #14-16
  • Thread: Orange 6/0 (8/0 on #16 and smaller)
  • Tail:  (optional) pearlescent or orange krystal flash strands, silver flashabou
  • Dubbing: Orange or sulphur orange, gray, olive, pink/ Ice Dub UV Pink Shrimp
  • Shell Back: Small piece of plastic to cover the dubbing  or twisted krystal flash strands
  • Ribbing: Fine copper wire
  • Weight: Turns of .15 or .20 weight
Black Wet Fly - Fly and pic by Dave Anderson, On the Fly Guide Service

Black Wet Fly – Fly and pic by Dave Anderson, On the Fly Guide Service, ontheflyguiding.com

The Black Wet Fly is a pattern that lots of local guys fish this time of year (August). It’s a local pattern and probably isn’t well-known outside of the area.

  • (Recipe by 3 Brothers Flies) Hook: #10-16 nymph
  • Thread: Black 8/0 UNI
  • Weight: A few wraps of lead free wire
  • Shellback: A few strands of Krystal Flash
  • Body: Black dubbing, dubbed to form a somewhat fat body
  • Hackle: Black dry fly hackle
PT’s are pretty standard fare, although with all of the flooding we have endured down here this past year, many of our rocks are stripped clean of the usual bugs one runs into. Tricos are going in places here, so really small black PT type nymphs would work if you weren’t fishing a dry. Most of the stuff I tie and fish isn’t real complicated, but it also has some very specific ingredients.
Dave also offers hand-tied flies specifically for the trout of southeastern Minnesota and the rest of the Driftless Area. Be sure to check out his site for stream reports and guide trips for the Minnesota Driftless.  

Driftless On the Fly

The guys over at Driftless On the Fly run a sweet operation guiding the waters of northeastern Iowa. Iowa is an often under-appreciated and overlooked fly fishing locale, but Jared Koenigsfeld and Ryan Rahmiller do an awesome job highlighting the great fly fishing opportunities found in Iowa on their website and blog. Here are a few of their best flies for the Driftless….

Fly and pic: Driftless on the Fly

Fly and pic by Driftless on the Fly

3$ Dip w/ UV Wing– The UV wing is what makes this guy special, almost any time of the day you can turn a fish with a midge and the added UV wing just gives it a little more flash like an air bubble on an emerging larva or wing. Top colors are Red, Rust, Black, and Olive and is sizes #16-22.

Fly and pic by Driftless on the Fly

Price of Darkness – Fly and pic by Driftless on the Fly

Prince of Darkness– We do have some stones in the Driftless of Iowa believe it or not, most of them are pretty small in the spring creeks. This fly just gives a new look to the standard Prince, black helps in dirty water situations. We use these especially in the Winter and Spring months, in sizes #14 & 16

 
Missing Link Caddis - Fly and pic by Driftless on the Fly

Missing Link Caddis – Fly and pic by Driftless on the Fly

Missing Link Caddis – Great searching fly through the Spring to Fall months. Perfect for that solo riser along your favorite stream that you just can’t see what he’s eating, this fly has it ALL! From its spent look to its upright wing there’s just something buggy about this fly that really gets the fish up to the surface. Our favorite colors are Olive and Brown in sizes #14-18

 
Indicator Beetle - Fly and pic by Driftless on the Fly

Indicator Beetle – Fly and pic by Driftless on the Fly

Indicator Beetle – Another great prospecting fly for the Summer and Fall months. Toss it along some high grassy banks in the peak heat of summer and you might be surprised to see the stream swallow your fly on impact. Works well as a dropper behind a hopper, solo, or even my favorite as a top fly with a real small nymph dropper, we prefer sizes #14 &16.

Hot Head Wooly Bugger - Fly and pic by Driftless on the Fly

Hot Head Wooly Bugger – Fly and pic by Driftless on the Fly

Hot-Bead Wooly Bugger – Its your standard Wooly Bugger but with a little twist, I never leave home with out these guys in my arsenal. In early Fall through late Spring, they can move some of your largest fish you have seen in your local water. Always vary your technique to key in on the action they are looking for, from low and slow to shallow and fast. Keep that a Florescent Orange bead and the body in black and brown, sizes #10-4.

 
Guide flies - Fly and pic by Driftless on the Fly

Guide flies – Fly and pic by Driftless on the Fly

Guide Flies – Of course we use many standardized flies from day to day, which of most are what we call “Guide Flies”. The point being we want flies that are- simple yet effective, and that your able to tie 2 dozen in an hour or two without any difficulty before the next days trip. Keeping the same design, but a change in color or size allows us to do just that. Pictured here are Barr’s Vis-A-Dun in a Baetis, and a Shop-Vac. 

Ben Carlson, Jolly Fly Fishing

An avid fly angler and trout bum, Ben Carlson has been fly fishing the streams of the Driftless Area since he was a young teen. He is the head guide at Jolly Fly Fishing, offering guided trips on his beloved home waters, the famous Rush and Kinnickinnic Rivers. His experience on these two popular western Wisconsin streams gives him a unique perspective on spring creek fly patterns, of which he shares a few thoughts and patterns here…

I am a big dry fly guy and being a spring creek fishermen I love and live for my mayfly hatches… so here are three of my favorites. They are all spin offs of generic patterns modified for my specific streams (primarily the Kinni and the Rush). A few notes about my flies in general… I never tie a traditional catskill style full hackle dry fly, it is always either a parachute or comparadun. In spring creeks there is not a lot of whitewater, which means that it it relatively flat and the trout can see pretty well (which makes our job hard). So tying a parachute or comparadun leaves the fly flush to the water and resembles a mayfly in its most vulnerable stage, fully emerged but unable to move yet as it’s wings still have to dry. One of my fly fishing mentors is a man by the name of David Halvorson, he is a retired Doctor and loves his BWOs, and his BWO pattern was featured in a fly tying magazine a few years ago… So the first pattern I’ll share is what I call Doc’s Parachute BWO.

Doc’s Parachute BWO

  • Hook- 18-22 dry fly hook 
  • Thread – Olive 
  • Tail- Dun Colored Hackle Fibers
  • Abdomen- Thread wraps (thicker near thorax)
  • Wing Post- Mix of Dun and White Enrico Pulgisi Fibers
  • Hackle- size 20 or 22 Dun or Grizzly Hackle

On flies this small, I do not dub them as it throws off the silhouette, instead I use thread wraps that get thicker near the thorax for the body. As with any dry, presentation and the right shape will outperform perfect colors. I love the BWO hatches because they can be quite prolific, especially if you hit the weather right. A cool, cloudy, and drizzly day makes these bugs come off with fury and the trout to rise to them, and this is usually the only pattern I throw to match this hatch. Another reason that the parachute works well is the trout are usually centered on the back eddies and slower moving parts of the pool, allowing this fly to sit perfectly on the water.

Granny Smith PMD - Fly and pic by Ben Carlson, Jolly Fly Fishing

Granny Smith PMD – Fly and pic by Ben Carlson, Jolly Fly Fishing

Granny Smith Comparadun PMD – My second fly is the Granny Smith Comparadun PMD

  • Hook 16-20 Dry Fly Hook
  • Thread – Chartreuse
  • Tail- Anrton or Poly Yarn
  • Body- Thread Wraps Thicker near Thorax 
  • Wing- Summer Deer Hair

I have heard them called PMDs, PEDs, Light Hendricksons, and Sulphurs, but they all fall under basically the same scientific classification. This hatch, which happens in the early evening in the earlier parts of the hatch but moves later and later with the season, can be absolutely crazy, as the color of the bugs can change. On the Kinni, the insects literally change color during the hatch starting out a light yellow and moving towards a light green (hence the name Granny Smith). The fish will be sensitive to this change and also to how it sits on the water. These comparduns are what the big fish in slow or flat water will take, so basically anything outside the main riffle. Be careful not to tie with too dark of a green and keep the wings a light color, anything too dark and it resembles a BWO and the fish won’t take it.

My last fly is a Trico pattern, and it’s really simple:

  • Hook- Size 20-24 dry fly hook
  • Thread- Black
  • Body- Thread Wraps
  • Wing Post- Poly Yarn
  • Wing- Poly Yarn
  • Tail- 2 or 3 Poly Yarn Fibers

This fly matches both the duns and spinners that you will find during a Trico hatch. Tie the wing post as you normally would but instead of tying hackle around it tie on another piece of poly yarn spinner wing style around the post. The tail is very minute, I have even left if off before and still caught fish. Starting in mid July, anytime the air temp hits 60 degrees these bugs come off and although tiny provide some great dry fly fishing if you are willing to wake up early enough!

Brian Smolinski (b smo), Lund’s Fly Shop

Brian J Smolinski (better known as b smo) is the owner of Lund’s Fly Shop, a full-service fly shop near the Rush and Kinnickinnic Rivers in River Falls, Wisconsin. He also ties some sweet streamers and tubes with materials from his fly tying company, Misfit fly co. As the owner of a local Driftless fly shop, Brian has a great pulse on the top-producing local fly patterns….

b smo's Pink Princess - Fly and pic by Brian Smolinski, Lund's Fly Shop

b smo’s Pink Princess – Fly and pic by Brian Smolinski, Lund’s Fly Shop

b smo’s Pink Princess – This fly was a custom order I got at the shop. This unnamed customer/friend asked me to come up with a fly that would be a combination of two very popular patterns that have been the most productive for them. The prince nymph and the hot pink squirrel. I decided that a dubbed body would be easier to create the desired profile, similar to the Lund’s Pink Squirrels. I love the peacock color of ice dub, but prefer to mix some rabbit hair in with all my ice dub to get a dubbing texture I like. 

One can hardly mention fly fishing in the Driftless without the infamous Pink Squirrel popping up. The Squirrel has attained a legendary, almost mythical status in the Driftless Area, spawning fish stories of ridiculous proportions and more than a few variations on the pattern. As Brian mentioned, Lund’s Pink Squirrel utilizes a curved scud hook, a short tail of Krystal Flash, and a two-toned dubbed body, notably using dubbing instead of chenille for the fly’s iconic pink hot spot. He also mentioned that Lund’s rendition appears to outsell the original three to one…

Lund's Pink Squirrel - Fly and pic by Brian Slominski, Lund's Fly Shop

Lund’s Pink Squirrel – Fly and pic by Brian Slominski, Lund’s Fly Shop

Lund’s Pink Squirrel – (Recipe by Brian J Smolinski)

Lund's HOT Pink Squirrel - Fly and pic by Brian J Smolinski - Lund's Fly Shop

Lund’s HOT Pink Squirrel – Fly and pic by Brian J Smolinski – Lund’s Fly Shop

Lund’s HOT Pink Squirrel (Recipe by Brian J Smolinski)

Lund’s Pink Squirrel – I have lost track of how many times anglers have come into the shop and told me that they were getting skunked out on their favorite stretch of trout water, until they pulled out one of these beauties. They consistently seem to produce trout of all sizes on the Rush, Kinni, Trimbelle, and many other streams right around this area. With hundreds of new patterns coming out every year, this is a pattern that always seems to be a staple in our customer’s fly boxes. For the Lund’s HOT Pink Squirrel, use black dubbing for the abdomen, UV Fluorescent hot pink Ice Dub for the thorax, and gold wire for the rib. This varies from the original pattern tied by John Bethke. We’ve had these two versions custom-tied for us for a few years now and sold thousands of them. They continue to be one of the most productive nymphs for many anglers.  

Nate and Jim Martin, Spirit Streams Fly Fishing

Focusing on the Driftless trout of Wisconsin, the Spirit Streams crew offers guided trips and some amazing posts on the Driftless over on their site and blog. Here are two of their most productive trout patterns…

Coulee Crusader Caddis - fly and pic by Spirit Streams Fly Fishing

Coulee Crusader Caddis – fly and pic by Spirit Streams Fly Fishing

Coulee Crusader Caddis – The Coulee Crusader is a prolific trout-producing pattern throughout the year, but excels in May and June and in the evenings the remainder of the year.  Adult Stonefly and Midge variants can be made with this pattern.  Very productive.

  • Hook: Mustad 94840 or equivalent, #16 and #18
  • Wing:  Coastal Deer, Natural
  • Hackle:  Barred Grizzly
  • Dubbing:  Brown, Green, Gray, Black


Notes:  Tie in hackle parachute style, 3 turns.  Dubbing pile at wing and direct hackles back toward hook bend.

Red Storm - fly and pic by Spirit Streams Fly Fishing

Red Storm – fly and pic by Spirit Streams Fly Fishing

Red Storm – The Red Storm is a year-round lethal trout enticer. The pattern is based on the traditional Woolly Bugger but with a few key additions including the red collar. The red collar is the hot spot which attracts trout to the point of irresistibility. It is one of our crème de la crème fly patterns.

  • Hook: Mustad 9672 or equivalent, #10 or #12
  • Bead: Tungsten cone, gold, small
  • Tail: Black Strung Marabou Feather
  • Body: Chenille, small, black (it should have a sparkle to it)
  • Hackle:  Black Saddle Hackle Feather
  • Collar: Red Crystal & Tri Lobal Fibers

 ———————————-

Standard nymphing and dry fly strategies are adequate for most creeks in the Driftless. Trailing a smaller, more imitative nymph (such as a Shop Vac or $3 Dip) behind a more gaudy attractor fly (Pink Squirrels, Black Wet Flies, scuds) is an especially deadly tactic. Dry-dropper rigs are another great strategy, particularly in the summer months when the terrestrials are out in force. We’ve also found that Driftless fish are particularly susceptible to some slight movement or jigging action worked into the drift.

This is a great selection of bugs that will serve an angler well throughout the entire season. All these patterns are well suited to the conditions that the small, fertile trout streams of the Driftless bring to the angler and will take plenty of trout on the local spring creeks.

Tie up a few of these bugs and toss them on the local trout streams this season. You won’t be disappointed!

Tricos on the Root

September 1, 2013

Day 2 – I persuaded Noah to hit the river with me early Sunday morning. It was another beautiful morning in the Driftless as we hiked down the trail and started fishing. This time we headed downstream and hit some of the deep, turbulent pools that brush against the limestone cliffs. Both of us fished dry-dropper rigs in hopes of picking off a few browns, but didn’t have any luck. After fishing nymphs for a while, I noticed a few sporadic risers feeding in a slow tailout. I checked the river for bugs, and sure enough a few tricos were floating downstream. I quickly chopped of the nymph and tied on a #12 Pass Lake dry with a big white calftail wing followed by a #20 trico spinner twelve inches behind. South Branch Root River fly fishing The trout were still rising inconsistently, and the first few browns I floated my trico over didn’t eat. Noah and I moved downstream to a long, choppy run ending in an even longer slow pool. The fish were rising steadily by now, but not the finicky, slow water sippers you’d expect from a trico hatch. These trout were set up in the riffles, snatching the tiny mayflies with a splashy rise. Though most of these trout were smaller, it was a treat to cast #20 tricos to fast water where the fish didn’t have a ton of time to inspect your flies. There were, of course, a few stubborn risers sitting right on the bank sipping bugs in swirling eddies.

Small clouds of tricos fluttered over the river as I carefully crept up to the riffle. A good dead drift resulted in a rise and the first wild brown of the morning in the net. Noah quickly got in on the action and caught another trout in the riffle while I tied up another trico rig. The trout were hard, but not impossible, and a good dead drift with a reasonable fly did the trick. The good fishing continued under clear skies, and we stayed in the same pool casting to rising trout all morning. I switched flies a few times when I started getting refusals. I fished a CDC trico spinner, Double Trico Spinner, and CDC Trico Comparadun, and all caught fish. Noah stuck a few awesome wild browns on the trico spinner, and I ended the morning with nine trout, all on trico dries. The browns were small but feisty, jumping a few times before coming to the net. The fish stopped rising around eleven o’clock, so we headed back to camp for some lunch.

Braden also had a productive morning. He hiked upstream and caught ten wild browns up to twelve inches on a dry-dropper rig. Most of his fish took a brown #14 Trout Snatcher Nymph, but a few ate his Ausable Bomber. Interestingly, he didn’t have any rising fish or a solid trico hatch. I did notice the hatch was quite sparse and isolated, with fish rising consistently only in one pool over the morning. I’m not sure if the trout key in on different types of water when the spinner fall is spotty, or what the deal was, but the trout were just as eager to eat a nymph in stretches of the river just a few hundred yards away.

A nice wild brown on a MTMN

A nice wild brown on a Trout Snatcher

After lunch we toured Mystery Cave, the longest cave in Minnesota with over 13 miles of passages. The cave is the life source of the Root, providing the cold water and nutrients that are vital to its existence as fertile trout water. Upstream from the cave area, the South Branch of the Root is a warmwater stream, but it literally disappears in the summer as it takes a shortcut underground through the cave. It emerges several miles later in a few springs, greatly enriched and cooled from its trip. It was pretty awesome to see some of the water in the cave that eventually ends up flowing in the section of stream we had fished earlier in the day.

Pool in the cave

Pool in the cave

"Turquoise Lake"

“Turquoise Lake”

Cave bacon and limestone

Cave bacon and limestone

The three of us fished a bit in the evening, working our way downstream and casting to likely spots. Braden picked up two more browns in a riffle on a Trout Snatcher, while Noah and I didn’t interest any fish. I ventured up the same small creek I hit yesterday and pulled out one trout on a sunk trico spinner.

The red tail and spots are amazing on this brown Braden caught

The red tail and spots are amazing on this brown Braden caught

The fish started rising again just before dark. I tied on a #16 CDC and Elk, and tossed it against the far bank. A brown gently rose and sipped it as the light was fading behind the bluffs. I set the hook, and after a short fight landed a beautiful ten inch brown. Once it got too dark to see the dry I tied on a chickabou Wooly Bugger and started swinging it through the fast water. A heavy trout slammed it, but he popped off after a few seconds, so I decided to call it a night. I hiked back to camp in the dark and ended another great day in the Driftless.

3 Brothers Flies © 2014 Frontier Theme