Shalon Hastings, onWater’s Director of Operations, is a Montanan angler and guide who is consumed by the sport of fishing, and the friendships it’s afforded her to create. So when she got the opportunity fish the Driftless Region of the Midwest, she didn’t hesitate to seize it. This is the story of her trip to one of America’s most unique, and forgotten fisheries.
Day 1: Riding the Trout Train
When an invitation came across my desk to fish several days in the Driftless area of the upper Midwest, I jumped at the chance to explore new waters. While my Montana homewaters are world-class, I couldn’t say no to fishing new watersheds and riding a passenger train.
The trip, hosted by the Fly Fishing Women of Minnesota and the Root River Rod Company in Lanesboro, Minnesota, was five days of fishing and exploring this unique area. I met 18 other women anglers from across the country. The trip was meant for all skill levels and the Driftless area was a perfect fit.
Located in parts of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa, the Driftless area was left unscathed during the last Ice Age. Because glaciers did not scour the land, rolling hills and small river and creek valleys occur. This trip was unique for me–I mostly fish larger rivers like the Blackfoot, Madison, and Missouri–so I was embracing the unknown when I traveled from Montana to Minnesota on Amtrak’s Empire Builder.
Train travel, like fishing a spring creek, is unhurried and deliberate. The train traveled along the Milk and Missouri Rivers and as we rolled along I imagined fish holding along the banks and in current lines, even though I knew trout could not live in the prairie sections of these two rivers.
After sleeping through the night on the train, I arrived at the Saint Paul Union Depot. From there I made the two-hour drive to our homebase near Lanesboro. The drive begins along the Mississippi River in a city of millions, then escapes through the suburbs, traverses through Midwestern farm fields, and then gradually drops into the valley bottoms of the Driftless area.
Our base for the week was a house at the Cedar Valley Resort. With two kitchens, eight bathrooms, and plenty of bedrooms, the house was perfect for our large group. I settled in my room and then headed to The Root River Rod Company for a gathering.
Hosting us at The Root River Rod Company was Lance Prodo. Lance had just assumed operational ownership of the store due to his father-in-law, Steve Sobieaniak’s, recent passing. Steve created The Root River Rod Company out of his passion for the local fisheries. With Lance’s likeability and enthusiasm, it is clear the shop is in good hands.
Marlene Huston, a guide and key staff member at The Root River Rod Company, along with Lance provided the group an orientation presentation to the area and also helped us with the group introductions. Marlene would also be joining us each day for fishing.
I left the orientation excited for the next five days of exploring new waters, meeting new angling companions, and having a good time on the water.
Day 2: A Spring Creek Adventure
When I awoke, the house was abuzz with enthusiasm. Some of us worked together to make breakfast for the entire group. Those that didn’t cook breakfast helped with informal casting lessons or explained the differences between a nymph and a dry fly to the less experienced anglers in the group.
Over breakfast we discussed the options for the day. Plans included float fishing on the Root River where anglers could target trout and bass, walk-and-wade fishing on smaller public and private access rivers and creeks, and fishing tiny spring creeks with selective fish for those who wanted a little more of a challenge.
The Fly Fishing Women of Minnesota had done this trip before and they arranged groups so that anglers new to the area were paired with someone who had fished these waters before. I was paired with Monta Hayner, a local guide from the area, who I’d met previously at The Root River Rod Company.
We explored Winnebago Creek, which is a small, clear, and winding stream. Less than fifteen feet across in most reaches, stealth and good presentations are keys to success. I fished a hopper-dropper rig and when my casts were accurate and my wading quiet, I found plenty of trout willing to eat the hopper or take the dropper.
In between casts or when walking from good run to good run, I was continually impressed with the vibrant reds, oranges, and yellows of the fall season’s changing leaves. On the drive back to the house I began planning my late spring or early summer trip to experience this creek in a different season when songbirds would be chirping and cicadas humming.
Back at the house we enjoyed cocktails and stories from the day. Patty Lueken had a great day floating with Lance in a drift on the Root River. Patty had plenty of action fly fishing for bass. She was from Alabama so this made her day. After dinner we played a rowdy game of Pictionary themed charades using only fly fishing terms. We laughed well into the night and created some sure-to-be-great friendships.
Day 3: New Waters Near The Old Barn
The morning greeted us with cloudy skies and a slight drizzle. The clouds eventually gave way and a few of us ventured to the South Branch of the Root River. Outside of Preston, the river flows through forested hillsides and farm country.
The South Branch of the Root River is a small, meandering river. I was able to catch a few vibrant brown trout before another wave of rain clouds rolled in. As the rain fell, the group decided lunch sounded better than getting any more water-logged. Walking out of the river and back to the car, two anglers were preparing to launch their raft. In a brief conversation they told me they were planning to take out at The Old Barn.
After lunch, Ginger Flaten and I stopped in Lanesboro to scout the water downstream of the Mill Pond dam on the South Branch of the Root River. After some restoration projects, the dam looks more like a series of small waterfalls. I spotted a brown trout feeding near the bank. Seeing that fish was enough to motivate us to begin fishing again.
For a few hours we fished the deep run below the dam. We found actively feeding fish and caught them in a variety of ways—from stripping and dead-drifting streamers to deep nymphing. We also tried some casts with a dry-dropper rig and caught several trout.
After our fishing session, per Lance’s suggestion, we enjoyed a beer at Sylvan Brewing on the edge of Lanesboro. Satisfied with another unique day exploring the Driftless area we rolled back to our house at the Cedar Valley Resort.
Day 4: Across the Border to The Bad Axe
The day began like the others with a hearty breakfast, coffee, conversation, and meeting our angling companions. I was thrilled when I learned we would get to hang out with Geri Meyer from The Driftless Angler. Geri owns The Driftless Angler in Viroqua, Wisconsin and has grown it into one of the more respected fly shops in the region. Like Lance, her passion for fly fishing is contagious.
We left the house and crossed the Mississippi River into Wisconsin. We arrived at The Driftless Angler and met Geri and her husband. Coffee and donuts were provided as well as great deals on clothing and flies. We spent at least an hour and a half in the shop before heading to a small, private stream called The Bad Axe.
The Bad Axe is a small stream meandering through a golf course. Often enough the stream would flood the golf course. Eventually the owners of the golf course decided to convert the stream and surrounding grounds into a fishing club and greenhouse. While fishing The Bad Axe, I was also fortunate to meet the creator of the Hippy Stomper fly, Andrew Grillos.
During the afternoon, we switched up our angling companions and I was fishing again with Jaime Lehmann. She was growing in her fly-fishing journey and had never fished a dry-dropper rig. I showed her how to tie one and explained how to cast a slightly wider loop. Jaime learned quickly and soon caught a good-sized, beautifully colored brown trout on the dry fly. She was thrilled to learn a new technique and I was extremely happy to have taught her.
We wrapped up another fun day with a scenic drive through Coon Valley and crossed the Mississippi River as the sun was setting against the rolling hills and creeks carving their way down to the Big Muddy.
Day 5: Floating the Root River
We woke to snow flurries and cloudy skies—ideal Midwestern weather for fly fishing for brown trout. Over coffee and baked goods, Jaime and I were excited to fish together again and also to float the Root River. Of the entire group she was the newest to fly fishing. This would be a great introduction for Jaime on fly fishing streamers for trout.
Before Lance arrived, Jaime and I spent some time on the grass outside the house learning a few casting tips and tricks to help her once we were in the boat. I taught her how to haul, how to shoot some line, and how to strip-set. She learned quickly and was ready to get after it.
Lance arrived and we headed to float the Root River. We launched just below the dam in the town of Lanesboro. This was the same spot I stood a few days ago and cast to rising brown trout. Lance rigged Jaime and I with two-fly deep nymph rigs and we were into fish immediately. After we nymphed with success for a while we changed to fishing streamers and stuck with that for the rest of the float.
The Root River is narrow compared to the larger Western rivers I am accustomed to. With plenty of trees flanking the banks, ensuring my backcast stayed out of the trees was as important as landing the fly in the correct spot. Jaime, Lance, and I enjoyed the day immensely as we laughed and caught plenty of brown, rainbows, and some smallmouth bass.
We returned to the resort and gathered with the rest of the crew. Huddled around vises and sipping on cocktails we traded fishing stories from the day while learning to tie a variety of new flies, including Goldilocks–which has become a favorite streamer pattern of many local anglers in the Driftless area.
Day 6: Closing Day on Trout Run
On the last full day of the trip the weather was the most pleasant we’d had all week. With sun, calm winds, and temperatures in the high 60s F, it was hard to think trout season in Minnesota was coming to an end.
For the last day, Jaime and I ventured to Trout Run. Joining us were Hillary Pennella and Willa Campbell from The Fly Fishing Women of Minnesota. Trout Run is a small tributary in the Root River drainage. We fished a variety of locations on this meandering stream and found plenty of hungry trout willing to rise to dry flies, chase a streamer, or gobble a nymph. It was a great last day in some beautiful weather.
After five full days of fly fishing in the Driftless area, most of us were ready for a well-deserved treat. Across from the Cedar Valley Resort was the Aroma Pie Shoppe. The parking lot was packed and a full parking lot at a restaurant usually means the food is good. We finished our final day off with some of the best apres-fishing pies I’ve ever had.
Day 7: Catching the Trout Train back to Montana
On my last morning in the Driftless area, I was able to fish below the dam in Lanesboro one more time. It didn’t take long before I caught a nice brown trout. As I released the fish back into the currents of the Root River, I promised myself I’d return someday.
Departing Lanesboro and driving through rolling hills and farmland, my thoughts drifted to the unique places we can fish throughout our journey as anglers. From the large waters of my home state to the tiny creeks and tree-lined rivers of the Driftless area, there are always new waters to explore and familiar waters to know more intimately.
I was dropped off at the Saint Paul Union Depot in time for my departure. Settling into my roomette car, tired yet fulfilled from five days of diverse fishing, I do not remember falling asleep.
However, I do remember waking up to a glimmer of sunshine on the wide Missouri River flowing through Montana’s high plains. As I looked out on the vast expanse of open space and endless horizon, I had to admit that the subtleness and intimacy of the trout streams of the Driftless area had grown on me.