April 18, 2023
It may come as a surprise to anglers that the northeastern corner of Iowa—part of the Upper Midwest’s “Driftless Region”—offers some of the most productive, picturesque trout streams anywhere in the country.
Sometimes referred to as “Little Switzerland” thanks to abundant valleys, hills and limestone creeks, the trout streams of Iowa’s Allamakee and Winneshiek counties are transected by a labyrinth of unpaved country roads where an angler can easily get lost.
But it’s good to get lost in Little Switzerland, as long as you keep a full tank of gas, a few cold-cut sandwiches and a thermos of hot coffee on the ready.
Consider that nearly half of the region’s forty-something streams offer naturally-reproducing brown trout; some with the bonus of healthy, foot-long and better brookies, as well as “put-and-take” rainbows for consistent action and table fare. There are good numbers and trophies to hunt, too, with browns in the 20-plus-inch category present.
Think Early-Spring Trout
Following winter, the longer days, warmer temperatures and more frequent insect hatches of spring can spell fantastic days on Iowa streams. Likewise, access is easier prior to the verdant bloom of summer, which can weave almost impenetrable streamside vegetation. Exploration is definitely made easier without the angry sting of summer’s sinister nettles. Good for tea, bad for skin.
As a bonus, plan your trip for mid- to late-April and it’s likely you’ll pair fried trout with morel mushrooms, which often appear around dead elms. It’s no hyperbole that there is no finer meal than fresh trout sautéed in butter with morels, ramps and fiddlehead ferns collected by streamside.
The Northern Triangle
Perhaps the best place to start exploring Little Switzerland is by putting down stakes in Dorchester or Highlandville, allowing easy access to North and South Bear Creek, Waterloo Creek and French Creek to the east.
Former fly-fishing guide Jene Hughes, author of the definitive work The Complete Guide to Iowa Trout Streams, coined the term “The Northern Triangle” to describe this network of fantastic waters, which can all be fished in the same day punctuated by short, 15 minute drives.
North and South Bear Creek are prized by anglers for wild-reproducing brown trout and pockets of brookies. The Waterloo has perhaps the highest numbers of browns in the region with some large fish present and French Creek features numerous bends amidst fallow surroundings where precise casts are required—and rewarded.
Local guide Ethan Pole of NEI Fly Fishing agrees. “Those streams are what we call the ‘trilogy’—lots great trout fishing not far apart.”
First, do not consider fishing the area without a copy of Jene Hughes’ book and the Iowa Trout Fishing Guide (both which include maps), the latter available from the Iowa DNR.
A short 3- or 4-weight fly rod in the 7- to 8-foot class is perfect for the small limestone creeks, although many anglers give the nod to a 2-weight for dry fly fishing. A 7 1/2- to 9-foot 4 or 5x leader with 6x tippet is perfect for most situations.
An assortment of nymphs in sizes 16 to 22 and biodegradable putty weight are requisite gear for fishing trout near the bottom of runs and pools. Some anglers will use strike indicators to more easily detect bites.
“I would say 80 percent of your fly box should be size 18 to 22 bead head and non-bead midge and Pheasant Tail nymphs with some larger size 16 Prince Nymphs and Hare’s Ears thrown in,” Pole said.
On the dry fly side of things, Hughes recommends size 16 and 18 Black Caddis and Stonefly imitators for spring trout, as well as the same size Blue-Winged Olives, which he says almost always catch fish. Pole agrees with the BWOs and adds light-colored Adams and Cahill patterns are solid choices.
Both Hughes and Pole recommend anglers practice casting at home prior to fishing Iowa’s limestone creeks, paying attention to accuracy, making repeated, short casts without unnecessary false casts.
“Everything we do on Iowa trout streams is under 30 feet; the typical cast is 18 to 20 feet, a lot of times much less,” Hughes said.
Pole agrees. “Set up some hula hoops at home and practice short roll and flip casts. The idea is to get your fly in the water with minimal gymnastics. You’ll catch a lot more fish.”
If larger fish are what you’re after, consider bringing a 4- to 6-weight rod for lofting larger streamers. You’ll might want to up your leader to 3X and the tippet to 4X. Wooley Buggers, lighter Clouser Minnows, Muddler Minnows, and Zonkers are all popular with the streamer crowd.
Non-fly anglers should pack an ultra-light spinning combo with 4-pound fluorocarbon or monofilament, a selection of in-line spinners, small minnow baits and tiny spoons. They will catch trout of all sizes.
Quality chest waders, boots and polarized sunglasses are also must-have items, as well as a good pliers for removing hooks from fleshy maws.
Where To Stay
Choose from primitive camping on state land at the intersection of North and South Bear, the Sportsman’s Motel in Dorchester, Highlandville Campground (once Jene’s second residence) and Bear Creek Cabins with charming general store or Big Joe’s Cabins, right on North Bear Creek.
Bear Creek Cabins & Highlandville Campground
3497 Highlandville Road
Highlandville, Iowa 52149
Bear Creek Cabins
Big Joe’s Little Campground
351 Willow Drive
Dorchester, IA 52140
Sportsman’s Motel and Campground
2753 Hwy 76
Dorchester, IA 52140
Decorah Fish Hatchery
2321 Siewers Spring Road
Decorah, IA 52101
Trout Stream Maps
NEI Fly Fishing