Friday, January 21, 2022 3:16 PM
Charles Darwin’s theories can be challenged on several fronts. But his treatise on “survival of the fittest” is perfect. Another way of stating this observation is “the death of the stupidest”. January provided the most stark illustration of this fact since humanity began to stumble during the winter in the Driftless region.
When wind chill is taken into account for ambient temperatures of -15 degrees, those who boldly go out into the great outdoors for long periods of time without proper preparation are referred to as “statistics: footprints in the snow that become footnotes of page in history”.
There are a few precious days this month when the winds are calm and the temperatures exceed 32 degrees Fahrenheit where going out is a joy for most people. But for outdoor enthusiasts, communing with the natural world is an absolute necessity.
Ice fishing on the backwaters of the immortal Mississippi is an extremely popular outdoor Driftless activity, especially for those who like to fish in crowds. Open-water options with long rods are limited to fishing for walleye in the downstream waters below the dams or hunting trout in the nearly 1,200 miles of publicly accessible inland waterways.
With over 600 spring-fed streams in the 24,000 square miles of Driftless Region covering parts of four upper Midwestern states, we live in the midst of world-class trout fishing.
Those who have called northeast Iowa their home for generations rarely, if ever, consider the little streams out the back door to be “world class” fishing water. Statistics compiled by the DNR say otherwise.
In 2014, nearly 39,000 Iowans and more than 4,300 non-residents spent 430,000 days fishing for trout in Hawkeye State. Anglers who don’t live in Iowa’s drift-free region averaged 138 miles to get here. The economic impact of sport fishing in the Driftless Zone in 2016 was $1.6 billion, up from $1.1 billion in 2008.
All of these numbers have increased since 2016 as more and more Americans discover this very special place, thanks in part to continued habitat improvements and an aggressive restocking program that continues to evolve.
DNR fisheries biologist Mike Siepker said the Decorah and Manchester trout hatcheries no longer stock brown trout in Iowa streams due to “prolific natural spawning success.” The Decorah facility now only breeds rainbow trout, stocking 180,000 fish in local waterways from April through October.
Recent research has revealed a native strain of brook trout – arguably the most beautiful freshwater fish – at South Pine Creek, northeast of Decorah. Only artificial lures are allowed on this body of water.
“When most people think of trout, they imagine fly fishing,” says veteran fishing tech Teresa Shay. “In reality, just over 50% of anglers use a fly rod. A small Black Panther Martin spinner is incredibly effective on these trout. Shay continued, “The average 12-year-old has little difficulty placing a lure on target with ultra-lightweight spincast equipment.”
Iowa law requires anglers over the age of 16 to have both a fishing license and a $14.50 trout stamp when angling for trout. A trout patch is required for people of all ages if they intend to keep fish.
Shay said his top picks for catching January trout are Big Bear, Coldwater Creek and Trout Run Creek – which originated in Siewers Spring at Decorah Hatchery. Birth of any kind creates a sense of awe and wonder. For someone seriously addicted to fishing, the birth of Trout Run Creek in Siewers Spring was an almost sacred experience.
North Bear has become a favorite winter trout fishery with ongoing habitat work improving the fishery year after year. Coldwater and Trout Run revealed profound revelations about the natural bounty found in the Driftless.
The birth of Coldwater Creek had an even greater personal impact. The origin of this stream is now blocked by iron bars.
In 1967, three intrepid anglers hunting for rainbow trout near the origin of this creek wondered why their lures would never reach the bottom. Donning scuba gear, they investigated and discovered the largest cave in Iowa.
To date, cavers have mapped 17.4 miles of Coldwater Cave, including more than 100 domes, many with significant waterfalls.
Today, the only access to Coldwater Cave is via a 94-foot ladder in a 36-inch tube inside a small, padlocked building surrounded by barbed wire on private land.
I had the chance to explore the majesty of this place with the Iowa Grotto cavers in late winter 2015. It was a life changing experience. The temperature is a uniform 56 degrees all year round, providing a different “great outdoors” feel. But this is another story.
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