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Fly Fishing & Iowa's Driftless Region

by Jeffery Skeate

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Trade Paperback
230 pages
Sattre Press
ISBN 978-0-9718305-7-8
Size: 5.375x8"

Thirty-one seasonally oriented essays about fly fishing in America's Driftless Region, an unglaciated landscape comprising northeastern Iowa, southwestern Wisconsin and southeastern Minnesota. A selection of the author's poems and photographs accompany the essays.

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In An Instant
The river whipped up
in a sudden fury of wind.

The wind howled downriver
sprung suddenly from up North.

The North lay like a mad dog
up river, a place of imagination

and ice. Mad dogs like vultures
glared into the fires with bloodred beaks

& bloodred rings around the smallmouth's eyes
faced quietly into the river's teeth. Which then froze.



They say if you get tired of the weather in Iowa, just wait a couple of hours and it will change.

Here in the southwestern portion of what's called the Driftless Region, we have the perennial opportunity to experience all four seasons, whether we necessarily like them all or not. Having lived in locales where the seasons are more or less a blur, I've always felt our climate to be one of the area's more charming attributes, though I admit that some of our January and February days can push the envelope in terms of "charm." If one isn't careful, a few of our sultry July and August afternoons and evenings can wilt one's spirit and the garden both. And so on. Yet regardless of weather anomalies, I've spent most of my adult life in Iowa, and it's the most comfortable place I've ever lived, rather like an old pair of jeans or a comfortable shirt I suppose. Iowa is not particularly fancy.

I was born in central Minnesota, and the Minnesota border is only twenty miles north of us. I like that, too. Wisconsin, just forty miles east across the Mississippi River, is brimming with thousands of miles of trout water. And the Black Hills of South Dakota, another area with excellent trout water and spectacular scenery, is but a short ten-hour jaunt to the northwest. The last two times we've been there, we left early in the morning and I was fishing Rapid Creek by late in the afternoon on that same day.

The population of Iowa does not quite exceed three million people. Some years ago we lived in California, and we had three million people living on our street. I guess it would be safe to say I prefer Iowa's more generous dose of open spaces and fewer inhabitants.

Fly fishermen often talk about "seams" in moving water, those areas just alongside riffle stretches in trout streams that aren't really in the current, nor exactly out of it. Seams are the little "in between" slots on the borders of fast and slow water where trout often lie in wait for something good to drift along. They're in range of the current, which is generally carrying the food sources, but they're not exactly in the current either, the quieter seams being the middle-ground, a much easier and less strenuous place to hold.

Northeast Iowa is a seam of the United States, but that's another subject.

If you fly fish regularly throughout the year in the Driftless area, you'll notice seams between the standard four seasons as well. If you wanted to select a particular month that seems most like spring, you might choose April. July would be a common choice for summer, October for autumn and perhaps January for winter. Yet there are many variables and conflicting seasonal weather patterns that blend into and out of each of the four seasons, and these unusual days and weeks are sometimes as interesting as the definitive seasons themselves, if not more so.

At present, the trout fishing season in Iowa is open year-round. For the record, if I had to pick the very best and most reliable fly fishing months of the year in northeast Iowa, they would be April, June and October. August would be a close fourth. If the trico mayflies are hatching well on early August mornings, you can land a lot of trout before you fish grasshoppers in the afternoon. This past season, on the other hand, late summer floods almost entirely took out the season's trico hatches, so one never knows for certain what any given year might bring along. T.S. Eliot says that "April is the cruelest month," but Eliot was not a fly fisher. April is the month of the Hendrickson hatch, arguably our best mayfly hatch of the season. And just a few short weeks later, June brings out the March Brown and Gray Fox hatches. In October, the Blue Wing Olives can be spectacular, as they were this year, in many years a kind of grand finale to the mayfly season before the advent of another Iowa winter.

Aside from the high points, there are times in which I can't catch a trout to save my life. February, for example, has got to be one of the most difficult months to catch trout in northeast Iowa that I've ever experienced. I've experienced February fly fishing in northeast Iowa for eighteen years now, and I haven't changed my mind about it yet. One February not long ago, I went fishing three times and caught two trout. I caught the two trout on one outing, and got skunked on the other two. The reason I only got out three times was because the roads were so bad I couldn't get anywhere, much less park in a safe location. The water is at its coldest point of the year in February, and even on balmier days the fish can be quite torpid.

Even so, it was great fun at least trying.

A couple of weeks ago, in mid-November, I went out to a nearby stream to try my luck. It was cold and windy, though it didn't quite feel wintry yet, in part I suppose because we haven't had any snow. That will come soon enough. Nonetheless it was a far cry from the balmy and rather pleasant Blue Wing Olive afternoons of October, when it occasionally reached sixty or seventy degrees, you could fish until 7PM if you liked and the trees were in their autumn beauty, as the poet William Butler Yeats once wrote.

I had a heavier cane streamer rod with me that day, not really built for dry flies, much less diminutive ones. I caught a number of nice trout on a streamer pattern, but continually saw trout rise here and there to a very few baetis on the water. I felt caught between two worlds, or two seasons to be more accurate, not really knowing whether to keep throwing streamers or switch to a dry fly. Eventually I tied my leader down to 7X and put on a small #20 Blue Wing Olive pattern, and though the heavy rod was somewhat awkward, I managed to land two rising trout on the only two strikes I had on the dry fly. I guess I thought that was fair enough, and as it got colder and the rises stopped I went back to the streamer and caught a few more fish. It was cold enough that the guides on my rod were iced-up all afternoon long, and I was pleased about the two trout I managed to catch on the dry fly, not an easy task in cold, windy conditions with a heavy rod.

And an outing or two after that I'd again wished I'd brought along a lighter dry fly rod, as there were enough rising trout to fish the dry fly in earnest. I had already cleaned, waxed and stored my three favorite split-cane dry fly rods away for the winter, not wishing to expose them to freezing conditions. I have a couple of heavier cane rods for winter fishing, and that's the way it is. The same thing often happens to me late in February and early in March, but I make do with the rod I happen to have along then, too.

I have divided the following essays roughly by way of seasons, though I haven't thought at all so much of "odes" to the seasons. It just so happens that I enjoy fishing all year long, and certain occurrences and thoughts simply fall into various seasons by default. On two or three occasions, essays are placed within certain seasons for no other reason than that's when I happened to be thinking about them.

Winter is a great time for thinking in northeast Iowa, along with its sister arts of tying flies and reading.

This volume also contains a short group of poems, most of which have something to do with moving water or things experienced and considered while out on the water. I believe that they were all written, without exception, at our kitchen table overlooking the woods along our neighborly stretch of the Upper Iowa River. Last summer I landed a seventeen-inch smallmouth bass a couple of hundred yards from that same kitchen window. I hope the reader will not mind the occasional abstraction within the selection of poems, perhaps at times a result of the fish outside the window.

When I got home from the river that evening, darkness had fallen and there wasn't a breath of wind in the humid Augustan Driftless air. We left at two in the morning for Rapid Creek near Silver City, South Dakota, with brimming mugs of coffee and hardly a care in the world. Every now and again I think that's perfectly all right.


Poem On My Birthday
The trees are silenced at the sight of this man.

They thought they had forgotten what it was like, but they had

Anticipating the slow manipulation of the stream by the man
  intent on finding, they stand in silence.

The man is unaware of the trees and other things and hears
  only the slightly rippling current of dawn.

The moon, a slowly fading photograph, draws the heart
  of the man closer to water.

All the waters of the past appear in full regalia and flash
  before the mind of the man in an instant.

The tinkling of chimes in the distance, heard only by the man
  and the rainbow, is nothing to the trees and other things.

The moon smiles a gentle last smile and the sun shakes off
  fatigue like a good soldier.

The man carefully arranges his ways and departs upstream,
  a salamander-boy by ever-darkening trees.


Need a catch-and-release fly fishing guide for northeast Iowa and/or the Driftless Region? See our friends at North East Iowa Fly Fishing.



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