The Driftless area is a region encompassing parts of southwestern Wisconsin, southeastern Minnesota, northeastern Iowa and northwestern Illinois.  The area got its name due to the lack of glacial deposits, “drifts”.  What this translates to is a region of deep carved river valleys with some of the best trout fishing in the midwest.   We first heard about this area from Jen Ripple, editor/founder of Dun Magazine when she spoke at the 2017 GRTU TroutFest.  Ever since, we’d been excited about fishing this region.

Our first stop in the region took us to Viroqua (WI) to fish the West Fork of the Kickapoo, our “Driftless Kick!” start.  We next went to an area near Rochester and Lanesboro (MN) to fish the Whitewater and Trout Run streams, two more fisheries that are a part of the TU Greatest 100 Trout Streams.  To be honest, the area around our campground reminded us a lot of where we grew up in the country outside Kansas City.  However, when we drove to meet our guide, Mike Lewellen, of Troutlaws Fly Fishing Guide Service and followed him to the Whitewater River, the “Driftless” landscape emerged before us.  Our day on the Whitewater was filled with beautiful brown trout at most every bend of the river.  As we finished our day on the Whitewater,  we talked with Mike about our guide trip on Trout Run in a couple of days, and asked him where else we might fish.  He recommended Ducshee Creek near Lanesboro (MN).

Later that day, back in the campground at Chester Woods, Mike dropped by the SaraLinda and as we talked more about fishing Duschee Creek, Mike indicated he’d like to show it to us…. what a treat!  The deal was struck, we’d meet Mike in Lanesboro, buy lunch and he’d show us Duschee Creek.  We met at the Root River Rod Company in downtown Lanesboro, a really cool little town and a VERY nice fly shop.  After spending some time in the shop and lunching on bison hotdogs, we headed out to fish Duschee Creek.  The creek was absolutely beautiful and it was a great pleasure fishing with Mike.  We all hooked into some gorgeous brown trout throughout the afternoon and came upon a unique flower bed as well.

The next day we headed to Trout Run.  I mean…. any stream named “Trout Run” has to be good…. right?  When we got to a small bridge near a couple of small farms, we saw three other cars parked alongside the road, obviously other fishermen.   Getting out of the car, Mike told us not to worry, there were miles of stream, in both directions from the bridge, full of trout.  We decided to head upstream a ways to begin our day.  After a morning of catching a few trout here and there, we headed back to the car and were met by the local dog who entertained us during lunch…. entertained meaning he really was hoping we’d share some lunch with him.

After lunch, we headed back up stream further to a hole Mike really wanted us to fish.  I have to tell you, the folks in the “Driftless” area, fishermen, landowners and the state, have struck a great deal in providing access to streams.   While landowners have their properties fenced, primarily for cattle, there are ladder crossings near all the streams so anglers can easily cross fences to continue moving up/down stream.  We were both so impressed with this cooperation on the part of everyone.

That afternoon on Trout Run, Barb schooled me but good!  She hooked into some big, gorgeous “Driftless” browns at several different runs along the stream.  At one point, I was stalking a far bank run for a few trout that kept rising, teasing me but not taking my dry fly when I heard both Barb and Mike yelling at me to come up and fish with them.  Little did I know that while I was stalking with little success, they were in a hole with some great fish.  I’ll move faster next time!

We had the distinct pleasure of fishing with Mike for three days in southeastern Minnesota on three different streams.  I’m sure a lot of fly fishermen take the drive along I-90 from Chicago and points further east and head west to fish in Wyoming and Montana.   I would highly encourage them, and all our midwestern friends, to make sure to stop in southwestern Wisconsin and southeastern Minnesota and fish the Driftless area streams.  We barely touched all the fishing opportunities available here.  Make sure if you do, you call Mike at Troutlaws and book at least three days to fish this amazing area.  We’ll for sure be coming back again!

PS  Yes, that’s a Pink Squirrel on my hat!  It’s a famous fly pattern in the “Driftless” area as it turns out.  I couldn’t resist buying and wearing it while we fished the area.

When we met our guide for the Little Red River, Jamie Rouse of Rouse Fly Fishing, we were experiencing conflicting emotions.  It was the last river of our River Ramble adventure in the lower 48 states we were to fish.  We were happy we’d made it this far but sad that this part of the adventure was coming to an end.

Like the Norfork, they’d not been generating at the dam, so, the water levels and flow in the river were low.  However, Jamie had just the spots for us to explore.  We jumped in his boat and headed upstream, fishing around weed beds, trying to lure hiding trout to our flies.  He asked us if we wanted the day to be “silly great” and given it was our last guide trip in the lower 48, we said “ABSOLUTELY!”  Hence, we started fishing with egg patterns which drew rainbows one after another to the boat.  Later, we jigged a bit, and threw streamers and hooked into some nice browns.

As we left the river, we chatted with Jamie on the ride back to our car.  He is one of the most knowledgable and fun guides you could ask for.  He kept us laughing all day, of course “silly” fishing and having tons of fun.  We’ll be back to fish with Jamie in the spring when the river comes back into good shape, but for now, we hope you enjoy our “Guide Talk” with him…. truck style!

We had fished the White River before, a couple of times, but, really looked forward to fishing it again with some of the team from Dally’s Ozark Fly Fisher in Cotter, AR.  Cotter lays claim to being  “Trout Capital USA”.  While Roscoe (NY), Bend (OR), Asheville (NC) and Craig (MT) might argue with them, Cotter is definitely a contender.  Indeed, there are two rivers nearby with some of the most and biggest trout in the lower 48, the White and the Norfork (the North Fork of the White River).

We first fished the White River with Larry McNair, who is a retired teacher and head basketball coach at Cotter High.  The other guides referred to Larry as the “Godfather” of the White because of the number of times he’s fished and guided on it.   We put the boat in at the Rim Shoals access point and proceeded to go upstream just a bit, before fishing both sides of the island at the boat ramp.  Barb caught a nice brown and we both hooked into numerous nice sized rainbows.  Throughout the day we talked fishing and basketball which was right up my alley.  As the day progressed, we caught several more healthy browns and a bevy of rainbows.  The White River was really good to us on a cold, rainy day.

The next day, we went to try our hand on a section of the Norfork with another Dally’s guide, Gabe Levin.  It was only a small section due to conditions in Norfork Lake which were producing off-color water and very low flows below the dam on the river.  It really wasn’t an ideal time to fish the Norfork River, but it’s a TU Top 100 stream, so, we were obliged to wet a line and see what we could do.  On our first drift down, we both hooked into a couple of small rainbows before Barb landed a beautiful Fine Spotted Cutthroat….. gorgeous fish!  At this point, realizing we could fish this small stretch longer, or, we could head back to the White and fish a different section, we made a no brainer decision, bring on the White again!

Gabe took us to several different spots both up and downstream of the confluence of the Norfork and White Rivers, including Buffalo Shoals.  We stopped counting pretty quickly as to the numbers of fish we’d brought to the boat.  While we didn’t find any of the big browns, we did just fine seeing a variety of sizes of colorful rainbows.

We chatted with Gabe over lunch on the river as eagles soared and squawked above us.  We only saw a couple of boats upstream where we’d gone to fish and have lunch.  His “guide talk” is a “twofer” combining the White and Norfork, with pics from both days sprinkled in.   Please take a look at the video to understand fully why Cotter is “Trout Capital USA”.

Rocky Tops!


Our last stop in Tennessee brought us to the Knoxville area to fish the Clinch River.  The chapter in the TU book regarding the Clinch didn’t paint a particularly positive picture of the river, so with some trepidation, we met our guide for the day, Michael (Rocky) Cox of Rocky Top Anglers at the boat ramp and prepared for our journey.

It was a foggy and very cold 27 degrees at the boat ramp when started the journey downstream on the Clinch.  However, the bit of gloom written in the TU book was very quickly dispelled as we started catching fish on a regular basis.  Beautiful rainbows abound in the Clinch and Rocky put us on them all day.  In the afternoon, the weather warmed up considerably…. as did Barb.  I don’t think Barb let a fish go by all afternoon without hooking and landing it.   When she was netting her fish, it was my chance to hook one;  she was on fire!

We had a blast fishing with Rocky and did a very unique interview with him.  While we’ve done interviews in boats on the banks of streams, we’d never done one while the guide was actually rowing… until now.  Please click on the video above and enjoy Rocky’s wit and wisdom as he rows us down the Clinch in Tennessee.

When we were planning our Tennessee swing through the Volunteer State, we also planned to meet up with James and Janice Kelley of Hendersonville, TN.   Our rendezvous location was Townsend, TN, a small town outside the “quiet” entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP).   James and Janice stayed in a little cabin at our campground while Barb and I were in the SaraLinda.  We met for dinner, caught up a bit and talked about plans, which first included fishing… at least for James, Barb and me.

James, Barb and I met the next morning and headed out to fish the Little River in GSMNP.  We met our guide, Chad Williams, at the “Y” in the park where you either go toward Gatlinburg or Cade’s Cove.  We had a great day of fishing in the park that’s chronicled in “Little River, Little Fish“.  As you can see in the gallery, James had a great day catching beautiful, small native rainbow trout.  Afterward, we headed back to the campground to hear how Janice’s day went and to head to dinner at the Trailhead Steak and Trout House in Townsend.   Great dinner and lots of fish stories and laughs to share, especially of James’ “river dance” and swimming session.  We even got a nice pic of James and Janice outside the restaurant with an old, spooky wagon.

While day one was all about the fishing, day 2 was all about touring GSMNP and the area.  We started inside the park, driving up to the Elkmont area which is rich with history, including the Appalachian Clubhouse pictured in the gallery above.  In the early 1900’s, the Little River Lumber Company began promoting this area as a resort.  A group of nearby civic leaders and businessmen created a clubhouse first as a sportsman’s club which morphed over time into a social club.  Its members included the elite of Knoxville.   The lumber company not only logged the area around Elkmont and the clubhouse, but also provided train service for members to travel to and from the area.

After we toured the Elkmont area, we slipped just outside the park into Gatlinburg.  After having a huge brunch at the Pancake Pantry, which was hopping at 10:45 in the morning, we took a few moments to explore town.  We visited some local stores before finding a nice spot for a quick Halloween/Fall pic in “the Village”.  Next, we headed up the mountain above town to view the damage done by the fires of a year ago.  You could still see the burned out homes, businesses and landscape and were amazed at how the fire jumped and moved about, scorching one spot before jumping over and ignoring others.

We took a different route back into the park, touring Pigeon Forge (TN), home of Dollywood.  The whole Gatlinburg / Pigeon Forge area reminded Barb and I of the Lake of the Ozarks area in southern Missouri.  As you drove down the main streets of each town, you saw restaurants, theaters, t-shirt shops, mini-golf courses, go-kart tracks, taffy shops, and more.  I’m sure both cities are bustling in summer with families, but this was late October and it was an “older” crowd, touring the area and enjoying the fall colors blanketing the mountains.

Our next stop was the Cade’s Cove section of GSMNP, one of the most visited spots in the park.   This valley was a thriving community in the early 1800’s with churches, mills and many families residing here.  Cade’s Cove contains more historic buildings than any other area of GSMNP.   Wildlife were abundant here as well, as we saw numerous turkey, deer and even a small bear jam (although the bear was already out of our sight).

When we got back to Townsend, we grabbed ice cream at the drive-in restaurant next to our campground, sitting out in the sun to keep warm.  Janice then led us to the river behind our campground causing James to grab his fly rod once again and yes, catching perhaps the smallest fish of the trip… maybe it was 2 inches long?  Maybe.  Afterward, we enjoyed dinner at a local Mexican restaurant, which for Tennessee, was actually pretty good.

Our last morning consisted of packing up, getting the SaraLinda ready to roll, and making a drive to the entrance to GSMNP for our obligatory picture in front of the park sign.  We had such a great time with James and Janice and are already looking forward to our next adventure with them.  This area of Tennessee is one we’ll be returning to visit again… great fishing, beautiful scenery and most importantly, great friends for sharing it all.  Thanks James and Janice!

We absolutely love fishing small rivers inside national parks so when we realized the “prongs” of Little River we’d be fishing were inside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP), we were excited.  What made it even more exciting was having James and Janice Kelley join us in Townsend, TN for our time in and around the park.

We met our guide, Chad Williams, of The Smoky Mountain Angler at the “Y” just inside GSMNP.  We’d already “wadered up”so after talking about our day, we headed up toward Tremont, and a prong of the Little River.   When Chad picked a good spot for us both to pull over, we parked the cars and hiked across a bridge to some holes just downstream.

Given that we were wade fishing a small stream, we were spread out on the river, sometimes out of sight of one another.  Chad did a great job of finding good looking water for each of us and within a short time, we were all catching beautiful, small, wild rainbow trout.  We would “creek stomp” to another hole, usually upstream, and more often than not hook into at least one more of these native fish.

After a great morning of catching Little River little rainbows, we headed to the main prong of the river to see if we could hook into something a bit bigger.  We scrambled down steep hillsides, did a bit of bushwhacking, and carefully navigated slippery boulders in the river, but, never could find that “big one”.  Barb and I hooked into a few, but James lived up to his fly fishing nickname, “Hot Stick” as he continued to catch several small rainbows in each hole he explored.   After a great day stompin’ around in the “prongs” of the Little, we headed back to the campground to meet up with Janice and head to the steakhouse.

We had the pleasure of floating and fishing the Hiwassee with Jeff Sharpe of Southeastern Anglers, and we were about to meet up with him again, this time to fish the Tellico.  Our meeting spot was the local Hardee’s in Tellico Plains, which was really hopping on a Sunday morning at 9am.  We grabbed biscuits for breakfast and headed up the Cherohala Skyway along the Tellico River.  At River Road, the Tellico splits off the Skyway, so we did as well, traveling up River Road right beside the river.

This is a “creek stompin” kind of river, with boulders strewn about, small pocket water and some deep plunge pools.  We hit a spot where the North River joins the Tellico, fishing some of the swift pockets before heading upstream.  We stopped at a gorgeous plunge pool and on one of my first casts of a nymph rig, my strike indicator went down.  When I pulled on the line to see if it was a fish or bottom, it just stuck there.  I assumed it was bottom and tugged it a bit more and it came out… Whew!  But not so fast Jeff said… and of course, when we ran it through that exact spot numerous times, it never got stuck again… so… it was likely a very big fish.  I would love to have seen it, but not this day and off we went.

The road above us was closed near the fish hatchery due to a plane crash that had occurred in early October.  A Navy training plane with two aboard had crashed near the hatchery and the road we were on was closed about two miles below it along the river.  We came to the barricade in the road and decided to park and walk up a ways to check things out.  We again found some nice pocket water and began to pull a few fish out, nice ones too.  Jeff had a glimmer in his eye when he recommended we go have lunch and come back up above the barricade after lunch.

As we were walking out, just past the barricade, a couple of guys pulled up beside us and asked us how fishing was going.  Jeff told them that the fishing up above the barricade wasn’t going well but down lower on the river was good.  He was trying to control his smile as he gave this advice to the two guys in the Jeep, knowing that fishing upstream was turning on.

After a great lunch of smoked chicken, potato salad, beans, and, yes again, Apple pie, we headed back to the barricade, parked, and started walking upstream.  This time, we walked further than before and found a long run below a patch of swift water.  Jeff indicated he wanted to go down and look at it first, but Barb and I couldn’t resist and followed him down.  As we all peered out into the water, we saw several fish, let’s say three or four, hanging out right below where we were standing.

In our best stealth mode, Jeff and I hiked about 30 feet below the fish, carefully stepped into the stream, crossed it and very quietly slid back upstream to a spot where we could cast to those three or four fish.  After getting our dry/dropper rig set…. a parachute adams with a tactical pheasant tail dropper, I started making casts toward the fish.  BOOM… fish on… next cast….  BOOM fish on… next cast…. well, you get the picture.  The run we were standing in was full of fish.

I fished the hole for a while before coaxing Barb out to fish it a while as well.  Amazingly, we fished the hole for quite a while using only that same parachute adams and same pheasant tail nymph.  We caught one on the adams and as folks in certain parts of Georgia say…. “I don’t believe I said” how many fish we caught on the pheasant tail.  Put it this way, it was enough that we used the “E” word to describe the day…. “Epic!”

When finally, the pheasant tail nymph was a down to a bead, a hook and a few scraggly strands of fibers, a fish took it and we broke off.  It was a sign to call it a day.  When we got back to our cabin, we sat down with Jeff to chat about our day on the Tellico.  You won’t want to miss this video which details our “E” day on the Tellico.

When Barb and I arrived at our meeting spot to fish the Hiwassee, we met Charlie, who was running the shuttle for our guide.  As we were sharing stories about the river, Charlie said, “Do you hear it?”  In this case, the “it” was a train coming our way.  Our meeting place turned out to be a boat launch located under a train bridge.  As the train was passing by, my attention shifted to the river.  I’m not really sure what I’d imagined for the Hiwassee, but I was surprised at how wide it truly was.  What I wasn’t surprised about were the rapids that could be seen upstream and downstream of  the boat launch.  I’d read about how much fun people have whitewater rafting/kayaking on the Hiwassee, but we were there to fish.

A moment later, our guide arrived pulling a drift boat behind which made us happy.  We’re much more comfortable in drift boats than in rubber rafts.   Out popped Jeff Sharpe, our guide for the day from Southeastern Anglers, an outfitter based in Reliance, TN.  After introductions all around, we drove across the bridge and dropped into Reliance Fly and Tackle, a great little fly shop, deli, market and gathering place for local anglers.  Of course, Jeff and Charlie knew everyone inside, including a small group in a back corner enjoying coffee and conversation to start their day.  Jeff grabbed a few flies and off we went, upstream toward our put in spot.

As we drove upstream, along the bank of the Hiwassee, we couldn’t help but notice all the whitewater “stairs” of rapids.  Jeff talked about the rock structure that lines the river and how it produces the unique “challenges” to rowing the Hiwassee.  We dropped the boat in the water and waved goodbye to Charlie who was shuttling Jeff’s truck and trailer down to the Reliance boat launch.

As we started fishing, Jeff had Barb on a streamer rig and me on a nymph rig.  After Barb had landed a couple of fish and continued to get more bites, Jeff switched me onto a streamer/dropper rig as well.  There was only one generator working at the dam upstream as we started our day, but it was supplying enough water for us to fish the upper section of water.  We were having fun picking up a fish here and there as we dodged rocks, found good runs for fishing and went through some good rapids.

When it was time for lunch, Jeff rowed us back into a small creek that fed into the river, back to a picnic area tucked back in a beautiful spot.  Lunch with Jeff was a real treat as he personally had prepared a rotisserie chicken for us to enjoy.  He coupled that with hot backed beans, potato salad, various pickles, rolls and drinks… and then, apple pie for dessert.  We rarely eat this good on the river and really enjoyed it… and…. Charlie even stopped by to grab a quick bite with us.

We decided to do our “Guide Talk” with Jeff on the bank of this small creek and setup our tripod and camera to get ready.  When we finished the “Talk”, I noticed that the tripod legs were now underwater!

Jeff had told us that we were not just having lunch, but letting the river rise and catch up to us, as a second generator was turned on at the dam.  Sure enough, as we rowed back out to the main channel of the Hiwassee, it was a totally different river… LOTS more water, moving faster now.

We drifted downstream and noticed that Jeff was working even harder, navigating the river and putting us on fish.   As we continued fishing we spotted eagles soaring and fishing along with us.  We learned the most difficult of the rapids Jeff had to run were near the end of our float… Stairstep, Funnel and Devil Shoals Run.  We’d caught plenty of gorgeous fish, so we just sat back and enjoyed our run through these whitewater challenges.  Jeff did a great job of keeping us upright all the way to our takeout.

It was so much fun fishing and floating with Jeff on the Hiwassee that as we got out of the boat in Reliance, we were thrilled we’d see Jeff again in two days to fish the Tellico.  For now, enjoy our “Guide Talk” with Jeff on the Hiwassee River.

We’ve heard stories of the South Holston fishery; its numbers and size of the fish that reside there.  We met our guide for the day, head guide and namesake of the Champion Outfitters & Guide Service, Matt Champion, on a cold morning at the shop.  The fog was shrouding the river and keeping the temps in the low 30’s.  While we met at the shop at 9am, we really didn’t leave until 10, hoping to let the early risers head on down the river, and we’d have the river to ourselves.  It turned out, most everyone thought it was too cold to start early, so when we arrived at the boat ramp, we found several drift boats dropping into the river.   We waited our turn, and off we went.

Matt decided early on that we’d float the upper section of the river twice, taking a break for lunch in between.  We started landing rainbows even as Matt told us it was about a 70/30 split between browns and rainbows in the SoHo.  While the morning produced about an equal number of beautiful ‘bows and brownies, the afternoon turned brown.  The bite was definitely on as we landed browns consistently all afternoon.

We had a great time on the river with Matt and landed more fish than we could count.  At the end of the day, Barb and I both were nursing sore arms from fighting so many fish.  The South Holston is a fishery not to be missed.  When you go, make sure to give the shop a call and ask for Matt…. you might get Matt Champion or you might get Matt “Scooter” Gwynn…. in either case, you’ll have a great time on one of the Bristol area gems, the Watauga or South Holston.

Our first stop in Tennessee brought us to the Bristol area, home of one of the most famous NASCAR racetracks, and, home of two of the TU Greatest 100 Trout Streams, the Watauga and the South Holston.  Both rivers are tailwater fisheries with dams that generate power for the area.  The scheduling trick for the gang at the South Holston River Fly Shop / Champion Outfitters & Guides was which river would be generating, and hence, pumping water downstream, that would allow us to best float the river on which day.  Turned out, we hit the Watauga first.

We met our guide for the day, Matt “Scooter” Gwynn, at the fly shop on a foggy morning and headed for the river.  We put in at a spot where a couple of guys were trying to corral a bunch of leaves that had littered the boat launch.  We didn’t realize that sight was a harbinger of things to come.

We had a great morning fishing, catching several beautiful brown and rainbow trout.  As we broke for lunch, we noticed the weather changing as the wind picked up and the temperature cooled a bit.  The cooling was fine, but the wind began to blow even more leaves off the trees into the river.  As we set out after lunch, you could see leaves not just on the surface of the river, but, up and down the water column as well.  It was difficult casting and trying to keep our flies from  hooking leaves.  More importantly, it was equally difficult for the fish to even see our nymphs as they floated downstream  among the leaves.  Needless to say, fishing, or the “bite” as it’s called, turned off in the afternoon, but, we still hooked into a few fish.   The Watauga was a beautiful river with high cliffs and lots of fall colors (and did I mention…. leaves?).

We decided to try the GoPro in the truck “Guide Talk” with Scooter as we drove back after a great day on the Watauga.  We hope you enjoy his insights on the river, fishing and tips for a great day.