Fishing along the Driftless: Primal Beauty and Local Culture
There’s a line in the sand. Actually, it’s straight through Sand County Wisconsin, an area that designates the exact spot where the glacial drift stopped. This is dramatic landscape – where rolling grassy low hills meet ancient elevations, swinging up 1600 feet marked by rock formations and dotted with streams and coulees filled with fish. The Driftless line runs north from Madison to Eau Claire Wisconsin through deeply carved river valleys with formations that date to the Paleozoic Age.
The Driftless areas terrain is pure and peculiar. I refer to the Sand County Almanac because it’s significant to this story. It’s significant because Aldo Leopold, an American ecologist and environmentalist of the 1930s and 40s, author of the Sand County Almanac, and the first to be granted professorship of Game Management at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, made a big impact on preserving the Driftless Area. Chef Eric Mish (rhymes with fish) of the Driftless Café in Viroqua, points out that Leopold, by recognizing the importance of balance in nature, may well have saved the rivers, brooks and coulee’s in The Driftless Area. He drew particular attention to the area’s unique and special natural assets at a time when other areas in the midwest were being decimated by Mankind’s hand.
Viroqua’s charm, for me, is reflected in the perfect complexions and honest smiles on the faces of young wait staff at the Driftless Café. I did a double take when I first saw the twenty somethings coming in to start their shift, just as Eric, Kip Veith, (our fishing guide) and I settled in for dinner after a day fishing on Timber Coulee, a stream just north of town. It is one of several streams within a ten minute drive from the Café. I imagine the kids in Viroqua live a quiet life in the heart of America’s dairy land. Their diet heavy in locally harvested and preserved fruit and vegetables, hormone free pork and chicken from the area is an asset to their well-being. I’m inclined to believe that the course of young life here follows a line home with family on either end of town. This American dream is evident in Viroqua. If you ever have a chance to see the smiles that I saw on that Tuesday night in late May, you’d have similar thoughts.
Not without it’s quirks, as any farming community might possess, the patchwork of dairy farms and country homes, hand painted “honey and syrup for sale” signs scatter the landscape. I was surprised to note that commerce on the edge of these farm fields is out of the question on Sundays, due to the Amish order. Traffic is dotted with horse and buggies while the children play in their yards with balls and sticks instead of in the house on iPads and computers. I’d like to think that even though the entire community doesn’t live to the Amish code, their peaceful approach rubs off and the community benefits from this humble example.
Another “tales of on the road” experience for me was engaging a room at the Mayfly Lodge, a small fishermans’ accommodation built on a hill just off of Highway O overlooking the Bad Axe River. On my first call I was surprised to hear the message, “This is Steve, you can leave me a message, but I’m not always here”. After sending an email and calling a second time, I finally heard back from the innkeeper’s assistant and felt secure in booking the Mayfly Lodge cabin.
A few weeks later, as I approached the Bad Axe river on Highway O with a band of fishermen and photographers in tow, there was no sign of the Mayfly after driving back and forth across the River three times even though our GPS indicated we had arrived at the address. Finally we discovered a driveway with a huge pine pole arch. No sign, just an arch. Feeling less than confident, all four vehicles, including mine, hitched up with the Yellowstone camper, all drove up the very steep driveway and reached the lodge at the top. As I stepped out of my truck, I was greeted by a cautious man in a rocking chair who looked surprised to see us. I introduced myself and asked if he knew we were coming and he responded “I’m Steve, I had no idea you guys were coming but if you’re in the book, we’ll rent the cabin to you”. We sighed with relief until Steve interjected “you can rent the cabin but you can’t park here and you gotta go back down that hill with your vehicles”.
After all that, we settled in and the quaint cabin seemed perfect, with its high beamed ceiling and two small rooms with double beds and a cot. We quickly dropped our bags and headed for La Crosse to get acquainted and discuss our fishing plans for the morning over dinner. Chef Mish had chosen a perfect spot in La Crosse, an old town with a new purpose, as exemplified by The Charmant Hotel which was converted from an old industrial candy factory into a 4 star luxury boutique hotel on the edge of the Mississippi river. We had a delicious meal of rustic French inspired cuisine at Charmant (the restaurant) with a breathtaking view of the Mississippi.
On our way home after a thunderstorm soaked the region, we traveled along country roads darkened terrain, through clouds that looked like giant balls of cotton candy hanging over the road—a true adventure with a group of guys that until that afternoon had only talked on the phone. As we arrived back at the cabin, we made our way up the hill in the dark making it to the door just in time as the heavens opened up and the sound of rain pounded on the roof. If only the beds had sheets….. it would have been just perfect, but close was good enough!
In the morning we rose to a quiet cabin, no more rain just a thick band of clouds hanging over the valley below the cabin. I took an early walk and noticed that the Bad Axe river was now running as dark as a coffee milkshake. When our guide Kip arrived, he quickly directed us to clear water in an area north of Viroqua on Timber Coulee – it helps to have local knowledge after the rain.
Knowing that our window of dry air might soon change to rain, Kip suggested that we make a streamside brunch. Good thing Eric had packed a perfect kit of locally harvested pheasant mushrooms and morels, along with some spring garlic, Marsala wine and heavy cream.
Shortly after getting our campfire going, he had the cast iron skillet to temperature, added a few tablespoons of butter and then the garlic. While toasting slices of baguette, Eric mixed in the sliced mushrooms to the garlic, then the wine and cream and within minutes the crew was enjoying a perfect mushroom ragout garnished with watercress from the river.
Once on the water, “Mish the fish” was hooked up in minutes with a “brookie”, a beautiful 10 inch trout on a small black streamer, under a bridge in the shade. The Coulee was thin, running fast and relatively clear. It went that way for most of the day. My new friend handles a fly rod almost as skillfully as he works a knife in the restaurant kitchen. This chef was in his other element as his fly line was shooting to targets up and down river, across to deep pools and just shy of the bank. Finally, after several hours of patient guiding, switching streamers and leading me to new pools, Kip finally watched me set the hook on a brookie as my cast found a sweet spot just above a cut in the bank thirty feet up river. In the misty rain of a Monday afternoon, I retired from the Coulee content in knowing that the Driftless area yields few trout to the newcomer, even on a rainy day.
Driftless Area: May 23, 2017 | Viroqua, Wisconsin | Eric Mish, chef at Driftless Café | Kip Vieth, guide