Eastern Fly Fishing

Good News from Pierce County’s Coulee Country
By Jeff Erickson

Considering the predominance of bad environmental news, it’s critical to acknowledge uplifting stories, the ones that don’t necessarily shine as brightly as theater marquees. Among the most positive recent developments for upper Midwest fly anglers is the inspiring conservation and public access work on western Wisconsin’s Rush River.
   The Rush has long been one of the finest trophy brown trout streams in the Midwest, but it has been plagued by haphazard natural reproduction and access conflicts. In recent years, not only has natural brown trout reproduction swelled, but wild native brook trout have also made a comeback, which indicates that better conservation practices have improved water quality and lowered water temperatures.
   Just as exciting, a generous landowner recently donated extensive private river frontage to a hardworking local sporting group committed to public access. The saga brings to mind a sagacious observation by anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

 

A Large, Diverse, and Fertile Watershed
Dozens of miles long and encompassing 290 square miles, the Rush River watershed drains rolling farmland between Saint Paul, Minnesota, and Menomonie, Wisconsin. The trout water starts where the stream turns south from Interstate 94 south of Baldwin, Wisconsin, and picks up additional flows from cold-water tributaries. By the time it winds past the hamlets of Martell and El Paso in Pierce County, it has hit its prime, looping through forest and pasture as it cuts a scenic coulee through the nutrient-rich limestone of the unglaciated Driftless Region. Although it becomes warmer and siltier farther downstream, it continues to hold trout—mixed with smallmouth bass—nearly to its junglelike delta on the Mississippi River, near Maiden Rock.
   Because the Rush is located approximately 35 miles due east of Saint Paul, it attracts considerable attention from both locals and Twin Cities fly anglers, who are within striking distance for day trips. The main choice often facing these fortunate folks is whether to fish the Rush or hit the better-known Kinnickinnic River to the west, near River Falls.
   While these two rivers are associated because of their proximity, they present very different opportunities. Fed by a prodigious upwelling of icy spring water, the Kinnickinnic and its tributaries harbor dense populations of brook and brown trout, but most of them—especially in the upper reaches—are pan-size. The Rush, on the other hand, runs warmer in the summer and colder in the winter. It shelters a lower overall density of trout but holds more large fish, which fatten up on abundant crayfish, leeches, and sculpins.
   Access to the Rush’s best water is facilitated by a healthy number of bridges, including those at US Highways 10 and 63, State Route 72, and various roads maintained by the county and towns.
   According to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) trout fishing regulations, permission is required to cross private land to access water, but “as long as you keep your feet wet, you may walk along the bed of the stream, fish, swim, or boat in any navigable lake or stream.” The WDNR further declares that “a waterway is navigable if it has a bed and banks and it is possible to float a canoe or other small craft . . . even if only during spring floods.”
   Base flow at the Rush’s mouth is approximately 130 cubic feet per second, sufficient to float a canoe. In fact, the river ranks among the larger trout streams in the Driftless Region and is expansive enough to create more casting space than is typically found in the area’s intimate creeks. Prime reaches offer an enticing mix of riffles, runs, and pools—something for every taste. Some of the biggest holes are so deep they can excite an angler’s feverish imagination, suggesting that hook-jawed leviathans lurk in bottomless havens.

 

Driftless Redemption:
A Conservation Success Story
As with many Driftless Region streams, the Rush River pulsed with sizable native brook trout in the 19th century. An evocative early account of the region by Oliver Gibbs, Jr. (in the oddly titled Lake Pepin Fish-Chowder, in Letters to General Spinner, 1869), described the Rush this way:
There is good trouting on this stream for twenty miles, through a country mostly wild and very beautiful. The stream is rapid, with many deep, surging pools, and with gravelly shores where one can walk and fish without going into the water. . . . The valley is narrow, and the bluffs high and romantic—broken by ravines and ledges, and covered with hardwood timber, with an occasional pine or cedar. . . . In June, 1866, I caught in one day . . . thirteen trout before breakfast, averaging half a pound each, a twenty-four pound basket full before dinner, and some thirty more before dark. . . . The patient and skillful angler will sometimes find trout in the Rush River weighing four or five pounds, and many that will weigh two pounds.
   As the region was settled, logged, and plowed for agriculture, the exceptional fishing faded amid devastating erosion and floods of silt. According to a 2002 study by WDNR biologists Martin Engel and William Michalek, Jr., after a century of settlement, “the Rush River and its tributaries had undergone a dramatic transformation from pristine, forested cold-water trout streams to degraded marginal trout streams often requiring trout stocking to provide
recreational fisheries.”
   As was true across the upper Midwest during the 1930s, a strong government focus on improving soil and water conservation slowly turned the tide of resource destruction. But the damage was so severe that the Rush’s rejuvenation took decades. Engel and Michalek noted: “Beginning around the 1960’s, trout populations began to redevelop through stocking. Today, watershed conditions . . . have improved to the point that natural reproduction of trout is common in the tributaries and portions of the main stem of the Rush River.”
   Trends from the reemergence in the 1960s to the present have been positive. Engel and Michalek reported: “The overall outlook for stream quality in the Rush River watershed is good. . . . Trout densities have improved throughout the river to provide one of the best trout fishing resources in the Midwest and nation.” The most current survey information provided by Engel shows that the mean quantity of Rush River browns between 2000 and 2012 was 2,605 per mile. Browns are well established in the river from the Centerville Springs, near the Saint Croix–Pierce County line, to several miles south of the US Highway 10 bridge, with densities highest in the middle reaches.
   Because of the increase in brown trout reproduction, the WDNR eliminated all stocking about five years ago and plans to upgrade the Rush’s Pierce County reach to a stellar Class I rating. One Rush River survey site has the highest density of “preferred size” brown trout in the state, and about half of the Rush falls above the 95th percentile for “memorable fish.” It also offers some of the best odds of catching a 20-inch brown; specimens weighing in at more than 10 pounds are possible, but anglers need to be expert, lucky, or both to capture such beasts.
   Brook trout reproduce naturally in tributaries such as Lost and Cave Creeks, helping to supply the Rush with wild brookies. Surveys shows that Rush brook trout increased from 201 to 646 per mile between 2000 and 2012. Historically, stocked rainbows were also found in the river, but—as in most Driftless Region streams—they failed to establish natural populations and are no longer planted.
   In spite of the good news, the hard-won gains could be reversed by a litany of threats, from climate change and poorly planned development to the loss of government-sponsored set-aside acreage on marginal land. According to Engel and Michalek, “If done without regard to the health of the watershed, such intensive [development and agricultural] activity . . . has the potential to reverse gains made during the past 50–75 years of soil and water conservation practices.”

 

Uncle Bud’s Legacy:
Access to the Rush
As angling improved on the Rush, increased fishing led to conflicts with private landowners, who own much of the river frontage. In an era when prime, private trout water is often locked up, the Rush story is an inspiring exception.
   For many years, one of the Rush’s best reaches was owned by Herbert Koch, a savvy bachelor businessman known as “Uncle Bud” to his adoring nieces and nephews. In a heartwarming April 6, 2008, story by Twin Cities’ Star-Tribune outdoor writer Dennis Anderson, one of Bud’s nephews—Jim Koch—commented on his uncle’s generosity: “He always said to us, the nieces and nephews, ‘If you ever need anything, you come see Uncle Bud.’ ” In line with this beneficence, Bud always allowed public angling access on his Rush property—which I enjoyed in my younger days. But because of its beauty, excellent water, and proximity to the Twin Cities, there was concern that the land could be ripe for development.
   When Uncle Bud passed away in 2005 at the age of 79, his will instructed nephew Jim Koch and others to execute his surprising final wishes, which were explained by Koch’s sister, Pat Stoneberg: “In his will he gave us 15 years to find an appropriate nonprofit group to give the land to. My uncle wanted to see the land preserved. But he also wanted to ensure it could be used by all kinds of people, in different ways. He wanted the land to be enjoyed.”
   Meeting their deadline with 12 years to spare, the small group selected the Eau Galle Rush River Sportsman’s Club, which had been a steward of the stream for decades but had never previously owned property. A riverside ceremony in 2008 commemorated the land transfer, and in his story Anderson observed that “the group is a kind of benevolent society to all things good.”
   The 148.5-acre property—now known as the Koch Family Trust Land—covers a mile of the Rush, running from the outskirts of El Paso along Fisherman’s Road downstream to the bridge on North View Road. This reach loops alluringly through meadows and a hardwood forest below limestone bluffs, chunks of which have tumbled into the water to create excellent cover.
   According to a pleased Engel—whose agency has labored to improve Rush access for decades—“the donation of the Koch property was a major win for trout anglers.” But Uncle Bud’s story is not the end of the good news on the Rush. In recent years, several more miles of public access have been assured, including nine new fishing easements purchased by the WDNR near Martell and El Paso. Additionally, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers acquired a half mile of river frontage on the west side of the river just north of State Route 35—with the goal of restoring the original forested floodplain—and the West Wisconsin Land Trust purchased 1.8 acres with 600 feet of riverfront just south of the Martell bridge. That parcel, purchased with state grant money, is slated for a walk-in and handicapped-accessible fishing access.
   When I returned to the Rush last spring, I found that the Eau Galle Rush River Sportsman’s Club has made great strides in making Uncle Bud’s generous gift accessible to the public with a parking area, picnic facilities, a handicapped-accessible fishing pier, and trails fanning out along the river for anglers, hikers, and other outdoor enthusiasts. On that busy weekend, the forest floor was carpeted by wildflowers, and giant swallowtail butterflies drifted through fragrant air laced with bird songs. Winding freely in this wonderland, the Rush was running clear and perfect through the land Uncle Bud once loved. As visitors hiked, rode horseback, picnicked, and frolicked, a fly angler in the shallows of a quiet downstream bend worked the evening rise with the patience of a heron.

 

A Rush River Game Plan
Fishing strategies and hatches in a watershed as large and diverse as the Rush depend on water temperatures, gradients, and other stream characteristics. Overall, though, the Rush drainage was made for light wands. Unless you’re planning on hurling large streamers or crayfish patterns—not a bad idea at times—there’s little need to bring anything heavier than a 5-weight rod, with lighter sticks excelling on the tributaries. Under normal conditions, plan on using mostly 5X to 7X tippets, smaller flies, and considerable stealth. An upstream approach works best on the smaller water and tributaries, although the middle and lower main stem are large enough to allow downstream swings.
   Generally, Rush River hatches mirror other Driftless streams. Among the most important regional hatch categories are various species of caddisflies, Blue-Winged Olives, Hendricksons, and Sulphurs.
   Amid occasionally psychotic spring weather and flows, Dark Hendricksons and Blue-Winged Olives jump-start the early-season surface action in March and April. Cover your mayfly bases by bringing an ample selection of nymphs, emergers, duns, cripples, and spinners. But you can keep it simple, too: Adamses, Pheasant Tails, and Hare’s Ears will take plenty of fish. Spring midges appear, too, and continue to hatch throughout the year. Also season-long, scud and sow bug patterns
pay dividends.
   Grannoms in April and May trigger lively caddisfly action. While stoneflies don’t play the prominent role they do in brawling western rivers, Little Black Stoneflies can provide early-season excitement; a black Elk Hair Caddis or Prince Nymph is an acceptable imitation.
   One of the best times to explore the region is late May into mid-June. Torrential gully washers notwithstanding, the water is usually good and Sulphurs are taking flight in the afternoons and evenings, with caddisfly action rounding out the day. Various mayflies also appear on the late-spring and early-summer menu. A supply of parachutes and Comparadun patterns will boost your odds, especially on clear, flat reaches. Sparkle Duns with Z-lon tails/shucks and CDC emergers tied on scud hooks perform like champs. Little Yellow Stoneflies might also emerge from June into mid-July.
   Summer afternoons on the Rush can be tropical, so focus on mornings, evenings, shaded areas, and colder tributaries. Morning Trico spinner falls provide hookups, with terrestrials later in the day. Ant, beetle, cricket, and inchworm patterns take trout, even during midday heat, particularly in the shadows. Ants and beetles are among the most dependable surface patterns after hatches have dwindled; they even work when more realistic imitations fail during an emergence. Sometimes neglected, damselfly and dragonfly patterns can be effective, as well as cranefly and dobsonfly (hellgrammite) nymphs.
   Tiny Blue-Winged Olives afford a bridge between summer and fall. If a size 22 or smaller dun doesn’t work, try a Rusty Spinner. Early fall is an enticing time to visit, as the hardwoods explode with color and hoppers and other terrestrials still supplement the fading Trico and caddisfly hatches, while autumn Baetis—reliable bookends to the dry-fly
action—reassert themselves.
   Fall (or early spring) also provides an excellent chance to provoke a corpulent brown out from a deep pool or undercut bank with a streamer. If you want to tangle with some of the river’s largest trout, pick a low-light, midweek, shoulder-season day, when there won’t be much traffic and the monsters are on the prowl. Rig up a 6- or 7-weight rod with a short, stout leader and tie on a crayfish pattern, leech imitation, Woolly Bugger, or bunny pattern. Work the holes, banks, and cover; be prepared to have your rod ripped out of your hands by a fish with serious rage-management issues.

 

Going Driftless:
A Pierce County Cornucopia
In the shadow of a major metropolitan area, Wisconsin’s Pierce County offers some of the country’s best near-urban trout fly fishing in a surprisingly bucolic landscape. In addition to the Rush and the Kinnickinnic, nearby streams worth considering include the Trimbelle and Eau Galle Rivers and Plum and Pine Creeks.
   Better water quality, temperatures, and habitat on the Rush mirror recent conservation improvements on streams throughout Pierce County. According to the WDNR, the number of trout venues has risen to 47 streams comprising 159 miles, with prime (Class I) streams now accounting for 47.7 miles, and another 108 miles rated as Class II.
   Bisected by the Kinnickinnic, River Falls makes a good base for exploring the area. Lodging and local guides are available at the Kinni Creek Lodge & Outfitters (see Notebook). Anglers who are also NFL football fans should be aware that the busy college town hosts the Kansas City Chiefs’ summer training camp in August—a perfect time for terrestrial mania.
   In Pierce County, many of the roads hug the river valleys. Topping the list is the legendary Great River Road, which crosses the Rush River’s mouth while following the Mississippi from its source to New Orleans. If you drive along Old Man River across the county line and land in the village of Pepin, you’ll find one of the Midwest’s best rural restaurants overlooking the waterfront: the Harbor View Café (www.harborviewpepin.com) offers terrific locally raised food with zero pretension. Once you’re settled in, raise a thankful toast to the hardworking folks who collaborated to restore and share the Rush River.

 

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