Sometimes you go fishing to get away from everything and everyone—Patagonia if you've got the coin, your local backcountry if you’ve got the tent. Other times you want to kick it in a trout town full of good food, local drink, and s. fontinalis graffiti in the alleys. If it’s the latter you seek, and you live somewhere between Paradise Valley and the Poconos, you’re probably within driving shot of one of my very favorite trout towns, Viroqua, Wisconsin. Prior to this year, Wisconsin's Driftless was a seven-month fishery, but due to recent legislation the state's trout business has joined the likes of neighbors Iowa, Minnesota and Michigan in something more closely approximating a year-round fishing season—January 2 through October 15. Coupled with the expectations of a mild winter, this means you don't need to stash your four weight for the winter, but you do need to tie up some midge imitations, because dry fly fishing to ring in the New Year just got a little more possible.
Where to fish
This is the easy part, so I won’t go into details. Whether you’re in Wisconin, Minnesota or Iowa, trout are basically everywhere in the Driftless, and access points in Wisconsin are especially plentiful in the form of clearly identified DNR easements. Locating fish in hill country is simply a matter of grabbing a DeLorme Gazeteer and exploring those squiggly blue lines. Find one that isn’t named Wisconsin or Mississippi and you’ve found trout.
Where to gear up
For all your fishing and guiding needs there's the Driftless Angler, a charming main-street fly shop run by the exceedingly knowledgable Mat and Geri Wagner. The shop stocks rods and lines geared specifically for the area, including plenty of rods in sub 9-foot sizes (my favorite Driftless stick is my 7'6" Scott G2). Since the area is replete with talented artists, the shop also purveys some of the cooler hats, t-shirts, and artwork I've seen in a fly shop. There's fly tying staples, too, but for something more unusual try Ewetopia Fiber Shop, located just a block away.
And if the area experiences significant snowpack prior to your trip, a pair of snowshoes will make traveling up and down the banks a good deal easier--rent or buy a pair at Bluedog Cycles.
Where to stay
There are a variety of different types of places to choose from in Viroqua, ranging from your typical hotels to rustic, traditionally-built cabins and well-appointed B&Bs. For a comfortable apartment right in downtown Viroqua, there are a few different private spreads to choose from at 217 On Main. Or try the Heritage Inn Bed and Breakfast if you want a posher pre-spring creek morning. For more typical hotel fare there's the Olde Towne Inn just north of town on highway 14. And if you’d like to stay within walking distance of the rivers, a number of Bohemian Valley outfits feature traditional Driftless trapper cabins refurbished for the modern angler. I really like Coulee Cabins, which has several structures that accommodate both large and small parties. Most importantly, it's situated right next to Timber Coulee, one of the more densely populated wild trout fisheries in North America.
Where to eat
Viroqua has been experiencing a farm-to-table renaissance in recent years, and nowhere are the fruits of the movement more clear and delicious than at the Driftless Café. The café, which features live music some evenings, is the quintissential organic restaurant, with a menu of locally sourced produce that changes by the week. From it’s afternoon burgers to evening concoctions like duck breast with strawberries, it’s a place that celebrates the vortex of fresh flavors that the Driftless has become.
To go back a bit further in time, the restaurant at the Old Towne Inn gives you an old-school glimpse into Wisconsin’s supper club culture, complete with a sprawling salad bar, prime rib specials and endless Friday fish fries. Begin your meal with a Wisconsin classic, the Brandy Old-Fashioned, and polish it off with their trademark Pink Squirrel, an Amaretto-infused ice cream dessert drink named after a pregnant scud imitation. Drinks are strong, so plan accordingly.
The beer also comes in classic and modern flavors. You can fill your cooler with days-of-yore macrobrews like LaCrosse or Lost Lake, or sample craft beers from the Driftless Brewing Company at places like Dave's Pizza and Pub.
Once you get out of town and into trout country, keep your eyes peeled for hand-scrawled signs directing you to Amish bakeries on Friday and Saturdays (Sunday you’ve got no excuse but to fish). Like the better trout water, these tend to exist off the beaten path. Bring cash, and your own coffee.
Lastly, if you’re looking to fill the cooler with some healthy food to eat during the day, the Viroqua People’s Food Co-op has both a hot and cold food bar of local, organic produce and fresh roasted coffee.
Other things to do
If you're in for a longer stay and want to check out what else this part of the Driftless has to offer, there’s hiking and some striking high-country vistas to be had at Wildcat Mountain State Park (which, unsurprisingly, also happens to be surrounded by good trout water). And if you’re looking for a WWI-era hog scale or maybe just an unusual shopping experience, the Trail’s End store, known to locals as the “Amish Walmart,” is worth a visit just to browse around, provided your car can make it up the hill (somehow the horses can). As with the Amish bakeries, hours of operation are limited to Fridays and Saturdays.
Last but not least, as a writer I’d be remiss not to recommend a visit to Driftless Books and Music, a self-proclaimed slow-media emporium that takes up every inch of an old tobacco warehouse. It's quite possibly the biggest used bookstore you've ever seen. And everything in it pairs well with an after-river beer.
And there you have it. With a milder-than-usual winter predicted, you officially have no excuse to let your casting skills deteriorate before spring. Instead, bust out the four weight, the snow shoes, the hot thermos of buttered rum. There’s a whole lot of trout in them thar hills, and you’ve now got the whole winter to chase them.