The Heartland's Hottest Hatches

The Heartland's Hottest Hatches

Plan your attack for seven months of the best bug action in the Midwest.



For many years I've nursed a fantasy to spend seven months on the road chasing the best hatches across the Midwest. Yes, that's right-the Midwest. My fly-fishing fantasy does not have a Montana vignette; truth be told, I prefer Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri and South Dakota, and when we're done, we'll compare notes to see who had the better fishing.

Don't believe me? Consider this: Wisconsin alone has more miles of trout streams than any state except Alaska. Tack one up for the Midwest.

Most of the hatches listed here are Read More »events I've experienced myself at one time or another, but I've never strung all of them end-to-end in one glorious, match-the-hatch, fly-fishing binge. I admit that might be a bit much-seven months spent driving along endless fields of corn and soybeans might wear on a guy's sanity. But any one of these hatches is impressive enough to warrant a trip to the Heartland to investigate yourself.

Here is my month-by-month breakdown of where I'd head if I wanted to find the best hatches in the Midwest.

Bonus Hatch

Beating the late winter Blues
During winter much of the Midwest is a frozen landscape that only an ice fisherman could love. I'm eager to hit the water by late February or early March after a long winter tying flies, and fortunately there is one early hatch that I count on to beat my winter blues. On sunny days when the snow begins to melt on the stream banks, I head towards the Root River near Lanesboro, Minnesota, or perhaps the Rush River in Pierce County, Wisconsin. These two streams are larger and swifter than most other streams in the region, and perfect for these early stoneflies.

Little black stoneflies can start hatching as early as February, providing the first real hatch of the year. (Sorry, it's hard for me to consider midges a "hatch," because they emerge throughout the year.) Think smaller than usual; as these aren't the pterodactyl "salmonflies" of Western fame. We're talking about dark brownish-gray stoneflies in sizes 10 to 18. Stonefly nymphs crawl ashore before they hatch, so much of the action is below the surface for which I use a beadhead Prince Nymph, in sizes 12 or 14. For dry fly aficionados, a dark Stimulator in size 14 or 16 is productive.
-Chad Mason

April - Iowa Caddis

On the limestone spring creeks of northeastern Iowa, small dark caddisflies hatch on warm April days when the trees begin to bud. This is the same case-building critter often called the Mother's Day Caddis (Brachycentrus) out West. The pupae are bright green, size 14; the adults are charcoal gray, sizes 16 to 18. During the hatch, it's hard to beat Gary LaFontaine's Sparkle Pupa or a dark Elkhair Caddis.

Some may find it amusing to list Iowa in a fly-fishing fantasy, but savvy anglers in this part of the country will tell you the Hawkeye State is no joke. The best streams for this hatch are French Creek and Waterloo Creek in Allamakee County, and they are as good as anything in the Midwest. Both have great public access, naturally reproducing populations of browns, rainbows and brook trout, and very light angling pressure on weekdays.

Sparkle Pupa
Hook: 100SP BL sizes 12 to 16
Thread: Black 8/0
Weight: Several wraps of fine lead wire-if weighted
Underbody: Caddis-green dubbing
Overbody: Green sparkle yarn
Head: Peacock herl or black ostrich herl

May - Michigan Mayflies Galore

They don't call them "mayflies" for nothing. May brings the classic hatches that make the stuff of fly-fishing lore, and no Midwestern trout fantasy would be complete without a trip to the Holy Waters of Michigan's Au Sable River.

Early May sees the last dwindling hatches of Hendricksons and Mahogany Duns mixing with the first emergences of March Browns and Large Sulphurs. As the month progresses, Little Sulphurs and Light Cahills begin to appear. By Memorial Day, you may be fishing over Gray Foxes and Eastern Green Drakes. Besides the hallowed Au Sable, northern Michigan boasts the Sturgeon, Rifle and Upper Manistee rivers, just to name a few. In western Michigan-a less famous but worthwhile destination-the Rogue and Muskegon rivers will keep you busy.

Light Cahill
Hook: Mustad 94840, size 14
Thread: 8/0 UNI-Thread, cream
Tail: Ginger hackle fibers
Body: Creamy-yellow dubbing
Wing: Wood duck flank,
Hackle: Light ginger

June - Hex Time

The giant Hexagenia limbata mayfly emerges under cover of darkness, beginning the first week of June, and provides some of the most epic angling I've ever encountered. Hexes hatch on rivers throughout the upper Midwest, but for its remoteness and number of large fish, I'd head to the remote Bibon Swamp section of the White River, near Mason, Wisconsin. This long stretch of fast, deep water is accessible only by canoe, and for anglers who make the day-long float, huge browns and abundant Hexes are almost a guarantee.

Another good option for the Hex hatch is Michigan's Manistee River (see map on page 33). This river is best fished by floating with a guide, even though it isn't a "wilderness" river by any means. It's big and that makes wading difficult.

My strategy for fishing a Hex hatch is to tie on a Hex dry as an indicator above a Hex nymph dropper. When it gets good and dark, I snip off the dropper to reduce tangles and cast by feel.

Hexagenia Nymph
Hook: Mustad 9672, size 6
Thread: 6/0, tan
Eyes: Strung black plastic beads
Tail: Pheasant tail fibers
Rib: Fine copper wire

July - Driftless Tricos

By mid-July, heat and humidity take their toll on the fishing, particularly in the middle of the day. Beat the heat by fishing early morning hatches of Tricorythodes mayflies. Certainly the "trico" is a ubiquitous bug, but nowhere have I found trico hatches as good as that offered by the Driftless Region, which straddles the borders of Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin. (See pages 30 and 31 for a trico photo.)

The trico hatches here can be so dense that the bugs seem like little clouds of dust in the morning's first shafts of sunlight. I've found tricos hatching in this region as early as the second week of July and lasting until Labor Day in most years.

Look for tricos on the following streams, to name just a few: Middle Branch Whitewater River near Elba, Minnesota; Beaver Creek near Caledonia, Minnesota; Big Green River near Fennimore, Wisconsin. Don't overlook tying on a size 18 or 20 Pheasant Tail during this hatch, although the standard spinner in sizes 20 to 24 will always be the bread-and-butter pattern.

Trico Spinner
Hook: Mustad 94859, size 22
Thread: 8/0 UNI-Thread, black
Tail: White Micro-fibbets, divided
Abdomen: Tying thread
Wings: White poly yarn
Thorax: Dyed beaver or synthetic dry fly dubbing, black.
Note: When you tie in the thorax, make a robust "chesty" profile

August - White Flies on the Prairie

The northeastern Wisconsin town of Gleason has dubbed itself the "Trout Fishing Capital of the World." The claim is not altogether ludicrous, given the town's proximity to the beautiful Prairie River. August evenings on the Prairie bring the fabled White Fly hatch. This husky mayfly (Ephoron leukon) runs about size 12 to 14. The hatch begins around sunset and continues into the night. Match it with a White Wulff, Irresistible other light-colored, highly buoyant pattern (see White Irresistible pattern here). I've found the dun stage to be most productive, but then again a lot of anglers swear by fishing during the spinner fall.

In addition to the Prairie River, northeastern Wisconsin boasts the Wolf, Eau Claire and Upper Plover rivers, plus Big Hay Meadow Creek, a fine tributary of the Prairie. The region has good public access and lots of wadeable fishing.

White Irresistible
Hook: Mustad 94840, size 12
Thread: 6/0, black
Tail: Moose body hairs
Body: White deer hair, spun and clipped
Wing: White poly yarn, upright and divided
Hackle: Grizzly
Note: This is a good pattern for the Ephoron leukon (White Fly or Coffin Fly)
hatch when high buoyancy is needed in rough water.

September - Black Hills Hoppers

In September, the aspens turn gold and the elk begin to bugle. These quintessentially Western spectacles are available in the Heartland, thanks to the Black Hills of South Dakota. Offering a taste of the Rockies in the Midwest, this picturesque region also boasts a variety of trout-fishing opportunities, yet receives little attention. I first fished "the Hills" in 1983, and my wife and I honeymooned there 10 years later, and I've often gone back.

Nothing exemplifies the Western experience like throwing a meaty grasshopper pattern on a meadow stream. For that reason-not to mention the elk and aspens-I would hit the Black Hills in September. With a Joe's Hopper or a tan Chernobyl Ant in size 8 or 10, I would prospect for trout lurking near the banks on Rapid Creek, Spearfish Creek, Castle Creek or Box Elder Creek. After that, I would head south to wade the waters of French Creek and Grace Coolidge Creek in Custer State Park, respecting the wild bison and giving them plenty of space.

Chernobyl Ant
Hook: Tiemco 5212, sizes 8 to 12
Thread: Tan 6/0
Underbody: Tan fly foam
Legs: Mottled tan rubber legs
Overbody: Dark brown Fly Foam
Indicator: Yellow Fly Foam
Note: You can tie this in a variety of attractor styles by using different foam colors and coloring the rubber legs.

October - The Sculpin Hatch in Missouri

In October the young sculpin "hatch" on Missouri's White River. These tiny sculpins, less than an inch long, are especially numerous in this large tailwater and the White's famously huge brown trout do not fail to notice. With an absurdly small (size 16) dark olive Woolly Bugger on a dead drift, I would sight-fish to leopard-spotted browns the size of sand sharks. If that didn't work, I would offer those browns a pale cream-colored scud pattern to mimic the shed carapaces of molted scuds, another prevalent late-autumn food. The hard part would be getting the fly past all those pesky 14- to 20-inch rainbows and into the mouth of a leg-length brown. The White River, where the world-record brown trout (40 pounds, 4 ounces) was caught, is a place where angling dreams do come true.

Hook: Mustad 3906B, size 14
Thread: 8/0 UNI-Thread, black
Tail: Olive marabou, pinched off with fingertips to equal body length
Body: Four ostrich herl plumes, twisted together and palmered over shank
Notes: This simple but deadly pattern was originated for the White River by Brett Rader of Chartered Waters in Hollister, Missouri. It works well during fall, and is better than a traditional Woolly Bugger in small sizes (12 to 16).


Fly shops and guides can be difficult to find in the Heartland, where fly fishers are a minority. (If you want to buy a new walleye boat, you'll have no problem, though.) Here are some good local fly-fishing contacts near the areas described here.
-Chad Mason

The Driftless Region
(Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa)
Bentley's Outfitters, Bloomington, Minnesota,
Iron River Trout Haus, Iron River, Wisconsin, (715) 372-4219

Western Michigan
Great Lakes Fly Fishing Company, Rockford, Michigan,

Northern Michigan
Au Sable Anglers, Mio, Michigan,
Hawkins Outfitters, Traverse City, Michigan,

Northeastern Wisconsin
Gander Mountain, Rothschild, Wisconsin,, (715) 355-5500

The White River (Missouri)
Chartered Waters, Hollister, Missouri,

The Black Hills
Dakota Anglers, Rapid City, South Dakota,