Here’s how to go about finding public access to state’s best trout waters

with Jim Furley |

This month, I want to pass on a few trout fishing tips and write about a question I was asked recently. A gentleman inquired, “Where can I go trout fishing in Wisconsin?” The Wisconsin general inland trout (catch and keep) season opens on Saturday, May 2, so now is a good time to explore this question.

My first stop was to talk with trout fishing author, public speaker and angler, Len Harris, of Richland Center, WI. Harris fishes southwest Wisconsin. The brook and brown trout streams of Crawford, Richland and Vernon counties are his stomping grounds. These waters are surrounded by stunning beauty and are a short drive from the Illinois border and a reasonable drive from other cities.

I know this area of Wisconsin well. Our family has a get-away cabin nestled in the scenic hills of Crawford County. Since a small child, I have spent many weekends here in what is called the Kickapoo Valley.

Harris was born in the small town of Gays Mills. His boyhood home was a stone’s throw from the Kickapoo River. The West Fork of the meandering Kickapoo is one of many popular trout fishing streams in the area.

Harris loves to fish and prefers “spin fishing” for trout compared to using a fly rod with imitation flies. He enjoys the challenge of a big, intelligent brown trout. He casts large spinners to intimidate smaller fish. Each time Harris dons his trout vest, he hopes a fiercely fighting brown of over 20 inches finds his net. Many have.

If you’re new to trout fishing, Harris offers these trout catching tips:

“A majority of trout are looking upstream for their next meal,” Harris said. “You don’t drop the spinner or fly on their head, you put it above them and bring it down like food comes down naturally. If you drop it on their head, you’re going to spook them.”

Harris also suggests wearing drab clothing. He said to wear clothes that match the environment around you so trout are not alerted to your presence.

When targeting big fish, Harris said, “I always assess a hole (in the stream) and figure out where the best lay is, where the food comes down. The best lay is where the biggest trout is going to be. Big trout don’t lay at the back of the hole, they are not the subordinates in the hole.”

As far as where to fish, Harris said southwest Wisconsin has, “scads of public streams.” In Crawford and Vernon County, Tainter Creek has a lot of public access. Pine and Plum Creek in Crawford County do as well. Much of this public access was purchased by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) through the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program.

The best way to access these and other streams is from DNR owned land and/or DNR purchased easements. According to the DNR website, the public easement area is “generally 66 feet of land from the stream bank on either side of the stream.” You can locate these public access points by going to the Wisconsin DNR website at and doing further research. I recommend sitting down at your computer with a full cup of coffee, there is a lot of information to review.

In addition to public access information available on the site, be sure you read the trout fishing regulations as well. You will want to keep in good graces with the local fish & game warden.

The longer you study this valuable information, the more you will learn…and…the more fish you will catch.

To help navigate through the website, I suggest you start at the homepage on the DNR website. Click in the search box and type in “Trout Stream Maps.” Click on the Trout Stream Maps link and it will take you to a column of PDF’s called, “Color Maps.” Select the county that interests you. The waters are color-coded as class 1, 2 or 3 streams.

Duke Welter of Viroqua, who is the Western Great Lakes Conservation Coordinator for Trout Unlimited, suggests you focus your search on class 1 or class 2 waters. These are higher quality (naturally reproducing) streams that may offer the angler a better chance at scoring a trout dinner. “There are over 2,500 miles of trout streams in the Driftless area,” Welter explained. So there are many quality streams to choose from.

Once you’ve selected trout waters that you want to study in more depth, do another DNR website search in the search box for “Land Atlas.” This will bring up a link to “Public Access Lands Maps.” Click on this link and you will see a blue “Download” button. Download the series of more detailed partial county maps that you can send to your printer. These maps will show you locations of DNR easements, DNR owned land and parking lot locations, if available. Don’t be surprised when you have to park along a roadside to access public fishing easements.

If you don’t have a computer or easy access to one, you can find these public areas by purchasing the 2013 book titled: “Public Access Lands Atlas of Wisconsin.” The 2013 book is 465 pages and costs $89.95. The DVD is $5.95. County specific books are available for $24.95. The updated 2015 version of the atlas should be available in December. Call 1-800-993- 2665, extension 5929 to order.

When you drive to these public access areas, there may or may not be signs announcing fishing easements. If the public access parcel was recently purchased, or if vandals removed signs, the easement may not be marked. If you have to cross a fence, you may find a stile. Some stiles look like a twosided ladder to aid in fence crossing. Similar to signage, there is no guarantee stiles will be at fence crossing locations.

In addition to public access areas, both Welter and Harris say some landowners may let you fish on their private land as well, if asked. Be polite, use common sense and follow the landowner’s rules if allowed on their property. “Don’t bring a dog with you in a (livestock) pasture,” Welter said. That will likely upset the landowner.

According to the DNR website, you can fish on private parcels without permission providing you stay in navigable waters and access the water from a public source (e.g. road crossings). “As long as you keep your feet wet, you may walk along the bed of the stream and fish in any navigable stream,” the website said.

Moving south, another popular county for trout angling is Grant. Grant County is located on the Illinois border. The city of Fennimore is in the northern third of the county and is the home of fly fishing guide, Jim Romberg. Romberg said Grant County trout populations are in good shape and there is a large amount of public access to streams. He says there are over 100 miles of trout waters within a 15 mile radius of Fennimore.

Linda Parrish, promotions coordinator for the city of Fennimore, said people come from all over the country to fish Grant County streams. Some of the more popular streams include, Big Green River, Blue River, Big Spring, Six Mile Creek and Castle Rock Creek.

If you’re looking for totally different trout fishing experience on much bigger water (with no barbed wire fences to cross) you can drive about 200 miles southeast until you run out of road. You’ll be on Lake Michigan at Breezy 1 Charters in Winthrop Harbor, Illinois. Captain Shawn Keulen fishes Illinois and Wisconsin waters from a 36-foot Tiara yacht, debarking from North Point Marina.

Captain Keulen is excited about the 2015 Lake Michigan trout and salmon season. May and June are productive months to catch trout and salmon on the lake. “It’s one of the best times of the year,” he said.

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