The Devils Backbone Wilderness, Missouri
The North Fork River (below Arkansas’s Lake Norfork) is known as one of the most productive tailwater trout fisheries in North America. What most anglers don’t know is the river far upstream in the Show Me State is a limestone-bottomed, spring-fed freestone river flowing through rolling Ozark country, with plenty of wild trout and smallmouths to go around.
The main attraction for the backcountry aficionado is the Devils Backbone Wilderness. It’s small, roughly 6,700 acres, but it includes three trailheads that lead to overnight streamside camping. You can also float the North Fork for 10 miles from the Hammond Camp Access (and campground) off state route CC down to the Blair Bridge access for equal opportunities at smallmouth and trout. It’s a gorgeous, scenic landscape with limestone glades, dogwood groves, and wild azaleas in the backdrop. The last five miles of the float passes through a Missouri Department of Conservation Trout Area, which offers stellar fishing for brown and rainbow trout, some of which grow quite large.
The river north of the Devils Backbone Wilderness, in the Mark Twain National Forest from state route CC to highway 76, is just as wild and scenic as the Backbone’s wilderness water, though smallmouth are the main quarry.
The Yellow River State Forest, Iowa
The Yellow River State Forest in Northeast Iowa’s Allamakee County is comprised of six separate units totaling 8,600 acres. It’s a popular destination with backpackers, but anglers have the option of getting far from the maddening crowd in pursuit of both warm and coldwater species.
Paddling anglers should focus on the last 10 miles of the Yellow River from the Old Mission Drive Road Access to the south side of its confluence with the Mississippi River off highway 10. Here, the river meanders along wooded limestone bluffs towards Ol’ Man River, offering anglers a crack at smallmouth bass, with largemouth, pike, and bowfin (dogfish) showing up in the slack water near the junction.
Ten miles north in the Paint Creek Unit, Paint Creek and Little Paint Creek offer seven miles of productive trout fishing. While most of the system offers easy public access, you can only reach some stretches via a brisk hike through the timber. Wild, naturally reproducing brown trout inhabit both stretches, along with planted brook and rainbow trout. These streams are frequently stocked and are an excellent place to take a young child or neophyte angler for their first DIY fishing trip. There are campgrounds located along both rivers, along with backcountry sites a short distance from the creek.
Outside the state forest, several other opportunities exist near Waukon, Iowa. The Upper Iowa River has leisurely paddling beneath limestone outcroppings for smallmouth bass. The French Creek Wildlife Management Area is a consistent brown trout fishery, with brook trout in the headwaters. Lastly, South Pine Creek shelters the only native brook trout population west of the Mississippi. You’ll find these anomalous char in a small spring creek under dense brush just a short hike from the parking area.
Nebraska’s Sandhills region is a mix of prairie grass, wetlands, and sand dunes that measures over 20,000 square miles and covers approximately one quarter of the state. While much of it is remote and rife for exploration, a good starting point would be the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge and surrounding areas.
Established in 1935 as a sanctuary for migrating birds, the Valentine contains 39 lakes, with nine open to fishing. Anglers can expect to find good numbers of bass and pike, with the possibility of catching a real bruiser—largemouth bass up to six pounds and northern pike pushing 20 pounds have been caught in these waters. Trophy perch, crappie, and panfish also occasionally intercept a fly they have no business striking. While camping is not allowed within the Valentine Refuge, there are facilities north in the town of Valentine, and west at the Merritt Reservoir State Recreation Area.
To the north, several tributaries of the Niobrara River harbor trout and are worth exploring after you get your fix of warmwater species. East of the town of Valentine, Plum Creek courses through a scenic canyon anglers can hike into to find wild brown and planted rainbow trout. East of Plum Creek, Long Pine Creek harbors viable wild strains of both brown and rainbow trout, and The Long Pine Creek Wilderness Area includes 153 acres of hiking trails, primitive camping, and access to the creek, as does the Pine Glen State Wildlife Management Area.
Sugar Creek, Indiana
Calling Sugar Creek a backcountry destination could be considered a stretch, but what it lacks in remoteness it makes up for in character. Originating north of Indianapolis, this Hoosier State gem flows for 93 miles through hardwood groves and limestone clearings bordering farmlands, only passing through one city before its confluence with the Wabash River east of the Illinois border. Covered bridges constructed in the late 19th century bisect the river along its course, harking back to the days of heartland yore. It is Midwestern Americana at its finest.
Wading opportunities exist at various public access sites, but floating the river and utilizing a “paddle, park, and wade” system is the most efficient way to fish it. The creek has a healthy number of smallmouth bass and since there is a 20-inch-long minimum, one fish daily bag limit, many bass measure in the middle to high teens. Largemouth bass also lie hidden among slackwater timber, and carp cruise the surface of deeper pools, providing sight-fishing opportunities for large fish that you may or may not be capable of landing. Shades State Park offers both hike-in and canoe campsites, and Turkey Run has camping as well.
Sugar Creek normally consists of a gently flowing riffle, run, pool configuration and is easy to float. However, the river rises very quickly with rain and becomes downright treacherous. Monitor the weather forecast and check conditions before you go.
Backcountry fly fishing is one of the most authentic fly-fishing adventures to be had. One must live, as Johnny Cash put it, on “muscle, guts, and luck.” Navigating unseen country should be as much of a draw as the fishing. While the fishing can be downright sublime, every ounce of pleasure yields a pound of pain. But when it all “clicks” and the fish are both big and reckless, there is no place you would rather be. And there is a good chance that only you and a handful of others are willing to embrace it.
The six mentioned destinations provide a uniquely beautiful wilderness experience in an overlooked part of the country. They are equally inspiring as they are productive and will hopefully move you to seek out backcountry opportunities in your home state where you can discover adventures you’ll enjoy over and over, for years to come.
Robert John Pales lives in the St. Joseph River Valley in Northwest Indiana with his wife, twin sons, and golden retriever. This is his first article for American Angler.