Dry of Die in the Central Sands

By Kyle Siebers


It was a warm sunny day on a stream in Central Wisconsin. I had crept into position along the stream where I could see a pool I knew usually contained an active fish or two. I was hoping to find something hatching, but was prepared to blind cast a grasshopper pattern if there was nothing obvious hatching.


Sure enough, there was a fish holding mid-stream, inches below the surface. This fish was clearly looking to eat. I watched for a while and didn’t see it make any sort of feeding moves. I decided the size 14 Royal Wulff that was still tied to my tippet after the other day’s outing would be a fine place to start. I unhooked the fly from the keeper and peeled some line out from the reel. I watched the fish for a moment more. It was still there. Still unaware. Still catchable.


I checked my back cast for obstructions and then looked back to the fish to see it bolt away. I hadn’t even made a cast. Not even a false cast. The sun was in a favorable position, so I knew a shadow had not spooked the fish. I had successfully snuck into position without spooking the fish so that wasn’t an issue. The fish seemed to know the exact second it needed to flee to preserve its wellbeing. The fish around here are like that sometimes.


Despite my failure on that first fish of the day I crept up to the next pool and spotted my second target. Things played out almost exactly as the first scenario, except this time the fish moved three feet from its lane and gently sipped my fly. I caught that one. A scrappy brown of about eight inches.


Fly fishing the Central Sands Region of Wisconsin is a challenge not easily replicated in other parts of our state. Dry fly fishing is often the most efficient way to fish the streams in Central Wisconsin. Some spots might set up better for nymphs, while others are better for streamers, but that requires changing flies and tippets between spots. Deciding to fish a dry fly all day lets you fish more water, without constantly changing out your rig. We call that “dry or die.”


Now, I’m not a dry fly snob, chastising anyone that would stoop so low as to fish a double nymph rig. I fish nymphs, and I fish streamers. I enjoy employing those tactics when the situation requires. They all have their time and place. I simply choose to fish dry flies more often than not because I enjoy fishing dry flies. Deciding to go “dry or die” also allows you to hunt, stalk and target individual fish unlike fishing nymphs and streamers. That’s a big reason why I love it. The visual aspect of dry fly fishing is so engaging.


Our waters are typically quite clear and very calm. We don’t often have riffles and rapids to disguise a clunky approach, or a sloppy cast, so we rely on wind, rain, dirty water or the black of night to disguise us. If Mother Nature is unwilling to provide us with one or more of those cloaks, then stealth and patience are crucial. An argument can be made for persistence, as well. Let’s talk a little more about each of these.




As with trout fishing nearly anywhere in the world, stealth is always a big part of success. Walking slowly and quietly along the stream will help to avoid spooking fish. Using any available cover to hide your approach helps, too. The amount of available cover can vary wildly from season to season. In the winter and spring months of the early season the grasses and sedges are usually lying flat and brown along the banks, sometimes even buried under snow. The trees and shrubs within the riparian corridor are devoid of leaves. Still, using a small patch of standing grass, or a bare cluster of dogwoods to hide your approach and conceal your casting location can go a long way in helping you lay a cast over a wary trout.


Pay attention to the sun as well. Is it casting my shadow on fishy locations?  Crouching, kneeling, belly crawling and even wearing camouflage all have their own pocket on the metaphorical fly vest. Another form of stealth is longer casts with longer leaders and finer tippets. If you notice that you’re spooking fish into the next spot as you move upstream, consider backing off and circling wide around them. Sacrificing a spot or two to leapfrog spooked fish and get on fresh water is often a difference maker. This is especially helpful when hopper fishing when streams are low and clear.





Patience can be relative to the fishing style you engage in, the hatch you’re targeting or even the individual fish. If you’re streamer fishing, patience might mean three casts at the sweet spot instead of one. For nymphs maybe it’s 30 casts instead of six. If you’re fishing the stonefly hatch, patience might mean sitting in one spot on the bank for 10 minutes waiting for a rise before moving on to watch the next piece of water. If you’re hopper fishing, sitting on the bank waiting for a rise might leave you fishless and frustrated. If you stumble upon the right fish, patience might mean waiting an hour for it to start rising again after a bad cast puts it down.


I know of one angler who noticed early in the day that the fish would only rise when a cloud blew over. He had the patience to cast only when the stream was in the shadow of a cloud. He did a lot of sitting and waiting that day, but he caught more fish than I did. I spent my day making lots of blind casts and I caught some fish, but he had the patience to wait for the conditions that gave him the best odds.




Persistence usually pays off in whatever situation it is applied to. As for trout fishing in the Central Sands, persistence can take many forms. Say it’s March and you’re out looking for stoneflies. Persistence might mean driving around to half a dozen bridges to look for bugs or rising fish. Maybe it’s May and you’re streamer fishing. Persistence might mean fishing your streamer through a half mile of stream instead of just a couple hundred yards. Now say its Hex season. Persistence might mean fishing four nights a week looking for that steady hatch instead of two nights.


Maybe you’re hopper fishing. Persistence might look a lot like streamer fishing. You might need to fish more water or fish multiple spots to find the success you hope for. Perhaps you’re rigged with nymphs and your go-to spot gave up a goose egg. Persistence might mean fishing a handful more spots to find some active fish. Or maybe you return to your first spot later in the day in hopes the fish have changed their moods. It’s your go-to spot for a reason, after all.


Viewing persistence with a wider lens might mean fishing a good-looking section of stream for a second or third time if your initial adventure yielded poor results. Perhaps the fish weren’t in that section at the time of year you first fished it. Maybe they all had full bellies from some unnoticed food source earlier that morning. Maybe you just weren’t wearing your lucky hat. Having the persistence to return and fish a spot again after your initial run left you fishless might be the hardest skill to cultivate. If you keep turning up zeros, maybe the spot actually isn’t as good as it looks, but that’s still valuable knowledge to have.




Close your eyes and imagine that first beautiful spring day of the year. Bright warm sunshine, smells of earth, songbirds migrating. This is stonefly weather. The stonefly hatch can cause quite a bit of excitement among fly anglers in the Central Sands Region, because after a long, cold winter it can be the first chance to consistently target rising trout with dry flies. Fishing the stonefly hatch is also a good way to ensure that you’re fishing with temperatures above freezing. The three keys we just talked about all play a role in fishing the stonefly hatch.


You might find a few stoneflies as early as January, or as late as May, but March and early April is the real heart of the hatch. I usually spend a fair amount of time checking bridges and other access point for bugs and rising fish. I don’t focus much on the upper reaches of our streams because most of the fish will be in the middle-to-lower reaches for the winter.


I like spots that get a bit of sunshine at this time of year. March can be cold and some sun can help to get the stoneflies active, as well as the trout looking to eat them. I employ patience when I’m out looking for stoneflies. Waiting and watching for minutes at a time, looking for bugs and rises, can increase your odds of success. Of course, blind casting for hours can produce fish too, but that boils down to personal preference. When I do find a rising fish, or even a piece of water I want to blind cast to, that’s when I rely on stealth. Hiding behind bushes, sneaking on my knees and staying in the shadows all have their time and place on a trout stream in March. If you fish a spot or two and come up fishless, remember persistence. Maybe try one last spot before you head home. Or maybe come back and fish it later in the week. It’s rare to target stoneflies, find bugs, find rising fish and catch them with just one day of effort.


As for fly patterns to match the stonefly hatch, you can get as simple or as complicated as you’d like. Flies like a Stimulator, Madam X, or Elk Hair Caddis will all work fine. Stoneflies almost never sit still when they’re on the water, so choosing a pattern that you can skate and skitter is often a good bet. Size your selection to match what you’re seeing when you’re out there. Black is a go-to color, but gray, tan or brown will move fish as well.




There are a handful of Mayfly species you might encounter in Central Wisconsin. The species in question are commonly referred to as Baetis, or Blue Winged Olives, Hendricksons, Sulphurs and Ephorons. You might find olives at any time of year, but March to May will be your best chance to see a fishable hatch. April is when I’ve most frequently seen them. April into May might provide a showing of Hendricksons. Sulpurs can be found from May into June and July, but mid-May to early June is when I’ve seen the best activity. Ephorons typically hatch later in the summer. August and even into early September are the best times to look for Ephorons. Ephorons differ from the other mayflies I’ve discussed because they hatch in the late evening into darkness.


The hatches that I have witnessed have been very hit or miss, and often sporadic and sputtering, with the exception of Ephorons, which I’ll talk more about later. The Olives, Hendricksons, and Sulphurs are hatches I don’t necessarily make a point to target, but they are hatches I’m always looking out for. Anywhere I fish, at almost any time of year, I will have some flies in the box to match these hatches. If I happen to find fish rising to any of these bugs, I’ve always got a couple of flies to try. Much like stoneflies, you can get as simple or as complicated as you’d like with fly selection. Various sizes of Adams dries in a handful of colors should do the trick most of the time. I’ve even used a size 14 Royal Wulff to match all three hatches. Again, fish what you’re confident in.


When it comes to choosing where to fish these hatches, it boils down to confidence and personal preference. As I mentioned earlier, I don’t put in a ton of effort to target these hatches. I’m just always prepared in case I do find a hatch. Fish spots you’re confident in. Fish spots you’re familiar with. Fish spots you like to fish. Just make sure to have the necessary flies to match what you might find once you’re out there.




Ephorons, or white mayflies, as they’re commonly called, hatch in the late evening and into early darkness. I’ve personally found the most Ephoron activity on streams with more rock, but that’s just me. The nymphs are burrowers like Hex nymphs, so I don’t know why I haven’t seen more Ephorons on the streams I Hex fish. Because these mayflies hatch within a short time frame each evening, the hatches can sometimes be quite thick. Picture a Hex hatch, but the bugs are in the size 10-to-14 range. Maybe the bugs aren’t as numerous as a good Hex hatch, but neither is the competition from other anglers.


As always, use stealth on your approach during a hatch of any species of mayfly. Maybe there are only a handful of bugs coming off and there are only a couple of fish rising to them. It might only be one small stretch that has any activity. If you’re not stealthy, you might blow the only chance you’ll find all day. Patience can help you find success as well. If you do find a hatch and fish are keyed in on a particular species, take a moment to observe. What color are the mayflies? What size are the bugs? Exercise the patience needed to match what the fish are eating and your odds of success greatly increase. Persistence helps when you’re looking to find one of these mayfly hatches. If you don’t find what you’re looking for one day, don’t give up. Go looking another day. Maybe look at a different spot, or a different river. As with anything in life, it’s rare to hit things just right on the first try.





Hex season is what anglers of the Central Sands Region look forward to all year. Sure, we fish other hatches and other spots, but nothing quite compares to big bugs drenched in darkness. The hex hatch, or more accurately the spinner fall, often gets every fish in the stream on the feed. Fish you’ve only ever seen in your dreams, or on magazine covers, can be caught at this time of year. The big ones are often still very difficult, but they’re the most catchable they’ll be all year.


Hex nymphs are burrowers. They dig u-shaped burrows in the soft sediments of stream margins and backwaters. They use the gills on their abdomen to pull water and food through theirs burrows. When looking for a hex hatch you should look for streams with plenty of muddy backwaters and other areas of soft sediments. When the hatch is on you can often see the Hex duns drifting downstream of these areas right around dusk. When the light is just right you can sometimes see the first brave souls to leave the water get snatched out of the air by waxwings or blackbirds.


Often, the first fish to begin feeding on these drifting duns will be the smaller fish. Unable to contain their excitement they make fools of themselves, splashing and jumping as they begin to feed. The bigger fish will wait for proper darkness before they show up to the banquet. The true giants will often be rising in the thickest tangles of overhanging shrubs. It’s usually impossible to drift a fly into spots like these, but the naturals make their way in there just fine.


Stealth is not much of a consideration during the hex hatch. The fish are often so focused on feeding that you can get quite close to them. Obviously the bigger the fish the more stealth you should employ, and if you’re on heavily pressured water, the fish can tend to be on the spookier side.


Patience and persistence play larger roles in a successful Hex outing. Just because the bugs don’t show up right at dark when they’re supposed to doesn’t mean they’re not around. Maybe there is a spinner fall upstream and it’ll take a while for the spent bugs to drift down and get the fish rising on your beat. If you’re confidence or patience is too low to wait around, you can creep your way upstream listening for feeding fish. If for any number of reasons the puzzle pieces just don’t fit together on a given night, don’t get discouraged. Persistence is key now. Keep coming back night after night if you must. Try new spots if you think the spot is the problem. The hex season is so short and fleeting. Keep putting the effort in and you’ll hit it right.




Hopper fishing can be some of the most fun fishing you’ll have all year. If you find the right spot, on the right day, the fish can act downright silly. The takes can sometimes be vicious. Other times you’ll watch the fish come up nice and slow and inspect your fly before they either sip it in or refuse it altogether. Sometimes the fish want that grasshopper pattern to plop down hard on the water. In fact, certain spots require the splat to draw the fish out of their hiding spots. It’s not uncommon to have fish move six feet, eight feet, even 10 feet, sometimes coming from well upstream, to eat your hopper. When hopper fishing is hot, it’s hard to have more fun on a trout stream.


Grasshopper spots are not all created equal. Generally, heavy tree cover means poor hopper fishing. I like to look for spots that are more meadow. Grasses and sedges are the sweet spots. I don’t mind a stray tree here and there, and scattered shrubs like alder, dogwood and ninebark are welcome sights. These random woody species offer shade to the fish, and cover to the angler, as well as the added bonus of a little bit of habitat diversity within the riparian corridor.


Stealth is key while pitching hopper patterns. The waters are typically low and clear during the summer months and the trout are on edge. Heavy footsteps and errant shadows can be your downfall. Persistence is often rewarded while hopper fishing. I cover a lot of water when I’m looking for hopper-hungry trout. I throw a couple casts at every likely spot and keep moving. Make sure to throw casts out in front of you as you move from spot to spot too. You’d be surprised at where a grasshopper pattern will draw fish out from. Splat your hopper down on as much water as you can and you’ll find fish that are willing to play along.


Other Considerations


Of course there are a ridiculous number of other food sources for the trout in Central Sands Region. I’ll briefly touch on a couple of them. If you’re reading this, you’re probably a trout angler, so you know that caddisflies can be found just about everywhere. You should carry a couple caddis patterns in varying sizes and colors almost year-round. Craneflies are often found along our Central Wisconsin trout streams and having a cranefly pattern or two to try when nothing else seems to be working might save the day. Beetles, ants and crickets could be lumped in with the grasshoppers, but they deserve a mention anyway. If dry flies just won’t produce, streamers and nymphs can be effective in certain situations and choosing a pattern, size or color are entirely up to personal preference.


Choosing your fishing location can influence your success quite a bit. Keep in mind the season and the size of the water you’re fishing. If it’s February, you’re probably not going to catch very many fish in the upper headwaters of these streams. If it’s August you probably won’t find success fishing the lower reaches of these streams. Fish will typically spend their winters in the deeper, slower, lower reaches of our systems, and as the water temperatures climb throughout the year they will move upstream.


If you’re targeting those magazine-cover fish, you probably won’t find them in those streams you can step across. By no means is it a hard and fast rule, but smaller, colder water should have more but smaller fish. Larger, deeper, slower and warmer water should have fewer fish, but the average size should be larger. These lower reaches often only hold fish for parts of the year as well, like the winter, spring and early summer.


The Central Sands Region streams have a character all their own. They are not the lightly fished remote forested freestone streams of the north and northeast part of Wisconsin, full of eager brook trout. They are not streams lined by pastures and easements and full of riffles like the streams of the Driftless Area. Central Sands streams often have very well connected and broad floodplains. Their waters are cold and clear and clean. Lacking natural riffles, their waters are often flat and calm. The finned residents of the Central Sands streams are some of the wariest I’ve ever encountered. If you’re expecting to catch 50 fish in a day of fishing central Wisconsin, you should lower your expectations. It’s not a numbers game in central Wisconsin. The challenge is the reward in fishing the streams in this area. Using stealth, patience and persistence should help you to unlock the secrets held within the streams of the Central Sands.