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  • Writer's pictureDavid A. Van Wie

Aldo Leopold and the Land Ethic in the Driftless Area of Wisconsin

Timber Coulee Creek in the Coon Valley of the Driftless Area

Everyone has a hero, or so we say. My heroes are not your typical war or sports heroes, nor people who performed some superhuman or super courageous feat.

My heroes are people who changed the way we think about the world, who made the world a better place. Who gave us (me and you) and society hope for the future.

Sometimes changing the way people think takes great courage. And sometimes it may even require superhuman intellect and insight.

With my line of work, it should be no surprise that my heroes have made great contributions to how we approach our relationship to nature and the environment. And, in order to influence society as a whole, they are (or were) great writers and thought leaders.


My list is fairly long: Thoreau, John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt (he gets extra credit for bravery and traditional hero stature, but he was also a thought leader about conservation), Rachel Carson, Garrett Hardin, Dana & Dennis Meadows, E.O Wilson, and that so very inconvenient climate rabble-rouser, Al Gore.

OK, I'll even add Kurt Vonnegut. And many more.

Of course, the reason I am in Wisconsin is because one of my great heroes is Aldo Leopold, author of A Sand County Almanac (Oxford University Press, 1949).

Visiting The Shack

The Aldo Leopold Foundation has an educational center near Baraboo, north of Madison. “The Shack” (a converted chicken coop) where Leopold wrote the book is still there, a short stroll from the Wisconsin River (cue the mosquitoes).

The similarity to Thoreau’s cabin on Walden Pond is striking. I doubt it was on purpose, but Dr. Leopold and HDT were in many ways two birds of a feather.

DVW in front of Leopold's Shack at his Sand County Farm

I read A Sand County Almanac (SCA) in college, probably in a class with Dana Meadows. Leopold’s argument for a Land Ethic certainly had a major impact on my life and career in environmental sciences and policy. I now teach SCA in my Introduction to Environmental Issues course at the University of New England, and find his work every bit as inspiring today, to both me and my students.

Curt Meine, a Senior Fellow at the Leopold Foundation (and photo shy), greeted me at the Center and shared some insightful thoughts about Leopold’s contributions to land conservation, but more specifically about his holistic approach to watershed management. Curt noted that Leopold’s Land Ethic included land and soil and water and wildlife and fish. Leopold loved fly fishing for trout.

In fact, rivers and fishing were “in Leopold’s DNA,” as he had grown up near the Mississippi (in Iowa). His writings include essays on numerous rivers: the Rio Grande, the Gila River, the Flambeau River, the Wisconsin River, and his brilliant parable of the Round River, which flows in a circle into itself, much like the circle of life.

Leopold started thinking early in his career about how landscape and vegetation changes in a watershed affect water quality and aquatic habitat. He also advocated for protecting native trout populations – long before Trout Unlimited was founded – with a paper called “Mixing Trout in Western Waters” published in 1918.

Curt pointed me to this rare video footage of Leopold fishing on the Lily River in Wisconsin in the 1920s.

Coon Valley Conservation

After Curt took me to see the Shack, where we met a group of birders scanning the treetops, the next stop wasn’t originally on my itinerary. Curt was adamant in steering me toward the Coon Valley, deep in the Driftless Area, northwest of Viroqua.

Birders at Leopold's old farm near the Shack.

The Coon Valley was the location of the nation’s first soil conservation project during the height of the Dust Bowl in 1933, a cooperative effort of the federal Soil Erosion Service (later the Soil Conservation Service and now NRCS – the Natural Resource Conservation Service) and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where Leopold was a professor and advisor for the project.

Leopold and his colleagues at U of Wisconsin worked with SCS to engage farmers in better agricultural practices to protect the soil, to allow rainwater to seep in, cool off, and run out into the spring creeks that flow through the deeply incised valley among the hills of this beautiful landscape.

The result of their efforts was a model for soil conservation that became the standard for improved agriculture (and better wildlife and fish habitat management) across the nation. The streams in Coon Valley are now blue ribbon trout streams teeming with brown trout and even some persistent native brook trout.

Driftless Angler

Coincidently, I had been listening to the most recent Orvis podcast during my drive across Pennsylvania with Tom Rosenbauer, in which he interviews Mat Wagner, proprietor of the Driftless Angler fly shop in Viroqua, about fly fishing in the spring creeks in the area. A convergence of advice by Curt and Mat pointed me to Coon Valley to chase some trout.

The RogueTraveler parked in front of the Hickory Hill Motel in Viroqua.

I spend Wednesday night at the 1950s throwback Hickory Hill Motel (I’ll give it 3 stars, including the nostalgia). The next morning, I stopped in to see Mat at the Driftless Angler, one of the best fly shops I have ever seen, on the quaint Main Street of this lovely little town. Mat gave me some detailed and enthusiastic advice about where to fish, and which flies to use.

I purchased a few flies and a couple of cool Driftless Angler T-shirts (their best seller says “Your Skills Suck and Your Fly is Ugly. Fish Off.”)

I also enjoyed a delightful lunch at the Driftless Café before heading to the Coon Valley.

Besting The Browns

I won’t belabor the fishing specifics, but my afternoon – a mix of warm sun, buzzing gnats, and rising fish – was nothing short of spectacular. I caught several vigorous brown trout in Spring Coulee Creek which flows through a tallgrass meadow. Next, I moved to Timber Coulee Creek where I was entertained for hours by some lighting fast browns who seemed to enjoy slamming my fly without actually eating it.

Spring Coulee Creek in the Coon Valley
Spring Coulee Creek brown trout

Ultimately, I landed a dozen fish on the day, mostly on caddis patterns, and missed many more. One memorable brown trout short-hit at least a dozen different flies before I finally got him (or a neighbor) on a caddis that I had purchased from Mat. That fat 12-inch fish was one of the most satisfying so far on my entire Storied Waters trip.

I know I should have fished until dark. A steady hatch of march brown mayflies, a few sulfurs, and caddis was still going strong when I had to find some dinner and make some headway toward the north Wisconsin woods to meet my next host, Ron Weber, to see the Flambeau River (subject of one of my favorite essays in SCA).

Cows standing in Timber Coulee Creek in Coon Valley, WI

On my way back to the car, I spied a rising fish in the pool that is the first photo in this post above. I watched two or three sonorous slurps before putting a perfect cast up and over the rising trout.

Ba-bing! What a way to end the day! Another fat 12 inch brown trout who wanted to shake my hand as I said good-bye to the Driftless Area and headed north to the Flambeau.

Lupines in the restored prairie patch in front of Aldo Leopold's Shack near the Wisconsin River in Baraboo.

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