Smallmouth Fever

The Galena River rises in Wisconsin’s Lafayette County near the town of Benton before meandering south through its namesake, the city of Galena, Illinois. In its current incarnation the name harkens back to the region’s booming days when lead mines dotted the Driftless Area and immigrants flocked from as far away as Great Britain to work the land over for its stores of lead-rich minerals.

Before that it was known better as the Fever River, or even earlier by the Francophized Fevre River. It appears the name change was a step in the right direction: “fever” conjures up images of banks swarming with malarial mosquitoes and backwaters teeming with giardia. Not the kind of image a river town is looking to foster.

Of course, the French didn’t intend it that way. On their fur trading expeditions along the Galena River they noted the overabundance of wild beans that grew along its banks. The river came to be known as Riviere aux Feves, the Bean River. Leave it to the Brits and Yanks to lose a little in translation.



A poster from the Wisconsin Smallmouth Alliance encouraging Catch-and-Release fishing.
A poster from the Wisconsin Smallmouth Alliance encouraging catch-and-release fishing.

When talking to people in the shop this past week, I received a number of confused looks.

The Galena River? In Illinois? I didn’t know there were trout in there.

The southwest-most corner of Wisconsin is a bit of an anomaly: still firmly entrenched in the Driftless Area, it is known for its trout waters but also holds a respectable concentration of small stream smallmouth waters. The Galena River might be the premier smallmouth stream in this area, leading a group that includes the Platte, Little Platte, and Grant Rivers, and the Sinsinawa and Rattlesnake Creeks.

John Motoviloff, in his book Flyfisher’s Guide to Wisconsin and Iowa, writes that the typical size of smallmouth in Galena run only 9” to 13” in length, so I approached this water like I would any trout stream: 5-weight rod, 4x tippet. The main divergence was flies: rather than worrying about hatch matching or nymph fishing, I tied up a bunch of bucktail and marabou streamers. No matter the size, I figured, smallmouth will chase a streamer.

Looking upstream on the Galena River.

There’s a lot of public access along the Galena. From the road it looks like any Driftless trout stream (if I had to choose, I would say it reminds me a bit of the Blue, or the Big Green). Bank easements double as pasture land for grazing cattle.

I hopped the fence and quickly worked my way to midstream, then began casting across-and-down with a steady stripping motion. The time between first wetting the line and first handling a fish on a new stream might be the most terrifying: the uncertainty of knowing where you make the right choice in location, the right choice in fly selection, or even if you’re enough of an angler to take on a new patch of water.

A fine little Galena River smallmouth.
A fine little Galena River smallmouth.

Thankfully the first strike didn’t take long, although it was a tiny smallmouth. The size quickly grew from there, and I work my way through a pool, cast across-and-down, I quickly racked up nearly a dozen smallmouth averaging around 10” in length. I was surprised by how hard they fought; inch-for-inch I’d say these smallmouth offer a lot more pull than a trout of comparable size. The foot-longs were putting some real bend in the 5-weight, for sure. By early afternoon I caught-and-released an even thirty fish, and lost a few more. If I had a generous ruler I might say the biggest of the group was around 14”, or maybe it just fought harder than its size.

A size more apt for Driftless trout, hard-fighting smallmouth make for a fun time on a light fly rod.

I headed back to the car for some quick lunch, and then turned north back toward the city of Platteville for try the Little Platte River. After taking a few ill-advised turns at the outskirts of town I finally connected with the river at one of several bridge crossings. I moved downstream along the bank a-ways before jumping in and working back up.

Here the numbers seemed lower, but average size was higher: 12”-ish or so. I watched as another angler took a 16”-ish fish just upstream of bridge with conventional tackle. (An aside on angler courtesy: am I too uptight, or is it poor form to put yourself in-stream only a couple dozen yards ahead of another angler on a stream? I was already there… that guy stole my 16-incher!).

As I was heading up the bank the other angler caught sight of my fly rod.

“You know there’s not too many trout streams around here…”

I replied that I was actually searching for smallmouth. I left him the stream and decided to try one more access point, a high-and-rocky entryway along another bridge crossing. Here I landed several more fish in the 14”-15” range to bring my total to three dozen. Number 37 may have been the biggest of the day, but it threw the hook and on that note I decided to hang it up.

A Little Platte smallmouth.

All in all, the Galena and Little Plate rivers provided some nice “trout” fishing, with a little bit of a twist. Definitely worth a look if you’re looking for a change of pace in your Driftless angling.

A parting view of the Little Platte River.
A parting view of the Little Platte River.

Author: chesleyfan

I work, I fish, I write.

2 thoughts on “Smallmouth Fever”

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