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story.lead_photo.caption Paddle Don Cranfill pursues smallmouth bass on the Driftwood River in Indiana. Photo by Contributed photo
Brandon Butler
Through the years, I've had countless people ask why this column is called Driftwood Outdoors. After spending a little more than four years living in the Rocky Mountain West, with most of that time in Montana, I had become quite an addicted fly fisherman.

Then life brought me back to the Midwest. My wife and I, along with two daughters under 2 years old, settled in southern Indiana. I thought my fly fishing days were numbered. Then I discovered smallmouth bass and a special river full of them.

Indiana's Driftwood River is a classic example of the old adage, dynamite comes in small packages. At only 16 miles long, the Driftwood offers anglers fish-filled water in an attractive natural setting. Located just east of Interstate 65 at Columbus, the Driftwood is an easy drive from most points in southern Indiana.

Formed by the confluence of the Big Blue River and Sugar Creek, the Driftwood terminates at its confluence with the Flatrock River where the two join to form the East Fork of the White River. The Driftwood essentially operates as the neck of an hourglass connecting two larger courses of water. It's home to a number of fish species, including bass, sunfish, catfish, and carp, but smallmouth bass are the most common quarry of fly anglers.

"If you consider the whole system coming together — Driftwood, Flatrock, Sugar, Big Blue and East Fork — it's right up there with the top smallmouth fisheries in the state," said Brian Schoenung, Indiana Department of Natural Resources chief of fisheries.

Along most its short, north-south course, the Driftwood's banks are lined with hardwoods. So as its name implies, the Driftwood River filters a significant amount of fallen timber.

"Because it's so short, and usually blows out a couple of times each spring, the Driftwood just isn't one of those rivers you hear people talking about. That doesn't mean it's not an outstanding fishery though," said Derrick Filkins of FlyMasters of Indianapolis. "The Driftwood is actually a great river to float, because there are some really deep holes that hold numbers of fish. When the river blows out, a lot of the wood structure washes away, leaving the deep holes as the best holding spots."

Wade fishing is possible at a few public access points, such as Lowell Bridge and Mill Race Park, but most of the river's edge is private land. Don't be discouraged though. If you politely ask for permission to access the river through someone's yard or land, and add a simple assurance of leaving no trace, the chances of permission being granted by a down-to-earth local is fairly high.

"You don't see a lot of fishermen by and large on Indiana streams, so you could say they aren't used nearly as much as they could be," Schoenung said.

There's no question of the Driftwood's scenic appeal or fishable waters, but a measured answer to the quality of the fishery is not available. One rumor surrounding the fishery is muskies are swimming the river. The DNR stocks them in old gravel pits turned public fishing holes at the Driftwood State Fishing Area.

"Years ago, a levee broke opening up a channel between the pits and the river, so it's highly possible muskies escaped into the system," Schoenung said. "Are they still there? No one really knows, but there are rumors."

Tactics for fly fishing Driftwood River smallmouth vary by angler. You can catch them on streamers, and at certain times of the year, top water flies can produce exciting days. The experts at FlyMasters of Indianapolis recommend a few of tactics that require pulling out all the stops.

"Streamers often don't get down to the bottom where the fish are holding. The way I like to fish the Driftwood is with a fly like the Meat Whistle or a weighted wooly bugger, on a long leader drifted under a strike indicator," Filkins said. "When you do find brush, it's often piled together, so it's hard to fish with a fly. We actually use a three inch, weedless rigged rubber worm drifted under an indicator."

The Driftwood River may just be the best smallmouth stream in Indiana you've never heard of. With a central location, easy access and quality fish, the Driftwood should be on your short list of must fish Indiana waters.

See you down the trail.

III

Brandon Butler, the director of communications for Roeslein Alternative Energy, is an outdoors columnist for the News Tribune. Contact him at outdoors@newstribune.com.

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