Water Quality and Iowa's Trout Population

Jul 3, 2014 | 00:07:15

(This video was originally broadcast on Iowa Outdoors, Episode 403, July 3, 2014.)

Trout fishing is a mainstay of tourism in northeast Iowa, drawing anglers from all over the world. Almost since the settlement of the state, Iowa streams have been stocked to maintain a trout population. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources raises almost 150,000 trout each year here at the Decorah Fish Hatchery. 

Rural and urban developments over the last two centuries put pressure on trout populations. In addition to stocking programs, collaborations between farmers and government have been improving water quality in Iowa's trout streams, allowing more than fish to reap the benefits. 

A lone angler is fishing for trout in North Bear Creek in rural Winneshiek County in northeastern Iowa. He quietly works this section of the stream where he can relax and enjoy a few hours of solitude. 

Kent Kleckner, Bear Creek Anglers: It makes me feel like I'm in the mountains and I'm a long ways from work and everything else. And this is one of the prettiest places I fish. And I get here as often as I can. 

But for Kleckner, who is president of the Driftless Chapter of Trout Unlimited, as well as a fishing guide and owner of Bear Creek Anglers, he knows each trout he catches and releases is there because a large number of people have been working together for more than 80 years. 

The trout he is catching have come from two sources, the native population that swim in North Bear Creek, and stocking by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources from the nearby Decorah Fish Hatchery. But the return of Brown, Brook and Rainbow trout to northeastern Iowa waters goes beyond the delivery of the fish to the stream by the Iowa DNR. Trout need clear, fast-moving, 50 degree Fahrenheit water and a gravel-covered stream bed to thrive and survive. The spring fed creeks in northeastern Iowa are the perfect habitat for these fish. Rainbow and Brook trout are native to the region and Brown trout were introduced in the 1880s. As farming and industrialization grew, trout numbers began to decline, and in the 1930s work began to help bring back dwindling populations. Efforts have really been kicked into high gear during the past two decades as a strong relationship between farmers, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and the Federal Natural Resources Conservation Service has been forged. 

Bill Kalishek, Iowa Department of Natural Resources: My experience with farmers has been that most farmers want to do the right thing, they want to do what is correct for the resource and correct for the stream that flows through their property. Now, sometimes they aren't able to do the right thing because of economic or social issues that come into play. And then there is that small percentage that doesn't care about doing the right thing. And unfortunately when you're talking about trout streams that have very small water sheds, just one or two really bad fields of high erosion can have a big impact on that small stream. As you find a cooperating landowner or as you decide that there's a piece of state property, a section of stream on state property that needs to have some rehabilitation work, you start to do that work and as other landowners see that they start to realize, that's a good project, I want to see that happen on my property too. 
Since the early 1990s, projects have included seeding areas next to the stream to filter water and hold back the soil, placing riprap along the stream banks to reduce erosion, adding bank hides to give trout a place to escape from predators and the installation of fences to keep cattle out of the water. Private contractors do much of the work, but there are some projects that only happen because of volunteer labor and donated materials. According to the DNR, anglers make more than half a million trips to Iowa trout streams and inject more than $14 million into Iowa's economy every year. Efforts by landowners, volunteers and government agencies have helped clean up the water and keep gravel stream beds clear of silt, allowing trout to lay their eggs. Their work has helped re-establish naturally reproducing trout in more than 40 of Iowa's 105 trout streams. 

Examples of this work can be seen at Valley View Farm, where Walter Langland and his son, Steve, have a grain and livestock operation. In 1993, the elder Langland, started the first of several restoration projects by fencing off this section of North Bear Creek to keep the cattle out of the stream. 

Walter Langland, Valley View Farm: It makes me feel good that someone else can enjoy fishing along a stream that has good access to it. 

Some of Langland's other projects include stream bank restoration, bank hides and the creation of a parking area for anglers. 

Walter Langland: Well, this is a century farm. I don't know who is going to carry on after my wife and I and son are gone, but we need to care for the land for future generations. 

Not far away, Jason Howe runs How'lin Hills Farm in rural Allamakee County. Howe sought help from the DNR more than a decade ago to help restore the land along his section of Patterson Creek near Waukon.

Jason Howe, How'lin Hills Farm: I was kind of tired of seeing all that good topsoil washed away and so I had went to them and asked about it. And I think around the same time is when I was wanting to get the trout, to see if I could get the trout to start reproducing, wondering what that would take and spoke with the DNR about that. And most years I'll do one or two of the worst banks, I guess, to kind of keep them from eroding away. And it has been working out pretty good. 

Howe spent his summer days on the creek when he was younger and his children are continuing the tradition of fishing, swimming and playing in the water. For Kleckner, just catching the trout tells him things are improving as more soil remains in nearby farm fields and out of the stream. 

Kent Kleckner: Having a pretty stream with nice rocky banks and all that sort of thing is important and that's nice. However, if the farmers don't take care of the 500 or 1,000 acres that they're farming that is in the water shed, pretty stream banks aren't going to help natural reproduction of Brown trout. So, it's all, it's all the farmers taking care of the water shed that has allowed us to have natural Brown trout reproduction going on here and for me that is pretty exciting. 

Gilchrist Foundation