Journey vs. Destination: Watershed efforts help restore trout streams – and brookies

This brook trout image appears on the website for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

People seeking brook trout hang out with me in a beautiful valley in 2011. LISA BRAINARD/BLUFF COUNTRY READER
By : 
Lisa Brainard
Bluff Country Reader

The beauty of the valleys holding our Driftless Area trout streams always enthralls me. They are so pretty with cascading springs and riffles, deep pools and often steep bluffs towering over them. I like to think of them as an ancient landscape, which we need to care for and keep clean, so the waters run clear and remain cold.

The National Trout Center, 120 St. Anthony St. South in Preston – open Thursdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. with free admission — is one place to learn a lot about trout and their habitat. Check for details.

You’ll discover that brook trout, fondly called brookies, are a species requiring pristine habitat to survive – and better yet to reproduce naturally in streams. Efforts to create these populations are a labor of love in the Driftless.

A wonderful article on such work in southeastern Minnesota is detailed by Tom Hazelton in the Minnesota DNR’s Minnesota Conservation Volunteer magazine. You can find it online at, titled, “Brook Trout Stronghold – Minnesota's only native stream trout survives — and may once again thrive — in the southeast.”

Meanwhile, the Iowa DNR recently emailed a newsletter piece detailing their efforts with brookies. It follows, highlighting efforts in Winneshiek and Howard counties.

“Trout thrive again in two northeast Iowa streams thanks to improvements.

“After struggling for years to sustain a population on their own, recent sampling shows native brook trout are again thriving in the Yellow River headwaters and Mullen Creek following work on the land to improve water quality.

“Once, brook trout thrived in most of northeast Iowa’s clear, spring-fed streams in abundant numbers, but years of erosion and polluted runoff harmed trout habitat. Cloudy with eroded soil and manure runoff, the streams could no longer sustain the native trout. In 1994, a genetic strain of healthy brook trout – likely there since before European settlement – was found in South Pine Creek in eastern Winneshiek County. To save this fragile native Iowa species, the DNR brought a number of the trout to the Manchester fish hatchery, raising new brookies to live in restored creeks.

“Communities have come together on two of those streams, Yellow River and Mullen Creek (a tributary of Silver Creek) through the DNR-funded Yellow River Headwaters Watershed Project, led by the Winneshiek (County) Soil and Water Conservation District, and the Silver Creek Watershed Project, led by the Howard (County) Soil and Water Conservation District. Teaming with Mike Siepker and Theresa Shay with DNR Fisheries to restock the streams with South Pine brook trout, the watershed projects also worked with landowners in the area to make changes on the land to protect and improve water quality.

“‘Everything’s worked hand-in-hand,’ says Neil Shaffer, Silver Creek Watershed Project coordinator. ‘We had been working on the watershed for a few years, the water temperature was right and the DNR was looking for a home for these trout.’

“The ability to sustain trout indicates great stream improvement, as they’re an indicator species of northeast Iowa’s streams, demanding the coldest and cleanest waters to prosper. DNR staff consider water temperature, water monitoring results, current fish populations and streambank erosion data before stocking trout in a stream.

“Farmers and landowners in the watershed – the area of land that drains into a waterway – use cover crops and grass waterways to prevent erosion and sediment buildup.

“‘We’ve worked with landowners to build upon keystone practices,’ said Corey Meyer, former coordinator for the Yellow River Headwaters project. ‘This is a great example of landowners working together to improve their watershed.’

“Avid trout angler Sam Franzen, now coordinating the project, has an eye out for more Yellow River tributaries with the potential to host trout.

“The two watershed projects are partially funded by DNR through EPA Section 319 grants, which provide financial assistance for water pollution cleanup. Landowners and the watershed projects have invested almost $6 million throughout this (northeast Iowa) region to restore and clean creeks and rivers.

“Since the mid-1990s, work to reintroduce brookies has resulted in four streams with self-sustaining wild populations, while eight streams have inconsistent natural reproduction that requires occasional stocking to keep the population prosperous. Overall, the number of streams consistently supporting naturally reproducing brown and brook trout have risen from 6 in 1980 to 45 today, thanks in large part to improvements to in-stream habitat and in watersheds.

“Recent monitoring shows good growth in size and population after a year in Mullen Creek and the Yellow River headwaters, with plans to stock more native Iowa brook trout in 2018 to help establish the population.”

It’s a beautiful thing, stream restoration. On behalf of the many who appreciate it, let me offer our congratulations and thanks to all involved!

Lisa Brainard still enjoys lifelong pursuits of the outdoors, history and travel as able following a serious accident and stroke in September 2012. She’s written this column weekly for about 15 years.