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 Soil and Water Conservation District, and the Silver Creek Watershed Project, led by the Howard 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 the 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.
CATCHING WILD TROUT
Looking for the challenge of reeling in a wild-raised trout? Streams with wild South Pine brook trout with publicly accessible segments include South Pine Creek, French Creek, Pine Spring Creek, Dutton Spring Creek, Little Paint Creek and an unnamed tributary on Lansing Wildlife Management Area. Find maps and more at iowadnr.gov/trout.