Northeast Iowa goes wild for trout

Watershed projects on northeast Iowa’s famed trout streams over the last two decades have improved water quality, and in turn, wild trout populations, fishing and tourism. By changing the way water comes into trout streams, watershed projects have kept excess sediment, nutrients and bacteria out of the water.

Along with in-stream work by DNR fisheries staff to improve trout habitat, trout are thriving again. Take Coldwater Creek – in 1999, there were zero brown trout per mile. By 2002, there were 467 brown trout per mile and in 2011, that number rose to 2,128 per mile.

In 1980, only six streams in Iowa sustained a trout population without stocking. In 2007, it grew to 32 streams and today, trout reproduce naturally on 45 Iowa streams, thanks to improvements. With cleaner water, trout can spawn naturally and better feed on aquatic insects, resulting in greater fish diversity. That’s a boon for anglers and local communities. Anglers have noticed, for sure. Trout stamp sales for both residents and non-residents hit an all-time high in 2015, at 45,472 licenses sold.

The continual increase in anglers visiting Iowa trout streams comes from a variety of factors, says DNR fisheries supervisor Mike Steuck. “There’s the improved coldwater habitat for trout through watershed and land use improvement projects as well as the habitat improvements we made in the stream,” he says. “We’ve improved our stocking efforts with more wild-strain brown trout collected from naturally reproducing populations of Iowa trout, too.”

That includes the coldwater portion of the Upper Maquoketa River, where the DNR recently completed in-stream habitat work, and where there’s a water quality and angler easement. It’s also a favorite spot of Cedar Falls trout angler Pete Lilja.

“From an angler’s perspective, this is a huge improvement. It’s such a terrific stretch of river and adding these features will only make it better,” Lilja says. “Over the last few weeks I’ve been there weekly and it’s gotten better each trip with more fish in the holds. The water flows seem just right for drifting flies. I fished yesterday where the recent stream work was done. After the flood, the scour holes are getting to be very nice and deep and holding fish in numbers I haven’t seen before. It’s really developing nicely there.”

Having invested anglers like Lilja bodes well for Iowa businesses, too. Trout anglers come to Iowa streams for a two-day trip, if not a week, and bring family and friends, according to local business owners. They spend time and money in local sports stores, hotels, gas stations, restaurants and shops.

For many small northeast Iowa businesses, most – if not all – of their business depends on trout anglers. According to the most recent DNR trout angler survey data from 2011, licensed anglers made an estimated 582,851 trips to Iowa trout fisheries. At about $46 per trip – that includes food, lodging, transportation and equipment – anglers spend more than $19.8 million annually on trout fishing in Iowa. With another survey currently underway, numbers are expected to rise.