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Read more about North Bear and other water quality successes in Working For Clean Water, the DNR's annual watershed success story publication.
When the hit film A River Runs Through It was released in 1992, it helped rejuvenate local economies and waterways in northeast Iowa, as the beauty and skill showcased so vividly in the film helped inspire more than half a million trips to trout streams, injecting more than $14 million into Iowa’s economy every year.
While casting long, graceful loops of his fly line at North Bear Creek, Kent Kleckner says, "It makes me feel like I’m in the mountains and I’m a long ways from work and everything else. This is one of the prettiest places I fish. And I get here as often as I can." For Kleckner—president of the Driftless Chapter of Trout Unlimited, fishing guide and owner of Bear Creek Anglers in Decorah—this is more than just another day wading the clear, cold waters of North Bear. He knows each trout he catches and releases is there because many people worked together. The trout come from two sources—native populations that reproduce in North Bear and others stocked from the nearby DNR Decorah Fish Hatchery. But preserving and expanding populations of brown, brook and rainbow trout is much more involved than simply stocking fish.
Trout thrive in clear, fast moving, oxygen-rich, 50-degree water and need a gravel stream bed to thrive. The spring-fed creeks in northeastern Iowa are the perfect habitat. But since settlement, water quality declined due to soil erosion and chemicals.
Prior to retiring from the DNR, Bill Kalishek worked with area farmers for more than 25 years to restore trout streams. He says, "The biggest impediment to trout is silt on the bottom. Trout feed off insects that live on the rocks. And their eggs can get smothered by silt or mud, too. Trout need a rock and gravel bottom so their eggs can fall between—safe from predators."
Most efforts to improve water quality and reduce sedimentation began 15 years ago. Today, the work still holds up. Upgrades made to last targeted actively eroding banks. Small trees growing on vertical banks were grubbed out so banks could be shaved off to proper slope. Portions of those tree trunks were embedded 8 to 10 feet into the bank for support. Root balls left exposed underwater now provide trout havens. Properly sized rock bolsters banks for greater stability. Kalishek says landowners keep cattle from the creek and don’t plow to the edges of banks. Farmers keep cattle off sensitive areas, reducing siltation and animal waste entering the water, where excess nutrients can cause algae blooms and excessive plant growth.
But cleaning water extends beyond the stream itself. In the watershed, dry run dams slow runoff during rain events, allowing silt to settle out before entering the creek. Efforts ramped up during the past two decades, as a strong relationship between farmers, the DNR and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service was forged.
Since the early 1990s, projects have seeded riparian areas next to the stream to filter water and hold back soil, placed rip-rap along banks to reduce erosion, added bank hides to give trout a place to escape predators, and the installed fences to keep cattle out of the water. 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 eggs. Those efforts have helped reestablish naturally reproducing trout in more than 40 of Iowa’s 105 trout streams.
For Kleckner, just catching the trout tells him things are improving, as soil remains in fields and out of the stream. "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 thousand acres that are in the watershed, pretty streambanks aren’t gonna help natural reproduction of brown trout. So, it’s all the farmers taking care of the watershed that have allowed us to have natural brown trout reproduction going on here," he adds.
Some portions of this story courtesy of Iowa Public Television.