OSAGE – Local legend has it that when he was not working for the railroad, Shifty Sawyer could be found fishing from the bridges over Burr Oak Creek and catching really big trout. But not wanting company, he wouldn’t tell anyone of his success.
While it is difficult to authenticate Shifty’s fishing exploits, authenticating the quality of trout fishing in Burr Oak Creek is easy thanks in part to a 6-year-old watershed improvement project.
In 2006, the 3-plus miles of coldwater stream snaking through prime north central Iowa farm country became the focus of a watershed demonstration project to reduce soil erosion from its 80 farms and 19,800 acres.
Dan Bratrud with the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship-Division of Soil Conservation coordinated the Burr Oak Creek watershed project with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, EPA, IDALS-DSC, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
It took time to build trust with the landowners, he said. Getting past the old mindset of “that’s the way Dad did it” or “we’ve always done it that way” was a significant obstacle to overcome if the project was going to move ahead, Bratrud said.
One way to do that was to show landowners the results of conservation practices on the ground and gradually, the mindset and landscape began to change.
The first step was taken by the Mitchell County Conservation Board when it purchased 40 acres to create the Burr Oak wildlife area, installing a wetland, riparian buffers, and native grass seedlings.
Improvements began to follow on specific areas of targeted farms.
- Grassed riparian buffers were added to areas being farmed near the stream.
- A feedlot near the stream was changed to a totally confined cattle operation.
- On their own, landowners were enrolling a patchwork of land in to the Conservation Reserve Program, a voluntary program where landowners receive rental payments and cost-share assistance to establish long-term, resource conserving covers on farmland.
- About 500 acres of strip till – no till practice to provide better residue on the ground, most of which was near the stream.
- A timber stand improvement in the riparian area
- 100 feet stream bank stabilization with rock riprap was added to the stream
- An 8-acre parcel received two wetland restorations and upland habitat using native plants, and more.
One early leader in conservation practices is also one of the farmers who had been at it the longest.
Clem Johanns began farming after a two year stint in the Navy and is still at it 55 years later. He owned 280 acres and leased additional ground for his row crop and cattle operation, but has since scaled back.
“I like to hunt and I like to fish. I had a bunch of boys who liked to hunt and fish too. My daughter liked to fish more than all of them,” Johanns said. “You got to take care of this land. It’s taken care of us and we raised 12 kids.”
Johanns’ conservation ethic has been with him since he began farming. He installed grassed waterways, enrolled parcels in CRP, and created grassed buffers near the stream. He also planted trees, was a leader in ridge tilling and has 30 acres of quail buffers.
Johanns didn’t receive project dollars for many of his conservation practices. He said he did them because he believed it was the right thing to do. He enjoys fishing the trout stream and is proud to have a stretch of 80 rods (that’s a quarter mile to you and me) of the stream on his property. He only keeps the rough fish to give to a friend for his trap line. All the trout Johanns catches go back to Burr Oak Creek.
“It is human nature to want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem,” Bratrud said.
While Burr Oak Creek has good fishing, it is considered a low priority stream due to the lack of public access, flowing almost exclusively through private land.
Bill Kalishek, DNR district fisheries biologist from Decorah, sampled the stream in August 2011 and said it was the first time they documented natural reproduction of trout in Burr Oak Creek. Natural reproduction occurs in streams with excellent water quality and this little gem on the far western edge of trout country appears to be moving in that direction.
The sampling found 507 brown trout per mile, mostly 3-inch fish. The largest trout measured 17 inches. The sample was taken from a quarter-mile stretch of the stream.
The stream has been designated as an emerging self sustaining trout stream, meaning if it shows signs of supporting natural reproduction when it is re-sampled in three years, it will be declared as supporting natural reproduction.
“The samples are separated by three years to take chance out of the equation - that everything aligned for natural reproduction to happen,” said Kalishek.
Meanwhile, Burr Oak Creek’s reputation is spreading beyond Mitchell County as more and more anglers with out of county license plates are showing up with fishing gear in tow.
And there is a history of large fish coming from Burr Oak Creek beyond Shifty Sawyer. Photos from the 1970s show a stringer of five trout reportedly weighing more than 25 pounds.
Burr Oak Creek has provided a lot of recreation over the years and serves as a demonstration for good land practices in the watershed. The project received financial support from the Iowa DNR Watershed Improvement Program (through EPA Section 319 funds) and from the IDALS-Division of Soil Conservation.
Burr Oak Creek is used as a demonstration project to encourage other farmers to do similar work on their land to reduce runoff and improve water quality in their own watershed.
“It’s amazing how these types of projects serve as demonstrations, let others see how it works and hopefully can duplicate that,” Kalishek said.
Success stories like this do not happen by accident. It takes a lot of hard work and partnerships to make it happen and the Burr Oak Creek watershed project had many additional partners including the Mitchell County Soil and Water Conservation District, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Mitchell County Conservation Board, Iowa State University Extension, Mitchell County Cattlemen and watershed landowners and operators.