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The brook trout in South Pine Creek might be the most well-known of the trout species in the Hawkeye State. And for good reason. This strain has been confirmed through two genetic assessments as unique to Iowa.
South Pine Creek is a small, cold, high-quality stream flowing through a prairie-lined valley on the South Pine Wildlife Area in northeast Winneshiek County. The consistently cold stream temperatures, heavily influenced by groundwater, has allowed brook trout to survive.
“People come here to fish because it’s a pretty special spot,” said Troy Anderson, wildlife biologist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Upper Iowa Unit.
The small, winding stream is a mile-long hike down an access lane from the one-and-only parking lot on the north end of the wildlife area.
South Pine Creek relies on natural reproduction of brook trout, and of brown trout, to sustain its population. Since these two species grow up wild, they are more difficult to catch than the hatchery raised and widely released rainbow trout. Nearly 1.2 miles of the stream flows through the South Pine area.
“It’s a unique area with special fishing regulations which requires more technical skills of the angler,” said Michael Siepker, fisheries biologist with the Iowa DNR’s Decorah trout hatchery. “People hike in here for the experience of catching a wild Iowa brook trout.”
The special regulations restrict fishing to artificial lures only and all brook trout must be released alive. A recent regulation change allows anglers to keep brown trout (five per day, possession limit of 10), as a means of supporting the brook trout population.
“Our priority is to protect the brook trout and that unique Iowa ancestry,” Siepker said.
That ancestry is being shared with other high-quality streams in northeast Iowa, through a brook trout fingerling stocking effort.
The South Pine brookies are collected around the first of November, spawned streamside then released back into stream. The fertilized eggs are taken to the Manchester trout hatchery where they are raised to fingerling sized before being released to grow up wild.
On this early August morning, the prairie surrounding the stream is just beginning to flower. It’s a strong year for the raggedy, purple, wild bergamot with goldenrod, vervain, common boneset and mountain mint also prominent.
While the stream and trout are the primary focus, South Pine Wildlife Area supports good turkey, rabbit and squirrel hunting, but is mostly known for deer.
“It’s pretty secluded and there’s only one access so you’ll know if anyone is there,” Anderson said.
Forest makes up around 75 percent of South Pine with white oaks prominent among the tree species, but a small pocket of aspens sites on the northwest part of the area. Given South Pine’s location in the state and the existence of aspens, it was a prime candidate for a project to attract and support ruffed grouse by cutting aspens for its regrowth.
Ruffed grouse rely on aspens during its life and the population in the Upper Midwest, including Iowa, has been in decline from some time.
“The aspen cut is about eight years old and it responded really well, but we don’t know if it has attracted any grouse or not,” Anderson said as a woodcock flushed from the aspens.