Mon April 8, 2013
DNR Fishes For Ideas On Keeping Driftless Area Trout Thriving
The trout streams in the Driftless Region provide some of the best fishing in the state. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) wants to keep it that way, so it is beginning to address some future problems, like climate change and invasive species. But first, it wants to know the public’s priorities.
At a semi-secret fishing spot on the North Branch of the Bad Axe River, Pete Cozad casts his line across the fast-moving waters, hoping to catch a trout.
Cozad is the head fly-fishing guide at the Viroqua fly shop, Driftless Angler. He checked out of the big city years ago to be closer to nature, especially the brook trout: “They’re the prettiest fish I ever caught. I love them so much, I have one tattooed on my arm.”
Cozad says the Driftless Region’s winding, cold streams are an ideal habitat for quality trout. And, he says, locals take good care of the land. He says there would be more opportunities to fish if the DNR bought larger easement corridors along the streams, allowing for more public access. The DNR could then work on bank stabilization and habitat restoration.
Cozad says this would help more than landowners: “Whatever comes downstream, if that person upstream is not protecting it, everybody downstream gets your waste, whatever it may be: silt, farm runoff, any kind of non-natural chemicals coming down the stream.”
Cozad’s desire for more public easements is echoed by many trout fishermen in the region. And it is one idea the DNR is taking note of, as it creates a master plan for the Driftless Area streams.
In a packed meeting room at the picturesque Kickapoo Valley Reserve, enthusiastic trout fishermen and conservationists tell officials where they would like to see the DNR focus its money and energy.
“The trout is what bring many of us here,” says Bob Wagner of Viola purchased his property on Elk Creek for the trout stream. He says he is mostly concerned about the future of the brook trout. Its population is being threatened by the more aggressive brown trout: “The brown trout is great, but the brook trout are native and there’s an ethic associated with it.”
DNR Senior Inland Fisheries Biologist Jordan Weeks says in the future, they could focus efforts on streams with healthy brook trout populations. But in the end, he says it comes down to the environment: “As water warms, brook trout can’t survive in certain water conditions. If that occurs, we’ll be left with brown trout.”
Climate change is a major concern for the department. It predicts many of the trout streams will warm up within 40 years. As part of the master plan, the DNR could focus on maintaining streams that are predicted to remain colder.
Overall, though, Weeks says the trout population has never been as high as it is now: “So what we have right now is a whole bunch of medium-sized fish. If you want to catch a bunch of wild trout, the Driftless Area is the place to go.”
And people are going. According to the DNR, fishing brings in $1.1 billion to the Driftless Region annually.
Meeting attendees say the DNR will have to address the stream issues if it wants people from Chicago and Minneapolis to continue vacationing in the area: “Oh, did you see that trout just eat it?! Of course, I was on a strip and he tried to eat it. I’ll see if I can get him again.”
Back at the Bad Axe River, the trout are not biting. Pete Cozad says it could be the cold, murky water or his bad luck fly.
In the end, Cozad says the state and volunteer groups, like Trout Unlimited, need to work together to protect the waters, but it really comes down to the Driftless residents: “Because the locals, in my opinion, are the ones that are going to take care of the water. You’ve got the out-of-town money — that’s going to support it, but once they leave, who’s left? It’s the locals.”
A group he knows can protect the land.