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Trout streams were shaped by nature. No amount of management can make one out of a stream that wasn't meant to provide fast, cold, clean water, but management can restore damaged streams.
DNR teams have the know-how for that work.
"We're a model for the nation in acquiring lands along trout streams, protecting waters and restoring wild fish populations," says Larry Claggett, a DNR coldwater fisheries ecologist. Wisconsin focuses on protecting stream channels and modifying their banks to create favorable conditions for fish. It's the cornerstone of DNR's trout management program, Claggett notes.
During the past 150 years, people made our streams and waterways work hard to carry logs and produce power. Beaver dams, cattle grazing, construction, pollution and floods also took their toll on trout streams. The damage was measured in higher water temperatures, eroded streambanks, turbid water and declining numbers of trout, Claggett explains, but in the past 30 years a lot of streams and habitat have been restored to more natural forms.
The incentive to restore trout streams came from Wisconsin conservationists through their legislators who supported a fee structure for Wisconsin's trout stamp in 1977. Proceeds are strictly designated for improving and maintaining inland trout streams by working on stream channels and their immediate surroundings. The consistent stream of money pays for long-term habitat improvements rather than relying on stocking that would only temporarily improve fishing. About 130,000 stamps have been sold annually in Wisconsin over the past 10 years.
Using trout stamp money and some funding from fishing license sales and federal funds, more than 550 miles of 400 different coldwater streams have been improved.
State fisheries restoration crews draw on techniques they have developed to work with the unique characteristics – and remedy the historic woes – of regional streams.
In southwestern Wisconsin, crews stabilize steep streambanks and scour away sediment that washed down from hillsides in the late 1800s and early 1900s as a result of grazing and row cropping. In northern Wisconsin, crews narrow and return the meanders in wide streams that were straightened and damaged by log drives, logging dams and beaver dams. In northeastern Wisconsin, crews reverse the effects of erosion from farm fields and historic sedimentation from logging.
Traditional bank work included building undercut banks and adding rocks to provide fish cover. Now, fish biologists also are adding wood to the streams and their bank to provide shade, cover, erosion control and a nursery for buglife.
Historically, many Wisconsin streams were strewn with fallen trees that naturally provided such cover. The Brule River, for example, was once a tangled mass of wood. But during the log drives, loggers cleared the river of wood and rocks so that they could more easily float rafts of logs down river. It changed the stream, and the fish population suffered from a lack of food and shelter that dead wood had provided.
The Tomorrow River project in Waupaca and Portage counties shows how trout habitat can bounce back along a stretch of the river that was shallow, lacked cover and damaged by cows pasturing in the area. DNR and Trout Unlimited (TU) designed a restoration plan, in consultation with landowners.
DNR crews placed LUNKERs – which are pre-fabricated bank structures that are placed on the outside bends of streams, jut into the water and are covered with rock and soil to look natural. LUNKERS were developed by Dave Vetrano, a DNR fisheries biologist in La Crosse and provide cover that fish can hide under. The stream narrows, water flows faster through the channel and scours sediment from the bottom. Gravel and cobble revealed on the streambed provide areas for food and trout reproduction. TU installed 100 half logs to create more cover and put up a fence to keep livestock out of the water.
Dam removal also is an important management tool for restoring fish habitat by returning streams to their natural free-flowing condition. The River Alliance of Wisconsin notes that about 60 dams have been removed from Wisconsin streams in three decades – the largest number of dam removals in the nation.
The 1998 removal of the Waterworks Dam in Baraboo shows dam removal can be a proven river restoration tool. Dams transformed the Baraboo Rapids segment of the Baraboo River from a fast-moving stream with healthy fish populations to a series of sluggish impoundments. What once supported a spawning lake sturgeon population in pre-settlement days became known for its carp.
By removing the dam, three-quarters of a mile of high-quality riffle habitat, rare in southern Wisconsin rivers, was restored to its free-flowing condition. Only 18 months after removal, the DNR found 24 species of fish in the newly free-flowing stretch of the river, the dominant species was smallmouth bass.
Another sign that habitat restoration efforts coupled with other management tools like regulations and catch-and-release fishing is working is the return of brook trout, the state's only native stream trout. Waters such as tributaries to the West fork of the Kickapoo River are seeing remarkably healthy brook trout populations.
Today, Wisconsin leads the nation in miles of high quality (Class I) trout streams – 3,500 miles with naturally self-sustaining trout populations.
"Experienced trout anglers are telling me again and again it's the best fishing in recent memory," Claggett says.
For a copy of a report describing other inland trout habitat improvement projects in Wisconsin, e-mail Larry Claggett or call (608) 267-9658.
Natasha Kassulke is the associate editor of Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine.