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Wild Side: Brook trout thriving in restored Pine Creek

Doug Snow of River Falls with a male brook trout in spawning colors last week on Pine Creek. Dan Wilcox photo.

Eastern brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) are the native trout in eastern North America. Brook trout are char, related to lake trout, bull trout, Dolly Varden and Arctic char. They are adapted to cold, clear, well-oxygenated streams, lakes and ponds.

Many small cold-water streams flow out of the limestone karst geology in the Driftless (without glacial drift soils) Area of southwestern Wisconsin, southeastern Minnesota and northeastern Iowa. These streams have historically supported abundant brook trout populations. Most of the streams in the Driftless Area were severely damaged by erosion of the loess (glacial wind-deposited silt) soils on the bluff top agricultural land in the late 1800's and early 1900's. Large volumes of sediment eroded off the uplands and filled the valley bottoms. Many streams in the region are still down-cutting through all that historically-deposited sediment.

Sedimentation and grazing by cattle resulted in blown-out stream geometry with high cut banks and shallow sediment-filled channels. Brook trout habitat in many Driftless Area streams was destroyed and the brook trout were forced to retreat to the small cold headwaters creeks. Brown trout introduced from Europe in the 1800s compete with brook trout for food and spawning habitat in the larger streams, further stressing the brook trout populations.

Pine Creek flows from springs at the base of the bluffs near the Mississippi River in Pierce County south of Maiden Rock. It's a small cold-water stream that flows directly into Lake Pepin. Like many other Driftless Area streams, it suffered from severe sedimentation and bank erosion. The brook trout population was still there but low, constrained by poor habitat conditions.

The West Wisconsin Land Trust purchased two large properties on Pine Creek, conserving them forever. The Land Trust approached the DNR and Trout Unlimited about a stream restoration project. The land has been transferred to DNR ownership. Starting in 2007, the DNR, volunteers from Trout Unlimited and Fairmount Minerals have worked to restore the Pine Creek. The project goals are to stabilize the severely eroding banks, provide in-stream cover, and provide increased trout spawning and aquatic habitat in the stream.

Funding for the Pine Creek project has come from Wisconsin Trout Stamp funds, and Embrace-A-Stream grant from Trout Unlimited, Friends of Wisconsin Trout Unlimited, Trout Unlimited Kiap-tu-Wish and Twin Cities Chapters. Over 750 hours of hard volunteer field work has gone into the project to date.

The steep eroding banks are being graded to a gentler slope to reduce stream bank erosion. "Lunker" structures are being installed to provide overhead shelter for trout, providing cool shaded habitat protected from bird predation. These heavy wooden structures are covered with rock and soil and then seeded with native vegetation. Clusters of boulders are being placed to provide varied stream habitat. The narrower, deeper stream with gravel and rock substrate has effectively restored habitat for aquatic insects and brook trout in Pine Creek.

According to Kent Johnson of the Kiap-tu-Wish Chapter of Trout Unlimited, the Pine creek project is now about 75 percent done and will be completed this year. A total of about two miles of stream will be restored, from the American Legion Post down to the old Highway 35 bridge.

Marty Engel, DNR Fisheries Biologist, has monitored fish in the Pine Creek restoration project area. Electrofishing has revealed that the brook trout numbers and size of individuals have increased markedly in the restored stream. Where there were once only a few brook trout in the deepest pools, now brook trout occur throughout the restored parts of the stream.

Fishing for brook trout is fun but it is also difficult. Casting into a small stream with plenty of vegetation on the bank can be frustrating as can the swarms of deer flies and mosquitoes. The reward is catching the most beautiful fish in Wisconsin.

Some good news for River Falls area brook trout fans is that the DNR and the Kiap-tu-Wish Chapter of Trout Unlimited are setting their sights on a restoration project on Rocky Branch, a small brook trout stream tributary to the Kinnickinnic River. That project may begin in 2013.

Brook trout are indicators of the health of the watersheds they inhabit. Abundant wild brook trout populations demonstrate that a stream or river ecosystem is healthy and that water quality is excellent. Thriving brook trout populations in our region also demonstrate that people care about the quality of streams and their watersheds.

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