Trout reintroduced to Iowa river headwaters

Fish trace genetic strain to state's 'post-settlement times'

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Scott Conway says he can’t wait to catch one of the native trout stocked earlier this year in the nameless spring-fed stream that flows through his Winneshiek County farm.

Conway, who describes himself as “a bit of a trout fisherman,” said he’s “fired up” about the stocking. That’s a testament to his family’s environmental stewardship and water quality gains achieved through the Yellow River Headwaters Water Quality Project.

“This is the genetic strain of South Pine brook trout — the last remnant population of trout found in Iowa from post-settlement times,” said Corey Meyer, watershed coordinator for the Winneshiek County Soil and Water Conservation District.

The reintroduction would not have been possible without the efforts of landowners, producers and cooperators to go beyond their basic conservation practices, said Meyer, who coordinated the project that began in 2009.

Along with restoring a haven for the esteemed brookies, the project’s reductions in bacteria and sediment put some of the affected streams on track for removal from the state’s impaired waters list, Meyer said.

The Yellow River headwaters watershed encompasses 26,119 acres in Winneshiek and Allamakee counties. Its two main branches join to form the Yellow River, Iowa’s largest cold-water stream, draining, with its tributaries, 154,500 acres.

With the steepest gradient of any Iowa river, the Yellow falls from 1,310 feet in its headwaters to 612 feet at its confluence with the Mississippi River at Effigy Mounds National Monument.

Sections of the two headwaters branches are considered impaired for primary contact and aquatic life, largely because of high levels of bacteria from wading cattle, runoff from field-applied manure and open feedlots, faulty septic systems and wildlife.

The watershed management plan outlines a goal to reduce bacteria delivery to the streams by 90 percent in 10 years — reductions that would qualify the streams for removal from the impaired waters list.

“We’re not there yet, but we are making good progress,” Meyer said. “We attacked manure runoff, installing manure storage tanks, closing open lots, following best management practices for manure applications and keeping livestock out of streams.”

The practices reduced bacterial loading by 43 percent at one site, with several others recording reductions greater than 30 percent, he said.

“We didn’t reduce cattle numbers. We just got them away from the streams,” said Meyer.

He noted that improved grazing practices reduced livestock stream access by 59 percent.

Project participants have installed 16.7 miles of streamside buffers, stabilized 1.5 miles of stream bank and excluded livestock from 2.1 miles of stream, he said.

Department of Natural Resources fisheries technician Theresa Shay said 700 South Pine brookies — each from two to two and a half inches long — were stocked in the creek on May 24.

Fisheries personnel captured their parents in South Pine last November and took them to the Manchester Hatchery, where fertilized eggs were collected before the adults were returned to their home stream, Shay said.

A lot of thought, planning and research preceded the stocking to ensure a high likelihood that the trout would survive in their new home, she said.

Shay said brook trout require water that never gets warmer than 65 degrees. In 2016, sensors in the stream recorded a high temperature of 58 degrees, she said.

Also during 2016, fisheries personnel sampled aquatic life in the stream, finding chubs, suckers, darters, dace and shiners — but no trout.

Shay described the stream as narrow, with good flow and lots of cobble bottom, undercut backs and overhanging vegetation — hallmarks of a high-quality trout stream. A survey will be done this fall to assess their survival, she said.

Shay said South Pine brookies also were stocked this spring in the Silver Creek watershed in western Winneshiek County and eastern Howard County, where a similar watershed conservation project is underway.

The stockings — part of an effort to spread out the unique genetic strain to make it less vulnerable to a catastrophic pollution event — would not be feasible without the water quality improvements yielded by watershed conservation efforts, Shay said.

The watershed management plan also proposes to reduce sediment and nutrient pollution by slowing the flow of water from the land.

Project goals — a 50 percent reduction in sediment delivery from watershed land and a 15 percent reduction through curtailing streambank erosion — would keep more than 17,000 tons of sediment per year from entering the streams.

Gale Koenig, who farms Conway’s land near Castalia, said a network of terraces and strips of hay between his row crops help hold the soil in place.

From a distance, he said, the unnamed creek does not look special. But a closer look reveals springs all along its course and a nearly complete canopy of vegetation.

Conway, who grew up playing in the creek, said he can step or jump across it at almost any point. In a year or two, when the trout are big enough to pursue, “it will take some skill and stealth to catch one of them,” he said

l Comments: (319) 934-3172; orlan.love@thegazette.com

“This is the genetic strain of South Pine brook trout — the last remnant population of trout found in Iowa from post-settlement times."

- Corey Meyer, watershed coordinator

Winneshiek County Soil and Water Conservation District

“We’re not there yet, but we are making good progress. We attacked manure runoff, installing manure storage tanks, closing open lots, following best management practices for manure applications and keeping livestock out of streams.”

- Corey Meyer, watershed coordinator

Winneshiek County Soil and Water Conservation District

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