In celebration of Earth Day, by guest author Steve Born
Thanks to dedicated stewardship of trout habitat, magazine stories, flyfishing film festivals, and word-of-mouth among anglers fueled by the Internet revolution, Wisconsin is no longer just flyover country.
A growing legion of admirers has made the state and its 13,000 miles of trout waters a destination.
So, the “good old days” of trout fishing are NOW. These are the best of times for trout anglers based on fish populations, size of the trout, and increasing opportunities.
One of the reasons is Wisconsin’s leadership in natural resource management and protection—and its great influence on the national conservation movement. It is this historical and continuing commitment to conservation that is key to the future sustainability of our coldwater trout streams—more in need of protection than ever. Trout require year-round cold water to survive, and in many parts of the state nutrient-rich creeks fed mostly by cool spring water provide some of the most treasured haunts for trout and anglers.
If past is prologue, conservation heroes will emerge to protect the resource. The legendary John Muir walked through Wisconsin long before he discovered the vistas of California’s Yosemite Valley. Aldo Leopold researched the state’s wonderful land and water resources and formulated a comprehensive way of thinking about the earth’s riches long before the term “ecologist” came into everyday use. Gaylord Nelson was governor and created a trend-setting land and water protection program here years before he became the father of Earth Day while serving in the U. S. Senate in 1970. Dedicated university and government researchers have contributed many ideas and discoveries that have played major roles in understanding, preserving, and protecting a trout resource enjoyed by more than 140,000 people who buy fishing licenses and inland trout stamps each year.
Avid anglers enjoy rich “limestoners” in the unglaciated Driftless area of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa that rival those in England and central Pennsylvania. They survey miles and miles of remote brook trout water in the glaciated and heavily forested northern part of the state. They pursue remnant populations of the great native Lake Superior brook trout, hanging onto a niche in the largest of the Great Lakes. They wade big, tumbling freestone rivers like the Namekagon in northwest Wisconsin or float natural spring ponds in northern Wisconsin reminiscent of beaver ponds in New England. They hope brook trout streams in the central part of the state.
Happily, the good news is that all of this fishing is very accessible. Wisconsin, because of its strong Public Trust doctrine that ensures public access to all navigable waters, is a place where you don’t have to belong to a private club to catch the big one, or simply have a quality fishing experience. All the streams and rivers we feature in the 2nd edition of Exploring Wisconsin Trout Streams have numerous access points. The best water can be yours—as long as you have the required fishing license and trout stamp, and obey the regulations that help maintain healthy fisheries.
Trout fishing has never been better in the Badger state. Since our first edition over a decade ago, DNR fisheries biologists have aggressively continued the wild trout program, using the offspring of naturally reproducing trout for repopulating streams. The wild trout have flourished. Stocking has its place—for urban fisheries where natural reproduction is limited or impossible because of warm water or lack of habitat, for example—but Nature’s way is better and more cost efficient.
Good land management and land use, along with habitat and water quality improvement, are key to the future of trout populations. U.S. Geological Survey studies, particularly in southwestern Wisconsin, have documented significant improvements in baseflow to streams, and some decrease in flood peaks. These positive changes are attributed in part to changing farming practices and land use—the decline in grazing on steep slopes subject to erosion, for example.
But old threats—agricultural runoff, habitat loss, mining impacts, sprawl development, non-sustainable use of aquifers—along with newer ones like invasive species, fish diseases, and climate change are cause for concern.
These are the best of times for trout anglers. Whether that can be said 50 years from now to some degree depends on us—what we do individually, as members of conservation organizations, as citizens and shapers of governmental decisions, and as leaders in our communities.
—Born is a co-author of the 2nd edition of Exploring Wisconsin Trout Streams, available now at University of Wisconsin Press.