Dan Kirby had never been on the David Reiss property when he stepped into a small stream in 2011 with a backpack shocker used to survey trout streams. The watercress-covered stream didn’t have much water flowing, but when Kirby turned on the electricity and the probe hit the water, 2-to 3-inch brown trout floated to the surface.
To Kirby, fisheries biologist for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the presence of these young trout was evidence that adult trout in the stream were reproducing on their own.
Tete Des Morts Creek is on the southern edge of Iowa’s driftless region along the Dubuque-Jackson county line. The DNR stocked 4-inch long trout from 1991 to 2005 hoping to create a trout fishery with fish that grew up in the stream like wild trout. The stocking had limited success.
In 2005, they began stocking a different strain of brown trout spawned from fish collected in French Creek. This new strain of brown trout had better survival in other streams and Kirby wanted to see how they would do in Tete Des Morts Creek. The last 4-inch trout were released in 2010.
Kirby was back on site in August, meeting with Reiss and Michelle Turner, watershed project coordinator for the Jackson Soil and Water Conservation District in Maquoketa.
“With the heat and drought, 2012 will be a test, no doubt,” Kirby said. He plans to check the stream in 2014 to see if the trout population is sustaining itself.
The future of Tete Des Morts Creek looks bright. More than 50 landowners participated in a watershed project by using conservation practices on their land to reduce runoff and protect water quality.
The 16-mile-long Tete Des Morts Creek was identified in 2008 as a priority watershed by Jackson Soil and Water Conservation District commissioners.
This led to a watershed project with the goal of reducing sediment and nutrients reaching the stream by 40 percent, improving aquatic habitat and removing Tete Des Morts Creek from the state’s impaired waters list. The watershed consists of 30,433 acres of rolling farm ground and steep limestone bluffs.
A survey of the steam’s physical condition and a survey of landowners identified streambank and gully erosion as the two main physical problems. Soil runoff and livestock access to the stream were also noted as possible contributors to poor water quality.
The Tete Des Morts Creek watershed project was instantly popular with local landowners, due in part to the success of the nearby Farmers Creek watershed project. Many of the landowners have farms and property that straddle the boundary between the two watersheds.
“We had credibility because of the Farmers Creek project and could refer reluctant landowners to their neighbors who had experience with these projects,” Turner said.
Landowners voluntarily adopted practices such as rotational grazing, fencing to keep livestock away from the stream, contour farming and grassed waterways by taking advantage of the project’s financial incentives.
Once in place, these practices improved the water quality in Tete Des Morts Creek and contributed to the stream supporting a robust population of trout. Trout need quality water to thrive and Tete Des Morts recently became just the 64th stream in Iowa with reproducing trout.
Additional water monitoring will determine if these efforts have fully restored the streams aquatic life and removed the aquatic impairment.
“We were extremely impressed with the quality of the stream and the riparian area on this segment of the stream,” Kirby said. “It was obvious to us that the stream has been well cared for at this site and the trout population has benefited.”
The Jackson Soil and Water Conservation District partnered with the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources Watershed Improvement Program through EPA Section 319 grant funding on the Tete Des Morts Creek watershed project.
Logo courtesy Iowa Department of Natural Resources