KELLOGG — With scarcely a glance, Shawn Haase reached into a big tub of cold water and grabbed a fish resplendent in stunning oranges and yellows, its fins accented in white, its side dabbled with gold and red spots.
With practiced hands, the supervisor of the Peterson Trout Hatchery squeezed streams of bright orange eggs out of a brook trout, then added milt from an equally gorgeous male, mixing the two with water.
Thus began the lives of hundreds of what will soon be a new strain of trout the Department of Natural Resources believes will be better than many other brook trout strains now in the blufflands.
The genetics of the fish Haase was stripping, for sure, has been in the region for many decades; it’s possible before Europeans. Without DNA from centuries ago, however, it’s impossible to say for sure that the strain Haase and others were working to increase and multiply is indeed native. Experts work around it by calling it a heritage strain.
But here’s the key point — eggs from two other families of heritage trout will also be added at the Crystal Springs Hatchery near Elba; together, they will create a new strain that could be stocked in a few more years and could be the exceptional strain the DNR hopes it will be.
Say hello to Minnesota Driftless.
The story of how Haase and others from the DNR ended up on the banks of East Indian Creek near Kellogg a few weeks ago goes back to pre-European times.
Brook trout are the only native species of trout in the Driftless Region of southeastern Minnesota, southwestern Wisconsin and northeastern Iowa, an area of deep valleys, virtually no lakes and thousands of miles of spring-fed streams. Brown trout are a European fish introduced maybe 150 years ago and now dominant in the region’s streams because they can tolerate warmer, somewhat poorer water; rainbows are a western fish that is only stocked and doesn’t reproduce.
When Europeans came, they dramatically ravished the landscape from one of pristine prairie with some woods to one of farms with a lot of woods. They farmed the blufflands badly, leading to massive erosion and polluted streams. Brook trout were either wiped out or pushed back into a few isolated reaches.
Later, brook trout from hatcheries in other states were stocked in southeast streams. The DNR then developed a fish, the Minnesota Wild, created with fish from other states as well as heritage fish; they were reared at Crystal Springs.
Then two things happened, said Kevin Stauffer, area fisheries supervisor in Lake City who led the East Indian egg collection.
First, the DNR began a DNA analysis a few decades ago of brook trout in the region because they were expanding their range. A paper written by the DNR’s Loren Miller, John Hoxmeier and Doug Dieterman, found “Brook Trout were present in 68 percent of coldwater streams compared with only in 3 percent in the early 1970s. The increase is likely due to increasing stream discharge throughout the Driftless Area, enabling recolonization or successful establishment of stocked populations.” They found maybe 80 different strains, often made up of different combinations of known hatchery fish from other states.
But three groupings from different parts of the region had no known genetics from any hatchery.
The big question was whether they were natives or from an unknown hatchery, Miller said. That puzzle remains. Hence the term “heritage” instead of “native.”
What they did know, Stauffer said, was when they put heritage fish in streams with brookies from hatcheries, hatchery “genetics faded out,” he said. In other words, the heritage fish are more robust, more adaptable.
Miller foresees more streams with both Driftless and part-hatchery brook trout eventually undergoing the same trial. “Will they prove to be superior when they are competing head to head?” he said. “That will be a neat test to do in some places.”
The second thing that happened was Crystal Springs had all its brood stock and young fish intentionally killed five years ago. A pathogen that could have gotten in during a massive flood couldn’t be wiped out.
“We had no Minnesota hatchery source of brook trout any more,” Stauffer said. They needed a new strain and also had the genetics to know what was or wasn’t from hatcheries, he said. And they knew the heritage strain did well.
Hence the effort to create the new Driftless strain.
That led the DNR to take eggs and milt last year at East Indian, did it again this year and expects to do it again in 2021, Stauffer said. It’s also going to take heritage fish from other streams to add genetic diversity, he said.
When they took the eggs or milt at East Indian, each female was checked for bacterial kidney disease (males can’t be easily checked), he said. Those with it couldn’t have their eggs used. The great news is that, while 64 percent of the fish last year tested positive for the disease, none did this year, he said. Maybe the 2019 fish were under more stress, he said.
Each fish was fitted with a special tag so if electroshocked again next year, it won’t be used for eggs or milt to ensure maximum genetic diversity, he said.
It’s going to take a few more years for Crystal Springs to produce enough Driftless fish for large-scale stocking, Stauffer said.
Part of the reason for putting all the work into the Driftless fish is to conserve genetics, he said. “We want to be really thoughtful with the genetics we do with fish,” he said.
Another is that some anglers love pursuing the fish because of its roots in the region. Heritage fish are survivors, he said. Somehow, they were able to live through the Dirty 30s with all its pollution and rotten land use, and continued to thrive and spread out.
Finally, he said, “they are just a gorgeous fish.”
John Weiss has written and reported about Outdoors topics for the Post Bulletin for more than 40 years. He is the author of the book "Backroads: The Best of the Best by Post-Bulletin Columnist John Weiss"