A different perspective on trout

A different perspective on trout
Mel Haugstad reviews reports he recently compiled from field notes of stream conditions he made many years ago when he was a Department of Natural Resources fisheries manager.

PRESTON — From Mel Haugstad's perspective, the best days of trout fishing and trout streams were in the mid-1980s before "big ag" began pushing for more planting, more plowing, more row crops.

The Preston man was the top Department of Natural Resources trout manager for a few decades until retiring in 1990. In his years with the DNR, he walked and surveyed nearly every mile of streams in the region as well as many "nothing" streams that don't hold trout. He is also an accomplished angler who, according to his meticulous records, has caught 32,547 trout from 1959 to the present. Most were brown trout caught in the southeast.

Problems with streams showed up many decades ago because of land use problems that also led to more flooding, he said. There was virtually no natural reproduction in the late 1940s.

Then the Soil Conservation Service came in with programs to slow or stop erosion, the first habitat improvement project for trout was done in the late 1940s. Still, when he came to the region in 1969, he was surprised at how few trout there were because it has so much cool water.

Conditions took a dive in the early 1970s when farmers were encouraged to plant "fencerow to fencerow" so America could export more grains. "We had some bad years there," he said. Also, farm chemicals led to some big fish kills, Haugstad said. "Big ag always denied it, always denied it," he said.


After that, however, conditions began to improve and natural reproduction improved so the DNR didn't have to stock so many adult fish. Canfield Creek near Forestville State Park was the first found to have wild fish.

Gribben Creek got more wild fish when the state bought some land for state forest and got rid of some feedlots and overgrazing, he said.

Then came the drought of the late 1980s and water flows slowed, trout populations suffered.

Today, there are more good fishing regulations and habitat work. "Those parts have made it better," he said,

But again, land use changes have hurt. "There are so many negatives," Haugstad. More grasslands are being plowed for row crops. "I have never seen the Root River as dirty as it was last summer for so long," he said. "I think land use has gone backwards because there is a lot more tilled land."

He said the area needs to get back to more rotational grazing of livestock instead of all the row crops.

He believes claims by the DNR now that these are the golden days of trout fishing are wrong and there isn't as many miles of trout waters as it says.  "They claim so many miles of water that I wouldn't claim," he said.

Steve Klotz, area fisheries supervisor, disagrees with his predecessor's assessment of conditions today.


The DNR has been saying for years that land use is a problem, especially going to more row crops and that the federal farm bill drives what is happening on the land and therefore, in the streams. But he said overall, conditions "are as good as they have been right now … There is no way fishing is better in the 80s."

Back then, wild trout populations were just beginning and stocking was still needed. It's been a long time since the DNR has stocked adult fish.

There really are more than 700 miles of streams that have trout, though not every mile is a prime stream, he said.


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