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Image of winter trout fishing.

More Time for Trout

With the prospect of less complicated regulations, more anglers could soon be enjoying
the simple pleasure of fishing southeastern Minnesota trout streams in all seasons.

by Michael A. Kallok

Like a belated holiday gift, winter stream trout season arrives on the first of January. At the first forecast of highs in the 30s, my wife, Kelly, and I make a weekend journey to the valleys of southeastern Minnesota. Sometimes fishing is tough; other times we're pleasantly surprised by a late-afternoon hatch of midges—an event that might cause a few trout to look up for food. After we've spent the first half of winter staring down holes in the ice, we welcome the sight of a fish rising to the surface and eating one of our floating insect imitations.

See how DNR fisheries uses electrofishing to assess trout populations.

We fish until our hands get too cold to tie knots. Then we tramp back through the snow to our car and drive to a café for burgers. There we recount the day's events and smile through the pain of thawing appendages. Because winter catch-and-release angling is allowed on only 132 miles of the region's roughly 1,000 miles of trout streams, our talk occasionally turns to favorite stretches of streams we wish were fair game. But come next winter, that discussion isn't likely to happen.

Trout are doing well in most southeastern Minnesota streams, and as a result, some welcome changes in fishing regulations could be in store for bluff-country trout anglers. Under the suggested regulations, trout fishing in Forestville, Whitewater, Beaver Creek Valley, and Carley state parks would be open year-round. All designated trout streams (where the DNR manages trout populations and regulates fishing) would be open during the winter catch-and-release season, which runs through March 31. The close of fall catch-and-release season would extend to Oct. 15.

In 2010 the DNR put forward these potential changes as a way to start a dialogue with resource users. The changes garnered public support in meetings with local residents and stakeholder groups, such as Trout Unlimited and the Minnesota Trout Association.

The goal is to provide more opportunities for trout anglers and to simplify fishing regulations. Based on decades of brook and brown trout population assessments, the regulation changes would pose little risk to the fishery, says DNR area assistant fisheries supervisor Vaughn Snook.

Too Many Small Trout?

Trout Run Creek provides an example of a common phenomenon in southeastern Minnesota streams: density dependence. It results when streams have plenty of spawning habitat and too many trout competing for food and cover, which limits growth. Consequently, 12- to 16-inch trout are the least common. Trout Run Creek's current slot limit protects fish of that size range. Fisheries managers hoped anglers would harvest smaller fish, but that hasn't happened.

Some anglers mistakenly assume that if a slot limit is good for the fishery, catch-and-release must be even better. The reality, says DNR's Vaughn Snook, is that anglers would be helping to improve the size structure of trout populations if they harvested fish under 12 inches.

Other Driftless Waters

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The benefits of the Clean Water Act of 1972 and federal incentives such as the Conservation Reserve Program, which sets aside erodible land and thus helps reduce runoff into streams, have also been realized in Wisconsin and Iowa. These neighboring states share a portion of this region of limestone bluffs, deep valleys, and trout-filled spring creeks.

"In the early '80s, we had about three streams that had natural reproduction of brown trout. Now, we have 34 streams with natural reproduction of brown trout," says Theresa Shay, a natural resource technician for the Iowa DNR in Decorah. Regarding Iowa's continuous trout season, she notes that there is no evidence to show that it is biologically harmful to trout populations.

"Our big concern is not a change in the regulations or pressure from anglers from a different state. We don't see the impact from anglers in a stream stepping on spawning nests. Our issue is more with current farming practices," says Shay. "That far outweighs any impact from anglers."

De-Barbing a Social Issue

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When the winter catch-and-release season was first put in place, barbless hooks were required in an effort to reduce hooking mortality. Barbless hooks have also been required for the spring and fall catch-and-release seasons, which began in 2005. Since then, studies around the country have shown very little difference in hooking mortality between barbed and barbless hooks.

The barbs on hooks sold today are much smaller than they were when barbless regulations were instituted, Vaughn Snook of DNR Fisheries points out. "But the issue of barbless hooks is really a social one," he says. "It's up to the angler."

A common perception among those who pursue trout—the very fish that inspired the catch-and-release movement—is that less pressure and less harvest are always beneficial. However, DNR research has shown that Minnesota's catch-and-release seasons have had no perceptible effect on trout populations. What's more, streams with robust natural reproduction could potentially grow larger trout if more anglers harvested smaller trout when it is legal to do so.

Cautious Start. Winter catch-and-release season began in 1988 with fishing open only on certain stretches of the Whitewater River. The cautious start was prompted by concerns from anglers and fisheries biologists about the possibility that winter angling might affect survival of trout fry or that wading anglers might disturb trout spawning nests (redds). Some anglers also worried the focused pressure on the Whitewater would be detrimental.

Trout populations fluctuate with environmental conditions and natural events such as spring floods, but not as a result of catch-and-release angling on Whitewater's open stretches. Annual spring and fall electrofishing surveys there, done before and after 1988, have indicated no decline in the trout populations. Similarly, long-term monitoring of other streams has shown the winter fishing season does not affect trout populations.

Opening all designated trout waters of southeastern Minnesota trout streams to the winter catch-and-release season has been discussed as a possibility since 2005. "We definitely support increasing the opportunity to fish for trout since there doesn't seem to be a negative impact," says John Lenczewski, executive director of Minnesota Trout Unlimited.

Lenczewski hopes the new regulations draw more anglers into enjoying and caring for southeastern Minnesota streams. He expects the region will gain economically from increased winter tourism. "So we think it will be beneficial for public support of protecting and improving the fisheries," he says.

Spreading angling pressure over more water will likely be a good thing, according to Snook. Not having to think about whether a stream is open or closed during the winter season and having year-round trout fishing in four state parks might mean fewer Minnesota anglers take the long drive to Iowa, which has always had a continuous season for trout.

Improved Waters. Snook says Iowa's more liberal regulations have helped fisheries managers in Minnesota better understand the relatively small role angling plays in the health of trout populations. Natural events such as spring floods can wipe out an entire year class of trout, says Snook. A string of wet springs can hurt trout populations in a particular watershed. But ultimately, the overall health of streams and trout populations is more closely tied to environmental factors such as land use. Sediment-laden runoff from farm fields can increase stream temperatures, degrade water clarity, and bury the clean gravel that trout need to spawn successfully.

During the past 40 years, the health of the region's streams has improved. From the time of European settlement to the 1930s, poor farming practices increased flooding and erosion. Formerly clear, cold streams became sediment laden and warmer. Following establishment of the Soil Conservation Service in 1935, farmers began rotating crops and doing contour plowing to decrease soil erosion. Tree planting also reduced runoff, flooding, and erosion.

Streams did get cooler as a result, but untreated sewage and high organic loads from creameries and canneries continued to pollute the streams until the Clean Water Act of 1972 forced municipalities and businesses to reduce or eliminate these discharges. Water quality steadily improved. For example, in 1970 the DNR documented 280 miles of streams cold and clean enough to support trout. Today, Minnesota's driftless area has 1,000-plus miles of water suitable for trout, according to Snook.

Current Complexity. Phone calls, emails, and public comments at meetings with area residents and anglers who frequent the region have made it clear that the current rules have become too complicated. Take the popular Trout Run Creek east of Chatfield, for example. It is now closed during the winter season, but it's open during the spring and fall catch-and release seasons—provided your hook is barbless. During the regular season, Trout Run Creek has a slot limit that allows harvest of five fish less than 12 inches with one over 16 inches allowed, and live bait is prohibited.

Under the proposed changes, barbless hook requirements would be eliminated, leaving the choice to anglers. Thus anglers on Trout Run Creek would simply be required to use flies or lures and adhere to the slot limit during the regular season when harvesting fish is legal. Special regulations would remain on sections of 21 streams.

Opening all designated southeastern trout streams during the winter catch-and-release season would also save time and resources. Currently, every stream open during winter must be listed in the annual fishing regulations, and signs must be placed and maintained along open sections. This has been a challenge for fisheries crews and conservation officers, says Snook. If a sign is knocked over or obscured by snow, it is difficult for a conservation officer to make a case for citation.

"These suggested changes are brought to you by your local angler," says Snook. Calls and emails from fans of the region's trout as well as comments at public meetings helped shape the changes being put forward. Provided there is no unforeseen opposition, these new regulations could be in place as soon as fall of 2013.

Then, come the first reasonably warm day of January 2014, Kelly and I will be on a beautiful little stream in Houston County, where we've always wanted to fish when there is snow on the ground.

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