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Monday, October 15, 2012

GreenBiz: Driftless trout fishing project has good year, despite drought


By Gregg Hoffmann
WESTBY -- A project to enhance trout fishing in the Driftless Area had a good season, despite the summer drought and heat.

“We had a great spring,” said Jeff Hastings, project manager of the Driftless Area Restoration Effort, or DARE. “As for our restoration work, we were able to get a lot of work done, whereas in some high-water years we have been limited.

“During the July and August heat wave, we lost fishermen. But, that sort of fit the pattern you see in the Driftless area. People like to fish early on and then we get another rush in September.”

Trout fishing brings to the Driftless Area an estimated $1.1 billion -- with about $647 million in direct impact to businesses and services in the area. The average in-state resident spends $209.50 per fishing outing; non-residents spent an estimated $391.88.

And, those statistics are based on a 2008 study. It’s likely the numbers have risen since then.

“In places like Vernon County, you can see it on any weekend during the season,” Hastings said. “People are here from Chicago, the Quad Cities, Twin Cities, all over. Many come for three days or more.”

The Driftless Area is a unique 24,000 square mile area encompassing southeast Minnesota, southwest Wisconsin, northeast Iowa, and northwest Illinois boasting 600 spring creeks.

DARE, spearheaded by Trout Unlimited, bills itself as “a geographically focused, locally driven, consensus based effort to protect, restore, and enhance rivers and streams for fish and other aquatic life throughout the Driftless Area.”

The effort is a broad partnership of federal, state, and local government, landowners, academic institutions, conservation organizations, user groups, and other interested parties.

“We try to not overstate our involvement in the effort,” Hastings said. “There are 17 chapters (of Trout Unlimited) active in the Driftless Area. They partner with the DNR in the states that includes parts of the Driftless and many other organizations.

“My job is more of a catalyst. We put on workshops that help groups seek grants and other funding. We will offer technical assistance on some projects. I try to find the missing link for a group that wants to do a project. But, I want to emphasize that this truly is a cooperative effort.”

In recent years, several of the restoration projects have been funded in part through the Farm Bill, working with farmers and other landowners on restoration of banks and reducing runoff.

The efforts also have expanded with publication of a riparian guidebook for the Driftless Area that includes habitat for non-game species such as frogs, turtles, snakes and other animals that contribute to the bio-diversity of a waterway.

Specific projects have included a basin plan for the Bad Axe River, a watershed conservation plan for the Kickapoo River watershed, a basin study on the Lower Chippewa, and projects on the Pecatonica and Sugar rivers in the Wisconsin portion of the Driftless Area.

Those projects are just in Wisconsin. DARE also has played roles in southeast Minnesota and northeast Iowa. A list of projects can be found at: http://www.darestoration.com/Projects.html.

The DARE fish habitat partnership formed in late fall 2005 to jointly address the issues such as habitat degradation and loss of coldwater streams essential to good trout fisheries.

Hastings estimates that since that time the area has gained four times the fish-able miles of streams. “Once you are able to route groups to the tools they need, they have taken off on the projects,” he said.

Through these projects, work is provided for experts on restoring the streams, but also for contractors, who often do the restoration work.

“We have some contractors who have become very specialized at creating habitat and restoration work,” Hastings said.

Hastings said the Driftless streams came through the near record heat and drought pretty well, in large part because of gifts from Mother Nature. “We have a pretty good base flow to our streams here,” he said. “We’re not as dependent on runoff as some streams. We’re primarily from cold water springs and other sources.

“As I said before, we also were able to get our restoration work done. So, overall I’d say it was a banner year for the fisheries in the Driftless Area.”

-- Hoffmann, a veteran journalist, writes the GreenBiz feature monthly.

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